sitemap - feedback


Blog October 2016: Product

My suffering and my fellow-suffering—what matter about them! Do I then strive after HAPPINESS? I strive after my WORK!

-- Friedrich Nietzsche: Thus Spake Zarathustra (1)
One day I saw a child standing under a tree with hanging branches that formed an umbrella over her. She seemed oblivious to the tree, but absorbed in some dreamy relationship with a strand of her hair that she held before her face and that was inducing her to swing rhythmically from side to side. I knew I wouldn’t forget the scene and told myself that sometime it would get into my writing, although I hadn’t a clue how or why I’d say it. Did it make me happy? I don’t know. Some time later I told my sister, who’s a nun, and she said, “I’d tell myself to remember it.” Her personal absorption of the event as a memory would be the equivalent of my celebration of it in words.

And then would I forget it? I haven’t. Maybe she’d use it as a teaching tool of some sort. I’d hope to let it fly, but in the event I’m not sure I did that. I represented it as unconscious knowledge, so I was making a kind of point.

But this is not a discussion of the difference between my sister and myself. I give this event as an illustration of the essential difference between the spiritual and the artistic quest. While both involve the notion of work, for the religious the Self is the product. For the poet, the product is the Piece of Work—that “small, finished, polished, burnished, beautiful object”, as John Banville once put it.(2) Or is this entirely the case? Perfect the work, not the life, Yeats said, or words to that effect; but Wordsworth, in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, was careful to stress that the person of the poet was crucial to the effectiveness of the poem.

Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man (sic) who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply. For our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings; and, as by contemplating the relation of these general representatives to each other, we discover what is really important to men, so, by the repetition and continuance of this act, our feelings will be connected with important subjects, till at length, if we be originally possessed of much sensibility, such habits of mind will be produced, that, by obeying blindly and mechanically the impulses of those habits, we shall describe objects, and utter sentiments, of such a nature, and in such connexion with each other, that the understanding of the Reader must necessarily be in some degree enlightened, and his affections strengthened and purified. (3)

Work and its perfections are bound up with a standard of value. In this case, the ‘value’ is attained when the Reader’s understanding is enlightened and his affections (sensibilities) are strengthened and purified. These days the notion of value may vary from popular acceptance through academic kudos to acceptance by a discerning publisher. At any rate, the external product is the measure of the inner achievement. It’s notable though, that Wordsworth is not here talking about craft or skill, but about habits of mind.

The haiku path offers this eternal renewal of the spirit, It is constant, effortless work. In 1693, then aged fifty, Bashō declared, ‘I write to discipline myself …’

-- Gabriel Rosenstock: Haiku Enlightenment (4)
How different is this from Thomas Merton’s assertion:

What can we gain from sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?

-- Thomas Merton: The Wisdom of the Desert (5)

The Desert Fathers believed they could rise above anger, lust, pride, all the ‘sins’. Stillness or quies was their aim, but work was required in order to attain it. When achieved, it would show in their persons, the products of experience. Their actual portable products were often baskets and mats made of palm leaves or reeds.

If stillness was the aim, its achievement was vigorous. Thomas Merton refers to the story of the monk John, who boasted that he was “beyond all temptation” and was advised by an elder to pray to God for a few solid battles in order that his life might continue to be worth something.(6) 

Worth or value is crucial. If this is not manifested as money, it is still a whip towards achievement. Almost all poets work at something other than poetry, and many in jobs apparently unrelated to their Work. Was Lorine Niedecker’s spell as a cleaner the equivalent of the manual work of the Desert Fathers, and could the various difficulties in her life have benefitted her work?

…my job, however fun, frustrating, exhausting or exhilarating, is not my life…

-- James Geary: We Are What We Think(7)
How can an activity that occupies eight hours a day be put aside as “not my life”? It must be a segment of my life, however I might wish to articulate it—by avoidance, endurance, resistance, transcendence, transmutation. Maybe these things are part of what it takes to be a poet. And these are personal enhancements.

...all the institutions of the universe are opposed to the realisation of the human pleasure principle; one is inclined to say that the intentions that man should be ‘happy’ has no part in the plan of ‘creation’.

-- Sigmund Freud: Civilisation and its Discontents(8)

Happiness appears to be the goal of all religious and spiritual practice. The mystic is successful when she is serene and above dependent reactions to events. The expectation is usually the opposite when it comes to artistic practice, at least in modern times.

Mental health is probably overrated—a little anxiety
is a great source
for poetic composition & besides I prefer sitting
on chairs with heavy cushions & a footstool
if at all possible.

-- Charles Bernstein: ‘Why I Don’t Meditate’(9)

Nevertheless, almost all poets, Bernstein included, choose a moral or ethical course, though they can never claim to be ‘finished’ as people. You do not approach them for advice and expect them to give you their time without an appointment and a fee. While they may be wise, that’s not the expectation. The poem, however, is a completed unit. However many versions are produced, they are all discernible products, separate from the person, and they are expected to contain ‘valuable’ insight.

What is it like to have only Oneself as the product? Does it mean that poets are mostly craft workers with a mind for the significant? Or from another viewpoint—what’s so great about the so-called spiritual quest? A poet draws attention to the phenomena of life and elevates or tunes up the sensibilities. The spiritualist, ideally, induces calm because of her/his way of being and perhaps dulls the sensibilities in order to remain in the calmness.

Lighted matches and looked at the gears,
The cruel cogwheels, the crank’s absolute
Veto on pleasure.

-- W. H. Auden: ‘The Age of Anxiety’(10)

Poets couldn’t produce unless there was a huge element of pleasure, or their production would be soggy with self-concern. Traditionally, the religious journey finds pleasure a threat. I’m sure Auden was quite aware of the metaphorical implications of his machine and his ‘crank’.
Work is not a punishment, to work is to breathe! And breathing is an extremely regular bodily function: never too heavy, never too light, but continuous.’
-- Le Corbusier(11)

The worst crime is to leave a man’s hands empty.
Men are born makers, with that primal simplicity
in every maker since Adam.

-- Derek Walcott, Omeros(12)

The poet’s tools are the pen or keyboard with the mind and its input accessories, the senses. The mystic empties her hands and perhaps the whole self. In this sense, the poet’s work is not ‘spiritual’. Breathing, inspiration, is not enough.

Human time is a City
where each inhabitant has
a political duty
nobody else can perform,
made cogent by Her Motto:
Listen, Mortals, Lest Ye Die.

-- W. H. Auden: ‘Aubade’(13)

No-one is free from a sense of duty. It’s there whenever we perform something we call work. But duty to what? Adrienne Rich adopted her own brand. She took it upon herself to become the persona in her poems, to live not just ethically, but in ‘love’—an intense form of giving and concern. In her case this was not a duty but a necessity so that she could live openly. The joys of language, instinct and liberty were served by her political poetry, and the habits of form remained. It was therefore the pursuit of pleasure by circuitous routes. Happiness? I suppose so. Integrity is happiness. But it was not this kind:

While everyone in this world strives to get somewhere and become someone, only to leave it all behind after death, you aim for the supreme stage of nothingness. Live this life as light and empty as the number zero. We are no different from a pot. It is not the decorations outside but the emptiness inside that holds us straight. Just like that, it is not what we aspire to achieve but the consciousness of nothingness that keeps us going. 

-- Shams of Tabriz: 40 Rules of Love, Rule 33(14)

This advice is of no use to me. The writer or poet flops irredeemably without the decorations. 

Montaigne combines spiritual achievement with the literary:

But let us hear what advice the younger Pliny gives his friend Caninius Rufus upon the subject of solitude: “I advise thee, in the full and plentiful retirement wherein thou art, to leave to thy hinds the care of thy husbandry, and to addict thyself to the study of letters, to extract from thence something that may be entirely and absolutely thine own.”

By which he means reputation, personal-spiritual integrity and thus happiness; like Cicero, who says that he would employ his solitude and retirement from public affairs to acquire by his writings an immortal life:

                                                          "Usque adeone
          Scire tuum, nihil est, nisi to scire hoc, sciat alter?"

-- Persius: Satires, i. 23

          ["… is all that you know worthless to you unless another knows that you know it?” ]

-- Montaigne ‘Solitude’(15)

At any rate, what you do repeatedly is what shapes you, and who knows how he appears to others, or can truly say she knows how she differs or relates? The ‘value’ of work is to do with notions of survival and status, complex matters. Maybe the pursuit is the thing.

The unspeaking child hums,
studies a strand of her hair.
She’s captured in her strand of hair
and creates around her such knowledge
that for the first time
we see the system as a strand of hair –
light, ethereal, greatly strained,
what we can’t capture – whimsical.

-- Máighréad Medbh: ‘System’ (16)



1. Nietzsche Complete Works, Translated by Thomas Common, Notes by A.M. Ludovici, Introd, by Mrs Forster-Nietzsch, Chapter LXXX. First published 1909.
4. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009, 81.
5. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1960, p. 11.
6. opus ibid. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1960, 16.
7. London: John Murray, 2005, 8.
8. Transl. David McLintock, Introd. Leo Bersani, Penguin, 2002, 14.
9. from Girly Man, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2006.
10. Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson, London: Faber and Faber, 1994, 466.
11. Quoted in Le Corbusier: Architect of a New Age, New Horizons, Thames and Hudson, 1996 (Originally published in French by Gallimard, 1993), 56.
12. Chapter XXVIII, no. II, P. 150, London: Faber and Faber, 1990.
13. Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson, London: Faber and Faber 1994, 881.
15. Montaigne, Michel de: Les Essais / The Essays, Ch. 39: ‘De la Solitude’ / ‘Of Solitude’. The Complete Essays, translated by M. A. Screech, London: Penguin, 1991 / Les Essais, Livre 1, l’édition Millanges de 1580: Online at: projects/montaigne/1580essais1.html
16. from Twelve Beds for the Dreamer, Dublin: Arlen House, 2011, 87.

« back to whats new