How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 8
Chapter 3: Art, Poetry, and Beauty
Part 1: Leftover Pizza Is Not Art
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In philosophy, as in many other disciplines, good definitions are the product of lengthy debate…. Children talk, and know what they are talking about, although they cannot define even one of the terms they use. Using and understanding a language does not involve being able to define its terms…. Definition allows us to improve our use of language…. —Norman Swartz, “Definitions, Dictionaries, and Meaning” Copyright © Norman Swartz 1997
This revision: September 27, 1997. Department of Philosophy, Simon Fraser University
Art: A Definite ‘Maybe”
Now, let’s define and clarify our terms.
Art, poetry, beauty, and the self are huge ideas, not easily defined. The practice of defining is practically a science in itself, one that is rather neatly described by philosopher Norman Swartz (quoted above) in “Definitions, Dictionaries, and Meaning.” In that article, Swartz describes seven types of definitions. The type we will be using here is called “operational.” Briefly, an operational definition is one that we agree to agree on, whether or not it is strictly accurate.*
I have chosen and adapted the definitions that I believe will be most useful to us. Here are a few to get us started:
In short, art (including poetry) requires creativity, emotional honesty, originality, skill, imagination, and intention. In our current context, beauty and spirituality must also be present.
For there to be art, there must be an artist. Therefore, according to our operational definition…
Leftover pizza is not art
Just as you can call yourself Arnot-Jean-Jacques Feuillette [Seventh Sanctum French Male Name Generator ] or Belching Doom Kangaroo [Seventh Sanctum Humorous Monster Name Generator] if you want to, you can string a bunch of words together and call them a poem:
The magneto lurches into fetid paste
spurning the crispy scythe
on a poaching ä safari in Kenya
shadowing the uncommon solicitor. **
U Ua-Uo U (uracil) (NLM) UA UAA UAG
UAL Ubidecarenone Ubiquinone
Ubiquitin Ubiquitination Ubiquitous
UBT UDP-glucuronosyltransferase UGA
UL Ulcer Ulcer aphthous Ulcer
Buruli Ulcer duodenal Ulcer esophageal ***
At a poetry reading, you could breathe raggedly into the microphone for precisely seventeen seconds and then pronounce the word ruction — and call it a poem.
The following “poem” consists of randomly selected html code:
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SRC=”BookFeatherPen.gif” WIDTH=”70″ HEIGHT=”62″ ALIGN=”BOTTOM”
ATURALSIZEFLAG=”3″ BORDER=”0″><FONT SIZE=”-2″ FACE=”Verdana”>Historical
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If art is merely “an expression of human creativity”—a widely held belief—then anyone can be an artist. You don’t have to take classes or anything. There’s no particular discipline involved. You thought of it, you created it; ergo, it’s art.
Let’s say you have created a painting that looks something like this (the outside border is the frame):
It’s art, all right, no question about it — an “expression of your creativity.” But surely you have applied your creativity at other times in other ways that might not qualify as “art.” Like the time you told your dad you had been detained at a roadblock while law-enforcement officers searched hundreds of vehicles for an escaped homicidal maniac, and that’s why you got home past your curfew. “Creative,” your dad said, and then he grounded you “for your own protection” until the missing maniac had been returned to custody.
Notwithstanding, you take your painting, which you have titled Dash, to an art gallery for validation by a real professional art personage, but Monsieur is unavailable at present. Still, you are encouraged by the inscrutability of the other works of art on display, although, examining them closely, you wish you had thought to vomit on your work of art before framing it.
Depending on the year and the location, you might see the following examples of art in the world’s most respected museums:
Piss Christ, a crucifix immersed in the urine of the artist, Andres Serrano. This is one of Serrano’s more traditional works.
Tom Friedman’s Untitled, a dead ladybug in a Styrofoam cup, which sold for almost $30,000.
Other works given the stamp of approval by critics and patrons of the arts include
This poem (reproduced here in its entirety):
The poet, Aram Saroyan, explains that his intent was to change the word light “from a verb (the agency of illumination) to a noun that yet radiates as light does. The double ghgh seems to work in that way.” The poem was published in the 1969 American Literary Anthology [Source: Rapportage, the literary journal of the Lancaster Literary Guild, Fall 2005].
A novel consisting of blank pages.
A musical work by composer John Cage titled 4’33” (Four Minutes Thirty-Three Seconds), in which a pianist sits at a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds without playing a single note.
My opinion on the more mystifying or malodorous forms of art mentioned above is that they represent a variety of artists and motives:
The genuine artist who has been formally trained, has exhibited talent, and has grown bored with pretty pictures and conventional media (water colors, for example, as opposed to the more exotic elephant dung à la The Holy Virgin by Chris Ofili).
The person who may or may not have talent but whose principal motive is to shock.
The artist who wants to make a social or political statement, illustrating the ugliness and depravity that surrounds us, as if we didn’t know.
The con artist who has seen an easy way to make $20,000 and get invited to lecture at prestigious universities by creatively assembling the contents of a wastebasket using duct tape, which can be analyzed for its likeness to the ephemeral quality of substantial yet emergent flora that have been dispossessed of their progression toward ultimate decay and regeneration… which everybody swallows (figuratively) because they don’t want to admit that they think it’s stupid.
The true artistic genius who is totally out of my league.
I repeat, art is not merely “an expression of human creativity.” If it were, then Auschwitz was art.
Art is disciplined
Few would argue that art is an external expression (a dance, a sculpture) of a spiritual or at least an intangible quality (such as love, beauty, anger, or despair). I believe, with Keats, that “beauty is truth, truth beauty.” I am unable to separate spirit from beauty, or to believe that whatever emanates from the life-force common to us all can lack either truth or beauty.
Again, beauty is essential in our operational definitions of art and poetry. In theory, however, I am willing to entertain other viewpoints.
Possibly, if the picker-upper is legitimately an artist. As my poetry professor at Stanford University explained when we wanted to let our free spirits loose on paper and he made us write sonnets instead: You must work from the inside out; examine the interior of your territory before you explore the nether reaches; know what the boundaries are before you stretch them; internalize the discipline until it is part of you; master the discipline in order to not be mastered by it.
I know a few people who have arranged every aspect of their lives so as to spend as much time as possible hang-gliding or soaring. “It is the ultimate experience in freedom,” they say. “It sounds wonderful,” I say. “I’d like to try it.”
Do they hand me their gear and say, “Great idea. Go for it”? No. They warn me about the expense and the hours of training and practice and the necessary physical conditioning and the skills, specific to the sport, they had to acquire. The cost of freedom was servitude to the goal.
In these pages we are concerned with the discipline of poetry as a tool to realize your potential for joy.***** We are not “searching for joy” or “journeying toward joy.” The joy is right here, right now. It might be guilt-bound, fear-encrusted, or anger-suffused. It might be hiding in your gut, having run for cover from an abusive parent or an oppressive spouse. (Many people, not all of whom are modern-day snake-oil salesmen or delusional, believe that the site of a physical illness is related to the way in which you have tried to shield your core being from harm.)
* “Many philosophers have chosen… to leave some terms undefined… [claiming that we] cannot define being, unity and similar concepts.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definition, accessed January 12, 2008
** Assembled from numerous Random Sentence Generators on the Internet
*** MedicineNet.com medical dictionary
**** Duchamp’s urinal, which he exhibited as My Fountain (1917) created quite a fuss in the art world, as did Emin’s My Bed. According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Bed), “the artwork generated considerable media furor, particularly over the fact that the bedsheets were stained with body secretions and the floor had items from the artist’s room (such as condoms [and] a pair of panties with menstrual period stains…. The bed was presented as it had been when Emin had not got up from it for several days due to suicidal depression…. [During the Tate exhibition] two performance artists, Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi, jumped on the bed with bare torsos in order to ‘improve’ the work, …[calling] their performance Two Naked Men Jump Into Tracey’s Bed. The men also had a pillow fight on the bed for around fifteen minutes, to applause from the crowd, before being removed by security guards.”
***** We will explore the discipline of poetry in “The Therapeutic Value of Strict Poetic Forms” in a later chapter. Gosh, that sounds so pompous. A better title might be, “When You Focus on Form, Feeling Flows.” It’s alliterative, too.
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How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 6
Chapter 2, Part 3: Participating in Your Own Creation
We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims. —Buckminster Fuller
Hear from the heart wordless mysteries! Understand what cannot be understood! In man’s stone-dark heart there burns a fire That burns all veils to their root and foundation. When the veils are burned away, the heart will understand completely… Ancient Love will unfold ever-fresh forms in the heart of the Spirit, in the core of the heart. —Rumi
Let’s assume that you have your systems in place. You have workable plans for taking care of your basic physical needs — food, water, shelter from excessive heat or cold — and for maintaining health and energy by exercising, eating properly, getting enough sleep, having medical checkups, and so forth. You have a system for acquiring other physical necessities — housing, clothes, furniture, transportation — and for keeping them in good working order. You have a system that sees to your social needs; perhaps you live in a family and belong to the Red Hat Society or have breakfast with your buddies at the grain co-op.
So life ticks along. It is not just one big emergency after another. Should an emergency arise, you have a system for dealing with it. A well-ordered life can be very satisfying, especially after a time of chaos.
For human beings, there are two problems with a life that is merely well organized:
It is not ultimately fulfilling. Once we have achieved order, there remains a nagging discontent.
In the universe of possible events and experiences, we have control over very little.
The futility of control
There are several ways of dealing with the things we can’t control. Six of them are mentioned below. I can recommend numbers 1, 5, and 6 — which are closely related — having used them myself with excellent results. Conversely, every experience I have had with strategies 2 through 4 has ended badly.
1. Living in the moment
This is the response favored by the Lilies of the Field. “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” [From the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 7, New King James Version] 25 Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
27 Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?
28 So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; 29 and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
(I wonder if Jesus was prophetically referring to an event that would take place some two thousand years later, when I went out of town for a few days and left my adolescent son in the care of a trusted neighbor. As it happened, I arrived home several hours early. I walked through the door and knew instantly that grass had been thrown into the oven. My son and the trusted neighbor’s son, David, had, under cover of night, harvested several stalks of an illicit crop discovered in a fenced backyard a few blocks away. The boys were nowhere to be seen, and the phone was ringing. I picked it up. It was Officer Holmgren, and this was not my first conversation with him, nor would it be my last.)
31 Therefore do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” 32 For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek you first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
Living in the moment is also the favored response of your Labrador. Look at him, snoozing in his square of sunlight. Is he worried about his next meal? Is the threat of a bioterrorist attack gnawing at his innards? No. He is at peace, secure in the knowledge that when something gnaws at his innards he need only leap onto your stomach while you are sleeping, lick your face to wake you up, and fix you with a Look of such potent worshipfulness that you would break eight of the Ten Commandments to give him his two cups of kibble.
The above-cited passage from the Beatitudes, part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, asserts that seeking the kingdom of God is the ultimate anti-entropy strategy. Mow the lawn and make entries in your planning calendar if you must, Jesus might have said, but first, emulate your Labrador and his attitude of potent worshipfulness.
2. Attaining power
As people acquire money and influence, they also gain more control over certain aspects of their lives. If you are poor and a tree falls on your house, you have big trouble. If you are wealthy and a tree falls on your house, you can just pay somebody to fix it.
3. The illusion of controlling the uncontrollable
This futile strategy is often employed by people who want to make their spouses or children behave in certain ways. Trying to make somebody love you, or adopt your values, or practice your religion, are examples of trying to control the uncontrollable—as are roughly ninety-five percent of city ordinances and state and federal laws, and virtually all wars.
There are many ways of distracting yourself from the ever-present threat of being struck by an asteroid while you are walking down the street. Diversions range from “keeping busy” to watching television to injecting temazepam in your eyeballs.
I could have included meditation under “living in the moment,” above. But I wanted to make a point: Dealing with the things we can’t control by trying to control them anyway, or by gaining power or through diversion, assumes that the cosmos is a hostile place. If we can’t control it, it must be dangerous. Most forms of meditation, however, view all the uncontrollables as part of a neutral or benevolent universe of infinite possibility.
Acting creatively through the arts is an exercise of genuine power. At its loftiest, it is a spiritual practice and the artist inhabits a transcendent, spiritual universe where all things are possible. This is not an “escape from reality,” as critics protest. The artist is not unaware of global terrorism or gang violence or the execrable conditions under which much of the world’s population lives. These are entropic conditions, and art, by definition, brings order out of chaos. The artist is a healer and a peacemaker, but her focus is on the ideals of healing and peace rather than on hatred and violence.
That, really, is what this book is about.
Lesson 6.1 Assignment
Emotional altitude and organization
People worry. It’s unfortunate, but there you are.
The world is full of magic. I don’t mean phenomena that violate natural law. I mean that, in the vast body of natural law, we know maybe a toenail. Maybe a bacterium on a toenail. And by “we,” I mean “everybody in the world, including Stephen Hawking.”
We think that A plus B equal C, and often they do, assuming that we can wrap our minds around A and B, as in 2 plus 3 equal 5.
But then it gets a little more complicated. Two plus three of what? Apples?
Two apples plus three apples, plus some cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar, butter, an hour or so in the oven at 325F, and a little love and artistry, equal warm apple crisp upon which you must spoon an avalanche of real whipped cream. Then you serve it to your friends in pretty blue bowls, set upon doilies, set upon pretty blue saucers.
Our emotional geography is often mapped vertically. When we feel good, we are “up,” when we feel bad we are “down.” Fill in the spaces below with at least five more examples in each column. (Phrases beginning with highly, as in “highly pleased,” don’t qualify.)
Lesson 6.2: Assignment
Everything’s under control
Other expressions of how we feel are related to space in a different way. Feeling good is equated with unity – being all of a piece. Feeling bad is related to entropy – being scattered or dispersed. Fill in the blanks below with at least three more examples in each column.
Please send assignments, OR assignment summaries or comments, via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net.
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How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Lesson 5
Chapter 2, Part 2: Why We Need Poetry
Are babies programmed for language?
Current linguistic research is exploring the hypothesis that “children [are]… programmed to learn language, just as they seem to be programmed to learn to walk… Indeed, children in the first five years of life have such a remarkable facility for language that they can effortlessly learn two structurally quite different languages simultaneously—if, for instance, their mother is Chinese and their father American—without displaying the slightest signs of stress or confusion.” *
In other words, according to the theory advanced by Noam Chomsky and others, babies are apparently wired to get what’s inside their heads—thoughts, ideas, questions—out into the Great, Wide World, through the medium of language.
Part of the evidence for an “innate appreciation of language,” according to Bill Bryson, writing in The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way, is that children everywhere, in every culture, whatever its language, no matter how complex or “wildly inflected” it is, learn to speak in exactly the same way.* By the time they are barely a month old, they show a preference for the sounds of speech over all others. Their infant babbling consists of the same sounds and commences at the same time—four to six months before they begin to talk. Their first words are simple labels (Me, Da), advancing to subject-verb combinations (Me want, Da go), and so on—my older son excepted. His sister, who was nearly 11 when her baby brother Jack was born, recorded in his Baby Book that his first words were carrots and onomatopoeia.
Additional research appears to confirm the theory that “children are programmed for language,” which is good news for those of us who use poetry as a way of gaining access to buried emotions and inclinations. Learning the discipline of expressing ourselves through poetry creates a channel to the unconscious—one that is wide enough to accommodate something as unruly as rage, but narrow enough to keep all our feelings from spilling out at once so that we can identify what emerges bit by bit.
Staying alive: God trumps entropy
This is not a religious book. Virtually anyone who wants to write poetry and to grow in self-knowledge and self-expression can benefit from it.
As a person who experiences God in all things, I am unable to write a shopping list, much less a book about poetry, that is entirely secular. Strip anything of spirit and there’s nothing left, is the way I see it.
But I am not going to preach or to espouse any particular theology. When I speak of God, for our present purpose, I am referring to the Ideal, the Perfect, the Goal that motivates all growth and change, the Organizing Principle—the opposite of entropy.
What (not to put too fine a point on it) is entropy?**
Entropy is the tendency of things to get messier when left on their own. You first heard about entropy from your parents: “Why are you just sitting there? The lawn’s not going to mow itself.”
Entropy is the tendency of everything to fall apart unless something, some form of energy, is holding it together. Think (but not too hard, because this is not a perfect analogy) of a Popsicle after it’s been out of the freezer for a while.
The inanimate universe leans toward chaos, decay, disorganization, and disintegration. Entropy is, you might say, the natural state of things when energy is not applied to them.
The attributes of God are counterentropic—a word I just made up because I can’t think of a better one. Anti-entropic won’t do. God isn’t against entropy. God is life and order. God is love, and growth, and beauty. It is the way of God and nature to lift things up, and these attributes are manifestations of energy, and they are the reason we are all still here. It is the way of entropy to melt like a Popsicle.
Entropy is not evil. Decay, in fact, is necessary to growth. Think of compost, which is decaying organic matter, and how it literally feeds growing things.
Life = order
A living thing — I’ll use myself, the living thing with which I am best acquainted, as an example—is highly organized at the cellular level. All I have to do consciously is eat, drink, and breathe, really, to exist. It might not be a giddy or intellectually satisfying existence, but the potential is there. When I breathe, my body gets the oxygen it needs to convert food to energy, which keeps my various systems functioning more or less efficiently, which enables me to walk and talk, and from there it’s a short step to giddiness or scholarly pursuits.
Our anatomical systems are programmed upward, toward life and growth. They make new cells and dispose of the old ones, filter the blood, manufacture various proteins, and so forth, and I don’t even have to pay attention. I can kick back and read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the fourth time without having to check even once on whether my pancreas is still doing whatever it is that a pancreas does.
Disease and death = entropy
It is no accident that diseases are called “disorders.” Injuries and illnesses are entropic. Cancer cells, for example, reproduce in a chaotic, unpredictable manner, whereas healthy cells are in balance, new cells replacing old cells as needed. Healing from injuries and illnesses is a process of returning cells to their normal, orderly functions.
When a living thing dies, entropy takes over. I know this because not long ago a couple of rats died under my shower. They did not die where they could be conveniently scooped out by someone, anyone, please, God, other than me. Removing them required a major bathroom overhaul that took several weeks.
Meanwhile, major entropy was occurring at the cellular level within these rats, as their cells ceased to regenerate. They decayed. They rotted. And they did these things no more than three feet from where I brushed my teeth.
I hardly need point out that dead cells are not programmed toward life and growth. They aren’t programmed at all. The programming quit when the life went out of them. They are completely at the mercy of entropy, so they disintegrate. As far as I was concerned, they couldn’t disintegrate fast enough.
The opposing, or perhaps complementary,*** effects of entropy and order take place at every level: microscopically and personally; in your household and your community; globally and universally. The body may run okay on automatic pilot — at the cellular level — but when you move up to the organism level, there’s a lot you have to do to, consciously and intentionally, to keep things from falling apart.
Consider what happens when you fail to “apply energy” to something — from combing your hair or washing the dishes after supper, to doing your homework or going to your job. Parents have to impose order on their children. Car owners have to keep their vehicles maintained. Homeowners have to paint their houses. Gardeners have to water and weed their flower beds.
We expend much of our energy in a race with entropy, maintaining ourselves and our stuff before they descend into chaos. If we don’t do it, or if someone doesn’t do it for us, everything goes to pieces. The car rusts. The grass dies. The wood rots. The porch sags. Our teeth fall out. We flunk out of school. Our kids grow up to be axe murderers with absolutely no table manners.
Psychologically, we are programmed to prefer order and we are cranky when it is lacking.**** The most miserable people I know are those who are constantly running after their lives. “I don’t have time to plan,” they say. “I’m too busy fighting fires.” They don’t buy new car tires until there’s a blowout. They don’t clean the yard until a family of weasels takes up residence behind the garage.
These are not orderly lives. They are continually being snatched from the jaws of entropy. The only organizational principle is urgency. There is little joy in such an existence.
If you are wise, you make conscious decisions about what’s truly necessary and, just as your cells do, you (the organism) develop systems for taking care of necessities so that you can also attend to wants and desires. A planning calendar is such a system. It is a powerful anti-entropy device. I actually own one. I’m not sure, at the moment, where it is. Perhaps the weasels have taken it.
Other obstacles to orderliness
Entropy is not the only thing that interferes with maintaining an orderly existence and indulging your wants, interests, and talents. Other people’s expectations, real or perceived, throw a lot of us off course. The more you are concerned with the opinions of others, the more obligated you feel to do unnecessary things. Your life slips out of your grasp like the Little Gingerbread Boy, and all you can do is to run after it and try to rein it in.
My sister, Pipi Campbell Peterson, is an author and professional organizer who specializes in decluttering—closets, offices, lives—so that her clients can have greater serenity, enjoy more time for the Good Stuff, and find their keys. If you are going to Live Poetically—indeed, if you are going to finish this book—you will probably have to declutter and create some space for it, just as you would if you were taking dance lessons in your basement.
* Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way. William Morris & Co. (New York), 1990.
** Entropy = The physical Universe’s macrocosmic proclivities of becoming locally ever more dissynchronous, asymmetric, diffuse, and multiplyingly expansive. —Buckminster Fuller
*** Order, in the form of growth — and entropy, in the form of decay — are complementary in that they rely on one another.
**** Psychological entropy is “the distribution of energy in the psyche, which tends to seek equilibrium or balance among all the structures of the psyche.” Hall, Calvin S.; Nordby, Vernon J. (1999). A Primer of Jungian Psychology. New York: Meridian.