Recently in Poems Category

Inexhaustability: drink it up

| No Comments
Constable_clouds_small.jpg
In "Snow," Louis MacNeice wrote of "the drunkenness of things being various," but I also enjoy a drunkenness of things being synonymous.  Take, for example, Karl Ove Knausgaard's experience of a painting of clouds by John Constable, recounted in his memoir, My Struggle:

[S]uddenly he is in tears, arrested by "an oil sketch of a cloud formation from September 6, 1822," and unable to explain his reaction.  What is he feeling?  "The feeling of inexhaustibility.  The feeling of beauty.  The feeling of presence."  He has always been unsettled by paintings, but he has never found it easy to describe his experience of them -- "because of what they possessed, the core of their being, was inexhaustibility and what that wrought in me was a kind of desire.  I can't explain it any better than that.  A desire to be inside the inexhaustibility."

This passage from James Woods' The New Yorker review of My Struggle stayed with me because I did not understand Knausgaard's use of "inexhaustibility."  An avid devotee of visual art myself, I did not identify with the quality that Knausgaard found so salient. 

Poussin_Rinaldo_Armida_small.jpgAnd then, as chance provided, I read Louis MacNeice's poem, "Poussin," and I understood.  In "Poussin," MacNeice describes the experience of gazing upon "that Poussin" in which "the clouds are like golden tea" and "cupids' blue feathers beat musically."  The motion in the painting he characterizes as "still as when one walks and the moon / Walks parallel but relations remain the same":

And thus we never reach the dregs of the cup,
Though we drink it up and drink it up and drink it up
Yes, exactly: the experience is inexhaustible.  Return always and be nourished again.  Our only counterbalance to mortality: drink it up while we can.

Image of John Constable's "Cloud Study: evening," from the National Gallery of Australia; image of Nicolas Poussin's "Rinaldo and Armida" from WikiPaintings.

Birds of a feather

| No Comments
Edith_Wharton&Henry_James2.jpg
Among the pleasures of reading a good book is reliving the pleasures of other wonderful texts it evokes.  Among the pleasures of reading The Age of Innocence was the breadth of references it summoned.  More than a hundred years -- and a gulf of sensibilities, aesthetics and styles of humor -- separate the two that resonate most deeply for me: Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady, and Stephen Dobyns' "Spiritual Chickens." 

Wharton's novel owes so much (including its protagonist's last name) to James' Portrait that mentioning the debt borders on pedantry.  Wharton would likely be so appalled by Dobyns that the connection risks absurdity.  And yet the two references serve to reinforce the same idea: that our choices about how to engage with the multi-layered nature of reality (to perceive, to deny) define us.

In Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer takes the measure of unyielding reality in a scene when she sits thinking long into the night.  She has deluded herself into marrying the wrong man.  She sees through her illusions to the unpleasant substance of her husband Osmond's personality.  She realizes also an intimacy between Osmond and a family friend, Madame Merle, who introduced them.  The sleep-deprived and hermetic intensity of her thought succeeds in disturbing the surface of her reality and rearranges the relations between herself, Osmond and Merle.  Although Isabel is not ready to articulate her newfound understanding to herself, she comprehends that Merle and Osmond are collaborators in some manipulation against her.

The scene finds its parallel in The Age of Innocence when Newland Archer hosts the first formal dinner of his marriage to mark the occasion of the departure of the love his life, Madame Ellen Olenska.  Newland has been blindsided by Ellen's announcement of her return to Europe, and he is barely functional:

Archer, who seemed to be assisting at the scene in a state of odd imponderability, as if he floated where between chandelier and ceiling, wondered at nothing so much as his own share in the proceedings.  As his glance travelled from one placid well-fed face to another he saw all the harmless looking [dinner guests] . . . as a band of dumb conspirators, and himself and the pale woman on his right [Ellen] as the centre of their conspiracy.  And then it came over him, in a vast flash made up of many broken gleams, that to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers . . . . He guessed himself to have been, for months, the centre of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears, he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and that now the whole tribe had rallied about his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything . . . .
Like Isabel Archer, Newland Archer arrives at this moment of revelation after a process of delusion.  Unable to possess Ellen Olenska physically and share his intellectual and emotional intimacies with her in the course of quotidian living,

he had built up within himself a kind of sanctuary in which she throned among his secret thoughts and longings.  Little by little it became the scene of his real life, of his only rational activities; thither he brought the books he read, the ideas and feelings which nourished him, his judgments and his visions.  Outside it, in the scene of his actual life, he moved with a growing sense of unreality and insufficiency, blundering against familiar prejudices and traditional points of view as an absentminded man goes on bumping into the furniture of his own room.  Absent -- that was what he was: so absent from everything most densely real and near to those about him that it sometimes startled him to find they still imagined he was there.
This habit of absenteeism reaches its apotheosis at book's end, when Newland Archer opts not to meet Ellen Olenska again, after 27 years.  "'It's more real to me here [on a bench outside her flat] than if I went up [to meet her]', he suddenly heard himself say."

In this behaviour, Newland Archer anticipates the unnamed protagonist of Stephen Dobyns' brilliant poem, "Spiritual Chickens."  Confronted by a chicken he has eaten seven years ago, a chicken returned to the earthly plain because of overcrowding on the spiritual one, a man "runs out of his house / flapping his arms and making peculiar hops."

Faced with the choice between something odd
in the world or something broken in his head,
he opts for the broken head.  Certainly,
this is safer than putting his opinions
in jeopardy.
. . . .
As it is he is constantly being squeezed
between the world and his idea of the world.
Better to have a broken head -- why surrender
his corner on truth? -- better to just go crazy.
Sadly for Newland Archer, he's not as interesting as Dobyns' protagonist.  He has opted to go AWOL instead of crazy, abandoned his life instead of cracking it.  But the fault runs along the same line: cowardice.

A little more than a hundred and thirty years ago, Henry James set out to tell the story of a woman colliding with her destiny; today we might describe her less grandiosely, as a woman "constantly being squeezed / between the world and [her] idea of the world."  Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose: however worded, the situation remains the crucible of our character, and the measure of our worth.  Embrace of the depths of reality yields the only guaranteed rewards of this existence ("the flower of life" in Wharton's words); avoidance reaps failure.      

And The Age of Innocence?  By providing the opportunity to draw a line between Isabel Archer's gloomy insomnia and Stephen Dobyns' delightful ghost chicken, the harvest has been sheer pleasure. 

Image of Edith Wharton from The New York Times website; image of Henry James from New York University website.

Beautiful and useful

| No Comments
David_Orr2.jpg
David Orr: a likeable critic in my book.  I've read him in The New York Times Book Review for years now, and I find him reliably worthwhile.  He supports his critiques clearly and logically.  His writing is impartial, light and entertaining.  When he says something's good, I understand why; and when calls a bad poem a bad poem, his judgment seems fair, not mean-spirited or ungenerous.

These wonderful qualities are present in abundance in Orr's book, Beautiful and Pointless.  It's a quick and lovely read, a kind of beach book for poetry lovers, and I mean that as a highest compliment.  The pleasures it affords have more in common with, say, badinage enjoyed at a lively, rejuvenating high tea, than with the rewards of solitary repose in the presence of depths of emotion and intellect.  Which is not to say those depths aren't there: just that their weight doesn't intrude on the fun.

DM_Thomas.jpgAll the same, I do have a complaint.  In Beautiful and Pointless, Orr does not say about poetry what I think is important about poetry.  And I want to have my own opinions reinforced by this delightful and knowledgeable public expert.  I really wish he would have accommodated me.   

What do I think is important about poetry?  I'm glad someone asked.  I read poetry for two reasons.  First, poetry enables access to irrational terrain.  Humans are hard-wired for rhythm, perhaps because of the heart, our fundamental drum.  Rhythm is our sixth sense: it enables us to absorb and process information from our surroundings in a manner similar to the other five senses.  And just as the taste of a madeleine sent Proust into the reverie of À la recherche du temps perdu, perception of a rhythm can guide us into the often-unnavigable regions of our irrational selves.  Music and poetry are our arts of rhythm, and they open us in ways that remain closed when our approach is strictly rational, verbal and logical. 

Second, the relationship between poetry and prose is one of mutual enrichment.  I recall Kay Ryan saying (where, I wish I could remember) that, after waking, she would return to bed with tea and toast and prose, and read until something sparked an impulse to write a poem.  Her description of her method struck me because, at the time, I was reading poems each day before sitting down to work on my second novel, The Swing of Beijing

Stephen_Dobyns2.jpgNor has it escaped my notice that my favorite contemporary writers are poet-novelists: DM Thomas and Stephyn Dobyns being two of the most prominent.  In The White Hotel, Thomas delivers in the long form narrative the visceral experience typically reserved for poetry.  In so doing, he affords modern readers the closest opportunity they're likely to have to know how ancient listeners of epic poems felt.  In Winter's Journey, Dobyns writes deceptive rambling monologues that seem like stream-of-consciousness portions of a novel, but in the aftermath resonate as if one's insides have been washed through a stream and sun dried in mountain air.  I don't know if reading poetry will make me a better novelist, but I'm willing to overdose on poetry in a quest to find out.

While I'm not surprised that Orr fails to list "will make Maya a better novelist" as a reason for reading poetry, poetry's capacities to support a richer and fuller experience of our own lives (through access to the irrational) and to augment our experience of literature (through its dialectic with prose) both strike me as core competencies deserving of mention. 

But Orr's focus is elsewhere.  A person who writes a book called Beautiful and Pointless is, logically enough, not so engaged with the functionality of his subject.  Also, notwithstanding the book's subtitle, "A Guide to Modern Poetry," the book might more accurately be termed, "A Guide to Modern Poets' Motivations."  Throughout his chapters on "The Personal," "The Political," "Ambition," and "The Fishbowl," Orr explains the conditions under which modern poets work and their mindsets and goals (to the extent they can be gleaned).  Orr's empathy for, and identification with, the poets is obvious and engaging. 

All the same, people have been writing, reading, reciting, and enjoying poetry for all of human history.  A medium capable of commanding that kind of attention is unlikely to be pointless.  David Orr is a great person to make that argument.  I wish he had.

Images of David Orr and Stephyn Dobyns from The Poetry Foundation.  Image of DM Thomas taken by Maya Alexandri.

It isn't ever delicate to be reviewed

| No Comments
Kay_Ryan.jpg
I think Kay Ryan and her poetry are magnificent.  Uncompromising and wise, Ryan seems to wear her later-life success (Guggenheim fellowship, Poet Laureate of the United States, etc.) very easily.  Perhaps her mastery of fame derives from having her priorities in order.  Her poetry, at least, always jolts my priorities into place: "Turtle" brings me succor on my worst days, reaches me when more personal entreaties can't or won't.

With such feelings, I am not an objective reader of reviews of Ryan's work.  Indeed, I am possibly a mite overprotective of her, the way fans of Jane Austen, with their "peculiar affection," won't tolerate an unkind word against her.  Disclaimers out of the way, I can now say that Helen Vendler's New York Review of Books review of Ryan's new collection, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, pissed me off.

Some of the offense arose from Vendler's distinctively condescending tone, insistent refusal to like Ryan's poems, and begrudging praise:

And what sort of poetry has issued from this unusual personal trajectory?
. . . .
But such [rhymes], aside from being defensible, should by their sound please or alert or warn the ear, and these, to my mind, don't always succeed in doing so.
. . . .
Over the past fifteen years, Ryan's poems, resolutely impersonal versions of the personal, have varied in quality.
. . . .
Her departure leaves only "the chap of/abandonment."  And if nothing clever, in Ryan's earlier manner, can be said about that, something better than cleverness takes its place, a "polish and balm" in the simplicity of the poet's lines.
These remarks are all of scant bearing on Ryan's new collection.  That her personal trajectory is, in Vendler's opinion, "unusual" is either obvious or irrelevant; any interesting personal trajectory is unusual, yet plenty of fine poems have emerged from dull lives (pace Wallace Stevens).  That Ryan doesn't always succeed (in her rhymes or anything else) is a readily-grasped observation about humankind and, situated in nothing sturdier than Vendler's personal taste, the comment sounds simply bitchy.  All artists' work varies over a decade and a half, but Vendler doesn't clarify that the variance is reflected in Ryan's new collection.  And the toss-off insult about Ryan's lack of cleverness is so gratuitous as to appear mean. 

But my biggest gripe pertains to Vendler's insistence on casting Ryan as an uncultivated outsider who, late in life, was embraced by the inside - a sort of Grandma Moses of poetry:

Ryan's work might be considered outside the mainstream, and she (as someone who began outside the realm of privilege) feels she ought to stand up, as a matter of principle, for "outsider art."
. . . .
Ryan occupies the uneasy, and frequent, rank of the self-made American writer, growing up with no "background" that could help with the rise to mastery of language, with no money to buy select education from kindergarten on, doing an ill-paid job not offering much public recognition. . . . From a life that has not been easy, she has mined nuggets that add to American poetic wealth.
This narrative of Vendler's is sheer idiocy.  What can she possibly mean by calling Ryan's work outside the "mainstream"?  What's the "mainstream" of poetry?  Ryan's style is more accessible than that of poetry paragon, John Ashbery, and every bit as accessible as the "popular" work of Billy Collins and Mary Oliver.  And in any event, isn't the point of poetry to eviscerate a "mainstream"?

Moreover, what the hell is the "uneasy, and frequent, rank of the self-made American writer"?  What else is there?  Writers, unlike lawyers (and I should know, I'm both), don't come out of cookie cutters.  Law can be taught; writing cannot.  Lawyers pass the bar and are licensed to practice; no test exists that can certify a writer's quality.  A writer can attempt to fool him or herself with MFA degrees and fellowships, with creative writing professorships and publishing contracts, but all those credentials will make you a writer as much as a regime of regular colonics will protect you from mortality.  All writers (and artists) are self-made.  Otherwise they're hacks.

As for mining a difficult life for nuggets to contribute to the wealth of American poetry, snooze.  What poet doesn't have a difficult life?  Byron was born with a club foot; Coleridge had issues with opium.  Hart Crane was an openly-gay alcoholic, at a time when the former was socially unacceptable.  Robert Lowell was a manic-depressive.  Anne Sexton: suicide.  Jack Gilbert has dementia.    

Does Helen Vendler have something to say?  What's with all the useless, irrelevant, obvious, general statements?  Is she hiding something?  Or merely without anything to contribute?

If The New York Review of Books decides to send a third rate critical capacity to assess a first rate poet, the error reflects only on it.  But Kay Ryan deserves better, although she knows better than to expect what she's owed.  As Ryan wrote in concluding her poem, "Spiderweb": "It/isn't ever/delicate/to live."

(Image of Kay Ryan from Library of Congress website)

Overemphasizing ideas in art

| No Comments
Anselm_Kiefer.jpg
In the last four days, I've seen Israeli videographer Yael Bartana's show, "and Europe will be stunned," at the Moderna Museet Malmö in Sweden and Anselm Kiefer's self-titled show at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark.  Between those two exhibits, I've been taken with the impression that contemporary art privileges ideas over artistic skills to its detriment. 

Yael Bartana has great ideas, but from a film-making perspective much of her work looks rough and amateurish.  Anselm Kiefer also has great ideas (I laughed out loud at "Martin Heidegger," a book depicting a brain partially black with rot), but neither his drawing, sculpture, composition or use of color strikes me as particularly exemplary. 

I can't help thinking, having recently been in Italy, that Renaissance painters and sculptors wouldn't have countenanced this divorce of concepts from skilled execution.  Of course, during the Renaissance, the ideas animating the paintings were less varied (e.g., mostly related to religion and patrons), and the importance of a human's artistic capacity was paramount: the glory of human capabilities was the point of the Renaissance.

Now, however, when photographs can render life more exactingly than a painter, and film can capture life even in movement and over time, viewing a human's artistic capacity as superfluous is tempting: why not use the technology?  Similarly, now that art has been unshackled from religion and (for the most part) from private patronage, why not prize the ideas over the the execution?

The reason is that ideas without aesthetics aren't art.  Art (when it's good) operates on an intellectual and visceral level simultaneously.  It presents ideas that activate the mind, but it also - through aesthetics - engages the viscera.  (The effectiveness with which Renaissance art accomplishes these twin objectives contributes to its overwhelming beauty; contemporary art's ignoring of the visceral is surely a cause of its often numbing ugliness.) 

This visceral engagement is neither fanciful nor a luxury: it is necessary.  Without it, a work is not art, but argument.  Without the visceral engagement, artworks communicate not intuitively, but rationally. 

Moreover, much of the rational communication must be conveyed, not visually, but through verbal texts that explain the ideas undergirding the work.  But explanatory texts, be they on the wall of museums, or published in exhibition catalogs, ought to be unnecessary.  Works should speak for themselves. 

Nonetheless, very little contemporary art speaks for itself.  Without textual explanation, the circumstances of Bartana's works, "Summer Camp," and "Wild Seeds," are opaque.  Kiefer takes the trouble to write words (often the title of the work) on his canvases; Louisiana provided a "Kiefer dictionary" to explain Kiefer's common references.  Going to these contemporary art exhibitions requires an awful lot of reading; so much reading, in fact, that a visceral (that is to say, irrational) response is practically suppressed.  

Moreover, the tone of the text is exhortatory:  viewers will be questioned about . . .; viewers will confront . . . ; viewers are made to feel / think . . . .  When I read what I'm supposed to be thinking and feeling, all I can think is: bullshit.  The text is telling me what to think and feel because extracting that experience from the art itself is too difficult.  Often, the work is too boring to hold my attention.  I have to exert my will to stay and look at it.  Aesthetically engaging work doesn't encounter this problem.

I am struck, as well, by the difference between contemporary visual art and literary art.  While visual art seems to be losing its aesthetic capacities, literary art is refining them.  In fiction and poetry, the way an idea is expressed is often more important than the idea.  "Half of a Yellow Sun," Chimimanda Ngozi Adeche's novel about the Biafra war, is hampered by dull ideas; but it's well written.  Kay Ryan doesn't tell me anything I didn't know in her poem, "Turtle"; but the poetry is transporting. 

Good ideas presented in bad writing is only acceptable (and only unofficially so) in non-ficton (and explanatory texts for art exhibits); in the realm of fiction or poetry, scintillating ideas encased in bad writing isn't called art.  It might be a guilty pleasure; it might be a commercial success; but it's not art.

I don't see anything wrong in expression of rational argument in broad varieties of media, be they films, performances or paintings.  I'm not suggesting that Yael Bartana or Anselm Kiefer are unworthy of their audiences. 

But humans need art as well as argument, aesthetics as well as ideas, visceral as well as cerebral engagement.  The systematic preference for ideas to the detriment of aesthetics in contemporary art reflects a painful imbalance in our modern lives.  While this message may correspond to reality, humankind has known eras when art was more than a cry for help.

(Image of Anselm Kiefer's statue, "Das Sonnenschiff," from White Cube)

Sonnet XX: WTF?

| No Comments
Tilda_Swinton_as_Male_Orlando.jpgShakespeare's Sonnet XX confounds me.  It praises a person whose gorgeous face, heart and personality - with its absence of womanly faults - captures the narrator's passion . . . though this same person's cock checks the narrator's impulse for sexual consummation of his love.  Here's the poem:

A woman's face with nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion:
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.

I first encountered Sonnet XX at a vulnerable moment, just before bed time, and I naturally assumed that in my exhaustion, I'd lost track of some critical explanatory phrase in the poem.  But an immediate reread suggested that the eyebrow-raising implications weren't a function of my readiness for slumberland.  Indeed, a basic Google search revealed countless others with raised eyebrows.  So provocative is Sonnet XX that Prince might have done well to set its verses to music instead of expending effort to write "Controversy."

Interestingly, more than one commentator seems to think that the poem is an admission of Shakespeare's homosexuality.  Personally, I find that theory absurd.  For starters, such speculation superimposes a patina of modern norms on Shakespeare's Elizabethan consciousness (e.g., that loving another man makes a man gay).  We barely understand how gender and sexually are socially constructed today; to project our incomplete understanding backwards 400 years is at best arrogant and at worst idiotic.

But more importantly, Sonnet XX isn't so much homosexual as it is weird.  For gay men, the love object isn't womanly; a gay male pin-up is hot because he's masculine.  Sonnet XX, on the other hand, idolizes a man with a womanly appearance - or, at a minimum, an Orlando-style androgynous appearance that appeals to men and women ("Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth"). 

Moreover, unlike a homosexual man, the narrator of Sonnet XX is decidedly against sex with his beloved: the narrator is "defeated" by his adored's prick; it brings the narrator's purpose "to nothing."  Instead, the narrator urges his beloved to make love with women, while giving his heart to the narrator. 

This model of love isn't homosexual; rather, it seems to lack a modern analogy.  Same-sex love affairs in modern society aren't typically sexless.  Nor do we usually idolize the looks of one gender when they appear on the other; quite the opposite, especially in the case of men.  From Boy George, to Michael Jackson, to Jaye Davidson (who played Dil in The Crying Game), men who look like women tend to make folks uncomfortable nowadays.

In fact, the very eagerness of modern readers to class Sonnet XX with homosexual literature reflects a variety of discomfort or insecurity with the prospect of a same-sex love relationship beyond our comprehension or experience.  But while the impulse to tame the scary, irrational potentialities of sex by naming, categorizing and analyzing is a positive one, we lose the chance to recognize, explore and appreciate the breadth of human experience if we insist on incorrect classification.

Human love is vaster, more capricious and more irrepressible than Harlequin romance.  And our capacities for loving in multi-faceted and bizarre ways is among our species' the most remarkable and admirable traits.  As G.W. Bowerstock observes in a New York Review of Books review of two books exploring Greek pederasty:

The sexual life of the ancient Greeks was as variegated and inventive as its resplendent culture. It was neither consistent nor uniform.  To this day it stubbornly resists all modern ideologies and prejudices, and yet it had its own principles of decency.  In sex, as in so much else, the ancient Greeks were unique.
Sonnet XX tantalizes with its glimpse of a variegated and inventive sexual life, one neither consistent nor uniform, one that resists modern ideologies and prejudices, for Shakespeare and his Elizabethan brethren.  We might consider to what extent their sexual openness made the Greeks and the Elizabethan not merely unique, but also great.

(Image of Tilda Swinton playing Orlando from Sally Potter's website)

<< 1 2 3

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Poems category.

Podcasts is the previous category.

Publishing is the next category.

Categories

Archives

OpenID accepted here Learn more about OpenID
Powered by Movable Type 5.04