Let me ask you a purely academic question: Hello?
— Dean Blehert

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Mechanics of Being Right

How does one force oneself?
One must become two to be a problem.
Problems are convenient for those
who aren't the problems, since problems
stay right where they are, expending
themselves against themselves,
part of the landscape. Problems
are no problem at all, but beware
of solutions. Hitler, for example,
was a solution. He had no problem
with himself. We had to oppose him
and be one side of a new problem.

Once, perhaps, Hitler was a problem,
a precarious balance of jaw-breaking
forces, holding himself immobile--and
how clever of him to solve his problem
and become our problem.

That's an old poem of mine. Recently I saw a friend (or one-time friend) go through the conversion described above. While he resisted his cravings (booze, perhaps other drugs -- he admitted to booze), he was both sides of a problem in precarious balance, and thus held himself in stasis. He could become someone else's problem if someone else tried to help him, but left to himself, he was simply a problem, his cravings poised against his social leanings. He spoke softly, tended to mumble, seemed restrained, a bit vague, his communications trailing off into the ether.

Then he solved himself, managed to unbalance the impasse, started drinking (and maybe was "medicated") -- why? Long story, probably, and one I know only a small part of. But having solved his problem, he became the problem of a number of other people, as, rather cheerfully, in a hoarse smoke-and-booze-rasped voice -- with no vagueness or trailing off -- he began to threaten and insult people who'd thought him a friend ("I'm gonna kick you're ass", "You fag!"). He's thus opted himself out of several social circles. He appeared to enjoy all this -- after all, it was action. I don't know if he found the morning after enjoyable. Usually such solutions lead to new problems which lead to new solutions. And usually there's a descent. Each problem is more severe than the last, each solution more desperate, unless something intervenes to reverse the process -- some bit of insight that makes it unnecessary for the problem to exist.

After all, we like games, and it's a game to solve a problem. Games are, in a sense, problems -- opposing forces trying to hold one another motionless, like two football teams. That is, each team tries to be a problem for the other team, and each team tries to solve that problem.

So one way a problem vanishes is if one has other, more interesting games to play, so doesn't have to maintain his minor problems in perfect balance with such dedicated tenacity. For example, people "rise above" their petty problems in a crisis, and, having done so, when the crisis is over, typically are better able to deal with the petty stuff.

But in the absence of some new awareness that enables us to let go of a problem, we solve it, and the solution becomes a worse (more limiting, more gameless, less fun) problem. This applies to all of us, I think, not just the person described above.

This is not about the rightness or wrongness of his actions. Perhaps he was miserable without the booze. Perhaps the people he threatened deserved to be threatened. (At least, whomever he mistook them for deserved it, probably a long time ago.) The point is the mechanics of it: A problem slipped along its fault lines, an earthquake in his psyche that left him able to move. He ceased to be a problem to himself and became a problem to others, who found themselves worrying about what to do with him.

In my poem, above, I use a far more extreme example: Hitler, who went about becoming a problem to the world with high spirited confidence, at least until he began to get beaten back. And the German nation as a nation went through a similar process, moving from post-war apathy and apparent lack of a shared mission, lack of games to play (stopped) to the cheering sieg-heiling crowds in Nuremberg rejoicing at the "Triumph of the Will". Germans ceased to have problems -- nearly full employment, prosperity, armed strength, high standard of living (for those considered to be German), etc. Germany was no longer a problem to itself, but a problem to the rest of the world.

Which led to a deeper defeat, millions dead, etc.

The Germans had a desperate solution: Just kill all the Jews and enslave all the Slavs and... -- well, when you're desperate, any solution seems better than none.

MUCH better than none. That bottle, that snort or injection is gold! Just saying "To hell with them all! What does it matter! I can do anything! There's nothing stopping me!" is exhilarating. Until someone or something stops you.

One way to define the role of ethics in our lives (our taking responsibility for ourselves and others and, in widening concentric ripples, society, mankind, etc.) is that ethics allows us that joy of freedom without making us a problem that others must solve by stopping us.

In other words, ethical action allows the high without the hangover and without the broken marriage, the lost friends, lost job, lost health. This is a riddle to someone who equates ethics with doing what one is "supposed" to do, rather than a matter of integrity, something that aligns with one's own goals and that is not inconsistent with freedom.

That's a mouthful of abstractions. Sorry. Here's another poem on this subject (the brief high of capitulation to a desperate solution):


How is it at our craziest,
thrashing out in rage, screaming -
we feel so RIGHT?
It's sheer electricity,
like the edgy air during a summer storm,
almost a relief,
because what has been tormenting us,
demanding that we act out its obsession,
this ghost we've been wrestling with day and night,
this clenched fist in the forehead -
we've let go,
given it our own voice, body, knuckles,
blood - we've given it what it wants,
and even as we rage,
we are at peace,
riding the wave of our rightness toward
where mist and distance blur
the crash of foam on ragged rocks.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


We keep using words that don't work anymore
(we're told)--beauty, heart,
truth, love--using them because
we want them to work.

Keats spoke
simply of truth and beauty, and an arc
of brilliance that lit up his century
leapt the gap between dream and know.
Yeats had to give birth to a terrible
beauty to ignite us.

These sparks,
like stars hazed over by city lights,
now are blanched in the neon flare
of frenetic signs blazoning the truth
of True Cigarettes, the beauty
of beautiful shampoo, the breakfast
cereal you'll love and the politician
you know is right in your heart.

Can one ashamed to say "I love you"
love? We try to heighten love and truth
and beauty, add garish auras with
"diseased", "hectic", "skeletal beauty",
"the rictus of love", "the bruised
apples of truth left to us", "the
algebra of the unknown heart"--

but we cannot further overload
these circuits; the fuses blew out
decades ago. Yet we stand here
in the abandoned house, flicking
the dusty light switches on, off,
on, off (because it is all we know
on earth, but not all we need to know),
hoping for a light.

Note: The poem above is a bit condensed for an essay, but I think a careful reading will find in it a linear discursive line of reasoning. Language deteriorates when it ceases to provide us a means to communicate what we want to communicate and, in particular, a means of sharing our most important experiences, which, thus becoming difficult to share, to that extent become unreal to us, since much of what makes these experiences (of love or beauty, for example) real is our sense of agreement about them.

Usually when we consider the degeneration of language, we look at the way words once vital have become trite, so that speaking of love, truth or beauty is "truism", stirs no spark of recognition, just tired nods.

In the poem above I look at another sign of degeneration: The strains introduced into language in an attempt to do battle with triteness. For example, where the word "beauty" ceases to induce swoons, perhaps "a terrible beauty" (Yeats) will stir something up. And decade by decade we find more odd and perverse ways to position beauty in hopes of wringing a few more drops of feeling (even if only disgust) out of the word.

When poetry or other verbal expressions rely too much on such efforts, the result is a mere masking of the degeneration, as when, lovers, fallen out of love, keep trying to stir up the embers with crotchless panties, odd sexual positions, adultery, threesomes, orgies, etc., none of which have anything to do with revitalizing the love (based on free-flowing communication) that, by this time, the lovers have ceased to believe could ever have been possible. Being in good communication made sex fun. Trying to force sex to be fun does not engender good communication.

Problems vanish when the lies that hold them in place are spotted. Problems persist in ever more pervasive forms when they are "solved" by a concatenation of desperate gimmicks.

How does this apply to poets and their communications? I have some phrases that mean something to me and perhaps have helped my writing. I don't know whether they'd be of use to others, but here are a few of them:

While part of writing is to write and keep writing and write a lot, it is more important to become someone who has something to say.

I try to look at my reader and talk to him/her (that may be you).

Friday, May 18, 2007

On Resisting Evil

Because the evil have made the trains
run on time, we are wary of efficiency
and accomplish nothing.

Because the evil have misused force,
we hesitate, hoping for miracles.

Because fools have thrown away
their lives for madmen, we imagine
there is nothing worth dying for
and, dying anyway, live in fear.

Because the evil have created
formidable organizations, we dream
of standing alone, swallowing
that swindle (dreamed up by the weak
to subdue the strong) that organization
must be abhorred.

Because the evil seem driven
by destructive purpose, we are
wishywashy, lost, as it were,
in qualifications, lest we be tainted
by zeal.

Because the evil rely on solid stuffy
citizens (who can best be governed
by fear of loss of status) and call them
sane, we think we must be crazy
to be creative, so create only

Because madmen have equated
love of our own country with hatred
of all other countries, we try to love
mankind by despising our country,
as if love of neighbors could grow
from hatred of self.

Nothing is left to us if we try to be
good only by being what evil is not,
nothing but evil itself, which is maybe
a violent effort not to be evil.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Shrinking Creativity

[Note: I'm a bit allergic to "one" as a repeated pronoun and to a lot of "his/her" and "he/she", so I've settled for "he" in most of the following essay on artists (which is loaded with pronouns). I do know that not all artists are male.]

Recently, I tuned in to National Public Radio just in time to hear part of the "Science" hour, where a female psychiatrist was being interviewed about her book on creativity, and we got to hear the psychiatric line on it.

Here are the viewpoints (opinions presented authoritatively as scientific):

1. Creativity is almost entirely an unconscious activity over which the creative person has little control.

2. Creative people don't know what they're going to create when they start to create something. Art just happens. It probably kills creativity to outline the work in advance or otherwise try to exert conscious control over the outcome.

3. Creative people don't create their own work. They all say that it's as if "the muse sat on my shoulder and spoke through me."

4. Based on her acquaintance with many writers in the Iowa School of creative writing (back in the 70s), she has concluded that creative people have a higher than usual incidence of mental illness, both in their family histories and in their own lives. They suffer from "mood instability". She says that the ones she interviewed did not think this mental illness was good for them, that, contrary to the idea of the wild genius relishing his insanity, they all felt that their "mood instability" hindered their work, and said they got their best work done in between bouts of "mood instability." (This seems to me to be a covert argument for drugging them to handle their unwanted "mood instability"--that is, their emotional roller-coaster, which is caused mainly by connection to people who ignore or invalidate their work. And yet, those same drugs -- for example, anti-depressants, are notorious for putting dampers on creativity--including the act of creativity we call "sex.")

I think it important to understand these points, and realize that they are a subtle mixture of lies and truth, and that they ARE pretty much the psych line. Here, roughly, is my take on each of the above points:

1. Creativity is as much a conscious activity as the creator is conscious. Awareness is not the enemy of creativity. Most people have a very dim awareness of their own universes, so have little knowledge, responsibility or control in that area. When in contact with their own universes (their own dreams, hopes, ideas, creations), they are overwhelmed by them as if by some alien invasion of ideas and pictures ("The story just leapt out of me, as if I were taking dictation").

It may seem that being effect of creation, and unconscious of it, is an aid to creativity--they are contacting areas unknown to them; thus it seems unconscious. Yes, when most people try to communicate what comes from their own universes, they are dealing with territory unknown to them. As they know themselves better, the process becomes more conscious and the mastery greater, not less -- because they are more aware of their own universes, less obsessed with the agreed-upon, neutral, no-man's-land we call the physical universe.

2. An outline may be a constriction (I never use an outline), but it may also be helpful as a guide or a barrier--a barrier, can be a challenge. Certainly if the poet sets out to write a sonnet or some "fixed form," the barriers of a particular game (the rules for rhyme and meter or other formal constraints) may aid or hamper creativity, depending on the writer's ability to confront those barriers and use them successfully. It's difficult to write a formal sonnet without knowing one is writing a formal sonnet. And yet some formal works happen to be fine art.

The idea that the creator doesn't know what he will create until he creates it is a half-truth. Obviously creation doesn't occur if what's created is already created, so there's some truth to it: We create what we create when we create it. But that act of creation, when an artist is operating at peak, is instant fullness, perception of richness, permeation, knowing. The thing is there, created at that point (that's my experience). It will change some in the process of writing it down, working out how to translate it from my universe to others' universes (and that, perhaps, is the alteration needed to give an instant creation some persistence--in minds of others, who recreate it. They think they are getting it from me, when actually I'm stirring them to create something; therefore, they've misowned it (attributed to me what is their own), which means it will persist for them too). But there's a tremendous and acute knowingness involved.

[One way we get things to persist is by attributing them to others. If I want to spread a rumor and have it take root, it helps if I attribute it to "everybody" or even to God, our theological everybody.]

If this shrink had interviewed Nabokov (probably the most creative writer in the last century), she'd have heard a different story. I don't have the exact words at hand, but here's how Nabokov described his writing of a novel: He'd write on note cards, which were on a sort of podium, so he could write standing up. He would pace the room, then pause at the podium to fill out a card. He'd put the notes together later (like a mosaic). He said that at the start the entire work was there for him, surrounding him. He said it was as if he were standing inside a huge, beautiful cathedral, perhaps under the dome, but it was dim, only tiny details emerging from the darkness here and there. So his work was a matter of bringing his own creation to light.

In his pacing he felt as if he were viewing the cathedral with a flashlight, catching a detail here, another detail there, writing down each point of glimmer on a note card. But it was his creation from the start, and he knew it was there, created in all its finest details. This is just his particular metaphor and method, not mine, probably not yours. The point is, he always stressed that from the point he created it, the creation was there. The knowingness was senior to the unknownness. He created it, and he worked out (flashlight-view by flashlight-view) what it was he created.

I recall that when I wrote papers in college, I'd have a concept, an involved set of ideas, and I'd have a clear sense of numerous interrelationships and interconnections, but I'd have to go for long walks turning the thing (already there) around in my mind, seeing it from one viewpoint, then another, then turning it back again, incorporating more and more stuff, sometimes for days, before I could sit down and put it all on paper. (I no longer have to do that. I don't need that particular excuse for knowing--or Nabokov's.)

Being effect of his own creation to the point of having little or no idea what he is going to create is as true for an artist as the artist isn't aware of what he's doing. Also this idea that he must be effect confuses the act of creation with the act of communicating the creation, which is a problem of language and compositional technique. The instant of creation, of bringing concepts into being, gives him a sense of a creation having occurred, a wholeness. Dimly or vividly, the artist is aware of that presence, that created wholeness. Crafting it (for example, putting it into words that will stir a comparable act of creation in others) is an act involving additional creation or re-creation, a keeping it in view or keeping in touch with what he has created--at least enough so that he can recognize when he has said it or when he has departed from that creation.

Here's where most artists have some degree of "not-knowing", mystery, feeling that some other force is leading them on, feeling despair if they lose touch with that force, muse, inspiration. But that transcendent force is the artist himself and his own creation. And the more aware the artist is of that act of creation and of the resultant concept, the less the artist feels moved by some cause external to self, and the less the artist feels his grasp of his own creation is tenuous and difficult. Knowingness is not the enemy of creation. (Unknownness of self is the enemy.)

3. The idea that the artist doesn't create his work, that some muse bypasses him, the words going directly from his muse (or inspiration) to the page, is an idea derived from the creator's unawareness of his own universe, or of that universe being his own creation. That unawareness doesn't make him more creative. His attempts to create involve him in unawareness, because they stir up a universe he has forgotten he created, or is creating.

An author doesn't create more alive characters because the characters "go their own way" (as opposed to the author's directing them), but many authors prefer not to be aware of the levels of consciousness at which they are capable of creating life. (As an artist moves up toward personal spiritual freedom, the process simplifies, because he simply creates what he creates. Ability to create life improves.)

4. Of course many creative people have "mood instability." Suppressive persons are always eager to "help" them. Even if no one puts down their art, the frequent lack of an audiences is in itself an invalidation. Plus there's the haunting suspicion that he is dishonest and faking it. (The Iowa "creative" writers seem to me to turn out a lot of work in which all of them seem to speak the same voice.)

In addition, there is the liability of running into past incidents of loss, pain and unconsciousness while working in creative writing classes that encourage writers to dredge up painful experiences, to take on personally (as method actors) the gruesome thoughts and feelings of characters, as in a play, etc. The basis for much creative writing instruction is that something "merely" imagined, as opposed to being dredged up from one's most traumatic experience, will lack "authenticity."

Also there's the push to be critics of their own work long before they've gotten a good flow of writing going. There is the notion that to write well, the writer must experience (be effect of) everything, where "everything" usually means promiscuity, violence, drugs, deliberately immoral behavior; he must be involved in all this to flaunt his "authenticity" as a true artist by living a degraded life, etc.

And then there are the hidden standards: Is my work great? Am I changing the world? Am I doing any good for anyone? These standards are "hidden" because they are undefined and, maybe,undefinable. Greatness -- as the word is used by critics and artists -- is like "obscenity" in the courts: "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." (So pronounced a judge in an obscenity case).

Almost every artist faces, too, the contradiction between the instantaneous acts of creation -- whole worlds created in a flash -- and the slow, grueling work (at first, usually) of getting something well-written or painted or danced. And the still slower development of audience, income, fame. In other words, he creates what should be a huge effect (and is in his own universe, his own dream), then undergoes the enormous invalidation of time-bound, barrier-ridden physical-universe communication lines. The artist lights a bomb and, in the world where we all live, nothing happens or just a dull, distant pop. Or a whimper.

Imagine you have something brilliant and urgent to say to the world, and it's all there and vibrant and alive, but to communicate it, you have to go through a bureaucracy of bored officials, most of whom don't speak your language. It's different if your work is entirely along material communication lines (for example, if you've developed new, improved toilet paper), no dipping into your own universe nor impinging on the native universes of others.

You can live your whole life without ever noticing the communication lags (for example, the time lag between the time you ask a question and the time you receive an answer, or between the time you address a vision to millions of readers and the time when, having received it, they send you their gratitude) of the material universe, because you ARE a communication lag, not aware that you're waiting for an answer, because you are BEING the waiting, being the trap, being human flesh. As soon as you become aware of creation, you begin to suffer from the dominance of a universe that is everyone's agreement--automatic mediocrity.

Also, most creators who persist, feel they have to sell out to have an income-- become, for example, teachers who must toe the academic party lines. In addition, some of the so-called creative people got into that line of work because they couldn't confront producing anything else. It's not that they're creative so much as that they lack the ability to confront business, real estate, bodies, sales work, medicine, objects more solid than notebooks. I don't know how frequent that is, but I can think of many examples, and I suspect it's a little bit true of most. I can certainly see it in myself, not as a major factor, but as a small component: I didn't like being neat, well-dressed. My hair is unruly, and I hate hair oil. I don't like schedules or neckties. I wanted to do something where I could be a slob, and still "get respect." That's not the main thing I wanted from art, but that element is there.

Certainly SOME people turn to the creative professions because they figure it'll be easier and get them out of things they don't want to deal with. Such people, faced with pressures of having to come up with real products and market them, are miserable. They dreamed only of writing the great American novel, after which publishers and audiences would magically appear, as if summoned by the rubbing of Aladdin's lamp.

So the shrinks are right: Many creative people and wanna-be creative people have "mood instability." But that is not inherent in creativity. Creation is JOY. But the artist declines to the degree that he cannot turn his life into creativity: He soars to creativity, then plummets into uncertainty and mundane editing and promotion and marketing, which is depressing, especially when it fails. So the only way to live a creative life without despair is to become more creative in all areas of life, self, family, groups, mankind, plant and animal life forms, life sources, spiritual freedom, the imagining of a relationship to one's concept of infinite freedom--which means becoming more causative in these areas.

In other words, if he creates great work, then spends the night being vicious to his wife and children, using drugs, eating bad food, professing poverty as "proof" that he is a great artist, lamenting the fact that he is unjustly not yet famous, getting drunk over it and being a mean drunk--there is going to be a roller-coaster, or "mood instability."

Once he's become aware of his own universe, how can they keep him down on the materialist farm, tilling brain chemicals for the sacramental brain religion. He has at least to become just a little bit causative about earning a living, having a family, associating with groups, etc. If he uses art (as many do) as justification for having no groups, chaotic love life, poverty, etc., he's going to have problems with "moods." If he use his art--his knowledge of how to create--to lead a creative life, he may notice that all areas of life require continuous creation. He may have failures and occasional ups and downs, but he won't have that heavy contrast between bursts of artistic sublimity and the downward plunge into a tedious, grungy, uncreated life.

Or he can stay on the roller coaster, being an art addict, having his art highs, followed by life lows. He should probably join "Creators Anonymous": Whenever he feels like writing a poem, he calls his 12-step buddy, who talks him out of it. He needs to get past withdrawal symptoms and never touch creativity again, because he can't handle causative creativity. (Poetry lodges, so to speak, in fat cells--must be a brain function; brains are made of fat. He'll need to sweat poetry out, lest he get flashbacks of compulsive creativity.)

The correct handling is to get a life--that is, a Causative Life. Bring life to all areas of existence, expand knowledge and effectiveness. This may require drilling the technology of communication. The wrong thing for the artist to do is to assume that he has a "mental instability," to be corrected by psychiatric drugs and evaluations and labeling.

If, on the other hand, he buys into the psychiatric view (perhaps not recognizing where it comes from), he will probably move in the following directions:

1. Art is unconscious; therefore, it's important to be unconscious, to cultivate drugs and mystery, to experience murky, chaotic sex, to give free reign to "impulses," to ignore discipline, persistence, awareness; to live a corrupt "authentic" life in the underside of decency and reason. This "proves" he is a rebel genius, that destruction is creation, and "proves" that anyone who does not appreciate him is a middle-class philistine pig.

2. The artist never knows what he is creating--and the less awareness he has of what he is doing or where his creations come from, the more he is a true creator. So the way to create is to wait for something to come--sometimes he sits in front of a blank page for weeks, and nothing comes (it's like constipation)--but that's all he can do, other than stir up unconsciousness with a drug, or drink, or some other stimulus that weakens decisiveness, lowers awareness, and "releases inhibitions," so that he feels free to write some form of chaos that he is sure will add up to "great literature."

3. Since he doesn't create his work, but the muse (or inspiration or some higher power) does it all, he is not, as an artist, responsible for the effects he creates. Moreover, since his work comes from a higher power, he, as artist, is God-favored, and above all that other stuff in life. He is superior to others; he can mess up his life and hurt others, but that's okay, because he's an artist.

4. He will expect to be "mentally unstable," because insanity goes with creativity, although it sometimes gets in the way. He will go to a psychiatrist to handle it. He won't handle it by raising his level of responsibility for other people's lives. He won't handle it by taking more control of creation. He will remain pure by knowing nothing. He is an artist, not responsible for creating anything--the muse does it. He rides the spontaneous and unconscious Muse (to oblivion).

If an artist begins with artistic power and craft, he may produce some good stuff on this downhill road, but it will be a rapidly accelerating plunge. And at each downward spiral, it gets more difficult to turn things around. (Ask Brian Wilson what it took for him to get back some fragment of his magic after he escaped his years of psychiatric captivity -- partially escaped, still on a long pharmaceutical leash, limited to the lovely wistfulness of "Pet Sounds".)

The psychiatrist is not the artist's best friend. Why would those who see differently (have their own personal visions) trust the herd of pompous suits who have produced DSM IV, the psychiatric bible that classifies every form of action or feeling or perception that departs from some never-defined norm as "mental illness"?

Artist, find out who you really are before someone sticks you with a trendy, but toxic lie.

Note: I wrote the first version of the above essay over a month ago, aiming at a specialized audience. My thanks to Russell Salamon (old friend, excellent poet, one of the Lost Angels of Southern Cal.), who edited that essay to make it suitable for the general reader, whoever he/she may be. I then gave it a final edit (final so far). Those of you who know Russell's work will be able to spot his phrases instantly.

Opinions of Opinions

Opinions are fun. They give us things to argue about in bars. (Which team is...? Which player is...? What are women all about? Men?) They identify us. We wear them like pin-on name tags. We can be proud of them. Even if we've borrowed them, once we call them ours, they are a source of pride because our opinions are the right opinions because they are ours -- circular logic, but we enjoy traveling in these circles. We consider our opinions good company.

Except sometimes they're not. Sometimes having opinions becomes like reswallowing one's own vomit. We get tired of hearing ourselves say them (especially when someone we're with has heard them 1000 times), tired of thinking them, tired of that tight little circle of words and attitudes, tired of being nothing else. It's a relief to look at something (say a leaf or a puddle or a bottle or the quality of light in a doorway) and notice that it's not an opinion, but a thing one is looking at.

Probably long ago we could create things, say "let there be a universe" and there it would be (and we're still in it!). We seem to have lost that knack (poetry a poor approximation, but still a creation). And from creation, it appears we deteriorate through various stages. For example, long after we feel we can't create, we can still LOOK at creations. We can see, can have considerations (con-sideris, with the stars -- no longer with the Gods as creators, but still pretty high), for example, we can consider it a fine day, and, lo! it's a fine day. And when we no longer believe our considerations have force, we can still have opinions about the weather.

I won't say opinions are the last resort, the final consolation prize for our failure to be gods. We can fall lower, be unable to have an opinion, be only the automatic circuit that mouths the opinions of others, be less than that -- since the blessing and curse of this universe is that there is no bottom. (No top, either.) It's a blessing, because we're never at the bottom. It's a curse because no matter how bad it gets, it can get worse. (That's why we have death -- to disguise that bottomlessness from ourselves. Suicides, poor deluded escape artists, think they've ended something, like the prisoner who spends months of exertion digging a tunnel only to come up in a neighboring cell.)

[I suppose a topless and bottomless universe might be a blessing in another sense as well -- for some of us, anyway -- if the universe is a beautiful woman. Some of us might not mind coming up in a neighboring cell if that woman were there, waiting for us.]

So opinions may be only one station among infinitely many on the way up or down, but it's a popular stop these days. If a man can't create a game (say baseball) and can't play the game, and can't afford to own a team or manage a team, he can still call it HIS favorite team and have millions of opinions about it. Opinions are a kind of ownership. As a dog makes territory his own by pissing at the borders, so we make things our own by having opinions about them: Teams, politicians, wars, places, anything and everything. We even have opinions about God. We defend them -- sometimes violently -- until they become, for us, fact or belief, something we think we know. Not that we can't know things (even God, perhaps), but when knowledge is a solidification of opinion (a conviction), it's vulnerable. One day you know something -- maybe you simply know whatever it is one knows when caught up in the sweetness of a dog's beseeching eyes or the hard eagerness of a cat's. Maybe it's just a moment. You're suddenly aware that you're here and now and that everyone and everything is here and now with you.

Anyway, time is full of holes, and one day you trip into one of them (something falls on your head, and you're knocked flat, and as you come to, you woozily notice, then notice with unfamiliar vividness the way the feet of people walking past move off into space and make the space they walk into -- you notice dimension) -- and suddenly you know something. And when that happens, you know something else: That all your opinionated knowledge is just a paper-thin husk of knowledge. Or the next time you start to tell someone what you KNOW about how Babe Ruth was twice the player Barry Bonds is, you suddenly know that this is not knowing; this is a a torn, dog-eared sepia photo of knowing, something found in a stranger's attic, nobody you've ever known, hard to imagine it was once a someone with a life and people he loved and who loved him.

Another reason why a little knowledge is a dangerous thing: It exposes all our fraudulent knowledge, the memorized data, the assertions, the support of authorities, the argumentative statistics -- it turns much of our life into a weary charade and makes us long for more knowing, even painful knowing.

Opinion as ownership is hollow. We stick our opinions all over the surface of something (the weather, our spouses, our kids, our work) until nothing shows except our opinions. Nothing shows to us, that is, but we also tell our opinions to all, in hopes that they, too, when they look at the weather, people, things, politics, will see only our opinions. That makes our opinions real -- because they are shared. But what we own is this coating of opinions, which prevents us from noticing that what we thus own is an alien thing, all the more alien for being thus owned. For example, when all I know of my wife is my opinion of her, I lose track of the existence of another being with her own dreams, separate from my own.

When we've filled the world with our opinions, seeing only our opinions, we can no longer have opinions about anything BUT opinions. And I think many people live their lives that way, aware of nothing other than their opinions of their opinions.

You come to us as wings to carry us from one subject to another, O pinions, but soon we find we are shackled by you, O pinions.

[Why does "pinion" mean both wing-feather and shackle? Because birds are restricted -- to parks, for example -- by having feathers removed from their wings so they can't fly away, and since "pinions" were removed to restrict motion, the birds are said to be "pinioned", so "pinion" comes to mean that which restricts, and thus the freedom of flight becomes imprisonment, O pinion! But I digress.]

Lest I seem to mock others, let me assure you that I've fallen into this trance of opinions myself and still slip into it at times. Opinions (for me as for most of us, I think) run through my consciousness in endless ostinato (for the musically illiterate -- a musical phrase repeated over and over again by the same instrument or instruments). Many hours I've wasted day-dreaming, not of conquest by sword or phallus, not of leading armies or illuminating kings or capturing criminals, but hours of imagining myself eloquently persuading people of my opinions, being on talk shows, telling the world my opinions, proving to scoffers that Tolstoy is superior to Dostoyevski and Thomas Mann is mediocre, that there haven't been any great songs since the Beatles; proving to a dreamed-up murderer or accuser or woman who left me long ago that I'm a worthy person with profound opinions; finding brilliant things to say to someone who earlier bested me in argument, leaving me and my sacred opinions gaping. I read something I don't like, and hours later find myself (lying in bed, trying to sleep) working over my opinions, my wonderful opinions on the subject -- who could fail to agree with such wonderful opinions!? I wake up still chewing on these now sour opinions.

Go ahead, just ask me, ask me about anything, but please ask me! Ask me what I think of the Iraq war (I'll come at it from 10 viewpoints and tie it all together for you) or homosexuality (they're all wrong about it, all sides are missing the point) or God or.... Hell, am I the only one who has his own internal muttering (though brilliant) bag lady 24/7? Reminds me of a great line from one of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poems: "The taste of me I could not spit out."

But I exaggerate. I'm not grinding out opinions 24/7. There is respite. More and more there is respite, whole minutes devoid of these sticky critters and whole days where opinions (traveling in their pastel schools, each school a mob of identically-pouting faces) drift in and out of my coral reef, but do not touch me (hanging there, floating).

I find it's a great relief not to have opinions, not to HAVE to have opinions. I begin to own things by looking. I simply look or touch or otherwise perceive what is there. After all, when you own territory by pissing on it, what you own smells of piss. How refreshing -- a world that doesn't have my stench, isn't sodden and sticky with my mastication of it, like a dog's chewy rawhide toy.

And at times it becomes a wondrous thing to me, the eagerness with which people leap to have opinions, swarm about call-in talk show phones like sharks around blooded bait. I wonder, how is it these people want to have opinions about things that don't concern them? After all, there are times when we NEED to have opinions. For example someone says, "What do you think of [this poem? going to a certain restaurant tonight? that movie?]" and politeness demands we come up with something. Or we're asked to be judges, or at work we're asked to report on "options" and recommend a course of action.

And having sampled knowledge, one may begin to find such duties onerous. How do you get us back on opinion, once we've seen some truth? But most of us manage. We may even be able to make a game of it. And sometimes, just for the fun of it, we may jump in (one night at a cocktail party) with an outrageous opinion. And if we get rebuffed stingingly, we may find ourselves, in bed that night, doing a play-by-play and formulating an invincible opinion -- trapped again, having to unstick ourselves again.

E-mail is the latest opinion trap. I see a message that seems to be MADE to provide me an outlet for my vast and convoluted wisdom. I spend hours answering it, finally send it, notice that I've done none of the things I needed to get done today -- and today is gone! And gradually (with frequent recidivism) I wean myself from this intoxication of opinion and learn to go through 50 or 60 messages I don't need to answer without...without answering them. And when I find myself forming opinions, I remind myself that I DON'T HAVE TO HAVE AN OPINION ABOUT THIS, and what a relief! There is so MUCH about which I don't need to have an opinion. I can even not know things.

That's one of the sweetest siren songs of Opinion: Not knowing is dangerous. One must know. One can't live not knowing if going to war will be a terrible thing or not, without knowing which candidate is the best, without knowing if terrorists will strike here again, without knowing if Global Warming is for real or not, without knowning who was the greatest, Ruth or Cobb? Jordan or Chamberlain? Who was worse, Stalin or Hitler? Eventually (in this mood) there's hardly anything one is willing to not-know. We become like the compulsive gambler who must bet on everything. "Hey, see that guy tying his shoe? $10 bucks says he knots the bow twice." "See those leaves falling? A dollar says that one there lands first."

Opinion is our way of knowing things we don't know. But I said that before.

So when I can let go of having opinions, I can dispense with having to know, another great relief. And it puts me closer to knowing. Not so paradoxical: The false knowing we call opinion is out of the way. Now I know what I don't know, so I can LOOK. Or better, I can pervade, get into, become intimate with, practically BE that which I would know.

Not that I have to know. But my ability to know rises as I shed my opinions -- or rather my need to have them. I can still have them. It's fun to have opinions when you don't have to have them. What? You think all opinions are bad? Nonsense, you don't get it, let me explain, it's really simple, you see, opinions are fun. They give us things to argue about in bars....

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Opening Up Again

I've missed a lot of spring (and a few years, it seems, of springs, summers, winters, autumns) sitting in a dark room answering and originating e-mails. This spring I've started taking walks. Last week I took a long one, much of it along wooded paths, dappled with light and shade and flitting bird shadows, bird song, squirrel rustles and all the other familiar props.

It began to get to me (or I to it). I liked the world a lot. Loved it. Started to talk to it.

I realized some things I'd always known, corny things, of course: That wishes come true, that our thoughts and feelings make things happen. I noticed something a bit less obvious (though, really, it's another way of saying that wishes come true): When I get too involved with trying to do the right things, with trying to understand what is happening to the world, what chaos is being wrought in it, when I badly want to do something about the wrongnesses I see --

[the possible destructon of the planetary food supply by genetically modification, the glut of mind-and-liver-and-nervous-system-destroying FDA-approved drugs (particularly those prescribed for non-existent mental "illnesses"), a population sapped by artificial sweeteners -- as if sugar weren't bad enough... -- OK, maybe some of these aren't real to you, but you can probably list your own bete noires] --

but the wrongnesses seem overwhelming, and the few things I think of doing (e.g., signing petitions and writing letters to Congresspersons who depend on the designated villains for their campaign funds) seem futile, and even these futilities pile up in my in-box, as I fall behind and neglect my own production (poetry),

and I begin to feel desperate, start to daydream of solutions, huge effects I might create, though I know the dreams are stupid (what do I know about blowing up things, and wouldn't the consequences be heavy oppression and a scarier world?),

but as I walked through the woods and felt a renewed love for our planet and you and even for myself, I realized the trap I'd gotten into, and it vanished -- at least it's gone right now.

What happened is that as I walked I realized that it does the world some good to love it, even lessens the likelihood that some of its denizens will need to resort to psychiatric drugs or feel impelled to muliply their billions by further poisoning us. Affinity creates a space for people to be themselves, be people of good will. My small wave of affinity created a small increment of the space for good will, and lots of us create vast spaces for it.

When I get locked into desperation, I lose faith in the value of creating small effects. Worse, I don't see them anymore. I don't see that my dreams are affecting others. I go blind to this, so think I need to create huge effects. And that need leads to despair.

This is what happens to most artists at some point: The need to produce only GREAT and MIND-BLOWING art renders them mute, unable to create. One man struggles in vain to create an effect on others by leaping about, waving his arms and screaming obscenities. Another man has greater impingement, though all he did was listen to someone and acknowledge or smile, in passing, at the beauty of a child or a cat. The one screaming can't conceive of creating any worthwhile effect simply by admiring beauty -- and CAN'T admire it because he can't RECEIVE that small effect. Not only does he not feel he's created an effect unless he can create a huge effect (like blowing up a planet -- in an extreme case), but since he can no longer perceive any small effects, he can't experience them: He can't feel, because only huge overwhelming feelings can touch him, or so he thinks. He must push sex toward violence, for example. An extreme case would be the serial killer who can't be turned on by anything less than murdering and mutilating -- and in time that fails him, so he tries to find greater outrages.

I know of people -- GOOD people, eager to help others, aware of ways to help, willing to work at it, able to lead others -- who get caught up in this despair of small effects and lose the ability to feel. They still pursue their goals, lead movements, hide their despair behind masks of calm certainty, but have lost their own dreams because they no longer know that small effects are significant -- perhaps are not even small. They MUST save the planet, CAN'T save the planet, become obsessed with visions of mad, violent, revolutionary chaos, fight the visions down (usually), and are locked in combat with themselves, unable to spare a nano-erg of energy for attention, much less admiration.

I'm not saying one should always be satisfied with creating small effects, never strive for larger games, greater scope of action. But I'd say that the ability to create large effects derives from an ability to create and appreciate the small effects. If you can't care for the ones you're with, your large-scale actions will be tainted by desperation. The world you strive to save will be an abstract world with no live beings in it, only symbols.

Another thing I'm not saying (actually I'm not saying practically everything) is that the path to creating a better world begins with the ability to take a walk and fall in love with the world we have, because for many people that's too difficult. There are easier steps on the path. For some people, perhaps a first step would be to notice that one exists and not get nauseated by noticing this. There is no bottom to awareness, no bottom to dreams. Even the stones are dreaming, but are so caught up in the frantic random criss-crossed zinging and twitching of their molecules, that their e0ns-long dreams are never completed, never blossom as what we'd call awareness. They cannot dream themselves awake.

I believe that wishes, prayers, dreams all work. We always get what we often don't realize we want. When we wish against our own wishes, things get complicated. When we get simple enough and aligned with ourselves enough, we no longer have wishes. We have, instead, decisions. We decide what sort of world we want, and we put it there. Except when we're real good at it (fast-draw artists), the deciding and the putting it there aren't separable. That must be why, when I feel most in love with the world and everything in it, I feel so quick. The quick and the dead. Quick, yare, ready, responsive, perceptive -- these are things that go together well.

I wrote this quickly, made the phrases tumble over one another, piled up the commas -- that's how a spring day came upon me last week and has been with me since. Sorry I haven't offered you much talk of sun and cloud and buds, etc. It would be nice to do it all and give you that day, but you can make your own. I hope I've created a small effect here.

I have.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

On Seeking God

He thought it would be fun
to play hide and seek. These were
simpler times, when his only playmate
was God. "God," he said, "you hide,
and I’ll try to find you." He covered his eyes
with his hands and counted for a long time
(and in those days, a long time
was a real long time), but when he opened his eyes,
God was still everywhere,
in plain view, which spoiled the fun.

He said, "No no no, you’ve got to HIDE,
get it?" (God has always been a rather
difficult child. We used to know that.
It didn’t bother us. We thought that was
how it was supposed to be.)

So this time, he counted...and counted
like forever – more like forever
than what passes for forever these days.
But when he opened his eyes, there was
God, the big goof, as obvious as an ostrich’s ass,
except more so, since God didn’t even
turn away from man, much less hide his head.

So he said to God, "OK, I see this is
difficult for you, sort of like ceasing
to be Yourself, so let’s turn it around: I’ll hide,
and You come find me. Don’t forget
to count...", and he looked for a good hiding place,
but where can you hide when everywhere is God,
nowhere to hide but within God? How could he not
be found instantly? But he had a bright idea:
He would simply not be there. He’d be elsewhere
or nowhere at all. He simply wouldn’t be,
just go dead, unconscious, oblivious, unfindable,
so that’s what he did, and God couldn’t find him,
and, he noticed, he couldn’t find God either – if there was
a God, and if there was himself, for that matter – he couldn’t
find himself either and couldn’t recall what the hypothetical-he
had been looking for.

That worked fine, except the game was no longer
a game, since it had no ending (so far).
And from then on something, perhaps a trace of himself,
sought himself, occasionally, in the process, catching a glimpse
of divinity, or sought divinity, occasionally catching
a fleeting glimpse of himself.