Emily’s Enigma

Emily’s Enigma

The enigma of Emily Dickinson for me is how she shows that the very act of writing, and then recording that writing in some simple enduring way, if only, as she did, by sewing pages of preserved poems, together into small handmade booklets, is publication enough.

Everything that may happen after that moment – when the writing on the page is given to the world – is not part of the creative process, and is incidental to the purpose of the poet. Of course, recognition in all its forms is longed for – whether that be  prizes or sales or just likes on a blog. But recognition can carry a burden that makes the writing less free.

I am temperamentally reclusive, like Emily, and her example has always strengthened me to write as I will, not as the crowd calls for. So, each time I press these keys and make a thing that endures in the world, despite any fears I may hold, Emily sits at my back and quietly whispers her incantations of possibility.

Here in thanks is Emily Dickinson’s poem 709, which I discovered this morning after borrowing her complete poems from the library.

Publication – is the Auction

Of the Mind of Man –

Poverty – be justifying

For so foul a thing


Possibly – but We – would rather

From Our Garret go

White – Unto the White Creator –

Than invest – Our Snow –


Thought belong to Him who gave it –

Then – to Him Who bear

In Corporeal illustration – Sell

The Royal Air –


In the Parcel – Be the Merchant

Of the Heavenly Grace –

But reduce no Human Spirit

To Disgrace of Price –

Emily Dickinson, c 1863, from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed TH Johnson  (public library)

Image source: Emily Dickinson Museum


Six asides about Vaclav Havel

Six asides about Vaclav Havel

I. Culture forms chaotically from spirit. Havel begins his essay, or talk, “Six asides about Culture” with some speculation that tomorrow he might write his best ever literary work, or then again he might never write another word again. Culture escapes determinants. It has the quality of life, and not the predictable attributes of an economist’s spreadsheet. So Havel writes the future of a culture is open to freedom and the spirit. In Communist Czechoslovakia this message was one of possibility. The “second culture” – that formed against the grain of the official culture of the regime among dissidents, in private life, shared covertly through samizdat – could bloom. It could also die. It could also wither on the vine in a dull compromise with the regime, perhaps as so much contemporary culture in the West had since done. But its future rested in the spirits of those who carried forward their projects, however small. Havel had been asked to speculate on the future development of this culture. In a characteristic feint, he left the future in the hands of all who read him”

“When even a single author… cannot foresee his literary future, how can anyone foresee what the overall development of culture will be?…. The secrets of a culture’s future are a reflection of the very secrets of the human spirit.” (Havel, “Six Asides about Culture”, Living in Truth pp 123-4)

II. The community’s “living organism has an “irrepressible cultural hunger.” To believe in this credo was an act of faith, and a will to survive the repression of the regime in communist Eastern Europe. That regime fought its own people, and made the conditions of participation in culture enormously difficult. For many it compromised and brutalized lives. Roger Scruton speaks of meeting many “stokers” in Czechoslovakia who were punished by the regime by placement in a menaingless job, to stoke a furnace, an engine, rather than to work in their field, whether that was science or philosophy or carpentry. We do not have the same repression today, except the strange repression imposed by marketing and the commercial operations of the production of culture. Where Havel looked out a saw hope and survival for the second culture in samizdats, theatres, young people crossing the country to attend a concert that may not even be allowed to be staged, I see hope for a new second culture, unshackled from endless compromised selling, in blogging, alt-lit and the aesthetics of play.

III. Thought – free thought, not luxurious thought – involves sacrifice. Havel wanted to free the thought of the dissidents both from the obligation to be a martyr in person, since he knew very well the real suffering endured by those who opposed the regime, and from the condescension of the liberal West, who pitied and belittled the second culture with the label of a martyr. And in doing so, Havel saw a truth about the West’s culture that many still not see today:

“as I follow from a distance various individual actions and social upheavals in the ‘free world’, I am not at all sure that they are inevitably characterized by penetrating thought. I fear that far too often the idea comes limping behind the enthusiasm. And might that just not be because for the most part no great price need be paid for that enthusiasm? Are thought and sacrifice really so mutually exclusive? Might not sacrifice, under some circumstances, be simply the consequence of a thought, its proof, or conversely, its moving force” (p 126)

IV. Culture – and within it, of preeminent importance to me, writing – has no mould to conform to, whether that be advocated by five-year plans, the ideologically pure, or the demands of the market. “If there is anything essentially foreign to culture, writes Havel, “it is the uniform” (p 128). Culture and writing need to be what they are, and let aside any judgements of their worthiness, their marketability, their relevance to the times.

A great many people can peck at a typewriter and, fortunately, no one can stop them. But for that reason, even in samizdat, there will always be countless bad books or poems for every important book. If anything there will be more bad ones than in the days of printing because, even in the most liberated times, printing is still a more complicated process than typing. But even if, objectively, there were some possibility of selection, who could claim the right to exercise it? Who among us would dare to say that he can unerringly distinguish something of value – even though it may still be nascent, unfamiliar, as yet only potential – from its counterfeit? Who among us can know what may seem today to be marginal graphomania might not one day appear to our descendants as the most substantial thing written in our time? (p , my emphasis)129

V. Culture does not divide into political allegiances, and there is no more reason to celebrate some art as independent, alternative or progressive, just because it aligns with some form of political idea. What counts for culture is not political preferences, but the pursuit of “autonomous free humanity” (p. 131). Havel’s first culture, which was that of the Communist regime, and both today’s mainstream and subsidised alternative culture (all the fringe festivals as well as the opera companies) belong to “what is permitted, subsidized or at least tolerated, an area that naturally tends to attract more of those who, for reasons of advantage, are willing to compromise their truth.” (p. 132) I choose the heirs of the second culture, “an area constituted through self-help, which is the refuge, voluntary or enforced, of those who refuse all compromise (regardless of how overtly ‘political’ or ‘non-political’ their work is.)” p 132.

VI The creation of culture is an intrinsic good in itself. Whether the culture is created in the first or second culture, in the mainstream media or on an alternative literature blog, in a bestseller or a samizdat, if it is authentic, it is valuable in itself. Belonging to one or other culture, like the ceaseless badges of identity we are confronted with, matters little. “Every meaningful cultural act – wherever it takes place – is unquestionably good in and of itself simply because it offers something to someone.” Havel asks, “Does not the bare fact that a work of art has meant something to someone – even if only for a moment, perhaps to a single person – already somehow change, however, minutely, the overall condition for the better.” This idea of cultural acts as free gifts takes us back to the human spirit. So Havel concludes his six asides on culture, composed at Hrádeček in August 1984:

“Is not precisely some ‘impulse to move’ – again in that deeper existential sense – the primordial intent of everything that really belongs to culture? After all, that is precisely the mark of every good work of culture: it sets our drowsy souls and our lazy hearts ‘moving.’! And can we separate the awakening human soul from what it always, already is – an awakening human community?”

Vale Vaclav Havel. Havel forever.

Image Source: Photo from Wencelas Square, Prague, which says in Czech, Havel Forever. By David Sedlecký – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

All references to Havel “Six Asides about Culture” in Living in Truth (1986)

An awakening

I have over the last two months been going through the program of creative recovery set out in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: a course in discovering and recovering your creative self. It is a program that I have begun before but not persisted with in the way that I am this time. And it is making a difference. Now I am sharing my creativity more openly, and this blog is the result. Now my creativity is appreciated – thank you, dear readers and likers of the internet.

And now I treat myself and my creativity more gently – small steps, beautiful moments, not big paralysing overhauls. It is like the poem I wrote, “simple steps.”, and it is satisfying to know that the life you want is within reach if you take simple, small steps.

I am in week 8 of the program, which focuses on recovering a sense of strength. Cameron urges the recovering artist to do the simple things each day because there is always one action you can take each day to support your creativity. Along the way she quotes a line from the American poet, influenced by Zen buddhism, Theodore Roethke. The line “you learn by going where you have to go.”

I thought I would look up the whole poem from which this line is taken, as a tribute to this awakening sense of strength.

I discovered a beautiful and meditative villanelle, quoted here from the poetry foundation website that does all the right things about acknowledging copyright and all that.

The Waking


I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   

I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.   

I learn by going where I have to go. 
We think by feeling. What is there to know?   

I hear my being dance from ear to ear.   

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. 
Of those so close beside me, which are you?   

God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,   

And learn by going where I have to go. 
Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?   

The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;   

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. 
Great Nature has another thing to do   

To you and me; so take the lively air,   

And, lovely, learn by going where to go. 
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.   

What falls away is always. And is near.   

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   

I learn by going where I have to go.

Poetry: to redeem or to love the world?

Featured on aldaily.com today is an article from The Atlantic with the provocative title of “why (some) people hate poetry.” It is a review piece of a new book by Ben Lerner, called The Hatred of Poetry.

Lerner attempts an explanation for the intense dislike, the disavowal, that some people express for poetry. It seems to be a variant of the ignorant and resentful masses argument – that poetry is life affirming, and some people have to make too many compromises so they look on poets with envy and the contempt that is reserved for your own shadow. So even if they might admit dallying with poetry when young and romantic, they will despise it as a waste of time in their busy and important lives now.

I suspect there is a simpler explanation, or two. One. No one thing is loved by all so why would we be surprised that there is a part of the spectrum that hates poetry? Two. So much modern poetry seems to want to be despised. It might be declaring bland and obvious political opinions on behalf of some identity. It might be dada with words. It might be scholasticism in short lines. It might be Joyce’s war on language. In most cases, it might have forgotten in its pursuit of the purification of language, the other half of Mallarme’s saying: of the tribe.

Lerner’s book, if I may take a mere review as a fair reading, goes on to contrast all poetry before the Romantics – which believed in natural laws and poetry as a craft – with all poetry since then, roughly 1800, which is rather some kind of channelling of the universal powers of creativity. So poems are lesser to Poetry, and craft, respect for tradition, love of the forms and patterns of rhymed verse are drowned beneath a great tidal wave of unbridled creative force. So Emerson (as quoted by Lerner) writes it

“is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.” (my emphasis)

Especially after 1900, Poetry gives birth to Invention, Creative Spirits and the Shock of the New. And the audience for poetry whimpered in the back rows, and headed for the exits.

What intrigued me most about this review, however, was the plans or perhaps dreams would be a better term, that Lerner has for the future of poetry. Craft is not enough. Hobby is beneath contempt (take that, Ted Kooser and the Poetry Home Repair Manual, a favourite guide for myself). Not even Romantic Invention! is enough. Lerner yearns for redemption through poetry, and that most peculiar form of redemption associated with cultural Marxism, and in particular the strange prophet Walter Benjamin. Prophetic writings, of course, can stimulate all kinds of imaginations. After all, this blog is inspired, at least in part, by Benjamin’s well-known by still mysterious thesis on the philosophy of history that describes the angel of history being blown by a storm:

 But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

And am I not looking for some form of redemption too? The word is in the strap line of my blog. But the utopianism of Benjamin and the cultural Marxists has a peculiar blindness to the real suffering of the world – a suffering given a voice in the poetry I love, such as Symborska, Herbert, Milosz. This peculiar world-blindness is both excoriated and understood in Roger Scruton’s wonderful Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: thinkers of the New Left, which has a grace and empathy rare among such leftist thinkers. Clearly, though Lerner has not read Scruton or Leszek Kolakowski or even much history, because he sees poetry rather like an unwritten chapter of Marx’s Das Kapital, with all its follies of the labour theory of value. He writes (as quoted by the review):

“ ‘Poetry’ is a word for a kind of value no particular poem can realize: the value of persons, the value of a human activity beyond the labor/leisure divide, a value before or beyond price.”

Oh deary me, can someone give the man on the left a good book to read, please?

The reviewer is quite savage at the end, and skewers the lofty impoverishment of poetry by Lerner, describing it “as an example of the dead end into which modern poetic theory has been led by its grandiose aspirations.” But grandiose might be a little wrong: misdirected is kinder. After all we do all yearn for redemption in some way – but to confuse redemption with the revolutionary overhaul of human affairs, the total transformation that Lerner and Benjamin and every utopian wishes for, must bring great personal torment. Redemption, to my spirit at least, can more easily be found in the love of the world, amor mundi, in all its strangeness and all its diversity. And this love cannot be without loss and sadness because we are losing parts of the world every day, and one day we will be lost to the world too. Poetry, at least in my practice, is more like this love of the world than redemption, and the reviewer closes this interesting piece by quoting Wordsworth in support of the idea that poetry can be a means of reconciling us to the world as we find it –

“the very world, which is the world

Of all of us,—the place where, in the end,

We find our happiness, or not at all.”


Golden Arch

I was on my Sunday afternoon run a couple of weeks ago. It was a warm spring day in Melbourne, the kind of day that reminds you of the heat of the summer sun, without making you feel its burn.It makes you remember the stark differences in light and shadow that fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground during the football finals, and the long dashes down the sunlit wing into the dark scoring ends. As I made my way down Blacks Walk – an unfortunate name, but so it is – which runs by the Blackburn Creek, I found this golden arch of wattle through which I ran as if was crossing through portal into another season.

Note: For some reason I cannot work out the image file, a photograph I took of this golden arch of wattle, is not loading. Hopefully I will update it when I solve the problem.

Donne’s sermons and the blogging tradition


Image Source: Oil Painting, John Donne (1573-1631), at the age of 49. Anon. British School, 1622. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Twice every Sunday for 16 years from 1615 to 1631 John Donne gave a sermon.

He was unpractised as a public speaker before this time.

Something of a courtier and yet an outsider, who tried but often failed to secure the sinecure he needed to sustain his status.

He only became a priest, when he abandoned hope of other offices, and sought an income.

His religiosity was not in doubt.

But he was a reformed soul, so the biography by John Stubbs labels him.

He was reformed since he converted from Catholicism, if ambivalently.

He was reformed since he gave up the life of a courtly ladies man to marry for love.

He was reformed too since he adopted the religious life late in life, and so anchored his writing in a discipline of communing with his flock.

Before then he was known more as a wit than a poet.

His renown is now for his poetry, especially for “No man is an island.”

Among poets and the religious he is known for his holy sonnets, of which one at least “Death, be not proud” speaks to our immortal fears.

Yet his poetry was passed around as private wit; perhaps only for money did he publish Songs and Sonnets and then with reservations.

It was his sermons for which he was best known.

One sermon that praised the king, the king eagerly sought publication.

These sermons now continue to live in the luminarium, and a vast project of Oxford University Press that seeks to publish again every sermon’s text, restored lovingly from Donne’s own manuscripts. There is even a project that recreates in a digital and virtual world the acoustics and the appearance of Donne giving his lectures at St Paul’s cathedral.

It is his practice, and his discipline that registers most with me.

He spoke with subtlety before romantic confession.

The sermon itself is a genre that I do not know, and which is today perhaps a dead form.

His sermons are offered as bible study, and I barely know a single text from that book.

A sermon begins with a text, and so goes on to draw the lesson that John Donne chose.

His model inspires me to begin essays anew.

Yet can I know in my civil tongue the sounds of his holy words?

They say – the critics – that he was a master of paradox, using it to strip well-known certainties to replace them with deeper faiths.

It was a device he trained in as a young poet, with Renaissance conceit, even though Montaigne knew it as a fencer’s trick.

In the sermons he travelled through his own perplexed spirit, accompanied by learning and wit.

Did his sermons promulgate faith, or did they exhibit doubt?

Today, I can search them by date, occasion, location, audience and source text.

His last sermon was delivered in the beginning of Lent 1631 and was titled Death’s Duel or a consolation to the soule against the dying Life and living death of the body. It was styled his own funeral sermon, delivered a few days before his death, and having been spoken, left the audience the impression that the speaker now had nothing left to do but to die.

His texts themselves escape my comprehension – faith, religion, the Renaissance mind, the biblical texts, the literary references – stand as hurdles for me to know them.

Yet his model urges me on to write my own secular sermons each week.

To secure an office in which the duty is only to speak of the creation of the meaning of the soul in both its eternal search and its daily duties.

No temporary things, but yes polemic and the engagement of all parts of the mind and spirit.

So I commit to secular sermons of the spirit of our times.


Another poem today from the collection I am curating, and have titled The Burning Archive. This one seems strangely prescient of the decision to write openly, if as always with a few masks at hand, and freely on the rich, open plains of the internet It speaks to me of this never-too-late journey of creative recovery that I now will never turn my back on again.


I am a belated one

At 47 at last a room of my own

Now I wear long shirts over

the scars of mother’s tears

The words have always waited for me

Deep within my guts

Now they come, resurgent and bold

Too known to care

For publishers’ judgments.


Jeff Rich 2016