Friday, January 17, 2014


Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angels’
hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me
suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
by that greater existence. For beauty is
but the beginning of terror we are still able to endure,
and we admire it so because it serenely
disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrifying.

~ Rilke, First Duino Elegy

If angels and other super-human beings -- providing they even exist -- do not hear us, then, Rilke asks, who can we turn to in our need? That unspecified need ultimately always comes to this: our terror of death, of non-being. Rilke is on that cusp of modernity that’s still willing to let immortals exist, but, as the enlightenment-era deists claimed earlier, the gods can’t hear us.

Then who can we turn to?

Not angels, not men;
and already the knowing animals
guess we don’t feel truly at home
in the interpreted world.

Can we turn to a lover? Are lovers not a great example of giving strength to each other? Rilke doesn’t trust romantic love that way:

. . . Is it easier for lovers? Alas,
with each other they only conceal their fate.

Even the consolations of nature don’t entirely suffice -- not the night, nor the wind that “gnaws at our faces.” Ultimately Rilke settles for music, though some doubt remains:

Is the old tale in vain
that tells how music began
in the mourning for Linos
piercing the arid numbness,
and, in that stunned space
where an almost godlike youth
suddenly ceased to exist,
made the emptiness vibrate in ways
that charm us, comfort and help?

The Greek poets would have said, “a godlike youth,” without the qualifier. But modernity doesn’t dare reach for such certainty. And that’s perhaps why only music, not needing words, can still soar. 

Why do so many poems dance the dance of death? And why are dark poems [usually] more interesting and powerful? How do we account for the pervasive darkness of poetry -- not just in great poetry, and certainly not just the famous elegies, but 90% or more of poetry in general. When Billy Collins said, “poetry is an unending funeral,” we all nodded in agreement. That poetry deals with death and loss is a truism; even love poetry tends to have mortality as a hidden theme. Why? I once wrote an essay about it, but I don’t remember if I posted it.

How come I don’t remember? Well, adrenaline greatly helps us remember things, and there must not have been enough adrenaline in me at the time . . .  I’m no longer the high-adrenaline babe I used to be (a long sigh here, both of relief and sadness). And look, I inserted “usually” into the second sentence of the preceding paragraph -- a sign of intellectual caution, of the age of mind rather than the age of vitality, as Milosz aptly labeled the two phases in almost (“almost”!) every writer’s creativity.


I’m reading Rick Hanson’s Buddha’s Brain. This morning I was reading about how the brain is wired for "bad news" – the so-called "negativity bias." Every paragraph held my interest. The evidence was compelling: yes, of course it’s a hard-wired neural bias. Then, after making us see how we are compelled to remember the bad, the dark, and above all the scary, Hanson turns to the need for positive experiences and emotions. It's a rather boring chapter, and I made this discovery: positive experiences are soon forgotten because they tend to be boring, e.g. a trip to the zoo when everything went smoothly, no one fell into the moat separating the visitors from the lions, and the only controversy was whether to have lunch now or later.

If Adam Zagajewski had turned out to be genial and pleasant, chit-chatting with me about the weather or reminiscing about the problem Milosz had with deer grazing in his garden in Berkeley, how much would I remember about the Vermont experience? The badness was unpleasant while I was there and before it all fell together when I read about Asperger’s Syndrome. Now, with more understanding and the emotional discomfort long over, I find those memories interesting and also quite funny: a funny funeral, if you will. His bursts of narcissistic rage were priceless, as was his low tolerance for upstarts like the the ones gathered at the Vermont Studio Center who dared call themselves poets. And the impressive amount of talent, skill, and serious dedication displayed by at least half of those poets -- would I have noticed it as acutely if not for the counterpoint of Zagajewski’s attitude: “I and I alone am a real poet in this place”?

Also, in a different realm, would I have noticed how friendly Americans are in general if not for the contrast? Would I have found my fellow poets, writers, and visual artists so downright adorable? Perfect strangers smiling at me -- would I have even noticed in a low-adrenaline state?


To return to the book and the issue of how interesting and memorable dark experiences are. True, some mainly positive experiences can be interesting, but that’s because there is some tension mixed in: paradise, yes, but with the threat of loss. Falling in love is interesting. I find the very expression: to FALL in love -- unique, I think, to the English language -- to be psychologically brilliant. Likewise, novelty alone produces some tension as the brain is roused up and wildly scanning this new environment to make sure there is no danger to survival. Adrenaline, a flight or fight hormone, makes us remember things. Let me repeat this with more emphasis because it’s so important: ADRENALINE MAKES US REMEMBER THINGS. It's a great aid to memory formation. If you block adrenaline receptors, you block the memory. That’s how we (and other animals) evolved: adrenaline made us remember what leads to danger and what favors survival.

I found Terrence Malick’s 2011 movie, The Tree of Life, boring beyond belief because it has long “happy” sequences of a toddler doing toddler-type things, and then young boys doing young-boy things such as kicking a can etc -- hence the idea that it should be retitled “A Boy’s Life.” The father is authoritarian, needing to be the boss at any price, and that creates some tension, but the tension is not dramatic enough. The mother is just being a loving mother, without a single negative moment. The mother is a saint. There are some arguments with her husband, but we can't hear the words – we just assume she's defending the boys, so you can't blame her. And all ends well -- we are in heaven, which looks just like a California beach at sunset.

As movies go, The Tree of Life is an exception. I think movies in particular cater to our inborn negativity bias by presenting conflict and the drama around it. Any good story has the protagonist dealing with something bad. Even a Christmas movie such as “It’s a Wonderful Life” has plenty of darkness, including an attempted suicide! That’s the standard Hollywood technique: don’t make it all good or all bad, but create interest by mixing the two. Of course novels work the same way -- even pulp romances have the heroine nearly lose her purity.

The need for good-bad interweave also explains why happy-happy poems don’t really work, since even a poem needs some dramatic tension -- or call it A SHOT OF ADRENALINE. That’s why we can re-read Ancient Mariner, but who ever wants to re-read Wordsworth’s Prelude? Yes, even a poem has to have dramatic tension to hold our attention. As Zagajewski (a brilliant man who simply happens to have Asperger’s) said, “Poems are short tragedies.”

I’m thinking of a friend’s statement, “When you’re traveling, even the bad is good.” For a writer, the bad is especially good, a goldmine of material. If someone says, “My mother was a typical housewife,” who wants to hear about it? (This never stopped a certain woman whose name I blessedly forget from writing a four-section poem on the theme: Father liked mother’s apple pie best”?) But if someone says, “My mother was a schizophrenic,” or “On the way to a posh business party, I saw my mother searching for food in a dumpster,” you bet everyone's interested. The memoir becomes a best-seller. It doesn't have to be this extreme, but you get my drift.

Give me a good dark poem anytime. Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband is a work of genius from that perspective: funny in a very dark, brilliant way. Tears turned to diamonds. I loved it on my first reading. Now that I’m re-reading it, I love it even more. I’m awed by Carson’s genius, and I don’t use the word “genius” lightly. I reserve it for poets like Emily Dickinson.

I don’t mean to overstate the case for darkness. Some of my favorite music is an example of a positive experience that never bores me, and there are times I’d rather have the harmonies or Mozart than Beethoven’s drama. The beauty of nature doesn’t bore me, e.g. the Eastern Sierra or the Pacific Ocean. True, those are experiences of the sublime, and there is a threatening aspect to the sublime. In Rilke’s words, “beauty is but the beginning of terror, and we adore it so because it serenely disdains to destroy us.” But I don’t have to fall into the cascades at Whitney Portal in order to appreciate their beauty. The energy, the rush? Yes, but I also love looking at a calm lake.

It maybe true that it’s the outbreaks of the unpredictable and the threatening that stay in memory, the bear at the campground more so than another grand panorama, but I never saw a panorama I didn’t like. Animals don’t bore me. The only thing that makes me more happy than a kitten is two kittens. But some other experiences that are supposed to be positive – after a while I just go numb.

True, poetry readings that carry on and on, one poem darker than another, also make me numb. Ideally, we need an interweave: let the darkness deliver a jolt, a shot of adrenaline, rather than be a constant drizzle. Still, life can have long periods of constant drizzle, not to mention a vehement storm now and then. You have to admire poets for their honesty. They know better than to deliver sunshine, sunshine, sunshine.

What’s the point of poetry? It’s been said that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. I hold to the unpopular view that poetry too needs a thread of narrative on which to string its images; it needs both light and shadow to create dramatic tension. A poem is often a micro-narrative, a “short tragedy.” We are so strangely wired that we seem to need to deal with the bad news along with the good news. Our survival depends on it. And poetry is one way of grappling with the bad news. It is a safe container for it since the beauty of language is a victory, however slight, over the darkness. Those who love poetry do not mind the darkness.  


In any case, the darkness can’t be avoided if we want to live to the fullest:

You see that I want much.
Perhaps I want it all:
the darkness of every infinite instant,
the trembling light of every ascent.

~ Rilke, The Book of Hours

Rilke was familiar with Nietzsche (Lou Andreas-Salomé probably made sure of that), and Nietzsche’s command to “live dangerously.” Nietzsche, who also named alcohol and Christianity as “the two great European narcotics,” deemed it cowardice to try to avoid the distress that goes with any serious work toward an accomplishment. The hardship and darkness had to accepted and endured.

Nietzsche: The secret of harvesting from experience the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of it is -- to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius!

True, some people take more risks while others timidly keep to the well-trodden path. But it seems to me that living is inherently “dangerous”: if you live long enough, the odds are that you will experience a personal tragedy and/or go through one or more periods of great suffering. I don’t know a single person who is an exception.

Creative people are in fact often given as an example of having been molded by a great deal of suffering. They often have to overcome an early trauma. “Overcome” is perhaps an overly optimistic term; in some ways, that trauma is always with them. When asked what a writer needs most, Hemingway famously replied, “An unhappy childhood.” And creative work itself, though a source of joy, also creates tension and frustration, and often the feeling of being a total failure. The light of a dream that an artist carries in her ascent is indeed like a trembling candle flame.


At the same time, we need to take care not to embrace the cult of suffering. There is much to be said for the Daoist principle of wu-wei: “not straining.” For all that has been said about the ratio of inspiration to perspiration, too much deliberate effort can interfere with inspiration. One of the most important principles of creative work is not to sweat too much. When an impasse develops, it’s best to walk away from the work. The unconscious will keep working on the problem, producing a solution unexpectedly and often at a notoriously inconvenient time, as when you are in the shower. That’s tough: you end the shower quickly and start scribbling. When the muse knocks, you open. Otherwise the muse will cease to visit.


But it won’t do to say that poetry is dark, the darkest of all literary genres. Great poetry tends to affirm life in spite the inevitable fate, in spite of mortality. Though we know that love brings pain and not just joy -- “that which is your greatest joy will also be your greatest grief” -- and even though we know what awaits us -- we’ve seen the cemeteries -- just to live is transcendent. As Rilke says in the Seventh Elegy: “to have been here even once is beyond words.” 

Again and again, though we know the landscape of love

and the little churchyard there, with its sorrowing names,

and the frightening silent abyss into which the others

fall: again and again the two of us walk out together

under the ancient trees, lie down again and again

among the flowers, face to face with the sky.

~ Rilke, tr. Stephen Mitchell