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Originality Lives at the Crossroads

Post #1486 • January 2, 2012, 8:00 AM • 7 Comments

From Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield:

Originality lives at the crossroads, at the point where world and self open to each other in transparence in the night rain. There, the plenitude of being comes and goes. Originality summons originality: a work of art that contains the mind of freedom will call forth freedom in others. But originality also asks presence—the willingness to inhabit ourselves amid the uncertain transports and sufferings that are our fate. To feel, and to question feeling; to know, and to agree to wander utterly lost in the dark, where every journey of the soul starts over.

If we demand change too insistently—in art, or in the self—something grows stubborn and digs in its heels. But within presence and a lightness of being, we can open into the new. It may be that originality is simply what you step out of the way of; it is what must come if the old ways are dropped, discarded like clothes. But originality is also a question, a request we make of ourselves and the world. We ask it in the quality of our attention and concentration, and we ask it without expectation of an answer. Such a request, self-raised, self-contained, ripens itself.



Walter Darby Bannard

January 2, 2012, 11:33 AM

From my handy desktop dictionary:

originality noun

1. the quality or state of being original
2. ability to think or express oneself in an independent and individual manner; creative ability
3. Freshness or novelty, as of an idea, method or performance, inventiveness

Dreamy, feel-good paeans to presumably positive human characteristics usually go on and on, as this one does, and often contain many words that are ill-defined in context, vague phrases and questionable suppositions such as "the willingness to wander utterly lost in the dark." When pressured to yield specific meaning they fall apart and evaporate.

I'm afraid that a lifetime struggle reading and writing and talking about art has made me totally intolerant of this kind of thing. Ms Hirshfield needs to shake out the cobwebs, find some real words and write poetry, if that is what she does.



January 2, 2012, 1:17 PM

I rather think that Ms. Hirshfield harbors fewer cobwebs than a lot of us on this matter. She goes specific after the excerpt by referencing Rilke's Archaic Torso of Apollo:

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

It's a basic truth that generalizations about art often break down in the specific application. But not always. Sometimes the specific application turns out beautifully. So people inclined to speak broadly about art keep making the generalizations. This is a problem identified in Zen Buddhism, of which Hirshfield is a practitioner, as well: that anything you say about it is destined to be ridiculous but for the teacher to say nothing is immoral.

She does indeed write poetry, beautiful poetry. I quoted her "Green-Striped Melons" in my review of Elisabeth Condon.


Walter Darby Bannard

January 2, 2012, 3:52 PM

OK, here is "Green-Striped Melons":

They lie
under stars in a field.
They lie under rain in a field.
Under sun.

Some people are like this as well—
like a painting
hidden beneath another painting.

An unexpected weight the sign of their ripeness.

Very Japanese and Zennish, and also very specific—under stars, lie under rain, like a painting, weight, ripeness, etc.—creating a nice image and an interesting, subtle unexpected comparison very economically. Yes, a lovely poem. As I suggested, she should stick to poetry.

My cousin Jane Bannard Greene was the best translator of Rilke, in my completely unbiased and objective opinion, but I can't find her version of the Apollo poem on the Internet.

Anyway, I hope my own "unexpected weight" is merely a sign of ripeness. And I am sure that my hardass opinions should draw response other than from Franklin. Let's hear it folks!



January 2, 2012, 10:24 PM

I think you are saying similar things in a different way in your Aphorisms for Artists. How different is wandering lost in the dark from swimming underwater while wearing a blindfold? I think her medium resists the kind of specifics you would prefer.

The book may just not be for you. I enjoyed it.


Walter Darby Bannard

January 2, 2012, 11:54 AM

I understand "wandering in the dark" as an image perfectly well. It's just that it is ill-chosen.

She is indulging in a romatic fantasy that we must deliberately subject ourselves to adverse circumstances in order to "find" originality. But adverse circumstances abound; we needn't look for them. Originality (invention, etc.) is precisely that to which we must resort to get out of the darkness we wander in unavoidably, especially when making art (swimming underwater blindfolded).


Rob Willms

January 2, 2012, 6:37 PM

In the case of this quote, as presented, I’m with W.D.B.

One of the obvious difficulties with speaking metaphorically is when to give it a rest. With credentials like Ms. Hirshfield’s got, I’d expect her to be sensitive to overlaid metaphors, if not logical sense: “It may be that originality is simply what you step out of the way of; it is what must come if the old ways are dropped, discarded like clothes.” Meaning, step out of your pants so originality can pass? But I don’t intend to mock. The use of nine (?!) metaphors in two paragraphs simply fails to elucidate, and in fact bogs down what I can only presume must have been an initially interesting (possibly even original) idea about originality. I do like a standalone phrase here and there, though: “…The plenitude of being comes and goes.” So, I’ll keep an eye open for J. Hirshfield poetry to read-taste.

But it’s going to be tough to beat that Rilke bit—astonishingly evocative. (It’s a sure bet that those floral Rymans you gave us a while back would fair poorly under Rilke’s withering eye and scorching pen.)


Chris Rywalt

January 2, 2012, 10:43 PM

Since Darby felt someone else should chime in, here I go: I thought the quoted paragraphs were amorphous and vague—apparently I felt much the same way as Darby. "When pressured to yield specific meaning they fall apart and evaporate."

At the same time I know what it's like to have a poem or piece of prose feel right and make sense even if, when I really look at it, it doesn't hang together. I sent this poem fragment to Franklin and Stephanie because it struck me as feeling a lot like what making art is all about. It's from "Paterson" by William Carlos Williams.

To make a start,
out of particulars
and make them general, rolling
up the sum, by defective means—
Sniffing the trees
just another dog
among a lot of dogs. What
else is there? And to do?
the rest have run out—
after the rabbits.
Only the lame stands—on
three legs. Scratch front and back.
Deceive and eat. Dig
a musty bone

For the beginning is assuredly
the end—since we know nothing, pure
and simple, beyond
our own complexities.

When I really look at it the thing doesn't make sense, but to read it, it feels right to me. So while the piece Franklin quoted didn't work for me, I saw no reason to criticize it.



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