The Loneliness of the Long Distance Blogger
I've been wondering for awhile now what it would take to awaken me from a recent respite from blogging. It comes as no surprise that what would do it would be a comment from blogger Jordan Davis, who writes regularly for the interesting online journal The Constant Critic. He writes (of Alice Notley):
“She goes on to make the very arguable claim that self-destruction is a necessary by-product of making art, in fact, that 'if you're a poet and you aren’t somewhat ravaged' then 'there's probably something wrong with your poetry.' To use some negatives (it's contagious): No, no, and no. Or let's hope not.”
When Jordan writes, “No, no, and no. Or let’s hope not…” you realize that, although Notley’s thesis is an easy one to disagree with, it is not such an easy one to disprove. This must be because there is at least an element of truth in this disturbing assertion.
An argument could be made for the preeminence, among poets, of Baudelaire’s conception of the poet’s lifestyle, a conscious or unconscious idealization of bohemianism, even when the artist or poet's actual lifestyle mostly opposes this point of view in everyday practice. This sanctimonious conception of the overarching dedication demanded of the artist's life is barely distinguishable in many instances from a philosophy of self-sacrifice, or even martyrdom. The foremost poet to counter this point of view in life and art, in the twentieth century-in the US, anyway- was, of course, Wallace Stevens, who wrote, in his famous poem *Sunday Morning*:
“Who should give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?…
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch…”
In discussing one of Ted Berrigan’s most quoted sonnets that begins with the line: “It’s 8:54 a.m. in Brooklyn it’s the 28th of July…” in *Career Moves*, Libbie Rifkin writes:
“The tone is bemused, speculative, not rueful: the humor lies in the realization that Brooklyn, an unglamorous land of professionals, low crime rates, and reformed bohemians, is a strangely comfortable place to be.”
I have to admit this sentence stung a bit when I read it; after all, I am a professional, I now live in Brooklyn and could easily be characterized as a “reformed bohemian”, though in my case I was, perhaps, never other than an ambivalent bohemian. Awakening one morning, in the very early 70’s, in my roach-infested apartment on E. 8th Street, I realized that I didn’t any longer fit in as a resident in that neighborhood, though I loved, (-and still love) so much about it, particularly living around the corner from St Mark’s Church. That was the day my long experiment in bohemian living ended. I was 32 years old, broke, miserably alone (except for my dog Whimsey) and reading Rilke- or Berrigan or Notley for that matter- wasn’t uplifting me one bit. But it was the day, a few months later, after I had already returned to living on the Upper West Side, when, lingering more than a few minutes longer in a supermarket than I should have, shopping to prepare dinner for myself and a guest, that my beloved dog Whimsey, who was tied to a gate on a leash outside, was stolen. In a single moment, my conscious, determined attachment to adolescence, and thus the last vestiges of my personal attachment to bohemianism, vanished.
To the extent that being an artist is destructive (the romantic idea that one can be self-destructive without being other-destructive is a self-deception), I am not at all interested in being an artist, and am, in fact, ambivalent about the whole affair. The error comes in not acknowledging the price one pays for things. There are, in fact, innumerable qualities to love and enjoy about life besides art and poetry, and, for me, an over-involvement in the artist's life to the point of obsession and over-professionalism is unattractive. Surely the artist's mysterious access to transcendent pleasures in the process of pefecting works, so contrasted to the crude, the rough and ready modes and manners of materialism and commercialism, need not condemn her to a hellish life of needless physical and emotional suffering, deprivation and isolation.
How narrow and frustrating- how unartistic and unpoetic in fact, to go through life thinking only, or even mainly, of art and poetry. For me, when one thing becomes all of life, there is, in fact, no life, only mechanical repetition, a vast mirror reflecting mostly what the mirror has already reflected countless times before, self feeding on self, art feeding on art: which is little except emptiness. How sad to see the vibrant tree of art languish and grow dull for lack of light and sun and air -the sustenance of experience that is an end in itself.
Jack Kimball, in his inimitable witty and charming way, has responded to this post on his blog by awarding himself the honorary title of bohemian and stands ready to award it to other professionals of his acquaintance. This is fine, and I applaud the gesture. But the bohemianism I was picturing includes the description offered so tellingly by Alice Notley: "if you're a poet and aren't somewhat ravaged" then"there's probably something wrong with your poetry.' Doubtlessly every poet Jack is thinking of feels ravaged. But I don't think Alice is writing only about how poets feel. In the age of Bush and 9-11 every responsive, sensitive person deserves the right to feel ravaged. Very likely, the poets Alice is describing are or were much more desperate life-wise, at all moments, than the people Jack is thinking about. Now, of course, we'll get into it about the word "desperate." When I say desperate, I mean those artists who have put virtually all of their life chips into their creative work life to the point of anguished and unending economic risk.
Saturday, 12/17 afternoon
Jack Kimball and I have knocked this particular tennis ball back and forth a couple of times now. What is it about bloggers like Jack, Jordan- and a few others of my acquaintance-who have the ability to disagree with you, even prove you wrong, yet put a big smile on your face at the same time?
The poet's career- an endlessly faceted topic that continues to fascinate and draw me on- a glittering bauble I twist and turn over and over:- yet after I've put away, leaves me feeling I've witnessed only its surface attributes.
Reply to Odaliqued
Odalisqued [click here] staunchly defends bohemianism, with the reminder that in many cases alternatives to poverty might be unavailable, and that bohemianism can be embraced in addition to poverty, and not only as an alternative to affluence. I was thinking of how much an artist should be expected to continue to work exclusively on art projects at the cost of health and physical well-being. I didn't mean to put forth the idea that an artist who is poor ought to choose affluence instead. What I was opposing was the ideal of bohemianism that puts forth, as Notley puts it, being "ravaged" as a requirement. No doubt there are less harsh forms of bohemianism. But would these meet the Notley test of ravagement? Anne Boyer rings the changes on the word "ravagement." She is quite right to underline the ravagement of spiritual and emotional poverty. But I am quite sure this is not what Alice Notley had in mind. I am fairly sure she is thinking of severe physical and emotional self-sacrifice in the service of art. The fact is that artists and poets who choose not "affluence" as a goal, but two types of work and two careers as an option, are often viewed by those who consciously hold bohemian self-sacrifice as a necessary componant of an artists lifestyle as Sunday artists, dilettants or amateurs.
thanks to Suzanna Sirenic
who sent in the following info:
looks like my "gypsy" and the "bohemian"
currently being bandied about
are well intertwined
bohemian "a gypsy of society," 1848, from Fr. bohemién (1559), from the country name, from M.Fr. Boheme "Bohemia," from L. Boiohaemum (Tacitus), from Boii, the Celtic people who settled in what is now Bohemia (and weredriven from it by the Gmc. Marcomans early 1c.). The modern sense is perhaps from the use of this country name since 15c. in Fr. for "gypsy" (they were believed falsely to have come from there, though their first appearance in W.Europe may have been from there), or from association with Bohemian heretics. It was
popularized by Henri Murger's 1845 story collection "Scenes de la Vie de Boheme," the basis of Puccini's "La Bohème." Used in Eng. 1848 in Thackary's
"Vanity Fair.""The term 'Bohemian' has come to be verycommonly accepted in our day as the
description of a certain kind of literary gipsey, no matter in what language he speaks, or what city he inhabits .... A Bohemian is simply an artist or littérateur who, consciously or unconsciously, secedes from
conventionality in life and in art." ["Westminster Review," 1862]