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Burning the Fields

Read the news, then burn it. Sell your shares as the market falls; invest in wine, one bottle at a time. Turn your back on the future, on fashion, on the dream of success. Don’t presume that new work improves on old. Fuck poetry. Write angry manifestos instead. Then burn them.

Maybe I’m just frustrated at what I see in the papers in these waning days of the Ancien R??gime, but I find myself turning away from the news. Where I sink my teeth, I want to draw blood. Lately, I’ve been reading manifestos. I’m too old for it, I know. (As, apparently, I am for drawing blood. But that’s another story…) Still, I recognize the impulse that an angry manifesto embodies. We need to burn the fields. Creativity requires a clearing away so that what lies hidden in the depths of imagination, memory, and culture can be enriched. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds of a culture that celebrates all that spreads quickly, puts down no roots, and chokes off the slower-growing fruit. Burn the field, and what’s rooted deep will survive, or flower again in some strange new shape as it emerges from under the ashes.

Manifestos appear in times of anxiety. “Burn the fields!” they cry, because what else can you say? (It’s a way to make hope out of despair as you watch the fires spread while the man in the White House spends his last days Hoovering.) But when the subject is poetry, the impulse strikes me less as a cry of rage than a necessary part of the creative process: it’s the artist turning away so as not to be blinded by what shines so brightly to everyone else. Writing often involves emptying your mind, the way a painter primes a canvas. While I agree with Lewis Hyde’s view that our creative selves are not “solitary and self-made,” but “collective, common and interdependent,” I would argue that the imagination roots itself deeply in that common soil, and that what looks most “original” in a particular cultural moment is often a fragment of something ancient that lay buried in our minds. Walk through the British Museum, and you see Modernism among the ancient monuments. But as the Modernists knew, you have to burn the fields to find those burial sites.

That’s what fascinates me about radical manifestos: they conceal a seductive nostalgia. We move forward by looking back at what we imagine to have been a purer, more perfect age. All that stands in our way is the corruption of the moment. We burn the fields to make them fertile. What survives, we enshrine. Then we begin to cast our seeds.

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