I know the burden’s heavy
As you wheel it through the night
Some people say it’s empty
But that don’t mean it’s light1
Over the last few days I’ve been watching documentaries on contemporary visual art, many from the PBS series Art:21. Over & over again, across multiple genres, approaches, political commitments & media, the artists talk in a number of different ways about working within limits. The limits artists employ are self-imposed, even when they are drawn from tradition.1
Why would so many different artists voluntarily constrain themselves with what can appear to be arbitrary limitations when, presumably, they could work without limits? Could an artist just pick up the brush-camera-pen-keyboard-saxaphone & start wailing away in genius mode? Seems doubtful, and yet over the course of my writing & teaching life I have run up against the idea that “creative” equals “no rules.” This strikes me as some sort of vulgar utopianism.
My former teacher Donald Justice, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1980, remarked at about that time that he regretted not living in an era when there was a period style to work within & against. That’s one kind of limit.
The Elizabethan theater needed a form of language that could sustain a declamatory mode of acting. The newly emerging poetic line, the iambic pentameter, was suited to this kind of drama, but of course a set verse form is a limitation. But then Shakespeare came along & used this limitation–among many other things–to produce works of genius within those limits. Shakespeare would not have been able to write Lear or The Tempest, to select the two plays I always return to.
Constraints, or limits, are highly productive. Even a hang-loose West Coast conceptual artist like John Baldessari says, in his Art 21 segment:
Not so much structure that it’s inhibiting–I mean there is not wiggle room–but not so loose that it can be anything. I guess it’s like a corral–a corral around your idea that you can move but not too much and it’s that limited movement that promotes creativity. [John Baldessari]
But even within the most rebellious forms of Modernism & post-modernism, artists impose systems–corrals, as Baldessari calls them–such as William Carlos Williams’ half-imaginary phrase-based triadic measure. Even though this prosody has turned out to be largely non-transferable (I know–I have tried it), as a limit it allowed WCW to write “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” “To Daphne and Virginia” & other poems from his late period.
I’m scheduled to teach Introduction to Creative Writing in the fall. It’s a class with which I have had a love / hate relationship over the years, largely because of the issues sketched above. I’m going to design a version of the class with this notion of productive constraints at its heart.
My mother, who loved poetry & the poetic, would have loved reading to me when I was a little boy, but I was bored by verse & wanted her to read books about fire engines & other machinery. When Alice fell down the rabbit hole, I burst into tears, terrified. And though I went on to write poems, I am still wary of stories, preferring accounts. Over the last eight weeks I’ve been spending a lot of time on a fold-out bed with a wide screen TV on the wall opposite. I had not turned it on for many months prior to my illness, but given the flat stretches of time adding up afternoon after afternoon, I began looking for movies to watch. But I don’t really like movies. I wound up scrolling through Amazon’s documentary offerings–full-length films as well as TV series. I filled several afternoons with shows about archeology. Most of the things I could find about Asia, Buddhism, or religion in general were awful. Junk New Age “spirituality” of a very low order. But there are some lovely exceptions, listed below.
When I’m in Vietnam, for example, I take pictures mostly like a tourist, so that I can remember places & people & events; occasionally I photograph more self-consciously, looking for the same sorts of things I look for when taking pictures at home: pattern, quality of light, strangeness, color. For the last couple of years, until it became hard for me to walk around outside, I’ve been obsessively photographing clouds. I don’t generally like vistas or landscapes, though there are exceptions such as the lush absolutely flat rice country of the Mekong Delta. I like abstraction. I like sequences.
I take lots of pictures & erase most of them off the memory card & never think of them again. As a Buddhist, I suppose I should be drawn to the relatively new movement of contemplative photography, which emphasizes spending a lot of time looking before squeezing the shutter. Several photographers I admire have used this method–or at least taught it. Minor White was a pioneer of the contemplative aesthetic & he was the teacher of John Daido Loori, who founded the Mountains & Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism, in which I am a student. Maybe I just don’t trust my technique enough.
As a poet I am committed to technique as a means of elucidating subject matter, but when I pick up the camera, I keep my technique basic. I usually use the aperture priority setting on my camera, which allows me to set the f-stop & control depth of field, letting the camera figure out the correct shutter speed.1 I find it hard to compose in the viewfinder, so I usually crop pictures in my photo-editing software, where I also tend to either punch up the color intensities, or mute them–often all the way to black & white.
With the self-portrait sequence, I decided that taking photographs of my face while I’m ill2 is just too, well, “in your face,” so I settled on taking pictures of things I can hold in my hand. Question: “What has someone’s left hand holding a common object got to do with the self? Where is the self?” Response: The self is a composition of different, ever-changing objects, relations, conditions–or so I was taught in Buddhism 101. The hand & the object hold each other. They need each other.
Whatever the specific object chosen for the self-portraits, it has to be small enough to hold in my hand. The specific objects were not chosen according to a particular plan other than a kind of intuitive attraction, sometimes rooted in childhood memories. That is one source of numinosity–but color plays a part as well, because it seems so fundamental, & cultural allusion. Culture & allusion–a technique from literature–come from widely differing modes of cognition & feeling, but both have operated in the process of selection. And I think this is true of most of my photography–not just the recent self-portraits.