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Old and New

kbrandall's picture

Old and New

-by Katie Randall


When you sink deeply into sleep it has you,

And pulls you through dreams you remember for moments... or years... or not at all.

Last week and last year and the games you played as a child a and the smells from the street outside are all one to it,

It knots them together and tosses them up to you in ways you can't anticipate,

It takes your thoughts on sideways tracks.

Even awake, one topic moves into another... from the color blue to your grandmother's cooking. Can you explain it?

I cannot explain it.

Does it frighten you?

It does not frighten me-- I know the use of it.

The unconscious... the underside and foundation of the brain,

Working away in us as it worked in less formed ancestors,

But providing more for us today than it did for them... did the lizards tell their dreams?

I doubt it. And did they sketch them out? And did they paint paintings from them?

Did these nighttime connections send them on to new solutions?

I do not think they did.

In me and in you... are distinctly formed bodies and more distinctly formed minds for strange and creative use,

So that the the artists and writers and sculptors in clay... the creators... use their lizard-brain as much as what rests atop it.

Do we contradict ourselves?

Very well then... we contradict ourselves.

The unconscious is large... it contains multitudes.i

The writer is waking,

She is walking to the page in a haze of sweat, it is summer... the sky is dark.

The artist at his canvas does not know or care whether it is day or night,

The sharp smell of paint will stay with him the week long.

The sculptor is moving her hands in the pliant clay.... she does not know what is forming, but she will know sooner or later,

And only then begin to give direction with the clay already under her nails.

The architect too is in his study and his sketch is drawn in orange crayon.

This was the only medium near to hand... in the moment of revelation.

After that first night the second work begins

working the mind in the way we are taught to... weighing and judging the words, the shades, the forms of our inspiration.

I say these revisions or seeings-again are important,

but that the first chaotic tangle is just as important as this polishing, polishing,

And that the polishing happens even when the desired result is to lay those first intentions bare.

This meticulous redoing does not go on forever, it cannot go on forever,

When the poem is written and the painting is painted and the building is built... what then?

When I see a work of art I am not seeing-- I am being,

The words or paint or clay inviting me into a new place.

I am in a manystoried waiting house that is new to me with the work of the architect there around me as if it were no work at all,ii

I am walking through doors opened by my own scrutiny... down hallways placed for my entrance,

I am entering rooms that are new to me that are full of sunlight or dust

That are full of the inspiration and sweat of the architect and of the artist.

They are full of me now,

And many other walkers besides though I cannot see them,

And are subtly different to me as each house is different to each who enters it.

So perhaps this new place reminds me of other places-- can I avoid it?

I will see differently here than anyone else,

I will see more than what is before me... as you read more into my words now than I have written.

I cannot say I am against interpretation.iii

If my brain could not interpret the stimuli pressing continually upon my nerves,

the colors and shapes and light in the room or out of it,

the clothes that touch my skin and the air that touches my skin,

I would be lost beyond words.

If the marks I am making are not interpreted into a language they cannot cross the air between us in any form at all.

In most schools they teach interpretation: they teach children the answer.... always one answer,

The text is set in the brain as flat as it shows on the page,

A dead body pinned down so that the children can pull out each piece.... isolated ajar and askew.

The students repeat together what it really means,

They walk through it quickly seeing what they have been taught to see...

Weren't you taught the same way? And didn't you resent it?

This is not the interpretation I mean.

Words do not mean they same thing for everybody or for always,

They do not mean the same thing twice,

Haven't you watched them changing?

What you do and what you think and what you see are all a part of you,

the rooms that you walk through and the paintings and the words that touch you and the sculptures in the park are all a part of you,

and I say that when you do not recognize where an idea started... this is where it started,

When the smallest pieces of your mind seem strange to you they are only simple pieces of the world in its complexity.

You will hardly know which they are or what they mean,

But they shall be good health to you nevertheless

And spark and support your creations.iv

Have you worked so hard to be original? Have you pushed away awareness of your own precursors?v

What you create is new... the combination is new and no one else could have made it and no other time could have made it

And what you create is old... its components are old and they are gathered in you from your parents and from all experience,

And what you create is linked to all other creations in an indivisible mesh of connections past and present,

There is no getting away from this web... and no need to,

The links can be of emulation or rebellion...both are strong.

We can trace parts of the pattern but never the whole,

Or ignore it completely... each part still exists and the system still exists,

more subtle and varied than our subtle and varied brains can encompass,

and it grows as the grass grows... everywhere.


This poem is in a style emulating Walt Whitman, but with some key differences rising from its subject matter. While the poem Leaves of Grass gives Whitman's thoughts on nearly everything he experiences and believes, my intention was to use a similar form to share my ideas on the creation and experience of art, starting with the role of the unconscious. Because of this, Old and New is more focused than Leaves of Grass, though less so than any traditional paper. It also has a (loose) sequence: from the existence of the unconscious, to its role in the creation of art, to the experience of this art, to the new ideas and creations that result from this experience. My informal “conclusion” goes back to the theme of interconnectedness, which is as true for art as biology.

I chose to use a stream-of-consciousness form because it was the form my thoughts first took on the page. While formal papers are focused on deductions based on knowledge, this form gave me freedom to express what I feel and believe without the ability to prove. The ideas in this poem are linked to those of Whitman, Sontag and Darwin through association, not necessarily agreement or disagreement.

i Inspired by Whitman, p 67

iiMetaphor of a creative work as architecture and the creator as an architect inspired by Lillie Williams in Thursday discussion session.

iiiInspired by Sontag, “Against Interpretation”

ivInspired by Whitman, p 68

vInspired by Whitman, p 22

Works Cited:

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: The Original 1855 Edition. New York: Dover Publications, 2007.

Sontag, Susan. “Against Interpretation and Other Essays.” New York: Farrar, Strauss &Giroux, 1966.


Anne Dalke's picture

evolving whitman

I am smiling very broadly as I read, and re-read, your stream-of-conscious account of the origins of creation. Giving me particular pleasure is the way in which you have woven into your text passages both from Whitman and our classroom conversations about him; the form images the content in a way most conventional academic essays do not: you describe the creative process of the unconscious in a format that reproduces what you are describing—this is really delicious!

I see here a description—and an active performance--not only of the process of creation, but of evolution more broadly conceived, an acknowledgement not only of the emergence of what is “new,” but its dependence on the “old”; a nod towards the “web” in which we are all embedded, as well as the freedom to ignore it…this is 21st century Whitman with a vengeance. I think you really have succeeded in making him contemporary.

So: where to go from here??