McGinn’s Departure Is a Loss To the City of Seattle


Please view the above link to the video. The interview was conducted by the Seattle Channel which is a service of the City of Seattle. McGinn accomplished much in his time in office. The city is better off because of him. He represents the best of progressive leadership in America. McGinn says this so wisely – “If it can’t be done in this liberal city to lead and follow the people – to really govern with the people – then where else will it be done in America?

See also this biography:

McGinn deserves the last word. Thank you.

Theodore Roethke In Seattle




From The Univesity of Washington Archives



From – The Stranger – Seattle Weekly Publication

TUESDAY, MAY 15, 2012


Heather McHugh Is Giving the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Reading at UW on Thursday

posted by  on TUE, MAY 15, 2012 at 4:18 PM



Heather McHugh, the certified genius—by The Stranger and then, a few months later, by John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur—is reading from a wide range of her work on Thursday, May 17, at Kane Hall at 8 pm. It’s free. If you care at all about poetry—or humor, or life—you should go.

The Roethke memorial reading is a big deal. This is its 49th year. Past readers: Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, James Merrill, Seamus Heaney, and other world-famous poets.


An excellent orientation of Roethke in his world.


Roethke, Wright, and the cult of authenticity.

BY AUGUST 8, 2005

On August 22, 1957, Pete Rademacher fought Floyd Patterson in Seattle for the world heavyweight championship. In the stands that day were two boxing fans from the English Department of the University of Washington: Theodore Roethke, a forty-nine-year-old professor, and his twenty-nine-year-old student James Wright, who was celebrating the completion of his Ph.D. Each was one of the leading poets of his generation. The year before, Wright’s first book of poems, “The Green Wall,” had been chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets award; Roethke’s most recent book, “The Waking,” had won the 1954 Pulitzer Prize.

Neither Roethke, the son of a greenhouse owner from Saginaw, Michigan, nor Wright, the son of a factory worker from Martins Ferry, Ohio, regarded a prizefight as an incongruous setting for poets. On the contrary, they imported the vocabulary of boxing—its swagger and its feuds—into their discussions of the poetry world. “Allen Tate,” Wright assured Roethke, “certainly seems to think you’re the Heavyweight Champion of contemporary American poetry.” This must have delighted the older poet, who approached his rivals in a fighting crouch: “Those limp-pricks,” he bragged, “I can write rings around any of them.” And, in a letter to James Dickey, Wright insisted that without “the high joy which is all that matters . . . poetry is considerably less interesting than boxing.”

For all these masculine growls, though, there have been few American poets more acutely tenderhearted, more genuinely and at times dismayingly sensitive, than Roethke and Wright. Roethke’s great subject was the secret life of flowers, plants, and children, while Wright allied himself in his poetry with the dispossessed and the outcast. Both poets were deeply sentimental about women, especially after each found happiness in a late marriage. And they were still more vulnerable on the subject of fathers—the taciturn, unemotional men about whom Roethke and Wright wrote some of their best poems.

No wonder that, in their letters, they stepped so gingerly around the paternal element in their relationship. “I’ve spent nearly the whole of three sessions with my doctor yacking about you,” Roethke wrote Wright in 1958. “Apparently you’re more of an emotional symbol to me than I realized: a combination of student-younger brother—something like that. (I even shed a tear or two.)” Wright was equally careful to avoid the language of fathers and sons: “I’ve never directly told you what I think of you, because I’m afraid you would think I am turning you into a father. I swear I never have thought of you as a father.” Instead, Wright relaxed into a more comfortable metaphor: “I myself feel funny about writing it down on paper. It’s as though I were reminding myself that I am breathing, or that I am happy, or that I just won a fist-fight.”

Decades have now passed since their sadly premature deaths—Roethke’s in 1963, Wright’s in 1980—and today they need to be reintroduced to a generation of readers who are likely to know them only from a few anthology pieces. It is a nice coincidence, then, that new editions of both poets’ work have recently appeared: “Theodore Roethke: Selected Poems” (Library of America; $20), edited by Edward Hirsch, and “James Wright: Selected Poems” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $13), edited by Robert Bly and Anne Wright. A large volume of Wright’s selected letters, “A Wild Perfection” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $40), has also just been published. Reading the two poets side by side helps their distinctive gifts to stand out sharply—along with their equally suggestive limitations. For Roethke and Wright both hoped that poetry could be a communion of souls, beyond or below the level of literature. But over the course of their careers they paid a high aesthetic price for their belief that earnestness could make a poem live.

The sense that, by the nineteen-forties, modern poetry had become too difficult—too remote from ordinary language and subjects, too hard to understand—was practically the only thing that united American poets of the mid-twentieth century: academic and populist, the students of John Crowe Ransom and the companions of Allen Ginsberg. The thirst of these poets—those born, roughly, between 1905 and 1930—for an alternative to the strenuous complexities of high modernism, as defined by the example and precept of Eliot and Pound, led to an explosion of new styles in mid-century American poetry: the Beats, the confessionalism of Robert Lowell and John Berryman, the projective verse of Charles Olson, and the “deep image” poetry with which Wright would be associated.

Yet Roethke and Wright were unusual in their early and intense mistrust not just of modernism but of the whole idea of poetic sophistication. Each was the product of a decidedly unliterary Midwestern setting—before Wright, the last writer to emerge from Martins Ferry, Ohio, had been William Dean Howells—and retained a lifelong suspicion of cleverness. To justify their calling, they had to insist that poetry had more to do with authenticity than with artistry.

As early as 1926, when Roethke was a sophomore at the University of Michigan, he was already laying special claim to “sincerity,—that prime virtue of any creative worker.” “I write only what I believe to be the absolute truth,” he maintained in an essay for a writing class, “even if I must ruin the theme in so doing. In this respect I feel far superior to those glib people in my classes who often garner better grades than I do. They are so often pitiful frauds,—artificial—insincere. . . . Many an incoherent yet sincere piece of writing has outlived the polished product.”

For a few fortunate years, in the second half of the forties, Roethke did succeed in making magic out of inarticulateness. His best and most characteristic poems concoct a new language for the shapeless urges of the unconscious. “One belief: ‘One must go back to go forward,’ ” he wrote to the critic Kenneth Burke in 1946. “And by back I mean down into the consciousness of the race itself not just the quandaries of adolescence, damn it.” In “Open House,” his 1941 début volume, Roethke’s verse was still constrained by the formal neatness of his youthful influences—especially Louise Bogan, the poet and longtime poetry critic for The New Yorker, who was briefly Roethke’s lover. Even in his early poems, however, he was drawn to images that could not help seeming Freudian and Jungian: massive subterranean forces, painful hidden blockages. “The teeth of knitted gears / Turn slowly through the night, / But the true substance bears / The hammer’s weight,” he wrote in “The Adamant.”

Roethke had wandered into his true subject before he discovered a style that could accommodate it. The creation of that style was an arduous triumph, requiring him to return to the primal scenes of his own childhood. His biographer, Allan Seager, records that Roethke, while working on the poems of his best book—“The Lost Son and Other Poems,” published in 1948—sometimes went around the house naked, a token of a larger stripping down.

The first fruit of this effort was the famous “greenhouse poems,” in which Roethke re-creates the vegetable world of his earliest years. Roethke’s family operated one of the largest nurseries in Michigan, thus allowing him to fill his poems with immediately legible symbols of psychic growth—roots, stems, and blossoms. But it took Roethke’s talent for powerfully indirect evocation to make the greenhouse not just a metaphor but an eerily living presence, as in “Root Cellar”:
And what a congress of stinks!—
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.

Nearly a century and a half after Wordsworth, Roethke manages to invent an entirely new kind of nature poetry, in which the earth is not reassuringly earthy but teeming and alien. At times, Roethke’s greenhouse even becomes surreally menacing: “So many devouring infants! / Soft luminescent fingers, / Lips neither dead nor alive, / Loose ghostly mouths / Breathing.” Lines like these, from “Orchids,” show just how much Sylvia Plath learned from Roethke about making the reader shiver.

In “The Lost Son and Other Poems,” Roethke also began another major sequence that he would wrestle with for the next several years—what he described as “a series of longer pieces which try, in their rhythms, to catch the movement of the mind itself, to trace the spiritual history of a protagonist (not ‘I’ personally but of all haunted and harried men).” If poems like “Weed Puller” had shown the poet pressing himself as close to nature as he could get—“Me down in that fetor of weeds, / Crawling on all fours”—Roethke’s new style attempted to vault the barrier of sentience, to speak with nature’s own voice.

From “The Lost Son and Other Poems” through his next book, “Praise to the End!” (1951), to “The Waking” (1953), Roethke experimented with this new style. But he never accomplished more with it than he did in “The Lost Son,” the first poem in the sequence. Like “The Waste Land,” whose influence is profound but seldom obvious, “The Lost Son” dispenses with plot and argument for the sake of a hypnotically effective voice. The poem charts the emotions of a man mourning the death of his father, and it progresses through a chain of moods: grief, nostalgia, regression to childhood terrors, and, finally, a tentative reawakening to adulthood. Appropriately, Roethke draws from the deepest wells of the English language—Mother Goose, Shakespeare, the Bible—in order to create a new idiom for primal experience:
All the leaves stuck out their tongues;
I shook the softening chalk of my bones,
Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home,
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time.

“The Lost Son” is the peak of Roethke’s inventiveness as a poet. But his attempt to extend its discoveries into a whole sequence revealed the fragility of this technique: without the momentum of narrative, it quickly grows static and repetitive. There are wonderful passages in “Praise to the End!” that manage to capture childish orality and sexuality with a disturbing vividness. Yet by the time he wrote “O, Thou Opening, O,” from “The Waking,” even Roethke seems to have grown impatient with his style: “And now are we to have that pelludious Jesus-shimmer over all things, the animal’s candid gaze, a shade less than feathers . . . I’m tired of all that, Bag-Foot.”

When Roethke tried to return to a more explicit and formal kind of poetry, the limits of his sensibility were harshly exposed. (“Ted had hardly any general ideas at all,” Auden reportedly said.) And his late poems, from “The Waking” through the posthumous “The Far Field” (1964), are crowded with limp, quasi-mystical abstractions: “I learned not to fear infinity, / The far field, the windy cliffs of forever, / The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow.” What is most disappointing in Roethke’s late work is the way he fell back into emulation of the established modernist idols, especially Yeats and the Eliot of “Four Quartets.” Imitation as direct as Roethke’s of Yeats, in “The Dance,” is usually found only in very young poets, not in accomplished masters. It was as though, having used up his poetic capital—his childhood—Roethke looked to those authoritative voices for reassurance.

The failures of his late work confirm that Roethke’s real subject was his own inwardness; he wrote best when he avoided direct statement in favor of tremulous connotation. That is why Roethke was always at a loss when asked what his poems meant. They could not be elucidated, he knew, only intuited. “Believe me,” he adjured the reader in a 1950 “Open Letter,” “you will have no trouble if you approach these poems as a child would, naïvely, with your whole being awake, your faculties loose and alert.”

Long before he met Roethke, James Wright shared his view of sincerity as the central literary value. In 1946, the eighteen-year-old Wright sent some of his poems to a professor who had offered encouragement. “As you read them,” Wright warned, “you will be conscious of the absence of a syllable here and there, and even of the discarding of iambics altogether. I would rather sacrifice technical skill than sincerity.” Throughout his career, Wright, still more than Roethke, would gamble on the obvious intensity of his emotions—his loneliness, compassion, wonder—to accomplish more than mere “technical skill” ever could.

Wright’s revulsion against the sterility of technique was all the more extreme because of his early proficiency as a writer of traditional verse. His first book was characterized not by audacity but by a highly polished literary language: “For who could bear such beauty under the sky? / I would have held her loveliness in air.” Yet Wright had emerged from a still less literary milieu than Roethke. “My mother had to leave school when she was in the sixth grade, my father had to leave when he was in the eighth grade,” Wright recalled near the end of his life. “He went into the factory when he was fourteen and my mother went to work in a laundry.”

Wright would often honor his father’s lifetime of manual labor in his verse: “one slave / To Hazel-Atlas Glass became my father,” he wrote in “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave,” one of his best early poems. But already in that poem, from his second collection, “Saint Judas” (1959), Wright was moving away from pastoral elegance, straining to incorporate the brutal realities of working-class Ohio:
I waste no pity on the dead that stink,
And no love’s lost between me and the
Drunks of Belaire, Ohio, where police
Kick at their kidneys till they die of drink.

The stylistic revolution that was to produce Wright’s best poetry was touched off by a passing insult in a 1958 review, by James Dickey, of the anthology “New Poets of England and America,” where Wright took his place alongside many of the young writers who were to dominate American poetry for the next several decades—including Richard Wilbur, Adrienne Rich, and Anthony Hecht. But Dickey found the anthology “representative of a generation that has as yet exhibited very little passion, urgency, or imagination,” and he went on to dismiss Wright’s work in just two words—“ploddingly sincere.”

After Dickey’s essay appeared, in the Sewanee Review, Wright wrote him a crude and defensive letter: “Since you both think and feel that my verses stink, it is your responsibility as well as your privilege to say so in print.” Yet he viewed Dickey’s critical approach as needlessly cruel. Students sometimes asked Wright for his opinion of their verse, he went on, and “when their verses were sentimental and inept, I believe that I have criticized them honestly and severely; however, I have never greeted a student by telling her to go fuck herself and shove her hideous poems up her ass.”

When Dickey replied sternly to this attack, though, Wright collapsed into contrition and self-reproach. “As I sit here,” he admitted, “I think I know why I was hurt. You simply said that I was not a poet. This remark of yours only confirmed what—obviously enough—is a central fear of mine, and which I have been deeply struggling to face for some time.” Wright’s doubts about his highly praised work were compounded by another jolt that he received in the very same week, when he read the first issue of Robert Bly’s new little magazine, The Fifties, whose inside front cover declared, “The editors of this magazine think that most of the poetry published in America today is too old-fashioned.” Just two days after his mea culpa to Dickey, Wright wrote to Bly, entirely renouncing his early work: “My book was dead. It could have been written by a dead man, if they have Corona typewriters in the grave.”

This double shock succeeded in winning Wright over to what Bly called, in an essay in the second issue of The Fifties, “the new poetry.” According to Bly, the “old style, with the iamb, its caesuras, its rhymes, its thousands of rhythms reminding us of other poems and other countries . . . is like a man speaking who gestures too much. . . . But in the new poetry, the contrary is true—there is no necessity in the form itself for continual gesture, by rhyme, etc.—therefore, if you raise your little finger once, slowly, it has tremendous meaning.”

This metaphor perfectly describes the technique of the first volume that Wright produced after this crisis: “The Branch Will Not Break,” published in 1963. The book contains much of Wright’s best writing, which indeed wagers everything on the effectiveness of small, dramatic gestures. The most celebrated and controversial example is “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.”

The poem is a catalogue of meticulously observed natural details—“the bronze butterfly, / Asleep on the black trunk,” “The droppings of last year’s horses”—which concludes with a sudden, seemingly unjustified swerve: “A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home. / I have wasted my life.” The last line suggests how “deep image” poetry differs from the Imagism of the nineteen-tens: it is not the visual composition that matters to Wright but the way the visible world calls forth a mysterious inward response. And for Wright—as for Roethke, who declared that his poetry’s leaps of association “either . . . are imaginatively right or they’re not”—the link between things seen and things felt cannot be artificially prepared. He agreed with Bly’s dictum that “in the new style, where the tension and density of the emotion is everything, you have to, like a good gambler, agree to stake everything on one throw.”

Still more than Roethke, Wright is tempted to turn his poems’ aesthetic gamble into a moral test. As he wrote to his close friend Donald Hall, “Whatever a poet has been in the past, right now he is defined, to me, as a man who has both the power and the courage to see, and then, to show, the truth through words. If I’m a bad poet, that means a liar.” The literary results of this high-mindedness, however, were decidedly mixed. In his work of the nineteen-sixties, Wright’s determination “to show the truth” can give his voice a grave credibility, as in “Speak”: “To speak in a flat voice / Is all that I can do. / . . . I speak of flat defeat / In a flat voice.” But often in his later writing Wright strips from his poetry the very things that turn a personal experience into a shared work of art. In his quest to make his poetry authentic, he often descends to melodramatic reporting on his own emotions: “I feel lonesome, / And sick at heart, / Frightened, / And I don’t know / Why.” And he wards off any doubts about this style—his own or his readers’—with a kind of truculent earnestness:
This is not a poem.
This is not an apology to the Muse.
This is the cold-blooded plea of a homesick vampire
To his brother and friend.
If you do not care one way or another about
The preceding lines,
Please do not go on listening
On any account of mine.
Please leave the poem.
Thank you.

But the job of the poet is to make the reader want to care—to awaken his sympathy, not extort it. The problem with Wright’s and Roethke’s poetics of sincerity is that it allows the poet to believe that right thinking is more important than good writing. In a 1961 essay, Wright made this denigration of artistry explicit: “It should be unnecessary to say that gentleness and courage in dealing with a subject matter very close to life . . . are primarily matters of personal character; and that, where the character is lacking, no amount of literary skill can substitute for it.” It is equally unnecessary to say that the reverse is also true: gentleness and courage, unfortunately perhaps, are unavailing without the colder cunning of the artist. Only when they combined both kinds of virtue did Roethke and Wright produce the poems by which they continue to live. ♦

Read more:

Kenneth Rexroth on Morris Graves – 1955

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It is rare that a towering intellect will let an artist have the last words on the judgement of his own work and worth. But Rexroth has done just that here in this 1955 piece. This essay is a wide-ranging contemplation of Graves when he was in his prime. Rexroth was in his prime as well and shows his knowledge and skill as a man of letters and here applies himself to the world of painting and calligraphy. Rexroth was deeply engaged in oriental thinking, culture, ideas and so had an affinity with Graves – he understands the orientation of the west coast to the east and was one of the forces in American culture that guided this proclivity. In this age of the internet, you may as a reader, follow Rexroth’s observations on different artistic comparisons and contrasts through Googling each entry as he makes his point.
This is also a rare and marvelous piece of American literature that is nearly unparalleled in its erudition, brevity and competence.-rlw

The Visionary Painting

of Morris Graves

It is not well known around the world that there existed in the nineteenth-century United States a very considerable visionary art. William Blake and his disciples, Samuel Palmer and Edward Calvert, Francis Danby and John Martin, the later Turner, the Pre-Raphaelites, Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau, the Nabis, were popular in America and had considerable influence. Most of the painters of this tendency are now forgotten, but one, Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917), has survived in popular esteem as one of America’s greatest artists. In our own time visionary painting has been at a discount all over the world, in spite of some interest stirred up a generation ago by the Surrealists, but it is quite possible that the reevaluation which has brought back Palmer, Calvert, and Redon, may in time to come restore many more forgotten reputations, even Moreau, who, say what you will, is the master of Rouault at least.

It is to this tendency of American painting that Morris Graves belongs. However, he is beyond question a richer and more skillful artist than any of his predecessors, and, to put it simply, a better, “greater” painter than any of them, except possibly Ryder. In recent years a whole new school of American painting, abstract-expressionism, has come to maturity and begun to influence painting around the world. Painters such as Rothko, Still, Pollock, Motherwell, de Kooning, and Ferren now seem to be the forerunners of what may be the international style of the coming decade. Morris Graves, however, stands apart from the expressionist group, as, at the other extreme of contemporary style, does a figure of comparable stature, Ben Shahn.

Morris Graves is less provincial, far more a “citizen of the world” than any of his predecessors of the visionary school. It is curious to reflect on this fact, a symptom of the terrific acceleration of the civilizing process of this continent, for Graves was born, raised, and came to maturity as an artist in the Pacific Northwest, a region that was a wilderness until the last years of the nineteenth century. Greatly as I admire Graves’s work, it must be admitted that certain of its characteristics are those found, not at the beginning, but at the end of a cultural process — hypersensitivity, specialization of subject, extreme refinement of technique. Nothing could show better the essentially world-wide, homogeneous nature of modern culture than that this successor to the great Sung painters sprang up in a region that was created out of a jungle-like rain forest by the backwash of the Alaska gold rush.

People in the rest of the United States and in Europe have difficulty in adjusting to the fact that the Pacific Coast of America faces the Far East, culturally as well as geographically. There is nothing cultish about this, as there might be elsewhere. The residents of California, Oregon, and Washington are as likely to travel across the Pacific as across the continent and the Atlantic. Knowledge of the Oriental languages is fairly widespread. The museums of the region all have extensive collections of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian art. Vedantist and Buddhist temples are to be seen in the coast cities. And of course there are large Chinese and Japanese colonies in every city, and proportionately even more Orientals in the countryside. It is interesting to note that besides the direct influence of the Orient on them, the Seattle painters, Graves, Tobey, and Callahan, the Portland painter, Price, the San Francisco abstract-expressionists, have all avoided the architectural limited-space painting characteristic of Western Europe from the Renaissance to Cubism, and show more affinity to the space concepts of the Venetians. Venice, of course, was for centuries Europe’s chief window on the East, an enclave of Byzantine civilization, and the first contact with China. There are drawings by Tintoretto that might have been done in his contemporary China. I do not believe that this has been a conscious influence in most cases, but rather an example of what anthropologists call convergence.

Graves was born in 1910 in the Fox Valley of Oregon and has lived in the state of Washington, in or near Seattle, all his life, except for short visits to Japan in 1930, to the Virgin Islands in 1939, to Honolulu in 1947, and a year in Europe in 1948, after his personal style was fully developed and “set.” He studied at the Seattle Museum, with the old master of Northwest painting, Mark Tobey, and had his first one-man show there in 1936. His first New York shows were in 1942 at the Willard Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art. His paintings are now to be found in the permanent collections of most of the major American museums, including the Metropolitan in New York.

Except for the emphasis on deep complex space and calligraphic skill which he learned from Tobey, but which he could just as well have learned from the Far Eastern paintings in the Seattle Museum, Graves’s style, or styles, his special mode of seeing reality and his techniques of handling it, have come, like the spider’s web, out of himself, or, at the most, out of the general cultural ambience of a world civilization, syncretic of all time and space. Therefore, influences and resemblances which seem certain to a historian of art may never in actual fact have existed. Since today Graves’s painting is an extremely specialized view of reality and his concept of space differs from that usually thought of as the contribution of modern painting, it is fruitful to compare him in his development with other painters of other times around the world, always realizing that, with the exception of Chinese, specifically Sung, and Japanese, specifically Ashikaga, and particularly the painter Sesshu, Graves himself may never have known of any resemblance let alone influence.

The first of Graves’s paintings after his apprentice days are in a rather thick medium, often laid in like cloisonné between broad, abrupt, dark, single brush strokes. The colors are all “local.” There is no attempt to achieve deep space or movement in space by juxtaposition of color. In fact the color is limited to a small gamut of earths, dull reds, browns, and yellows, with occasionally a slate blue. The line, however, has a great deal of snap, while the movement is very shallow, almost Egyptian. If there are receding planes in these pictures, they are kept to a minimum and the lines stick to the silhouette, never crossing from plane to plane to fill the space. The thing that identifies these paintings immediately is a peculiar, individual sense of silhouette, a silhouette defined by an eccentric calligraphic stroke.

As is well known, a highly personal line of this type comes late, if at all, to most artists. Yet it seems to have been the first thing Graves developed. I can think of nothing quite like it. The brush drawings of the early Jean de Bosschère — not the commercial book illustrations but rather those for his own Portes Fermées — have somewhat the same feeling. I rather doubt that Graves has ever seen these.

This is also somewhat the style of the earliest Klees. It is generally identified with the magazine Simplicissimus, a German satirical publication of the years before the First War. Graves, very likely, has never heard of it.

Already in this period, which incidentally was roughly that of the WPA Art Project (1935-42), Graves was beginning to concentrate on birds and sometimes small animals as masks of man and as symbols of the personae, the forces, operating in man — a kind of transcendental Aesop.

Certainly the best picture of this period is a large Game Cock (1933), many times life size, caught in a thick perimeter that whips across the picture plane like jagged lightning. There is no sign of the easy line so attractive to young artists who are beginning to pay attention to their drawing — the decorative sweeps of Beardsley, Botticelli, or the Book of Kells, those perennial favorites of the innocent. Neither is there any of the impressionist line of the Rodin water colors, the other and great influence on the young — and on Matisse and his descendants. This line is tooled to the last millimeter and, with the exception of the Bosschères I spoke of, there is nothing like it except certain painted ceramics, Greek and Oriental, some Romanesque illumination, and the akimbo linearity of the Moissac Portal. It is simply not a line usually found in painting. Later this cock was to be repainted, smaller, more compact and secretive, in the two Game Cocks of 1939.

In his early twenties Graves had begun to concentrate on calligraphy, under the influence of Mark Tobey’s “white writing,” which Tobey himself was just then beginning. Graves shared practically on equal terms with the older man in its development.

At this time too Graves took a short trip to Japan and later traveled in the eastern United States and the Caribbean. The paintings of this period parallel — they cannot really be said to be influenced by — the major paintings of Tintoretto in the treatment of the picture space as a saturated manifold quivering with three-dimensional lines, really tracks of force. The best analogy is to the whorls of iron filings in a magnetic field. But in this case the field is both three dimensional and possessed of more than two poles, and all of varying intensity. This space concept reaches its highest development only in the Venetian baroque in the West, but of course it is basic in the greatest periods of Sung and Ashikaga ink painting.

In writing of Sesshu, I have said, “The brush, which never departs from the calligraphy of the square Chinese characters, is as quick, precise, powerful, and yet effortless as Japanese sword play. ‘The sword,’ say the Zen fencing masters, ‘finds channels opened for it in space, and follows them without exertion to the wound.’ This is the central plastic conception of Sesshu. The picture space is thought of as a field of tangled forces, a complex dynamic web. The brush strokes flow naturally in this medium, defining it by their own tensions, like fish in a whirlpool of perfectly clear water.”

Both Tobey and Graves can be considered as direct descendants of Sesshu. In Graves there is an additional factor, a deliberate formal mysteriousness, a conscious seeking for uncanny form, analogous to that found in primitive cult objects — sacred stones and similar things. There are several series of studies of just such objects — stones and driftwood — notably the nine water colors of 1937 called Purification.

From 1939 to 1942 were the years of the Little Known Bird of the Inner Eye, Bird in Moonlight, and Blind Bird, now in the New York Museum of Modern Art collection, paintings which achieved an instantaneous fame when they were first exhibited. Every critic seems to have been aware that here was a really different yet thoroughly competent artist.

Incidentally, the haunted, uncanny character of these pictures, which reaches its height, representationally at least, in Young Rabbit and Foxfire and Bird with Possessions of 1942, owes little or nothing to Surrealism. There is much more conscious knowledge of mystery, and much less unconscious Freudian or Jungian symbolism.

On into the war years the mastery of calligraphy developed, until finally the line, sometimes “white writing,” sometimes black, reaches a climax in the Joyous Young Pine series of 1944, Black Waves (1944), In the Air (1943), and the two great ideographs called Waning Moon (1943), in the Seattle Art Museum. These paintings are fully the equal of anything, East or West, of the kind. Waning Moon passes out of the realm of ordinary painting altogether and can be compared only with the ominous, cryptic characters which Shingon monks write on six-foot sheets of paper while in trance.

To 1945 belongs the series called Consciousness Assuming the Form of a Crane. I own what I consider the best of these, and for nine years I have found its ephemeral simplicity inexhaustible. In these paintings the old dynamic hyperactive space of Sesshu has been surpassed. The background is a vague cloudy diagonal drift of red and green, overcast with a frost of white. From this, in a few faint strokes of white with touches of somber red, emerges a slowly pacing, more than life-size crane-being rising from flux into consciousness, but still withdrawn, irresponsible, and stately. There is nothing exactly like this in the world’s art, for it is not simply a literary or a mystical notion but a plastic one as well. Form, an ominous, indifferent form, emerges from formlessness, literally seems to bleed quietly into being.

The great dragon painters of the Orient whose dragons are confused with and only half emerge from vortexes of clouds and rain were seeking the same kind of effect, but of course their paintings are far more active. Graves’s Cranes are not active at all. They are as quiet as some half-caught telepathic message.

In 1948, Graves traveled in Europe. Much of this time was spent at Chartres. Just before leaving America he had done a series of what can only be described as intensely personal portraits of Chinese Shang and Chou bronzes. Objects of great mystery in their own right, in Graves’s paintings they become visions, supernatural judgments of the natural world. Individual State of the World, with its use of Graves’s recurrent minnow, symbol of the spark of spiritual illumination, is representative of this series. Contemporary with these bronzes is a series of vajras (Buddhist ritual bronze thunderbolts), lotuses, and diamonds of light which can be considered as illustrations for that great refusal to affirm either being or non-being, the Prajnaparamita Sutra.

No one has seen what Graves did at Chartres. In conversation he has told me how he spent the better part of a cold foggy winter there, painting every day, details of the cathedral, fragments of statues, bits of lichened masonry, and several pictures of the interior of the cathedral in early morning — the great vault, half filled with thick fog, dawn beginning to sparkle in the windows. When he came back to America and reviewed the year’s work he destroyed it all. I have a feeling that the painting in the Fredericks collection, Ever Cycling, may have survived from this time.

Shortly after this, Graves abandoned ink, gouache, and water color on paper, and returned to oil. From 1950 to the present [1955], most of the paintings are in the vein of Guardian — or the Spirit Bird Transporting Minnow from Stream to Stream of the Metropolitan collection — geese, hawks, and eagles, most of them over life size, many with mystifying accessories such as black suns or golden antlers. It would seem, looking at a sizable collection of these recent paintings, that Graves has, at least temporarily, abandoned the surcharged, dynamic, baroque space of the calligraphic paintings and returned to the intact object. Again, there is considerable resemblance to the bird painters of the Far East — the famous pair of ducks of the Sung Dynasty in the British Museum, or the early falcon painters of the Kano school. These new paintings share with them a concentration on maximum surface tension, a sense of absolutely full occupation of their separate volume, like formed globules of quicksilver, or drops of viscid oil. This particular formal quality does have a parallel in contemporary art, notably in Brancusi’s sculpture of a Fish and those dreaming ovoids he calls Birth, and more especially in the most successful of Hans Arp’s swollen, amoeboid figures. Piero della Francesca, of course, is the outstanding example of what might be called overloaded volume in the Renaissance. This, by the way, is a quality that must be distinguished from Picasso’s excessive specific gravity — in his case a directly representational device masquerading as “significant form.” Picasso and most of his disciples simply paint things to look many times as heavy as they actually are. In Graves’s recent work there is always a sense of ominous, impending meaning, as if these human-eyed birds were judging the spectator, rather than he them, and in terms of a set of values incomprehensible to our sensual world.

It is none too easy to sum up such an accomplishment as that of Graves. Certainly he is one of the greatest calligraphers of all time — not just a “master of line” but a creator of significant ideographs and, beyond that, a creator of a new and strange significance of the ideograph as well. Graves has also been one of the many around the world who in this generation have freed painting from the exhausted plasticism, the concentration on architecture alone, which formed the residue of subsiding Cubism. This he has accomplished not merely, or even primarily, by illustrative, but by plastic means, by discovering a new world of form antipodal to the Poussin rigor of Cubism. Graves has opened the plastic arts to a whole range of experience hardly found in the external world at all, let alone in art. He has created a series of objects, masks, personae, which act both as objects of contemplation, and, in contemplation, as sources of values which judge the world the spectator brings to them. On the whole this judgment has little room or time for those values known to the popular mind as “American,” but which are really those of our acquisitive mass Western civilization.

Jacques Maritain asks somewhere, “What kept Europe alive for so long after it had obviously been stricken with a fatal disease?” and answers his question, “The prayers of the contemplatives in the monasteries.” I am not prepared to enter into a metaphysical defense of petitionary prayer, or a sociological one of monasticism, but the empirical evidence for the social, perhaps even biological necessity for contemplation, is, in these apocalyptic hours, all too obvious. Civilizations endure as long as, somewhere, they can hold life in total vision. The function of the contemplative is contemplation. The function of the artist is the revelation of reality in process, permanence in change, the place of value in a world of facts. His duty is to keep open the channels of contemplation and to discover new ones. His role is purely revelatory. He can bring men to the springs of the good, the true, and the beautiful, but he cannot make them drink. The activities of men endure and have meaning as long as they emanate from a core of transcendental calm. The contemplative, the mystic, assuming moral responsibility for the distracted, tries to keep his gaze fixed on that core. The artist uses the materials of the world to direct men’s attention back to it. When it is lost sight of, society perishes.

Although the mystique behind such evaluation is overtly Oriental, even Buddhist or Vedantist, and hence anti-humanistic, I do not feel that this type of explication is really relevant. The perfected mystic, of course, would not seek to express himself at all. In the last analysis it is the artist, the contemplator and fabricator, who speaks and judges through these embodied visions. And the united act of contemplation and shaping of reality is in its essence the truest and fullest human deed. Morris Graves has said of his own work: “If the paintings are confounding to anyone — then I feel that words (my words, almost anyone’s words) would add confusion. For the one to whom the message is clear or even partially clear or challengingly obscure — then, for them, words are obviously excessive. To the one whose searching is not similar to ours — or those who do not feel the awful frustrations of being caught in our individual and collective projection of our civilization’s extremity — to those who believe that our extroverted civilization is constructively progressing — those who seeing and tasting the fruits and new buds of self-destructive progress are still calling it good, to them the ideas in the paintings are still preposterous, hence not worth consideration.”



Northwest Polytheism


The power of myth, its reality, resides precisely in its power to seize and influence psychic life. The Greeks knew this so well, and so they had no depth psychology and psychopathology such as we have. They had myths. And we have no myths as such—instead, depth psychology and psychopathology. Therefore…psychology shows myths in modern dress and myths show our depth psychology in ancient dress.”


James Hillman

Sensing a Path

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If genius is profuse, never ending – stuck in the middle of a work is – the wrong track, Genius is the track seen. Once seen it is impossible to keep from it. The superficial definitions, such as “genius is industry, genius is hard work, etc. ” are nonsense. It is to see the track, to smell it out, to know it inevitable-sense sticking out all round feeling, feeling, seeing-hearing touching. the rest is pure gravity. (The earth pull.)

William Carlos Williams

The Descent of Winter