Wednesday, July 08, 2009

`Something Straight and Simple'

In our hotel room at Lake Chelan, on the wall across from our bed, hung what appeared to be a reproduction of a painting by Richard Diebenkorn. There was no signature and the frame was sealed to the wall so I couldn’t examine the back, but it looked convincingly like a painting from the “Ocean Park” series – irregular pastel grids, like landscapes viewed from the air. It resembled this. I assume it was either a Diebenkorn reproduction or an anonymous ripoff of his style. Either way, I enjoyed its company.

Since returning home, while reading more about Diebenkorn and looking at his paintings, I came across two sentences reportedly scrawled on a scrap of paper and found in the artist’s California studio after his death in 1993, age 70. I haven’t documented the source but even if it’s apocryphal it’s intriguing and worthy of contemplation – like the painting in the motel room:

“I seem to have to do it elaborately wrong and with many conceits first. Then maybe I can attack and deflate my pomposity and arrive at something straight and simple.”

These are not the words of a young man. They have none of the willfulness, self-indulgence and impatience of youth, even brilliant youth. They reflect a full life’s experience, its dead ends, flops, erasures, detours, the inevitable depression and self-loathing, at least in passing – but not defeat or surrender. We could learn from them, especially from “elaborately wrong,” which is how many of us wrote and lived when young, congratulating our daring and individuality while slavishly serving the Zeitgeist.

At Lake Chelan I was reading the poems of Janet Lewis and her husband, Yvor Winters. The latter’s “To a Young Writer” seems apposite, in particular the final quatrain:

“Write little; do it well.
Your knowledge will be such,
At last, as to dispel
What moves you overmuch.”

Knowledge (experience) tempers emotional over-indulgence -- “What moves you overmuch.” The risk, of course, is over-compensation in the other direction, turning cold and sterile. In his note to the poem in The Selected Poems of Yvor Winters, R.L. Barth points out the poem was dedicated to Achilles Holt (1911-1993), a poet, fiction writer and student of Winters’. Barth writes: “Holt’s writing career ended relatively early with the onset of severe mental illness.” Yet he lived to the age of 82.

For what it’s worth, Diebenkorn, Lewis and Winters lived much of their lives in California, though none was a native, and all were associated with Stanford University.


D. G. Myers said...

Winters’s quatrain should be chiseled above the day of every creative writing program in the country.

D. G. Myers said...

“Door,” you maroon. “Chiseled above the door.” D-O-O-R. Not day. What the? Don’t you reread what you’ve written?

Eric Thomson said...

D.G. Myers' 'chiseled' reminds me of the writer as mason in Briggflatts, part I:

pens are too light.
Take a chisel to write.

Brief words are hard to find,
Shapes to carve and discard:’

Bunting's maxim was "No concessions to eclairegobblers ... nothing recondite, but only a complete purge out of irrelevancies; compression;".

On a walk in London some time around 1930, William Empson asked Eliot whether it was really necessary for a poet to write verse every week, as he had advised in the Pound anthology: ‘He was preparing to cross into Russell Square, eying the traffic both ways, and we were dodging it as his slow reply proceeded. “I had in mind Pound when I wrote that passage,” began the deep sad voice, and there was a considerable pause. “Taking the question in general, I should say, in the case of many poets, that the important thing for them to do … is to write as little as possible.” The gravity of the last phrase was so pure as to give it an almost lyrical quality. A reader may be tempted to suppose that this was snub or at least a joke, but I still do not believe it was; and at this time it seemed to me not only very wise but a very satisfactory answer. He had taken a weight off my mind.’

elberry said...

The ideal is to write a book that takes at least 20 years to research & write, and can be read over a single weekend.

Sadly, in order to get to the point of being able to write this book, one usually has to write several million practice words, which then tend to be published when they would be better consigned to oblivion.

ricpic said...

Minimalism is alright. But it isn't the only way. There is as much to be said for the adders on as for the takers out. A matter of temperament, finally. And there is no right temperament.