June 2, 2010

Small Things

A watering can, a harrow left in a field, a dog in the sun, a shabby churchyard, a cripple, a small farmhouse––any of these can become the vessel of my revelation. Any of these things and the thousand similar ones past which the eye ordinarily glides with natural indifference can at any moment––which I am completely unable to elicit––suddenly take on for me a sublime and moving aura which words seem too weak to describe.

With these words and others in "A Letter", the fin de siecle Viennese writer Hugo von Hofmannstal sought to explain why he could no longer write poetry or prose; for him
Everything came to pieces, the pieces broke into more pieces, and nothing could be encompassed by one idea.
This modernist lament is part of a beautiful description, in words of ringing clarity and emotion, while declaring his inability to do so, of the surprising resonance of ordinary things.
At those moments an insignificant creature, an dog, a rat, a beetle, a stunted apple tree, a cart path winding over the hill, a moss-covered stone mean more to me than the most beautiful, most abandoned lover ever did on the happiest night. These mute and sometimes inanimate beings rise up before me with such a plenitude, such a presence of love that my joyful eye finds nothing dead anywhere.
He yearns for a language
that is not Latin or English, or Italian, or Spanish, but a language of which I know not one word, a language in which mute things speak to me...

Hofmannsthal's evocative prose reminds us of those times each of us has been in, as he puts it, "the present, the fullest, most sublime present". There are moments when I feel as though my chest (my heart? my lungs?) is swelling with expanding happiness; it can happen looking at landscape, light on a leaf, a bug; it is more than an aesthetic response, it is physical, in the body. When I was in the garden photographing the watering can as illustration for this post, I turned and saw these rocks, nestled tenderly against one another. The photo doesn't come close to expressing the poignancy of that small group. Last week, sitting on my porch, looking across the lawn and field towards the dark curtain of surrounding trees, I became aware, for the first time, of the many points of flittering light: insects of different types and sizes, catching the sun and making air palpable; what had seemed empty was full.

Not all writers have given up on the power of language. I am inspired by prose writing such as that of Hofmannstal, of Willa Cather, of Samuel Beckett and have recently been reading poems by Amy Clampitt, thanks to a comment by a reader; her nature poems are densely worded meditations on the visual world, her words almost physical callings-up: of a marine surface she writes
his wind-silver
rumpling as of oatfields,
a suede of meadow,
a nub, a nap, a mane of lustre
lithe as the slide of muscle in its
sheath of skin,
And writing of an early powerful experience, her earliest memory, that may have made her a poet
...Deep in it, under
appletrees like figures in a ritual, violets
are thick, a blue cellarhole
of pure astonishment.
It's the phrase "pure astonishment" that moves me, takes me to the feeling; violets are not extraordinary things, yet can call up wonder. Another poet who notices the overlooked is William Carlos Williams. In The Red Wheelbarrow, he looks at the most ordinary of garden implements, and by the first three insistent words, helps us see it as a key to humankind, nature and the universe.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white


  1. these considerations - how nice to read them at the end of the day. thanks.

  2. I thought I would just take a peek before I go to bed; but now you've got my thoughts all buzzing about! What a gift this rumination of yours is ...

  3. Why the small supplants the large for the poet or the artist in the modern world is a question I too have often thought about.
    We see artists with ‘grand’ themes fall on their face- a caution perhaps. But when you pick your small still life, you (or I) are not acting so much out of calculation but spontaneously. But why I wonder? Independence? The disinclination to accept the dictates of the world when it says “Here is the grand theme you must paint- I will tell you what is important.”?
    That said, with my own art, I do go back to larger themes from time to time (my Manto sculpture for example) giving me more to puzzle about in this matter.

  4. Poets and painters (a certain type of poet and painter, anyway) are looking at the world in much the same light: through the intensity of their observation and feeling, they can find the greatest meaning in the smallest things. Painters and poets can cross over into each other's territory quite easily (I can think of quite a few visual artists who wrote poetry, but not many who wrote novels.) Maybe von Hofmannstal needed to draw rather than write to express that aura that "words are too weak to describe". Anyway, thank you for this post--much to think about here.

  5. I'm really glad that you liked this post; I must admit that sometimes I worry that I might be sounding too sentimental. Sam and Susan bring up large issues on which we could probably have a long forum discussion. Part of modernism was a rebellion against the heroic categories of the academy; I think that heroism still exists in in our current art world with much more praise going to artists of grand themes: look at recent shows at MOMA by Kentridge and Abromovic.

    But this post for me was more about my day to day relationship with the world around me, how it enriches me as a person and makes my life, here on a rural hill, so marvelous.

  6. I will return to read this post at length ...excellent and important ruminations. Thank you Altoon for contributing this excellent post for our contemplation,

  7. Thanks for reading, Sophie. These ideas are always bumping around in my head, then they were focused by reading the Hoffmansthal letter.

  8. Reconciling form and consciousness. A puzzle worthy of the gods and laid at the feet of mortals. Sometimes we come so close, and then we try again to give it a name.

  9. A puzzle indeed, john, and a gift.

  10. "...a sublime and moving aura which words seem too weak to describe."- Enjoy your day, Altoon.