Suffering is unavoidable. We live on the precipice. Every day could be the last day. Meaning death. That doesn’t count what you go through on that day even if you survive. But what you go through could include everything from death to a fight with your wife because you didn’t close the door right. And that fight itself, no matter how trivial, could cause you agony and hurt feelings into the night. Even if you make up — fast. You have spent that time suffering. Those are the small things.
Then there are the big things. Hunger. Poverty. Loneliness. Sickness. We are all communal animals, weak creatures without fur or physical fangs big enough to kill in our defense, who have to band together into cities and civilizations to survive. Death itself can kill you or your closest being on this earth and then the grief itself will get you. But there are other big things and that can be the love that is lost, the sweetheart gone, no matter whose fault, that tear the soul in ragged ways. The soul is your emotional state of mind in this case. Or you fail at what you attempted, the doctor you never became, the prizefighter, the good father, the teacher. Then, most, of all: age. Age is the biggest thing. The getting closer to the final hole, that dark damp spot we will all go to. Or a prison. Or ostracism from the communal whole. Like the artist and the saint, the criminal. This is suffering. This can lead to numbing despair and suicide.
So people turn to religion and pray to feel better now in the turmoil and tragedy that stalks us all and will get us all in the end. But that institutionalized religion is based on hope, and we have to live now and there is another religion that can help alleviate this predicament now: art.
No empty promises so vague you have to take them on faith like established religion but a chance to create beauty out of your life now! Now, you can be a god yourself, in a miniscule way, create something of the imagination in an objective object that will persist after you’re gone, that will live on. The joy of creating is the main reward in itself, but the fact is that objective fact that you have created, be it out of words or paint or concrete and steel. It’s there and it will live longer than you. You can take a deep breath now. This moment is yours. You have felt good in the making of that art and by making it have transcended your mortal state for longer than you’ll be around. In fifteen billion years time before the sun dies, we will have learned if we continue to exist without self-annihilation how to switch suns and bring one around to take the dying one’s place or probably, for sure, the most possible, leap with our world to another solar system. It’s all possible, in physics terms.
So, what happens is that in the process of creating the art, the spirit is foremost and however mundane the process, the act of committing the artistic process swells the spirit inside you. You feel good. But, in art you bring all you are to it, intellect, of course, feeling, of course, but memory and hidden motive and hidden fears and hidden force. Impulses can abound. Symbols reveal themselves. You, through a work of art that you mean, reach the level of the Catholic mass, where you go to be charged on Sunday morning with the spirit of the Christ whose last words were of despair, disappointment and disbelief: “Eli! Eli! Lama, sabacthani!” My god! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me!”
The height of tragic feeling, the moment of truth, that crucifixion transfixes not just Christ but you, that is the metaphorical meaning of the mass. That is the level you can reach through art, if you are as pure, as sincere in motive and intent as Christ when you create. When I write, I am in a state of satisfaction, of contentment, there is no other intent of meaning to happiness than being in a state of contentment. That does not mean that it, creating, is not hard and taxing in all ways, but it does mean that at that moment or moments everything that smolders inside, underneath expires in the action of creation. And the soul is purged. Cleanliness of suffering is a white linen of the soul. Then that person is free of the suffering that plagued them. Then that person is healed.
In my own life, I’ll recount some examples and also point out that Cervantes supposedly started writing as prisoner and slave in an Arab court and that O. Henry wrote stories in prison to feed his daughter and the great Jean Genet of France had the guts to start his novel, “Our Lady of the Flowers,” on paper he was supposed to make bags out of, had it burned by a prison guard and started it over again on paper to make bags out of and produced a masterpiece. And Flannery O’Connor that great short story writer escaped the mummy of her twisted, stunted body through creating an avenue of transcendence in the imaginary sufferings of other imaginary people that existed in her rural south.
My mother died when I was twelve. She had a weak heart from rheumatic fever and wasn’t supposed to have more children than the three she already had. Then I was born and my sister three years later and in nine years my mother was dead. At the beginning of puberty for me. Great suffering and turmoil. I became a minor delinquent: cut school, got in fights, got suspended for taking a knife to school my brother-in-law brought home from the South Pacific in World War Two and gave to me. Stayed out late at night. I ended up doing thirty days in a juvenile hall at fifteen. And while I was there, wrote a song called Midnight Joker, which I never kept, I’m sorry to say, but it relieved some of the suffering I endured by releasing pent-up emotion.
That was the first poem I ever wrote, though I had written a long short story about a rabbit once when I was nine that my teacher never made one comment on.
The next time that suffering found an outlet through art, was a prolonged period from the age of nineteen when I found my brother dead of suicide to the age of twenty-two when I entered art college full time for the first time and the poems kept trickling out. I’d wake up with nightmares and try to write romantic, sentimental beginning poets’ work, though they had strong emotion even if the work was definitely novice. I was so uneducated, really.
“Oh, lovely pearl, I call you pearl yet/ the milky likeness of your skin,/Your hair as black as jet.”
Nevertheless, I was able to stay alive and not kill myself like my brother had. But the pain persisted and I entered art college, not sure what I wanted, but burning with the desire to create and steam off the depression that hung in me and made me sad at some time every day. I could not forget finding him dead, the hollows in his eyes, his puffed, cracked lips. Nightmares abounded. After my mother died, I’d wake up screaming sometimes, seeing the sore on her decaying lip in the coffin. When my brother died, I saw the nightmares when I was awake. Only going to art college alleviated the pain. I ended up leaving art school to become a writer because the plastic arts weren’t intellectually satisfying enough.
When I was breaking my butt to become a writer, (Jack London was my hero and though I didn’t know it at the time, I lived only a half a block from where he lived on Foothill boulevard when he was breaking his butt to become a writer) I was being hunted by the Oakland narcs because a couple of buddies in Berkeley, both college students, got busted for pot. They, the narcs, then started keeping me under surveillance to the point where I couldn’t go out without being followed. So, I stayed home and wrote, but that was after they’d taken away my boxing scholarship at Cal and I had to hide away. In eighteen months, I won a Rockefeller scholarship for my first short stories and took off for Mexico. All the time, during those years when I was being hunted and I thought that at any time I could end up in jail, I wrote and in the writing kept my spirit alive. Because I knew that I was a good person and not a criminal whether or not I smoked a joint on Saturday nights or not.
Every day, I would create while a narc in an undercover cop car watched outside. I knew I would succeed and in that sure sense that I was pure of heart and intent, I had the proof of that goodness in what I created. I won that one. I created TATTOO THE WICKED CROSS, too, while I was being hunted down and set up by everybody I knew and that included, before it was over, every person in my family.
Art saved me and kept me from despair.
But the nightmares would get me sometimes. And I would write poems that came from the underlying stress of having my phone tapped, my house bugged and in that art I created gave myself again a reason to believe that what I was creating justified my life.
When an old childhood infatuation, Dolores Rose, committed suicide in Hollywood where she had gone to become a movie star she was so beautiful, I had a nightmare she was trying to get me to dance with her to the Merry Widow’s Waltz and the next day, I wrote this poem, after fighting the memory of the nightmare all day.
“Out of a tent of wind/came a tuxedoed scarecrow/dancing for me with hinged limbs of broom/ whistling a dirge through the bearded straw of his chin.
“His tongue was laughing black/ His eye the shadow of crow/The silken knot at his throat/the strangled heart of a bow/
“Still he danced/his cane steps tapped their song/until I cried that I could not dance/with the murmur and shiver of silk/till my toes had nails of bone/My eyes/ the curdle/ of milk”
From the sadness came beauty that I created and now her loss does not torture me anymore, because I have made something good out of the sadness.
I then wrote TATTOO THE WICKED CROSS to ease the memory of having to fight off homosexual molesters when I was in jail for four and a half months at eighteen for knocking out an off-duty cop who I thought was trying to beat me up. I broke one guy’s jaw and another guy’s nose and did four days on bread and water, naked, in a padded cell four feet by four feet wide before the guards believed me and let me out.
I wrote WHAT NOW MY LOVE to erase the pain of a lost love with a beautiful six foot tall blond.
I wrote LAY MY BODY ON THE LINE to come to terms with the corruption of the student peace movement by the FBI,
BUFFALO NICKEL to assuage the suffering I endured through the suicide of one brother, whom I loved dearly, and the corruption of my love by my other psychopathic drug addict brother,
STATE OF EMERGENCY to find an outlet for the great suffering the CIA and Interpol and Franco’s Falange subjected me to in Europe for daring to write LAY MY BODY ON THE LINE while they tried to stop me,
COLOR OF MY LIVING HEART, a book of love poems to express both the pain and joy of being in and out of both romantic and brotherly love,
PRAYERS OF HERESY to find a poetic outlet for the martyrdom I experienced for smoking pot on Saturday nights and daring to start the Student Peace Union at San Francisco State, for being a political rebel, a liberal, democratic activist trying to stop war.
I still write those poems but now try to express my joy at being in love and alive while facing impending death. I’ll take no chances on hoping my individual spirit will stay alive for eternity after my body dies. I’ll give that spirit life now while I can enjoy it. Spirit, yours and mine, will stay around only if you give it an objective, concrete form that will endure after your human form passes on. Art is my religion. I embrace it. I aspire to the priesthood of Art.