In her previous blog post, Nadine Flagel asked how we might use the concept of the snag to explore sustainable yet perilous creativity. She brainstormed about yards as place and measurement, and mentioned a specific type of traditional hooked rug called an inch mat that she has wanted to include in her CCBC gallery show taking place from January 21st to March 4th, 2021. If you have not yet read Nadine’s first blog, you can read it here.
This inch mat pattern is my own, and is inspired by literature. All of these thoughts about snags and rag yards kept circling around memories of a poem I’d studied for my Ph.D. exams. The poem was written about a century ago – curiously, in the heyday of hooked rugs. I finally looked it up again, and found that throughout the poem William Butler Yeats was seeking some kind of restoration in the source of creative energy. Here’s the final stanza:
“These masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
William Butler Yeats, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”
“Some of my best dreams take place in thrift stores, the contemporary equivalent of rag shops.”
Yeats dismisses the themes of his earlier work, saying they were puppets. Now he wants to reach what’s under those: what are the underlying big questions about being human? It’s fascinating to me that he saw them in an extended metaphor of castoff and secondhand goods. No wonder I remembered this poem: some of my best dreams take place in thrift stores, the contemporary equivalent of rag shops.
What I wonder is: can we reconcile Yeats’ negative associations with garbage and used items with the positive source of creativity? This is a paradox that echoes closely my previous post’s point about snagging: a snag is dangerous and messy but also a valuable moment of seizure. There is something gritty and authentic about Yeats acknowledging that the artistic self must “lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” What the heck does it mean to find rest and renewal in the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart”? I’m not entirely sure but I want it. I think collectively we need it.
Also: can we talk for a minute about “that raving slut” in the poem, who coexists with old rags and piles of garbage? Sure, at the time Yeats wrote, slut meant more a bad housekeeper rather than a sexually promiscuous woman, but he’s vigorously linking the feminine with the insane, the working class, and rubbish, and subordinating them under “masterful” – i.e., masculine, highly controlled, middle- and upper-class – “images.” In spite of his closing words, I’m not sure if Yeats was ready to move beyond masterful images to embrace femininity, neglect of household duties, and alternative sanities. But I sure am. I’m positive the “raving slut” is another snagged being, like I am. Like we all are. She is welcome here.
Here in the inch mat are ladders reaching in four directions. This central grid of colour, of reused fabric – this is that mystical point “where all the ladders start.” The piece will go in the show unfinished because I want people to be able to get a sense of the materials and labour it takes to “snag” yarn and fabric into a rug. I may or may not finish the rug someday.
In my first blog post I talked about consumer culture and the invisibility of rag yards. I asked, what does it mean to occupy the snagged space, to see not a space for correction or imperfection but a space of possibility? In addressing this question, and I begin with a confession: rug makers aren’t going to forestall climate change. Of course not. Because of the small scale of rug hooking and textile art, its interruption of the consumer cycle is largely symbolic. I’d like to say that we should buy better quality goods, such as clothing that will last, but realistically this is an option only for members of the middle and upper classes. So let’s re-assess: each of us is here because we love craft and texture, and we can participate in and promote re-valuing textiles. If it’s important enough to buy it or make it, then it’s important enough to accept responsibility for it, to mend it, to remake it, to pass it on to others who will use it, and to share those skills with others. Let’s face it: we don’t just need rugs and sustainable craft and creative problem-solving; we need a whole new vision of snagged and damaged objects and people – “raving sluts,” for instance! A vision of imperfection that is infinitely preferable to perfection.
We can cultivate in our communities a sense of responsibility about resources from the point of extraction and manufacture through to the end of their lives as manufactured objects. We can cultivate a sense of responsibility about snagged people. That philosophy of compassion, care, and accountability can be extended to all resources – and that kind of cultural change is necessary to make the world the place we’d like it to be. What does it mean to occupy the snagged space? It means hope.