A few weeks ago, I found a treasure at a used bookstore: a copy of Tom Peters’s 1997 book “The Circle of Innovation” – with an extra treasure – the signature of the author). The book is filled with quotes to punctuate Peters’s themes. One in particular resonated with me:
Expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then try to bring those things into what you are doing.
– Steve Jobs [pre-iPod, pre-iPhone, pre-iPad]
Jobs was talking about art, poetry, history. Peters tied the quote to the Mac (I have all three of the above gadgets, but I’ve sampled the Mac Kool-Aid and the lingering cyanide taste was too much for me) and the mixing of artists with engineers to create the Mac and its operating system. Despite that, it’s still brilliant.
It struck a chord because I’ve recently gotten a baptism by immersion in the art world. Now that we’ve stopped moving and have established a presence here in North Texas, my wife last year took her art from “interests” to “profession”. Since then it’s been a whirlwind of new and different – for her and me. In that short time, she’s explored a variety of media (requiring reconfiguration of the garage – uh, studio – several times) and done things she never dreamed of being able to do. Shameless plug here: check out her website and you’ll understand the multiple reconfigs I’ve had to facilitate (drill deep – there is a lot there and all produced in just the last year and a half.) Collateral to this evolution, this spring she was elected president of one of the art associations she joined and just two weeks ago became the publisher of a fine art engagement book. Now she’s attending exhibition openings and receptions to support the artists of the association, network with sponsors of the book, scout out art for the book, and simply enjoy the art. And unless I have something more pressing, I am also going to these openings. We went to two last Friday night and have another tomorrow night.
I know the artist for one of the openings last weekend and am impressed with her work. I was more impressed listening to an appreciator talk about what he saw in a couple of her paintings – things I certainly did not – but things that the artist responded to with an emphatic, “YES!”
I just listened. Trying to see. Trying to learn.
It was like I was in a foreign country and not able to speak the language. My wife spoke of a couple of pieces she wanted and what she felt when looking at them. She used words like “motion”…“emotion”…“composition” (that one I sometimes get). I’ll admit that too often my frustration at not being able to comprehend what is so apparently obvious to others gets to me. I know I can’t always understand something even when it is explained to me, but I don’t like not being able to. Particularly art and literature. It shouldn’t be that hard, and yet, for me, it is.
I’ve written before on the difficulty I have with finding “meaning” in art, movies and literature. Even when an interpretation is explained to me in direct terms, I may not see it. I am usually always amazed when I hear an actual artist or author explain what she/he was trying to accomplish with a particular piece – but the amazement is rarely accompanied by a light or epiphany.
Still, to expose myself to the best things, I try to tackle the difficult subjects. Like, gulp, poetry.
I picked up David Orr’s “Beautiful & pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry” last month in yet another attempt to get a clue. Judging from some of the reviews I checked out after I read the book, I wasn’t the only one who thought Orr fell short of the mark – he guided neither me nor most of the (few) Amazon reviewers. I won’t recount descriptions of hisconnection themes of personal, political, form, etc. But as a guide, I would have preferred more of a docent approach. Of course, I recognized none of the poets Orr named.
Orr included many poems and fragments, but here are a couple he cites as good:
“A Step Away” from Them” by Frank O’Hara (beginning fragment)
It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First down the sidewalk
where the laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust…
“Home to Roost” by Kay Ryan
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small –-
Now they have
to roost –all
the same kind
at the same speed.
I tried reading that last poem as prose:
The chickens are circling and blotting out the day. The sun is bright, but the chickens are in the way. Yes, the sky is dark with chickens, dense with the,. They turn and then they turn again. These are the chickens you let loose one at a time and small – various breeds. Now they have come home to roost – all the same kind at the same speed.
Neither made sense. I have such a hard time distinguishing what makes a free-verse poem a poem. Rhyme and meter? Much easier. Linefeeds at odd points? Not so much.
When the parsing is eliminated and the result compressed, “Home to Roost” predictably makes even less sense than the poem version, and yet I can’t figure out how breaking up sentences makes it poetry.
Orr included one by Franz Wright, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, who wrote
The black balloon
tied to her wrist again, thin hand
an inch above the white
a word to be said
into death, one
which no one else knows
completely on her own –
Night just the shadow of her hell
Is that poetry because it looks like poetry? Because the author says it is poetry? Because someone else says it’s poetry? What if I looked at it as I did “Home to Roost”?
The black balloon tied to her wrist again, thin hand floating an inch above the white white sheet
The body a word to be said into death, one word which no one else knows completely her own –
Night just the shadow of her hell
I’m not asking the audience to try to explain what Wright’s poem means, or even what makes it a poem. I have a feeling it wouldn’t register anyway.
Orr prints the “start of Billy Collins’s best poem, which focuses on the wildly unpromising subject of writing workshops and is called, appropriately enough, ‘Workshop’”:
I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title.
It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now
so immediately the poem has my attention,
like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve
And I like the first couple of stanzas,
the way they establish this mode of self-pointing
that runs through the whole poem
and tells us that words are food thrown down
on the ground for other words to eat.
I can almost taste the tail of the snake
in its own mouth,
if you know what I mean.
But what I’m not sure about is the voice,
which sounds in places very casual, very blue jeans,
but other times seems standoffish,
professional in the worst sense of the word…
Deep breath. Look left and right. Okay. Anyway, always digging, I found a Collins fan site. Didn’t help – language barrier, I guess – but I am glad that there are people who can appreciate his work.
Orr says that “[t]he best that we can do is to say that only through poetry can we understand poetry.”
Later on the same page, to dispense with a personal connection as the means to understand poetry, Orr says
The basic problem with declaring that poetry is associated in some unique way with our innermost selves is obvious: The overwhelming majority of English-speaking humanity knows nothing whatsoever about poetry, yet many of those people seem to lead inner lives that are perfectly satisfactory. So we can assume that these seemingly contented people are deluded, and doomed to a soulless oblivion of which they’re sadly unaware, or we can acknowledge that whatever one gets from poetry must also be obtainable from other sources.
Now that makes sense. Sort of. I (apparently sadly) am unaware of the soulless oblivion into which I descend for I outside of Dr. Seuss, some of Shel Silverstein, and limericks, the only poems that…reach me…I suppose that’s the phrase, both have to do with roads: Frost’s one not taken, and Tolkien’s one that goes ever on. I wonder what that says about me?
So what makes a poem a poem? Like as not, I’ll never know for sure. But, with art openings and exhibitions aplenty, and occasional foray into literature (or as I’ve been advised…Literature) and a far less than occasional side trip into poetry, I’m trying to expose myself to some of what most would call the “best” things humans have done. And I’m trying to bring them into what I’m doing. For I work in a marvelous world of architecture and engineering and like most, enjoy the benefits of science, both full of evidence of some of the other “best” things humans have done, and yet are too often taken for granted.