“The Atlantic”

 Atlantic by John Sevcik

A few years back, I was privileged to join John Sevcik, his wife Lynne Campbell–who is also a marvelous painter–and a few art students and friends for three lovely days of art talk and plein air painting sessions and terrific food at a beach house in NJ. This painting, by John Sevcik, inspired the following poem, which appears in Water-Rites.

The Atlantic

She and her mother
are knee-deep in water
their backs to the shore

What they discuss
as they look eastward
you cannot hear–

breakers, the wind,
the natter of laughing gulls
cover their conversation

Besides, you are busy
fathoming the sea’s tones
and mixing the sky–

Trying to stake claim
to the reflective shallows
between you and them

At this hour
they are your subjects
as the sea is

and what they say
she will share with you
later. Or she won’t.

It doesn’t matter, you
have set down on canvas
their communion

And your own conversation–
the one between mind’s eye
and artist’s hand.

~~~

Many thanks to John Sevcik for allowing me to post his painting here on my blog. To see John’s other works and find out about gallery showings, visit him at his web page. He is also a teacher, poet, playwright and actor.

Manet and the Sea: a novice’s view

I wrote this essay about eight years ago while taking a class on writing art criticism with the late William Zimmer. I wrote some more traditional art-crit writing, but I liked this short piece best.

The show “Manet and the Sea” traveled several major museums and was mounted at the Philadelphia art museum in, I think, spring of 2003. My daughter is now graduating from college with a degree in biology.

Manet and the Sea: a Novice’s View

My daughter, Alice, is almost 14. She has decided tastes: a preference for the colors red and purple, for Papillion blue cheese and Belgian chocolates (the darker the better), for anchovy-stuffed olives, for horses, for Gary Cooper and Johnny Depp. She listens to Fats Waller, Tom Lehrer and the Beatles. She has no interest in clothing fashions or in 14-year-old boys. All of this makes her not-your-average teen girl, but she still does not exactly jump at the chance to visit art museums. That’s my department.
Alice therefore exhibited typical teenaged foot-dragging when I bribed her into accompanying me to “Manet and the Sea” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (expensive chocolate desserts were promised). I attended the show with members of an art criticism class, people she referred to as “art geeks”—not a promising start to our evening together; but that’s what people her age are like and I have learned not to take the sarcasm too personally. She spurned the offer, at the gallery entrance, of a taped audio tour. “Those things are always stupid,” she pronounced. The tour was not exactly stupid; but I did decide, after awhile, that the audio part of the program was the least effective aspect of the exhibit. Alice’s intuition is often pretty canny.

My kid is a widely-read, marginally sophisticated teen who’s been to many art museums but never really shown a huge interest in paintings. On the way to Philadelphia, I asked her if she knew who Manet was; she remembered Monet and Renoir, and Delacroix’s horses, but not Manet. I told her about the scandals that revolved around “Olympia” and “The Luncheon,” and we discussed subjects for art and how those change depending on society’s values. She remembered my passion for medieval art, “all those church-y pictures with saints and halos.” Subjects of the times. But this exhibit would focus on sea paintings, I told her. Boats. Harbors. They’ll be pretty to look at, I said.

And they are. Alice was not particularly taken with the early Dutch naval battle canvases, or with Manet’s “Ship’s Deck,” but most of the other paintings appealed to her. She said of “Ship’s Deck” that “you can tell he knew a lot about boats, but this painting is kind of dull and depressing.” More to her personal tastes was one of Manet’s small, impressionistic canvases, which she returned to admire several times during the evening: “Sailing Ships at Sea” (1864). She liked the abstract but sure brushwork, quick-seeming indications of small boats “with their sails moving the right way” (she learned to sail last summer and is full of the hubris of the newly-informed) and the cheerfully-colored bands of sea and sky. This is a painting she wouldn’t mind looking at every day, she said, as opposed to Courbet’s “The Wave” (1869). She admired the Courbet for its power and deep brown hues, its action—“but it’s almost too much; I would get fidgety having it in my room.” Monet’s “The Green Wave” suited her most among the wavescape paintings. She liked the way the small boats were handling the swell.

Her taste for bright colors does seem to affect her choice of favorite paintings. She liked the vivid blue-and-white poles and bright overall feel of Manet’s “Venice—the Grand Canal” and pointed out to me the small, red sailboat and tiny white seabirds that add to the perfect charm of his “Fine Weather at Arachon” (1871). Color is what appeals to her in the Monet paintings, as well, and was what surprised her most in the Morisot harbor scenes. “Look how much white she used! These are so different from the other paintings,” she observed. “Why do you think she chose to paint those scenes?” I asked Alice. She answered that flags must be fun to paint. Color again.

But tedium sets in, even amid the loveliest gallery of paintings. Alice headed out of the show to view the chanfrons (equine face-armor) in the arms and armor gallery and to wander through the European collections. And after a long wait at a nearby restaurant, she was served a warm, chocolate bread pudding with chocolate sauce, whipped cream and fresh strawberries. I opted for the crème brulée. There is food for the mind, and there’s food for the body; we shared a bit of both. On the ride home, Alice said, drowsily, “All those paintings made me want to take a vacation by the sea.” Yes, Alice—life should definitely imitate art.

Haiku impressions

The reading Friday at Blind Willow Bookshop, a lovely used bookstore specializing in literature and unusual or rare books, combined the voices and perspectives of three poets who are exploring Japanese poetic forms.

Here’s a summation of my own remarks, though Marilyn Hazelton and Ann Burke had much to share. I’m not including the poems we read, either–Ann Burke’s haiga-like tanka poems coupled with art work or photos were lovely, though, and I wish I had files to post. Marilyn included work from the tanka journal she edits, red lights.

~

I learned about the haiku form long ago, but I can’t remember exactly when. I think it may have been during my junior high school years, though I certainly didn’t learn it in school—there was no poetry taught at my schools. I was exposed to poetry through other means: church, nursery rhymes, my own reading, relatives, song lyrics.

Initially I learned the syllabic approach, 5-7-5 syllables in English. That is the way the form was taught in the USA the 1970s. And it was clear to me early on that haiku is visual or physically-based; the imagery is sensual and real—in other words, what is in the world is in haiku, and vice versa. So it is not imaginative in the sense of fiction or dream. It engages the imagination in other ways, which means the poet has to corral quite a bit of compressed and specific imagination into a few words. The intense compression of these brief forms requires the poet to work hard at expression through the tightest possible means in language without employing what we in the Western traditions term symbolism. Classic Chinese poems often used symbolism, but Japanese poems relied more on allusions of several types (historical, poetic, seasonal). We tend to term these “symbols” (ie, cherry blossom equals spring romance) but that is not actually an accurate way to define the way concrete imagery is used in Japanese poems.

Later, after more study, I learned some details and contexts for the seasonal allusion, the references to previous poets or poems, the cutting word, the reasons haiku in English may need to be briefer than 17 syllables for maximum effect; and I found out about related forms of Japanese poetry such as haibun, renga, tanka. I met Marilyn Hazelton and learned through her, as she studied and taught the forms, in English, to other aspiring writers. Japanese poetry forms may seem to follow arbitrary rules, but that is no more true than asserting that western sonnet forms follow arbitrary rules.

My study of this poetry brought me a better understanding of the Imagist poets of the early 20th century in the sense of how they were influenced by, and how they misinterpreted, the haiku poem, crafting in the process some critically important poems for western readers. Poetry is a marvelously flexible art, elastic and willing to morph as its authors are willing to experiment. I think of much of my work as based in a ‘haiku moment’ for inspiration or image.

I will be the first to assert that haiku is not my métier, nor is tanka form. My poetry—and I’ve written a great deal of it—is generally more Western in style and tone, no surprise given my cultural and educational background. Yet haiku appealed to me immediately because, I think, of my interest in visual art and in the natural world.

~

My attraction to haiku is therefore image-based. My interest in Japanese poetry also increased after I studied Zen. The two are inter-related, also no surprise. In my notebooks, and on random pieces of paper I use to jot down ideas for poems, nine times out of ten the phrases I want to capture are physical images. Later, I may try to craft these jottings into a haiku. More often, they get employed as lines in other types of poems.

Sometimes, a poem I attempt to write as haiku becomes a tanka…or a longer poem in some other form (free verse, blank verse, etc.); in any case, the sensual first impression is usually what I first observe and note. My own interest in nature and my physical environment make haiku-type poetry sort of an inclination. So the inspirations and influences for me include Zen, visual art, physical or concrete imagery, nature and season, brief observation, compressed or concise language use, and a quality of universality in the poem.

~

For writers who have done Westerners the service of exploring, interpreting, and explicating haiku and the Zen practice that leads to the haiku moment, I suggest Jane Hirshfield, Robert Aitken, William Higginson, Penny Harter, Hasegawa Kai, Earl Miner, Richard Wright, Gary Snyder.

Passion, art, doubt

“We work in the dark–we do what we can–we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”  ~Henry James

Azar Nafisi cites this James quote in Reading Lolita in Tehran. In her memoir-based ruminations on James, she identifies deeply with James’ ambiguity, a trait in James’ fiction that her Iranian students find complex and difficult. She spends a couple of pages examining the problematic aspects of James’ work that frustrate and puzzle her students even as the same aspects appeal to her. She likes the doubt.

This quote, with its passionate appeal to the task of art, and its uncertainty, likewise resonates for me. My encounters with the ambiguity inherent in art stem from a set of experiences very different from Nafisi’s, and from James’. But our passions are similar in intensity, although I would probably tone down James’ phrase “the madness of art.”

Where did the doubt and the passionate “need to make a task of art” begin? I can probably come up with dozens of possible answers for myself. I’ll mention just one right now, the way I learned to feel about visual art. A framed print of the painting shown here [The Adoration of the Magi, by Fra Angelico and Lippo Lippi] hung on the wall when I was very young. It was the most fascinating object in the house. I spent what seemed like hours gazing at its details, finding the animals among the throngs of people, old men, and young women with their hair in roped braids, children and peasants and half-naked lepers amid the ruins. I knew the story well, but the way it was told in this painting engaged me more completely than any other way I’d absorbed the Christmas narrative. And it was round! It was the only round picture I’d ever seen.

This Adoration moved me, even though I was only six years old. The idealized, pastel paintings of Jesus that hung in the Sunday school rooms were bland and static by comparison; they did not make me want to love the pretty man in the clean robes. But this painting! Even the peacocks adored the Baby Jesus. And yet the picture contained more than adoration and joy. Pain was implicated–the beggars, the cripples–decay was there in the broken-down building. Horses stamped impatiently; some of the people turned away. The whole thing was full of tension and human frailty and doubt as well as gladness.

It strikes me, now, that doubt is one of our tasks; for it is through uncertainty, curiosity, mild skepticism, and a willingness to weather the problems and puzzles of ambiguity that we keep alive our passion for the task of art, to make new, to express, to challenge, and to celebrate. That is what the devoted students in Nafisi’s book manage to cling to as they read “dangerous” books in Tehran. And that’s perhaps what Henry James meant when he stated that we work in the dark.

If the madness of art exerts itself through the tasks, the doubt, and the passionate devotion to doing what we can–well, I can live with that.

Cognition and storytelling

Apparently, there has been considerable excitement in the humanities and literature worlds concerning new discoveries in neurology and cognition. And while I have been thinking and reading along these lines for years in my own auto-didactic way, I’ve only recently stumbled upon the texts that specifically explore this cross-fertilization of the arts and sciences.

AWP featured a standing-room-only panel on the topic of Cognitive Science and Stories that alerted me to the work of Brian Boyd (more books for the to-read pile), for example; and just this past week, Annie Murphy Paul contributed an opinion essay titled “Your Brain on Fiction” to the New York Times Sunday Review. Oliver Sacks has, of course, worked along this territory for many years, mostly from the neurological viewpoint with research that suggests we consider the relationship of brain science to art. Leonard Shlain has written intriguing books on the subject as well; though he focuses on gender and visual/textual creativity in his earlier work (see The Alphabet vs. the Goddess), his more recent Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light takes on the “rational” brain (physics) and the world and work of art.

The science, which encompasses both ‘hard science’ such as neurology and social science such as psychology, uses fMRI brain imaging and other forms of feedback measurement to record the brain’s responses to imagery, metaphor, descriptive writing, emotionally-evocative literary passages, and other stimuli to gauge how the human brain takes in such stimuli and which regions of the brain ‘fire’ when encountering the materials.

Associations rule. Reading is associative.  The word “coffee,” as it turns out, engages the olfactory regions; so does the word “cinnamon.” Tactile word cues (velvet, sandy, rough) arouse sensory regions, notes Paul. We associate meaning with senses. Or perhaps senses evoke, in the human mind, associated meanings. This is one reason poetry engages its readers; poetry works via a series of different types of arousals by association–allusions to previously-known information, metaphorical associations by means of sensory-related responses, stimulation of brain regions by word-association, and also cultural or social association (contextual cues, which may also be physical). All of this means that the act of reading is an embodied behavior–we are actively encoding physical settings and sensations while we read!

Human brains fill in the gaps in memory and in event-series that may or may not be related. Some of these neurological studies suggest human brains seek patterns…and construct narratives. Hence, story-making may be something that evolved along with the human cortex while we learned that a growl in the bushes is likely to equal a hidden predator and that if we convey this information by narrative (or metaphor) it will be recalled more quickly by our listener. If the listener is offspring, and the lesson is remembered and used appropriately, the genes survive another generation. That scenario sounds pretty scientific/Darwinian; but to a writer or artist, the scenario is lush with the possibility of story-myth-legend-fiction-poem-art.

Storytelling facilitates sociality, claims Tim Horvath, who explained to the attendees at the AWP conference that sociality is the biologist’s “reciprocal altruism.” Because fiction meta-represents life, it simulates possible life scenarios that can help to foster understanding and offers a way to test out possible social reactions to behavior in a way that is low-risk for the reader. The reader can imagine, or play along, with the rebellious heroine and through this adaptive play (reading can be a form of play) learn how others around her might react if she were to try a similar form of rebellion. Indeed, Marilynne Robinson agrees that “The great virtue of the best fiction is to teach compassion.”

I look forward to learning more about the cognitive side of human narrative. I love it when science and the humanities discourse with one another.

Inspiration

The word “inspiration” is from the Latin inspiratio: to blow into, to inflame. I began musing on inspiration today while on a walk with Spouse and Dog, during which the idea of muse came up in conversation (with Spouse; Dog kept her own silent counsel). He observed that he had never had a muse and asked if I had ever had one. I said I cannot think of ever having a person serve as my muse, but perhaps other things have played that role.

“Isn’t a muse a person?” he asked. We discussed, then, the difference—as each of us saw it—between a muse and a mentor. He has had mentors at various stages of his life; I think most of us encounter someone along the way who serves as a sage, a guide, a teacher, or as a role model. That person certainly offers a kind of inspiration. A muse, however, seems to connote inspiration of a different character or quality from mentorship. The muse acts as trigger, someone or something whose mere presence elicits a creative urge. The muse inflames, blows on the spark of creativity and ignites it.

Richard Hugo’s book The Triggering Town is justifiably famous among creative writers, particularly poets, for its author’s sensitive explanation of a source for the creative process and his description of how inspiration percolates into the creative act. He uses the example of American towns that act as triggers for memories or conjure of specific details of place and personhood. The town becomes muse. In a similar way, works of ekphrastic poetry may employ art as muse (though not always). For other creative people, music provides that initial flicker of inspiration—which seems especially fitting, given the word “music” originates from the word for the Greek muses themselves: mousike techne “art of the muses” from mousa, “muse.”

Mousa itself derives from the ancient proto-indo-european linguistic base *mon-men-mn, most closely associated with the meaning “to think, to remember.” Inspiration, though we feel it emotionally, psychologically, even physically at times, takes us into our minds, where the creativity takes place and can be formulated into art.

Much of my inspiration over the years has come from what people tend to term “the natural world”—as if we humans were not a part of that. But other things spur my creativity, including art and things I read. Having finally completed Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, I am now consuming more easily-digestible fare and finding much to inflame my interests in Alberto Manguel’s 1995 book A History of Reading, which I highly recommend.

Perhaps I will later find time to discuss the joys and pitfalls of reading several books at once. Meanwhile, I plan to spend the last light of a late winter afternoon observing hawks and woodpeckers.

Kalliope or Calliope, Athenian-style, the muse of epic poetry.

Non-sense

Let me pick up from my brief post of yesterday, which concerned in part the value of asking the nonsensical rather than (or in addition to) the rational question. What led me to that topic is the recent death, at age 101, of artist Dorothea Tanning, whose work–both visual and textual–is often considered surrealistic.

Surrealism goes in and out of fashion, and I am not planning to comment critically on its aesthetic value; but I will say that I have admired and been influenced by artists working in the surrealist oeuvre and that I enjoy the way “nonsense” and  “non-sense” can lead to juxtapositions of ideas and images that have proven fruitful for my own creative work process.

The nonsensical question may follow along the lines of:

How does the sunflower feel when a bird feeds on it?

Non-rational, because the sunflower does not–as far as we know, in the rational/sentient way–feel anything emotionally; the jury may be out on whether there are tactile receptors in a sunflower that can feel anything physically. To answer the nonsensical question in this case requires a kind of metaphor or animation of the inanimate. (We could also argue the inanimate status of a sunflower seed-head.)

Further nonsensical inquiry could lead us to “What does the goldfinch say to the sunflower?” or, more nonsensical still, “What would a sunflower say to an electric guitar?”

Non-rational prompts can provoke interesting results in the process of creative thinking.

Back to Tanning. Her life itself was a creative process. Check out the biographies of her that are popping up online in response to her death. While I am not a fan of all of her work in her various media, I love her vivid and exciting explorations. Here’s one of her early, less-experimental works that appeals to me because of its imagery. I identify with this painting.

“What would it feel like to wear a nest on one’s head?”
As a poet, she was strongest in the area of visual figures (no surprise there). I’m running out of time now, so I will close with an excerpt from one of Tanning’s poems:
There was a time
of middle distance, unforgettable,
a sort of lace-cut
flame-green filament
to ravish my
skin-tight eyes.
I take that back—
it was forgettable but not
entirely if you
consider my
heavenly bodies . . .
I loved them so.
Heaven’s motes sift
to salt-white—paint is ground
to silence; and I,
I am bound, unquiet,
a shade of blue
in the studio.
(The entire poem, “Sequestrienne,” is here.)
For another surrealist whose poetry is not always classically surreal, see my posts on Eluard .

The seed of disorder

“I am the seed of disorder.” –Paul Eluard

From an essay by Ezra Pound (published in The Exile):
“The principle of good is enunciated by Confucius. It consists in establishing order within oneself. This order or harmony spreads by a sort of contagion without specific effort.”

As Lewis Hyde, who excerpts the above passage in The Gift notes, Pound offers an implicit paradox here that he apparently could neither acknowledge nor accept. If “good” is order, how can it spread by “a sort of contagion”—surely a chaotic method of disseminating something supposedly well-structured?

Hmm. I turn now to Wallace Stevens—or rather, to Helen Vendler on Wallace Stevens—to examine further this “idea of order.” Vendler’s interpretation of the order in Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” includes several approaches. There is order as in organization: the singer in Stevens’ poem creates and hence organizes her physical world. There is order as in command: she orders her world into being by singing, by language. Then there is order as magnitude: “The two Wordsworthian orders of mind and world…exquisitely fitted and yet subtly uneasy with each other,” notes Vendler. The tension Hyde finds and explicates in Pound’s Cantos also exists in Vendler’s examination of Stevens.

Eluard, a poet completely different in style, sensibility, and background from Pound and Stevens, identifies in his poem the workings of that tension, the DNA carrier, the seed of disorder which, it can be plausibly speculated, might well spread its own form of harmony without specific effort, traveling as seeds do through a myriad of dispersal mechanisms such as wind, burrs, digestion and expulsion, burial by mammals, flotation, and the like. (As a gardener, I am constantly amazed at these marvelous mechanisms.)

Well-fitted but uneasy together, disorder through its contagion moves harmony and order to grounds on which what inheres in the seed can survive, even thrive, as it organizes itself into maturity. The seed “follows orders” nature has imposed through genetics. Mind and world, order and self, establish themselves as “good.”

Without that seed of disorder, all is stasis. No art, nor mind nor world, can be produced unless the rebellious seed slips from stem, twig, womb, sac, or lamellae to sing its own idea of order into the world.

For some fabulous photographs of lamellae, see:

Hive Mind on FlickR

Affirmation

larch cones by Ann E. Michael

I am almost finished reading Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, and I think his conclusions about the self (person) in society and as individual are valid; I have long questioned the self-interest theory of philosophy but only on an intuitive basis as I am no philosopher, merely a student of the discipline.

What strikes me after having read this lengthy and rationally-argued book is that there are so many ways philosophical reasoning does actually intersect with that “most irrational” of impulses, art.

Here is a lovely excerpt from poet David Ignatow, from an essay he wrote in 1971:
“There is no contravening another person’s sense of himself and his world. We must accept it on his terms, though we need not accept it for ourselves…men and women have discovered themselves as individuals, and that this sense of individuality is something among them…In affirming themselves, they affirm all others.”

He later adds that poetry “is formed by the terms with which the person sees himself.”

It seems to me that Ignatow possessed an excellent understanding of the psychological and emotional as well as the rhetorical aspects of poetry–indeed, of any art.