Monday, 30 June 2008

On the nature of obsession

Managing to work today and yesterday. Schedule mapped out for the rest of the day. I shall pay the bills at midday, not before.

Am reading more Paul Celan whom I find stunning, though as always, so sad.
A friend lent me poetry by Aba Kovner (Israeli poet) and Nelly Sachs (German), published together in an English translation by Penguin (1995), in the series Modern European Poets. Read most of it last night (slim).

I want to be impressed by poets and poetry, to have my consciousness raised by them about how to write well. This afternoon we'll be in town, shall return my overdue books to the library and look for Robert Hass's poetry and bio.

Discussing Rilke with G. About the language that I deem excessive, she said: - but he is in ecstasy.

Have been listening to Kate Bush and downloaded the words of her ballad on Pi, for our ballad exercise. The song is lovely, but the words and the meaning do not seem that special to me. Is my perception blunted ?
I was interested to find out what triggered her writing on this topic, but no luck. So many mathematicians have been involved with defining Pi.

"...with an obsessive nature..."
Any deliberate and continuous focus is always deemed 'obsessive' by those outside it - by that measure Cezanne was 'obsessive', so was Rilke, and in fact almost anyone who sets themselves a goal (Kate Bush? The monks in Into great silence?) must 'obsess' about it. (This is not an original thought.)
The DSM-IV or whatever number it is now would call obsessive what 'gets in the way of normal functioning', like repetitive handwashing or compulsive checking. Activities which do not create anything, which can prevent any creativity from occurring. Does that apply to finding out the value of Pi at x decimal points?

Never mind.

Friday, 27 June 2008

The first and the last

Vilanelle duly found wanting by the class: too obvious, too in your face. My words, not theirs. Back to Emily Dickinson, Tell it slant. More work required: I was saying to Lorraine, in a year or two, and she said, oh no, in a week or two, surely.

I'll leave it for a few days.

Very good 1-hour session with James Brown the poet, such good use of the time. Interesting to hear him talk about his difficulties with poems, the importance of first and last lines of poems, first and last poems in books, in sections within the book. Discussion about the use of the word 'synapse' in that poem. He said that he usually writes in colloquial language and has what he calls a 'limited vocabulary', I wonder what he considers 'limited'? (Reminded me of Amichai, who introduced that simplicity into Hebrew poetry). He's a born teacher. He wrote the e-course I've just completed, which was so interesting .

(The stimulation reminded me of hearing James McNeish speak about his latest book, The Sixth Man recently and being enthralled at all the stuff he was talking about, much better than listening to him read something he'd written already. It was fresh, new.)

The best part for me was James B's reading out that lovely piece of prose by Amichai. And an hour or so later finally read out to the class the review I'd written of Amichai's poem. So that is now done and over, on to the next book review. Am no longer sure it should be on David Whyte.

Bill read a review of a book by Robert Hass - humility does not usually feature in American success. I must find out more.

Talking of humility (not): I've heard today from the Holocaust Centre that my little doco film of Dora Suuring (holocaust survivor) is going to be promoted. They are going to make an event of it, as I'd always hoped. I'm happy.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008


Wrote a bad villanelle, spent all day at it, shall have another go tonight, now that I'm back home again (long walk today).

As usual, the problem is the rhyming while keeping the sentences fluid and natural. I mean that is my goal, not what I've achieved. One of the recommended texts (on the villanelle) said, the success is in the attempt. A useful way of looking at it.

Reading: someone lent me a book about the Sarajevo Haggadah, called People of the Book, (Geraldine Brooks, 2008, Viking Penguin): thought I'd allow myself to read it as a reward for finishing one course. It was not a reward. The characters are beautiful and clever, unreal: the curse of the 'special', particularly when there is no reason for them to be special except that the author says so, I mean, it is not through some believable development that they become so except an accident of birth. That does not make for depth.

I have been affected by the text about Cezanne and Rilke's flaming arrow. In my case it was at the most a twinge: how to do the best you can, if you do not give it everything, focus entirely?

I know of a musician who refuses to father children because they would distract him from his work. Hard on the partner. This text makes such total focus a more common attitude than I had thought. I was also reminded of the monks in the film, Into Great Silence, devoting themselves completely to what is important to them. Of course, no children.

Devotion makes me think of mothers. Their devotion is why there are fewer women geniuses than men, their own desires and wishes coming second, or who knows, third, last. I once asked a Rabbi why, in orthodox Judaism, it is necessary that there be ten men rather than ten people, present before a service may start? Why are women not included?

From what I see in our liberal community, which does not differentiate between men and women, the women have the knowledge of devotion, they take over the tasks that run the community as a matter of course, it is just one more thing that needs to be done. Men appear to be less inclined that way. We have a few who are, and those, I realise as I write , are also outstanding fathers. Could it be, I asked the (orthodox) Rabbi, that it is because the men need to be made to do it, or they will not know about devotion? That the devoting needs to be seen as a male activity and obligatory, for them to engage in it?

He agreed that it was so.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

In praise of Imagists

This may be the longest interval between postings so far, except when I was away. The e-course porfolio was posted yesterday, and am reasonably happy with it. It's tidy, an occasion to review/rediscover poems.

Rilke is giving me indigestion, like a rich meal, his elegies too romantic. Tried reading some of his letters. I think that what gets in the way is that nothing is ordinary for him. Here's an example from a letter (p. 9 of Letters on Cezanne, 1985, Fromm International Publishing Company, NY): it starts with :

Never have I
been so touched and almost gripped by the sight of heather...

I want to cut out the Never, (just as I tend to recoil from the word always). His only excuse is that he is writing to his wife (about sprigs of heather she sent him). A few lines later: But how glorious it is, this fragrance. The tone remains at full pitch, blaring.

However: in the introduction (by H.W. Petzet), there is a story about Cezanne (p. xxiii)

"...the ancient enmity between life and the great work (as Rilke put it in his
Requiem) endured by the artist with such exemplary devotion: [...] during the last thirty years of his life, he removed himself from everything that could 'hook him' (the expression is Cezanne's) and when, for all his tradition-bound and believing Catholicism, he stayed away from his mother's funeral in order not to lose a day's work. '

Rilke adds: "That pierced me like an arrow... (and he can't leave it at that) a flaming arrow".
[...] Cezanne's example revealed to Rilke his own existential conflict. He began to realise that his life must utterly belong to his work, and that he must never again be "delighted and awed" - as it says in his 'Testament' - except by his work."

Scary focus.

I should not be so denigrating of Rilke. I still have to find out what he actually wants to say. It is my loss, for the mean time. Maybe I'll find some way of reading him; shall see if I can find a commentary that speaks to me. The introduction by Robert Hass (in the book of poems) made my eyes glaze over.

Maybe it's tiredness, because turning to the second book of Coetzee's essays, (Stranger Shores, Literary essays, 1986-1999, published by Viking in 2001) and reading one on Amos Oz and one on Harry Mulisch, both authors whom I know, it was also an effort. After midnight, maybe not a good time. He also wrote an essay on Borges, we were discussing him in class the other day.

Read more of Yehuda Amichai's 1967 poems. Since writing a review of his work for the course, I read them with ease and a new feeling, of being spoken to directly. Always this requirement to go deeper.

I should probably write a review of Rilke.

Started on Viv's Imagist portfolio: I had never heard of the Imagists before, it is a similar turning away from florid-ness that happened in the other arts and in other languages. Could it be thought of as 'modern'? Bauhaus versus Baroque, for instance. I remember my father: "If a feature has no function, it has no place in the building".

In poetry, if the word does no work, take it out.
Thanks Viv.

A villanelle is due for Thursday. A villainous villanelle. Already, a favourite among those Hine gave us to read is The Art of Losing, by Elizabeth Bishop . The language is simple - here is an excerpt:

The art of losing isn't hard to master
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

The end of the poem is poignant.

Maybe I'll find her in the library.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008


Timer set again, very short time today, I have to prepare for Whitireia tomorrow, not prepared enough, not enough time allowed. Got caught up in preparing final portfolio for e-course. So only 4 min here today.

Read Rilke last night, the first elegy of the Duino Elegies. What I think of as the backbone of a poem - a thought, an insight, a metaphor - he has for every line. I went reading other bits, and came upon one where he says at the end, baldly: "I must change my life".

Read more Maxine Hong King, relief.

Life took over instead of writing: car to be fixed, shopping.

Buzzer went, not enough time. What I wanted to say was: I should have been writing or editing, instead of reading. Not enough writing these days, except for the free writing exercise, and that not every day. Maxine HK writes that she writes every day. Am sure she means writing proper.

Monday, 16 June 2008


The timer is on. Definitely back on track with the structure of the day, getting more done, in all kinds of ways. Picked up my Rilke book, (The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, S. Mitchell, ed. and translator, Vintage International, 1989) straight into a Fragment of an elegy, read it in one go, and plan to re-read it later. It is part of the Duino Elegies, which Lynn D. had recommended.

Otherwise the Fifth Book of Peace (Maxine Hong King) is proving a disappointment, though I am fighting my way through it. The Fire and Paper section were fine, really good, but am now reading the barely disguised tale of her flight to Hawai with her husband and child, find it cliche ridden, if not in terms of the language, in terms of the ideas and the Oh Gosh style.

The bell has rung.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Groening, not Greening

The name of the film director of Into great silence was wrong in my previous post. It is Groening, not Gruening.

Nothing to do with green.

Apologies, Mr. Groening.


Thursday morning, early, with work to complete before I leave for Whitireia. Still dark outside, this feels fine, peaceful.

This week, finished the editing of a filmed interview with a Holocaust survivor from last year, after a fashion. I had hoped the professional help would clear the remaining faults, but some of them slipped through in spite of my efforts. Never mind, it is now shorter and sharper. The editing skills are the same, cut, cut, less is more. A last effort to obtain funding for this edit. People have been generous. But it took me away from reading and writing.

Bought a copy of Maxine Hong King's Fifth Book of Peace at Arty Bee's. I thought, I could do with some of that.

Always I go back to prose. I think of my book, quiet in the cupboard behind me. I think now that I'll be able to cut and delete from it, when I return to it at the end of the year. Turn it into a slim volume.

Someone lent me a book entitled The People of the Book, about the Sarajevo Haggadah (A Haggadah is the text for the ritual around the Passover meal, a Jewish family celebration of the escape from Pharaoh's persecution. Haggadah means story or legend in Hebrew.) A great big tome. I have hidden it from myself for the mean time, until the short course is finished. Last week to go, portfolio to be prepared. Things will be easier when that is done, dead-line the 23rd. Eleven days to go.

I am spending too much time on this.

Monday, 9 June 2008


Monday, and several days have gone by with no writing except for a commentary for Temple. I left the writing too late, and was up half the night with it.

Also people to be visited. Again I'm not on track. Late for the short course; that might be remedied today. My computer is playing up a little, though I've found a way round the difficulties.

I have been reading Paul Celan's Selected Poems (Penguin, 1995, Hamburger translation) at last, as well as leafing through Rilke poems (The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited and translated by S. Mitchell, 1989, Vintage International) and another wonderful book of Coetzee's essays, Stranger Shores, Literary Essays 1986-1999, (2001, Viking). It's a flittering, a fluttering, and no real work, no deepening. Not good. I read only a few pages at a time of Von Sturmer's Suchness, before sleep. Shall have to renew it next week, and maybe pay a fine.

The Amichai review still waits to be changed/finished.

Instead, last night I watched a very long movie, if you take in all the extras: Into Great Silence. About the Carthusian order, in France near Grenoble. No sound-track except the noises the monks make when they move around, pray and work. No conversations between them. No music except their chanting.

Various bells announce different activities. The big bell called them to church with a deep resonating asymmetrical sound, the hum of the strike went on beyond each individual strike of the clapper, as if it was calling from the centre of the universe, booming beautifully and just a bit faster than a regular beat, a sense that one should not waste time, though not hurry unduly either, the time is Now, and Now, and Now, ... We saw the monk standing still, in the church, the rope vertical in his hand, and somewhere distant a lighter bell rang, that was the signal and he would pull and let go, and pull, and this beautiful ringing would start, I've not heard the like of it in the Catholic countries I know.

In the monastery or Chartreuse as they call it, because it is located in an Alpine valley of that name, everything is spartan, the building old (ca. 17th century), well-maintained, though no polish on the wooden floorboards except in the church, electric lights here and there. Each monk lives practically immured in a separate little house and garden, linked by the Gothic galleries through which they walk to the communal areas. The stone is a creamy colour, the same as their robes. The sun shone through and it seemed as if they were made of the same material, all of it suffused with light. Beautiful filming.

Food is brought to them daily, communal meal once a week, a walk outside together on Sundays, four hours where they are allowed to talk to each other, and plenty of praying together in church every day and night. Shots of the church nave from above (God's POV?) - like the inside of a long boat, at the far end the little red flame which they call the eternal flame.

The film has a slow rhythm, shots of the countryside through the seasons, whole days passing in a long slow shot of moving shadows, the monastery within its walls under thick snow, an African postulant, a lengthy close-up of his cheek, eye and eyelid - you know that he is reading because of the way his eye moves, or maybe one heard him turn a page? We are shown the monks one at a time in long head-shots where they look into the camera silently without embarrassement for at least half a minute. The church is dark, and then a whole screen of green leaves, or foliage of swaying trees. The movie was punctuated with these luminous green shots, close-ups of leaves or panoramas of trees swaying. Also quotations from the Bible, white on black.

I watched some of the extra documentaries about the film, and one of them was about the Chartreuse liqueur they make: 130 herbs collected, dried and then a lengthy chemical process in a factory outside the monastery. The monk in charge said that the making of this liqueur is at the centre of everything they do, though it is not obvious in the film, except of course for the green shots. The liqueur is green. There is a Wikipedia website. The director was Philip Gruening. (Gruen means green in German, he is Philip Greening).

The info mentions that it took the monks 16 years to agree to do the film, from the moment he first suggested it and sent them the concept description, which he did not change. They probably both needed to be ready. He lived with them for 6 months. Every monk has work to do, and the film was his work while he was there. He is hardly to be seen in the extras.

It's all showing, not telling. How to work unhurriedly. One has to decide and then do. Shots of monks washing their cutlery slowly, washing their faces, learning liturgy, working in their little gardens - I wondered if that was where their involvement with the making of the liqueur lay.

I could watch it again. I hope some of that slowness is catching.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Concert at Vic

Busy day, at Whitireia's city campus which was a change, neat. James Brown did not come, but we have so much to talk about, it didn't matter, another time. Nice being so close to home, took the train and walked, also because we were going up the hill to a concert at Vic's Music department - assessment of music students - and there is no parking there.

So we read our monthly reports, based on our journals - in my case, this blog.

Not particularly edifying due to the disruptions to routine. My basic conclusion is that I might have read more poetry. Several books by Rilke wait on the floor by my table, Lynn D's recommendation. Also Celan's book has finally arrived from the library, though I know I should go out and buy a couple of copies, one for me and one for the Temple.

Yesterday finished - or so I thought- a review of Yehuda Amichai's Poems of Jerusalem and Love Poems (1992, The Sheep Meadow Press, Bilingual Edition), really got into one of his poems. 1000 words max, and I wrote explanations about what things meant, rather than looking at how he writes his poems. Fortunately realised this before handing it in, and Hinemoana is understanding. I've another week to shorten what is there and to insert more analysis about one poem in particular and his style in general. I can read that poem without too much emotion. Some of the others are in the Appendix.

Since most of Amichai's review has been written, David Whyte's book has resurfaced, from under a pile of unpaid bills: that's how it goes. Too busy to pay the bills, then when I came back today, sat down to deal with them, and there was The House of Belonging, like a reward.

It is really his Salmon poem I would like to write about, but have not been able to find the book in any library.

About the concert: Hinemoana suggested that we might write a poem about the experience. I sat for part of the time writing what I was hearing - it was as if it was flowing out of my hand and on to the paper, I enjoyed that process.

What we were hearing was not your Mozart minuet, oh no. It was noise-production using electronic media and any other source. I was not always sure what was a recording (the sound of the Chinese lutist on Lambton Quay? the radio?) and for some reason I wanted to know that. At one point someone sawed a piece of furniture. Sounds were amplified, repeated, distorted, changed in all kinds of ways, married to other sounds. Someone passed a wire between their teeth, like the proverbial rose, biting on it - it was wired to make a sound, but evidently, not to electrocute. One guy was busy with water, he had a little pool including a rubber duck, and I worried about the combination of all those wired up electrical things everywhere, the water and his bare feet. The sounds weren't all that watery.

I loved the deep sounds that take over the body, so that one hears with every part of oneself, not only the ears. One could even say we were hearing with our hair, our skin, our eyes. Giant sound vibrations like waves. Like in a rock concert, someone said.

Mostly no rhythm that I could sense and very little pattern. And as I write this, I remember the Italian poem projected onto the screen, with all those bright sine waves going up and down, that was a pattern all right.

My favourite moments were when there was something recognisable, a human voice singing, mostly. And then when I re-read what I'd written in my book. Fun.

Ah, and finally: email from a friend who is reading one of Saramago's books, she says she loves it. I hope her enthusiasm sustains her to the end of the book. My existence as a lonely Saramago fan may be over.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Losing it

All week have struggled with the poem for the on-line course, it was Hass's mutilated poem again. Rage is not helpful.

Today managed to post an offering, a lousy poem. I didn't much like other people's either.

Maybe the lyrical poem is not my genre.
Maybe it is ridiculous for someone as unschooled in the art of poem writing as I am to assume after such a short time practicing that I know what 'my genre' is.
Talk of a straight-jacket.

I have to write a review for Thursday and had planned to write about David Whyte. I got his book from the library last week, I've read bits of it here and there and now I cannot find it. I spend an inordinate amount of time looking for objects. I shall have to be patient and it will re-emerge, though I've looked under the bed and under the seats in the car already, besides the other obvious places.

At a pinch I'll review something else, I have an Israeli poet - not Amichai.
Maybe it should be Amichai? Paul Muldoon has a poem dedicated to him in his book. I hadn't known he'd died, it was a bit of a shock, like losing a relative. At the book signing, I said so to Muldoon, and he saw I was moved - he said, Did you know him? And I said, Not personally.

Muldoon's poem is about a hand-grenade versus a pomegranate. Clever, but not deep enough.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Celan and Amichai

Still not back into routine. I have the morning free for work, so am striving to resume it. Starting with this, which is back to front.

I have read no poetry these last few days, but more Coetzee essays from his book Inner Workings (Literary Essays 2000-2005) about other people, including Paul Celan and a commentary on his Todesfuge (Death Fugue) - which we discussed in class. Mentioned him to my sister. Quoted Coetzee to her, 'One of the landmark poems of the twentieth century. ' She had not heard of him, nor had I, I think. It take one's breath away, something so major and we did not know. Mentioned the poem to the person who organised this years' Holocaust Comemoration, and she'd never heard of it either. This year they read out one of Waslawa Szymborska's poems, entitled Could have, entirely appropriate.

Coetzee writes:
"It is one of the most direct of Celan's poems in naming and blaming: naming what went on in the death camps, blaming Germany

I have the book in front of me , and I have just re-read an excerpt from one of Celan's speeches (upon accepting a prize) where he talks about language and its ability to represent what happened.

"...It, the language, remained, not lost, yes in spite of everything. But it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech. It passed through and gave back no words for that which happened; yet it passed through this happening. Passed through and could come to light again, 'enriched' by all this." (SPP, p. 395)

I have reproduced the punctuation carefully.

Re-reading it, the word passing over sprung to mind, which is passach, which relates to the Seder, the Haggadah, Passover. Could I find the original text for this speech? I am wondering which language it was written in and who chose the word passing through (not over) and what original word it was a translation of. Passover being the celebration of the Hebrews' successful flight from Egypt.

Am also wondering about Hebrew translations of Celan's works and what Israeli poets make of this passage and of the Todesfugue. Coetzee mentions Amichai, he translated Celan's poems into Hebrew, and Celan's Hebrew was good enough to make suggestions for improvements.

Improving upon Amichai, there's a thought.

Also God being the Word, in Judaism, what does Celan's 'defence' of language mean?

More reading required.