Saturday, June 5, 2010


[ Georgia O'Keefe at Ghost Ranch ]


What is it, then, that tips the scales in favor of the extraordinary?  It is vocation: an irrational factor that destines a person to emancipate himself from the crowd and from its well-worn paths.     
                                               ~ C.G. Jung

“I wasn’t yet me when I was your age,”
my love told me as we looked at the waves.
“I began to be me only after my

car accident, two weeks unconscious
on Intensive Care – then conscious
of Carol, my night-shift nurse, who ate

bologna sandwiches. She didn’t believe
I’d live, treated me like a waste
of her time. Every bone in my body

had been shattered, Carol liked to
remind me, sighing with delight.
But before I was awake, I heard

a voice like a lullaby: Let go, let go.
Then another voice replied:
If you let go now, you will die.

Day and night the blinding fluorescents
like buzzing tubes of bees, at night
the bologna breath – maybe to spite

that nurse, I chose to live. Not just to survive,
so she could say, Too mean to die,
but to grow rich in myself by traveling

beyond. Maybe because of the photograph
of Georgia O’Keefe at Ghost Ranch.
I thought, She’s traveled farther than I.

I could see it in her eyes, which looked
into the distance, but not the one outside.
And I wanted to get to that place, that love.

Is that how a woman loves her child –
not like a man who can chuggle down
beer after beer and watch sports in a bar –

or I could work double, triple, day by day
an inch more ahead of myself. When they
rolled me out of Ghost Ranch, I mean

the ICU, on that wobbly bump-bump bed
where they strap you in or you’d spill out
as they take reckless curves through the endless

hospital corridors, faceless figures passing by
as in dreams where the living
mingle with the dead, I was already a man

changed forever by the midnight stench
of bologna, and the voice of that other
messenger, the intensive angel of life.

    ~ Oriana © 2011


Sometimes it's finding the right phrase that makes the rest easy for me. Today my morning insight was just that: the phrase "extreme effort." As in "working out with large weights." Not many enjoy this activity, but all agree that it leads to extraordinary strength and muscle definition. But I wasn't thinking about weight-lifting --I was thinking about my recent Ghost Ranch poem, and what it was trying to convey about becoming supremely skilled in some field. Yesterday, in regard to poetry, I was thinking, "extreme reading," but that's a subcategory of extreme effort. For someone else, it might be tennis practice. Or violin practice, probably even if it's enforced by a tyrannical father and not connected with love of music. Regardless of motivation, due to extreme effort the brain rewires itself and there is a kind of "quantum leap" in the level of a particular skill, but not only in that narrow way. A broader transformation happens. 

I understood the man who was my great love instantly when he said about his younger self, "I wasn't yet me." He was eighteen years older than I, and yet at twenty-five I understood him instantly. I'd done something extraordinary when, around the age of fifteen, I began to learn English on my own in a super-dedicated manner. I forced myself to read “Gone with the Wind,” plodding on with a dictionary every day for one hour after school. Eventually I began to force myself to think in English. I'll never forget the happiness that came from this disciplined grind -- though not right away. The first result was daily tension headaches. Happiness crept up as gradually as fluency. So over the years I was thinking along the lines of "working hard toward a goal," "extreme concentration," "going in depth." But it's all subsumed by "extreme effort."

For many unhappy years I thought that the most important and happiness-giving thing in life was to have a clear goal. I was derailed by not having a goal, what with poetry being so elusive, and my getting periodically burned out on this very contrived manner of expression, often paired with unexciting content (I agree with Billy Collins: Most poetry is not worth reading). Goals connected with poetry always seemed to fall through. For sheer lazy pleasure, I read intelligent non-fiction, and this creates an uncomfortable question: what do I love best? And my instant answer to that further complicates matters: music. 

Alas, I haven't been blessed with loving poetry the way Baryshnikov loved ballet more than anything else in his life (Ballet is my life, he said in an interview.) But now I see that the both the subject and having a specific goal are practically irrelevant. Loving the activity will result in more pleasure, which improves motivation, but love and pleasure are not essential here (yes, I realize that this is a very controversial statement). It's about making an extreme effort (or, as one acquaintance put it, "I hate doing yoga, but I love the results.") 

It’s choosing an activity -- the reason for the choice doesn't matter, and now and then it's not even a choice, but being forced to do something in an intense manner -- note Jung's definition of vocation as an "irrational factor"-- and doing it massively, every day, usually for many hours (but even one hour a day will make a difference – ask any fitness buff [never mind that they jog, cycle, and lift weights every day, not to mention the morning and evening yoga class]). So perhaps I should amend the opening statement of this paragraph to "After being chosen to do a certain activity," and the consequent extreme effort (and by extreme I also mean extremely focused), a quantum leap happens, and your remodeled brain now starts functioning differently, at mastery. You not only have gained fluency, but you are also a changed person, less distracted by trivia (or what saints call "the things of the world"). You’ve gained your window on the absolute. 

Jung, like nuns and priests, speaks of "vocation," and that certainly helps too -- having heard that voice (in whatever manner "that voice" manifests itself) summoning you to devote yourself to a particular kind of work. If you've had your orders, you can then proceed to obey them. This is a marvelous shortcut, but it's not granted to everyone. Sometimes you have to make a leap simply because it's getting too late in life to keep shifting from field to field, and you're not satisfied skimming the surface. If you have the temperament for it, you want depth.  

Others may believe in the necessity of "talent." No doubt there is a genetic component to the ease with which we master a particular skill, but the rule of "ninety-percent perspiration" is central. As David Shenk (The Genius in All of Us) proposes, talent is not something we have, but something we do.  Talent is a verb, not a noun.  A process, a becoming. Without a massive amount of practice, talent will not develop. To be even more emphatic: without development, talent doesn't even exist. Without extraordinary work, there will be no extraordinary results. 

The story recounted by “Ghost Ranch” is against the “let go” spirit of the times, I know – yet every achiever I've known was either a chronic workaholic, or else went through a phase in his/her life of working extremely hard, and that created a transformation and raised him/her a quantum level above. There is a price, of course – all the gods are jealous, all demand sacrifice.

I’ve always been a workaholic – it was just things other than poetry, whatever seized my spirit for a while. I can’t help but regret this “drifting” phase – what a waste of time! And yet, perhaps it’s due to that insatiable sampling and drifting in my twenties and early thirties that I’ve gained relatively broad knowledge in several fields – now and then, some nugget proves of use.

But the idea of a balanced life has never had any appeal, since that’s a recipe for non-achievement – and until recently achievement was everything for me. And work still is pretty much everything – it’s just that I don’t want to be tormented. I have begun to take interest in pleasure and living for pleasure for a change – that's when the knee disaster happened. Very peculiar timing. I guess life is saying, “No way. You’re here to work.”


More than twenty years ago, as though in a previous lifetime, Bill Mohr and I were sitting across from each other at a workshop at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA, wondering if it's possible to predict who among beginning poets will continue on the long hard road. Bill said, "The question is not: do you have talent? The only question is: are you abnormal enough?" At the time I understood this in terms of pathology, of being obsessive-compulsive. While that's not entirely off the track, I now have a more positive formulation, one that's more under individual control: extreme effort.

Is the choice always ours? I can already imagine arguments about a single mother of two small children not being able to do any creative work. Sylvia Plath, rising at dawn while the babies were still asleep, managed to write some of her brilliant poems. True, the groundwork was laid in years long before then.  Of course, in the average case, it may be too difficult. But is anyone truly "average"? I'm still waiting to meet that person.  

A friend of mine once said, “Talent is a personality variable.” He meant perseverance.
A well-known contemporary writer put it this way:

A writer’s life is only ever acceptance or rejection, surfeit or famine, and nothing in between. That’s an emotionally draining way to live. As a result, it isn’t necessary to discourage young writers. Life will do that soon enough. There are yards of writers under the age of thirty, but not many who stay the course. The ones who do aren’t necessarily the most gifted, but those who can focus well, discipline themselves, persevere through hard times, and spring back after rejections that would cripple others. ~ Diane Ackerman

These are wonderfully inspiring words, this springing back after rejections -- which sometimes took me a long time. (A friend said, "You have to develop a tough mug" -- the very expression makes me wince, remembering those slaps in the face.) Ultimately, I suspect that I owe what I achieved mostly to being obsessive-compulsive -- which translates into extreme effort. Unlike depression, that's a productive pathology, as long as it's correctly channeled. I write because I'm compulsive. I have no noble motives, though of course I am happy if a reader feels nourished. 

And of course I enjoy the assertions about the nobility of persistence. Why call it compulsiveness when we can invoke Promethean labor. Aldous Huxley penned these words:

The choice is always ours. Then, let me choose
The longest art, the hard Promethean way
Cherishingly to tend and feed and fan
That inward fire, whose small precarious flame,
Kindled or quenched, creates
The noble or the ignoble men we are,
The worlds we live in and the very fates,
Our bright or muddy star.


Very interesting reading. People who are committed to their art will be very inspired by it and as you point out some are in a place in their lives where time doesn 't allow them to pursue all they might want to and yet think how many great artists (and in that I include all the arts) have persevered against all odds. My granddaughter is struggling to get her masters at the Sorbonne, in French, working three jobs to afford an apt and rent space to paint and in her last post she said all I want too do is paint. Gives new meaning to the starving artist. How many of us do you think are capable of this kind of dedication?  And no one can guarantee a sad childhood. Can one be a great writer without that? Is "extreme effort" sufficient?


We don't know enough yet . . . I suspect that the right kind of trauma and desperation early on probably has a lot to do with why at least some of us will seek escape through "extreme effort." 

Picasso spent nine hours a day, every day, alone in his studio, painting. When he said, "A painting is the sum of its destructions," he was acknowledging a lot of failed attempts. What makes someone work this hard, especially before there is any recognition? Or even if recognition never comes? We are not completely sure, aside from the umbrella answer that it's the interaction between genes and environment. 

There was a time in my life when I kept running into people who talked a lot about art and regarded themselves as artists or "artistic," but failed to produce. I remember some of the excuses:

I have to find a good relationship first, and then I'll be able to concentrate on painting.

I can't paint on weekends because then on Monday I couldn't stand my job. 

As soon as I retire, I'm going to return to writing my novel.

After I come home, I am so tired, all I can do is watch TV. 

But I have to watch TV and read the paper -- you have to be informed about what's going on in the world. 

I couldn't come to the workshop because it was husband's (grandchild's, sister's, niece's, etc) birthday.

[ this from a very rich real-estate dealer ]
As soon as I make ten million, I quit, and then all I do is paint. 

[Hitler to Eva Braun, (allegedly)]
After the war is over, we'll live in the mountains and I'll devote myself to art. 

-- This list could go on. No one has ever lacked reasons to postpone "extreme effort." Or even not so extreme effort. One hour a day, say. When there is a will, there is a way. But it means that you have to give up something else -- watching TV, surfing the Internet, chatting on the cell phone. Wanna-bes don't want to give up anything. I remember a woman literally bursting into tears because she "had no time to paint." In fact she had three-day weekends, but she didn't want to give up any of her weekend activities. So it goes. 

The first thing to give up is spending time with do-nothing wanna-be's. The time when they finally feel ready to start creative work never comes. 

I have a poem about this need for sacrifice: 

Dividing the Light

Sacrifice: neither virgins
nor lambs. You yourself
lie down on the altar
and give up parts of yourself.

Instead, you sit on the couch,
speaking long sentences like Henry James:
the agony of doing it
the agony of not doing it


Who shatters to fly like spray?
One must be beautiful to be forgiven.
You won’t go down

the steep, wobbly staircase
the cliffs tinged with desperate flowers,
“Because I’d have to climb back.”


All dedications are a sham:
art is a gift to oneself –
crossroads where dead women rise
and walk through their unfinished lives.

If I could give you a life for Christmas,
it would be a life in a harsh climate,
the sky a wilderness,
rain like bars on the window.

Wind mutters its old complaints.
You wipe the table,
begin to divide the light.

    ~ Oriana



  1. I believe that an artist is always searching and often doesn't know what she is searching for until she comes to what she thinks it IT. But then, it is no long that thing and the search is for what is always slightly out of reach. It is the most delicious life of breathless torture akin to perfection, looking into the distance while looking inside herself - the fullness of life and death, often at the same time.

    You've captured it well in these lines:

    ...thought, she’s been where I’ve never been.
    I could see it in her eyes, which looked
    into the distance, but not the distance outside.
    And I wanted to get to that place, that love.

    ... you’d spill out
    taking reckless curves through the endless
    hospital corridors, as in dreams where the living
    mingle with the dead, I was already a man
    changed forever by the midnight stench
    of bologna, and the voice of the other
    angel who said, If you let go, you’ll die.”

  2. I've revised slightly to

    . . . the voice of the other giant
    archangel who said, (etc.)

    I agree with all you say, especially the out-of-reach experience -- though once in a while we have the ecstasy of reaching (or perhaps only the illusion of it). You know, the perfect line, or, better yet, that condition where not a word can be changed in the whole poem. But how many times did Yeats revise "Byzantium"? Fifty-six? It's good to remember.

  3. Oh, no, "giant archangel" -- I'm glad I forgot I ever had that variation. The ending is not yet stable. But it will get there, perhaps on the twentieth try . . . or perhaps I'll go back to what I had in #11.

    There were those who hated Yeats for his revisions, being attached to earlier versions. And no doubt, some of the time he was destructive. But that's the only way he had of leaving us a dozen or so of truly wonderful poems. In the end, that's all that counts. The rest is finger exercises.

  4. I think I'll change to "the ruthless Angel of Life." We think of the Angel of Death as terrible, but for most people dying in old age, death seems a peaceful process of shutting down.
    It's life that's difficult. Apologies for saying the obvious.