Unsociable poems and other rehearsals

Brian Smith Mural RVa

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Brian Smith’s Murals, Unsociable Poems, and In Sweet Surrender.

In today’s blog, find some more observations on “rehearsals,” including the art of Brian Smith, an essay on Unsociable Poems, and the upcoming production of In Sweet Surrender at the Church of the Holy Comforter.

Mural artist Brian Smith has been transforming a building along Broad Avenue in Richmond. Many muralists are at work on the face of Richmond. The monuments they leave behind are questions and challenges rather than testimonials. As a mural weathers and peels over time, it’s easy to believe it was a try-out, rehearsal, or sketch only for showing what mattered to the artist when it was made. Stone monuments, however, seem to solidify truths rather than to represent a rehearsal of the artist’s ideas. Even the word “rehearsal” doesn’t seem to apply to edifices of such apparent finality. And yet all ideas are in continual rehearsal and revision. All definitive works are subject to reflection, reassessment, and, yes, redefinition.

Brian Smith's Mural RVA

Speaking of the sun & other luminaries,

Faint star, to catch you I must look away.

Such indirection you would have me learn,

perhaps, because to near you is to burn

and yet I want to know what you convey.

Would staring breach some stellar etiquette?

Do indiscretions make you fade away?

May you not speak to one you’ve never met?

You sidle off from every look you get.

Sweet Earth, you beckon yet you bind and prod.

In hissing sleet on bogs that shine and sour

your ferns raise fiddleheads and sundews flower

but bones like mine will sink where lilies nod

and eyes be steeped like thatching reeds to ret

and float like lily seeds within their pod.

What sees and thinks and sinks you’ve never met.

My thoughts are stars too low to rise or set.

My Soul, like Sol, if I avert my gaze

because you blaze with incandescent glare

and if I interpose this weft of air

that moves contrarily by jumps, and plays

bulging between us like a parsing net

determined to enclose you in a phrase

and bring you up that I may not forget:

Will you with stings not blind me closer yet?

Faint star, to see you I must look away

and yet look back again, accommodate

to your frail light by swinging on the gate

between us –to and fro, move and stay,

part and whole, unfettered dream and fret—

and hold you by release –by must and may

by stand and sway, contentment and regret:

Still far and dim, you gain upon my debt.

From collected poems, Work On Yourself

Rehearsals have begun for the concert, “In Sweet Surrender.” As I mentioned in the blog on “Healing Breaths,” (May 1, 2014):

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As raking prepares soil by scraping tracks and grids for seed and lifting out twigs and other obstacles to growth, so rehearsal lays tracks and grids for smooth performance unimpeded by self-consciousness. So it is with performance both on stage and page.  Rehearsal links bodily memory to intention. Whether the result is a convincing performance in a stage role or the shifting away from self by what Brother Lawrence called the “practice of the presence of God,” I have found that both are matters of rehearsal.

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Unsociable Poems

            Social media demand disclosures, but I won’t routinely send you my poem of the moment. If you look through the “Works” section of this website, you’ll find what I have written and composed, not late-breaking news. Unlike Wikileaks, my poems convey experiences but do not reveal secrets.  They seek to offer, in the words of Immanuel Kant, “the place of the other.” This is unlike confessions and other self-exposures, which seem to me to supply both the experience and its explanation.

            Say that I had a traffic accident. I could provide details from the incident report. I could tell a story about it or explain it. Any of these renderings could be artfully done. But to put you in “the place of the other,” I would find the details, story, and explanation to be secondary materials. Instead, I would have you imagine the experience so that you feel slightly displaced. This displacement is more important than whether the event happened or was explained by reference or self-reference. It is an unsocial effect.

            Unlike gossip and other attempts to discover what others approve, such poetry is an unsocial medium. In The Way Things Are (1959), Percy Bridgman wrote that:

Most people apparently take the objective, impersonal, unitary nature of the world so much as a matter of course that they cannot see that there is even a problem in getting the private and the public onto a common basis . .                                                                                                    (p. 214)

and then spoke of:

one of the essential visions, namely, that the world of introspection is a different sort of world than the noonday public world of common experience .                                                                                      (p. 218)

Ogden Nash put it differently in his poem “Listen” (in The Face is Familiar ):

There is a knocking in the skull,

An endless silent shout

Of something beating on a wall,

And crying, Let me out.


That solitary prisoner

Will never hear reply,

No comrade in eternity

Can hear the frantic cry . . .


     Both Bridgman and Nash referred to the facts that we cannot get away from ourselves, from seeing others with respect to ourselves, and from the clumsiness of using a public language to express private experience. Nash expresses desperation, but in a later passage, Bridgman goes further:

The individual has remained the forgotten man, in spite of the pious slogans of democracy or our repeated assertions that society exists for the individual. On the contrary, up to the present society has in fact almost completely dominated the scene, particularly the intellectual scene, at the expense of the individual. As the individual stands today he is a creature of society. This is coming to be increasingly recognized and talked about—not only is it recognized as a fact, but there seems to be a growing sentiment that this is the way it ought to be, and many profess that they are glad to accept it . . .

                                                                                                     (p. 315)

     Or, in our time, fifty-six years later,  to “like” it on FB because others like it. In our era of social media and crowd-sourcing, the individual sometimes seems to be simply another app—a fancy if unreliable tool.

     The unsocial poem is not a tool; it is a trapdoor dropping you out of your social designations. The little displacements or frame-shifts which I look for in reading and writing poetry or in studying other arts are unsocial effects–not antisocial effects—because they suggest or, in Bridgman’s terms, “project” a private experience that I can tentatively imagine to be my own. The values of the poetic medium—diction, connotation, association, form, voice—not only convey details but entangle me in the experience. However briefly, they put me in “the place of the other.” With the support of the poem, I embody the experience.

            Leon Wieseltier began Kaddish (1998), his meditation in memory of his father, with the following reflection:

Many years ago, in an essay by Coomaraswamy on the aesthetics of Buddhism, I read about the Pali word samvaga, which was ‘often used to denote the shock or wonder that may be felt when the perception of a work of art becomes a serious experience.’ The aim of Coomaraswamy’s essay was to establish the legitimacy of a form of contemplation that is not disinterested. In the Buddhist sources that he cited, the artistic object is described as a ‘support for contemplation.’

                                                                                                            (p. viii)

     A poem that gives me a small displacement or frame-shift is a “support for contemplation.” What I look for both in reading and writing poetry is support for contemplation on the singular, individual experience of being. Many poems have other work to do, of course, such as bearing greetings, comfort, assurance of affiliation, confessional explanation, commercial promotion and self-promotion. In them we seek agreements, approval, consensus on what we should think, and so on. Knowing what others agree on or agree to is needed to guide marketing, commerce, political action and cultural trends. A poem can even sample and sum up such a consensus more deftly than operations research, e.g. “Sugar pops are tops.” (A million dollar poem).  But such poems do not support contemplation on being. They do not shift you briefly out of your own way. For that you need an unsocial poem.

            I won’t guarantee that the five poems below, selected from Work On Yourself (in “Works”) will perform for you as described above. All I can say is that, like most of my work, they are rehearsals. Perhaps you would like to share some unsociable poems you have discovered or written.

   A singularity,

 than which there is no whicher,

from nothing special,

performing exactly

as never imagined,

in a burst of revealing


reminds us

of the individual.

Morning Find

Going to nowhere

faster than usual—

only a day since

grackle departed

feathers (as usual,

left on the doorstep),

gone to the where none

fares any well from—

still among breathers,

sweeping the carnage,

I wake in plumage.


No speed that I could go would be enough.

Anticipation overtakes the chase.

The prize precedes the game; the goal, the race;

the mystery, the search; the smooth, the rough;

the thought, the slow peripatetic pace.

The struggling steps between are left behind,

the hardships undertaken for a cause

and yes, also the last sweet clinging pause

delaying grief or parting.

This does not find,

as lawyers say. For those who wait on laws

within themselves and make a thorough search

before capturing the obvious:

In their defense (and mine) I say, “For us

the obvious is mystery enough.

No race will make it more mysterious.”

Cruise Control

Cruise control is a state of mind.

Lock the speed in.  Insert a pause.

Find within any urgent drive

cause to hesitate.  After using

live explosives–each charged with shock–

taking pressures till power exhausts–

detonating precious plans to costs

day by day; after watching  what

jam why to gassy nought:  Why then,

shut down, drift in a cloudy thought;

cruise and troll in a lake of mind;

drift past deadlines and then notice Death

slam his brake in the other lane.

Cruise control is a state to mind

borders of–a long dotted line

showing history where to cut.

Monument Avenue

I turn left where the massive oak

lifts walk and roadbed. I’m alone.

From every bush and branch come quick

sharp warnings: Not here! Go on!

I reach the crossing with its choice.

Crepe myrtles shade the median.

Where I come to comes from this,

this pause to turn right or go on.

The windshield twisted left, a hiss

escapes. My ribs rebound. I tilt

to left, watch the silver fumes,

recall the myrtles’ dive, the halt.

Turned left and halted, made to see

where my going comes, I stop.

The steering wheel no longer moves.

Nor do I move, content to be.