A Poem for 2009

This was scribbled in pencil on the first page of an orange spiral-bound notebook discovered at the bottom of a box. Written, I guess, around Christmas 2009. Thought I’d share in honour of National Poetry Day.

Christ…
The Reason for the
Season is a fantasy.
Dragons, the Four
Horsemen, blood and
Fire behind
Moonbeams. What
Do we celebrate?
A hole torn in the fabric of civilisation. The
Pulse of the planet
Skipping in fear or anticipation.
Twenty centuries of
Stony sleep vexed
To… a storm in heaven?
Nine years: one for
Every alleged feline life.
Signs and wonders, three
Wise men. Three
Blind mice. See how they
Run. Salvation isn’t
Free.
Jesus.

What Are You Writing For?

Posted by Cila Warncke

This is one of my favourite Bill Hicks clips. I love the way his face conveys astonishment, scorn, outrage, and despair all bundled together so seamless-awkwardly it can’t help being hilarious. He doesn’t have to clap hand to forehead; the words make the motion for him. “What are you reading for?” is a patently silly question. Reading for something is hardly reading at all. Note how people instinctively make a distinction between books they’ve read and books they’ve read at another’s behest. “I read that for school,” is understood to be subtly yet substantially different from having simply read.

This, I know. Yet somehow it has, till now, escaped my attention that the same differentiation applies to writing, or any creative endevour. Hicks’ joke isn’t a mere jab at ignorance (unkindness is rarely the beginning of insight) it is about an attitude. The face on his verbal punching bag is that of righteous American productivity. The held-to-be-self-evident truth that to be worth doing something must result in demonstrable rewards. It is, at heart, an attitude that holds Michaelangelo to be important because he was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and not the other way around. Historically, our culture confuses prestige with importance, and money with success.

Art cannot breath this air.

Stumbling along, mistaking productivity for creativity, I’ve failed to write anything worth reading. Not because there’s something wrong with the way I line up words on a page (not-art can still be artful) but because my intentions are bad. If it is to be art, it must be created out of a sense of urgency; it must convey truth, or illuminate beauty; it must be profoundly selfish.

I cringe to think of all the hundreds of hours and thousands of words I’ve frittered on writing for. A deep-rooted habit, it will be hard to break. Writing for has a veneer of industry and respectability and thus serves a superficial social impulse; it makes me feel like the worker worthy of her wages. It also kills cold everything that matters. Break it I must. Now, how?

Barry Hannah – Further thoughts on Ambition

Every once in a while I read a sentence, or a few, that makes my eyes roll back in awe. It’s been happening regularly since I began High Lonesome by the late, great Barry Hannah. His sentences are like Muhammad Ali right-hooks: works of art that knock your breath out. Not only stylistically; they are tooth-jarringly true. Take this from ‘Repulsed:

There’s never really time to develop one’s ambitions. They just throw you out there and you grab on to something handy like an amateur, in terror. Hardly time to hide your cheap scotch and prepare a face. Pa, for instance, had chosen wrongly, rushed to life insurance when he wanted to be a cowboy…

Is a better, sadder, funnier, more powerful indictment of cowardice imaginable? I’ve read Thoreau, Greer, McCarthy, Van Gogh, and Fitzgerald express the same sentiment and Hannah might just trump the lot of them.

Farewell, JD Salinger

I feel obliged to write something, to salute, acknowledge, remark upon the passing of the writer who I cherish above all others: JD Salinger. I was sitting in Les Schwab, waiting on a tyre change, trying not to smell the combination of rubber and free popcorn, when the news flashed up. Reclusive author dead at 91. The tears that sprang up were undoubtedly for me, not for him. Liquid selfishness.

Franny & Zooey


I don’t remember what Salinger I read first. Not ‘Catcher in the Rye’ because my uptight religious school would never have assigned it. Was it ‘Franny & Zooey’? How would I have encountered it? My sister was my literary guide, but I gave her ‘Franny & Zooey’ when I was a teenager, so it didn’t come from her. Maybe my brother had a copy, or perhaps I stumbled on it at the library. What I do recall, very clearly, is the summer I was 15, living with my sister, working at Wendy’s. It was three months of sweating fry grease and repainting my nails every Friday, because we couldn’t wear nail varnish at work. There was a tiny staff room, the size of a cupboard, and ‘Franny & Zooey’ lived there. Every break I read it in furious, fifteen minute chunks. In the course of the summer I probably read it twenty times.

After that, ‘Franny & Zooey’ became my amulet. I carried the same copy, heavily underlined in pencil, through high school, on class trips, to university, on my study abroad sojourn; it joined me in moving from Oregon, to Philadelphia, to London, to Ibiza. Then, in the last six months, it’s gone missing. I have a horrible feeling it might have gotten lost in Mexico. So I borrowed a copy from the library to foist on my brother, who read it, and laughed uproariously. The library hardback lies next to me, but the rhythms of the language are under my skin. What marvellous language it is: “she was, from an undeniably hoyden point of view, a rather refreshing eyesore”; “why do I go? I go because I’m sick to death of waking up furious in the morning, and going to bed furious at night”; “we speak a kind of esoteric family language, a sort of semantic geometry in which the shortest distance between any two points is a fullish circle”; “the furniture — seemingly a small warehouse of it — was in its usual static-dynamic arrangement… [it] would have lent a snug aspect to a banqueting hall in Valhalla” and so on and on. My favourite line, perhaps? “It’s a compound, or multiple, love story, pure and complicated.”

Pure and complicated, like Salinger’s prose; like his life. Various reports leaked from behind the walls of his New Hampshire home suggested he wasn’t entirely pleasant, but who is? No-one is going to come out well as the subject of a memoirist with an axe to grind. I’m only curious if we’ll see his writing, have a chance to revel in more of his literary magic. Apart from that, I hope he preserves the same aloofness in death he sought in life. True artists live in their art.

You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of the work. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working. Never give way to laziness, either.
— “Bhagavad Gita” [from ‘Franny & Zooey’]

Word-Music: Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address

Posted by Cila Warncke

Abraham Lincoln

An ill-remembered half-line lodged in my head today, something about seeing the right as God gave us to see and the rhythm beckoned me to track it down. I tried the Gettysburg Address first. Nope. Though it, too, swells with marvellous verbal music. The nagging phrase comes from the final paragraph of Abe Lincoln’s second inaugural address:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

This is the most famous part of the speech, but it frankly doesn’t match the rhetorical majesty of what preceeds it:

Fellow-Countrymen:
AT this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Vincent Van Gogh on Ambition and Impotence

Posted by Cila Warncke

According to the worthy Ziem, man becomes ambitious as soon as he becomes impotent. It’s pretty much all one to me whether I am impotent or not [but] I’m damned if that’s going to drive me to ambition. — Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh 'Sower'

There are two kinds of ambition. The obvious, socially-approved sort of ambition is the one Van Gogh was at pains to avoid: ambition for money, fame, material success and its attendent fripperies. Not because Van Gogh romanticised the life of the struggling artist as, invariably, only non-struggling artists do. On the contrary, his letters to brother Theo were crammed with references to his constant anxiety about money. He regularly went without food to pay for models, or paint, so his comment about ambition was not a frivolous remark from the lap of luxury. Van Gogh, however, understood the distinction contained in the Gospel admonition that the love of money is the root of all evil. He never wished to and, to his immense credit, though it probably killed him, never succumbed to the temptation to compromise his art for the sake of material comfort.

Unfortunately, Van Gogh’s nuanced understanding of “ambition” is rare these days. Ambition is understood, at least in the Anglo-American social sphere, in terms of money. Anyone not obviously motivated by the desire to make bank is deemed lazy. Real ambition is often directly linked to material “laziness” because, if they’re tough enough, people with great creative talent are indifferent to the siren-call of consumer capitalism. Not everyone is so resiliant, however. Too many fantastically intelligent people are unable to take themselves seriously, and therefore fail to develop their talent, because their gift is meaningless within the social construct they confront. And, distasteful as it is, society’s view matters. Virginia Woolf put it nicely: It is all very well… to say that genius should be above caring what is said of it. Unfortunately, it is precisely the men or women of genius who mind most what is said of them.

This makes the careless linking of “ambition” and “money” dangerous for individual artists and detrimental to culture as a whole. It takes a particular tensile strength for a creative person to mine the seam of his or her talent at the expense of financial security, social acceptance and good company. Why do we demand it? Everyone can agree the world would be a dull place without books, music, art, haute couture, jewellery or any of a thousand other poorly regarded, or poorly rewarded creative endevours.

It isn’t just the arts that lose out, either. What about the born nursery workers, gardeners, cooks, carers and cocktail-shakers who abandon their true gift for a life pushing paper somewhere because beige wage slavery pays better than pursuing their passion? It is a ridiculous state of affairs, justified by an ancient, ugly mix of Social Darwinism, laissez faire capitalism and entrenched class prejudice, that conspires to crush what it supposedly promotes: ambition.

The first step towards a solution is to stop making positive examples of people who are merely ambitious for money. We need a better definition of success than six-figure bonuses and penthouse cribs, otherwise we won’t have any direction for our ambition. This means making an effort to seek out people who change the world without making money from it. Historical figures like Van Gogh are relatively easy to come by. It will take a conscious effort to bring modern examples to light — not because they don’t exist, but because we are so used to ignoring them. We need to find the people who echo Van Gogh’s words: “I can very well do without God… but I cannot do without the power to create.

Anton Chekhov – The Teacher of Literature

Posted by Cila Warncke

Ippolit Ippolititch was taken ill with erysipelas on the head and died. For two days before his death he was unconscious and delirious, but even in his delirium he said nothing that was not perfectly well known to every one.

Only a Chekhov could create a fully-realised character out of one genius detail. In ‘The Teacher of Literature‘ it’s not the shallow protagonist who elicits sympathy, but his roommate, Ippolit Ippolititch, who “was not a talkative person; he either remained silent or talked of things which everybody knew already”

The way Chekhov creates him in a few scattered sentences is nothing short of astonishing. Read it and marvel.