Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Picasso applying his hypotheses to the most unlikely places

Picasso is a born chef d’école. His is one of the most inventive minds in Europe. Invention is as clearly his supreme gift as sensibility is that of Matisse. His career has been a series of discoveries, each of which he has rapidly developed. A highly original and extremely happy conception enters his head, suggested, probably, by some odd thing he has seen. Forthwith he sets himself to analyze it and disentangle those principles that account for its peculiar happiness. He proceeds by experiment, applying his hypotheses in the most unlikely places. The significant elements of Negro sculpture are found to repeat their success in the drawing of a lemon. Before long he has established what looks like an infallible method for producing an effect of which, a few months earlier, no one had so much as dreamed. This is one reason why Picasso is a born chef d’école. And this is why of each new phase in his art the earlier examples are apt to be the more vital and well nourished. At the end he is approaching that formula towards which his intellectual effort tends inevitably. It is time for a new discovery. - Clive Bell, 1920

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Two different faces of artists

Art has always two antithetical faces, a medal where one side, for example, would resemble Paul Rembrandt and the other side, Jacques Callot. Rembrandt is the philosopher with a white beard who holes himself up, absorbing himself in meditation and prayer, closing his eyes to better withdraw into himself, holding conversations with spirits of beauty, science, wisdom, and love, and burning himself out in order to penetrate the mysterious symbols of nature. Callot, on the contrary, is the braggart and salty footsoldier, strutting about the square, rowdy in the tavern and caressing the daughters of the bohemians, swearing only by his rapier and his blunderbuss, whose greatest concern is to wax his moustache. Now the author of this book has always considered art under this double personification. - Aloysius Bertrand

Monday, August 22, 2011

How art helps us to live our lives

If almost insensible changes in our moral sensibility take place over time, we perceive them only in the long run (as it is only in 1972 that Ashbery can transcribe the disseminated reflections and decisions generated in him over thirteen years).  For Ashbery, the artwork's union of aesthetic law and the illusion of intimacy, its integration of its symbolic parts into a perceived whole, works a significant ratification of inner selfhood and external possibility - although from it we cannot avoid awaking to the fresh demands of a changed moment.

What is the result of looking at a lyric such as Ashbery's for a reader who believes, with Stevens, that artworks help us to live our lives?  Because a poet wants above all to make, in each effort, something unique and irreplaceable, he would not like to have all his works collected together as conveyors of his ethical sense. It is precisely the individual drive of each artwork, capable of "distorting" the original moral urgency of the artist, that makes moral paraphrase so difficult.  Ashbery, writing on R.B. Kitaj, says that the graphic artist is "constantly scrutinizing all the chief indicators - poetry, pictures, politics, sex, the attitudes of people he sees, and the auras of situations they bring with them - in an effort to decode the cryptogram of the world" [Reported Sightings, 308].  

For the poet, who is no less observant than the graphic artist or the novelist, but for whom the social order has to be conveyed in words rather than through painted images, dramatic scenes, or the interaction of characters, poetry is a place for the decoding of the resistant semiotics of the contemporary.  As the poet's mental accumulation meets the compelling law of form, it is regularized from unintelligibility into a shape that seems "right."  The morality of this act, as Wallace Stevens said, consists in rejecting proposed forms that merely "console / Or sanctify."  Forms that "console" or "sanctify" are concessions to a nostalgic sentimentality.  Parmigianino - and Ashbery after him - refuses the consoling or sanctifying concession implicitly present in transcriptive mimesis, while nonetheless allowing recognizable figuration and emotional intimacy to play dominant roles in his art.

In praising Chardin, Ashbery once wrote of the "magnificent progress" possible as the artist "help[s] the spirit to take a new step":

If one takes the down-to-earth as point of departure and neither makes nor wastes any effort in trying to rise to an exalted or splendid level, every effort, every contribution of the artistic genius goes into transfiguring the manner of execution, changing the language, and helping the spirit to take a new step, thus constituting magnificent progress.  [Reported Sightings, 47]
Part of the "down-to-earth," for poets, is fostering within the lyric poem a climate of mutual trust between poet and reader.  Ashbery here stands between his predecessor in the past, the Francesco he both summons and dismisses, and the fictive reader of his own self-portrait in verse.  He addresses both of his invisible listeners in tones of intimate comprehension and sympathy.  Ashbery's invisible listeners - "Francesco" in fantasy and ourselves in reality - animate the poem from private meditation on an artwork into colloquy with a corresponding other, from the solitude of the lyric chamber to an imagination twinning us with someone more like us than we had imagined.  Poems constitute their invisible listeners as persons who understand, who will complete the expressive circuit of thought and language initiated by an artwork, and who will engage in the imagined ethical modeling of an ideal mutuality. - Helen Vendler

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A sometimes more desirable intimacy

I will be examining how the poet’s strange imagined relation with a listener who is invisible—either because he is divine, or because he exists only in the future, or because he is long dead—can be made psychologically credible, emotionally moving, and aesthetically powerful. But it is not only a neutral depiction of a relation that the poet has in mind: he aims to establish in the reader’s imagination a more admirable ethics of relation, one more desirable than can be found at present on the earth. Such is the Utopian will of these poets, as desire calls into being an image of possibility not yet realized in life, but—it is postulated—realizable. This possibility is brought to life on the page with a tenderness, wonder, and confidence that are borrowed from the closest moments of intimacy in life. Intimacy with the invisible is an intimacy with hope. Reading these poems, we take a step forward in conceiving a better intimacy—religious, sexual, or aesthetic—than we have hitherto known. - Helen Vendler (from intro to Invisible Listeners)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Jacob as a model for Emily Dickinson

Jacob "fleeced" his brother Esau by pulling the wool over their father's eyes.  Jacob had followed his twin Esau into the world, and thus it seemed impossible for him to obtain the blessing of the firstborn.  But Jacob was unwilling to accept his fate passively: he purchased his brother's birthright for a mess of potage and deceived his blind father by throwing a goat's hide over his own smooth skin; thus did he master an apparently irrevocable loss.  The implications of this maneuver had a personal meaning for Emily Dickinson, who had been excluded from the family's quest for honor while her older brother was accepted as "natural" heir to the task of perpetuating the Dickinson family's reputation. - Cynthia Wolff

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Lyric poetry

The kind of poems that manifest musical properties, but are intended to be read or spoken, not sung. They are by and large brief, rarely exceeding a page or two, and have about them a degree of emotional intensity that accounts for their having been written at all. At their best, they represent the shadowy, often ephemeral motions of thought and feeling, and do so in ways that are clear and comprehensible. They not only fix in language what is most elusive about our experience, they convince us of its importance, even its truth. Of all literary genres the lyric is least changeable. Its themes are rooted in the continuity of human subjectivity and from antiquity have assumed a connection between privacy and universality. If this were not true, there would be no point in reading poems from the past. They speak to us with the immediacy that time has not diminished and gauge our humanness as accurately and as passionately as any poem written today. . .but I feel that I've somehow told a lie. Poetry never seems, at least to me, so clear-cut. Not that what I said was wrong—it was just too narrow. - Mark Strand

Monday, August 8, 2011

John Ashbery's version of "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood"

That's the way it goes. For many weeks you have been exploring what seemed to be a profitable way of doing. You discovered that there was a fork in the road, so first you followed what seemed to be the less promising, or at any rate the more obvious, of the two branches until you felt that you had a good idea of where it led. Then you returned to investigate the more tangled way, and for a time its intricacies seemed to promise a more complex and therefore a more practical goal for you, one that could be picked up in any number of ways so that all its faces or applications could be thoroughly scrutinized. And in so doing you began to realize that the two branches were joined together again, farther ahead; that this place of joining was indeed the end, and that it was the very place you set out from, whose intolerable mixture of reality and fantasy had started you on the road which has now come full circle. It has been an absorbing puzzle. (from Three Poems)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Writing as performance, inspiration as animus

It's just the same as when you feel a joke coming. You see somebody coming down the street that you're accustomed to abuse, and you feel it rising in you, something to say as you pass each other. Coming over him in the same way...something does it to you. It's him coming toward you that gives you the animus you know. When they want to know about inspiration, I tell them it's mostly animus. - Robert Frost

Monday, August 1, 2011

Writers & Artists - lives of another structure

There is a moment in the life of Rimbaud when he comes to realize that he is a poet, but that it is not his fault. He writes: “It is wrong to say, ‘I think.’ One has to say, ‘I am thought.’ I is another. Too bad for the wood that finds itself a violin.” For me, that tells all. I haven’t studied the lives of the mystics as closely as I have the lives of the artists but I do see the correspondences. The life of the artist may not be apparently monastic, or holy, but there is the same sense of sacrifice, of vocation, of having been entrusted with something greater and dearer than one’s own happiness. Imagine! To hold something more dear than one’s own happiness. That cannot be a voluntary thing. We want, as much as we can, to be happy. Isn’t this true? Yet there are these strange, luminous creatures who recognize that there is something to which they must submit, in order to be fully realized. It is the wood finding itself a violin. Kafka is another. Another artist as mystic. Another who recognizes this affinity. In his journal he writes, “This tremendous world I have inside of me. How to free myself, and this world, without tearing myself to pieces. And rather tear myself to a thousand pieces than be buried with this world within me.” Again, the calling. Again the gift-slash-curse privileged. The whole life structured toward developing the necessary faculties, the necessary conditions. Rimbaud must be drunk and whoring all the time, Kafka has literally to abstain and deny himself everything. - Yahia Lababidi