poetry and painting

prepared for “Epiphanic Moments: A Conversation About Poetry and Painting” (with Ken Hada, Nathan Lewis, and Jonas Zdanys) at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, 18 April 2018

In his Pedagogical Sketchbook (1925), Paul Klee described painting as “taking a line for a walk.” I fell in love with that image the first time I encountered it, because it gets right to the point – and it calls to mind one of the most compelling intersections of poetry and painting. It marks an obsession – the line – shared by the two arts. It’s interesting to me that this obsession is – on the face of it – a geometric figure, one of the basic elements, in fact, of geometry. It is front and center in the first book of Euclid’s Elements, and I find that tangle of connections fascinating.

It occurred to me a number of years ago when I was doing a close reading of the book with a small group of students at the University of Chicago that Euclid was a kind of poet (which is, by the way, how Kierkegaard described himself – and also god: as “a kind of poet”). You can, in fact, say that of just about every early “Greek” thinker – and, though we have splintered disciplines and increasingly quarantined science and technology from the arts, when we work our way back to the thinkers known as Presocratics who were scattered around the Mediterranean from the 7th through the 4th centuries BCE and are often credited with taking the first steps toward science in “our” collective memory, there is poetry and, with it, music.

François Jullien and others have made it clear that this is strikingly similar to steps early Chinese thinkers took – and we can find similar starting points in Africa (as in Kwame Gyekye’s studies of Akan thought) and in the Americas (before they were known as “the Americas”). One of the questions that has obsessed me in my work as a philosopher is how this unity came to be fragmented and what price we have paid for it.

But back to Euclid for a moment. Here’s the first stanza of a poem called “boundaries” composed of translations of a number of his definitions in Book One of the Elements:

sign is that that that has no part line is that that that has
length no width limits of lines are signs straight line lies
even with signs it contains epiphany is that that that has
length and width alone limits of epiphanies are lines
ground level epiphany is that that that lies with lines it
contains boundary is that that that is limit scheme is that
that that is bound by some limit circle center is sign

Let’s play with that for a moment. What I’ve translated as “sign” (semeion) is usually translated as “point” — and that’s fine (and understandable, given that this is a treatise on geometry). But it also obscures something that I think is important. Euclid’s “sign” has no dimension. It is no thing. And that’s the point. We start where we are (where else?) with a sign (which is, for want of a better term, a figment of our imagination) and we make something of it. We mark it.

Euclid takes the sign (which is nothing) and gives it length by connecting it with another sign (nothing to nothing), The sign is the limit of the line, and now we have some thing that we can see – not the line, mind you, but the passage between two signs, from here to there. We can see ourselves walking. We have, so to speak, taken the sign for a walk to describe a line. What happens if we take the line for a walk? Euclid says we get an epiphaneia. That has almost always been translated into English as “surface,” but here now you can hear it: epiphany. So. Make a point, walk it to another point, and you have a line. Walk the line to another line and you have an epiphany. Do you see what I’m saying?

The philosophical tradition I was educated in and have mostly worked in is Augustinian and comes to me via Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, and the pragmatism of C.S. Peirce, William James, Cornel West, Gertrude Stein, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens. This is not the time or place to go into detail about how all these people are connected – but suffice it to say that, particularly in conversation with Daoism and Zen Buddhism, they all take nothing seriously, as “the force” – as Emily Dickinson put it – that renovates the world. They share (and I share) a fascination with becoming that turns on how we make something of nothing.

And I come to that at least in part by way of poetry and painting — in my own experience, painting first, then poetry, then philosophy – backing into language (where philosophy takes place) from the play of appearances (epiphanies) in the world. I want to try to be as clear about that as I can (and I count on you and my friends here on the panel to help me make it clearer). I can speak of a sequence (and even dredge up pivotal moments and rough dates if I work at it), but the experience is of a whole, all at once, not a narrative so much as a vision – not an epic but a lyric poem.

I spent a lot of time with my Grandpa as a child. I lived across the street from Granny and Grandpa right up to the edge of adolescence, when we moved to the Texas Panhandle. These aren’t words he would have used, but that time with him taught me that everything we do is both an investigation and a construction of the world we live in. And, looking back, it taught me that two of the most important philosophical questions we can ask are “what do we mean by ‘we’?” and “what do you think you’re doing?” Grandpa was a builder, and I suppose that’s why I would include a third question that has been of particular importance for me in both painting and poetry (as well as philosophy): “What do you make of it?”

I am interested in the way light breaks on edges, the way pigment takes to surface, the way words tumble out onto the page, the way the eye of the ear sees them. I find common ground with John Cage when he says “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry” and (in the same piece, his “Lecture on Nothing”) when he says “Kansas is like nothing on earth.”

Kansas, southeastern Colorado, the northeastern corner of New Mexico, the panhandle of Oklahoma, and (especially) the panhandle of Texas – that is where I grew up, and it shaped my eyes like nothing on earth. (On that note, I also want to credit my Granny, who, when she encountered the Texas panhandle for the first time when we moved there from Wichita Falls when I was eleven, said “This is the end of the world.” That got me thinking about edges.)

I find common ground with Helen Frankenthaler when she embraces chance and lets paint flow on raw canvas to create forms that surprise and invite us to see worlds we would never have seen alone. This leads me to embrace lyric poetry as a form of abstraction (in the way that computer scientists use the term), a simplification (and an interface) that allows us to manipulate complexities below the surface (remember, that’s an epiphany) without getting bogged down in them. And it leads me to agree with Georgia O’Keeffe when she says all painting is abstract. (I’m going to resist the temptation to cite the Star Trek Next Generation episode that illustrates what this means for the relationship between epic and lyric poetry. But ask me later if you’re interested.)

I’m not big on bullet points. (A group of my students in China who were struggling with a poem I had written on the blackboard during a lecture asked if I couldn’t just underline the important words. So I turned to the blackboard, underlined the whole poem, and said “Every word is important.”) But I am genetically predisposed to nailing theses on church doors as invitations to scholarly discussion. So I leave you with a handful of theses for your consideration.

1. The intersection of poetry and painting is the line. Lines appear in the same inexplicable collisions that inspire our poetry and our painting.

2. At the point where science begins, there is poetry and music. This may also be extended to the claim that the structure of human consciousness is musical. I’d go so far as to say that the structure of human consciousness is more like a collection of lyric poems than a narrative.

3. When we take a line for a walk – in poetry or in painting – we make an epiphany.

4. Nothing is the force that renovates the world (or, as Laozi put it, “the wheel has thirty spokes, but nothing makes it work”).

5. We move from the play of appearances in the world to visions – glimpses – of the whole. One of the ways we do that is in lyric poetry. Another is painting.

6. Both painting and lyric poetry are forms of abstraction that function as what Piaget called “structures of the whole.” They make “epiphanic moments” in which, like Julian of Norwich, we may see the whole universe in what we can hold in the palm of our hand.

7. There are three central philosophical questions around which our creative work circulates: “What do we mean by ‘we’?” “What do you think you’re doing?” and “What do you make of it?”

©Steven Schroeder

on the day of the martyrs of Chicago (on the eve of the birthdays of Karl Marx and Søren Kierkegaard)

written for the closing reception of In the Path of Totality at the Grandview in Ada, Oklahoma on 4 May 2018…

History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.
-Karl Marx

It was farce the first time, Karl. Always is.
And if you’d lived to see Mikhail and
Samuel play you would have known human
drama always comes in tragicomic form,
one variation after another on

Shall we go?
Yes, let’s go.
They do not move.

Look at things as we almost always do,
a passing glance in the corner of the eye,
and they seem so simple they go
without saying. Still,

turn and look again. Look them straight in the eye,
and they are subtle, bursting with complexity.
You see, time is time, not money.
But that is what we make of it

as soon as anyone works for anyone,
for the sake of commerce, and
before you know it, we think money
before time and time before persons
and there is nothing that money can’t buy
and we spend most of our time moving money.

Standing on our heads, we
do not notice when
the world is upside down.

Harpo got it. It goes
without saying.

He tuned his harp slack, you know,
like a Cha’an master’s guqin.
It is all music, and he said nothing
with such skill we laughed and did not forget
we were laughing at ourselves.

The day will come, August said, when
our silence will be more powerful than
the voices you are throttling today
.

It had already come, as it does,
as it does, as it always does.

On the day of the martyrs of Chicago,
I remember those silenced witnesses,
buried like poets outside the city

walls, and I say the names of the nobodies
nobody knows caught time and time again in
crossfire. And I remember Lucy, who carried on –

how she carried on! – like Mother Jones,
praying for the dead, fighting like hell for the living.

It always makes me smile to know that she
and Albert came up from Texas to raise holy
hell in Chicago. Albert wasn’t born there, and he
had been a soldier in the Confederate army
before the world turned and he turned
to look it in the eye. Born again,
I guess you could say, in Waco.

Lucy always said she was born in Johnson County,
but the experts say Virginia now. Either way,
she claimed Texas, and I think Johnson County
was close enough to give me reason to believe
her spirit present in Decatur all those times
my Grandpa and I stopped for pie
and coffee at the Green Frog.

Søren said we are always in the wrong
vis-à-vis god, but he knew as well as Karl
that god died. They heard it in the same Church.

I take it as another way to say
we are always on the way.
It’s the going, not the gone.

And Søren learned from Meister Eckhart
that if god is born at all it is again
and again in the soul of
each and every one,
always in the present moment.

The self, he said, by relating itself to its own self
is grounded transparently in the power that posited it
.

Transparently, feet on the ground,
not pie in the sky. Like Lucy. Like Albert.

I don’t believe the long struggle will end, Che,
and that’s ok. It is as long as life. And even
if the arc of the universe is toward nothing (as I
suspect it is), nothing, as Søren said, is
better than something. nothing

nothing nothing, he said. Wonderful!

Yes. Long as life.
Between you and me,
we have all the time

in the world
to be human,
to be here now.

We have nothing to lose but our chains.

4 May 2018

©Steven Schroeder

a dance in mind

in reply to Brother Martin’s invitation to scholarly debate

1

When Jesus said, turn,
for Christ’s sake, turn
as though you believed

God present here, present
now,
he did not mean to say
to look the other way.

He had a dance in mind –
a circle with no end,
the turning, not

the turn.

2

Power is nothing
to fear, nothing
to dance about, nothing

but the weight of the world’s despair,
the wait of the world turning,
here and there, back to

love, imperfect as
it always seems to be.

Empty,
Jesus did not think himself

God.

3

Money is another story.

It does not make souls fly.
It does not make minds certain.

It does make certain minds
think themselves

God.

4

Love makes love,
not fear, not

nets with which to fish for the means of men

La lucha continua no terminará fácilmente.

Turn.

©Steven Schroeder

end of the line

A highway never meant to survive
a nuclear war draws a line
from the JC Penney Museum
through three childhoods –
Pershing, Disney, Twain –
before it joins Eisenhower’s system
on the other side of the Mississippi
with the unthinkable in mind
and barrels through Lincoln’s home town
toward the end of the line.

This is what Ike imagined
on the far side of Armageddon.
Pavement is a diversion. Washington

is a sideshow.
The end of the line lies
in Carson County alongside
the Woody Guthrie Memorial Highway,

and this broken city scattered
by wind on the plains is the day after.

©Steven Schroeder

streams of consciousness

When we take a general view of the wonderful stream of our consciousness, what strikes us first is the different pace of its parts. Like a bird’s life, it seems to be an alternation of flights and perchings.
-William James

1

Two finches rise on a wave of sparrows,
perch on the stem of a dry thistle, rise
and rise again when the wave rises
over a scrap of prairie beyond

a temporary fence that stands between them
and a stream of traffic rushing the other way.

Finches glitter gold on the wave of gray
sparrows, like light breaking on living water.
A crumbling walk follows the fence, as do I,
perching when the finches perch until

there is an opening where I can cross
to a new path on the other side

that snakes around old trees toward Osaka
Garden. One broken tree has knelt
toward the water for years, and I
stop to pray with it while

a cardinal watches from the ground
before she flies to the top of a standing tree.

2

Just beyond Yoko’s lotus,
I pass through a gate onto a path
that makes it hard to walk

without leaving a trail
of sound. I keep my good eye
on the pond where a heron sometimes
stands waiting in shallow water. The heron
appears in the corner of the other
eye, and eye to eye we stand

until he turns and wades into the water
to wait for one god or the other
to trouble it with a miracle he can eat.

3

This whole scene rests on what remains of an exposition
that erected a white city and remembered an invasion
as a discovery four hundred years after the fact.

And this city began discarding
the ground beneath our feet long ago
to push back a body of water. I

stop again to watch the heron, standing on
long thin legs, still, waiting, on the other shore,
like a flood, I think, like a memory of water.

©Steven Schroeder

in memoriam 刘晓波

They say it’s always darkest before dawn,
and I say this sheds light on memory
and time. The difference between
dawn and what was before is greater than
the difference between dawn and what follows.

Time ripples like water, and every wave
circles back from shore to shore. What was is
present with what will be now and then.
Light seems blinding when it is nothing but
a new day, and every dawn traces an epiphany
in that moment between night and night. They
say men loved darkness rather than light, and I say
power is as fragile as the grip of a survivor
clinging to whatever is afloat when
a wave rises after a shipwreck, fragile
as perfect fear throwing love overboard
as though the sacrifice would soothe
whatever angry god has made this storm.

Tom was right. Fearful men clinging
to the remnants of a ship that sunk some time
ago will find a daughter or a son to kill in the name
of order. Men of reason will say this is the cost of doing
business, war by other means. Engineers may kill a wave
for now and push an ocean back a while. But they are nothing
without the water rising beneath them, sure as dawn.

©Steven Schroeder

manifestos 5: turning

1. First, a modest proposal. If we choose to name and claim an “age” or an “era” by calling it “ours,” let’s agree not to name it after the chief executive of one place among many places marked by boundaries that can be (and almost always are) contested. Naming “our” age for the chief executive of a place among places attributes more importance to the executive, our punctuations of time, and the temporary barriers we erect around territories we occupy (or in which we make scenes by pitching our tents) more authority than they merit. The barriers, the punctuations, and the executives are undoubtedly significant and have real impact on human beings and other living things (and social scientists spend a good deal of time identifying them and cataloging their effects while the people whose lives they impact spend a good deal of time struggling against them). But they are all made things (products, to a large extent, of language) that can be unmade (at least in part by language). It is unwise to feed the fire of a person who thinks himself or herself in charge in a place s/he thinks the center of the universe. That is to say that naming (or accepting the naming of) a place “the center” and designating a person as being in charge of the place moves the person to the center and gives him or her significant (in some cases, virtually unlimited) power.

2. If we choose to name and claim an “age” or an “era” by calling it “ours,” why not name it όχι and dedicate ourselves to making a world – personal and political – in which “no” means no?

3. This embraces elections as pivots on which ages may turn, but it also turns our attention first to an election in a part of the world (Greece, 2015) other than the United States. By extension, it very likely turns our attention to a sequence of elections that includes the so-called Brexit vote and the US presidential election in 2016 – and perhaps to the question of “election” itself. I suggest the name with Camus’ L’homme révolté in mind, both because it begins (before the beginning, in the introduction) with the uncertain frontier between “crimes of passion” and “crimes of logic” and because it begins with a definition of the human being in revolt: “Qu’est-ce qu’un homme révolté? Un homme qui dit non. Mais s’il refuse, il ne renonce pas: c’est aussi un homme qui dit oui, dès son premier mouvement.” Naming “our” age όχι identifies “us” with reference to negation that is not renunciation, and it identifies the “age” as a time and place defined by acts of negation that are not renunciations.

4. Suggesting the name, I am also mindful that 2017 is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, an invitation to scholarly debate (as indicated by Luther’s choice of language) that is often understood as a revolutionary act. This is interesting as an affirmation of the uncertain frontier between logic and passion (whether it is a matter of “crime” or not). Luther’s language is explicitly religious (hardly surprising for a professor of theology who was also a monk), as is the practice (the sale of indulgences) that he criticizes. But Luther’s invitation, like the practice he criticizes, is a matter of politics and economics as well as religion. The invitation lays the groundwork for Marx’s characterization of religion as the “aroma” of a distorted state (and that characterization could well be understood as a scholarly response to the invitation to scholarly debate). The frontier of an open-ended invitation to debate is uncertain, and that means the debate goes on.

5. The starting point is of particular interest in our age of όχι. Luther notes that the call to repentance with which the Gospel begins means that our entire life should be one of repentance. That Luther posted a set of theses in Latin as an invitation to scholarly debate suggests that he had in mind a small circle of scholars (students and teachers) at a small university in the small German city of Wittenberg. But it is also reasonable to assume that the “our” he had in mind reached beyond the small circle of scholars at the university where he taught to encompass the Christian community of Wittenberg. In the early sixteenth century in Germany, it is difficult (if not impossible) to disentangle that community from the civil community. Religion – the aroma of a distorted state – is everywhere in that state. Because the criticism is directed at a practice authorized by the Pope at least in part as a way to fund a building project in Rome, the circle is still wider. And this matter of religious practice is a matter of economics as well as political tension between the local and the global. Luther protested that he didn’t intend the theses for a large audience, but it is unlikely that he was oblivious to the potential for such an audience. And I find it difficult to believe that this was an attempt to internalize sin as has sometimes been claimed. It looks to me more like a critique of religion that is a critique of the distorted state of which religion is the aroma.

6. It turns on repentance, which is to say that it turns on turning.

7. Not the turn, the turning. This is my reading of Luther’s first thesis: we are called not just to turn but to keep on turning. And that is an affirmation of the power of negative thinking.

8. It is the no, here and now, that keeps us turning – in every here and now. The default position for citizens is resistance, and this is because our being citizens is a matter of our being political animals. It is not something that is granted to (some of) us by powers that be. It is who we are, and that defines how we always stand vis-à-vis power (which, as Foucault noted, comes from everywhere).

9. Luther’s first thesis grows directly out of what he reads as decisive (and determinative) good news. This is my reading of that news: “God’s presence is so close you can touch it now. Now, turn and act as though you believe this.” This claim (and the imperative that follows) is made in the context of an aniconic tradition that sees God by negation – so it is consistent to argue that the presence of this negative, the presence of this absence, drives our action vis-à-vis powers and principalities – which, as an earlier interpreter of that good news insisted, are what we struggle against.

©Steven Schroeder

revolution now

and then, in medias res, I am
walking meditation on city pavement
and a proliferation of uncertain Springs.

A car heading due north pulls over to the curb and I hear
a woman’s voice say excuse me sir I need to be
going south
through the open window
on the passenger side and, leaning
so I can see the speaker, I say
you need to turn around.

She says I need to get to 55th and Western
55th and Western, right?
and I can see
the question is for the guy sitting
in the back seat while what has
the form of a statement is
an urgent request

for direction directed to me.
I tell her again you need to turn around
and point to 55th Street, two blocks south.
Turn right there and point again to make sure
she sees which way – and drive west. You have
quite a way to go, but it will take you to Western.
Good luck.
The guy in the back seat says thanks and

she drives off and I walk away thinking
I should have told her the road would wind
through a park and cross an expressway and she
would probably think she was lost but
she shouldn’t give up hope.

But having left that unsaid,
I hope they make it. And I am again
walking meditation on city pavement.

Spring is everywhere, it seems,
since some journalist writing about Tunisia
thought to make a cipher of Prague and 1968. Here,

it comes with a stutter step and can scarcely
keep its feet when it steps over cracks
and fissures left by a long winter.

You’d think we’d take a good hard look
at what this pavement was meant to cover
before we called in a crew to smooth it over,
consider the dandelions, how they neither toil
nor reap nor for a moment think money
is speech but hold each other in the light
that slips through every crevice that follows
a change in the weather. They hold each other
in the light, and light themselves, a body of light,
they dig deep in dirt. Like water, they

turn and do what they must do to make a place
where they are standing now, a barricade
of flowers. And then

they die, sure-footed. And then
they come again, like light when
pavement breaks and yet another
Spring comes stumbling over them.

©Steven Schroeder