Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bright Star

Jane Campion's Bright Star --about the Romantic poet John Keats and his romance with his young neighbor, Fanny Brawne-- surprised me. I expected gorgeous and provocative cineamatography, moody passion and brilliant dialog. I expected the frilly, sensual, temptestuos spirit of the romantic poets to be made palpable, visual, alive. But I didn't expect
to leave the theater truly grieving John Keats, who died so young of tuberculosis. I didn't expect that I would be able to imagine what might have been--the warm homey love he and Fanny could have shared in a small house in the English countryside. I could picture him delighting and doting on their children in between writing sessions. I could picture her entertaining guests and protecting his privacy. I wanted all that for them.

Of course, they never married. He was too poor at first, and then also too sick. Their romance is quite legendary--but for me it had always been something static, like a pretty little figurine, and something emblematic, one more accessory for a Romantic poet to have--the passionate love, the debilitating illness, the unacknowledged brilliance. Through Campion's great work, though, he became a real person to me. As did she.

It was a great, fun movie. It made me think about art and relationships in new ways. Fanny was an incredibly gifted and precocious seamstress--who designed and sewed all her clothes. This was a beautiful visual aspect of the movie and it also set up an interesting opposition between the male, intellectual, serious art of poetry and her own more craftsman, more female, less intellectually respected art. If only she could have used her craft to provide the income for the couple!

I found myself more sympathetic to what it would be like to be in that time period, with the restrictions on women and on relationships that the culture imposed.

There was also an interesting tension between Fanny Brawne and John Keats' best poet friend, Mr Brown. At first I thought their intense hatred of each other was simply funny, something flirty and rather inconsequential. But there was something deeper, more elemental to it-- a truer belief in the lover's part on actual love, versus the older poet's more cynical nature.

I guess I also loved the movie because it showed an incredibly sensual, passionate romance without any sex--gratuitous or otherwise. That took creativity and art to pull off.

I had thought of Keats as being another romantic like Shelley, who left a horrible mess in his wake as they pursued his own agenda in the name of his passions. But in this portrayal Keats seemed driven by ideals and virtues bigger than himself.

The tragedy, especially for Brawne, was that the ideal of romantic love was still not big enough. As she went to wander the heath, dressed all in black after his death, I had another wish--not only that they could have lived out their lives together--but that she could have had a deeper vision to sustain her, a truer hope for her to lodge her amazing spirit.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The broken artist

Novelist Jeanette Winterson recently had an essay in the Wall Street Journal titled "In Praise of the Crack-up" where she wrote about the link between mental illness and despair and creative artistic people.

I haven't had the burden of struggling with true mental illness the way so many artists have, (including some friends and members of my own family). Not that I can't do a mood pretty darn well---but I can only blame my moods on my own brattiness--

That said, I know mental illness is a true issue for many people and many artists--and even without the highs and lows of the bipolar brain, many of us artists still seem to find ourselves broken in just the places where we also find our greatest moments of transcendence. In this light, the last few paragraphs were just so resonate for me--they seemed hauntingly true. I wanted to record them here.

"Art isn't a surface activity. It comes from a deep place and it meets the wound we each carry.

Even when our lives are going well, there is something that prowls the borders, unseen, unfelt. The existential depression that is becoming a condition of humankind, experienced as loss of meaning, a kind of empty bafflement....

Longing is painful. Every work of art is an attempt to bring into being the object of loss. The pictures, the music, the peoems and the performances are an intense engagement with loss. While one is in the act of making, one is not in loss, and one has meaning. The fierce crashes that happen to many creative people when a piece of work is done...come out of the sense that however good the work, it has not answered the loss.

The strange thing about creative work is that it can have enormous value for others while its maker is left ravaged. The ancient Greeks understood this as the price of an encounter with a god--the divine forces enter the human and use him or her as an instrument, only to be ultimately destroyed. But I do not believe that creativity is destructive or divine. I believe it is the part of us that gives shape and voice to our innermost reality.

This is frightening. Encounters with the real, in particular, what we really feel, are something we generally try to avoid. Art mediates the encounter, allowing us to get nearer to our longing and our loss, to risk more, to dare more. Yet for the maker, the exposure is not mediated; it is total and terrifying. That is why so many creative people cut themselves off from their own experience, using drugs or drink or sex or shipwreck to avoid absolute exposure to the pain of creativity...."

Earlier in the article, Winterson compares this artistic struggle with the wounding blessing that Jacob received as he wrestled with God.

I believe she is on to something--when we make art we are in the midst of the real-- the real longing and loneliness and loss of every heart, the terrifying wonder of our existence-- and it's pretty terrible at times, isn't it-

and yet, the artist is the person who can't stay away from the real--even if they drug themselves so as to avoid dealing with it--still, all that brokeness must not be the only option for the artist--

I hope we can learn--I hope I can learn --God's redemption in this--and in the meantime, I hope I learn to want to be broken by truth more than live comfortably with falseness. The final story of blessing I hope is not only wounding but a larger story of encounter. Encounter that is not only worth the violence it incurs but also redeems it.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

writing a poem is hard

for me, at least.

It's gotten much harder, not easier, in the last three and a half years that I've been at this. I'm sure my expectations of the results are higher now. And at the same time, though I've learned what makes a better poem, to some small degree, the basic raw material (my knowledge of the language, my life experience and observations) are not really improved. So no wonder it's not any easier.

It may be that I write some better poems now, but I'm not even sure of that.

I've just been noticing, and had this confirmed by the experience and testimony of my poet friends, that most good poems take more than six months to complete. And often more than a year, with many many rewrites and also months of shelving them and then taking them out and working and reworking.

The art form doesn't seem, in my experience, to do well with hurrying.

I guess it surprises me to know that a small one page poem might take me most of a year to write. Thankfully, I can work on a few at a time. And thankfully, as well, it's fun for me and it's good to learn to let go of productivity as way of judging value. And it's also a mercy I don't have to make a living doing this.