At the end of my last post, I promised you testimony to a particular power of art. The photo of mine above has a title relevant to my purpose: “The Power That Builds in Solitude.” Though I’ll talk about writing poetry, what I want to show you is the creative power that certain photographs can help to bring us, in writing poems, and, I believe, in other parts of our lives.
Good poets know that inspiration has to be courted patiently, has to come to the conscious mind from beyond it. So poets have developed strategies for diverting the willful mind, in the hope that it will open more readily to the gifts of the poetic genie, or, as we call her, the Muse.
One of the challenges in writing good poetry, and the need for methods to meet that challenge, comes from the fact that parts of our conscious minds, especially our egos, work against us in creative endeavors. The suspicious watchdogs and fearful censors in our mental life try to keep things “under control,” walling out the pesky or potent spirits that live in the dark beyond conscious awareness. We dismiss the inexplicable; we want to ignore, to protect ourselves, from what we seem unable to comprehend or command. As a result, we need ways to distract the guards at the bridge, so that the contraband of the imagination can be smuggled across the border.
Gertrude Stein would park at a crowded Paris intersection when she wanted to write. The noise of traffic and passersby would drown out more chatty, deliberate thoughts. Hart Crane wrote by candlelight, drinking wine, listening to jazz. An early teacher of mine, the poet W.D. Snodgrass, said that he continued to write rhyming poems because the task of searching for rhymes tied up his more calculating mind, giving inspiration the chance to slip the unexpected under his door.
And I developed my own kind of ritual for letting in the moonlight.
I have an oddly-shaped, five-sided cherry desk in my study, that I’ve used since childhood. Its configuration lets you face into a corner, funneling your attention toward the paper or book in front of you. Before sitting down to write, I would block or turn off all light except the glow from a shaded desklamp. I would put on music, but it had to be certain kinds of music, relatively quiet, slow, rhythmic and atmospheric, entrancing but neither sleep-inducing nor too jumpy. Often it would be Japanese bamboo flute music, Scriabin’s solo piano music, Erik Satie’s “Collected Items from a Silent Dream,” or Baroque or Spanish guitar music played by Segovia.
Lastly, I would pull out two black boxes of art postcards. As I had with the music, I’d carefully chosen the cards for their ability to induce that state of mind, that calm creative concentation, in which the muse would be more likely to speak, more likely to bring me new images or find the right words and rhythms for the poem at hand.
Among the art cards in those two boxes were many cards of photographs.
Photos that definitely had the desired effect on me included: Edward Steichen’s closeup of Gloria Swanson’s face behind a black lace veil, her eyes ususually wide and fixed, cat-like. Etienne Carjat’s portrait of the poet Baudelaire in his typical coat of black serge, his eyes intense with a fierce melancholy. The grainy, blurred images of black birds, single or in flocks, in Masahise Fukase’s The Solitude of Ravens, their eyes sometimes mere pinpoints of light in the darkness. Paul Strand’s “Wall Street,” with its tiny hurrying figures, mere silhouettes below huge black squares of shadow on the sides of skyscrapers. Imogen Cunningham’s “The Unmade Bed,” with its tenderly curving sheets and shadows, with a few loose hairpins lying on the bed. Robert Frank’s photo of the little girl who seems to run away from an open hearse down a rainy London street. Wynn Bullock’s “The Tide Pool,” in which the dark water looks like a galaxy with stars, streaming comets, and clouds of interstellar gas. Lee Friedlander’s “Galax, Virginia” with the baby’s face on a TV screen, ghostly at the foot of an empty bed.
What made those photographs, and not others, work as I wanted? Most feature shadow, night, or darkness, light shining or glowing from the dark, smooth or curving shapes, sometimes blurred or only half-visible, or single isolated figures. But there is no formula for the magic. The important quality can’t be identified like items on a checklist, or by intellectual analysis, but can only be recognized from the experience that it creates in you. (I’ll save for my next post my guesses at why certain elements tend to bring on that creative state. We’ll try to follow this trail a bit deeper into the woods.)
At this point, there are several things that I have to add. Please remember that, as I said, this is testimony, not prescription. These photos, or these sorts of photos, may not have the same kind of effect on you or your working that they have on me and mine. You might want no music and as little sound as possible. Brighter, more active subjects might inspire you most. And in any event, no deck of cards or assortment of images alone is enough to produce pleasing, profound or prolific art.
More importantly, please don’t think that my ceremony was just a means to an end. I loved the music, I loved the images, I loved the peace, the quiet power, the mood of the state that they helped to induce. And the state was enough. I sometimes used the same lighting and music just to sink into a book of artworks, with no thought of writing. As Zen monks emphasize, the meditation is not a mere means to an end, but an end in itself, a deepening of the ongoing moment.
To return to my particular story: Sometimes a photo would not only contribute to my receptive frame of mind, but would give rise directly to an image or a line for a poem. These two photos, the first by Andre Kertesz, the second by Alfred Stieglitz, combined in my mind to produce the first line of the second stanza in what became my poem, “The Burning-Ground” (published first by Virginia Quarterly Review):
I imagine a cold night, the nebulae —
the Crab, the Spiral, the Horsehead, the Dark —
carelessly burning. Below, a madman stabs
the drum with his knife,
a seamstress stumbles toward a cart in the rain,
and soon the story begins:
of a child born upside-down, like a bat
adopted by darkness,
who closes himself in his wings, learning early
the need and the taste for disguise. . . .
For any artist, it ought to be impressive and valuable enough that certain artworks can help to induce a state that enhances our power to create more art. But what might this also say about the long-term effects of such works on us? or on other other activities that such power might benefit? or on other parts of our living? For some further thoughts and suggestions of mine on these scores, please tune in for my sequel in “Summoning the Genie’s Power – Post 2”! (And I’d be fascinated and glad to have you leave a message here, identifying one or two photographs that you’ve found especially strong in casting that mysterious spell.)
Was the Alfred P. Sloan Scholar for the Humanities at the University of Michigan. Obtained a Master of the Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I was selected as a Writing Fellow in Poetry by the Program faculty. Have published poems, essays and reviews in many magazines, anthologies, reference works, and other publications, including The Nation, The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Parabola, OMNI, and the exhibition catalogue for Art at the Edge of the Law at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. Received a law degree from the University of Michigan, and have changed the law and created educational programs in the fields of arts law, historic preservation law, and public construction and contracting law in the State of Connecticut. My photographs have appeared in international, national, regional and state juried exhibitions, and have been selected for awards including Honorable Mentions in the Architecture, Fine Art (series), Nature (series), Open Theme (series), Portrait, and Seascape categories from the international Fine Art Photography Awards, and an Honorable Mention in the Fine Art-Other category from the International Photography Awards. Photographs of mine have been selected for exhibition or publications by or in the 2019 International Juried Exhibition of the Center for Photographic Art (Carmel, CA), 2019 International Competition of The Photo Review, the 2019 Open Exhibition of the Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins CO, F-Stop Magazine, Shadow & Light Magazine, Black Box Gallery in Portland OR, Praxis Gallery in Minneapolis MN, the Darkroom Gallery in VT, PhotoPlace Gallery in VT, A Smith Gallery in TX, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and many other journals and venues. My work has also been selected for inclusion in the Flatfile Program of Artspace New Haven (CT). My photography website is at www.lawrenceruss.com .