Star Black took this photograph at the opening of John Ashbery's first show of his collages at the Tibor de Nagy gallery, November, 2009.
Star Black took this photograph at the opening of John Ashbery's first show of his collages at the Tibor de Nagy gallery, November, 2009.
The Chicago School of Poetics survived the “terrible two’s!” According to WebMD, this is a milestone in our cognitive development, even if it feels like we’re sometimes running out of energy. At age three, kids tend to let their imaginations run absolutely wild, and we’re no different. That’s why you should join us for our current master class with CAConrad on Saturday, October 18! Your writing will absolutely benefit from a jolt of imagination with CAConrad as your guide. Plus, educators get a 20% discount!
Description: Study with CAConrad in this one-day online class, RADICAL INSISTENCE: A (Soma)tic Poetry Workshop. (Soma)tic poetry rituals provide a window into the creative viability of everything around us, initiating an extreme present where we learn how even in crisis we can thrive through the poems, as well as learn to collaborate in unexpected ways with other artistic disciplines. In our Chicago School of Poetics workshop we will take notes together for the poems, but we will also talk about how to always be able to see the poems around us. We will discuss the places that seem to prevent us from writing, and we will build rituals within those very places, because if we can write there we are free to write anywhere, whenever we want. A poetics of autonomy is a poetics of RADICAL INSISTENCE, and it is for all of us.
Class Date: Saturday, October 18, 2014
Time: 1 p.m.– 4 p.m. CST
Duration: 1 day (class meets once, for 3 hrs.)
Thanks to all who have helped us reach our mini-milestone!
Here’s a brief Q&A about the School's mission and format with the School’s founder/director, Francesco Levato.
Larry Sawyer: What makes the online instruction at The Chicago School of Poetics so different?
Francesco Levato: I think there are a number of aspects of The Chicago School of Poetics that work toward differentiating our programs. Our instructors are all publishing poets who are also very active in the literary community as editors of literary journals, curators of reading series, and as performers themselves. This allows us to offer our students insight into, and advice for working with, publishers and the larger literary scene. Our video-conferenced classrooms allow students from anywhere to work with instructors they would not otherwise have the chance to work with, and to do this in a face-to-face setting. This system also allows us to provide students with access to poets like Charles Bernstein, Eileen Myles, Pierre Joris, Ron Silliman, and CAConrad, through our Master Class series. We have had students attend these and our regular classes from all over the world. It’s a unique experience to be able to work with a poet like Bernstein from my own home while sharing my work with classmates from Japan, Australia, and Morocco. Also, for what students are getting from the classes, it's much more affordable than instruction found elsewhere. We go beyond critique and allow students to see inside the writing process of the instructors in a truly collaborative environment. We’re happy to be celebrating our three-year anniversary. It's been a team effort.
How have students responded to the classes so far?
The response so far has been great, with students returning regularly for both core courses and master classes. In particular, students have commented on: the breadth of our instructors’ knowledge; the variety of in-class writing exercises and how these are both accessible to newer students and challenging for more experienced poets; on the surprise at, and importance of, being exposed to poets and poetic strategies not usually found in other programs, especially MFA programs; on the collegiality, richness, and depth of discussion with classmates and instructors, and how such has led to rewarding collaborations between students that carry on beyond the classroom; and also on the excitement at being able to participate, from a distance, in performance-based courses like Pulse Poem Pulse where students explore poetry through aural, visual, and musical performances.
How is a typical class structured?
Our instructors design their courses to best suit both the needs of their students and the particular needs of a course’s thematic arc. Because we’re independent we have that flexibility! However, all courses typically include: a combination of short lectures to introduce poets, poetry, and poetic strategies that are unfamiliar to students; readings and discussions to expand on those concepts; writing and/or performance exercises designed to allow students to experiment with those strategies; and in-depth discussion of student poems in a workshop format. Have a look at all of our Fall course offerings by clicking here.
Chicago School of Poetics Core Faculty: Barbara Barg, Kristina Marie Darling, Steve Halle, Francesco Levato, Sharon Mesmer, Larry Sawyer, Laura Skokan
Here it is Day 4, a Thursday. In my blog, Frying the Onion, Thursday is significant because it is the day of the week that my dad died. Soon after this happened, a friend told me that the Tibetans have a tradition of remembrance. The day of the week on which the person died becomes sacred, a day to do things in that person’s honor: enact a kind deed, give to charity, or start a new venture. Then, after seven weeks, the deceased’s soul will have decided its next move, and off it goes. Those left behind can relax, trusting that the soul has found its next bardo, or level. So we hope.
For me, Thursday has remained full of meaning, and a year later, is still frought with grief. On top of this, it seems that everywhere I turn, a friend, co-worker, neighbor, or acquaintance is battling cancer or some other life-threatening illness. And I don't mean the terminal illness called Life. I mean something serious. Something that changes how a person does things.
Last week, when I visited California, I made a five-hour detour off my main purpose (which was to visit friends in the Bay Area), and drove down to the San Fernando Valley to say goodbye to a friend in hospice in her home. I last saw Diane in January, 2014, and before that, in the summer of 2010 when she came to Wisconsin for a visit. She was sick, but pretty high functioning then. Friends were giving her and her husband trips to Paris and London and the use of their homes in these romantic places. At the time, she said, "I should die more often."
Diane is my age, and was my colleague when I worked at the Getty Museum. She was the writer/editor in the Education Department and later an editor at the Getty Research Institute. A good portion of our friendship developed through email after I left Los Angeles and came to Wisconsin. She was a great correspondent and had the most wonderful dry sense of humor in her writing. When I saw her last week, she was barely awake, though her doctor said she would probably hang on for a couple weeks yet. She said "It's unfair," and I said "I know." She said, "It's unfair that you will get to see the next season of Downton Abbey and I won't." We laughed. At one point, she looked me right in the eye and said, "Good things are going to happen!" I would like to believe this, but without her in the world? I'm not convinced. I’m so glad I made the effort to get to her and hold her hands and cry. She is an excellent writer, editor, and friend. I miss her already.
Then, in Berkeley, I attended a poetry reading on the UC campus in honor of someone I did not know, had never met: the poet Hillary Gravendyk. Hillary died on May 10 of this year, age 35. Five years ago, she had a double lung transplant. She was a young professor at Pomona College, much loved by her students. She had done her dissertation at Berkeley, and her colleagues there clearly loved her, too. They spoke of her exuberant energy, her support of other writers, her strength, her words. Several people shared how she had collaborated with them. I love that. I love when poets join forces. We should do this more often, you know?
The reading began when her husband, I think not a poet himself, graciously—and with a wry smile—said he was starting off, “to set the bar low.” He was followed by a veritable pantheon of poets who read Hillary’s poems to the gathering of about forty people. The readers included Robert Hass, Lyn Hejinian, Brenda Hillman, and many others. There were tears, pregnant pauses, and a bit of laughter too.
What can I say? Everywhere, death. It is one thing for someone who has lived a long life to go. It is another thing entirely when someone dies too young. It is autumn now and the year itself is dying. It comes back, I know. But still.
What are we going to do about all this death? Is this why I write? So I won’t be forgotten? So I will touch some person faraway in a future I can’t see, won’t see? One of Hillary’s prose poems from her collection, Harm, struck me in connection with this topic of using words to reach out across boundaries:
A blurry rope you throw me. Familiar. The color of air, doubled. The hand
imprecise as a stilled wand. I surface. I submerge. The wink of meaning
fleeing the scene. A letter clasped between the finger and the eye. We add
them up and they equal troubling dreams. Worry buried in the folds. Ex-
tended across a simple language, there is a confusion of longing. Techni-
color handprint, clasping at need. Absent clarity, I waiver in the harsh light.
But beloved error: a long braid of signs, given. Everyone is glowing with
listening. Little syllabic string. Little tether. Line cast into a blacker sea.*
I hang onto my dad through the tether of his work. His imagery was abstract, but called forth birds and feathers, butterflies, sailboats, and things that loft upon the air. There is a storage room full of art work that I am in charge of, executor of the estate. It is a task, believe me. There are inventories and values to be assigned. There is probate, still not completed. There are claims against him—artists go into debt, you know?—and no fluid cash at the moment. Just art.
Each person leaves a legacy. Some leave paintings and drawings, some leave poems, and some just leave the love they gave, the wisdom they shared. All the living have to do, on a Thursday or any other day of the week for that matter, is cherish and remember.
Today’s final words go to Gerard Manley Hopkins. (I have a feeling I might have posted this poem the last time I blogged for BAP. I guess it means a lot to me. Its sentiments bear repeating as fall approaches.)
Spring and Fall, to a young child
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
--Gerard Manley Hopkins
Me in front of a mixed-media collage/drawing by
my dad, Georg Vihos, in the collection of Betty Smith,
hanging in her dining room in Corralitos, California
*From Harm, (Omnidawn Publishing, 2011). The text of the poem should be left and right justified, but I can’t make my computer do this. My apologies to the poet for the improper formatting.
(Ed note: The Inquisitive Eater is one website I visit often. It publishes a brilliant mix of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, visual art, news. This piece recently captured my attention and I contiue to return to it so it seemed worthwhile to share it here. sdh)
Haut-cuisine extravaganzas like Plaza-Athéneé Lobster Soufflé are not usually my thing, either as a diner or as a cook—too rich, too fattening, too much of a production—but when my neighbor Stan and I attempted to make it one New Year’s Day and failed, it haunted me. The soufflé lurked out there, along with the perfect rye bread and a Kosher dill that mimicked the exact taste and texture of a Guss’ Pickles pickle, in the deep pool of unrealized cooking dreams, just beyond reach. Besides, Stan, whose disappointment was much keener than mine, claimed it was one of the best things he’d ever eaten.
Stan was an accomplished home cook and for many years, Plaza-Athéneé Lobster Soufflé had been his specialty. He had promised several times to make it for my husband Stephan and me, but each time we came to dinner with Stan and his wife, Leslie, the dish failed to appear. He baked delicate gougères, a beautiful whole red snapper with herbs, a gorgeous rosemary encrusted leg of lamb, but no soufflé. Finally, during a dinner at our house, he had to admit that he couldn’t do it. Already in his late eighties, he found it increasingly difficult to make any of the elaborate dishes he used to execute with ease. The lobster soufflé required too many steps, beginning with killing, cutting up and cooking the lobsters, and took too many hours—three, at least—for him to contemplate.
Stan looked chagrined after his confession, obviously embarrassed to have to acknowledge that he was too old for the job. That’s when, impulsively, I suggested that we make it together. I had never made a soufflé and would get a lesson in how to do it. Stan would get the aid of my hands. I would be his sous-chef and do all the clean-up, enabling him to concentrate his energy on cooking. Together, surely, we could manage.
Stan emailed me a copy of his recipe, his shopping list of ingredients penciled in a column down one side. I would make sure we had everything we needed on hand: two lobsters, a carrot, an onion, chives, parsley, Cognac, dry white wine, heavy cream, dry sherry, butter, flour, eggs, and parmesan cheese. I read the sheet over once, twice, a third time, trying to fix an outline of the many steps in my mind. It was the sort of recipe that had to be executed quickly, without hesitation: fall behind and the cream would boil over while the butter burned.
Some of the most affecting artwork—or, at least, the art that really “gets” me—is the art that haunts. Not many scenes in literature have stuck with me quite like Ovid’s tale of Actaeon, the hunter who became the stag in his own hunt. The hunter whose own hounds dismembered him. The precise moment in that scene that haunts me is his scream, which lies somewhere between man and animal, which “has a sound, although not of a man, yet such as a stag is not able to utter.” Why can’t I shake it?
In his 1919 essay on unheimlich, or the ‘uncanny,’ Freud writes that he is not so much interested in “the theory of beauty, but the theory of the qualities of feeling." The uncanny, he continues, “belongs to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror. . .that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar. . .Something has to be added to what is novel and unfamiliar to make it uncanny." Freud builds here on the definition of unheimlich originally proposed in 1906 by Ernst Jentsch, who identifies the peculiarly unsettling sensation as one arising in “intellectual uncertainty; so that the uncanny would always be that in which one does not know where one is, as it were,” and especially “‘doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate.” He reveals “heimlich” to have two definitions, one being “familiar” and the other “secret,” and concludes:
. . .among its different shades of meaning the word heimlich exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, unheim- lich. What is heimlich thus comes to be unheimlich. (Cf. the quotation from Gutzkow: “We call it unheimlich; you call it heimlich.”) In general we are reminded that the word heimlich is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which without being contradictory are yet very different: on the one hand, it means that which is familiar and congenial, and on the other, that which is concealed and kept out of sight.
Certainly these early nineteenth century considerations of unheimlichkeit would be foreign to Ovid. Still, The Metamorphoses consistently demonstrates an ‘uncanny’ brand of horror that, once experienced, intrudes upon their “fairy-tale”-esque aura. Transformation here, when a form of violence, leaves human bodies in a liminal state between human and “other.” Such metamorphoses are thus incomplete. Not quite human, not quite animal, they are often Dr. Moreau-vian or Frankenstein-ian abominations which, once fully imagined, become unsettling to behold. Apollo can still hear Daphne’s heart beating behind the bark of the laurel tree, like the tell-tale heart of a dismembered body still beating beneath the floorboards. Lycaon retains his human eyes. Conversely, Juno cuts Argus’s many eyes from his severed head and uses them to adorn her bird. The familiar has been transformed into the strange, yet still evokes itself. This is the realm of unheimlicht.
It is tempting to dub these as metaphorical gestures that simply represent earthly phenomena (e.g. an origin story for the eye-like markings of the ordinary peacock, far less terrifying to imagine than a bird with a body of eyes), or else “fairy-tale” transformations that remain easily digestible because a reader understands them to be fictional. And, indeed, many of the tales and the images that come to embody them in The Metamorphoses invite allegorical interpretations.
But each grand metaphor, each transformation that makes “art” of a victim, in turn contains the slow and painful destruction—or dismemberment—of a mortal human body and mind that nonetheless resists complete disappearance. Each symbolic image, even the “beautiful” laurel, contains the nightmarish distortion that begat it. The uncanny sensation arises at the moment the empathetic reader realizes the object (or animal) in such an episode retains not merely a physical attribute (hair or eye color) of its human form but a trace of its humanness. Lycaon is not quite a wolf. The eyes of the animal do not resemble his in color but in their act of looking, in their “fierce gaze,” suggesting they are still his human eyes. Note that a “literal translation” of this moment reads as “his eyes glare the same,” also emphasizing their action rather than their appearance. Lycaon is closer to a werewolf, to a monster; he resists classification.
The tale of Diana and Actaeon, which quickly escalates into the domain of cinematically nightmarish horror, features perhaps the most unsettingly ‘uncanny’ moment in The Metamorphoses.* Actaeon, of house Cadmus, has finished hunting and wanders the woods alone. Diana, also “weary from hunting,” bathes in her sacred cave, which Nature itself has sculpted into its own piece of art. When Actaeon wanders from his familiar path and happens upon the cave, god and human realms converge; though her nymphs scream and rush to hide Diana’s naked body, they cannot hide her skin from him completely. She furiously sprinkles his head with water and piece-by-piece, limb-by-limb, she transforms him into a stag. Now terrified, still unaware of his own transformation, Actaeon runs from the cave and through the woods. He is surprised at his own swiftness—until he catches a glimpse of himself in the river. He sees the stag’s “face” instead of his own, and wants to say “Poor me!” but cannot find his voice. (A literal translation: “he was about to say ‘Wretch that I am!” no voice followed. He groaned; that was his voice; and tears flowed over features not his own; only his former mind remained.”) His own hunting dogs begin to chase him, and, trained well by his own hand, they advance on him, easily down him, and sink their teeth into him again and again. As they wound him—perhaps even as theyeat him alive—he groans, and “though the sounds/ he utters are not human, they are not/ the sounds a stag could voice.” The dogs “tear in pieces their lord” as he hears his hunting companions calling and calling his name.
Freud proposes that “dismembered limbs, a severed head, a hand cut off at the wrist, feet which dance by themselves—all these have something peculiarly uncanny about them. . .” However, while the image of Actaeon’s dismemberment is certainly gruesome and horrific, and while a reader might experience general panic or terror (or at least discomfort) as they process its unfolding, the umheimlich itself lies in the moment of his groan, which “has a sound, although not of a man, yet such as a stag is not able to utter.” Actaeon, much like one of the stags he had watched fall earlier that day, collapses, and groans in a pool of his own blood, and the sound he makes is inhuman—but not the “godly” inhuman of Achilles, nor the inhuman of the natural, animal world to which a “lowly” (but humble, innocent) stag belongs. Like Lycaon-as-wolf, Actaeon is not quite a stag, but he is not a human being either. He is, as he suggests himself to be, a “wretch” that exists outside of the natural order of animalia.
What is this sound he makes? It is an ‘uncanny’ one—simultaneously familiar and strange. Ovid does not liken the groan to anything else on earth; he leaves the sound mysterious and open to imaginative interpretations. All he reveals is the unnaturalness of the “voice,” its abnormality, that the sound is out-of-place.
Imagining the sound of Actaeon’s groan—only described as existing somewhere on the spectrum between the sound of a man and a stag—is not a passive activity for a reader. The moment asks the reader to situate his or her self in the world of the moment of the poem, to not only become more intimate with that horror but to help construct it. The reader mentally enters the literary space rather than merely “reads” it. This (terrifying) moment of intimacy helps to “[efface] the distinction between imagination and reality” (that’s Freud again!) typically absent from a fairy-tale narrative. For a second, however brief, reader and poem merge.
And so, too, reader and “character” merge, heightening their empathic relationship with the imagined figure and so unlocking access to his inner world, for throughout the scene Actaeon himself is stuck in the province of the uncanny or unheimlicht. His mind is out-of-body, and his body is out-of-place, all is strange, and yet all is simultaneously familiar, as if he is experiencing a version of déjà vu: “On those same slopes where he once gave—/ he now is given—chase: he has to race/ away from his own hounds,” and, later, as the hounds mangle him, “he would delight to see—not feel and fear—/ the sight of his hounds’ ferocity.” Unsurprisingly, Freud identifies a relationship between unheimlicht and déjà vu, writing that “something uncanny” arises during an “involuntary return to the same situation,” such as being lost in the forest, “when every endeavor to find the marked or familiar path ends again and again in a return to the one and the same spot, recognizable by some particular landmark.” Actaeon experiences an “involuntary return” (of a sort) to his earlier hunt, to its “same slopes” and paths, with one major difference: instead of watching the familiar spectacle from a privileged position of spectator or voyeur, as a reader does the poem, or as a viewer does a film or theatre, he becomes the spectacle itself.
At this point, Actaeon is both tongueless and eyeless—he is able to hear and understand his name but not say it—and without these “powers” he is unable to reorient himself into his position as “master” or “lord.” He has become his own art: not a stag, but instead the hunt itself he so loved, which is, essentially, the production of fear, terror, and destruction for another animal. This transformation—a distorted “translation” of his body into his own perverse desires—is his punishment for tainting a holy space with his presence, and so “wounding” the virginal Diana with his own gaze; her cheeks blushed “the color crimson” when he saw her, which evokes the “mountain slopes stained with blood” from Actaeon’s earlier hunt. As the abomination Diana makes him, Actaeon not only gains access to the experience of the “other”—the animal—that he once watched from the safety of distance, but also the monstrosity that exists within himself. As in Freud’s uncanny, all that was “once concealed and kept out of sight” within the familiar experience “comes to light” for him.
Actaeon physically moves from the periphery to the center of vision through his transformation, but the retainment of his “former mind” in the body of the stag—his memory of the “familiar” experience as the hunterof the stag—generates a tension between the two positions that emphasizes his liminality, i.e., hisbetweenness: the incompletion of his metamorphosis from human into animal (or spectator into spectacle). Actaeon is living the culmination of unheimlicht at the moment of his spectacular destruction. Consider further Freud's etymological treatment of the word: “heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops towards an ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich. Unheimlich is in some way or other a sub-species of heimlich.” The other hunters watching the scene see only the familiar spectacle of the hunt; what is “concealed, kept from sight, withheld” from them is Actaeon himself, who remains somewhere between absence and presence—as the absent presence unable to announce itself.
Metamorphosis itself hinges on a period of liminality, in which two forms converge somewhere “between” states of existence. Ovid's transformations frequently exhibit, rather than elide, this liminal period. It is as if Ovid slits open the belly of transformation to reveal its inner workings. The execution of Acateon's changing is no exception:
There were no other threats. But then she set
a long-lived stag’s horns on the head she’d drenched;
she made his ear-tips sharp, stretched out his neck,
and changed his hands to feet, arms to long legs,
and cloaked his body with a spotted hide.
That done, timidity was added on.
And now Autonoe’s heroic son
takes flight and, as he races, he’s amazed
at how much speed he has.
Actaeon does not instantaneously become the stag but undergoes a process—the contortion of his form toward another form. Much like the sound of his groan, existing somewhere between man and stag, his liminal form verges on the grotesquely strange for those readers who venture to imagine it. This transformation is on one level a process that simulates the creation of art through a distortion (however beautiful the final result).
The presence of unheimlich and horror in The Metamorphoses is what in part gives the work its complexity. Each ‘uncanny’ moment of transformation forges an equally unstable relationship between the creation of art and the destruction of the mortal body within the poem, calling attention to the fear of “final” death that drives us to create lasting images that inevitably contain pieces of them (of both their hands and mind). Never “perfect” in its own transformations, illusory and palpable, and summoning both past and present realities, certain poetry is haunted by a world both old and “familiar,” and haunts the world in turn.
Some of the most affecting art and poetry produces the “uncanny” feeling—much like the feeling of déjà vu—in the sense that it distorts and troubles a moment of “being” (of body, of humanity, of self and mind). In short, sometimes it’s good for us to feel a little strange, good to feel a little unsafe, to allow ourselves, like Actaeon, to divest ourselves of spectatorship and enter the work as if a part of its inner workings and transformations.
*The Mandelbaum translation was used for the purposes of this post.
I am not a blogger, I am a poet. This week though, I was both. And it was thrilling—scary and vulnerable, fun and really pleasing. In determining the direction this fifth and final blog might take, some favorite go-to poems came to mind. Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter” is one that I constantly return to. Oranges are pretty great. So is the color orange. Sardines aren’t so bad either. What I really love it for is its ability to say so much without saying anything at all, what it says about the composing process, about what it is to be an artist and a notice-er. It’s the sort of poem that asks for noticing— It’s plainly spoken, but honest and exposed in its plainness. (The speaker says, “Oh.” That’s all he needs to say.) I’m now going to read it again. You should too:
Why I Am Not a Painter [by Frank O’Hara]
I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,
for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there."
"Oh." I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. "Where's SARDINES?"
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says.
But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven't mentioned
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.
We need so many words to express a word, twelve full poems to get at orange without ever using the word itself. This is why I spend so much time close-reading with my composition students. We spent an hour yesterday coming up with and interpreting over 50 definitions for “critical inquiry.” We could have continued the conversation well into the afternoon, asking things like— Do we inquire into issues that trouble us, or is it more of an uncertainty? Is it uncertainty or a crisis of belief? Are we destabilizing those beliefs or questioning their validity? Do we mean validity or is it a matter of global stakes? Are personal stakes a part of global stakes, or is it the other way around? If we have a personal investment in what’s being researched, is it more difficult to be critical? Is it important to be critical of our own input as much as others’? What do we really mean by critical? Not taking texts at face value? Pushing texts beyond summary into the realm of further understanding? Does further understanding, the journey of discovery, ever really have an end? Is discovery the process or the product? …
And now I’ve written twelve lines sparked from O’Hara’s poem (and therefore oranges?) in which the poem isn’t mentioned at all. Part of me says, “Whoops!” The other part says, “Well, yeah. That’s how it works.”
“There should be / so much more, not of orange, of / words, of how terrible orange is / and life. Days go by.” These are my favorite lines. Words (and therefore oranges?) are exalted here. There are not enough of them. But they’re also terrible in the ways that life is both terrible and wonderful. Poetry attempts to expand the limits language places on our ability to share human experience. Days go by, more life happens, more words are needed to fully experience it.
One of my dearest friends is moving from Milwaukee to New York City in a few weeks, something I did six years ago. Even now I can’t adequately explain what that experience was like – how I felt necessarily pulled to the city, tethered to it as though my left arm rented a studio apartment in Gramercy while the rest of me went for daily runs along Lake Michigan. My friend’s experience is similar, it seems, but there’s no telling which part of her exists where. She might not know until she receives her first piece of mail addressed to her Astoria zip code. And even then, there should be so much more.
"SARDINES" by Mike Goldberg
It’s troubling to always be attempting this sort of explanation of human experience. Being a poet is actually quite masochistic. Even O’Hara says, “I think I would rather be a painter, but I am not.” This is not to say that visual artistic methods are “easier” or less limiting than verbal/textual. I really don’t know because I am not a painter either. What I do know is that Mike Goldberg’s painting called “SARDINES” has no sardines in it, the same way that the poem called “ORANGES” has no oranges (or orange) in it. But the painting is actually full of sardines – the thought process following sardines, their implications, their many versions and colors and patterns, shapes and non-shapes, and the remnants of the word itself scrawled and painted over. We do what we can to represent the days that go by. We try to understand our lives and convey that understanding so that others might better understand theirs too. It’s a cyclical process, both terrible and wonderful.
In Miami the ocean behaves like a painting, diversity like an artist’s brushstrokes on a canvas, the immigrant like a dreamer. Swaying like a northerly, “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art”— a powerful art exhibit curated by E. Carmen Ramos and a permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum — made the second stop on its national tour in the temperate landscape of South Florida.
From May 9th until May 11th, nine poets from Miami, Tampa, and El Salvador — Elisa Albo, Adrian Castro, Silvia Curbelo, Mia Leonin, Rita Maria Martinez, Caridad Moro-McCormick, Alexandra Lytton Regalado, and yours truly — convened at Florida International University’s Frost Art Museum to respond to the exhibit’sdiverse collection of works. Under the guidance of Francisco Aragón and Emma Trelles, we engaged in a phenomenal workshop entitled, “PINTURA:PALABRA, a project in ekphrasis”—the brainchild of Letras Latinas, the literary initiative of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
I felt at home around these brilliant writers whose work I had previously read but who now sat next to me, taking down notes and preparing to give me feedback on my ekphrastic pieces. With these poets, I knelt on the floor to engage with a sculpture, or I hopped imperceptibly to establish a relationship of movement with a large painting. I also laid flat on the floor to re-appreciate certain lines and photographed myself against any piece that could reflect me. Throughout, I maintained mental discussions with a sculpture (Luis Jiménez’s Man on Fire) and with how I could offer it a poem. "How do you want me to read your nakedness?" I asked.
"How can I be your medium?" Each time I received a different answer.
Through rich exchanges with my fellow poets, I found out some of them had received a newfound creative jolt from the exhibit and this project. We were provided with context and outside materials to help us consider, for example, each work as a cultural artifact or a visual text. My creative productivity increased since I, too, found myself a part of an inclusive community of Latino writers — a community seldom seen while I was growing up in Allapattah, Florida, but which is currently burgeoning in Miami through a wide range of projects and festivals, such as the O, Miami poetry festival.
Spending time with the exhibit itself, the poetry we were assigned to read, the theoretical essays we analyzed, and what we ultimately produced allowed us to discuss ekphrastic poetry as an exchange that occurs in translation, the body, sensuality, gender, borderlands, Spanglish, diaspora, and family.
Trelles found ways to engage us with the artwork and with the work of other poets who have embarked on similar journeys. She gave us an outstanding bibliography to understand what we were there to produce. Suddenly, we developed the perspicacity to unravel multifarious tensions between Latino vs. Latinidad, Latino vs. Art, Poetry vs.Class; Creation vs. History, Identity vs. Perception, Culture vs. Ontology. And respond respond to the artwork we did!
Weeks before I witnessed it in person, I gravitated — almost out of submission — towards Luis Jiménez’s Man on Fire, a robust fiberglass sculpture first unveiled in 1969. The figure’s size, gloss, color distribution, and
themes of sacrifice, martyrdom and sexuality all appealed to me. These factors enabled me to reconnect with my own past as well. I went to art school when I was a child, but because of money and stigma, I was never able to properly fulfill that dream. This exhibit reminded me that as a poet, I am also an artist. Man on Fire, a take on the Aztec ruler Cuauhtémoc, whose death is recontextualized as a protest emblem against the Vietnam War, helped me reflect on how my mother emigrated from Honduras and my stepfather from Cuba, and how countless of lives are lost in the pursuit of concretizing a dream. Jiménez’s figure stands as tall as a rock ‘n’ roll star, but his skin melts under tragedy and memory’s burden. He’s pride and suffering, simultaneously.
Elia Alba is another artist whose photography I found arresting; she celebrates and further complicates identity in her work. Her Larry Levan-inspired pictures, forinstance, depict different people wearing masks of Levan’s face. Levan was an American DJ, a pioneer of house music, and a staple of New York City’s nightclub scene. Alba highlights Levan’s interplay of genres to show that identity is always shifting, forever reveling in contradiction.
As a gay Latino poet who writes from the margins, I find in Alba’s work a Latino community whose makeup is defined by oppositions, conquests, and confusion, and whose lives are a daily negotiation through them. Alba and Jiménez are just a few artists in this exhibit whose work demonstrates precisely the diversity of our Latino perspectives.
Of course, diversity is a condition that goes beyond exteriors, and through “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art” and “PINTURA:PALABRA” I have discovered much more potential in my writing. I have also developed more pride in the work of my fellow writers and pride for those artists who constantly try to overcome innumerable challenges to celebrate our numerous traditions. Latinos have an important voice in the United States and these brief but fertile exchanges remind us of that.
Roy G. Guzmán is a Honduran-American poet whose work has appeared in The Acentos Review, BorderSenses, Compose, Drunken Boat, NonBinary Review, and Red Savina Review.
He received his BA from the University of Chicago and his MA from Dartmouth. A Florida resident, he will be pursuing his MFA this fall at the University of Minnesota.
My dad landed on Utah Beach, not as part of the first wave, thank god, or I probably wouldn't be here, but days later, to clean up. He went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge and to liberate a concentration camp. Like so many others, he enlisted, a tough street kid from the Bronx, the child of Eastern European immigrants. During boot camp, he was court-martialed for striking an officer who called him a dirty kike. Though he was acquitted, he got shipped out soon after without having completed his training.
I don't know much about his service, not because he was particularly reticent but because he died suddenly at fifty, before I was mature enough to imagine my parents had lives worth learning about. How I regret that I never asked him about those years. Anyone who has tried to get WWII military records knows that a fire destroyed many of them. Thus, all I have are the things he carried, a French-English dictionary, a guide to Europe, and, oddly, a copy of Don Quixote, in Spanish. Several years ago, I gathered these mementos together and along with a few photographs asked Star Black, the brilliant poet, photographer, and collage artist to make something of them. A few weeks later she presented me with three collages, one of which is shown here. That's my dad in the middle, looking handsome, and so young! In the upper left is a page from his guidebook in which he wrote a list of the places he fought his way through, ending with "and a funeral in some god-forsaken place."
One of the more moving accounts of life as an infantryman during WWII can be found in Roll Me Over, by Raymond Gantter. Ganttner was a teacher who turned down his third deferment to serve in the army. He was unfit for officer status so he joined the infantry as a private. His service was almost identical to that of my father's. Here's a passage:
[This post originally appeared on June 6, 2009]
What about a 3-D printer? The thought kind of darted into mind the other night at the Met Museum while I was wandering through the Charles James show. I felt its inspiring prick right after I put the kibosh on my first thought, which was to step up to one of the items on display, remove it from its mannequin, and just walk out with it. In case you don’t follow fashion, Charles James was a self-absorbed curmudgeon with highfalutin taste who ended up in squalor at the Ansonia Hotel and who, by the bye, happened to be an unparalleled designer of women’s ball gowns, cocktail dresses, and coats in the middle of the 20th century. A spatial visionary, he had a gift for imagining a dress or a cape that simultaneously reads as an architectural construction and functions as a mating call. Well, yes, I know, anyone can do that. But he also had the sitzfleisch to then, personally, spend up to twelve hours at a stretch devising the weird, abstract shapes of fabric that go into a skirt constructed to give the effect of 1000-thread-count sheets foaming on an unmade bed, or a single, serpentine seam to connect a skirt and a bodice so that they reconfigure a torso of a certain age to shed ten pounds and 25 years. A few of his confections can almost stand up by themselves as Modernist sculpture and yet, reportedly, feel no heavier than an eiderdown quilt to wear, even though, by the scale, they may weigh 40 pounds. Some of his presentation pieces are so picturesque that they’re given names: “Swan Dress,” “Cloverleaf Dress.” We’re beyond fashion here; indeed, we’re way beyond dressing for any genre of success: we’re dressing in metaphors of undressing for the wild. This is the poetry of Charles James.
One urban outlier is the “Taxi Dress,” from 1932: a fashionably black, wraparound sausage casing of a garment that attaches with three little pronged thingys at one hip. It was called by James the “Taxi Dress” because it is (theoretically) simple enough that a woman could “get into it” in the back of a taxi. In 1932, he must have meant a Checker Cab. I’ve been in the back seat of a lot of taxis, and, let me tell you, to get into that dress you’ve got to get out of something else. Given the tight space of taxi back seats these days, that transformation would almost certainly necessitate football contact with any seatmate, and the “something else” you’d be most likely to get out of would be any prospect of another date, once the person’s broken bones had mended. Indeed, if anyone reading this has ever actually “gotten into” James’s “Taxi Dress” in the back of a taxi, please let me know, and I’ll send an E-mail blast to all my fashionista friends that yoga really does work. What I’m trying to say is that the art of Charles James—like that of a significant poet in any medium—is not literal. The image of the title “Taxi Dress” does not need to (indeed, may not be able to) be realized in action. It only needs to be envisioned by the potential customer. In his titles for his peerlessly idiosyncratic designs, James proved himself not only an artist of enchanting, impeccably tailored, wearable temples to the erotic but also one of the slyest marketers of his day. One might say that all of his dresses are variations on the same, ur-“Ad Dress.”
Back to the 3-D printer: The Charles James show has taken some hits in the press for being in two parts, both located in the Met’s basement level yet at opposite ends of the museum. Ah, but the method in this madness! To get to the darkened room—maybe ‘cavern’ would be more accurate—where the spectacular ball gowns gleam from the depths like prehistoric sea creatures, one necessarily must pass through the Met’s collection of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture directly overhead. To get to the crypt with the shimmering cocktail dresses and sculptural coats, one must pass overhead through the Met’s collection of ancient Egyptian art. That is, just in one’s approach to the genius of the man, one is made to see him in the context of the ages, of the standards of art “The Metropolitan Museum of Art” represents. And so, in my transmigration from the mummies to the mannequins, I began thinking about what I’d want my new 3-D printer to print.
You know, these miracle printers can make any New York expedition so much easier. An hour or two before you require an accessory, you just turn on the machine, program it, and, voilà!, it produces a new handbag, a portable house, an AK-47, whatever. From the James show, I’d go with a dolman-sleeve day coat that closes with merely a button or two; that I could “get into” in the back of a taxi.
But why stop there? The Egyptian ladies are all swathed in stony representations of pleated tissue—in prototypes of Fortuny—however, from the Met’s Greek and Roman galleries, how about a print-out of that headless marble statue of Aphrodite in her “Venus Genetrix” incarnation. This breathcatching figure, elevated on a waist-high pedestal, is a first- or second-century Roman copy of a lost, 5th-century B.C. Greek original by Kallimachus. As a copy, it’s not very faithful, which is probably why the Met calls it an “adaptation”: Wikipedia has pictures of several other copies of the lost sculpture, which reside at various museums, and all of them possess the bodies of mature women (“Genetrix” refers to Venus as a maternal figure). Furthermore, the Kallimachus original was apparently bronze and larger-than-life-sized. The Met’s version, rather, offers a relatively petite goddess, just a half inch under five feet tall, who has managed to keep her figure, slender and high-breasted, despite her maternity—a Jean Harlow of the breed. And what is she wearing? Wow! Scholars will try to tell you it’s called a peplos or maybe an Ionic chiton, but I see “Water Dress” by Charles James! From the front, it pours down her body (to “get into” that section, all one needs is a waterfall). From the side, it’s a cool column of half-frozen creases. From the back, it’s the entrance to a ravishing polar enigma, with the marble worked into glaciate planes and folds. The difficult part of the printer’s programming will be reproducing the soft, worn-away texture of the marble, i.e., getting the presence of a couple of millennia into the 3-D copy; but I have no doubt that, as I write, some prodigy is inventing a way to replicate even the handprints of time. Maybe I should also tell the printer to give her a arms and a head—but whose? Perhaps a set from one of the living sconces with glowing eyes in Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” film? Wait, the printer seems to be jammed. It didn’t understand my request for the effect of millennia on the marble. If it can’t get that, the creation of a head is certainly going to be an issue. I’ll think about it tomorrow, right after I go through my to-do list. Let’s see what’s on for tomorrow? “Note to self: You must change your life.”
(Charles James: Beyond Fashion through August 10, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC)
When, back in college, I first encountered the Mannerist Italian painter known to the public as Parmigianino (1503-1540), it was by way of a slide of his symbolic, devotional, unfinished painting known as Madonna of the Long Neck, a private commission that took him six years of his 37-year life to complete.We were told it’s a masterpiece, and I was happy to agree, as long as I didn’t have to keep it in my living room. Despite the angelic beauty of the Madonna’s face and the charm of all the adolescent angels crowding in on one side of her to see the infant in her lap, the naked, ashen-colored child stretched out across her mighty, enrobed thighs looks alarmingly lifeless. The Madonna’s delicate head, canted against the twist of her body; her Alice-in-Wonderland neck; and her disproportionately mighty legs reminded me, as a total package, of a brontosaurus, excuse me, an apatosauros—and, after nearly five decades, they still do. Behind the Madonna, an unnervingly unmoored row of columns float toward a treeless horizon. Somewhere, alone, in their vicinity is a tiny, half-naked male figure (he’s both far away in distance and, I guess, far below the Madonna and angels in other, symbolic respects) who turns out not to be the babe’s dad but rather the prophet St. Jerome silently reminding everyone of something on the order of “I told you so!”
The painting seems to be about anticipation of one kind or another: The pre-teen angels are certainly expecting something; the baby’s alarmingly lifeless posture and pallor, some art historians have explained, is a reminder of what is going to happen when it grows up. What did Parmigianino’s early-16th-century patron think when she looked at this work? There’s no way she could have had the associations I do. Not only were the Tenniel drawings of Alice four-and-a-half centuries in the future, but the brontosaurus-apatosauros wasn’t first (mis)named and classified until 1875. As for the disturbing architectural elements, de Chirico wouldn’t be teaching us to see such architecture as ominous until the 20th century. Did the painting look to the patron like a dream or just the usual iconography of transcendence? Did the elements I see as so strange lead her to shake her head and say, “Artists! What will they think of next!”? What did she make of those headless columns? Did the painter explain to her what his reasons were for the physical distortions, or, paraphrasing Frank Lloyd Wright’s answer to clients who protested the way he built their houses, did Parmigianino say, when she asked, “If you don’t like my vision, get another painter”? And how would he have finished the painting, if he had finished it? If I were a poet, I’d write a few lines about Madonna of the Long Neck and its enigmas.
Art reviewer and poet John Ashbery—taken by another famous Parmigianino canvas, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, a presentation piece Parmigianino made at age 21 to demonstrate his virtuosity—did exactly that, publishing his own masterpiece of a poem, of the same title, by my estimate some 600 lines long, in 1975. I can’t say I understand Ashbery’s poem entirely, either: Sometimes he focuses directly on the painting (enumerating the moods he finds in the painter’s expression or the possible interpretations of the intended gesture of the painter’s magnified right hand). Sometimes, as David Lehman has observed, the poet manages to squeeze himself inside the reflection; there, he describes the sensation of, so to speak, rubbing elbows with the painter’s consciousness and ruminating on the analogy between Parmigianino’s bravura image of unreachable youth and the human soul; and sometimes the poet seems to be using the painting as a platform to speak about tensions and his efforts to resolve them in his own life. But when I listen to Ashbery read those unemphatic, six-beat lines, meticulously crafted to seem spontaneous and conversational (there’s a film on YouTube) in his steady, slightly flattening and purely American voice, I think, well, if I were to ponder a little harder, it would all make sense to my intellect as well as to my ear, like the fine print of an insurance policy. The illusion that sense is swimming just over there, under the surface of the sensibility, if only we had world enough and time to fish it out, is a special type of greatness in art, as aggravating as it can be in insurance policies.
Over at The Frick Collection this summer, yet another Parmigianino is visiting temporarily: a portrait of a woman, Schiava Turca (“Turkish Slave”), a title slapped on it by an art cataloguer three centuries after it was painted. This lovely picture also has an enigma or two in it, but its subtle elements of distortion (such as the woman’s delicately stylized left hand) aren’t as pressing as the question of, Whom does the painting represent? In the accompanying catalogue—a beaut in every way—Frick scholar Aimee Ng presents a most elegant essay concerning her painstaking detective work to try to provide an answer, or a couple of related answers. From comparisons with portraits of male and female Renaissance Italian poets and with other paintings by Parmigianino, and by research into aspects of the sitter’s dress, the ostrich fan she holds, and the meaning of her hat badge—showing a winged horse and stream underfoot, which Ng is pretty sure represent Pegasus, the horse associated with poetry, whose stamping hoof drew forth the Hippocrene spring, sacred to the Muses—Ng proposes that the sitter was herself not only the painter’s muse for that canvas but also a poet and possibly a specific poet: Veronica Gambara.
Incidentally, I looked up Pegasus and discovered that, as far back as Hesiod, this was one unusual horse. He and a twin brother, Khrysaor (represented as either a giant or a winged boar), were children of the disharmonious couple Poseidon and the Gorgon Medusa—who, by some accounts, after being raped by Poseidon, was transformed into a monster, with hair consisting of live serpents and a face that turned anyone who looked at her to stone. When Perseus, using his shield as a mirror to catch Medusa’s reflection so he wouldn’t have to look at her, beheaded her, from her neck (or from the blood of her neck) the twins were born. The ornamental, snaky curls of Schiava Turca took on a new import after I learned this.
Sharon Preiss reviewed the show for us on May 14, here.
Here's a photo taken by Larry Fagin in Staten Island on Easter Sunday 1968. See how many of the worthies you can identify.
Molly Tenenbaum (poet) & Ellen Ziegler (artist) have been working on a very cool project over the last several months. Here's an interview with Molly Tenenbaum that shares all about it.
MS: What are you making?
MT: Glad you asked! We’re making an artist’s book* that puts archival material together with Molly’s poems about her grandparents, who were ventriloquists on the vaudeville circuit. The “book” will be a 3-D object* that contains maps of their travels across the U.S. and images of their datebooks and pages where the poems and visuals interact.
MS: Why an artist book for this collection of poems?
MT: We’ve always wanted to work together. Ellen is a maker of artist books; she’s worked with poets Frances McCue and Patti Smith (the musician, who’s also a poet.) This collection calls out for imagery, especially since the poems refer to actual archival material. Ellen’s most recent book about her ballerina mother was a natural link to poems based on my own family history.
MS: What is your process for working together?
MT: We stare at images. We read poems aloud and talk about them while Ellen moves images around on the screen.
MS: What are the thrills and advantages of joining poems and visuals?
MT: See that image at the bottom? That's what it will look like. But in the actual book, the poems will be legible. So here is the poem:
In the market
in the square
must be here
dusk and time
to go home
goes home with them
and also stays
faint in the air
even after he’s seen
the doll’s just a doll
the policeman keeps
checking all night
is the baby
under dropped rags
behind those old boards
under these thinnest of sticks
Breathe from Your Diaphragm, My
But I couldn’t find it, the belly
supposed to round out
as breath swelled in,
press in as a breath rounded out.
Mine hollowing in
as breath inched in,
and in till breath
The back of my tongue
to send tone through my nose,
my face to look one way
while saying another.
But first I must breathe
from the belly,
so never got
to the tongue or the face, so he never
said, Now, start talking.
MS: This all sounds amazing; I can't wait to see the final product. Thanks so much for providing a window into how a poet might hook up with an artist to creat something beautiful on the page/screen.
Molly Tenenbaum is the author of three poetry collections, The Cupboard Artist, Now, and By a Thread. Her work appears in many journals, including The Beloit Poetry Journal, Best American Poetry 1991, Black Warrior Review, Crab Creek Review, Cutbank, The Mississippi Review, New England Review, Poetry, Poetry Northwest, and Willow Springs. Recent honors include a 2013 4culture grant to collaborate with artist Ellen Ziegler in producing a limited-edition artist book of Exercises To Free the Tongue, her collection of poems centered on her paternal grandparents’ careers as ventriloquists on the vaudeville circuit. She also plays old-time banjo: her CDs are Instead of a Pony and Goose & Gander. She teaches English at North Seattle Community College and music in her living room.
Ellen Ziegler is a multimedia artist whose practice includes the making of artist’s books. She is currently working on a project with poet Molly Tenenbaum on vaudeville-era ventriloquism. Recent books include “El Torero y La Bailarina”, hand-typed in Mexico City, “IMBUE”, a collaboration with poet/musician Patti Smith and poet Frances McCue, and “On ‘Auguries of Innocence’” with Patti Smith. Her work is in special collections libraries of institutions and universities across the country, including Baylor, Cal Poly, Carlton College, Harvard, Mills College Center for the Book, Rutgers, University of Washington, Yale, and many private collections. She received the First Place Juror’s Purchase Award at the Brand 40 Competition in 2011. She is represented by SOIL Gallery and Cullom Gallery in Seattle; her books are represented by Vamp and Tramp, Birmingham, Alabama.
There's still time to visit Chicago's Zhou B Art Center (1029 W 35th St Chicago, IL 60609) to catch Fixations, an exhibition curated by Sergio Gomez of Zhou B Art Center (www.zhoubartcenter.com) and Didi Menendez of PoetsArtists Magazine (www.poetsandartists.com).
Fixation is an exhibition and a publication of art and poetry focused on the physical/psychological preoccupation or obsession over an object or subject. The exhibition explores the subject of fixation as a continuos and elusive preoccupation of our human experience through written and visual art. The curators invited 24 artists and 17 poets to create works based on their understanding and perception of the theme of fixation. The result is a group exhibition including painting, drawing, photography and poetry. Each work brings light to the artist's own preoccupations unearthed by his/her personal fixations. Fixation takes place in a gallery setting, print and digital formats.
Watch the video above for a taste.
Rhombus Space is pleased to present Thought Bubbles, an exhibition featuring Archie Rand’s complete series “The Months.” Curated by Katerina Lanfranco.
183 Lorraine Street
3rd floor, #33
Red Hook, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11231
Exhibition Dates: March 28 – April 27, 2014.
Rhombus Spaceis pleased to present Thought Bubbles, an exhibition featuring Archie Rand’s complete series “The Months.” Curated by Katerina Lanfranco.
183 Lorraine Street
3rd floor, #33
Red Hook, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11231
Exhibition Dates: March 28 – April 27, 2014.
This week I will be presenting terms from my new book, A Poet’s Glossary, a compendium of forms, devices, groups, movements, isms, aesthetics, folklore, rhetorical terms. It is a repertoire of poetic secrets, a vocabulary, some of it ancient, which proposes a greater pleasure in the text, deeper levels of enchantment.
baroque The word baroque probably derives from the Portuguese barroco, a jeweler’s term for a rough and irregular pearl, which was imported from Goa to Portugal in the sixteenth century. In the eighteenth century, the French started using the word as an adjective meaning “bizarre” or “odd.” The term was first used in the eighteenth-century in a derogatory and pejorative sense to describe the bad taste, the noisy eccentricity and over-abundance, of the art and architecture of the preceding era. The baroque was contrasted with the sober clarities and classicism of the Renaissance. In the nineteenth-century, the term was rehabilitated by the art historian Heinrich Wölflin to describe any art that has become fully elaborated.
The term baroque refers both to an anti-naturalistic style and to a period in art, architecture, music, and literature. The baroque style is eccentric, excessive and extravagant; it is lavish, ornamental, and ornate. The Baroque era in the visual arts refers to a European style of art and architecture that developed in the seventeenth century. In 1934, Erwin Panofsky argued that the Baroque was not the end of the Renaissance, but “the beginning of a fourth era, which may be called ‘Modern’ with a capital M.” The Baroque era in music refers to the period roughly from 1600-1750. In poetry, the term is often used to refer to the elaborate poetic styles of the early seventeenth century, especially Gongorism, which derives from the work of the Spanish poet Luis de Góngora, and Marinism, which derives from the work of the Italian poet Giovanni Battista Marini. The mannerisms of the English Metaphysicals are often considered baroque. The baroque is colorful, decorative, and flamboyant. In A Universal History of Infamy (1935), Jorge Luis Borges defines baroque as “that style which deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) all its possibilities and which borders on its own parody.”
the plain style The plain style originated as an informal rhetorical term to characterize speech or writing that is simple, direct, and unambiguous. Richard Lanham characterizes its three central values as “Clarity, Brevity, and Simplicity.” The plain style, which dates to the Latin Stoics, was associated with a “low style” as opposed to a “high style.” In “The Sixteenth-Century Lyric in England’ (1939), Yvor Winters demonstrated the presence of two styles of poetry in the English Renaissance lyric: one was plain, the other ornate and decorative. Winters used this distinction to suggest an alternative canon of Elizabethan poetry. He excluded the more famous Petrarchan poets, such as Sir Philip Sydney and Edmund Spenser, and proposed elevating anti-Petrarchan poets of a native or plain style, such as George Gascoigne, Barnabe Googe, George Turberville, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Thomas Nashe. He elevated the anti-Petrarchan poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt at the expense of his other Petrarchan poems. According to Winters, the plain-style poem has “a theme usually broad, simple, and obvious, even tending toward the proverbial, but usually a theme of some importance, humanly speaking; a feeling restrained to the minimum required by the subject; a rhetoric restrained to a similar minimum, the poet being interested in his rhetoric as a means of stating his matter as economically as possible, and not, as are the Petrarchans, in the pleasures of rhetoric for its own sake.”
The two different Renaissance types of poetry grew out of two different traditions, one the “popular” or “vulgar” style, the other the eloquent style. The plain style originated in the idiom of common people as opposed to the eloquent style, which developed out of the traditions of the Court, and developed directly out of medieval didactic poetry. Douglas Peterson characterizes its primary characteristics as “direct summary statement tending toward folk aphorism, a predominantly Anglo-Saxon diction, folk proverb and metaphor, a tone of moral severity.” The plain style registered as a poetry that was anti-courtly and classically minded. Ben Jonson’s classicism, his commitment to a lucid, passionate plainness, has been identified as a model plain style. The Puritans developed a plain style, a spiritual ethic, which was simple, spare, and straightforward. It defined their sermons and informed their poems. Winters himself practiced a formal poetry of the plain style, and so did two of his most gifted protégés, Edgar Bowers (1924-2000) and J. V. Cunningham (1911-1985). Winters describes Cunningham’s style in “The Plain Style Reborn” (1967):
The mature style is what we could call the plain style if we met it in the Renaissance. It is free of ornament, almost without sensory detail, and compact. But it is a highly sophisticated version of the plain style, and is very complex without loss of clarity. It comes closer, perhaps, to Ben Jonson and a few of his immediate contemporaries than to anyone else.
Edward Doughtie notes a strong parallel in sixteenth-century and early seventeenth-century music to the “plain” and “ornate” styles of English Renaissance poetry. The counterparts of the plain style would be the English and Scottish popular ballads, the metrical and homophonic psalms, and native consort songs. The counterparts of the ornate style would be the Italianate madrigals, which were either pastoral or Petrarchan.
“Excerpted from A POET’S GLOSSARY by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.”
If men (and women) die every day for lack of what is found in poetry - or dance, or the visual arts, or film, or music - how then to make the world aware of what it is missing? On the one hand, popularization of art is often seen as a cheapening; on the other, art that exists within its own vacuum is ultimately pointless. And how to provide context for the arts for the vast majority of the general audience who are not pursuing MFAs or PhDs - that is, without sounding like hifalutin’ snobs or academics who have swallowed the OED? There’s the rub, as Shakespeare once said. (See what I mean?)
The Arts Club of Washington (DC) addresses this complicated issue with its annual Marfield Prize National Award for Arts Writing. Established in 2006 by member Jeannie S. Marfield, the annual prize is awarded to a non-fiction book about the arts published by a living author in the previous year. The award includes a mini-residency and reading in DC, and a hefty $10,000 check for the winning author. Past winners include Anne-Marie O’Connor,The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Climt’s Masterpiece (Knopf, 2012); Michael Sragow, Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (Pantheon 2008); and Brenda Wineapple,White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Knopf, 2008). Past judges have included Rita Dove, Jamaica Kincaid, Molly Peacock, Reynolds Price, Robert Pinsky, and Joyce Carol Oates.
Books are can be nominated by the author, the publisher, or the author’s agent, and books about all artistic disciplines are welcome. This year’s judges’ panel consists of poet and playwright Grace Cavalieri; writer and former NEH administrator Candace Katz; and author and professor Wayne Karlin. According to Cavalieri, “The point is to let the general public in on great artists, their works, and their lives. Although academics benefit greatly [from reading them], the larger hope is that books chosen are such interesting reading that Jane Q. Public can want it for her book club…This year we have six dynamic examples in various fields of art. Each one is fascinating reading and truly brilliant writing.”
This year’s finalists are Benita Eisler, The Red Man’s Bones: George Catlin, Artist and Showman (Norton); Witold Rybczynski, How Architecture Works: A Humanist’s Toolkit (FS&G); John Shaw, This Land That I Love: Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems (Public Affairs); Terry Teachout, Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (Gotham Books); Sherill Tippins, Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt); and Sam Wasson, Fosse (HMH). Their common qualifications, according to Grace Cavalieri: “Good writing! And great reading.”
The winner of the 2013 Marfield Prize will be announced on May 21. Next year’s competition will open in June 2014. Details – and a complete list of past winners, finalists, and judges – can be found at the Arts Club website here.
At Fort Mojave, the reservation where I grew up and recently moved back to, I am not a poet—my work is in language revitalization. There are only three living Elder speakers of our Mojave language. My Elders and I work together—against history, against memory, and especially against silence—to document and record our language, to teach it to others, to make it live again.
Where does Elizabeth Bishop fit into this picture? Well, I carry her with me. She and I share at least one thing in common, our loss. And as she has said and re-said: The art of losing isn’t hard to master. This line is a small prayer that I push through my mouth’s machinery daily.
I come from a life shaped by winning—in my first season as a Lady Monarch basketball player at Old Dominion University, I won 34 games and only lost 2. When I played overseas, I received bonuses for winning games. But in this new chapter of my life, the work I do with my Elders to save our Mojave language has tested the values that made me one of the best athletes in the nation. Language revitalization is, in a sense, the art of losing. The fate of our language exists in the tongues of the three Elders who still speak it and in the hands of those of us working to preserve it. It was a hard lesson for me to learn and one that kept me from sleeping for almost two years: no matter how many hours I worked, no matter how hard I tried, I would not be able to save all of my language. I would lose some of it, a lot of it. There are words that once existed that I will never hear, that my Elders have forgotten. One of the saddest moments is when my Elder teacher cannot answer a question, when he looks at me and says, You are asking me because you don’t know the answer, but I also don’t know the answer, and there is nobody left for me to ask. When I began this work, I did not know that I had taken on a job of loss. In order not to be crushed by it, I have had to embrace it, to learn to exist within it and be successful at it, as successful as anyone can be at losing.
While Bishop and I have loss in common—don’t we all?—her loss and my loss are different—aren’t everyones’? For example, in the poem, Bishop loses a watch: I lost my mother’s watch. If I translated Bishop’s line into Mojave, I would say: Intay nyanya ‘achinaalym.
But our word ’anya means more than one thing—and since Mojaves never had watches, it only recently means “watch.” So while Bishop can be overcome by the singular loss of her mother’s watch, an object that means and means to her, that carried away memory and emotion and love with it—the loss for my language and people is even more devastating and vast than hers. What I mean is, in the Mojave language, the line Intay nyanya ‘achinaalym can also mean each of these things:
I lost my mother’s hour.
I lost my mother’s sun.
I lost my mother's light.
I lost my mother’s day.
I lost my mother’s time.
Or maybe Bishop and I have lost exactly the same thing—equally vast—we have lost our mothers, we have lost our pasts, the part of our lives when suns and days and time were not measurements of pains or failures. But whereas Bishop might have been stopped by her loss, I must keep going.
Loss doesn’t mean to me what it once did. What I cannot do doesn’t stop me anymore—it now shapes what I can do and helps me to appreciate what I do have. I choose not to stare into the void of loss, but instead I step inside it, stick my fingers into it, put my ear to it, try to find as many words for it as I can. This is no different from the way I build my poems. I don’t run from the disaster of what history has done to my people and our language, I chase it down. Sure, I will lose some things, I lose something—a thousand things—every day, but I know that I can be both farther and faster, and what I will gather and succeed at in my losing is ultimately what I can save of my language.
“Vanishing Languages,” a National Geographic article, opens with this fact: One language dies every 14 days. So, two weeks from now, there will be one less language spoken and heard on this planet. At Fort Mojave, we have decided that it will not be our Mojave language.
Soon after earning my MFA, I was lucky enough to meet the poet Ted Kooser at a writing festival in Idyllwild, California, and we began exchanging small notes and postcards in the mail. Most often, we talked about my desert and his barn, the slow back roads we both drove, maybe about the owl that hooted through his night, and if so, then surely about what owls mean to my people. Most of his post cards were his own illustrations. On the back of one that hangs in my office, he wrote: It might be that the work you are doing for your tribe will be far more important that any poem you will write. Of course, he is right.
Learn more about our Mojave language revitalization--click here to watch this PBS special on Fort Mojave language recovery efforts.
ANSWER: Whoever was responsible for the Snowflake Malfunction.
QUESTION: Who’s number one on the list of people I wouldn’t want to have been the morning after the Sochi Winter Olympics opening ceremony?
Let's drop in and take a little peek:
After a sleepless night, Sasha Golikov, Chief Sochi Snowflake Engineer, is drinking strong black tea at the kitchen table of his tiny flat. Suddenly, there is the expected knock at the door; he opens it to two men who look like rhinos in black suits. One of them nods toward the street. Sasha grabs his coat and pads meekly down the hall behind them.
Soon he’s in the back of a limo for a short ride, after which he is escorted by the rhinos to President Putin’s office. Not a word has been spoken.
Sasha takes a seat. The president stares at him for a long moment, unblinking, then says, “The Fifth Snowflake. It did not become a ring.”
The words are quiet and calm, but they strike like a punch in the gut. There were many factors outside Sasha's control, but he knows that even more than failure, Mr. Putin despises excuses. So he takes a deep breath and meets the lizard gaze. “I and I alone am responsible, Mr. President. I am filled with sadness and shame that I have disappointed you and the Russian people.”
Putin continues to stare. Finally he says, “There is a certain small cabin in Northern Siberia, deep in the forest, many kilometres from the nearest village. It is a place where wolves are counted. Occasionally, a pack will pass. When you hear them it is best to stay inside.” He pauses. “Do you understand this?” Sasha swallows and nods.
“When the wolves pass, you will write in your notebook: 'Today, a pack of wolves,' and you will note how many. Every two weeks a helicopter will drop water and food. There is much wood nearby for the stove, an axe and a sharpening stone. Do you understand this?” Again, Sasha nods.
"Perhaps in a year you shall be done counting the wolves," Mr. Putin says. "Perhaps." Then he swivels his chair around to gaze out the window at the snow-covered mountains.
A heavy hand settles on Sasha's shoulder...
Vladimir Putin spent $50 billion on his Olympics, and although it’s been suggested that upwards of $30 billion went directly into his buddies’ pockets, you figure that $20 billion should at least buy a fellow five working snowflakes. So one supposes he has the right to be a little annoyed, and he is a man most Russians try extremely hard not to annoy. Mr. Putin’s Russia is a great place to live if you happen to be on his good side. But if you aren’t…not so much.
In 1988 I spent a week and a half in Moscow, singing with a jazz band as part of a group of American artists touring the Soviet Union; we also performed in Tbilisi, in Georgia, and Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan (about 150 miles from the Iranian border).
The collapse of the Soviet Union was just three years away, and everywhere we went the air was electric; people were amped at the prospect of democracy. Of course a lot of Russians were really talking about capitalism, not democracy, but everybody got faked out; what they actually wound up with was a feral, gangster oligarchy, with old KGB spooks like Mr. Putin & Company doling out chunks of infrastructure to each other over vodka and caviar while life for ordinary folks got worse than ever.
I can think of another country where the government is in bed with massive corporations that run roughshod over the lives of their citizens. Let’s call it…The United States. Because that’s its name. But when it comes to bare-knuckled corruption, Russia puts us in the shade. It's no place for amateurs.
Nonetheless, watching the opening ceremonies brought back pleasant memories of my time there. I got so caught up in the moment that I dropped to my knees on my friends’ living room carpet and started singing “From Russia with Love” to their cat—at the top of my lungs—in my version of a Russian accent. The cat listened for a moment, head cocked, then ambled off to the kitchen to see if any food had magically appeared in her dish since she'd last checked it five minutes earlier.
Maybe she’d have stuck around for the whole song if this guy had been singing it.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.