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Dylan Thomas and the hero’s quest

Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 11.01.27 PMIn “The Archetypes of Literature,” Northrop Frye proposes that the central myth of art is the hero’s quest, which can be characterized as man’s superhuman crusade against the disintegrating forces of nature. The poet Dylan Thomas has been described as a champion of nature and the cycles of life: “He has been called a pagan, a mystic, and a humanistic agnostic” (Kershner). Yet, one of Thomas’ most celebrated poems, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” calls on man to defy the power of nature even as it recognizes his ultimate impotence against death. The poem relies on the psychic undercurrent of the hero myth to demonstrate man’s place in nature and his irrational, yet irrefutable, desire to overcome his mortality.

“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” operates in the tension between the recognition of nature’s forces, it’s unstoppable cycles, and the human desire to be free—the hero’s quest.

Frye argues for a centralized theory of literature based on archetypes drawn from “pre-literary categories” or “literary anthropology” (1308). In his survey of archetypes that inform literature on a grand scale, he concludes: “the central myth of art must be the vision of the end of social effort, the innocent world of fulfilled desires, the free human society” (1314). He calls this the hero’s quest, which is the “mingling of the sun and the hero, the realizing of a world in which the inner desire and the outward circumstance coincides” (1313). It is the soul’s quest for perpetual spring and the defeat of winter (Frye 1311).

Thomas wrote “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” about his own dying father, but the poem addresses the broad subject of man’s life in relation to the forces of life and death symbolized by light and darkness, day and night. In each of the central stanzas Thomas describes the smallness of man’s life and dreams: The wise man knows “night is right,” but his words were never bright as lightening; the good man’s “frail deeds” are only waves in a green bay; and the grave man approaching death can suddenly “see with blinding sight” and be gay. Yet, the overriding message of the poem is that “old age should burn and rave at close of day,” and Thomas uses the villanelle form to repeat his call: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Thomas poets.org).

“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” operates in the tension between the recognition of nature’s forces, it’s unstoppable cycles, and the human desire to be free—the hero’s quest. Thomas pays tribute to the first—after all the night is “good”—and calls to the second: “Do not go gentle”—do not surrender to the darkness while there is still light. The poem was written late in Thomas’ career and was clearly motivated by his personal experience with his own father’s death:

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. (Thomas poets.org).

However, the poem’s message reaches deep into the core of literary archetype described by Frye. Ultimately, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” celebrates the spirit and folly of man’s desire to overcome nature, which Frye describes as the pivotal myth of all art: “. . .the vision of innocence which sees the world in terms of total human intelligibility” (1314). Mankind is blessed and cursed by the fierce tears of its own desire, as day gives way to night.

Works Cited

Frye, Northrop. “The Archetypes of Literature.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010. 1301-1315.

Thomas, Dylan. “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Poets.org 1997-2013. The Academy of American Poets. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.

Kershner, R.B., Jr. Dylan Thomas: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1976. Print.

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Feminist impressions

I wrote this poem after being introduced to the art of Hung Liu and Kara Walker in a course called Women and Art. The sketch is also inspired by their work.
Woman

Sketch by Angela Anderson

I am the mangled feet

of grandmothers

the carcasses of baby girls,

casting shadows on a landscape

that smothers.

I am the sting of whispers

on the necks

of sisters,

whips cut horrors

into my way

back.

I am the breaking bones

of cousins

battered with stones,

pieces of my body

hitting blades of sorrow

yesterday, last century,

and tomorrow.

Raped, bent, abandoned,

and shamed,

I am woman.

I am maimed.


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Dancing with uncertainty

In The Courage to Create, Rollo May argues that creativity is dependent on the limitations of human existence: it is the confrontation with borders that inspires people to push against them. “Creativity arises out of the tension between spontaneity and limitations, the latter (like the river banks) forcing the spontaneity into the various forms which are essential to the work of art or poem,” he writes (114). The partners in this tension can be envisioned as imagination and trepidation, energy and lethargy, life and death. May describes them as freedom and restriction—the infinite possibility of the imagination and the unyielding reality of mortality and all the lesser restraints (115). At the meeting of these unlikely consorts emerges the struggle that bears the most beautiful fruits of human activity: art, science, design, and all other occupations that generate new directions in the way we think, express ourselves, and live our lives.

For psychologist Carl Jung this struggle operates on a societal level: the artist is a conduit for the vision of mankind, which rebalances the collective psyche. He describes this as an enormous and difficult task: “There are hardly any exceptions to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of the creative fire” (230). Creativity is the harder choice, but it’s also the more rewarding path for the individual and for society at large. To deny creativity is to go to the eight-grade dance and stand against the wall. To practice “creative courage,” as May calls it, is to navigate an awkward body under the lights and eyes of our peers to the groove of life—to dance with uncertainty. All people experience pain due to their limits; the artist transforms pain into joy. The dancer creates grace through movement; he defies gravity with his own volition; he smiles in the face of his own immortality.

cropped-screen-shot-2014-04-15-at-10-41-59-pm.png

Me dancing in a park in Braunschweig, Germany, in 2007 with my group beebop-n-butoh.

But the dance of creativity is not a dance of chaos. It requires a frame, a practice, the daring of disclosure, and the willingness to express. In other words, creativity demands the contributions of both partners in the dance: discipline and freedom. The four elements above are key to the creative process: the artist must begin with a dedicated space, fill it with a structure that nurtures openness and intention, take the real risk of exposing her deepest and most honest impressions, and offer the resulting creation to the world that gives it a life beyond the inventor.

By frame, I refer to the practical, physical aspects of the creative space. As Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own, “…a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Implied in Woolf’s political statement about creativity as opportunity, is the fact that the creative act requires time (money) and space. More specifically, space represents solitude and silence, which are imperative as a basis for creative inspiration. Mozart writes, “Where I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer…it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly” (34). A writer’s frame may be a room, as Woolf suggests, or a laptop on a table for a dedicated hour. While writing poetry for my creative project this semester, I found the space I needed by opening my computer, setting my intention to write, and tuning into my own body. Even at busy times in a home with children, I found a quiet corner and projected an air of solitude that kept distractions at bay. In Fearless Creating Eric Maisel calls “hushing” the most critical exercise in his book. “Find a quiet place,” he advises. “If there is no quiet place in your environment, that’s your first task, to make a haven in which silence is available” (5).

I propose that this quiet place is both the physical space the artist occupies, as well as her own body, which houses all the psychic, emotional, and spiritual aspects of creativity. As Yeats implies in his poem “Long-Legged Fly,” creativity must originate in the individual: “Like a long-legged fly upon the stream / His mind moves upon silence” (109). The silence from which creativity is born requires a physical frame of space and time that is dedicated to the creative act and has multiple layers, beginning with a quiet mind, a still body and a calm haven—a room, a table, a yoga mat, or an open road. With practice of internal silence, a skilled creator can find solitude wherever she roams.

“Hushing,” as Maisel calls the kind of silent, meditative state that opens a channel of reflection and inspiration, is one of the disciplines or methods of creativity that fill the creative space. Silencing the mind and tuning into the body, allows the artist to sample fuller dimensions of experience that encompass all the senses. In “Three Pieces on the Creative Process,” Yeats reflects on “The Thinking of the Body” and his own response to two paintings in his house: “Neither painting could move us at all, if our thought did not rush out to the edges of our flesh, and it is so with all good art” (106). Art demands a physical presence and a physical response, which requires less emphasis on thinking and more focus on feeling and sensing. For most modern people, this is not a natural state of being, but one that must be sought and practiced.

Silence allows creative inspiration to emerge from the subconscious: the words of poetry come through the physical senses, the deep gut feelings into the quiet mind. As I practiced silence of mind and sensation of body in writing poetry, I thought about the poet A.E. Housman’s description of the process of poetry making as a “bubbling up” of sensation: “…so far as I could make out, the source of the suggestions thus proffered to the brain was an abyss…the pit of the stomach” (91).

But listening is just one half of the practice of creativity. As writer and artist Jean Cocteau suggests in “The Process of Inspiration,” it is all too easy for inspiration to remain in the half-shadows of sense perception: it’s the work of the artist to drag the vague beginnings of creation from the dark into the light. “To write, to conquer ink and paper, accumulate letters and paragraphs, divide them with periods and commas, is a different matter than carrying around the dream of a play or a book,” he writes (80). This is why the artist must fill the creative space with tools and techniques for acting on what he senses. In the case of poetry, the active half of writing requires putting down words; arranging, rearranging and substituting them; reading them aloud, acting them out, drawing them in shapes on paper, or typing them. Conscious effort must add the spirit of “whatever it takes” to give birth to art from the deep amorphous pool of subconscious experience. Passive listening and active articulation make up the two aspects of practice required in the creative process.

The frame and practice elements of creativity relate to the discipline side of the dance – they are the banks of the river, to use May’s metaphor. They are the tools an artist uses to tame and shape the wild rush of imagination and inspiration. But without the spark of spontaneity, the daring of uncovering the less civilized impetus of art, creativity would not produce its many splendid things. Maisel addresses “wildness” as a fundamental element of creating without fear. It’s “many faces,” according to Maisel, are “passion, vitality, rebelliousness, nonconformity, freedom from inhibitions” (12). He literally encourages artists to create while naked the way Georgia O’Keeffe was found painting in the nude. Getting naked in the creative process is a way of tapping into the reality of who you are. It’s about allowing the deepest, most authentic parts of yourself to be revealed in your work. The artist who dares to expose her authentic truths must confront and move through the anxiety of uncertainty. She must ask tough questions: what will I find out about myself; will it be accepted and understood by others? True creativity cannot skirt these questions without denying its products the power they deserve. Poetry often taps into those unsaid thoughts and intimate feelings that are too frightening to express in everyday conversation. It challenges the poet and the world he lives in, by pushing at the borders of the mundane and acceptable. As I worked on my collection of poems, I found that their entire force was aimed at dredging up, exposing, examining and crafting the perceptions that I otherwise carry silently in a secret part of myself. As May writes in The Courage to Create, the essential element of creativity “is the freedom of artists to give all the elements within themselves free play” (76).

Yet, it’s not enough to put the most beautiful and honest revelation in a frame and hang it in a basement. Creativity is not complete until it is shared. As Valéry writes in “The Course in Poetics,” art is the very exchange of voices—“It is the performance of the poem which is the poem” (99). One of the biggest revelations this semester came from sharing my poetry collection and receiving the responses of readers. How could so many different interpretations, impressions and meanings be evoked from one poem? What sprang from a deeply personal experience of a single individual grew exponentially as it was experienced and processed by those who were on the receiving end of this sharing.

Both these last elements—exposing yourself honestly and sharing the inspiration you have crafted with the world—take a lot of courage. They are the elements that require freedom despite our uncertainty.

I return to the significance of May’s statement about limits and creativity to define a few parameters of the human condition related to creativity. People are emotional creatures: they love deeply and feel strongly despite the fact that nothing in life is permanent. Furthermore, humans have limited knowledge and free will but limited powers—they act but cannot know if their choices are right and cannot control the outcome of their actions. As people move through life they gain knowledge and experience, but if they are open, they also become more acutely aware of how little they know or control as they move steadily toward the ultimate limit of life. The question emerges: what will a person do with her finite time on earth?

To live creatively is to embrace these margins, to live passionately knowing the value of time, health, love, and giving. Experience tells us the difference between love and hate, warmth and aloofness, kindness and greed. As people age they get harder or softer; they brace themselves to avoid pain, or they open themselves up to the experience. Grandparents shower their grandchildren with love; they express their love more easily because they know how precious it is. Creativity is expression—it’s action, but it’s also receptivity. Like breath itself, creativity is taking in and giving out. It’s being open to the unknown, to the spontaneous, the unpredictable—embracing the unforeseen. It’s dancing with the limits of life and the fears those limits evoke. But the dance of creativity is more like ballroom than a rave: you have trained all the moves in the studio and know your partner well, but you must let the passion guide you into unknown territory to be great. You have to dance on the edge.

Works Cited

Cocteau, Jean. “The Process of Inspiration.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 79-80.

Jung, Carl Gustav. “Psychology and Literature.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 217-232.

Maisel, Eric. Fearless Creating. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1995. Print.

May, Rollo. The Courage to Create. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994. Print.

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. “A Letter.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 34-35.

Valéry, Paul. “The Course in Poetics: First Lesson.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 92-105.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. The University of Adelaide, 4 March 2014. Web. 1 Aug. 2014. <https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91r/index.html&gt;

Yeats, William Butler. “Three Pieces on the Creative Process.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 106-109.


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Creating meaning from madness: the poetry of Maya Angelou

My_Heroes_-_Maya_Angelou_connected_with_countless_people_through_her_powerful_poetryMaya Angelou was known as a poet of integrity who was not afraid of tough topics and real language that pushes the boundaries of social sensibilities. Out of a difficult childhood she grew strong, using art to become sane and whole. Eventually she served as a role model and mentor to people across the globe. Yet, her poetry demonstrates qualities that A.E. Housman attributes to the “mad” poets in his essay “The Name and Nature of Poetry.” “Meaning is of the intellect, poetry is not,” he writes (85). For Housman, the best poetry speaks to emotion and not to reason because it is produced from the gut and not from the brain (90). With her own anger, joy, and pain, Angelou writes from and speaks to the “pit of the stomach”—for Housman the “seat” of the poetic sensation (90).

However, through her poetry the celebrated author, educator, and activist also gave meaning to her struggles and sent ripples of significance out to generations of people who identify with her courage, her sense of justice, and her compassion. In many ways, the poetry of Maya Angelou makes meaning from madness by creating insight and understanding of the most senseless of human conditions: slavery, hunger, violence, and love. While Housman sees the intellect as a hindrance to pure poetic expression, Angelou demonstrates the power of “mad poetry” as significant social action. The sense of her poetic rants and rhapsodies is to create a bond of understanding on an emotional level—in her own words, to show people that “we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike” (Collected Poems 224).

In his essay, Housman recalls the words of Plato: “He who without the Muses’ madness in his soul comes knocking at the door of poesy and thinks that art will make him anything fit to be called a poet, finds that the poetry which he indites in his sober senses is beaten hollow by the poetry of madmen” (85). For Housman, the “muses’ madness” is characterized by language that “answers to nothing real” and is best demonstrated by the English poets of the eighteenth century who were insane in the “age of sanity and intelligence” (86). Of these poets Blake is the most “poetic,” according to Housman, because his poetry weaves exciting threads of language that resist intellectual clarity (87). Housman finds that “nothing except poetic emotion is perceived and matters” in verses such as these from Blake:

Calling the lapsed soul
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might control
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew. (qtd. in Housman 87)

Similar emotive lines can be found in Angelou’s poetry. “Brief Innocence” describes a “half-mad city” at dawn: “nuzzling / the breast of morning / crooning” (Collected Poems 213). This use of poetic imagery creates nothing more than the sweet sensation of daybreak similar to the way Blake captures the nostalgia of twilight.

In these lines from “Remembering,” Angelou uses nonsensical, haunting language to illustrate human weakness:

Soft grey ghosts crawl up my sleeve
to peer into my eyes
while I within deny their threats
and answer them with lies. (Collected Poems 14)

Here again, it’s not the mind she engages, but rather the physical senses. Being fooled by one’s own recollections is a universal human predilection. These moments of self-betrayal crawl on the skin as do the “soft grey ghosts” of Angelou’s poem. Once asked to define poetry, Housman could only point to the sensations it evokes: the goose bumps, a shudder, sudden tears, tight throat, or a sensation of being struck as if by lightening. He calls these the physical “symptoms” that poetry provokes (90). The imagery of Angelou’s poetry creates this visceral effect. Yet, the biographical context of her poetry makes those words reach deeper into the reader’s conscience. Themes of guilt and innocence in her poems take on broader significance as they relate to her own experiences of racism and abuse made known through her internationally acclaimed biography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Angelou spent her young years with her grandmother in a small, racially charged Arkansas town. After moving to St. Louis to live with her mother, she was sexually assaulted and spent almost five years of her childhood without speaking after the man who abused her was murdered: she was convinced that her words had killed him (Collected Autobiographies 69).

Before she became known as a poet, Angelou’s worked as a dancer and singer in clubs and on Broadway. These experiences—years of listening without speaking, using her body and voice to express herself—no doubt contributed to the physical and emotional sensitivity that makes her poetry “mad,” both in content and in form. Like jazz music, her poems often progress rhythmically and lyrically, only to switch or stop on a sudden beat. In a poem called “Artful Pose” Angelou writes about her own inspiration as a poet:

My pencil halts
and will not go
along that quiet path.
I need to write
of lovers false
and hate
and hateful wrath
quickly. (Collected Poems 90)

This playful and defiant style speaks to the emotional aesthetic pleasure Housman describes. One can imagine the dark led of the pencil etching paper as Angelou scribbles with “wrath.” Housman describes the act of writing poetry as a “bubbling up” of verses after being taken by a “sudden and unaccountable emotion” (90). Similarly, strong emotions seem to be Angelou’s fountain of inspiration: hate and fear, but also hope and determination. Poems like “Chicken-Licken” and “Starvation” move readers with their raw insights into sexual terror and poverty: “When she saw a bed / locks clicked / in her brain,” and “The slack walls of my purse, pulsing / pudenda, await you with / a new bride’s longing” (Collected Poems 97, 200). Other poems turn anger into conviction. One of Angelou’s most popular poems has become an anthem for many people who strive to overcome an onerous past:

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise (Collected Poems 163)

Angelou’s invincible spirit takes up every ill of humankind and turns it into art using the deep, physical poetic sense that Housman promotes as true poetry. “Still I Rise,” contrasts the darkness of hate with the daring of hope: “I am the dream and the hope of the slave / I rise” (Collected Poems 163). In a video interview, Angelou once expressed her desire to connect people through truth: “If I tell the truth about a black American situation, a young Jewish boy with braces on his teeth in the Bronx, or a middle-class white woman in Des Moines, Iowa, will understand exactly what I mean” (“Dr. Angelou Honored”).

Angelou is a twentieth century poet who recognizes the limits of reason and intelligence that Housman says guided the eighteenth century poets to failed poetry. In interviews after the election of Barack Obama, Angelou says of the America that elected the first black president, “We’re growing up!” (“Dr. Angelou Reflects”) America grew up with the poetic voice of Maya Angelou helping it to confront its deep scars of racism and sexism. She turned ugliness into prose and lent hope to regret through her art. By bringing all the passion and the emotion of a “mad poet” to the darker side of history she offers a creative solution for the future. The triumph of her poetic courage as a distinctly American poet is most clearly illustrated in the inaugural poem she wrote in 1993:

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow,
I will give you no hiding place down here. (Collected Poems 270)

For Housman, poetry must spring forth from madness, a non-rational and meaningless lyrical place. This initial compulsory wave of inspiration, even if later crafted with the mind, is the true source and nature of poetry (91). With the force of a mad poet, Angelou gives her readers “no hiding place.” She opens all human wounds and makes them beautiful opportunities for healing. As is evident in her poem “The Lesson,” even death could not dampen her poetic sensibilities:

I keep on dying again.
Veins collapse, opening like the
Small fists of sleeping
Children.
Memory of old tombs,
Rotting flesh and worms do
Not convince me against
The challenge. The years
And cold defeat live deep in
Lines along my face.
They dull my eyes, yet
I keep on dying,
Because I love to live. (Collected Poems 140)

The last two lines of “The Lesson” are symbolic of the unique madness of the poet, who embraces the ultimate paradox of experience—dying because one loves to live. While Housman is correct in observing that sober logic can’t produce a moving poem, poetry such as Angelou’s, which is cast on a backdrop of personal and historical human struggles, failures and triumphs, can give madness meaning on a grander scale.

Works Cited
 Angelou, Maya. The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou. New York: Random House, 1994. Print.
 Angelou, Maya. The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou. New York: Random House, 2004. Print.
 “Dr. Angelou Honored by Oprah and Denzel Washington.” Maya Angelou: Global Renaissance Woman. Dr. Maya Angelou, The Official Website, 2014. Web. 5 June 2014.
 “Dr. Angelou Reflects on President Obama’s Victory.” Maya Angelou: Global Renaissance Woman. Dr. Maya Angelou, The Official Website, 2014. Web. 5 June 2014.
 Housman, A.E. “The Name and Nature of Poetry.” The Creative Process: A Symposium. Ed. Brewster Ghiselin. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. 85-91.