Sunday, April 26, 2009

Poetry in Oils

It so happened, in this month of poetry, that I bought a new painting for my living room, and I thought, painting is poetry captured in oils.

Surprise, surprise, this is not a new idea.

Ut pictura poesis “as is painting, so is poetry” Horace

Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting with the gift of speech

Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen

Owning a piece of art for your home is one of life’s quieter joys. It’s something that Terry Teachout has written about frequently and with eloquence: the purchase of a piece, receiving it into the home, finding “the spot” for it, taking literal time to sit enjoy it. Teachout has several artists that he had the desire for and then found the means to purchase. For me, it is just one, the New York, now Westport-based artist David Barton.

I am friends with David, by my desire to collect his work is on a completely different plane from that personal bond. I fell in love with his painting years ago. He has several series, but it’s his architectural paintings that I am drawn to and have collected: a house from Booth Bay, Maine; a detail from St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans; a sun-drenched country front door; and the new piece, a Soho corner. (This jpeg of the piece does not do it justice in the slightest.)

I love the interesting color palette, and the precision of line. I love the stylized sensibility and the mastery of place. I love the sheer talent expressed. The paintings are silent, but it’s no accident that the language of art buying centers around a piece “speaking” to you or not. And that language, for me, is poetry, not prose.

“The Relations between Poetry and Painting”

This is the title of a lecture Wallace Stevens gave at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1951. For such a sexy title it’s a pretty dry lecture. But one good point is that there is a cosmic sense of the poetic that gets equally channeled to painting and to words.

More specifically, Poets have been inspired by great paintings: W.H Auden “Musee des Beaux Arts”; John Berryman “Winter Landscape”; William Carlos Williams “Peasant Wedding.” (This site matches up pictures of the paintings with the poems).

And there is at least one very famous reverse: the William Carlos Williams poem “The Great Figure” inspired Charles Demuth to paint "The Figure 5 in Gold."

Among the rain
And lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
fire truck
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city

And so I will soon have the poetry of a Soho cast iron building in my living room with a startling blue sky (that sadly echoes how blue the sky was the morning of 9/11). It will be like having a window to downtown from the Upper West Side.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

National Poetry Month: A Shadow of Chris Thomas

Poetry has a poignant power to capture the shadows of lives. Chris Thomas, the pen name of one of my great college loves. We had an intensity that was painful on every level. We tried to get together for real many times, but the stars never aligned for us. One of the last times we met was a year after my father died. He later sent me a printed page from a small journal with this poem he had written. He is a cognitive scientist (working for the likes of IBM, Lucent, etc.) who at one time published fairly frequently. I hear Chris is on his second marriage. I hope he has found happiness.

Today is the anniversary of my father’s death, and I recently came across Chris's poem while cleaning through my mother’s house.

A Daughter’s Question—
One Year After Her Father’s Death

I’ve seen you stealing sleep
From tired old women on the train.
I’ve looked down and
seen you pour out my sleeves,
raining from my fingers.

It’s so like you—gone for 6 weeks,
leaving me in lengthening solitude,
only to feel you, there in my bed,
and the quake of morning.
Why are you here?

I set the table for four not three.
Something I feed you keeps you alive
and I fear of self-inspection.
A birthday passes without you,
Yet somewhere you dress for church on Sunday.

A passage from some obscure Irish novel
with no source attributed
is scrawled on my bathroom wall.
But I live alone, that’s what bothers me.
You’re everywhere I bring you.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Poetic Journey: First Stop, Intro to Francis Thompson

April is the cruelest month, the sweetest month, and, since 1996, a month dedicated to poetry by the Academy of American Poets.

Their goals for National Poetry Month, from the website’s FAQ:
* Highlight the extraordinary legacy and ongoing achievement of American poets
* Introduce more Americans to the pleasures of reading poetry
* Bring poets and poetry to the public in immediate and innovative ways
* Make poetry a more important part of the school curriculum
* Increase the attention paid to poetry by national and local media
* Encourage increased publication, distribution, and sales of poetry books
* Increase public and private philanthropic support for poets and poetry

In that spirit, I’m going to focus my tiny spot of the blogosphere on a poetic journey, (more partial to English than to American poetry). Where do we find it? What does bring to our lives?

Each year there is an official poster. This year it is particularly inspired in thought and execution by Paul Sahre.

“Do I dare disturb the universe”—-one of the all-time great lines--written in the steamed bathroom mirror. Does the poet dare? Does Prufrock dare? Do we readers dare? You will not look at your own fogged mirror the same way as you did yesterday. That’s an accomplishment for both Sahre and Academy.

Uttering the words “dare” and “poetry” in the same breath feels at first blush silly. Skydiving is something you dare to do, but poetry?

And yet controlling the language to expose the beguiling hints and flashes of the complexity of human emotion and thought is a dangerous activity. When it goes wrong, it’s a mess. When it goes right, its illumination can be as painful as it is helpful.

Poetry That Crosses Our Path

For a New Yorker, one way was the Poetry in Motion series on the subway. You could look up and see a snatch of Whitman or Yeats or Dickinson. I was a fan, but I think the program has been cut in the budget nightmares.

Then there are the poems we stumble across in the strangest places.

The fairest things have fleetest end,
Their scent survives their close:
But the rose's scent is bitterness
To him that loved the rose.

I came upon this quotation in an Avengers episode! "Silent Dust," from the black & white Mrs. Peel era. Mrs. Peel is in a pub getting information from a suspect, who is a rose grower.

What I love about this is that it’s not a very famous quotation. It’s from “To Daisy” by Francis Thompson (whom Mrs. Peel does identify in the episode.) Roger Marshall is the sole writer of the episode, and so we know who planted it. That’s what writers get to do to whatever they get their hands on. Newspaper/magazine titles, book titles, movie/tv dialogue-—they plant pieces of poetry for others to stumble upon and discover. After noticing that little bit of poetry in the episode for years, I decided to look into Francis Thompson.

And lo and behold, there is no more fitting figure to discover during National Poetry Month than this Victorian English ascetic poet, a fascinating, sad man who developed an opium addiction after reading De Quincey’s Confession of an Opium Eater at the impressionable age of 18. (It was given to him by his mother who died shortly afterward. It seems he was doomed.) Thompson left behind tantalizing work, including a brilliant, feverish essay on Shelley, one of cricket’s great poems, and an overly anthologized “Catholic” poem. And to top it off, he’s also on the suspect list for the real Jack the Ripper. My NPM exploration of Francis Thompson is here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter and National Poetry Month

Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell's dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
Eleven apostles;
It was as His flesh; ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes
The same valved heart
That--pierced--died, withered, paused, and then regathered
Out of enduring Might
New strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.

And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
For our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
Lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed
By the miracle,
And crushed by remonstrance.

- John Updike, "Seven Stanzas at Easter"

(hat tip, those Atlantic Monthly guys, Andrew Sullivan, Ross Douthat)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

ER and the Johns: Readers Face the Ends of Their Eras

Two communities of readers are experiencing the end of an era this first quarter of 2009: the literary followers of Johns Updike and Cheever, and the tv fans of Michael Crichton’s ER. Each community was brought together in a shared passion in large cultural numbers in a way that we won’t see again. For ER, at its height, that meant an average of 32 million people a week.

I see our two groups of readers as completely equal. In a long, impassioned piece in the NYTimes magazine in 1995, then NYTimes Book editor Charles McGrath declared “The Triumph of the Prime-Time Novel,” years before The Sopranos and The Wire. He was reacting to the second generation of serialized prime-time dramas, like NYPD Blue and ER.

“Watching television is in many ways a private, solitary activity -- almost like reading. But watching television is also what we do as a nation; millions and millions of us tune in together, at the same time, to the same shows. Television is something, maybe the only thing, that all of us have in common. . . . When I went back to work the next day I had something to talk about -- how Andy was doing, whether Doc Greene and his wife would get back together -- and I felt connected.”

McGrath also extols the quality and writerly beauty of dialogue on these A-list shows, and the interesting literary backgrounds of the writers and producers behind them.

And that’s why it struck me as fitting, if you will, that ER is leaving the air in the shadow of the attention to the death of John Updike and the ensuing attention to John Cheever.

The Words-on Paper-Guys

John Updike died in January. The poignant posthumous publication of his poems in the New Yorker and his review of Blake Bailey’s Cheever biography are a special coda to his body of work. The March publication of the life of Cheever, one of the concentric circles in the literary universe in which Updike was a sun, broadened and underscored the cultural attention paid to the passing of John the Younger.

They were our adept chroniclers of the postwar suburbs with enormous abilities to capture LIFE between men and women with exceptional, frightening, unblinking, honed attention. But as important as their talent, they believed—with all the import of that word—in what Cheever called the “invincibility of literature,” and they understood the role of professional men of letters. That’s part of what their fans were attracted to.

Their postwar readers saw their own drab lives in the pages of “The Enormous Radio” and Rabbit, Run transformed by the power of art into something worth knowing, worth contemplating. The Johns’ writing deeply enriched the lives of their readers, and maybe helped to dispel some of the fog we all live in. The readers in turn felt a part of a literary community, not as easily in the days before the Internet, but just as certain. The emotional connection to their work was deep and spanned generations. Who is today’s equivalent of these literary icons?

The TV Drama as Novel

The watchers of ER will be gathering on Thursday to read the last episode in a 15-year long story about doctors in an emergency room in Chicago. Few series have the power to stay for so long. The list is a familiar one: Bonanza, 14 seasons; Dallas, 13 seasons; Hawaii 5-0 and NYPD Blue, 12; Cheers and MASH, 11.

We ER readers read and embraced ER’s groundbreaking semiotics as enthusiastically as the first readers of Joyce’s Ulysses did.

Diane Werts captures the power of ER in a piece in Newsday:

“Much of what ER pioneered has become so commonplace, we don't appreciate the show's pacesetting. We take for granted walk-and-talk, intensity editing, continuous sets, widescreen framing, point-of-view shooting, time-shift storytelling with interwoven flashbacks, ambient sound and moody montage.

“But all in one place? With heart-rending characters often delivering a topical wallop?"

The technical side was balanced with first-rate acting, and deeply engaging characters of Benton, and Carter, and Greene.

Charles McGrath:
“A small episode in last season's finale, involving an end-stage AIDS patient, his mother and his lover, and their letting him go, can't have taken up more than a few minutes of air time; yet in its brevity and directness, and in the honesty of its details, it was a more affecting evocation of the AIDS crisis than Jonathan Demme's overblown "Philadelphia," say. Its power came from the fact that this little moment happened in the middle of a lot of other moments -- almost as in life. Similarly, a brief, silent stretch at the end of the botched-delivery episode [“Love’s Labors Lost”], when Dr. Greene, exhausted, fighting tears, rides the El home in a cold winter dawn, achieved a remarkably understated eloquence. The show has a knack for dramatizing private moments -- for sneaking up on them when both we and the characters are most worn down and vulnerable.

“But the real reason for E.R.'s success, I think, is that it recognizes that such private moments are so few and so hasty.”

There is nothing more inherently frightening than an emergency room. We all know fiction from reality, especially where our own life and death is concerned. But storytelling is one way that we confront our fears, and the stories of ER where often cathartic because they rang so true to life. They allowed us to look at the most frightening, painful side of the human condition from the safety of our living rooms.

I did stop watching after Mark Greene died. Unlike Cheers, where I made the transfer from Diane to Rebecca, I never got into the new characters. I followed Carter and Abby for a while, and then drifted away.

But like many old readers, I’ve been following these last episodes before the series finale. Alan Sepinwall, as usual, has given the returning flock a place to connect. Reading these comments is the strongest testimonial to the power of this series.

ER and the works of the Johns are, by their nature, accessible to the ages. And each has a discernible and important legacy.

What’s different, what will not be repeated, is the broad cultural reach of these pieces of art, as art and entertainment continue to be more personalized, more niche.

Diane Werts again, speaking of being an ER viewer for its entire run:

“We were all in it together then. As we might be when it ends. It won't happen again.”