Thursday, March 15, 2007

What Work Is, Part 6

1. I stayed home today and worked on a few poems, then put a couple of packets together and sent them off; the first time I've submitted new work since my book was accepted. I know it's rather late in the season to be submitting poems, (I hadn't planned on sending anything out until the fall) but I've become a bit anxious for editorial feedback. I don't yet have a firm sense of whether what I'm working on now is "good" or not. The poems are different. One track is a bit more lyric than I am used to writing--at least, a more lyric series than I am used to. The other track is a group of highly narrative poems about a 19th century American landscape painter in Brazil.

I have a sense that these divergent poems will soon begin to talk to each other.

That, or I will begin talking to the walls.

2. Robert Thomas has raised the question of whether the creative process can ever be understood by analytic means. As he has suggested, I tend to think not. I believe in archetypes and mythologies. I am of the school of Campbell, Hillman and Jung.

Here's what Carl Jung says, in "On the Relation of Analytic Psychology to Poetry"*:

"...The creative process, so far as we are able to follow it at all, consists in the unconscious activation of an archetypal image, and in elaborating and shaping this image into the finished work. By giving it shape, the artist translates it into the language of the present, and so make is it possible for us to find our way back into the deepest springs of life. Therein lies the social significance of art; it is constantly at work educating the spirit of the age, conjuring up the forms in which the age is most lacking. The unsatified yearning of the artist reaches back into the primordial image in the unconscious which is best fitted to compensate the inadequacy and one-sidedness of the present. The artist seizes on this image and in raising it from deepest unconsciousness he brings it into relation with conscious values, thereby transforming it until it can be accepted by the minds of his contemporaries, according to their powers."

He continues:

"...The normal man can follow the general trend without injury to himself; but the man who has takes to the back streets and alleys because he cannot endure the broad highway will be the first to discover the psychic elements that are waiting to play their part in the lives of the collective. Here the artist's relative lack of adaptation turns out to his advantage; it enables him to follow his own yearnings far from the beaten path, and to discover what it is that would meet the unconscious needs of his age. Thus, just as the one-sidedness of the individual's conscious attitude is corrected by reactions from the unconscious, so art represents a process of self-regulation in the life of nations and epochs."

3. No, I am not saying that my poems are speaking to "the nations and the epochs." My poems tend to regulate (at best) nothing but themselves. Though for any of us, wouldn't it be pretty to think we are speaking to something larger than ourselves? I am only saying that, correctly understood, what Jung says is what the poetic process involves, if it is to be (or do) any good.

4. Against the archetypes, to anchor them, to make the work whole, I set what I know of poetic craft and the natural world--cedar trees, the bodies of birds; in August, thistles biting into the field. On my better days, I aspire to what Czeslaw Milosz says: "To find my home in one sentence, concise, as if hammered in metal. Not to enchant anybody. Not to earn a lasting name in posterity. An unnamed need for order, for rhythm, for form, which three words are opposed to chaos and nothingness."

5. Finally, I believe that poetry is a form of prayer, and that if not a form of prayer, we are wasting our time.

*From The Portable Jung , edited by Joseph Campbell, (The Viking Portable Library, Viking-Penguin, 1971) pp. 321-322.


Blogger Robert said...

Hi, Greg, thanks for responding to my blog. There does seem to be a fundamental distinction between poetry that “reaches back into the primordial” and poetry that tries to capture precisely what is unique about our moment in history. I suppose the former is what is meant by “romantic.” As you say, there are obvious problems with “archetypal” poetry. We’ve all read too many bad poems about fire and ice (and a few good ones). And we’ve read too many bad poems about Daffy Duck and iPods, too (and a few good ones). But you are too modest about how superbly you have dealt with the problem in your own work! Your amazing long poem about Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack watching the first atomic bomb explode in New Mexico is archetypal without cliché.

10:04 PM  

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