1. There’s a Louis Black stand-up routine in which he rants about two girls he overhead talking in a restaurant. One had said to the other, “If it hadn’t a been for that horse, I would have never made it through college.” Black did not have the opportunity to ask what this dropped phrase meant, and it drove him nuts that he would never find out. Like so much language, it dropped into his ear context-free. Worse, he could not imagine any context in which the statement made sense.
2. On an Air Schooner podcast, an interviewee discusses writing ekphrastic poems. She says, it isn’t enough to write about art from the outside; ekphrasis at its best imagines a way into the artwork.
3. Yesterday morning, I had the pleasure to attend an AWP panel on Larry Levis, put together by poet Joshua Robbins, whose book Praise Nothing has just been released. One of his fellow panelists, Kathy Fagan, talked about the Levis poem “Sensationalism,” collected in Winter Stars, an ekphrastic poem responding to Josef Koudelka photograph of a man talking to a horse. It struck me as a perfect example of a writer imagining himself in, as Levis begins to imagine the absent context back into the photo. He writes, “I begin to believe that the man’s wife & children/ Were shot & thrown into a ditch the week before this picture,” and continues his imaginative flight from there.
4. As writers, we strive to find what Eliot called the “objective correlative”—the concrete image that captures an abstract emotion and thus creates that unnamed emotion in the reader. It strikes me now that there is an implied formula here: 1) Locate emotions you want to write about, 2) Substitute things to create that you hope will emotion, 3) Remove traces of abstraction so the images can do their work.
What I’m wondering now is whether this formula is accurate. It seems to me what makes Levis’s poem so successful is that he finds the strange image, the one without context, the one that has no implied response, and then contextualizes its strangeness into his own life’s story—the story with which he is most deeply familiar and with which he makes the reader familiar as well. I want to make a connection here to Russian critic Victor Shklovsky who said we must make the strange familiar and the familiar strange, but the interplay here is more complex. Strangeness and familiarity are intertwined, perhaps even parasitic.
5. Levis writes, “Once, I was in love with a woman, & when I looked at her/ My face altered & took on the shape of her face.” He tells us, “She went mad, waking in tears she mistook for blood.” The familiar, the strange, the imaginative leap from self to not self, the inability to recognize what we make.
6. Today, I want to find a piece of strangeness. I want to feel along the seams of its door and then climb into it like a sports car. I want to press the pedal to the floor and shove the gearshift hard into one place then another as I move from second to third and upward. I want to hear the tires of that strangeness squeal across the pavement and smell the rubber burning under my feet. I want to drive that strangeness hard and fast until it takes me where it always does: that place where horses speak and guide us straight into the truest and most distant part of the familiar, the place where art lives.