Reflection: Why art? Why communicate? Why remember anything?
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 11/7/03
I have always
believed that art, regardless of its form, is about communication. If you choose
to remember this, it will (at least for some) make the creative process a whole
lot easier. And with the decline of quality in the art world (at least since
Postmodernism) most of it can be attributed to the need for people, and artists
more specifically, to place themselves into a group. Usually this involves the
use of the horrid –ism attachment to the end of a word, be it confessionalism,
neo-formalism, surrealism, etc. An ex-coworker of mine once said to me just
to be an asshole, “I don’t give a damn about poetry.” This is all fine and
dandy to me, because the guy had never heard of Leo Tolstoy until I mentioned Anna
Karenina in conversation, and nor had he heard of the novel. I thought to
myself: c’mon, Tolstoy? Who hasn’t heard of him? Some rare breed of
morons? When I told this to Dan, he responded with “and he went to college?”
But here’s the kicker: this guy liked often to speak about the trip he made to
Spain (& his desire to revisit someday), how he wished he spoke another
language, his curiosity for European cities like Athens and Rome, and how
Salvador Dali was his favorite painter, and even how he might make the
occasional trip to the Minneapolis theatre house to see a random play once a
year. But still he had never heard
of Tolstoy, who is not even a poet but – oh, I don’t even need to tell you
because readers; you are smarter than this guy. But the sad thing is that this
ex-coworker of mine probably considered himself rather cultured, even though he
had one of the most uninspiring and unimaginative minds I had ever encountered.
So what would a person with mind like that be doing with a passing interest in
one of the greatest Visionary painters of all time? -Probably nothing at all,
because he wouldn’t be able to tell you why Dali’s paintings were great.
It’s just a random dart thrown having nothing to do with understanding. He
only likes Dali’s paintings because they were what he saw in a museum
somewhere or in a book. And being famous can’t hurt. Same reason why an idiot
editor on Web Del Sol, or any other loser poetry website, would think Emily
Dickinson’s poems were good: he or she saw them in a book, and again,
celebrity can’t hurt.
Art for me has never been about celebrity, per se, but more about longevity. Ask any ten year old today who Michael Jordan is and they will be able to tell you. Ask any who Tolstoy is and they probably can’t. Now take several ten year olds in the year 2100 and they won’t be able to tell you who either is. New stars will have come along. New records will have been set. But in the year 2100 I can guarantee you that while most adults will not know who MJ is (with the exception for the hardcore sports fans) they will be able to tell you who Tolstoy is, or Kubrick, or Rilke, or Dali, or Edward Hopper, or Hermann Hesse. That is because these names all have longevity- i.e. their work will extend beyond a lifetime or more. But my ex-coworker did not think so. His argument was that “Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player in the world, so he will be remembered in a hundred years.” With a rationale such as this, one can see how linear and limited in comprehension it is. Name me a great basketball player from 1950 even. I’m no expert on sports, but I can’t think of any. Other than the handful of well-known Yankee players, the only other sports figure I can name from the 1900’s is Jim Thorpe. OK, so he ran some fast track meets. So what. Other than his track record, what has he left behind? Great Art? Abstract Ideas? Scientific Discoveries? I say this not to pick on sports, or its fans, but it’s the Great Ideas that are remembered, be it in science or film or poetry or painting. Not batting averages.
But that’s not entirely true, you say. Joe Dimaggio’s record has been branded into baseball history as of 2003. However, my point is that in 500 years no one will know who Joe Dimaggio is, the way they know a Shakespeare or John Donne. To attribute those three names together as having the same weight is just silly. But then back to my question, why would a linear minded, unimaginative person be drawn to Salvador Dali, or pretend to like any art for that matter? Why go to the theatre at all? Why not just lock yourself up in your unimaginative box? One is for the reason I mentioned earlier- there is a ‘status’ in knowing the arts. But the part I can’t understand, and still leads me to ask, is how someone who doesn’t “give a damn about poetry” could give a damn about Salvdor Dali. He was poetry on canvas, as Kubrick was poetry on film. But then if you ask your average “cultured” (in my ex-coworker sense) person what poetry is, he/she might think Maya Angelou. “What? You don’t like Maya Angelou? But she’s famous! And Oprah even recommends her!” (Yes I actually got that one- and in 2100 no one will know who Maya Angelou is, or Oprah- but at least some hardcore sports fans might still remember Michael Jordan).
One thing I had to learn early is that just because something or someone is famous, doesn’t mean they are great, or even good. Most are actually pretty shitty, which is one of the main reasons pop culture has always reached for the lowest common denominator. Your average person will know who Maya Angelou is, but that doesn’t mean that she’s the best poet around. Actually, she’s pretty shitty. So shitty that other black poetasters reject her, probably mostly due to her fame, but also because of her Hallmarkian doggerel. (Which makes me believe, that unless you’re just so stupid, like Bill Moyers, who claims to not ‘understand’ her poetry, that these doggerelists know bad writing when they see it. Would that they do the same for Sapphire, Wanda Coleman, Ai, or any other black crap poet of the past 30 years).
And with all the terrible writing being published, and lazy minded ideas, one might think it easy for an artist with talent to become discouraged, or depressed even. Why promote great literature when you have Oprah watering the masses? Why struggle to make a great film when crap epic Saving Private Ryan gets praised? Not only is the film so simpleminded in its approach, it’s yet another example of something that won’t disagree with the mass audiences, and thereby won’t challenge them. It’s a film that won’t offend in any way (unless you’re an artist who sees through the pap) because it is utterly simplistic and trite in its clichéd paint by numbers fashion. I say this not out of pity or resentment, but how is anyone supposed to find a diamond at the bottom of a lake when it’s surrounded by rotten kelp and sludge all the way to the surface? Online I found an article saying that about 3,500 novels get published every year. This is atrocious. There is no way that there is that much quality being written. How could any Classic, if written today, compete with that number? The Great Gatsby? To Kill a Mockingbird? Steppenwolf? Huck Finn? Anna Karenina? You might find these titles mixed between uninspiring crap like Michael Cunningham’s The Hours or any of the many I have been raped/incested/abused so I’m going to write an unoffending story/poem/screenplay about it and you’re gonna like and agree with my opinion, damnit- arts. Sure it is easy to say the Classics I listed are great novels, especially with having time on their side. But really- to quote the words of fiction writer Jason Sanford: “There are just too many people writing.”
So sometimes with this in mind, and thinking of all the people who have absolutely no talent and pretend to give a damn about poetry/art yet really are only in for themselves (see any online poetry editor who will only publish his pals and people to advance his/her career for that one) one can easily get discouraged. I mean really, how do I stand a chance against 3,500 novels? And this doesn’t even include the number of poetry books being published each year. How can anyone stand a chance? Who are these people they put on the cover of the APR? Am I supposed to have heard of them? And guess what- this person writes doggerel. What a surprise. And so does David Lehman, as if you had to ask.
Each time a Poets and Writers arrives in the mail (ditto for APR) I try my best not to read it. In it you can find contests judged by bad poets who will never see that my poems or any of the other poets on Cosmoetica are good, (and if they did would resent it), literary programs that teach people to write like Jorie Graham and Sharon Olds (two poets I loathe and wish never to write like), lists of the visiting faculty of whatever school (all who write crap & how I would never want), and the 30+ doggerel winners of the _________(insert bad poet’s name contest is named after) who all happen to attend the Iowa workshop or University of _________’s writing program. Sigh. What’s an artist to do? Maybe I’m just being cheeky, but I guess the only solution is to remind yourself why you wish to pursue your art in the first place. In other words, return to the poetry itself. In this essay, since this seems to be more of a personal reflection than an actual cut and dice essay (and since I really have no real answers for my complaints) I have decided to include some excerpts from the poems that really get me going, that remind me how great Great Poetry can be, that give me a good slap in the face and just tell me to stop whining.
Something low within each
-from James Emanuel’s sonnet For a Farmer
His noonday wish, then crumbles rich; so fills
Each furrow that the prairie year upheaves.
-from James Emanuel’s sonnet For a Farmer
Yesterday morning enormous the moon hung low on the ocean, -from Robinson Jeffers’ Their
Beauty Has More Meaning
Round and yellow-rose in the glow of dawn;
The night-herons flapping home wore dawn on their wings.
-from Robinson Jeffers’ Their
Beauty Has More Meaning
I will arise and go now, and go
Dyeing the air,
Telling the particles of the clouds, the leaves, the water
What immortality is. That it is immortal.
-from Sylvia Plath’s Burning the Letters
There is the feeling beside that which is felt,
as if a great artwork beyond consciousness,
whether gazing a church tower, or being sifted through its panes
like alluvial photons. There in a bowl of opening roses,
made majestic by a slice of sight reflecting
the spoke of sun upon a slab where something dead may lay,
is an abstract of insight grown well within your wreath of verse,
brief episode of touch, still opening endlessly and growing,
self-illumined, silent paladins of the muse,
like nothing that ever was:
I know nothing of life.
-from Dan Schneider’s “Poetry Itself”
the following excerpts are from poems that lead me to feel humbled, and are the
quality I seek to write- especially in the last poem, which reminds me most of
Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo (which is probably intentional since
the poem is about Rilke). Place any of these lines next to that of a Thomas Lux,
Jorie Graham, Donald Hall, etc. and ask yourself if you get the same exciting
results. Do their poems make you want to change your life? Do you wish
you could have written their stuff? (I’ve always believed that’s a testament
of Great Art- if you wish you could have been the one to create it- then it is
more likely to be Great).
It was my first reading of Emily Dickinson that fascinated, and I was hooked. I liked the connections she made between things, and I thought to myself, “I want to write something that does that.” I knew at the time that I couldn’t do it, but I also knew that if I worked at it hard enough, I had it in me. So to any good/great artist out there, the Greatness should be your motivation, and the desire to create it. When I write a piece of crap and fall off the horse (pardon the cliché- I keep them out of my poems I swear) I just get back on again. That’s all you can do. One must strive to make Greatness. But not all will succeed. All these poetry editors/losers/academics/elitists have cheated themselves. I have to believe that in their heart of hearts (another cliché that won’t ever enter my poems) a James Tate, David Lehman, or Maya Angelou knows they don’t hold a candle to James Emanuel, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, or Dan Schneider. And if you think I only mentioned the last name because of my connection to him, I must say READ THE FUCKIN’ POEMS! To end, I’d like to quote from one of my sonnets After Lending To A Co-Worker A Film He Could Not Finish (a different co-worker) that says you must do art for art’s sake but so rarely is it being done: Never arriving, in the end, /to what is said: art for art, is good but dead.
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