Octavio Paz, On Poets and Others:
Even “having no meaning” is a way of meaning. The absurd is one of the extremes that meaning reaches when it examines its conscience and asks itself, What is the meaning of meaning? Ambivalence of meaning: it is the fissure through which we enter things and the fissure through which being escapes from them.
Meaning ceaselessly undermines the poem; it seeks to reduce its reality as an object of the senses and as a unique thing to an idea, a definition, or a “message.” To protect the poem from the ravages of meaning, poets stress the material aspect of language.
Helen Waddell, The Wandering Scholars:
There is no beginning, this side of the classics, to a history of mediaeval Latin; its roots take hold too firmly on the kingdoms of the dead. The scholar’s lyric of the twelfth century seems as new a miracle as the first crocus; but its earth is the leafdrift of centuries of forgotten scholarship. His emotional background is of his own time; his literary background is pagan, and such furniture as his mind contains is classical or pseudo-classical.
1 — this is pop
Modern “originality” sometimes strikes me as little more than novelty generated through imitation. (The method is deeply imitative, but the product is novel.) Then introduce drift and random mutations, and — pop! — you’ve got yourself a culture.
2 — “the new cannot be melodic”
Our obsession with originality for its own sake is often so overpowering that we find it difficult to evaluate the quality of a work of art (or any work of human creativity, ingenuity, or industry at all) without taking into account its novelty, its individuality, its departure from some tradition or other. But this is not necessarily the most important or meaningful gauge of a work’s value.
3 — stop and go
(I don’t knock novelty in itself, only novelty as the sole measure of value or brilliance. I think of the saying: “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” Good advice, but useful principally in a cultural setting where the act of breaking rules is already common, routine, expected. Another way of phrasing this might be, “You must understand the rules that you break,” since this suggests that the rule breaker should be exercising some judgment, but does not imply, as the other saying does, that your goal is to break the rules.)
It seems to me that originality almost always occurs in the form, that mutations in content are surprisingly rare. And everytime some newfangled thingamabob comes along (say, a villanelle or camera or 3-minute pop song or blog) what do we use this newfangled thing for? Same old same old: for documenting our sorrows and heartbreaks, and loves and fears, and the sun and moon, and everything that’s always been right there in front of us, right there inside us, perplexing us and confusing us and dazzling us, all this time. We haven’t figured out how to make love stay or make hate go away, or stop wars or start utopias, or anything else of any value whatsoever, despite all our endless chatter, yawps, wiggling, carving, doodling. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And then, one fine morning—
4 — hand hand take me by the hand
1 | When I was a kid, I listened to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 every Sunday night as I was falling asleep, and I remember lying there in despair: every week there were more new songs, with new melodies, and I was convinced that by the time I was, say, fourteen, all the possible combinations of notes and harmonies and chord progressions were going to be exhausted. I was genuinely scared that there would be no more music. (Of course, in my cynical moments, I feel that this has already come to pass…)
2 | Apart from displaying a dreadfully poor grasp of basic combinatorics, I also didn’t yet understand that coming up with a new melody isn’t always the point. Sometimes it’s more important to take a sad song and make it better. The movement you need is, after all, on your shoulder. And I later realized this sort of thing is happening all the time. Think, for example, of Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.” What did he do? He generated a conversation between the original and his own interpretation. Old and new.
Conversations must partake of both old and new, familiar and strange, in order to exist. If all you and I said to each other was what we’d always said to each other, you couldn’t describe the exchange as a conversation. Conversely, if we spoke in nothing but neologisms describing completely strange and novel concepts, neither of us would have any possible frame of reference to understand what the other was saying.
This is why an over-reliance on novelty for its own sake can sometimes actually stifle the artistic impulse, and thwart an audience’s attempts at enjoyment, understanding, and empathy, and lead to the development of a hermetic and inbred artistic cult, dependent on jargon, rife with smug élitism. And, of course, a slavish allegience to the familiar and the received often strands us in a mire of drab clichés and shopworn platitudes.
5 — The crux of the biscuit
All this shallow so-called “original content” can be generated by following a few simple rules. Novelty is almost always generated by fiddling with the variation knobs on the Content Engine, but not very often by changing to a completely different Content Engine.
In, for example, pop music, so much content is generated based on several dazzlingly simple formulas — I/V/vi/IV; I/IV/V/IV; the answer, my friend, is: she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah; don’t go breakin’ my heart: that’s my soul up there… Yet pop culture is on a constant hunt for the Next New Thing. How can this be? By walking a very thin line between shock and cliché.
Modern art relies on formulas but pretends it doesn’t, as though formula were something to be ashamed of. (It is shameful if we rely too heavily on formula, and don’t bring enough newness to it, and therefore descend into kitsch, doggerel, or cliché.)
Oral epics such as the Iliad or the Kalevala are deeply formulaic, drawing extensively on tales that would have been very familiar to their audiences. The value these works had to their original audiences was not in the invention of any new tale, but how the tales were developed and deepened. To quote Douglas Hofstadter, ’Variations on a theme’ is the crux of creativity.
We are making new copies.
6 — And besides, we can’t walk away
In the end, real progress (whatever you wish to mean by that word) can occur only when new ideas are expressed using familiar terms or when old ideas are reintroduced and reinvigorated using new terms. Something must be familiar in order for me to understand what’s strange. I must, for example, have a grasp of “ugliness” in order to comprehend “beauty.” Everyone in Omelas understands this. Otherwise, what are we talking about?
For many years — since the early 90s — I have been slowly reading through Jung’s works related to alchemy: Psychology & Alchemy, Alchemical Studies, and Mysterium Coniunctionis, and also Aion.
The bulk of my reading has happened in the last ten or twelve years, with a final push in the last two years or so. Amid other digressions, distractions, and divagations, I found myself closing in, at last, on the last forty pages of Mysterium Coniunctionis. I finally finished it yesterday.
This spring and summer, as a way of thinking out loud about Jung’s thesis (that alchemists were dreaming awake and therefore unknowingly describing the contents of their own inner psychological landscape, and exploring the archetype of the self), I plan to go back and walk through all four books, reviewing the passages I’ve marked, and then post selected passages with my annotations here.
In the back of your mind is this little room, and in that litle room is this guy, and that guy, if you read lots of poems all the time, that guy will learn everything about poetry, about form, and shape, and when you make your poems, that guy will take care of all the technical details. All you have to do is write those poems. But that guy, you got to feed that guy plenty of material all the time, or else that guy will start raising a ruckus in the back of your head, and you’ll think you’re going crazy. It’s only because you’re not keeping that guy busy, you know. And that’s true — believe me.
Facts & Opinions
“You can argue opinions, but you can’t argue facts.”
This may, under some limited set of circumstances, be a true statement, but it assumes that a fact is something that we would all agree on if only we were sufficiently informed.
But facts are a byproduct of context. Facts are not discrete packets of truth, sharply defined and clearly demarcated from their surroundings. And a fact which we an all agree upon is the most useless and least interesting fact of all.
Another problem is that it sets up a polarity: it implies that facts and opinions are all there is, that they are the only two states of, well, I guess I’ll call it reality. But what of perceptions? You could, I suppose, say a perception is a form of opinion — but just because I can find many people to confirm what I perceive, and once we all agree and reach a consensus, then it’s a fact, right? Well…
Lastly, the statement sounds as though facts are more important than opinions; that facts finish the argument. But all too often, they begin the argument. Facts are often the least interesting thing a person can talk or argue about.
Durs Grünbein, The Vocation of Poetry:
I might even go so far as to say that poetry is in large part born from the desire to start over as often as possible.
Steering by compass, from tree to tree, post to post — all the way across a continent, one poem at a time. And if you are navigating to several destinations, all on a circuit, a cycle — seasonal rhythms, braiding themselves in and out — then you do not arrive and you do not depart. You continue.