Tuesday, August 25, 2009


When I was an undergraduate, I majored in English literature as well as Religious Studies. I took a number of classes on poetry, particularly on the Victorians and the Moderns. In my class on the Moderns, the professor had us watch a number of videos about some of the modern (or at least relatively contemporary) poets--Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, William Carlos Williams and Sylvia Plath.

The videos we watched were part of a series called "Voices and Visions", and were exceptionally well made. I own three of the videos in these series, which have sadly never made it to DVD. I did notice that some of them have been posted in parts on YouTube.

What is remarkable about these videos is the sensuality that they convey. Poetry is about recreating sensual experiences in images, and the makers of this documentary series do an astonishing job of recreating poetic image on film. There is a tangible quality to everything that happens in the videos, regardless of whether an actual poem is being read or not. Regardless of whether or not you are a fan, I seriously recommend watching the Sylvia Plath documentary, even just a part of it, to see what I mean. You can view Part I on YouTube here.

My former husband wrote poetry, and he did it very well. For a man who wrote excellent poetry, I had never ceased to be confused by his attitude towards the mundane. He railed against having an "ordinary" life, not realizing that there is a magical quality to ordinariness. I never quite managed to convince him of that. You might agree with him--many great poets, like great artists, novelists, or musicians, were not always the most stable of people mentally, and may have lived very erratic lives. I wouldn't say that's the "rule" though--I don't think there is a rule.

But with regard to the mundane--I think of reading Gary Snyder's "The Back Country", and his poems about Zen and Zen meditation. In Zen meditation (as with others), the sadhuk trains to have awareness in action. We spend most of our days going through things by rote, never really paying attention to what we are doing. We get in the car to go to work, and wonder about halfway there if we turned the stove off before leaving. We don't have awareness. We try to cram too many things into a small space of time, and our energies are quickly scattered. In Zen meditations, one cultivates awareness by focusing on a simple task, like sweeping. Sweeping the floor and sweeping the floor with awareness are two very different things. To do the latter well, our minds need to quiet down, and we need to become observers.

I think this is why I prefer doing regular tasks rather than being an administrator in my work. I like feeling the cloth covers of books, opening up the pages, going through map cases and focusing on the careful handling of the documents, both large and small. While I love my computers, that's also the reason I don't care much for systems work. It doesn't seem quite as tangible as describing physical works. I like the feeling of action, regardless of how simple that action may be. There is a profound happiness in pouring a cup of tea, or chopping vegetables, weeding the garden, or washing the dishes. The days I really hate at work are the days when there's not much to do, or when all work has come to a halt because the computers are down, or a meeting is canceled, or whatever. Some people like to be idle, but all I can think is that I'd rather be home getting my hands dirty with some project.

If you disagree, try it some time, especially if you like creative work. I can write more poems, more blog postings, and come up with more chapter ideas while washing the floors, or putting away the laundry, then I do sitting down and staring idly at a computer. There is a sensuality about actually holding objects, about interacting with places and things. All things have their own feeling, as do all experiences--there is a certain "awesomeness" in the fact that we do any of it at all. I prefer this kind of life to an "exciting" life, or one obliterated by drugs, alcohol, or anything else. Anything else isn't really living, or experiencing life.

No comments: