17 April 2011

Black, white, gangrene

Sara Hayward, "Two Figures I," 2011.

The following is excerpted from "Poetry Black, Poetry White", an essay by René Daumal. When you are done with this post, please read the whole thing: click here!

René Daumal, Mount Analogue cover
The black poet tastes every pleasure, adorns himself in every ornament, exercises every power - in his imagination. The white poet prefers reality, even paltry reality, to these rich lies. His work is an incessant struggle against pride, imagination and laziness. Accepting his gift, even if he suffers from it and suffers from suffering, he seeks to make it serve ends greater than his selfish desires: the as-yet-unknown cause of this gift.


Every poem is born of a seed, dark at first, which we must make luminous for it to produce fruits of light. ... To make it shine, one must create silence, for this seed is the Thing-to-be-said itself, the central emotion that seeks to express itself through my whole machine. ... Silence to word games, memorized lines, memories fortuitously assembled; silence to ambition, to the desire to shine - for only light shines by itself; silence to self-flattery and self-pity; silence to the rooster who thinks he makes the sun rise! ... It is very difficult, but each little effort receives a little glimmer of light in reward. The Thing-to-be-said then appears in its most intimate form, as an eternal certainty - a pinpoint of light containing the immensity of the desire for Being.


I have said what one must do to become a white poet. As if it were that easy! Even in prose, in ordinary speech and writing (as in all aspects of my daily life), all that I produce is grey, salt-and-pepper, soiled, a mixture of light and darkness. And so I take up the struggle after the fact. I re-read myself. In my sentences, I see words, expressions, interferences that do not serve the Thing-to-be-said: an image that meant to be strange, a pun that thought it was funny, the pedantry of a certain prig who would do better to stay seated at his desk instead of coming to play the fipple flute in my string quartet. And remarkably enough, it is simultaneously a mistake in taste, style, or even syntax. Language itself seems set up in such a way as to detect the intruders for me. Few mistakes are purely technical. Almost all of them are my mistakes. And I cross out, and I correct, with the joy one can have at cutting a gangrenous limb from one's body.

Jean Cocteau:

A true poet does not bother to be poetical. Nor does a nursery gardener scent his roses. What he does is to subject them to treatment which ensures their having the finest colour and the sweetest scent.


The poet doesn't invent. He listens.

(The first quote is from, at least, Professional Secrets. I haven't been able to source the second one precisely, but it's mentioned in an interview Cocteau gave for the Paris Review, published in 1964, and Cocteau does not disagree that he said it. The interview can (and must!) be read in its entirety here. As with everything Cocteau touches, it's full of truth and magic.)

Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, crucifixion, Christ with gangrene
From Matthias Grünewald's "Isenheim Altarpiece", 1506-1515

Holy Sonnet IV.

O, my black soul, now thou art summoned
By sickness, Death's herald and champion ;
Thou'rt like a pilgrim, which abroad hath done
Treason, and durst not turn to whence he's fled ;
Or like a thief, which till death's doom be read,
Wisheth himself deliver'd from prison,
But damn'd and haled to execution,
Wisheth that still he might be imprisoned.
Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lack ;
But who shall give thee that grace to begin ?
O, make thyself with holy mourning black,
And red with blushing, as thou art with sin ;
Or wash thee in Christ's blood, which hath this might,
That being red, it dyes red souls to white.

--John Donne

Matthias Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, crucifixion, detail
Detail from Isenheim Altarpiece. Click for enlarged version. Incidentally, the filename is failureisnotanoption.jpg. That's how I found it; I thought it was funny so I left it that way.