Saturday, September 29, 2007

Collected Poems

I think it's worthwhile to obtain and read these compendium volumes of a poet's work, to get a sense of the poet's overall arc and career, their recurring themes and sources, their evolutions and digressions, their artistic successes and failures. It's worthwhile even if your final act, upon reading, was an unconvinced shrug of sublime rejection.

A trend that I've found very irritating of late among poet-critics who should know better is a tendency to be dismissive without actually having read the poetry. I don't think you can do that. It's beyond unwise: it's arrogant and wrong-headed.

Elsewhere recently, some young writer had the gall to say that he doesn't actually need to look at modernist non-representational paintings to be able to dismiss them, they're obviously about nothing. (Ignoring for the moment the truth that non-representational painting styles are indeed about nothing, in the sense that they do not and were not intended to contain content, narrative, or representation. If you expect them to, you're completely missing the point.) I can hear the outraged howling if a painter were to claim that she didn't need to actually read the writer to know he wasn't any good. That kind of dismissive criticism is facile and superficial, and puerile, no matter where it's applied, precisely because it hasn't actually engaged with the artwork it's dismissing. You cannot subsitute an air of superior of supposedly-objective judgment for actual scholarship, and get away with it. Your lack of actual research will eventually trip you up, when someone catches you in your ignorance. The honest child who isn't taken in by illusion will someday point out the emperor's nakedness.

By contrast, if I present an opinion on a poet's work, it's because I've actually taken the time to read their work. That is only right and proper, and is a requirement for honest scholarship (as opposed to opinion-mongering). And that is part of the attraction of Collected Poems anthologies: they allow you to browse in, and also do deep reading, and re-reading. They allow you develop an opinion directly from the source data, as it were, rather than from received wisdom. This is true no matter what literary-critical school or filter you are using as your baseline.

Received wisdom is almost always wrong, precisely because it overrules personal reflection and direct engagement. The issue isn't that you have chosen to believe a mistaken authority, or even a correct authority, but that you have not done your homework for yourself. Laziness in research is unforgiveable, and leads to bad opinions based on insufficient data. Questioning received wisdom (questioning authority) is precisely the method by which new discoveries are made.

So, I have on my shelf Collected Poems even by poets whose work I am neither particularly fond of nor impressed by, as well as by those poets I cherish. I read them all, and I re-read even the ones that are not my favorites, to see if I might have missed something the first or second time. Sometimes, I work my way into something redemptive, in those poems that previously have not convinced, or embodied an experience. Sometimes, on the other hand, my original opinion is confirmed. But I take the time to read them before opening my yap. That seems only fair.

There is also something satisfying, in a single-volume Collected Poems, about having as much as one can carry bound up in one volume. Efficient portability in one's reading materials cannot be underrated, whether one takes them to the academy to study, or reads them on the train, or carries them amongst one's camping gear to read on those tented nights after long hikes or drives, before sleep that is always satisfying merely because it's outdoors, under the night sky, away from the overstimulating inanities of TV, radio, and other manifestations of blaring Pop Cult. (We put the Cult in Culture!) Whenever I pack for a camping trip, or a long road trip, I toss a few books into my bag; these almost always include Basho's Narrow Road to the Interior and some Rilke.

On my shelves are Collected Poems (and Selected Poems too) of T.S. Eliot, Conrad Aiken, Rilke, Wallace Stevens, Stanley Kunitz, Sidney Lanier, May Sarton, Wlat Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Allen Ginsberg, Hart Crane, Edwin Denby, Muriel Rukeyser, William Carlos Williams, Jim Harrison, Octavio Paz, Adrienne Rich, and many others. Some favorite poets I don't have Collecteds for, for in some cases they don't exist, or I haven't purchased them yet; meanwhile, they do have excellent Selecteds: George Mackay Brown, Rumi, Neruda, and others.

The study, and the assessments, continue.

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Blogger concerned citizen said...

poetry is something I'm not good at, but random doll heads floating about in the shrubry(?) I find interesting.

10:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Art: You say that received wisdom is almost always wrong, yet when I don't automatically recite the received wisdom about those paintings I wrote about, that's unacceptable?

You cannot compare looking at a reproduction to not reading a poem. The former is engaging with the art, even if it isn't the original, while the latter is not engaging with the art at all. Big difference.

I don't quite know what you mean by 'research' and 'scholarship', since extensive research shouldn't be necessary to take in most artworks. If I'm reading a poem and don't know a word or a reference, I look it up, but I shouldn't have to look up endless articles explaining the poem to me and providing the actual substance where the artwork does not. And if you mean travelling to see the original of every painting I want to comment on, that's impractical & unecessary. There are many who have access to posters or books on art who cannot travel all over the world to see the original, and you're basically saying that they know nothing about the artworks they've looked at and can't really comment on what they've seen. Baloney!

I don't consider my attitude to be one of superiority, but I'm not just going to regurgitate the current art-history wisdom, whether it's poetry or painting or whatever.

9:03 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

My sister has a pithy saying she uses from time to time: CTS (Consider The Source).

Actually, you're wrong, Anthony: not looking at the painting itself IS the same thing as not readingt the poem, because it is not engaging with the actual artwork itself. Thinking that a reproduction can stand in for the painting itself, which you have claimed, is preposterous, especially in the case of a reproduction literally 1/100th the size of the actual painting. It's like reading the Cliff's Note summary of "Paradise Lost," and refusing to read the poem itself. You migth get the "gist of the meaning," in terms of a capsule summary of plot but you're going to miss all the beauty of the language used. It's also like looking only at every 48th frame of a film; you might get some sense of the narrative or structure, but you're sure going to miss a lot of continuity.

While it's perfectly okay to form the opinion that you dislike a work of art, not actually having looked at the actual work of art in any detail is not criticism, it's merely dismissal. A stubborn insistence on doing that is indeed not scholarship, because you haven't actually done the real work of studying the painting up close and personal.

A poster is more likely to show you what the artwork is like than is a small thumbnail JPEG or GIF online, certainly. But even a poster is a reproduction, and they may have gotten the colors wrong that press run, and the brushwork pattern has been lost in the printer's dot-matrix pattern. If you assume that any reproduction is totally accurate to the original, you know absolutely nothing about the printing process. Go ask any pressman or pre-press operator, at any printing house. They'll tell that reproduction of visual art is ALWAYS a process of approximation, and there are always inaccuracies. They do the best they can, but it's never perfect.

Traveling to see an artwork may be difficult or impossible for now, surely. But if you happen to be near a museum that contains artwork by the artist you're discussing, go in and look at what they DO have, even if it isn't the same piece you're discussing. You'll still find things in the paintings you never saw in the reproductions. Most big-city art museums have at least one piece that's relevant to your research—and going to see artwork is indeed part of doing your research. Doing it all from the armchair, or online alone, is, as you say, baloney.

Looking up unknown words in a poem is certainly research and scholarship. So is looking up the rest of the artist's works, and looking at them, to see what their concerns were, what their evolution was, their devlopment, their progression, their obsessions, their recurring themes. Of course, that's much easier to do with representational, narrative, content-based art; and rather more difficult to do with non-representational art such as Rothko's. You may still come to the conclusion that you think it's crap, and didn't like a single one of his paintings, but at least you can speak from a position of the authority granted by having actually been engaged with the work, and having studying it carefully. If you refuse to actually study it before you dismiss, it, well, so be it—but don't expect people to agree with you, especially if they HAVE studied what you have not. A stubborn insistence on being in-the-right in the face of more engaged study than your own is just arrogance based on proud ignorance.

At least have the humility to admit that you don't know what you're talking about, and the dignity to educate yourself on the topic before you spout opinions.

Scholarship is about humility in the face of the unknown: it's about asking questions, and thinking about them, and doing reading and looking at and listening art, and finding out whatever you can, so that you can attempt to form an educated opinion. It's not about taking one glance at a single reproduction and saying, "this sucks." Unless, of course, one thinks that Beavis & Butthead were geniuses. (Which is not at all saying the same thing that B&B were always wrong; they were frequently right. But at least they watched the music videos they either praised or panned.)

In summation: The problem here is not your opinion. The problem is your refusal to go look at actual artworks, before forming those opinions. That's a problem in whatever artistic media you work in, or critique.

10:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I don't think we're going to agree on this one.

I've never said that any reproduction is going to be perfectly faithful to the original, at this moment in time. Hence why I brought up film, where even with careful restorations on dvd there is a loss of visual information. I maintain that in these imperfect copies, whether in film or music or painting, the audience still gets the essential artwork, even with the loss of visual or auditory information. It is simply not true that a person can't get a sense of the skill & ideas (or lack thereof) in a reproduction, or even say that something isn't very good. You don't need to see something in 35 mm to detect that it is technically well made, and you don't need to be in the auditorium on Idol to know that William Hung can't sing.

The specific image I linked to was not the only repro I've seen of that painting, but it was the first one I grabbed off the net, from that Paglia site I linked to. I don't really think I need to put a disclaimer there that it's not an exact match, as no internet image of a painting will be.

I never said that either of those image 'sucked', and I don't think that's my attitude. I did say that I didn't think there was any great idea present in them, and I also mentioned that some of what my friend said didn't come from the artworks themselves, but were attached to them later. I think that's a relevant thing to discuss with these paintings--regardless of whether you think they are good or bad, they make you no more conscious of the 'process' of painting than any other painting.

One final thing, I don't think that something 'non-representational' is necessarily any harder to understand, but that's been the standard line for a while, and there are equivalents in the other arts. I think when the rep/non-rep thing is trotted out, the implication is that the person making the criticism/remark is stuck in a limited, old fashioned mindset--a presumption. It takes the discussion away from the matter of the artwork itself. I'd like to see someone draw out the virtues of that Rothko painting without having to do the song and dance about representation--assume we all know that by now.

11:42 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Not being a masochist, I see no reason why I (or anyone) should present an argument you have already stated you would a priori reject. Seems like a waste of time.

I never said non-representational art was "harder to understand," I said it was different, and might perhaps have different ways of being looked at and understood. Different media, different means.

As for your film vs. DVD argument, if you want that to be true in film, then logically it has to be true with paintings. Poor representations are poor representations, or not—period. Don't try to claim it works in one genre, and doesn't it another. Your logic is inconsistent on this point.

Where you are correct is that, indeed, no internet image of a painting will be an accurate representation. Which I believe is what I've been saying all along. The other thing I've been saying is that, if you don't go and look at the actual paintings, you have no grounds on which to make any kind of judgment, other than facile, superficial, and puerile judgments.

As for any great ideas being in Rothko's paintings, or not, I can't take your opinions seriously, for the reasons stated above. Too bad. I still think you should actually go and look at one, before you dismiss them entirely. As long as you refuse to do that, then you're right, we have nothing more to talk about.

In the meantime, I ran across a quote from poet Bob Holman about Rothko that I think says very well how to view paintings like these:

I’m married to a painter but I wasn’t always. As a matter of fact, except for Van Gogh, whose paintings move, I never got painting. They seemed so stuck on the wall. Poems, you know, you could haul right off the page and set into motion, Wendy sewing Peter’s shadow onto his shoe tips.

That all changed when Alice Notley assigned her St. Mark’s Poetry Project workshop to visit a Willem DeKooning show at a small gallery uptown and to stand in front of the paintings until we were inspired to write poetry. It took me hours, but I made it through the painting into the poem, and I’ve been able to read paintings ever since.

Mark Rothko’s one of those painters who, if you don’t stop, stop, stop, look, look and listen, can sail right by. The luminous lift-off only occurs via relaxed eyes and nonbeingness float. When I visited the incredible retrospective at the National Gallery in DC -- currently at the Whitney, 75th and Madison, New York City -- I was struck by the linear nature of his color bombs: it was like they were all (mainly) three lines, call ‘em haikus. Naw, call ‘em Rothkos, I thought, and make ‘em rectangles like the paintings. And get those colors in there while you’re at it, like a tic-tac-toe, and now you gotta ROTHKO!

Not that anyone cares, of course. Since, of course, you're convinced you're correct, despite any evidence to the contrary. Oh well.

7:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Art,

Just to be clear, I've never actually refused to see that particular painting, or any painting. I believe that particular one is in Washington, and I have no plans to be near there for the time being. But I've never refused to see it. As for galleries near me, the closest one & the one that would be most likely to have anything by Rothko is currently closed & undergoing renovations, so seeing Rothko in person will have to wait.

I don't know what you mean about inconsistent logic, as my argument applied to both film & paintings.

5:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want some actual poems on here! I got this link from (keyword poems) and there are no poems! I need poems for school project. I'm probably never coming back here again.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Go write yer own, instead of stealing from others.

No loss.

11:47 AM  

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