Artists', Poets', Novelists' letters

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Artists', Poets', Novelists' letters

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Redigeret: aug 7, 2007, 6:03 pm

I think the letter is an artform that combines art and life. We see this Van Gogh's letters and in the letters of many others who are involved in creative work. Please post anything about letters here. Are letters a dying form with the advent of the Internet? Will we be missing this important key to artists'/writers' lives in the future?

I told Southwestpoet I would see if James Wright had mentioned Richard Hugo in his letters. He did.

For instance, in a very, very long letter to Robert Bly, he mentions Richard F. Hugo as being a "good friend" of his. As was Wright's way, he typed out an entire poem of Hugo's for Bly. Wright kept a private anthology of poems and often peppered his letters with them.

Describing Hugo's poem, Wright says:

"It describes a man journeying alone into an exotic jungle, where he witnesses and participates in some mysterious ceremony (it is really the Jungian night-journey, though HUgo didn't theorize, he just WROTE), but then, attempting to return, takes one wrong trail after another till he is lost in the growth."

The voyager in Hugo's poem might describe Wright himself who took several wrong turns in life and worked it all out through his poetry.

aug 7, 2007, 4:03 pm

But aren't we writing letters here, of a sort? Isn't a blog a letter, an email, any written response on the internet? Granted they tend to be shorter than most written letters but aren't they the same sort of communication?

The few times I write a letter I write it on a word processor, then print it off. I could as easily attach it to an email or copy it to a blog. Is a letter less a letter for being in electronic form?

Perhaps you feel that letters must be personal to a single individual. I simply feel differently but then I am not a great letter writer. I am told that my letters are too concise; that good letter writers are more expansive and put more of themselves into their letters. You, for instance, seem to have no trouble putting passion and life on the electronic page.

Someday we may forgo letter writing for face-to-face communication online. I tend to doubt it because some of us (me for instance) don't have the communication skills for that type of thing. Letter writing is a long way from becoming obsolete in my opinion.

aug 7, 2007, 4:11 pm

Now, see, xenchu, you get to the heart of the matter. This is what I want to what we're doing the same as the letter writing of, say, Van Gogh, James Wright, etc.? I want to know what others think. Thank you for bringing it out so clearly.

aug 7, 2007, 4:17 pm

Electronic letter writing, note taking, etc. will kill biography.

Redigeret: aug 7, 2007, 5:58 pm

Oh, Gene, do you really think so? What do the rest of you think?

Online communication has some advantages. Meeting and making mass acquaintances, getting your thoughts out to a large (maybe) audience. And they are letters, of a sort, and they're essays, reviews, jokes, and just about everything we can imagine.

But xenchu, do you write differenly online than you do in letters?

I know I do, and I also write fewer letters now that I'm online. With a letter, I take more time to flesh it out. You should see how long that letter is from Wright to Bly. Pages. And Wright can feel free to quote whole poems, whereas online there could be a problem with copyright, which kind of kills the flow. Also the knowledge that it is public, changes things for me. With a letter, at least I have the illusion that what I write is between that person and myself only.

I also write differently according to who I'm writing to. Some letters are formal, others mischevious, others very intimate and personal, depending. Online, I've develop a kind of groupspeak, almost, in many instances.

aug 7, 2007, 6:37 pm

Now, see, xenchu, you get to the heart of the matter. This is what I want to what we're doing the same as the letter writing of, say, Van Gogh, James Wright, etc.? I want to know what others think. Thank you for bringing it out so clearly.

Well, of course, there are differences. We are not, after all, Wright or Van Gogh. That surely counts as a great difference.

But I believe that the major difference is that their letters were more personal. Usually they were writing from one individual to another. Their audience of one was known and what would affect that audience was more or less known to them.

Online, our correspondence is more likely to be one-to-many, to say what we have to say will be said to a wide audience of unknown size and makeup. That is bound to have a great influence on what you say and how you say it. You are not likely to include a complaint about your hemorrhoids in a forum such as this.

If you write on paper with pen or pencil the act is different, no doubt about it. The electronic ability to add and delete as you please, the spell-checker and the very fact that you are typing instead of writing manually all contribute to differences in style and theme.

For instance, my handwriting is wretched and I am likely to print what I write in a letter instead of using cursive. It affects the length and quality of what I write to anyone.

I am sure others will provide insights and opinions of their own. I look forward to reading them.

aug 7, 2007, 7:37 pm

All good points, xenchu.

And you are right that few of us are up to the calibre of a Van Gogh or a Wright!

Still, I think of letters as an artform, and it's one I might have done better at perfecting had I not gotten bitten by the Internet bug. I have a friend I graduated with here at BGSU, and we used to write beautiful letters to each other. Long letters full of faith and doubt and fear. And now we don't. It's just an e-mail every now and then, brief, to the point. We've told each other many times that we miss each other's letters, but we aren't doing anything about it.

aug 7, 2007, 7:51 pm

I think email and the internet are reviving the art of letter-writing, albeit in a different form than it once existed. I had almost stopped writing letters until email came along. To write a handwritten or typed letter requires a certain attitude of leisure, I think, that no longer exists in our society.

Email, so quick and easy to write and send, has seduced us back into the world of written communication. And once one has been seduced, the letters start getting longer, because just starting to set something down in writing breaks the ice, primes the pump, and we tend to go further with our thoughts than we may have intended to.

Furthermore, the email/electronic form has a wonderful advantage over the written letter, in the way it invites conversation. We have something quite new that people never had in the past - a written form of conversation that allows people to compose their thoughts in the same careful and reflective way people composed letters, but to write back and forth in a way that resembles spoken conversation. Yes, people did write letters in answer to each others' letters, but the time involved in waiting for mail delivery made it difficult to follow a train of thought. So much life can intervene between letters, changing the subjects we may want to address.

I think we're more aware today of the potentially public nature of written communications, whether online or on paper. The younger generation, in particular, seems less worried about their thoughts and feelings becoming public. We're always reading about the private lives of movie stars, and I think younger people have grown used to the idea of people sharing more of their private selves with the world in general.

Redigeret: aug 7, 2007, 8:53 pm

"I think email and the internet are reviving the art of letter-writing, albeit in a different form than it once existed."

Yes, there is that aspect. But sometimes I think we're missing something that was more thoughtful. I think we could make time for writing letters, but we've caused the world to move so fast that we're losing the ability to slow down. I don't think the human body or mind were meant for the demands now being placed on it. All the e-mails, rapid travel.

I know I probably sound like a nostalgic fool, and, granted, I don't do well in this fast-fast culture. I move slowly, think slowly. My mind gets rattled from too much activity. It's perhaps harder for me than it is for some people to "winnow" through information and to cut out all the unnecessary noise. I often must retreat to an empty room and just sit there in the quiet to gather myself.

Regarding the younger generation: I've been teaching English since 1985 at one university or another. And I can confidently say that the students' writing is not getting better, although they e-mail and text message all the time, it's getting worse.** My colleagues concur with me. The students' attention spans are getting shorter. They get frustrated faster. They don't want to take notes. One student took a picture of the notes I'd written on the board with his cell phone! Another student saw him doing it and pronounced it a great idea. This concerns me. I think we gain something from slowing down, writing the notes in our own hand, taking them home, digesting them, adding to them.

A tangeant. Excuse me!

Margad and xenchu, I admire your ability to express yourselves. Very well thought out and expressed. My mind is much more diffuse, digressive.

**I am speaking of incoming Freshmen. Of course I have many exceptionally talented writers in the upper level classes. I think those people would have been talented regardless. But overall I think that the *average* (non English major) student is less prepared to express herself through writing than students once were.

Redigeret: aug 7, 2007, 9:04 pm

I think you express yourself just fine, Theresa!

I do agree with you, 100%, about the world moving too fast nowadays, and I think electronics are at least partly, if not largely, to blame. Back in the 50s and 60s, people used to worry about the risks of machines eliminating assembly line jobs because they could do the same things humans did, but more quickly and (presumably) effectively. We had no notion of what the computer revolution would bring. I have to shudder when I see TV commercials touting the benefits of hand-held computers because people on vacation can keep track of what's going on at the office and quickly respond to any little emergencies their bosses or underlings bring to their attention. Do people have to be working all the time? There are many advantages to the speed computers bring us, but the disadvantages are profound. Computers aren't going away real soon, though, so I think it behooves us to learn (as individuals and as a society) how to use them in a way that supports rather than degrades our humanity. Part of that means learning when to retreat, as you say, Theresa.

I suspect television is a worse culprit than computers and cell-phones in short-circuiting the attention spans of the younger generation. Everything is simplified and predigested, with the programs (PBS excepted) there to support the 15- and 30-second commercials rather than vice-versa. Have you ever watched The History Channel? After every one of the frequent commercial breaks, the previous segment of the program is summarized, leaving only a few minutes for new material before the next commercial break. But the commercials do shatter one's concentration. If one were reared on a steady diet of this stuff, it might become quite difficult to remember what was in the last program segment without a recap.

The ancient Greeks worried about the new technology of writing books, because it was sure to wreck people's ability to memorize oral educational instructions and literature. Guess what - it did. But I think television and computers will die before written literature will. The electrical grid and the world's oil supply are not going to hold out forever.

aug 7, 2007, 9:43 pm

Yes, TV. The blurring of reality and entertainment and news. So many of my students can't tell the difference. About 5 years ago, I showed a documentary about the Vietnam War and the scenes were heartwrending. A student came up afterwards and said she'd felt nothing. To her great credit, this disturbed her. She said, "I felt like I was just watching a movie."

My husband tells me I worry too much. But it does disturb me, this speed. What does it mean for a person's ability to look deeply into a Rothko or a Caravaggio. Art is life. (sigh)

aug 8, 2007, 2:15 am

One of the many extremely disturbing things to me about 9/11 was watching those towers fall over and over on TV. At first, it was more mesmerizing than horrifying for exactly the reason your student gave. But after awhile, I couldn't bear to see it one more time. I still can't. Since then, I feel strongly that I don't want to watch simulated scenes of human-caused disasters in movies. It's dehumanizing. And yet I see TV commercials now for movies where the whole point of the ad is: this movie is more violent than any movie you've seen before. Even the recent, critically acclaimed film about the girl in a war-torn village who goes into a fantasy world in a tree-stump (can't remember the title) - the very idea of watching such things seemed horrifying to me. I wonder sometimes whether the reason we, as a country, became capable of setting up a torture camp in Guantanamo is because we have watched too many scenes of torture in movies.

Yes, it is possible to worry too much. But when we stop worrying at all about such things, we are lost.

Redigeret: aug 8, 2007, 3:27 pm

i admit i've lost the art of scratching a colored ink pen across a page
announcing my desire or intent
sealing the secret in a scented envelope
and taking the time to get to a box where it's on it's way
to surprise a lover.

so send me your address, i need to get back in shape at this.

aug 8, 2007, 11:24 am

In the distance I see biography’s end
Buried in cyberspace where we spend
Much of our time today
Pushing a button the one marked send.

The letters the notes the physical way
We convey our thought our lives our things to say
Are pressed from our fingertips
Into the ether leaving no trace of day.

All our talk our thoughts our nighttime trips
Through the Labyrinths of mind our life just slips
Beyond our grasp unordered, unkept, unken’d
By any but the few we’ve touched with our fingertips.

In the distance I see biography’s end
Buried in cyberspace where we spend
Much of our time today
Pushing a button the one marked send.

Theresa if you go back and read your exchange with Xenchu you will see you have made my argument about biography.

aug 8, 2007, 6:05 pm

I definitely entered this conversation late--and I appreciate what has already been said--some of which I am probably just duplicating.

Two points, though... First, in answer to (I think) Theresa's question, I don't believe what we're doing here is equivalent to artists' letters from an earlier time... That's because what we are doing here, whether hurriedly or slowly and reflectively, is publishing. Posting to a discussion group or a bulletin board or a blog is not private communication (though some folks seem to post private diaries in public places, an interesting phenomenon in itself).

Having said that, though, I echo the comment about email reviving the art of letter writing for some of us. There is nothing about the speed of the medium that requires us to write more quickly or less reflectively. I carry on email correspondence with friends and colleagues--including poets and philosophers--in many parts of the world because of my own nomadic existence as artist and scholar... Much of it takes the form of collaboration on philosophical work and artistic projects. Every one of those emails takes as much time to compose as a letter I would write with pen and ink. I may have a more reliable courier and better roads than Descartes and Elizabeth or Anne Conway and Henry More did (though not always--spam filters that have the delicacy of a sledge hammer sometimes decide to block everything sent from a gmail account, and the Chinese government has a rather effective and labor intensive process of filtering that makes correspondence--electronic and otherwise--a bit of a guessing game sometimes), but the courier and the roads don't necessarily affect my writing. They don't always even mean faster responses. Messages may arrive (more or less) at the speed of light, but they still have to wait for time in which to respond...

My point is that we can use technology to facilitate our correspondence (and a quill pen is technology as surely as a computer), or we can let the technology determine our correspondence. But that really is up to us.

Redigeret: aug 8, 2007, 11:52 pm

Well, I'm not even going to try to hold up my end of the conversation against Steve. His work in philosophy is intimidating and impressive. Here is the thing that keeps niggling me. It comes from a my reading some years ago of a book by Jerry Mander called IN THE ABSENCE OF THE SACRED. In the book, Mander argues that we can't judge technology by how it benefits us personally. I feel joy when I use the Internet, most of that joy coming from meeting good people like you all, people that I'd never have met otherwise. Also, when I'm working on a story and need some scientific information about, say, a dirt dobber (as happened the other day), I can type it into the search engine and voila. I don't have to leave a blank or stop what I'm doing and make a trip to the library and I don't have to be a trivia queen.

But on the other hand I feel guilt because I think I'm losing something and we're all losing something, and I don't think we will get it back. When Annie Dilliard wrote PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK, which is filled with scientific information, she didn't have the Internet. She went to the library and came home with piles and piles of books which she sat with and made note cards from. Her book won a Pulitzer Prize. She didn't need the Internet and, really, I don't either. I just like the convenience. But what am I missing by not going to the library? I know I can still go to the library, but I usually won't.

It's true that it is up to us to not let technology determine our correspondence, but, doggone if it hasn't in my case. And I wish I was stronger, but I'm not.

My Internet correspondences to friends, colleagues, acquaintances ARE shorter than what I would write out on paper, and I find myself often apologizing to the recepient about my messages/documents being so "long." And they're not long, compared to the letters I used to write. One the Internet I compose faster, make more mistakes, and I don't take the time to think deeply and maybe allow that surprising detail or observation to surface. I don't want this to happen, I'm aware that it is happening, but I don't seem to be able to change it because I respond differently to the Internet as a medium for creation.

Many of you must be familiar with Van Gogh's letters and how he did little sketches in them. The other day, I found a letter I'd written to my mother back in the early eighties (she died in 1999) and I was trying to explain to her the look of an antique stove we had bought. And I had drawn her a picture of it. If I were writing the same letter now, I wouldn't do that; rather, I'd probably find one like it on the Internet and print off a copy of it and send her that.

I'm weak.

I enjoy the benefits of the Internet. I do. But sometimes I think I've made a Faustian bargain with it.

The real question is, do you think Jerry Mander now uses the Internet? (smile)

aug 9, 2007, 12:57 am

If the work is intimidating it needs to be put aside... To me, the point is not whether Jerry Mander or Sven Birkerts or any other neo-luddite uses the internet. The point is that, no matter what the technology, we have to think about how we use it. To be perfectly honest, the internet makes my life less convenient in countless ways--starting with the fact that 24/7 access blurs the distinction between time "on" and time "off." While I can turn my computer off as surely as I can close my office door, students and colleagues know they can send email any time--and some of them expect immediate response... That's an inconvenience we didn't deal with before the internet. And I would say my email is typically longer than my written correspondence is (or would have been). I routinely share sketches in email (just sent one a few moments ago), and I have many friends and colleagues who do so as well. On the subject of research, I go around and around with students on this... We need to use the same skills in sifting and assessing internet sources that we use with sources from the library, don't we? Both (the internet and libraries), actually, are cluttered with junk--and the liberal arts are intended to help us find the good stuff in the midst of it. It's interesting that the original Luddites weren't opposed to tools. They were opposed to the use of tools to deprive human beings of their work. the response was to smash the tools that did that and insist that people know enough about their tools to use them well. That, I think, is the point. Do we have the patience to learn new tools well enough to use them creatively and constructively in our work--and to know which tools (old or new) to use when...?

Redigeret: aug 9, 2007, 1:43 am

Steve, my comment about your work in philosophy being intimidating was meant to say firstly that I admire your accomplishments so much and also that I feel a lack of ability to function in that realm that you seem to inhabit so easily. Anyone, anytime, can argue me under the table very quickly. I lack the ability to cut to the chase and see the real deal. My mind is rather blurry, diffuse. I'm not quick witted at all. I get tongue tied in the presence of massive intelligence. All right, I'm just an insecure person.

And my comment about Jerry Mander, as I look at it now, was a private joke of mine. I was once convinced I would never use the Internet, and now ...

I hear what you are saying. And I go over the same things with my students about research tools. And you are right, right, right that we need to learn how to use our tools in ways that benefit us. I can see the logic of all of that. I do see it. It is in my conscious mind. But I think there is a slippage that happens, a shift that happens, slowly, insidiously, maybe in the beginning without our knowing, a change. Sometimes I wonder if one day I'll look up and say, "How did I get HERE?"

I have shared sketches as well, but Steve, you know it is not the same thing as holding a sketch in your hand and running your fingers over the indention it makes in the paper, and looking at all the little stray marks that came from the artist's pen or pencil. The sensory enjoyment of the sketch is missing.

It is hard to explain, and I'm not explaining it very well.

aug 9, 2007, 2:06 am

It seems to me that you argue quite effectively, Theresa... And I find that I ask myself how I got here several times a day at least... ;)

As for the sensory enjoyment... I'd argue that it's not missing, but different. Every medium involves a different set of sensory experiences--a pencil sketch is different from an ink wash, watercolors are different from oils or acrylics, handmade paper is different from commercial... But all involve sensory experience, and so does digital art on the computer. Of course, if we're using the computer to transmit a reproduction, that raises another set of issues (that Benjamin explored brilliantly) about the difference between an original and a copy. These are certainly questions every photographer interested in his or her work as art has to ask. But media aren't mutually exclusive, and sharing digital art doesn't prevent sharing art on paper (or some other medium)...

In any case, I've said (more than!) enough for now, so I'm going to return to West Texas cowboy mode and go quietly work on some fences...

aug 9, 2007, 4:12 pm

Steve, maybe in bringing the topic up what I was really doing was making a little grave in myself for things I'm afraid I've lost. I don't want to smash the machines. Hart Crane said the that in the modern world it was imortant to consider our relationship to them. We should ask ourselves questions about how we use technology. Looking at human history, I see that we most often don't. That's depressing to me sometimes, and scary.

I recently watched MODERN TIMES, too.

My mind works like maze of labyrinth. It takes longer for me to figure things out, but it's okay with me, most of the time, until I encounter a really sharp mind, then start the doubts. Thanks for your graciousness; it puts me at ease.

Good luck with the fences.

Redigeret: aug 10, 2007, 11:11 am

I don't know, Theresa. If I was god I might make a few dictates about how television and radio are used, or decree no one can exploit the power of the atom for ill except me. I might create death shocks when someone accesses child porn or plans for a terrorist attack on the internets and I'm sure being god there would be many other things I would restrict as well, but, thank God, I am not god, so I don't think I will attempt to do any of these things. After all, for good or ill we have free will.

It is useful to study how technology is used, not to restrict it's use, but to understand how technology improves or undermines our humanity. Once understood then we must make others aware of what we find and persuade them to use what helps and not use what doesn't. Unfortunately, technology is a dual-edged sword.

In our attempts to improve our lives, we have denied certain of our very human tools that aid in this educational process. Technology increases cognitive dissonance. Being human in America is not as easy as being human in the Kalahari bush.

That being said, I'm sure all of you can attest humans are driven by their humanity to create and if technology facilitates that creation, then we create the required technology. Which brings us back to the beginning of this argument, we create to achieve our goals. The wisdom of the goal dictates the wisdom of the creation. The further one strays from humanity, the further one strays from wisdom.

The need to transcend our humanity is the true curse of Eden.

aug 10, 2007, 3:24 pm

Gene said: "The need to transcend our humanity is the true curse of Eden."

This is a very powerful statement. The myth of paradise is strong in art and life. Many of the Western settlers thought they were creating paradise on Earth. Ezra Pound sought paradise through his poetry and thought his poetry could bring about a kind of utopia. Then after his imprisonment in Italy and incarceration in a mental institution in the US, his ideas changed. The last cantos he wrote are the best, I think.

aug 11, 2007, 1:40 am

All of you are amazing! I'm almost afraid to jump in to the soup.

The early messages in this string reminded me of the letters I have tucked away from a high school friend who died while doing a medical internship many years ago. I recall one letter in particular in which he had just seen the "new" movie La Dolce Vita with some friends, but thought I was the only person who would understand his feelings about it and we were many miles apart and too poor to spend hours on the phone. I haven't read that letter for years and it was written over 40 years ago. I don't recall the content of many emails I've received, ever.

Yet most of my correspondence, both professionally and personally, is by email these days.

I will work at reaching the philosophical level where the rest of you are flying.

Redigeret: aug 12, 2007, 8:16 pm

You mentioned the "Faustian bargain," Theresa. Yes, very apt. And you are so right that our dependence on technology does change us, probably irrevocably, in certain ways and not always for the better. Indeed, we may have brought the world to the brink of destruction, not so much with computers perhaps, but with our unthinking, sorcerer's-apprentice-like exploitation of petroleum. And can we be certain there is not some insidious but pervasive aspect of computer use that we are overlooking, but which will one day become horribly apparent to us after we can no longer dial the clock back? Few things in life are certain.

But one certain thing in life is change. Irrevocable change, even. Each of us inherits not only the world we make, but also the world that our ancestors left and that the society around us makes. I think we have to be gentle with ourselves and recognize the limits of our responsibility. And yet at the same time, the only power we have is the power of our own personal actions and communications. That's why I want to go beyond mourning what I have lost as the result of various changes, to keep in mind also what I have gained. In pointing out the negatives of computer use, Theresa, you've probably nudged me into a more positive position that I would take if this thread had started with a discussion of the positive marvels of computers and email and websites. My natural instinct is to try to figure out what is being overlooked.

In this thread as in life generally, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Thinking deeply about both the advantages and disadvantages of computers will help us use them in the most responsible and life-affirming way. You have an amazing ability, Theresa, to cut below the surface and get people talking about things that really matter, which is why this group is so great.

Welcome to the soup, PDE!

Redigeret: aug 12, 2007, 8:26 pm

margad: You said: "In this thread as in life generally, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Thinking deeply about both the advantages and disadvantages of computers will help us use them in the most responsible and life-affirming way."

I absolutely agree; issues rarely involve a simple agreement or disagreement. I now enjoy my curiosity that never stops and wants to look at as many sides of a debate as I can. The down side is that my own thoughts can get hopelessly mired in doubts. To that end, it is necessary indeed for me to find ways to be gentle with myself, margad. I am working on that, and I appreciate the reminder.

Writing is invaluable to me in the way it helps me to work out my feelings about things.