Art Durkee: Polymathic Possibilitities?
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/11/01


Art’s poems, Dragoncave website: http://3.avatarreview.com:8081/dragoncave/ & http://3.avatarreview.com:8081/BDP/


  Creativity is a bitch to get a hold of. Not only the thing itself, but what it is. Is it the Demiurge which brinks some to madness? Or is that hyperbolic cliché? In my own experience I have found that the best (truest?) artists are those who’ve shown the most personal growth & maturity. Talent is wonderful, potential is fantastic, but in the end accomplishment is the bottom line. Only those with maturity seem to reach this end goal. Along with myself, I would include a # of the UPG regulars in this lot (thus my recent essays). Among them is Art Durkee. I will tell a bit of his bio & give some poetic examples, but the main thrust of this piece will be slightly different from prior Encomia. I want to use Art’s example as a case study- so to speak- of why some artists succeed, while the overwhelming majority fail, & fail miserably.
  Art 1st started attending the UPG in 1997 & has been fairly regular since. But poetry is not Art’s main artistic thrust- in fact, it may not be where his greatest talents lie. Don’t get me wrong, at his best Art has written a handful of poems I would argue are great, yet it’s difficult to look at some of his visual work & not think that that is where his best talents lie. Among his artistic endeavors Art lists poetry, music, photography, typography, & web design. Art was well-traveled in his youth- his early childhood was spent in India, & his jaunting has seen him globetrot across Europe, Asia, & North America- including a year’s Fulbright fellowship in Java, Indonesia. Art claims music has his 1st artistic love, although poetry soon followed. Art belongs to what might be called the Intuitive school of thought re: art. I.e.- he takes the classic antenna/channel position. This may explain his shunning classical ‘form’ poetry- save for haiku. Art’s poetry is suffused with imagery. The influence of the visual arts is apparent on even a cursory skim. Yet, many poets are ‘nature’ poets & their verse little more than familiar imagery dove-tailed with a ‘personal’ experience. Indeed, a while back Art gave my wife, Jessica, a few of his self-published chapbooks from the mid-90s, & to our surprise, they were not very good. Not doggerel, mind you, but a big comedown from what we’ve seen over the years from the man at the UPG. From this evidence 1 can surmise that the man has really bloomed of late, & that- perhaps- his participation in the UPG has been linked to said growth.
  Like fellow UPGer Bruce Ario, Art has seen fit to master his own free verse ‘form’, if you will. Granted, his pursuit of this form lacks the monomania of Bruce for his titular ario, nonetheless it is a form I will discuss, & later display. Its putative name (credit to Jessica) is the durku- a combination of the man’s name & its aesthetic/stylistic relation to the Japanese haiku form. I will let Art Durkee give his take on the durku: ‘A few years ago, I discovered that I was writing in a form I apparently invented: five long lines of compressed imagery and language, where each line can be like a complete poem, then each group of five lines can be a larger-scale poem, and clusters of poems can be grouped into larger Books. This form has been described as ‘fractal’, in that it is self-similar at different scales, and the reader can ‘zoom in’ or ‘zoom out’ at whim, to gain varying perspectives on the work. Each line can be read like a haiku, and each Book can be viewed as a crystal with many facets.’ This is an apt & succinct description of the form. I would add that the closest Western form that a durku resembles is probably the canzone. A canzone is a flexible form that merely has a set stanzaic pattern repeat from as many as 2 to (theoretically) an infinite # of times. The stanza pattern can change from canzone to canzone, but within a specific canzone fractalism occurs. Art generally detests modern Confessionalism, & his poems (durku or not) reflect this fact. Little is given of a biographical nature, although we do get a strong sense of the poet’s interior. A brief list of Art’s favorite poets- Rilke, Rumi, Whitman, Cavafy, Lorca, Bashō, Hopkins- finds no surprises.
  Now I come to a conundrum- 1 I have seen with many other poets. That is that I wish Art would spend more time on his poetry & let the other endeavors become background noise. I have expressed similar frustrations with younger poets (Art’s in his 40s) who seem to aimlessly traipse between the arts- as well as out. Some other notables who seem to fit this view are Dylan Garcia-Wahl, Cindra Halm, & Don Moss. Yet, Art most of all is the embodiment of this conundrum. What conundrum? The 1 where more time spent on his poetry should logically affect the poems' excellence, consistency, & output in a positive manner. After all, I’ve never known any artist who was great in 2 artistic genres- or even sub-genres. Picasso was a great painter, but mediocre sculptor- at best. Charles Sheeler’s paintings were far more memorable than his photographs. &, especially in writer/poets this is true- just look at the verse of James Joyce, Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway, etc. There have been few who were even quite good at 1 while being great at the other- 1 might argue Kenneth Rexroth was very good at poetry & prose- but great? Pasternak- perhaps, although his verse seems well superior to his prose. Yet, Art’s excellence in his other arts tends to lead me to conclude- at least in his case- that more time devoted to his poetry might not lead to more poems of his current quality. It may be that his restive mind needs to hop between disciplines so that the very act of hopping maximizes the time his mind is at its highest functioning in whatever art he’s hopped to. I’ve noticed similar things with myself. In my poetry I always try to vary approach, form, language, subject matter, etc. so that I do not repeat myself too often or closely- thereby I remain sharper. My restiveness within poetry is mirrored by Art’s without. While I cannot claim the diversity of artistic pursuits & excellence beyond poetry, likewise he cannot claim such within. It’s a trade-off we make to maximize the time we have to focus on our art. Proof of this seems to be in the output itself. No one of discernment could claim that Art’s non-poetic arts pursuits rivals Hemingway’s execrable poems, for example. Therefore, were Art to spend 98% of his free time on poetry, rather than say the 20-25% (or whatever) that he does, instead of having a 4 or 5 fold increase in his quality verse we would have merely 4-5 times the blandeur- not to mention the loss of his non-poetic quality artwork. Again, this is a hunch. But Art’s quality in all fields leads me to this conclusion. Yet I still wholeheartedly believe most would-be artists need to find their field of greatest talent & put their balls to the wall.
  On to some of the poems. Here is a primo example of the durku at its height. Bear in mind some of Art’s own earlier comments. I will follow with mine.

 A Book of Woods 

Cold of the cedar heart. Storks in the road. Pausing.
Up the valleys of red air, sunset finches blur into being.
Sun barks through pine needle carpet. The green birds.
Red shoulders to the wind. The eldest wind up quiet, watchful.
Nothingness. Your back to the cliff. Grey grows land, become stone.

Remarkable ironies. Hands becoming memory.
Birdcries of children in serious play. Try on this life for fit.
Porcelain sky turning grey. Murmurings in the scrub pine.
Does any geometry encircle the fallen birch? Where the red bird is.
A path, a winding, a trick of falling. Thunder clearing the fallen.

What is the right hand saying to what’s left?
Anything moving is chaff, what’s left to scare.
Apples of the irrigated chest. Naming is not the source.
Sweat of the night christens this marriage bed: two spirits.
Wrens in the headboard. Your breast full of chattering birds.

Agony of acorns ripe with vivid green lies.
Following the bell into silence. Two strokes midway.
Taking night’s throat into stillness. The dry lands.
Falls of sulfur, the beating of wasp wings. Speech of dust.
In this memory of river, underground, the religion of lamps.

A convergence inside something infinite.
Conflagration. Ekstasis. Remorse and removal.
Olive trees pretend to dance. Only wind.
Hardpan underfoot: dolomite and shrubs.
I’m walking on the gods’ home mountain: sun falls bronzed.

Moon veiled in bright ice-cloud, pine-tree sentinel.
The howling. Red-eyed, mewling, clawed and torn.
Every eye a tree-spirit, a passing light. Into cedars.
Loon: black dot on grey seas. Dark island.
Into the every world a circling, a wheeling. These times.

Stars bleed in from grey: watchers without hope.
Outside after aurora, sky cloud-blinded, veils.
Aspen snow boughs white on white. Footprints.
Trail starlit, moonlit, firelit. Eyes opening to Orion.
Clouds knocking snow loose, sugar on the wheelbarrow.

  Virtually every line is a complete image/thought. The blur into each other waxes & wanes to the point that a fractalism truly occurs. But enough of the durku requisites. Let’s approach this as a poem- period. Note clichés inverted: a heart of cedar- & cold, agony- but of acorns, bleeding- but of stars, etc. Let’s see how craftily mere description lends itself to narrative. It seems as if someone is ambling through the woods, either physically or in recollection. The ‘moment’ the poem seems to be built upon occurs in stanza 6- something brief, then back to ambling & sensing. In a sense, nothing really happens. But the poem is so chock with description & motion that it is near impossible for a reader NOT to imbue the poem with meaning of some sort. What you will imbue it with I leave to you. But what a rich great poem- look how much it offers the reader. Its very fractalism also highlights this in that it really engulfs the reader with mood, & mood-setting is a very invitation to imbue & ‘let go’ of preconceptions. Were this a Seek or Destroy essay I would delve further into my interpretation of this poem. Since it is not, I’ll allow you that pleasure. A briefer poem:

not there, not yet

                                           the gull still
becoming the cloud that chases the boy,
or the boy puts himself into the water
like moose or dark elk tasting lichen.
no, not yet: if you never arrive,
you never have to choose between trails,
one going up past the waterfall’s steam,
another idling in the heat, stirred 
by the strokes of gnats’ wings—
the story doesn’t have to end; the telling 
braids words into watercress, the cry of the rabbit, 
caught in the lynx’ jaws, rings out 
over the reeds, echoes never receding.

  Again images predominate. There is only 1 image that could possibly be cliché. That is the last image of echoes. But it is subverted by the word never. Note how line 1 visually references the following line. Compare this poem, both in mood & music, to W.B. Yeats’ The Collar-Bone Of A Hare:

Would I could cast a sad on the water 
Where many a king has gone
And many a king's daughter,
And alight at the comely trees and the lawn,
The playing upon pipes and the dancing,
And learn that the best thing is
To change my loves while dancing
And pay but a kiss for a kiss. 

I would find by the edge of that water
The collar-bone of a hare
Worn thin by the lapping of water,
And pierce it through with a gimlet, and stare
At the old bitter world where they marry in churches,
And laugh over the untroubled water
At all who marry in churches,
Through the white thin bone of a hare. 

  Both poems evoke nature & remembrance of what was before. Both are excellent-great poems. But I would give the slight edge to Art’s poem because it does not use such formal repetition (a predictable trope no matter how effective) to evoke its yore-yearns. Art invokes such with the title & the breaking of the ‘4th’ wall & acknowledging the poem’s artifice. The reader is forced ‘outside’ & made to look inward to the rich imagery. Again, I could dissect the poems further, but my point here is to give comparison between a famous poem & an unknown poem & say- ‘Hey, if you throw out preconceptions of what you’ve read about the famous poem, & just stick with the words, themselves, you are left to think for yourself & acknowledge that good & great writing is still produced- however rarely.’ This is the purpose of this essay, as well all the Encomia. More than just getting recognition for the subjects, I want these examples to spur the audiences to not accept fiats from ‘names’, & to actually cogitate & evaluate things free from the biases of the past.
A final poem, some final thoughts, & an anecdote.

tsuru no sugomori

and a white crane rising
from the braided pebbles
of a stream, sandbars and rivulets
intertwining mare’s nests—
transfixed on the god of fishes
as it stalks the royal river,
shrapnel of god’s yellow eye
nailing the dusk to you—


and a white crane found loving
the flicks of late spring snow
hounding fluffed feathers, the stream
too cold to stand in long,
in a riffle tadpoles have
just now thought of dancing—
and a white crane’s careful step,
the graceless launch that merges
down the river’s twists,
till you can’t separate the distances,
wind blows the mind into snowdrift,
there’s only a golden eye where
the sun was a white feather
(adrift in a dust dance longlit at dawn)
landing on feldspar boulders
pinked by aspen through sunrise—


and a white crane lands 
downstream, repeats its silent
long-legged march upriver,
all hunger for the cold-slowed
salmon of wisdom, and repeats—

  Compare this poem to virtually any Imagist poem you can think of. This is superior. It is better purely imagistically, & also gives more musically & narratively. Think of all the poems you’ve ever read regarding the innate beauty/wisdom/wonder of nature. Now compare them to this. All but a dozen or 2 will fail the comparison. Let me widen the scope just a tad. I have heretofore discussed a number of poets I know- all associated with the UPG. Note how all of their styles & approaches are different. Note how they succeed. Note how utterly different they are from the cookie-cutter poems from both PC Elitists & DWMs; & also note the differences from each other. Even excluding myself, the # of similar groups/groupings of poets that could match the quality & diversity of this bunch of poets is zero, 0, nada, zip, zilch- in case you did not get my point! Question- why are they not published & lauded? Reading some of my prior essays will clue you in; but I just want the reader to acknowledge this injustice. Art Durkee deserves recognition for his poetry- let this essay be a bit of a salve. I admit I am not qualified to speak with expertise more broadly on his other endeavors, but check them out for yourself & I think you will agree.
  I believe that Art is an incipient product of what the future of the arts & sciences will hold- polymathic possibilities where people who excel in multiple fields will do so- & BE ENCOURAGED TO DO SO! & BE SUPPORTED WITH RECOGNITION & FINANCIAL OPPORTUNITIES! I am not sorry for the stridency of my argument. & on further review, creativity’s bitch will need further explication in further essays. But please think on what is missed in the arts when people merely accept what others tell them: Bruce Ario’s novel Cityboy, Jason Sanford’s tales, Jessica Schneider’s poetry, Don Moss’s Dominions, & Art Durkee’s sundry works. & DO NOT take my word for it- think & cogitate for YOURSELF!
  As I now draw this essay to a close I am a bit hesitant to relate this next, more personal, observation of Art Durkee. I do so for several reasons- from some of the subjects I’ve profiled in Encomia I’ve gotten some misreadings as to what my intent was in profiling them. In fact, the very 1st piece I did I ended up pulling because the subject had given me what they later deemed incorrect personal information, & got very upset at my relating this misinformation in the essay. Also, people’s private lives are just that- & Art has always been quite private regarding his life. However, anyone scanning Art’s website, & its links, will quickly surmise that the man is gay. In the past I have been called a bigot against virtually every conceivable human group there is- including homosexuals; so I am hesitant to see this anecdote twisted. Then, again, Art is not ashamed of his life & this anecdote conveys some of the conviviality that exists in the UPG, despite its undisputed serious approach to poetry. Excelsior!
  In the summer of 2000 Art, Laura Winton, & I organized a Poetry Forum. During the course of the night’s discussion we tackled the ‘good’ poem put forth that night, Allen Ginsberg’s A Supermarket In California. During his defense of the poem’s quality Art offered up, in public, that he was gay. This was a surprise to some attending UPGers- if only because Art never discussed his sex life at all. 1 might more validly think him a celibate from the lack of such in his conversations. Yet, I had visited Art’s site, seen the links, & thought it likely. At the next UPG Art had either not arrived yet, or was a no-show for the night. Jessica & Dave Nelson were discussing the Forum. Jess asked Dave if he knew Art was gay. Dave responded, in his typical breathy style, ‘Yeah….That’s right…. Wow….Arthur is-      gay….I didn’t know that.’ A pause of 5 or 6 seconds’ silence saw the 2 turn to Bruce Ario, who punctuated the moment with 1 of his patented deadpan shakings of his head, ‘Yup.’ Another pause, & then all laughed, including me. In case you missed it- no one was upset or dismayed by the fact- it was merely the normally reserved Art’s announcement in public which prompted the moment. I relate this as 1 of many examples of humor & ‘moments’ that occur with regularity at the UPG, & 1 of the reasons that folk can receive ‘hard’ criticism without emotionally wilting. There is an ‘honesty & frankness' of debate free from the ulteriorities abounding in most workshops. & I have found that artists who can take &, indeed, seek ‘hard’ criticism are almost always better artists than those who cannot. It may also be that polymaths are forged in these ‘fires’ of hard criticism. If so, the future resides in entities like the UPG & persons like Art Durkee. If not, see you at the Centenary Celebrations for Jeff Koons & Hal Sirowitz!

Return to Bylines

Bookmark and Share