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.

FACES

“A man is another man’s face”

An observation I first saw in Michael Harper’s poetry 33 years past

I remember

And find time after time T. S. Eliot’s time

“To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.”

Eliot even put pale green make-up on his own

Public face

Mask, theatre

The laugh that guy put on in the blues bar

Which signified a laugh more than was one

Signifier, signifiée, semiotics

To my mind

A sign of distance from the center

Signifying

Too much bar

Too much beer

In the sound signifying a laugh that he put on

I was there that night in the blues bar, as so often

Remembering an intense, intensive week for me, year after year

Together face to face all day and into the night

And there’s no putting on of anything

Paulhaven Children’s Camp Pastor, Rec Staff, Cooks, Teens

Campfire, sacred flame, circle, singing

Sacred space, sacred time

They will always remember

Year after year until adulthood when youth and camp end, community yet remains

They remember

I will always remember

I remember

3AM conversations with a few staff around the campfire

When it all comes out

And there’s just us, talking, looking at the fire

And 3AM

But now it’s 3 AM in the blues bar, drinks done

Remembering the laugh that guy put on

The face I put on to meet the faces I meet when they compel a face from me

And the campfire burns only inside me

Behind the faces I now wear

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.

T S Eliot and the Absolute

In The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock, one theme is the interplay between self and other.  The narrator appears to be overpowered by the social forces with which he interacts.  He is “fixed in a formulated phrase,” “pinned and wriggling on the wall” by others.  His constant refrain–“Do I dare,” “How should I presume?”

But there is more than spinelessness at work here.  The narrator is on the verge of asking, “An overwhelming question.”  Some think that he is going to propose marriage.  But Eliot and the narrator are possessed of greater depth than nervousness about proposing.  The overwhelming question is, in fact, religious.  The fear is of bring up deep matters in a superficial environment.  How should I presume?  The narrator has “wept and fasted, wept and prayed.”  The narrator is about to break the complacency of a tea party,

Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,

Should say: “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.”

I recently wrote about being true to oneself regardless of social pressures to conform.  But I must confess that there are environments in which a person can’t be oneself, especially when one is particularly spiritual.  When one is in a superficial environment, one can’t really talk on a depth level.  It would not be received.  One would be ridiculed, ignored–as in Eliot’s poem–even be met with anger.  Try being a divinity student in a bar.  The social disjunct, the ridicule, the inappropriate context all make it nearly impossible to be spiritual in a secular environment, a secular world.  How should I presume?

Eliot himself was Prufrock.  He kept his Christianity to himself until his reputation was firmly established.  Then he converted to Anglo-Catholic Christianity publicly and wrote Four Quartets.  At that point his literary career became a bit suspect.  And much of his later work, like The Cocktail Party, is bland to the point of being insufferable.

But I am a fan of Eliot.  And as a Swedenborgian, I know what it is like to have a deep spirituality that one can’t speak of in most public venues.  I have expanded my social network to include an interfaith organization, an interdenominational Christian organization.  And in these environments I can be openly Swedenborgian and be well-received.  But in the blues club, in 12-step organizations, in casual environments I seem to need to keep it all inside.  It isn’t a matter of fear.  It is more a matter of good taste.  I would not abandon my Swedenborgianism, it’s just something others don’t care to hear about, and I respect the others with whom I socialize.  In Jacob’s dream, the angels ascended and descended the ladder–they didn’t stay always at the top.

Self and Other

T. S. Eliot writes about the power we can give to others.  We can let others tell us who we are.  Eliot’s poetry goes:

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,

Then how should I begin

How do we begin to declare who we are when others decide who we are, treat us according to their understanding of us, and pin us to a wall?  When I was in high school, there were jocks, bikers, and hippies.  I identified with the hippies and looked like one, but my best friend was an all-state wrestler.  We can see ourselves according to the category we fall into.  In high school, pressures are extreme when it comes to emotional survival and identity.  And the answer to self and other can become identification with a peer group.  Then where is the self?

Things continue in this vein when we enter adulthood, though with less extreme pressure.  People can become identified with their role in life.  How others see us can depend on the money we make, the job we do and how important that job is, the things we possess, our social graces, our families.  I remember when I had graduated with a master’s degree and did’t know what my next step in life would be.  I was applying to Ph.D. programs, but didn’t know if I would be accepted.  This period of uncertainty occupied about 6-months.  I didn’t have an identity.  When people asked me what I do for a living, I didn’t have an answer, and people didn’t know what to do with me.  I know of people whose life centres around their family.  Their primary relations are with their spouse and children.  Some of them do not know how to relate to the world outside their families.

The question is one of self and other.  How do we relate to others?  When a person expends much effort creating a public persona–buying the right things, talking in the “in” language–and this includes the social graces, functioning in a profession that grants prestige and dignity, one can actually become very lonely.  One’s soul no longer communicates with others in an honest way.  In religion, this would be called “worldliness.”  There are other issues.  Some indulge in substances.  Consider drinking.  A whole culture surrounds drinking.  There are drinking games.  There are drinking parties–knowing how to party can be important.  There is a whole bar culture that any alcohol commercial sells.  Then there is a luxury car that says exceptional people make the rules–they don’t follow them.  But buying that car is what makes a person exceptional, along with following the surfing culture which is a “cool” thing to do.  These examples show how identity is falsely created by dependance on things external to the self.  Self can be very lonely when one depends on extrinsic things for identity.

Self confidence gives one the freedom to be authentic.  And this means being authentic with everyone–spouse, friends, co-workers.  An old rock group sings, “You know who you are, you don’t give a damn.”  I asked a native elder about moving away from home and loneliness.  His response was similar.  “If you are firmly grounded in who you are, there is no loneliness.”  Being who one truly is, and encountering other in that capacity is the only solution that gives true relationship and community.