Criticism: A Lament for Wyeth and Frost

Go to Wikipedia and search under 20th Century Art and you won’t find anything about Andrew Wyeth.  All through Robert Frost’s life, an ongoing debate raged as to whether he was a legitimate poet.  There are those still today who do not recognize the legitimacy of Frost.  These two artists have one thing in common.  They were accessible.  People love their work.  A person can understand Robert Frost’s poetry, and a person can recognize the objects that Wyeth paints.

In Frost’s day, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound dominated the poetics of the modern era.  People forget that Pound reviewed Frost’s first book of poetry, A Boy’s Will.  And Pound liked it.  And typical of Pound’s arrogance, he was amazed that Frost made himself modern without any instruction from himself.  Eliot’s epic THE WASTE LAND required footnotes so that readers could understand what Eliot was trying to do.  Eliot was happy to append them to his published edition.  He didn’t attach footnotes to Four Quartets.  And still, nobody knows what to make of that collection.  Then when Eliot turned to theater, his artistic career was over.  Robert Frost said jovially that modern poets need typewriters instead of pencils.  Frost wrote lyrical poems, of moving sentiment and deep truth.  And he did this by means of keenly described pictures–mostly imagery from the farm he owned during his most productive period.  With Frost, it is easy to remain locked in his pictures and to think he is writing only about trees and snowy woods, pale orchises, and Rose Pogonias.  But Frost captures the pain inherent in living; he questions–but leaves open the question–of a universal Providence in the universe.  Sometimes it is as if Frost is crying out against the universe.  What gave critics pause about Frost is that Frost uses the sound of common speech, that Frost uses rhyme, and Frost uses meter.  And Frost’s poetry doesn’t need footnotes.  That’s why people like Frost.  Frost mastered these artistic techniques and all this is why he is a great poet.

In Andrew Wyeth’s day, art was dominated by abstraction.  Maybe Jackson Pollack epitomizes this trend in that he poured paint onto canvasses without any intent to depict something.  Andrew Wyeth painted ultra-realistic images.  When you look at Wyeth’s paintings up close, you see that the fine detail is rendered through a rather impressionistic technique that blends into breathtaking realism a few steps back.  The composition of many of Wyeth’s paintings are made of abstract shapes–the realistic pictures form abstractions if you forget that they are about the farm he lived on in Pennsylvania.  Wyeth even expressed in print that mixing realism with abstraction would be a great feat of art.  He did just that.  In an age in which critical theory praised art that represented bare color, form, and hue–or something like that–Wyeth gave the world beautiful images we can recognize.  Wyeth, in other words, bucked the trends in modern art.  And modern art critics hit him back.  When he lived, he was never considered a serious artist.  I don’t believe that he is today, either.

I do not appreciate contemporary art.  I don’t even try.  I believe that contemporary art demands that a person read critical theory first, before viewing or reading the art.  This is why I object to contemporary art.  In my aesthetics, art should speak directly to audience.  We should resonate with art without art being “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”  Funny, I can view 3,420 years of art history and it speaks to me without me needing to open a book of art criticism.  Then, from about 1920 to today, the same phenomenon doesn’t happen.  In order to make a buck, art critics write books about ancient art.  But I don’t need to read these books.  The same strange experience happens to me in regard to literature.  I can read Gilgamesh, the Bible, and Shakespeare without a critical theorist pointing my nose to what I am to take from these works.  But this phenomenon abruptly stops with about Hart Crane.  I struggle with Wallace Stevens, but, unlike Hart Crane, Stevens rewards to some degree.  What is odd in all this, is that I can and do understand and even like some contemporary symphonic music.  When it is not awful, as too much of it is, sometimes it gets boring, though.  Music has it’s bow to deconstruction.  I once heard a trumpet player take the mouthpiece out of his trumpet and noodle on it all the while moving the slider on a synthesizer resonator.  It made my girlfriend so mad she had to go to the ladies’ room till he was done.

The drive to conform to the strictures of contemporaneity is hard to live with.  And it’s not a matter of me tapping out of the art world by age.  I felt this way even when I was younger.  I’m no prophet.  So I don’t know what the ages will do with what passes for art these days.  I only know what I do with it.  Which is really a matter of not doing anything with it.

Criticism: Wallace Stevens Wins the Day

Wallace Stevens, I believe, is the progenitor of contemporary verse.  Maybe Mallarme, before Stevens.  Mallarme’s poetry “evokes” meaning, rather than stating it.  His “Prelude a l’apres-midi d-un faune,” probably his most well-known poem made even more immortal due to Debussy’s musical setting of it, is a model example of his style.  Even in English translation, one can discern the flavor of his French evocations.  I put Wallace Stevens in his lineage as Stevens, also, evokes and does not declare in his poetry.

Contemporaries of Stevens–Eliot and Frost–differ in their treatment of language.  They make declarative sentences and they make points.  While they both employ the modern “objective correlative,” the imagery they employ is to make a point, or argument.  Their sentences connect subjects with objects.  When Robert Frost writes, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” we know that Frost is using a New England stone wall to reflect on division between humans.  Wallace Stevens criticized Frost for this, saying, “The trouble with you, Robert, is that you write about–subjects.”  To which Frost replied, “The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you write about bric-a-brac.”

When one approaches a Stevens poem, one doesn’t ask what Stevens is writing about.  He doesn’t write about subjects.  He writes “about” language and word juxtapositions.  Some say he writes about human subjectivity or the creative process.  But I won’t even give him that.  His word situations defy meaning.  One enjoys the words themselves, not what he’s talking “about.”  Contemporary verse follows the style of Stevens.  He doesn’t write about subjects, but I’ll not say it’s bric-a-brac.

My complaint about Stevens and much contemporary poetry is I find it wanting in depth.  Having fun with words is fun, as far as it goes, but ultimately one wants to come away from a poem with more than a bare feeling evoked by words.  Nietzsche turned philosophy into literature.  Though his literary works are as vapid as Stevens at his worst.  Frost is a true embodiment of Emerson’s philosophical poet.  Frost was a philosopher, maybe even a mystic (he said he was).  And Frost made philosophy in verse.  I fear that contemporary styles of poetry are but a fad.  Everybody is writing in the school of Stevens, just like a generation ago everybody was writing sestinas because Pound reintroduced them into modern poetry.  What will last into time we cannot say today.  But we can say that for today, Stevens wins the day.

 

Truth, Fact, and Meaning

The things we are most certain of mean the least to us.  The things that mean the most to us, we are least certain of.  The difference is between fact and truth.  We are certain of facts, we believe truths.  A chemical redox equation can be duplicated anywhere, any time, and the results will be the same.  A redox equation is fact.  But does it mean anything to us how may electrons switch valences?  Of course, the batteries that depend on redox equations power our cars and cell phones, and they matter a great deal to us.  But the certainty of the equation itself doesn’t matter much to me.  On the other hand, the fact that there are eternal consequences to the way I live now matters a great deal to me.  The truth that there is a loving Creator watching over me, leading me, guiding me towards eternally lasting happiness matters a great deal to me.  But the existence of God is a belief, not a provable fact.  The reality of eternal life is also a belief, not a provable fact.

I grew up in a family that thought only science was truth.  Even art was devalued.  Math, engineering, chemistry, mechanics–these were the things that mattered.  These were the things they called truth.  The meaning a person finds in a poem, was not considered truth.  In fact, it wasn’t considered at all.  In the Turgenev novel I’m reading, the nihilist Bazarov deprecates belief, the arts, and aristocratic values.  He believes in nothing.  This abandonment of belief thrusts him into science.  He thinks that only science is certain.

But there is much truth in poems, like Robert Frost’s The Mending Wall.  “Something there is that does not love a wall.”  There is a feeling in us that wants connection among fellow humans and doesn’t love walls that come between us.  But Frost is an artist, not a scientist.  I don’t think it can be proven that there is a human antipathy to walls that come between us.  But I agree with Frost.  I believe he is correct.  The Mending Wall means more to me than the existence of quarks.  Quarks can be proved, Frosts truths can’t.  Neither can God’s love for humanity, nor the reality of afterlife.  But even if the things that matter most to me can’t be proven, my life is more fulfilling when I act upon the truths I believe.  I don’t see how science can direct me to a full and fulfilling life, even if the facts it discovers are provable.  The things that matter most to humans are not provable; the things that are provable hold least meaning to us.

Poetry Lives!

Prose about poetry.  A few years back, my church held a celebration of the arts.  We were invited to bring personal art works for sale at our national gathering.  I brought some CD’s and some booklets of poetry.  I sold some CD’s but hardly any poetry booklets.  By way of consolation, one minister told me that people just aren’t reading poetry anymore.  He told me that poetry is a lost art.  About a year ago, I placed 3 of my poetry books on the “local writers'” shelf at a bookstore near where I live.  One book is gone, to date.  I sadly had to agree with the minister, that poetry is a lost art.

Then I noticed other evidence.  In my own blogging, I usually get a better response of likes when I post a poem, rather than when I post prose.  I visit the sites of the likes I receive, and, to my surprise, there are a lot of people out there also writing poetry.  Good poetry.  I also used to go to a late night coffee shop which held a poetry night once a month.  There was usually quite a good turnout for these poetry nights, and there were a lot of local poets sharing their verses.  I found out that there are other coffee shops in town which do the same thing.  And I have to mention hip-hop.  While some of the rhymes are simple, there is strong rhythm, and solid rhyme.

Then there are those university poetry journals.  Wallace Stevens started the trend to write verse that an ordinary reader can’t understand.  I am an educated reader, otherwise ordinary, and I can’t understand these poems.  I don’t mean that the ideas are complicated, or that they use big words–like T. S. Eliot, whom I do understand.  Rather, the verses are not ordinary sentences, with subjects, verbs, and objects.  The poets I’m talking about deliberately craft sentences in which the words don’t go together.  Why they would want to do that, I don’t understand, don’t care to understand.  But the poetry I read online, that I listen to in the coffee houses, that I hear in hip-hop songs I do understand, care to understand.

Robert Frost said that strong feeling is the beginning of poetry.  With the cultural apathy we seem to be surrounded by, I find strong feeling in the poetry that I encounter.  Underneath the political rhetoric, the apparent nonchalance of people you run into, the apathy to organized religion, there is strong feeling.  One poet writes, “Indifference is by far the least/I have to fear of man or beast.”  I disagree.  Indifference is a virus that infects the human spirit and leads to spiritual death.  But if poetry lives, humans live.  Poetry lives because humans live.  And that minister wasn’t right.  Poetry isn’t moribund.  It is alive, lively; it lives.

Faith in Unbelief

I am one struggling to have faith in unbelief.

Contrary to many, I feel that religion is a positive force in the world.  Where else will a person find teachings that oppose the excessive consumption, greed, and vanity of western capitalist culture?  Where else will a person be valued not by the clothes they wear, but by who they are?

The May meeting of the Faith and Order Convening table of the National Council of Churches of Christ USA just concluded.  There are 38 different Christian denominations that are members of the NCCC USA.  I think that we do a pretty good job of working together considering the differences among our 38 denominations.  Some may find it hard to believe that there are 38 different Christian denominations–and I don’t think that there should be.

As a Swedenborgian in the NCCC USA, I have an uphill battle.  Despite the good will we have for one another, there are still religious prejudices.  Although there is an impressive list of poets, philosophers, and literati who have been avid readers of Swedenborg, the Swedenborgian connection has been actively suppressed.  Scholars and theologians don’t want a Swedenborg in their world.

For things like this, and other division-causing reasons, some have turned away from religion.  Perhaps many.  As a believer, this concerns me.  Religion has taught me so much wisdom, and has guided me out of hellish behaviours that I can’t imagine life without it.

But spiritual people, who aren’t religious, do find guidance and a higher power.  Where, I wonder, and how do such people find their way to God?  I know that God flows into every heart and mind and guides.  Even without God, people live good lives and have conscience.

I would have to have a trust in humanity to believe that without the nurture of religion, people will find their way to a life dedicated to others, and not themselves.  To believe that unbelievers have it in them to save themselves and the world around them, and to care.  Robert Frost puts it well, “Whether we have it in us to save ourselves unaided.”  It’s that “unaided” that gives me pause.  Without God, without religion, where does humanity find that power to save–save themselves, and the world?

I am one struggling to have faith in unbelief.