Ships at Sea

The Invitation 620
Above image: The Invitation (Boat Series), Rosemary Starace

I just lower my standards. So said the poet William Stafford,* in answer to a question about how he navigated his daily writing practice and avoided “writer’s block.” It’s generous, practical—and much quoted—advice, offering writers a way to engage the featureless expanse of the blank page, an end-route around doubt, hesitation, fear.

When I first encountered this idea, I heard it in terms of standards of quality—the thought being that we writers might simply put down some words no matter how poorly formed, and accept that there will be days when our work will not live up to our ideals. Then at least we will have fulfilled our commitment or quota, and created an opening for inspiration and revision on another, better day. This lets us proceed—no small thing, for we know how uniquely difficult that can be.

I valued this, even while I disliked abandoning messy, unresolved pieces even overnight. They wailed at me, “How could you?” and “See, you’re a fraud!” I was a perpetrator and an incapable rescuer all at once. Where was the life ring? Though I would tell students and artist friends to “trust the process,” and I knew that to be true, I had an inner Ahab who interfered. I was accepting the process conditionally while I pursued perfection—and the redemption of a more successful tomorrow. My low-quality output was ok only if I could anchor to the notion that I would eventually prevail, through talent or determination. What could be limiting about that?

There’s another meaning of “standard:” A standard is a flag or set of flags announcing the identity and status of a ship, its ensign. When, in the 1600s, it became technologically possible to attack ocean vessels from a distance (with ship-mounted cannons), it also became essential to be able to signal surrender from afar. At first, ships displayed the white flag of truce already used in land war, but this was ambiguous; some countries’ ensigns included a white flag. So, the practice of indicating surrender evolved from flying a white pennant at full mast to lowering the ship’s standards.**

One day, discussing Stafford’s remark with a friend, we realized that he may have meant his statement this way as well: When you come into the presence of poetry, it is helpful to lower your standards—to enter the space of writing with humility and openness, no matter what your reputation or need. To refrain from announcing, especially to yourself, who you think you are or should be. To jettison ambition and the desire to be great as you approach the majestic vessel of language, or as it approaches you. Stafford’s navigational principle not only references the quality of the words you put down, but the quality of self or ego that you bring to the act of writing. Lowering your standards comes to mean surrendering yourself to the process.

This relieved me, and relieves writers and artists in general, of a heavy burden. Jumbles of words and hazy images no longer reflect personal shortcomings nor call for heroic intervention. Determination is only the willingness to continue, not with striving but with presence and attention.

Presence and attention create a kind of open water, encouraging what is new and not yet known to appear, like a whale spout or gleam. Our attention is wide, up in the crow’s nest, not down at the ship’s wheel, focused ahead. This produces a sense of impending discovery, giving pleasure and satisfaction in the work itself. And our presence is unique; the less distracted we are by false goals, the more likely our seeing will be original, un-beholden. Artists can have confidence, not in the questing, determined self, but in the sea-worthiness of “the craft” that carries us. Process is nearly autonomous. We don’t steer it, we learn to ride it. It’s also a gift, available to everyone, wind to a sail.

The quality of our presence is therefore essential to the quality of what we make. But the desire for a great outcome, while entirely human, is something better kept in the hold as we enter the writing. When we work, we are necessarily at sea.


* William Stafford, 1914-1993, American poet and pacifist. A search of the Internet did not produce the actual interview in which he uttered that now-famous statement, but revealed many hundreds of references to it in dozens of contexts. Also see “When I Met My Muse.”
** Information from British Flags, W. G. Perrin (1922), as referenced here.



A few years ago, the poet Charles Bernstein read at Smith College in Northampton, MA. The event happened to take place in a science hall; a gigantic image of the periodic table of the elements loomed over the stage. When Bernstein got up to read, instead of turning to his manuscript,  he raised his face to the chart and began to recite the table:

800px-Periodic_table.svg  free image

“Huhh!”  “Hheeeee!”  “Lihhhhhhhhh, Lie!”


“Buh, Cuh, nnnN … Oh.


What!? Sound revealed as an element of the elements! A music of the spheres? Yet the sounds uttered were human, guttural, raw—elemental. Residing in the gaps between the units of the grid was deep feeling that Bernstein contacted and brought forth. We witnessed, not a recitation after all, but a magic, a creation. Bernstein recombined the basic stuff of physical being into a new kind of matter: a poem.

Instead of following a linear narrative or a related sequence of images, this poem relied for its meaning on chance, juxtaposition, sound, sound-texture, rhythm, and the release of unqualified emotion. The poem could be considered “abstract.” Just as painting can be about the paint itself—its physical and emotional qualities—and not about what the paint is representing, poetry can use the sonorous and even visual properties of words to affect us. It does not need to rely only on what words do in their typical settings of grammar and syntax. These qualities are present in all poetry and art,  though they can be easy to overlook in favor of  the explanation or description we usually think of as “meaning.”

I recently heard a lecture, On the Lyric, by Norman Fischer, a Jewish Zen teacher and poet whose work, though lyrical, enters, as does Bernstein’s, the sphere of the abstract, the so-called “language poetry.” Fischer says the roots of the lyric reach back not only to the Greeks, whose rhetoric tends to tell us about the world, but also to the very different Hebrew imagination. This imagination makes a poetry, as in the psalms, that is a private conversation between the poet and “God,” the unknowable. A reader of such poetry becomes party to these conversations. But we are not being spoken to directly; we are being allowed to overhear a sacred argument, a holy wrestling. This type of lyric does not explain anything, says Fischer, but instead lets us feel something. If the poem is effective what we feel is the inarticulate sensation of universal human longing for the divine connection, and the grappling with its out-of-reachness.

In the early nineties, before I’d heard of Bernstein or Fischer, I made a painting I called, Feeling Permeates the Structure of the Universe: 

Feeling Permeates the Structure of the Universe by Rosemary Starace

I was grappling with opposites, especially the seeming contradictions of will and feeling, intention and flow, logos and eros, meaning and emptiness. In this exploration, influenced by my typographer husband, I discovered words and letters anew: as entities that could convey, through shape, juxtaposition, size, color, and texture, a meaningfulness that existed in addition to their literal meaning. The opposites were not opposed, but intertwined. In the beginning was the Feeling that permeates and underlies the Word.

Around that same time, my friend, artist Joel Schapira, also started making paintings out of words. One of them, Letter from Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg: Not Just Colorful Characters (14 feet x 8 feet), hangs in the student center at Naropa University:

Letter from Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg: Not Just Colorful Characters, by Joel Schapira

Schapira’s Letter from JK to AG makes words into colors and shapes, figures on a ground, and separates the individual words into a grid of vivid bubbles that float off the canvas independent of their original context. The words of the original letter become like recombinant strands of  DNA. Schapira allows different meanings to arise, form, and re-form, as our eye-ears connect the color red with red and “wHAt” with “frOM.” And, we are privy to Schapira’s wrestling: “my Alone, we must speak!” is what I overhear, what I read over Schapira’s shoulder.

Still, the letter Kerouac wrote, its ostensible meaning, is not totally obscured by the new revelations. Abstraction and representation live side by side, and even become one thing: Schapira abstracts the content of Ginsberg’s letter as he represents the shapes and forms of letters and words. Similarly, Bernstein’s utterance concretized (represented) the abstraction of the periodic table, revealing the feeling that resides within its seemingly cool structure.

The elements themselves, the periodic table of the elements, Bernstein’s poem of same, and the two word paintings inhabit the same generative universe, the place where we all live and look for the meaning we can never quite find or understand.

But this tension, too, can be reconciled, lived fully. Art has an even deeper purpose than the conveyance of ordinary meaning. It is “the pulling apart of meaning so that mystery can be revealed.”* 

Letter from Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg: Not Just Colorful Characters (Detail), by Joel Schapira

*(Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul, page 311.)