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April 2015

The love of poets

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From "While the World Sleeps" by Ben Okri (from A Way of Being Free):

"The world in which the poet lives does not necessarily yield up the poetic. In the hands of the poet, the world is resistant. It is only with the searching and the molding that the unyielding world becomes transformed in a new medium of song and metaphor.

"It is not surprising therefore that poets seem to be set against the world. The poet needs to be up at night when the world sleeps; needs to be up at dawn, before the world wakes; needs to dwell in odd corners, where Tao is said to reside; needs to exist in dark places, where spiders forge their webs in silence; near the gutters, where the undersides of our dreams fester. Poets need to live where others don't care to look, and they need to do this because if they don't they can't sing to us of all the secret and public domains of our lives."

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"The acknowledged legislators of the world take the world as given. They dislike mysteries, because mysteries cannot be coded, or legislated, and wonder cannot be made into law. And so these legislators police the accepted frontiers of things. Politicians, heads of state, kings, religious leaders, the rich and powerful -- they all fancy themselves the masters of this earthly kingdom. They speak to us of facts, policies, statistics, programs, abstract and severe moralities. But the dreams of the people are beyond them, and would trouble them. The harder realities of the people would alarm them. It is they who have curbed the poets' vision of reality. It is they who invoke the infamous 'poetic license' whenever they do not want to face the inescapable tragedy contained in, for example, Okibo's words, ' I have lived the oracle dry on the cradle of a new generation.' It is they who demand that poetry be partisan, that it take sides, usually their side; that it rises on the backs of causes and issues, their causes, their issues, whoever they may be.

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"Our lives have become narrow enough. Our dreams strain to widen them, to bring our waking consciousness the awareness of greater discoveries that lie just beyond the limits of our sight. We must not force our poets to limit the world any further. That is a crime against life itself. If a poet begins to speak only of narrow things, of things we can effortlessly digest and recognize, of things that do not disturb, frighten, stir, or annoy us, or make us restless for more, make us cry for greater justice, make us want to set sail and explore inklings murdered in our youths, if the poet sings only of our restricted angels and in restricted terms and in restricted language, then what hope is there for any of us in this world?"

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"The antagonists of poetry cannot win. The world seems resistant but carries within it for ever the desire to be transformed into something higher. The world may seem unyielding but, like invisible forces in the air, it merely waits imagination and will to unloosen the magic within itself."

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"The poet as quantum physicist, as healer, as angel and demon of the world cannot afford to disdain the world, cannot feel superior to it any more than the scientist can feel superior to thunder, to mountains, or to the constellations. There are no superiorities of function, only ascendencies.

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"Their love shows in the quality of their dreams and their works. The deeper poets feel, the deeper is their exploration. The more we want to reconnect, the more we would follow poets in their quest for impossible transformations. They measure the heroism of the consciousness of any age. It is true when they say that poets are never ahead of their times. It is only we who are far behind ours."

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Poets, aye, and also, I believe, the best of our mythic artists too.

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Wood 12Photographs: In the woods, and on the overgrown woodland boundary wall, at dawn on a chilly spring morning, with stitchwort, primroses, wild orchids, and bluebells. Searching for poetry "in the odd corners."


Mary Moments

Ewes Watching Shooting Stars by Mary Newcomb

"Every now and again if you’re lucky," wrote the late English naturalist Roger Deakin, "exploring a wood, sitting by a river or looking out of a train, you may experience what a friend of mine calls ‘a Mary moment.’  Such minor epiphanies, often apparently unremarkable in themselves, will lodge in your memory and may be recalled in their essentials long afterwards.

"They are the distinctive subjects of the Suffolk painter Mary Newcomb: a flock of goldfinches dispersing, a magpie flying up from a wet road, a football match seen through a hole in an oak leaf eaten by a caterpillar. These are all actual titles of Brooding Rooks Heaven by Mary Newcombpaintings by Mary Newcomb. Such poetical vignettes are essential to the particular effect of these deceptively modest pictures. Mary Newcomb belongs firmly in the greenwood tradition, peering unnoticed from behind leaves like the Green Man at things that are very often half hidden themselves.

"In the Newcomb world, people and plants sometimes surreally hybridize...a visual expression of Andrew Marvell’s lines in ‘The Garden’: ‘Annihilating all that’s made/To a green thought in a green shade.' They have a notable affinity with poetry. Mary is an admirer of John Clare, whose words ‘I found my poems in the fields and only wrote down what I saw’ describe very well how she paints, and the connections she notices between, say, pylons and cobwebs, or butterflies and bits of torn paper. Indeed, the notes in her diaries are very often written without punctuation in a style that strongly suggests that of Clare as well as the stream of consciousness she wants to express."

Rooks Disturbed by Mary Newcomb

Sheep etching by Mary Newcomb

"Unlike most artists," Deakin noted, "Mary keeps not a sketchbook but a notebook or diary. She fills it with handwritten thoughts and observations that often find their way into the work verbatim. ‘Be sure to put it down,’ she writes in one diary entry, ‘be it squirrel in a woodpile, men with white-toed boots working on a mountain railway, caterpillars hanging stiffly and staring from a laurel bush, the magnitude of the stars -- there is no end.’ That reference to the stars inevitably suggests one of the best-known Newcomb pictures, the beautiful watercolor Ewes WatchA page from Mary Newcomb's diarying Shooting Stars: three ewes on a clear, cold night, invite you to identify with the animals inside their warm coats. The painting reminds me of Ted Hughes’s poem ‘The Warm and the Cold,’ an evocation of the animal world on a freezing, starry night in terms of the particular form of shelter each one takes, including, by contrast, the ‘sweating farmers’ who ‘Turn in their sleep/Like oxen on spits.’ Newcomb and Hughes share an acute awareness of the minutiae of life in the wild, and a deep, affectionate understanding of the lives of farm animals and all creatures.

"The people in these paintings seem to be part of the landscape. They do not dominate it, but take their place in it like any other being...Mary’s men often appear in the cloth caps worn by Suffolk farm labourers or fishermen until recently: a badge of belonging to the land or sea. These anonymous figures are in some ways Green Men, emerging through deep layers of foliage. The just-visible Lady in an Unsprayed Field Seen in Passing, an after-image, might be a corn spirit. Lady in an Unsprayed Field Seen in Passing by Mary NewcombMary Newcomb seems attracted to paint what is half hidden, invisible even. In The Last Bird Home, the small figure of the bird, in a slight halo of warm amber dusk light, descends into a long smudge of dark-grey hedge we know is crowded with concealed birds, all singing. ‘After a long wet evening,’ Mary wrote while she was working on this picture, ‘the birds must sing. They have to get it out and shout insistently.’ Birds are everywhere in the work, yet they are often half concealed, hard to spot, as in a wood or a hedge. A cock pheasant in a field is actually a half pheasant submerged in grass, and in the diary there is a reference to ‘half men’ as subjects for pictures: ‘half men in hollows, in fields, in dips in the road, in long grass.’ This is how it is in the fields, hedges and woods: things heard but unseen, or glimpsed, partly hidden. Seen collectively as hedgerow or wood, trees are abstracted by nature into a mass of colour and texture. The experience is distinct from the architectural look of a single tree. And this is what you see in a Newcomb painting."

Cockerel's Ivy by Mary Newcomb

Study of sheep by Mary Newcomb

Mary Newcomb grew up in Wiltshire and trained in the sciences, bringing a naturalist's eye to her paintings of the English countryside and country life. She and her husband ran a farm and small pottery in the Waveney Valley, Sussex, while also raising two daughters; her national (indeed, international) success as a painter did not begin until she was in her fifties. She died in 2008 at the age of 86, drawing right up to the end.

The Girl With the Dalmation by Mary Newcomb

Mrs. Brown in Black by Mary Newcomb

One of Mary's daughters, Tessa Newcomb, is now an accomplished painter in her own right. Tessa's work is more illustrative than her mother's, but it too is a love song to the countryside, updating the English folk art tradition in a manner both contemporary and charming. The five lovely paintings below are Tessa's:

Two paintings by Tessa Newcomb, Mary's daughter.

Piglets Playing on the Muck Heap by Tessa Newcomb

Donkey by Tessa Newcomb

Books by Mary & Tessa Newcomb

The Gate Was Left Open by Tessa NewcombThe passage above comes from Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin (1943-2006), highly recommended.


Ripening like the trees

Mother Nature by Terri Windling

"Perhaps we should strive towards mythological resonances in our lives," suggests Ben Okri (in his essay collection A Way of Being Free). "Among many possible images, a human being can be seen as a tree: We should reach out for more light even as we reach deeper into reality for a more solid hold on the earth. We were not born with one eye, with only one thought in our heads, and with only on direction to travel. When we look out at the world with its multiplicity of astonishing phenomena, do we see that only one philosophy can contain, explain, and absorb everything? I think not. The universe will always be greater than us. Our mind therefore should be like Keats' thoroughfare, through which all thoughts can wander. It should also be a great cunning net that can catch fish of possibility.

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"Maybe our minds should be sensitive to the vastness that lies behind all reality, should be open to the winds and whispers of infinity, and should be able -- by inkling and intuition-- to enter the hidden realm of the blazing Tyger, the Robin, the Eagle, the Unicorn, and our mysterious humanity. How can we, in the presence of irreducible being, view life from only one perspective -- the Cheetah's, or the Tyger's, or our own? We have the gift of overview, the tower of Imagination. We can place many perspectives side-by-side, we can even inhabit them simultaneously.

"In art a complex experiment (if fully realized, and regarded as if natural) is but a sign and a prayer to the greater glory and sublimity of our secret estate. It is a celebration of our terrestrial intelligence, our spiritual yearning, and the irrepressibility of our mischief and joy."

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Sycamore Fairy and Friend by Terri Windling

"Everything is gestation and then bringing forth," Rainer Marie Rilke reminds us (in his gorgeous Letters to a Young Poet). "To let each impression and each germ of feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one's own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist's life, in understanding and in creating. There is no measuring in time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confidence in the storms of spring without fear that after them may come no summer."

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Detail from ''Mother Nature'' by Terri Windling

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Tree fairy sketch by Terri Windling

A Way of Being Free by Ben Okri and Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria RilkePaintings & sketch above: "Mother Nature," "Sycamore Fairy With Foxy Friend," and a young tree spirit.


Living the mythic life

May Day in Chagford, art by Virginia Lee

If you're anywhere near Dartmoor on Friday, come help us celebrate May Day in Chagford with a traditional "Jack in the Green" procession, with music by Andy Letcher and friends. Also, if you're an early riser, May Day starts with a sunrise dance up at Haytor by the spooky and wonderful Beltane Border Morris troupe.

Beltane celebrations are making a come-back in Britain, and for those of us for whom myth and folklore are the staff of life, this is good news indeed. The art in the beautiful poster above is by Virginia Lee.


Tunes & Words for a Monday Morning

It's been another week of news that pushes us daily closer to despair, from the tragedies in Nepal and off the Italian coast to the horrific scale of police violence against nonwhite Americans, while political campaigners in both the UK and US studiously avoiding speaking civilly, seriously, and honestly of anything that truly matters. So I am pushing back against hopelessness by sharing some of my favorite videos from this year's Bioneers conference -- words rather than music today -- although also a little music to get us started from the conference's opening ceremony. Bioneers, based in New Mexico, is a nonprofit organization founded by Nina Simons and Kenny Ausubel, bringing Illustration by Charle Vessscientists, scholars, artists and activists together to "highlight breakthrough solutions for restoring people and planet."

As an American living abroad, I find it both sad and painful that my country is primarily known outside its borders through facile Hollywood representations, and for the darker, nuttier, Fox-News-amplified side of American life (and foreign policy) -- whereas those of us who have lived there know that the other side of America is equally strong: the land of civil rights, gay rights, passionate feminism, proud union men and women on the picket lines, and a bred-in-the-bone tradition of volunteerism; a land of organic farms and alternative communities and tireless activists on behalf of the North American wild; a land of kind, open-hearted, and generous people from a dizzying number of ethnic backgrounds and cultural traditions. The three speakers here come from my America, not the media's: the leftist, progressive American tradition that formed me; the beautiful, vast, diverse, and deeply complicated land that I still love, warts and all.

Above: Opening music and a few wise words from Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai. He's from Tucson, and his music never fails to make me homesick for the desert.

Below: Writer, educator, and activist Terry Tempest Williams, from Utah, discuses "A Love That is Wild." She says, "Finding beauty in the broken world is creating beauty in the world we find," and this is so very true.

Above, Robin Wall Kimmerer, biologist and author of Braiding Sweetgrass, discusses "Mishkos Kenomagwen: The Teachings of Grass." Kimmerer is the director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment in Syracuse, New York.

Below, educator, activist, and author John A. Powell discusses the need for "Beloved Community." Powell is the head of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley.

Illustration by Charles Vess

"If we are going to address these issues around climate change, food, health, each other," says Powell, "we have to  not only think about how we're related, we have to structure our societies, we have structure our policies, we have to tell our stories, we have to engage a practice that acknowledges our deep connection and our relationships with each other."

And that's where we come in, as Mythic Artists: telling stories. For the land and for each other. Stay strong.

Art above: Sonoran Desert drawings by Charles Vess