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It isn't ever delicate to be reviewed

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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

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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)

About this Archive

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

The way we live is the previous category.

Where We Are (after Bede) is the next category.



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