Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘W.B. Yeats

A Hawk From a Handsaw, Part 3

with 9 comments

Hermann Göring with falcon

Over the last few days, I’ve been doing my best Robert Anton Wilson impression, and, like him, I’ve been seeing hawks everywhere. Science fiction is full of them. Skylark of Space, which is arguably the story that kicked off the whole business in the first place, was written by E.E. Smith and his friend Lee Hawkins Garby, who is one of those women who seem to have largely fallen out of the history of the genre. Then there’s Hawk Carse, the main character of a series of stories, written for Astounding by editors Harry Bates and Desmond W. Hall, that have become synonymous with bad space opera. And you’ve got John W. Campbell himself, who was described as having “hawklike” features by the fan historian Sam Moskowitz, and who once said of his own appearance: “I haven’t got eyes like a hawk, but the nose might serve.” (Campbell also compared his looks to those of The Shadow and, notably, Hermann Göring, an enthusiastic falconer who loved hawks.) It’s all a diverting game, but it gets at a meaningful point. When Wilson’s wife objected to his obsession with the 23 enigma, pointing out that he was just noticing that one number and ignoring everything else, Wilson could only reply: “Of course.” But continued to believe in it as an “intuitive signal” that would guide him in useful directions, as well as an illustration of the credo that guided his entire career:

Our models of “reality” are very small and tidy, the universe of experience is huge and untidy, and no model can ever include all the huge untidiness perceived by uncensored consciousness.

We’re living at a time in which the events of the morning can be spun into two contradictory narratives by early afternoon, so it doesn’t seem all that original to observe that you can draw whatever conclusion you like from a sufficiently rich and random corpus of facts. On some level, all too many mental models come down to looking for hawks, noting their appearances, and publishing a paper about the result. And when you’re talking about something like the history of science fiction, which is an exceptionally messy body of data, it’s easy to find the patterns that you want. You could write an overview of the genre that draws a line from A.E. van Vogt to Alfred Bester to Philip K. Dick that would be just as persuasive and consistent as one that ignores them entirely. The same is true of individuals like Campbell and Heinlein, who, like all of us, contained multitudes. It can be hard to reconcile the Campbell who took part in parapsychological experiments at Duke and was editorializing in the thirties about the existence of telepathy in Unknown with the founder of whatever we want to call Campbellian science fiction, just as it can be difficult to make sense of the contradictory aspects of Heinlein’s personality, which is something I haven’t quite managed to do yet. As Borges writes:

Let us greatly simplify, and imagine that a life consists of 13,000 facts. One of the hypothetical biographies would record the series 11, 22, 33…; another, the series 9, 13, 17, 21…; another, the series 3, 12, 21, 30, 39…A history of a man’s dreams is not inconceivable; another, of the organs of his body; another, of the mistakes he made; another, of all the moments when he thought about the Pyramids; another, of his dealings with the night and the dawn.

It’s impossible to keep all those facts in mind at once, so we make up stories about people that allow us to extrapolate the rest, in a kind of lossy compression. The story of Arthur C. Clarke’s encounter with Uri Geller is striking mostly because it doesn’t fit our image of Clarke as the paradigmatic hard science fiction writer, but of course, he was much more than that.

The Falcon Killer

I’ve been focusing on places where science fiction intersects with the mystical because there’s a perfectly valid history to be written about it, and it’s a thread that tends to be overlooked. But perhaps the most instructive paranormal encounter of all happened to none other than Isaac Asimov. In July 1966, Asimov and his family were spending two weeks at a summer house in Concord, Massachusetts. One evening, his daughter ran into the house shouting: “Daddy, Daddy, a flying saucer! Come look!” Here’s how he describes what happened next:

I rushed out of the house to see…It was a cloudless twilight. The sun had set and the sky was a uniform slate gray, still too light for any stars to be visible; and there, hanging in the sky, like an oversize moon, was a perfect featureless metallic circle of something like aluminum.

I was thunderstruck, and dashed back into the house for my glasses, moaning, “Oh no, this can’t happen to me. This can’t happen to me.” I couldn’t bear the thought that I would have to report something that really looked as though it might conceivably be an extraterrestrial starship.

When Asimov went back outside, the object was still there. It slowly began to turn, becoming gradually more elliptical, until the black markings on its side came into view—and it turned out to be the Goodyear blimp. Asimov writes: “I was incredibly relieved!” Years later, his daughter told the New York Times: “He nearly had a heart attack. He thought he saw his career going down the drain.”

It’s a funny story in itself, but let’s compare it to what Geller writes about Clarke: “Clarke was not there just to scoff. He had wanted things to happen. He just wanted to be completely convinced that everything was legitimate.” The italics are mine. Asimov, alone of all the writers I’ve mentioned, never had any interest in the paranormal, and he remained a consistent skeptic throughout his life. As a result, unlike the others, he was very rarely wrong. But I have a hunch that it’s also part of the reason why he sometimes seems like the most limited of all major science fiction writers—undeniably great within a narrow range—while simultaneously the most important to the culture as a whole. Asimov became the most famous writer the genre has ever seen because you could basically trust him: it was his nonfiction, not his fiction, that endeared him to the public, and his status as a explainer depended on maintaining an appearance of unruffled rationality. It allowed him to assume a very different role than Campbell, who manifestly couldn’t be trusted on numerous issues, or even Heinlein, who convinced a lot of people to believe him while alienating countless others. But just as W.B. Yeats drew on his occult beliefs as a sort of battery to drive his poetry, Campbell and Heinlein were able to go places where Asimov politely declined to follow, simply because he had so much invested in not being wrong. Asimov was always able to tell the difference between a hawk and a handsaw, no matter which way the wind was blowing, and in some ways, he’s the best model for most of us to emulate. But it’s hard to write science fiction, or to live in it, without seeing patterns that may or may not be there.

A mass of shadows

leave a comment »

W.B. Yeats

For a long time now, I’ve maintained a collection of typographical errors that found their way into finished poems. My favorite example has always been W.H. Auden’s “Journey to Iceland,” in which a printer’s error transformed the line “The poets have names for the sea” into “The ports have names for the sea.” As Auden later wrote to his friend Christopher Isherwood: “However, as so often before, the mistake seems better than the original idea, so I’ll leave it.” I’ve written about this incident at length elsewhere, because it’s such a memorable illustration of how an artist incorporates chance into the creative process. Recently, though, I realized that my account of the story is incomplete. There are actually three different versions of the line that were published in Auden’s lifetime: “And the ports have names for the sea,” “Every port has its name for the sea,” “And each port has a name for the sea.” What this means, crucially, is that Auden saw the misprint and liked the effect, but he didn’t stop there—he used it as an excuse to keep revising until he had a version that satisfied him, or at least that he didn’t feel like rewriting further. An accident can be a source of inspiration, but the true artist takes it as a starting point, rather than as an end in itself.

I got to thinking about this more deeply thanks to another misprint, which occurred in W.B. Yeats’s famous “Among School Children.” In describing the face of the woman he loves, which he sees as if superimposed on the young girl before him, he writes:

Her present image floats into the mind—
Did quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?

In the original draft, Yeats wrote “a mass of shadows,” which evidently became “a mess of shadows” in the galley proofs. (It’s also worth noting that “a mass of shadows” persists in a few editions.) Yeats must have seen instinctively that mess was more interesting than mass: by evoking the image of the mess of pottage for which Esau sold his birthright, it ushers in a new train of associations that enrich the poem as a whole. The trivial exchange of one vowel for another is like the flap of the butterfly’s wing that leads to a metaphorical hurricane.

"Journey to Iceland" by W.H. Auden

In an essay in The Practice of Poetry, the poet Robin Behm uses this line to shed light on the act of revision, which she describes as a kind of assignment that the poet gives to himself to uncover the underlying idea. Behm writes:

Sometimes it feels you must be two writers: the one who originates the text and the one who discovers it into its achieved version…When Yeats, in “Among School Children,” exchanges the word mass for mess in his famous image of Maud Gonne’s aging face…the total imagination of the poem is affected, not just the local moment. Mess is the palimpsest word written over the erasure of mass; mass was Yeats’s way of getting to rewrite: it was his assignment.

Which gets at something important, I think, about why randomness—even in so humble a form as a typo—can be so rewarding. In theory, the poet in charge of every word on the page, but complete freedom has a way of freezing into helplessness: when you’re overwhelmed by possibilities, you become paralyzed. In many cases, the best way to force yourself into action is to give yourself an arbitrary assignment, as if you were conducting a private seminar for a class of one.

And a mistake goes one step further. A typographical error is like an assignment that you’ve received from the poem itself, or, if you want to get grandiose about it, from the universe. It’s often in the places where the poet surrenders control—only to reclaim it, as Auden does when he takes the accident as the catalyst for a rewrite—that the poem assumes its true, unimaginable shape. One of the themes of “Among School Children” is how little a mother or a teacher can foresee of what their children will become. That’s true of poetry, too. Writing is a form of parenthood that constantly confronts us with our limitations, but it’s only when the work resists and surprises us that it can emerge from its mass of shadows into its final version. Poems are just another form of what Yeats calls the “self-born mockers of man’s enterprise.” And as he unforgettably concludes:

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Written by nevalalee

November 17, 2016 at 9:28 am

Quote of the Day

with one comment

W.B. Yeats

If we cannot imagine ourselves as different from what we are, and try to assume that second self, we cannot impose a discipline upon ourselves, though we may accept one from others. Active virtue, as distinguished from the passive acceptance of a code, is therefore theatrical, consciously dramatic, the wearing of a mask.

W.B. Yeats, “Per Amica Silentia Lunae”

Written by nevalalee

May 2, 2016 at 7:30 am

The one question, revisited

leave a comment »

Byzantine necklace

Yesterday, I quoted the architect Christopher Alexander on the one overriding question you can always ask when presented with two alternatives: “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” It’s a test that can be used to make choices in life, art, and architecture, and in many ways, it’s the best and only question worth asking. At first glance, however, it seems to fly in the face of what I’ve said numerous times on this blog about the importance of objectivity and detachment. I’ve argued to the point of redundancy that art of all kinds has something of the quality that T.S. Eliot identified in poetry: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” David Mamet goes further: “A good writer gets better only by learning to cut, to remove the ornamental, the descriptive, the narrative, and especially the deeply felt and meaningful.” I suspect that Mamet—who often uses architectural metaphors when he writes about craft—would initially be a little suspicious of Alexander’s test, and that he’d say that the real question isn’t “Which of the two is a better picture of my self?” but “Which of the two gets the job done?”

But if you were to ask me whether I believe Alexander or Mamet, my only answer would be: I believe in both. When Alexander asks us to look for a true picture of the self, he’s not speaking in autobiographical terms, or even about personality. (Hence the more depersonalized version of the same question: “Which one of these two things would I prefer to become by the day of my death?”) It’s more an issue of the deeper response an object evokes of naturalness, rightness, or life—which are all qualities that can be found in objects in which the self of the maker seems all but absent. You can think of it as the difference, say, between a personalized necklace from SkyMall and the Byzantine necklace pictured above: one of them seems to have more of me in it, but when I ask myself which one I’d prefer to become when I die, the answer is obvious. On a much higher level, it’s the difference between Shakespeare’s sonnets and something like Prospero’s speech to Ferdinand, which, as George Saintsbury points out, is placed in The Tempest almost arbitrarily. At first, the sonnets seem to have more of Shakespeare the man, but I don’t think there’s any question about which is the truer portrait.

SkyMall necklace

Poets, like Eliot, have always been at the leading edge of objectivity, and from Homer onward, the greatest poetry has been that in which the authorial “I” never appears but is somehow everywhere. In Zen in English Classics and Oriental Literature—which, like Alexander’s A Pattern Language, is one of the two or three essential books in my life—R.H. Blyth provides a useful list of examples of objective and subjective poetry, the latter of which he calls “a chamber of horrors.” On the objective side, we have:

A certain monk asked Hyakujo, “What is Truth?”
Hyakujo said, “Here I sit on Daiyu Peak!”

And on the subjective side, a passage from Yeats:

I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Comparisons, as John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, are odious but instructive, and it’s hard not to read these two passages and conclude that the first not only has more of Hyakujo in it, but more of Yeats.

In fact, you could even say that the essence of art lies in finding objective, impersonal images that also serve as a picture of the self. If that sounds paradoxical, that’s because it is, and it goes a considerable way toward explaining why real art is so elusive. It’s a simple matter to write subjectively, acting as if your own thoughts and feelings were the only important thing in the world; it’s less simple, but still straightforward, to construct objective, technically considered works in which the self never appears; and it’s hardest of all to write, as Wordsworth did: “A violet by a mossy stone.” And the test has wider applications than in poetry. In software design, we’re hardly asking programmers to write code to serve as a self-portrait in letters: we’re happy enough if it runs smoothly and does the job it was meant to do. Yet I feel that if you were to show a good programmer two blocks of code and ask him to pick which one seemed like a better picture of himself, we’d get a meaningful answer. It wouldn’t have anything to do with personal expression, but with such apparent intangibles as concision, elegance, ingenuity, and clarity. It’s really a way of asking us to think intuitively about what matters, when the external trappings have been stripped away. And the answers can, and should, surprise us.

Agnosticism and the working writer

with 2 comments

Note: To celebrate the third anniversary of this blog, I’ll be spending the week reposting some of my favorite pieces from early in its run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on June 6, 2011.

Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity. This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant.

Jorge Luis Borges, to the New York Times

Of all religious or philosophical convictions, agnosticism, at first glance, is the least interesting to defend. Like political moderates, agnostics get it from both sides, most of all from committed atheists, who tend to regard permanent agnosticism, in the words of Richard Dawkins, as “fence-sitting, intellectual cowardice.” And yet many of my heroes, from Montaigne to Robert Anton Wilson, have identified themselves with agnosticism as a way of life. (Wilson, in particular, called himself an agnostic mystic, which is what you get when an atheist takes a lot of psychedelic drugs.) And while a defense of the philosophical aspects of agnosticism is beyond the scope of this blog—for that, I can direct you to Thomas Huxley, or even to a recent posting by NPR’s Adam Frank, whose position is not far removed from my own—I think I can talk, very tentatively, about its pragmatic benefits, at least from a writer’s point of view.

I started thinking about this again after reading a blog post by Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin, who relates that she was recently talking about the mystical inclinations of W.B. Yeats when a self-proclaimed atheist piped up: “I always get sad for Yeats for his occult beliefs.” As Crispin discusses at length, such a statement is massively condescending, and also weirdly uninsightful. Say what you will about Yeats’s interest in occultism, but there’s no doubt that he found it spectacularly useful. It provided him with symbolic material and a means of engaging the unseen world that most poets are eventually called to explore. The result was a body of work of permanent importance, and one that wouldn’t exist, at least not in its present form, if his life had assumed a different shape. Was it irrational? Sure. But Wallace Stevens aside, strictly rational behavior rarely produces good poets.

I’ve probably said this before, but I’ll say it again: the life of any writer—and certainly that of a poet—is so difficult, so impractical on a cosmic scale, that there’s often a perverse kind of pragmatism in the details. A writer’s existence may look messy from the outside, but that mess is usually the result of an attempt to pick out what is useful from life and reject the rest, governed by one urgent question: Can I use this? If a writer didn’t take his tools wherever he found them, he wouldn’t survive, at least not as an artist. Which is why any kind of ideology, religious or otherwise, can be hard for a writer to maintain. Writers, especially novelists, tend to be dabblers, not so much out of dilettantism—although that can be a factor as well—as from an endless, obsessive gleaning, a rummaging in the world’s attic for useful material, in both art and life. And this process of feathering one’s nest tends to inform a writer’s work as well. What Christopher Hitchens says of Ian McEwan is true of many novelists:

I think that he did, at one stage in his life, dabble a bit in what’s loosely called “New Age,” but in the end it was the rigorous side that won out, and his novels are almost always patrolling some difficult frontier between the speculative and the unseen and the ways in which material reality reimposes itself.

Agnosticism is also useful for another reason, as Borges points out above: tolerance. A novelist needs to write with empathy about people very different from himself, and to vicariously live all kinds of lives, which is harder to do through the lens of an intractable philosophy. We read Dante and Tolstoy despite, not because of, their ideological convictions, and much of the fire of great art comes from the tension between those convictions and the artist’s reluctant understanding of the world. For a writer, dogma is, or should be, the enemy—including dogma about agnosticism itself. In the abstract, it can seem clinical, but in practice, it’s untidy and makeshift, like the rest of a writer’s life. It’s useful only when it exposes itself to a lot of influences and generates a lot of ideas, most unworkable, but some worthy of being pursued. Like democracy, it’s a compromise solution, the best of a bad lot. It doesn’t work all that well, but for a writer, at least for me, it comes closer to working than anything else.

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

When I think of all the books I have read, and of the wise words I have heard spoken, and of the anxiety I have given to parents and grandparents, and of the hopes that I have had, all life weighed in the scales of my own life seems to me a preparation for something that never happens.

The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats

Written by nevalalee

February 13, 2012 at 7:50 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

Tagged with

“And the ports have names for the sea”

leave a comment »

W.H. Auden describes somewhere how he had written a line, in a poem about Iceland,

and the poets have names for the sea

and the printer set it up in galley as

and the ports have names for the sea.

Auden left it, liking the line better, again I think for its emotional change. Yeats said that young poets nowadays didn’t trust enough to luck. He may have had such happy accidents in mind.

Patric Dickinson, “Shakespeare Considered as a Poet”

Written by nevalalee

July 17, 2011 at 9:29 am

%d bloggers like this: