The via negativa

All things apophatic — the ostensible subject for this blog (ha!).

Up, and being ready then abroad by coach to White Hall, and there with the Duke, where Mr. Coventry did a second time go to vindicate himself against reports and prove by many testimonies that he brought, that he did nothing but what had been done by the Lord Admiral’s secretaries heretofore, though he do not approve of it, nor since he had any rule from the Duke hath he exceeded what he is there directed to take, and the thing I think is very clear that they always did take and that now he do take less than ever they did heretofore.
Thence away, and Sir G. Carteret did call me to him and discourse with me about my letter yesterday, and did seem to take it unkindly that I should doubt of his satisfaction in the bargain of masts, and did promise me that hereafter whatever he do hear to my prejudice he would tell me before he would believe it, and that this was only Sir W. Batten’s report in this business, which he says he did ever approve of, in which I know he lies.
Thence to my Lord’s lodgings thinking to find Mr. Moore, in order to the sending away my letter of reproof to my Lord, but I do not find him, but contrary do find my Lord come to Court, which I am glad to hear and should be more glad to hear that he do follow his business that I may not have occasion to venture upon his good nature by such a provocation as my letter will be to him.
So by coach home, to the Exchange, where I talked about several businesses with several people, and so home to dinner with my wife, and then in the afternoon to my office, and there late, and in the evening Mr. Hollyard came, and he and I about our great work to look upon my wife’s malady, which he did, and it seems her great conflux of humours, heretofore that did use to swell there, did in breaking leave a hollow which has since gone in further and further; till now it is near three inches deep, but as God will have it do not run into the bodyward, but keeps to the outside of the skin, and so he must be forced to cut it open all along, and which my heart I doubt will not serve for me to see done, and yet she will not have any body else to see it done, no, not her own mayds, and so I must do it, poor wretch, for her. To-morrow night he is to do it.
He being gone, I to my office again a little while, and so home to supper and to bed.

where in the clear hereafter
is the Lord’s lodging

I do not find him in nature or malady
flux or break

God will not keep
to the outside of the skin

forced to open a heart
to see anybody else

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 16 November 1663.

Up betimes, and Creed and I by water to Fleet Street, and my brother not being ready, he and I walked to the New Exchange, and there drank our morning draught of whay, the first I have done this year; but I perceive the lawyers come all in as they go to the Hall, and I believe it is very good.
So to my brother’s, and there I found my aunt James, a poor, religious, well-meaning, good soul, talking of nothing but God Almighty, and that with so much innocence that mightily pleased me. Here was a fellow that said grace so long like a prayer; I believe the fellow is a cunning fellow, and yet I by my brother’s desire did give him a crown, he being in great want, and, it seems, a parson among the fanatiques, and a cozen of my poor aunt’s, whose prayers she told me did do me good among the many good souls that did by my father’s desires pray for me when I was cut of the stone, and which God did hear, which I also in complaisance did own; but, God forgive me, my mind was otherwise. I had a couple of lobsters and some wine for her, and so, she going out of town to-day, and being not willing to come home with me to dinner, I parted and home, where we sat at the office all the morning, and after dinner all the afternoon till night, there at my office getting up the time that I have of late lost by not following my business, but I hope now to settle my mind again very well to my business.
So home, and after supper did wash my feet, and so to bed.

no change in the law
they believe is good

a soul with so much innocence
might pray to a stone

God is forgive me other-

wine and night settle my mind
I wash my feet

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 30 May 1663.

Up by four or five o’clock, and to the office, and there drew up the agreement between the King and Sir John Winter about the Forrest of Deane; and having done it, he came himself (I did not know him to be the Queen’s Secretary before, but observed him to be a man of fine parts); and we read it, and both liked it well. That done, I turned to the Forrest of Deane, in Speede’s Mapps, and there he showed me how it lies; and the Lea-bayly, with the great charge of carrying it to Lydny, and many other things worth my knowing; and I do perceive that I am very short in my business by not knowing many times the geographical part of my business.
At my office till Mr. Moore took me out and at my house looked over our papers again, and upon our evening accounts did give full discharges one to the other, and in his and many other accounts I perceive I shall be better able to give a true balance of my estate to myself within a day or two than I have been this twelve months.
Then he and I to Alderman Backwell’s and did the like there, and I gave one receipt for all the money I have received thence upon the receipt of my Lord’s crusados. Then I went to the Exchange, and hear that the merchants have a great fear of a breach with the Spaniard; for they think he will not brook our having Tangier, Dunkirk, and Jamaica; and our merchants begin to draw home their estates as fast as they can. Then to Pope’s Head Ally, and there bought me a pair of tweezers, cost me 14s., the first thing like a bawble I have bought a good while, but I do it with some trouble of mind, though my conscience tells me that I do it with an apprehension of service in my office to have a book to write memorandums in, and a pair of compasses in it; but I confess myself the willinger to do it because I perceive by my accounts that I shall be better by 30l. than I expected to be. But by tomorrow night I intend to see to the bottom of all my accounts. Then home to dinner, where Mr. Moore met me. Then he went away, and I to the office and dispatch much business. So in the evening, my wife and I and Jane over the water to the Halfway-house, a pretty, pleasant walk, but the wind high. So home again and to bed.

We turn to the forest
(and other things

worth knowing
by not knowing)

to look our full
at all we fear,

our estate like a bauble
bought with trouble,

mind a pair of compasses
to walk home.

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday 20 June 1662.

Watch on YouTube

A lovely little animated trailer for a new book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, by Oliver Burkeman. I sort of feel as if I don’t need to read it, because I’ve been saying this sort of thing all my life — ever since my high school launched a Power of Positive Children (POP-C) propaganda campaign, complete with motivational messages on the intercom every morning, when I was in 11th Grade. I think drug and alcohol use and teen pregnancies actually increased as a result — it was such obvious bullshit that you could will your way to success. Especially in a school system as nakedly classist as ours was, where Stanford-Binet IQ test results were arbiters of fate and teachers did all they could to discourage poor kids from thinking they’d ever amount to anything. I realize now that that campaign wasn’t for us, really. It was for the teachers and administrators, so they could reassure themselves that anyone who stumbled or didn’t get ahead had only themselves to blame for having bad attitudes and being negative.

In other news, I’m looking forward to spending another summer in the U.K., surrounded by cynical, sarcastic alcoholics. My people.

Hat-tip: Brain Pickings.

snowy trail

Nothing is more innocent than snow.
It says: I am not of your world.

We wonder: What child is this,
what wool, what milk?

Then we look back & see our footprints
multiplying behind us.

Maybe this is nothing but a white flag.
But whose turn is it to surrender?

New snow falls & fills the footprints in.
We feel we are being measured for immaculate shoes.

(watch on Vimeo)

Be sure to expand this to full screen — it’s beautiful footage. I can say that because I didn’t shoot it myself. It’s from the free stock video site Beachfront B-Roll and is licensed under the Creative Commons (Attribution Unported license). But I did go to the trouble to save and upload a true HD version, for once. It actually didn’t take much more than an hour to upload, so maybe I’ll do that more often from now on and stop subjecting y’all to crappy low-resolution videos.

UPDATE 7/8/12: I’ve completely revised the soundtrack to include a somewhat livelier soundscape than the one included in the original video, as well as a more natural reading. is a marvelous resource.


(note to self)

don’t be so eager to find yourself

the deer rolls her eye in panic
at your approach
birds take flight
the rabbit’s pelt quivers

consider the possibility
that they’re right about you
those whom we trust to predict earthquakes

stop trying to dot your i’s
broken columns
from a Greek temple
where no one now remembers
the name of the god

Thirty Years in the Rain Thirty Years in the Rain: The Selected Poetry of Nikiforos VrettakosNikiforos Vrettakos; Somerset Hall Press 2005WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
Diamond-like and deceptively simple: that’s how Rachel described the dozen or so poems I had time to read to her from this book today. I concur. These poems combine the plain-spoken lyricism of, say, José Martí’s Versos Sencillos, the fierce affirmation of Jorge Guillén’s Cántico and the pellucid quality and light-drenched landscapes of Eugénio de Andrade’s best work.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Who the hell are Eugénio de Andrade and Jorge Guillén?” If so, you’re hardly alone: poetry in translation is an extremely minor concern of American publishers, and few Anglophone poetry fans seem aware of much beyond our own linguistic borders, save for a few luminaries such as Neruda, Rilke and Lorca. That’s a shame, because Greece alone has produced many great poets this past century: C.P. Cavafy, George Seferis, Yannis Ritsos, Angelos Sikelianos, and Odysseas Elytis all deserve a place on any poetry-lover’s shelf. Add to that roster Nikiforos Vrettakos, a member of the “Generation of the 30s” evidently as revered in Greece as any of the others I’ve just listed, but unknown here until Robert Zaller and Lili Bita began to collaborate on the English translations collected in Thirty Years in the Rain. I hadn’t heard of him myself until just last month, when I happened on this blog post:

January 1st marked the centenary of the birth of the Laconian poet, fiction writer, essayist, translator, Athens Academy member, and Nobel Prize Nominee, Nikiforos Vrettakos. Therefore the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and tourism has declared 2012 Nikiforos Vrettakos Year.

Since he didn’t win a Nobel Prize for Literature like his two contemporaries Odysseas Elytis and George Seferis, Nikiforos Vrettakos is less-known abroad. In Greece though, he is a poetry giant, taught in schools, and many of his poems are set into music. People go back to his poetry for “his tenderness and boundless humanism”.

Working my way through Thirty Years in the Rain, I found many things to admire. Vrettakos returns again and again to the rugged massif of his childhood, the storied Taygetos. As a nearly life-long dweller in the considerably less rugged Appalachians, naturally I appreciated this kind of imagery. His most direct treatment comes in “Stone Petals”:

“Taygetos isn’t a mountain.” I didn’t
discover it, but found it beside me
when I was born. It stood by. Later
I dreamt of it as a kind of church—
at the center of the earth.

Its bells chiming, scattering
petals over the nations.

This short poem also demonstrates two other things I liked about the book: Vrettakos seems very comfortable with religion as a repository of mystery and wonder (without necessarily being a believer himself, I gather), and his poetry betrays a certain attraction to the via negativa — which wouldn’t be at all surprising for someone from the Eastern Orthodox homeland. This latter tendency expresses itself in his nuanced appreciation for darkness and silence, which is all the more striking for its contrast with his general heliotropism. Take for instance “Liberation”:

My soul dances today, winged,
looking to alight on a branch
of light, to hear, see, say
whatever can be heard, seen, said.
It’s good to know, and know well,
that the thing you are
was hatched out of darkness.

As for silence, he imagines in one poem, “Beside the Others,” an entire “volume of silence” among his collected works. (Vrettakos was apparently a very prolific author.)

In it is everything I hid
and everything within me that
hadn’t had time for the long journey to the light.
The pages are huge, too heavy
to lift. No one will read it.
God will take it as it is
and put it in his heavenly library.

Nor is silence without its perils:

If silence spoke,
erupted, exploded—it would level
every tree in the standing world.

And in “Inexplicable,” the eyes of an unnamed beloved contain “A silence / filled with what can and can’t / be deciphered.”

Vrettakos was a leftist, like most Greek intellectuals of his generation, but departed from the party line on many issues. I particularly appreciated the poems on peace, which he often seemed to equate with poetry as a natural impulse of all life:

I’m immersed in each brook on whose flow
the word Peace runs like a psalm.
(Because the waters are a thinking sun).
(“Address to a Peace Conference”)

But his apophatic instincts led him to decry the fetishization of peace, too:

All that’s left of peace
is an empty word, a shed garment.
It’s scrawled everywhere, as if
to mock its own countenance:
the divine plenitude, the sap that flows
from flower to flower, the poetry.

Yet still I wouldn’t want
to find it among my own pages,
like a white corpse in a casket.
(“The Empty Word”)

Vrettakos himself describes his work best: he is an overflowing cistern whose waters come “half from / earth’s grief, the rest from its miracle” (“Cistern”). Toward the end of his life, he wrote:

I’ve said my piece,
it’s enough to know that
here and there, now and then,
I’ve added my song to the birds’.
(“All I’ve Said”)

I think I want to be Nikiforos Vrettakos when I grow up.

Watch on Vimeo. The Lannan Foundation has also uploaded a video of the reading that directly preceded the conversation.

I usually share other people’s videos only on Facebook or (for poetry-related stuff) Moving Poems, but the length and via negativistic content of this conversation might make it a better fit here, I thought. I love what Kay Ryan has to say about poetry and knowing, and about knowing and making stuff up. You have to watch the video to really get a feel for how unseriously she takes herself, but I spent some time this morning making a transcript of a few of my favorite parts of this conversation, which occur somewhere near the middle. This helps me understand a little bit better what I do myself in my writing — especially the part about the need for coldness.


Kay Ryan: “I think nonsense is extremely close to poetry. Nonsense — I figured this out when I was fairly young — nonsense operates by rules. You cannot have nonsense outside the context of sense. It, uh — it’s in tension with sense.”

Atsuro Riley: “You like to make a statement in your poetry. You’re quite willing to do it, you like to do it, you seem insistent upon it — ”

Ryan: “A lot of them are bogus, though. They’re bogus. You know. I like the fake — I think you pointed this out! — the sort of, you know, the pedant, the mock polemic. Yeah. And they’re just ridiculous, you know. Like uh, oh, what’s the one about the, uh, extraordinary lengths… Oh yeah, right — I don’t know, uh, ‘Extraordinary lengths are always accompanied by extraordinary distances.’ And, you know, that’s just such a stupid thing to say! I just love to say something like that. I, uh —

“Well, let me explain that. I like to make — well, boy, I’m glad you brought that up. Because I, I think that I’m really interested in something that is so hard to perceive. Like light coming from the furthest star. It’s, it’s, it’s very frail when it gets here. Very frail. But looked at another way, it’s incredibly strong, ’cause it’s gotten all the way here from the furthest star. So it’s something incredible strong, but we’re getting just a little bit of it!

“So what I do, what I try to do with this thing that I can just barely perceive, is to jack up the intensity like crazy. Make a cartoon out of it? You know. Make a diorama, have puppets do it. You know — overdo it. I’ve gotta magnify it because it’s — and I have to sound more sure than I am. Because — because I don’t know. I only a teeny tiny bit know! Maybe. I’m trying to know. So I build up — I build something that I hope has a lot of, uh — well, as my step-daughter would say, flavor-punch. I like flavor-punch. I love Southwestern food! But I like to give a lot of color. And reality. Of course it’s all specious, but, uh, you know — ”

Riley: “But to help you think through the question.”

Ryan: “To help me think, yeah. It’s like setting up — and I think you said, too — ”

Riley: “Magnified conundra.”

Ryan: “Yeah. And little, uh, models. You know? Einstein — and I always like to connect myself with Einstein! — Einstein, you know, worked in the patent office. Before he was — before he thought his really great thoughts. And I think it shaped his mind to a certain degree. That business of seeing in terms of models. And I think that that’s what we do in poems. (I mean, not just me, but — ) We make a model, and it’s really a model for something different. I mean, this is the model, but it’s really trying to talk about that starlight somehow. That little thing we just know with some interior part of our brain, to which we have very little access.”

Riley: “Let’s talk about coldness. What is it in a poem — I’m not sure I exactly understand — and, um, why do you like it?”

Ryan: “Well, I mean I think it’s just constitutional. I think — I think one of the things that we do when we write, or one of the things I’ve done, is try to make a world I could live in. You know? I make in my poems a world that is, uh, congenial to me. ‘I like how she thinks!’ You know? It makes me feel at ease to articulate those things. It, uh — I can make a world that has the rules that I want. And I think that, as most people here [in the audience are], I am sensitive. I feel under… I am too stimulated. There’s too much coming in all the time. There’s too much heat. There’s too much closeness. There’s too much personal. There’s too much giving away of secrets. There’s not enough, ah, distance. There’s not enough chill. And if I can do my small part to add a little coldness and distance to the world, I will not have written in vain.”


Ryan: “I discovered a long time ago — and it seems so counter-intuitive, but I found that I had to start writing about things when I was just on the front edge of knowing about them. I mean, just — I hardly knew about them. If I waited, I would be paralyzed by knowing too much. And I, I couldn’t write. There always has to be a large sense of, ‘Oh, I’m just inventing this.’ But then later you can look back and say, ‘No actually I wasn’t inventing it. I still think that I, that there’s something there that I will stick with.’ But I always have to write it before. And if I’m overwhelmed by knowledge, or feeling, or something, it’s just no — I just can’t write.”

watch on Vimeowatch on YouTube

My first videopoem to use footage from another, equally fun hobby, homebrewing. The poem by D. H. Lawrence is now in the public domain, and I found it rather quickly because my copy of his complete poems is quite throughly annotated with marginalia by its previous owner — my poetry sensei, Jack McManis. Jack had put a big check-mark beside the title and underlined all the best parts, helping me see past its — to my mind — overly didactic framing.

Here’s the text.

Terra Incognita
by D. H. Lawrence

There are vast realms of consciousness still undreamed of
vast ranges of experience, like the humming of unseen harps,
we know nothing of, within us.
Oh when man has escaped from the barbed-wire entanglement
of his own ideas and his own mechanical devices
there is a marvellous rich world of contact and sheer fluid beauty
and fearless face-to-face awareness of now-naked life
and me, and you, and other men and women
and grapes, and ghouls, and ghosts and green moonlight
and ruddy-orange limbs stirring the limbo
of the unknown air, and eyes so soft
softer than the space between the stars,
and all things, and nothing, and being and not-being
alternately palpitant,
when at last we escape the barbed-wire enclosure
of Know Thyself, knowing we can never know,
we can but touch, and wonder, and ponder, and make our effort
and dangle in a last fastidious fine delight
as the fuchsia does, dangling her reckless drop
of purple after so much putting forth
and slow mounting marvel of a little tree.