You Can, You Must Proceed
For Those Whom the Gods Love Less
by Denise Levertov
When you discover
your new work travels the ground you had traversed
decades ago, you wonder, panicked,
'Have I outlived my vocation? Said already
all that was mine to say?'
There's a remedy -
only one - for the paralysis seizing your throat to mute you,
numbing your hands: Remember the great ones, remember Cezanne
doggedly sur le motif, his mountain
a tireless noonday angel he grappled like Jacob,
demanding reluctant blessing. Remember James rehearsing
over and over his theme, the loss
of innocence and the attainment
(note by separate note sounding its tone
until by accretion a chord resounds) of somber
understanding. Each life in art
goes forth to meet dragons that rise from their bloody scales
in cyclic rhythm: Know and forget, know and forget.
It's not only
the passion for getting it right (thought it's that, too)
it's the way
radiant epiphanies recur, recur,
consuming, pristine, unrecognized-
until remembrance dismays you. And then, look,
some inflection of light, some wing of shadow
is other, unvoiced. You can, you must
There is a point one reaches in one's creative endeavors that is just as Denise Levertov has described in her poem and which can be found in the collection, Sands of the Well. You find yourself covering familiar ground, repeating, circling back to familiar themes and concerns.
Maybe it was reading this poem that gave me permission to write about art over and over again, to ask how one lives as a poet, an artist, as a refrain. I've allowed myself to photograph those things available to me, repetitively, obsessively and as a kind of visual mantra, as a measure of where I've been.
If you've followed me for any length of time, odds are you've come across my 'recurring bird' series, which I continue to intermittently post on Flickr. (For those of you reading this via the email newsletter subscription you may want to click and read it in your browser to see the header photograph for this post). I have no strict rules, as sometimes these types of series compel one to have. I can see the allure of a timeline - once a day, every day for a year, for example. But I think I've continued because the rule I work with is: take a photo when you have time, when the mood strikes, when the light calls. I've not set any timelines, other than: when you tire of it, you may quit.
Most of us could list off the top of our head many recurring themes in the history of painting - Van Gogh's sunflowers, Rembrandt's self-portraits. Hokosai's Mount Fuji, Monet's haystacks or water lilies. In poetry, I immediately think of Charles Wright's still lifes and Adam Zagajewski's self-portraits.
And I return to an essay in Hélène Cixous' Coming to Writing, where she says, in a discussion of those painters who repeat themselves: "But repetition, in those who write, is very badly received. The painter has the right to repeat until water lilies become divine sparrows." I suppose this is sometimes true, but I love what Levertov says in her poem about the radiant epiphanies recurring. Instead of trying to make something wholly unique, why not listen to the voice that calls us back, to the things we circle, to those themes that recur and emerge without us necessarily even noticing at first?
I think about these types of projects, anyway, at the end of a year, as it seems a good time to plan what could be next. I once, a long time ago now it seems, made it a project to write a poem each week on an object. And I think having a set project or theme, even if it's a project that lasts a month, can be a valuable exercise. To notice what we're drawn to or what we instinctively return to can tell us something about those things we need to make. To pay attention to what calls to us again and again is a lovely part of practice.
My challenge, I suppose, is to ask you to think about what you have been drawn to, and what you would like to continue pursuing. Perhaps a photography project, similar to my recurring bird project. A set of 'self-portrait' poems. Do knitters find themselves being drawn to certain colours and patterns? A musician might pursue the study of a single composer. I have a friend whose project it has been to read South African authors rather obsessively.
And a question: if you have worked through a project, what did it teach you?
Lastly: you can, you must proceed.