A Witness to Magnitude

Poetry is a witnessing to magnitude. It is the art of making urgent values manifest, and of imposing them on the reader. It is the housing of these values in poems so they will exist with maximum pressure, and for the longest time. It is the craft of doing so in structures that are a delight in themselves. And it is the mystery of fashioning poems in such a way that the form and the content are one.

- Jack Gilbert, The Landscape of American Poetry, 1965

Pessoa's Aesthetics of Artifice

Sometimes, I don't even recognize me, so external to myself have I become, and so entirely artistically have I deployed my consciousness of myself. Who am I behind this unreality? I don't know. I must be someone. And if I do not seek to live, to act or to feel, it is -believe me- so as not to disturb the already laid down lines of my false persona. I want to be exactly what I want to be and am not. If I were to live I would destroy myself. I wanted to be a work of art, at least as regards my soul, since physically that's impossible. That is why I sculpted myself calmly and indifferently and placed myself in a hothouse, far from draughts and direct light - where the exotic flower of my artificiality can bloom in secluded beauty. 

- The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa

Donna Tartt: Freedom to Shut the Door

"Was it Emerson who talked about the great freedom of American life as the freedom not to participate in the life of the culture, the freedom to shut the door, to close the curtains? American heroes are almost always solitary figures in our literature.

Joan Didion writes a beautiful essay about Howard Hughes who was a lonely recluse but also a kind of weird American hero who built the whole city of Las Vegas and Joan Didion said, 'he's the last private man, the dream we no longer admit'."

- Interview with Donna Tartt

Ray Bradbury's Writing Exercise

I tell people, make a list of ten things you hate and tear them down in a short story or poem. Make a list of ten things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are.

- Ray Bradbury, The Paris Review

Hyperconsciousness and Walking Away

Do you know the writer Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi? He’s a Hungarian psychologist who writes about the state of flow. If you’re in a creative state, then essentially things sort of coagulate and you enter a state of hyper­consciousness—you can write for an hour or so, but it only seems like a few minutes because you’re so concentrated on it. I’ve experienced that a lot, which doesn’t mean there’s no frustration, but I don’t really remember the frustration very well. I remember more when the writing comes together. And I’m willing to seek out that coming together. If I get frustrated, I’ll go eat something, I’ll go open another Diet Coke, I’ll go to the barn, I’ll distract myself, and then the parts in my brain that were working click and I get an idea. I read an article about how to learn to play a musical instrument. You practice, practice, practice on Friday, then you walk away. And then when you sit down on Saturday, you’re better. Not only because of all the practice, but also because of the walking away. I’m a firm believer in walking away. 

- from The Paris Review interview with Jane Smiley

The Hand That Obeys the Intellect

The greatest artist does not have any concept which a single piece of marble does not itself contain within its excess, though only a hand that obeys the intellect can discover it.

- Michelangelo

Not once in describing the shape of that mass did I shift my eye from the model. Why? Because I wanted to make sure that nothing evaded my grasp of it. Not a thought about the technical problem of representing it on paper could be allowed to arrest the flow of my feelings about it, from my eye to my hand ... my object is to test to what extent my hands already feel what my eyes see. 

- Rodin

Liminal Space

You told me Leonora Carrington was an expert in liminal space. What's liminal space? I'd asked you. Ha, you'd said. It's kind of in-between. A place we get transported to. Like when you look at a piece of art or listen to a piece of music and realize that for a while you've actually been somewhere else because you did? I'd said. Or liminal like limbo? 

- Artful, Ali Smith

Art: raison d'être

Art shows people their raison d'être. It reveals the meaning of life to them, and it enlightens them on their destiny and so guides them through existence. 

- Rodin, Rodin & Eros

Katherine Mansfield on DH Lawrence

There are certain thins in this book I do not like. But they are not important, or really part of it. They are trivial, encrusted, they cling to it as snails to the underside of a leaf -no more,- and perhaps they leave a little silvery trail, a smear, that one shrinks from as from a kind of silliness. But apart from these things is the leaf, is the tree, firmly planted, deeply thrusting, outspread, growing grandly, alive in every twig. All the time I read this book I felt it was feeding me. 

- Artful. Ali Smith

Graham Greene on War and Peace

When I finished it, I felt, What's the use of ever writing again - since this has been done. The book was like some great tree, always in movement, always renewing itself. (It didn't stop him writing though). 

- Artful, Ali Smith

Thousands of Little Wounds

The thing about trees is that they know what to do. When a leaf loses its color, it;s not because its time is up and it's dying, it's because the tree is taking back into itself the nutrients the leaf's been holding in reserve for it, out thee on the twig, and why leaves change color in autumn is because the tree is preparing for winter, it's filling itself with its own stored health so it can withstand the season. Then, clever tree, it literally pushes the used leaf offset the growth that's coming behind it. But because that growth has to protect itself through winter too, the tree fills the little wound in its branch or twig where the leafs was with a protective corky stuff that seals it against cold and bacteria. Otherwise, every leaf lost would be an open wound on a tree and a single tree would be covered in thousands of little wounds. 

- Artful, Ali Smith

Van Gogh's Vibration of Time

Time goes whorling through landscapes and human lives bent on its agenda, endlessly making an end of things. You have seen this vibration of time in van Gogh, moving inside color energy. It moves in circles (not lines) that expand with a kind of biological inevitability.

- Anne Carson, Plainwater



Never Enough

I will do anything to avoid boredom. It is the task of a lifetime. You can never know enough, never work enough, never use the infinitives and participles oddly enough, never impede the movement harshly enough, never leave the mind quickly enough.

- Anne Carson, Plainwater, Essays and Poetry


Loneliness: Fuel for Imagination


Istanbul conveys the sense that you have always been a very lonely figure. You are certainly alone as a writer in modern Turkey today. You grew up and continue to live in a world from which you are detached.


Although I was raised in a crowded family and taught to cherish the community, I later acquired an impulse to break away. There is a self-destructive side to me, and in bouts of fury and moments of anger I do things that cut me off from the pleasant company of the community. Early in life I realized that the community kills my imagination. I need the pain of loneliness to make my imagination work. And then I’m happy. But being a Turk, after a while I need the consoling tenderness of the community, which I may have destroyed. Istanbul destroyed my relationship with my mother—we don’t see each other anymore. And of course I hardly ever see my brother. My relationship with the Turkish public, because of my recent comments, is also difficult.

-  Orhan Pamuk, The Art of Fiction No. 187, The Paris Review

Sontag's Idea of a Writer

My idea of a writer: someone interested in "everything." I'd always had interests of many kinds, so it was natural for me to conceive of the vocation of a writer in this way. And reasonable to suppose that such fervency would find more scope in a great metropolis than in any variant of provincial life, including the excellent universities I had attended.

- Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Susan Sontag

Liberating Oneself from the Power of Others

Recently I was at a conference, and one of the men at the conference was very powerful, and very preoccupied with power, much like a teenager might be occupied with power, except that he was considerably older.

I experienced this as he was introduced to me and he said, “How ya doing Ram?” I spent time with him and saw that he had decided in his mind that I was irrelevant. Everything I stood for was irrelevant, and I felt my irrelevance in his presence, and I watched that pour through me. I watched myself get caught in it at first, so that I started to crunch up into irrelevance and get slightly deviant. Those are the ways I responded to irrelevancy in his mind about me.

Then I saw my predicament, saved by my meditation bell, and I saw what I was doing. I saw my mind buy his model of myself, and just the noticing of that started to loosen its hold over me. He had brought me into the dimension of power, and found me wanting. He found that I was not powerful enough to be important in his eyes, and I just sat with it, and I felt what it felt like to be irrelevant and somewhat litigious. I just noticed all this, and slowly as I noticed it, and just allowed it. I didn’t push it away, I didn’t make believe that it didn’t exist, I just noticed and allowed it.

Very subtly, just like the way clouds sometimes just break up, it just started to sort of dissolve, and as it dissolved I started to be more quiet and see the way things are, and see the way I had given my power over to him.

I had given him the power to define who I am. I had looked in his eyes literally and said, “Am I enough?” and he said, “No.” I worked with it. It caught me during that day and we were together all weekend, so it wasn’t easy. That first day, he really had me, and I noticed myself edging away from him, and when I’d look at him, I’d get tight. I’d watch him and I found myself with other people showing that “I was somebody.” I mean the poignancy of our predicament is incredibly bittersweet.

Now, I have practices I have developed over the years of taking people who get to me and working with them. I take them into my meditation practice, Metta meditation. I imagined him sitting across from me, and me saying over and over, “May you be free from danger, may you be free from physical suffering, may you be free from mental suffering, may you know ease of well-being.”

By the time I had finished the meditation, I could bring him to mind, and I felt that my heart didn’t close down, but could stay open. There’s a beautiful quote from Kabir, that says, “Do what you do with another human being but never put them out of your heart.” But it’s not always that easy. I saw that my heart had closed down and engaged with my mind. The next day, there he was again, and I felt a flicker in my heart, but I went up to him and said, “Good morning,” looking directly at him. I was right there with it, and there was enough quietness in me so that even though the reactions or the tightening and the bravado were happening, I was right there with it.

I just looked at him and was just with him and suddenly, it was as if the thing you’re so afraid of just dissolves in front of you. It just went away, and I was just there with another being, who had his stuff, but his stuff no longer engaged my mind. I didn’t enjoy him, but I saw he was a good person, trying to do good.

- Ram Dass (thanks to my friend Charlie Johnson for messaging me this)