Episode 6 of Poetry Fix. Miroslav Holub’s “Ode to Joy.”
In a recent post, I based a discussion about the relationship between the poetic line and print culture on some of Marshall McLuhan’s ideas. I was recently listening to the below lecture by McLuhan and he discussed the effects of the phonetic alphabet. He said that the phonetic alphabet divorced the visual sense from the other senses by emphasizing it above the others. This separation creates the possibility of linearity, the space for “logicians, analysts, classifiers, the individualist pattern of Greek life.” The phoenecian alphabet made possible Euclid, who revealed that visual space is continuous and connected and homogeneous and static. All the other spaces created by the other senses–of touch, acoustics, kinesthesial–all these other senses are discontinuous, resonant and dynamic.” He gives an interesting example to demonstrate this. A boy is on his first flight and asks his dad, “When do we get small?” The “canopy” of the plane limits the field of vision, creates a static environment. The moment a man with a parachute jumps out of the plane, he feels one inch tall.
When McLuhan described linearity (I think he actually used the term lineality…not sure if there’s a difference? Spell check doesn’t recognize the latter, if that means anything!), I couldn’t help but think about the poetic line and the way it is changing. As print culture (and hence the divorce made by the phonetic alphabet) ends, we move from the line, back to the field, back to non-linear, acoustic space.
In my experience, poetry workshops speak about how a poem looks on the page much more often than how the lines work. Perhaps this is describing the move from line (poetic line) to field (the page)? I think this line (!) of thought might yield much as we think about the developments of modern poetry (beginning with Baudelaire and the symbolists/high modernists), though I don’t have much time to chase it down the rabbit hole at this moment. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comment section.
Watch the video. It’s worth your hour.
Episode 5 of Poetry Fix! Louise Gluck’s “Mock Orange.”
Episode 4 now available on YouTube. Wallace Stevens’s poem “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts.”
Mary Karr and I have started a YouTube video series called Poetry Fix. Episode 3 is now available. Twice a week on Mondays and Fridays we’ll upload a 2-4 minute video where we read a poem and briefly discuss it.
We’re trying to pimp poetry for average humans. Any feedback is appreciated. We hope you enjoy. And if you do, consider joining Mary’s facebook page and following her on Twitter (@marykarrlit) for more updates. Also, please forward and spread the word!
Preamble of questions
Is there such a thing as “poetic language?” For example, which of the following words are poetic: Splat, emptiness, selvage, corporatization, loom, sequester, actually, rooster, surmise, demonstrate, fart, interpretation, destiny, tooth, ineluctable, meme, vector, duplicity, comma, consequence, drive, chant, teeter, tumult, fragrant, flounder, forget, suspend? Pick four words of five words from this list you think are most “poetic” and write a four line free verse or rhymed poem, using them.
The shadows of trees are a (loom)
On which you (sequester) your fear,
Containing it through the (ineluctable) (chant) of days,
through the weave, and thread of (tumult).
(Drive) South on routes 1 and 9,
Forsake (corporatization), and
the rotting (tooth) of conscience..
Oh love, (suspend) your adorations until further notice!
The lions (fart) in the sun.
(Fragrant) with longing, I think of them:
Those noble cats, ( teeter) on the heat waves of August,
on the verge of (consequence).
We (flounder), confused by a (vector) of days,
The (duplicity) of math baffles us—
This equation for happiness, this (interpretation)
No tongue can (demonstrate).
What (meme) for despair? (Forget) your body
a (comma) lost in the sentences of night,
Forget how it yearns to a be a semi-colon,
Holding independent but related thoughts together.
Remember the (rooster), the bright red (selvage)
of the East—those feathers cropped towards (emptiness).
The light raises its spurs, where blood (splats )
the wounded windows, (actually), the dawn.
We have used all the words in the list in these six examples. Now suppose we put these six four line stanzas together, using certain “connective” tissue. Let’s see what happens:
Actually, The Dawn
The shadows of trees are a loom
on which you sequester your fear,
containing it through the ineluctable chant of days,
through the weave and thread of tumult.
But drive south on routes 1&9,
forsake corporatization and
the rotting tooth of conscience.
Oh love, suspend your adorations until further notice!
For the lions fart in the sun,
And, fragrant with longing, I think of them.
Those noble cats teeter in the heat waves of August,
on the verge of consequence.
Meanwhile, we flounder, confused by a vector of days.
The duplicity of higher math baffles us—
this equation for happiness, this interpretation
no tongue can demonstrate.
What meme for despair? Forget your body,
a comma lost in the sentences of night.
Forget how it yearns to be a semi-colon,
holding independent but related thoughts together.
Remember, instead, the rooster, the bright red selvage
of the East—those feathers cropped towards emptiness.
Recall how light raises its spurs, where blood splats
On the wounded windows–actually, the dawn.
Now I did not know what I was going to do with these words. I chose four or five words each time to put into one of the six stanzas (quatrains to be more exact). “Actually, the dawn” is the most eccentric phrase in my opinion, So I took that as the title/ It can be read a couple of ways. We could think the speaker of the poem is saying this is the actual dawn. Or We could think the speaker of the poem is correcting an un-spoken error of perception, as in: “No, actually, it’s the dawn.” Actually is a hard word to get into a poem without sounding like a know-it-all. At any rate, I trust in certain liberties of poesis:
1. Metaphor and extended metaphor.
2. Invocation (such as “Let there be light!” We call this an imperative sentence, but it invokes, it wills, it demands—one of the oldest devices of poetry).
3. Animation or personification of the inanimate (light raises its spurs, wounded windows).
I could go on, but, here’s a good question: what the good god hell is the speaker saying? What does he mean? Lyrical poetry can be very dense. It can even be “high gibberish” (a form of ecstatic speech that does not yield readily to a standard meaning, but may create a mood, an orver all emotional or intellectual atmosphere). It does not usually explain. It is not prone to giving information in an overt and easy way. Why does it beat around the bush? Get to it! Say what you mean! Many a person has turned away from lyric poetry because it refuses to do the one thing people seem to insist on: get to the point!
This is exactly where modern poetry wanted poesis to go—to the thing, the object, the point. It wanted a vocabulary stripped of poetic “rhetoric” and overtly flowery speech. At the same time, it wanted the main meat of metaphor: the ability to link utterly different things together and make a connection between them—a paradox of sorts in so far as it was a connection of disconnects (What Rimbaud called a “derangement of the sense”). It wanted to get rid of abstraction: “no ideas but in things.” Actually, it didn’t want to get rid of abstractions (ideas, moods) so much as make abstractions covert. Take this famous poem by Ezra Pound:
At The Station of The Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
This is considered the most famous example of imagist poetry. Note that Pound does not use the verb “are.” In regular metaphor we’d say: The apparition of these faces in the crowd are petals on a wet, black bough. In simile, we’d say: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd are like petals on a wet black bough. Pound allows the reader to make the connection between these disparate things. We don’t look at crowds standing in a subway station or train station and say: Wow… their faces look like flower petals on a wet black bough!” Note Pound uses a semi-colon, a form of punctuation that holds “independent but related clauses together.” Some readers might stress the independence over the relatedness. They might prefer to keep the apparitions of faces in the crowd, and petals on a wet thick bough separate—they might choose not to relate them. Other readers might go to great pains to see the relatedness: it must be raining because the bough is wet and black. Faces blur from a distance in the rain, and become “ghostly” (apparition). What does a crowd and petals share in common? They imply more than one. If things are blurry because of the rain, and you stand at a distance, you might see a similar effect of clusters—pale points of skin against a dark back round, or pale petals against a wet, black bough. IN either case, by removing the “are” Pound gets maximum juice from both the disparity and the linking of these two different orders. Petals are more traditionally “poetic.” Faces in a crowd at a sub way station are not considered a particularly poetic image, and, at that time, such an image would seem the anti-thesis of poetic. Pound has written an essay in these two lines, a great essay on what energy can be created by linking the traditionally “poetic” to the unpoetic. By doing so, he gives a crowd in a subway station the poetic value of flowers, while he makes the way we look at flower petals new. He empowers the new with the old, and the old with the new. Pound got much of this idea from Japanese and Chinese poems, and so we will look at such poems, which do not use metaphor or simile, but, rather, present one thing with a disparate thing to incite the reader to make a connection.
Try using all the words I listed, but first, make six four line stanzas using them at random (not in order). Good luck.
(Note: Picture by Steven Hudson taken from Chicago Art Magazine)
These are my loose translations of a form in Ireland known as “three things there be.” Long before Saint Patrick came, the Irish thought in threes. They were a triune people, with a Celtic triune God, and they, like most Celts, cast spells, and framed their tales by the magic of threes. I have translated some Triads previously translated by the wonderful Irish poet, Thomas Kinsella. I am arrogant after all. *wink*
My good friend, Chris Robinson, has started a YouTube series with Mary Karr called “Poetry Fix.”
I’ve been reading a lot of Marshall McLuhan in the last several months. I know he’s not the most fashionable critic anymore, but I admire his attitude toward culture. I’ve heard some call him a “futurist” but this seems to run directly counter to McLuhan as I read him. If anything, McLuhan is a medievalist who has adapted himself to our futurist culture in order to bring a rather old timey message.
McLuhan created what he called a “tetrad.” The general idea is that for every new medium, four things always happen.
1. The new medium enhances some aspect of us or our life.
2. The new medium obsolesces some aspect of us or our life.
3. The new medium, when pushed to its maximum, ultimately reverses some aspect of our life.
4. The new medium retrieves some past aspect of us or our life.
For example, the car:
1. It enhances speed.
2. It obsolesces the horse and buggy.
3. When there are many cars on the road, it ultimately ends up reversing that speed (in the form of traffic jams)
4. It retrieves the “knight in shining armor” in the form of the boy with the bitchin’ car.
Now pondering on the advance of the press (and now the digital age), I’ve been thinking about the effects of various mediums on poetry (which is itself a medium). When poetry was primarily oral, it was filled with mnemoic devices of all sorts that allowed for it to be memorized easily. Even during the manuscript era, poetry was necessarily oral poetry. Yet with the growth of the printed manuscript, one didn’t have to memorize as much anymore.
I have not done any formal research, but I suspect that as the written/printed word gained ground, the formal constraints on poetry (which were originally there to allow for oral memory) began to fall by the wayside. They were no longer necessary, though it seems the inertia of tradition kept these conventions in place for a while. Once the instrumental use was gone, it was only a matter of time before poets began exploring less oral-friendly forms.
Now, of course, we are entering the digital age, and I suspect the next thing to go (indeed has already gone) is the poetic line itself. Words no longer need the inertia of the line to carry them forward if digital animation can do so. WC Williams (with his visual foot) was already pushing in that direction, as has prose poetry. Is it possible that the poetic line as the bread and butter of poetry may be on its way out?
I would not be surprised if anyone has advanced this thesis before. Could anybody point me to another author who has written on this topic?
(it’s scaffolding) (it’s supposed to be temporary) (the domino effect) (had been forgotten about) (it was in storage) (nobody knew where) (that’s a logging road) (you can see its gutters) (they leave handprints) (they shudder with dolor) (nobody could settle on any particular color) (they meant different things to different people) (for luck) (on the cheap) (stop now) (flesh for sale) (fresh fruit) (insect free) (aquafarm) (moon control) (it was label-resistant) (nobody knew how to embroider it) (it felt like hailstones) (big as tombstones) (it strained everyone’s intelligence) (we had tooth problems) (we’d been flying too much) (our edges were curling) (we were like silt over sand) (we felt as if we were sugar dissolving in lime juice) (it was heavy-handed) (we were covered with treadmarks) (it was cosmetic) (like crystal handcuffs) (we were fish then) (we wanted our ladders) (most of them were rotten) (we can cut down some trees and build new ones) (we can contrive it out of convection) (say you’re a weatherman) (seed them some clouds) (remember how it felt to be scuds on a mountain) (we had good motivations) (like treeroots buckling up sidewalks) (we worked like treeroots) (we’d go anywhere looking for water) (we were hydrologists then) (we had stewpots) (we were fast-breaking) (we were aerosol) (we had currency) (we were paper airplanes) (our creases were in all the right places) (we hadn’t been stratified so many times) (it was because they were eye-minded) (they couldn’t see us) (we weren’t eyefuls) (we were just something to take note of when they weren’t working) (we were like scrimshaw) (you were one of the ones covered with flags and lady liberty) (she was an eyeful) (we were hay rolls) (then we were haywire) (we needed paperweights) (we needed dollys) (it was money-laundering they did as a sideline) (one little cooking fire stirred up all of that cloudcover) (we were walking through a ghosttown) (it was a terrestrial globe) (it wasn’t any bigger than an eyeball) (it was at the bottom of a fishbowl) (there weren’t any fish in it) (the water was gone) (and it looked as if it had been con- signed to oblivion) (do you still have it) (it’s somewhere around) (we tried to put it in a safe place) (in one of the treetrunks) (act like a lumberjack) (show them your blue ox) (your animal companion) (show them the marks left where you merged) (they said they were covered with scruples) (they needed some tearlifts) (you can seed them with dryice) (that will use up all of the liquid assets we have left) (then we can sell off some of the dunking contraptions) (we don’t need them) (we can act the way hummingbirds act) (we can fight the way hummingbirds fight) (you can wear your red vest) (you can wear your red cowboy hat) (it looks awful) (as if it were made for television) (the worst kind) (remember the scripts that were written to teach us something) (past the stratosphere the sky isn’t blue anymore) (we were unteachable) (we were woodblocks) (we lived in a sawmill) (when there was lightning) (it nearly burned down) (we were unwashed) (we were scoured) (we felt untouch- able) (and somewhat equivocal again in our science) (you were always exact to me) (like a storm cellar) (I liked it near your airstreams) (you never called me a social parasite and I felt good about that) (you never said things like the handwriting is on the wall) (you never said we were biding our time) (you weren’t a warden) (you weren’t a damper) (you didn’t live in a chimney) (you didn’t work for management) (we were still under construction) (there were warning signs all over us) (in that shocking pink orange) (like we’d been pickled) (as if we were beets or some other kind of root vegetables) (you weren’t a gladiator) (you weren’t resistant) (you weren’t a virus) (you didn’t know what a firewall was) (sometimes you did do a little fire-breathing) (not like a firebrand) (more like a fire that some- one banked in the evening waiting around until morning) (there were streets of clouds over the plains) (we were ice crystals) (laboratory grade)
|by Dara Wier|
I wanna know which friend will die young, so I can spend more time with them now
by Rachel Glaser
you hurt my feelings so I lie and say,
I do wanna fuck my roommate
I say, We’ve pushed our beds so they share a wall
dirty dishes are inevitable
when you were young and bumped your head on the table
your father would make a show of hitting the table
when you bumped your knee in the doorway
your father would kick the doorway
I wanna know which friend will die
so I can surprise my other friends
we climb into the car, lick the cd
pick the mountain with the most views
L e t ’s t r y p r i m a l s c r e a m t h e r a p y
S c r e a m a s l o u d a s y o u p o s s i b l y c a n
dogs learn terrible truths
teenagers cry over the telephone
C o m e o n , e v e r y o n e t r y !
but no one else will
W h a t e v e r, I say
Y o u r p e r s o n a l i t y w i l l s t a y t h e s a m e
W h i l e m y p e r s o n a l i t y e v o l v e s !
when you got a paper-cut
he’d march that paper to the shredder
I wanna know which friend it’ll be
so I can tease that friend about it
we all did our part in making the bathroom disgusting
one of the cats we hated, one we revered
both we tried to lose on Craigslist
there were so many views I felt ill
on our way to the mountain, the mountain was the view
on the mountain, where’d we been was the view
I met a boy
he had a thing you could put
I had a place you could go
my boobs looked so good I had to show his kitchen
clear stuff was all over his hands
There isn’t even a name for this, I said
That’s how elusive it is
I wanna know which friend
so I can become less good friends with them
MTV had already ended
our parents were still familiar
I’m a feminist, I said to his pillow
That means I get two orgasms and you get one
I pushed the boy’s balls into a shape
Stop making dick art, he said
I pushed them into another shape
I dropped down against the mosque wall
curled my shoulders in
let my feet fall apart
tilting toward the rubble-dusted floor
tried to still my lashes
as rifles came clanging in
their muzzles smelling out scent
heated off a pulse
I was playing dead
between the dead
a beast caught sight of my breath
blew off my face
“Now he’s fucking dead”
– – –
WATER sign of life: can hold a world of fleets at once: requiring a new OCEANOGRAPHY: useful to mimic waves in an assault and hit shore at same time: see also HELICOPTER WAVE: SCHEDULED WAVE: descends from garden hoses to rinse asphalt of brain matter: to rinse body on steel slab prior to shroud: streams on land: in gutters: excellent solvent: ask child you want a toy: then ask you want a grenade: watch him jump and startle: date fronds shaking with rain
– – –
The streets bend toward the Tombs,
a Chinatown of basement doctors,
and funeral parlors, of hell money and paper telephones
for the fire, and LOOK, how the BRANCHes
FLARE with cherry blossoms, how the knees
stay polite in their poetry reading seats.
LOOK, PULSEJET and RAINJET
but no blood jet.
LOOK, my father’s old Econoline, toolbox
for a back seat, his amber ashtray
and undershirts in front of the TV.
LOOK, our worried parents, the drink,
the bathroom with toilet paper chained to a pipe.
LOOK, the girl pushed to the ground
is still lying there, alkali in her mouth.
LOOK, the blindfolded HOSTAGE thinks
of oatmeal and house slippers and
no newspaper in the morning.
I teach myself to say yes
as restaurants collapse
their cold weather doorways and throw open
their windows. Women ride by in shorts,
miles of legs, flanked by bridges
and tunnels, an island
against itself. So often the TELLING
is good enough, is all I have,
the mouth willing to open
to its own surprise. I talk
to strangers on the subway,
even ask about a Dan Brown novel
to keep the face turned toward me.
On the SURVEILLENCE tape
the woman rides down the elevator
with her killer, watching the floors light up
until ground level over and over.
LOOK, the murderer is beautiful,
cheekbones and a white tee
and shoulders he hasn’t grown into yet,
slouched over the interrogation table.
I am the bully in the swivel chair
getting him to confess. I want
to MOUNT him without removing the gun
from his inside his head.
LOOK, my father HOLDs my floppy neck, worried
he’ll break me in those road-laying hands.
My mother brings me home to an Istanbul motel.
I see now how young she is,
how certain, already done
with writing and architecture. It will have to be me
Solmaz’s first publication found in here:
A World Between: Poems, Short Stories, and Essays by Iranian-Americans
DOD Dictionary of Military Terms Highly encourage you look up all the all caps words Solmaz uses in her poems
One of Solmaz’s sources of inspiration Our Lady of the Flowers
Three of Solmaz’s poems at The Association of Iranian American Writers
Solmaz in DIAGRAM
All poems printed or reprinted with permission from the author.
Photo by Bianca Stone.
Writers in the scattered nation of good poetry are, in general, perfectionists. Many greats have been known to be tight-lipped about their process and to publish only what they deem categorically best. Bob Hicok, on the other hand, doesn’t seem worried about perfection. He publishes so prodigiously that it’s hard to imagine he spends any time revising his work. I remember standing in a bookstore a couple years ago grazing among the poetry publications and discovering that he had poems in approximately half of the literary journals—good ones, too. I remember feeling a mixture of jealously, skepticism of various stripes, and stunned admiration for Hicok’s unique voice.
I’ve read a fair amount of Hicok’s poetry since then—and had many opportunities, as he remains a prolific poet. The unfair comparison that occurs to me is James Patterson. But Hicok is anything but the James Patterson of contemporary poetry (if you feel like posting your “James Patterson of Contemporary Poetry Nominee” below, however, please do). In fact, Hicok’s method is quite fluid and authentic. In each of his poems I feel I’m reading a self-documented Gestalt therapy session, lineated and titled as if it were, well, a poem. And because he’s witty, loves language and play with language, and he’s fearless about publishing any mode of speech or linguistic item that in isolation would seem incredibly stupid or embarrassing, these poems are riveting and thought-provoking. Take, for example, “Call me a lyre, I dare you” which appeared originally, roughly lyre-shaped, in the Believer’s November, 2009 issue, and appears in Hicok’s latest collection Words for Empty and Words for Full (Pittsburg, 2010):
Call me a lyre, I dare you
Last or some night
light, who cares the when of this,
glittered the tree up at the end
as the wash from a car as moved the planet, I’m not
in touch with personally Saturn, in branched fingers
of eerily, I’d say off-the-shelf language, isn’t it
necessary still how life lit into the moment
to say other than the facts of it, see,
whatever the bits are inside that oscillate
or pinwheel, I was moved to internal whirring
cicadish, even though my epiphanic dog-walkings
mean shit to you in the throes of your
epiphanic askings of the moon, for what, afterall
are we in this, some random sense of, fuck
if I know, belonging
Although I once heard a line in a movie, “Puns are the death of wit,” and I generally agree, the above allusive pun really works. Embedded in its snarky standoffishness, its grimace- or smirk-worthy reference to Apollo, lies an engaging and efficiently stated constellation of ideas. And beyond this title, Hicok renders his images and utterances in a syntactically awkward but consistently surprising language, with barbed apostrophizing and care to record his own (I do not believe this is a persona, exactly) feelings, relying on a kind of uncanny luck (skill?) to have it stick together in a personable and uncontrived way. In a few words, it works. (Sorry for all the parentheses.)
In Words for Empty and Words for Full (one, of course, of Hicok’s many poetry collections), there is no one type of poem one can expect. Subject matter and formal decision-making are, metaphorically speaking, all over the map. Interesting thinking and writing, however, are everywhere to be found. Ruminating on an either real or imaginary high school friendship in a long prosy piece called “Backward,” Hicok writes:
“Because he ate twice as much as I did, you’ll find an entry in my journal about the appetite of silence. Is silence a form of hunger, I wrote, and then answered my own question: yes and no. Reading back on this now, I am disappointed in the wishy-washy quality of my thinking. I would like to go back and erase that answer. Yes, I would write, silence is a hunger for the anatomy of a moment, for the inside of things.”
Who cares if this last statement is actually true. The process of the prose, the leaps in thought, the strangeness, the comic, the humble, human admission of error, is all entertaining. Maybe it’s poetic junk-food, but Hicok’s willingness to write, and to air to us practically anything of his life or thinking, charms this reader. This is not be true of every such writer, of course, but for him, it generally works.
I say generally because these poems aren’t all base hits. Hicok’s commitment to write about any- and everything leads him down the problematic paths of discussing contemporary politics, the war, and the Virginia Tech shooting—he was teaching there at the time of this tragedy and claims (in the poems) to have had the student responsible. While documenting these historical events in poetry may be valuable for posterity’s sake, these poems are far less interesting and cutting edge feeling than the more personal, strange poems of most of the collection. Perhaps one poem about the shooting. Perhaps one poem about the war—if you must, if you must. But in general these subjects trump considerations of form and deployment of language—in short, they overdetermine the way one reads them, which for the most part ruins the magic of what Hicok does in his poetry.
Consider, for example, the beginning bit of a poem called “Whimper,” in the second section of the four:
Don’t know why the kid didn’t come after me,
I nearly failed him, fail means differently now,
or some other English prof, also dead
is not in our mouths as it was in the past,
we’d have said dead about the place,
now that the semester’s over and smiled
that we have a few months of grass and air
to ourselves, do know why we tried…
And the final bumper sticker-esque lines:
…lost if you need to find us
is where we are.
It is important for poets to function as witnesses, but the poems to which I’ll return in this collection are not the poems that mention Air Force pilots or mentally ill students responsible for on-campus atrocities. I’ll return to the poems that surprise, that don’t give a fuck about my own aesthetic sensibilities because the next poem will be different. I’ll return to poems of moments that document the need to change form, syntax, voice, tone, and everything in order to exist in their present. And fortunately, if recent history can tell us anything, there will be many such great Bob Hicok poems to admire in the future.
V. Art Appreciation
Have you heard the Taoist tale of the Taming of the Harp?
Once in the hoary ages in the Ravine of Lungmen stood a Kiri tree, a veritable king of the forest. It reared its head to talk to the stars; its roots struck deep into the earth, mingling their bronzed coils with those of the silver dragon that slept beneath. And it came to pass that a mighty wizard made of this tree a wondrous harp, whose stubborn spirit should be tamed but by the greatest of musicians. For long the instrument was treasured by the Emperor of China, but all in vain were the efforts of those who in turn tried to draw melody from its strings. In response to their utmost strivings there came from the harp but harsh notes of disdain, ill-according with the songs they fain would sing. The harp refused to recognise a master.
At last came Peiwoh, the prince of harpists. With tender hand he caressed the harp as one might seek to soothe an unruly horse, and softly touched the chords. He sang of nature and the seasons, of high mountains and flowing waters, and all the memories of the tree awoke! Once more the sweet breath of spring played amidst its branches. The young cataracts, as they danced down the ravine, laughed to the budding flowers. Anon were heard the dreamy voices of summer with its myriad insects, the gentle pattering of rain, the wail of the cuckoo. Hark! a tiger roars,—the valley answers again. It is autumn; in the desert night, sharp like a sword gleams the moon upon the frosted grass. Now winter reigns, and through the snow-filled air swirl flocks of swans and rattling hailstones beat upon the boughs with fierce delight.
Then Peiwoh changed the key and sang of love. The forest swayed like an ardent swain deep lost in thought. On high, like a haughty maiden, swept a cloud bright and fair; but passing, trailed long shadows on the ground, black like despair. Again the mode was changed; Peiwoh sang of war, of clashing steel and trampling steeds. And in the harp arose the tempest of Lungmen, the dragon rode the lightning, the thundering avalanche crashed through the hills. In ecstasy the Celestial monarch asked Peiwoh wherein lay the secret of his victory. “Sire,” he replied, “others have failed because they sang but of themselves. I left the harp to choose its theme, and knew not truly whether the harp had been Peiwoh or Peiwoh were the harp.”
This story well illustrates the mystery of art appreciation. The masterpiece is a symphony played upon our finest feelings. True art is Peiwoh, and we the harp of Lungmen. At the magic touch of the beautiful the secret chords of our being are awakened, we vibrate and thrill in response to its call. Mind speaks to mind. We listen to the unspoken, we gaze upon the unseen. The master calls forth notes we know not of. Memories long forgotten all come back to us with a new significance. Hopes stifled by fear, yearnings that we dare not recognise, stand forth in new glory. Our mind is the canvas on which the artists lay their colour; their pigments are our emotions; their chiaroscuro the light of joy, the shadow of sadness. The masterpiece is of ourselves, as we are of the masterpiece.
The sympathetic communion of minds necessary for art appreciation must be based on mutual concession. The spectator must cultivate the proper attitude for receiving the message, as the artist must know how to impart it. The tea-master, Kobori-Enshiu, himself a daimyo, has left to us these memorable words: “Approach a great painting as thou wouldst approach a great prince.” In order to understand a masterpiece, you must lay yourself low before it and await with bated breath its least utterance. An eminent Sung critic once made a charming confession. Said he: “In my young days I praised the master whose pictures I liked, but as my judgement matured I praised myself for liking what the masters had chosen to have me like.” It is to be deplored that so few of us really take pains to study the moods of the masters. In our stubborn ignorance we refuse to render them this simple courtesy, and thus often miss the rich repast of beauty spread before our very eyes. A master has always something to offer, while we go hungry solely because of our own lack of appreciation.
To the sympathetic a masterpiece becomes a living reality towards which we feel drawn in bonds of comradeship. The masters are immortal, for their loves and fears live in us over and over again. It is rather the soul than the hand, the man than the technique, which appeals to us,—the more human the call the deeper is our response. It is because of this secret understanding between the master and ourselves that in poetry or romance we suffer and rejoice with the hero and heroine. Chikamatsu, our Japanese Shakespeare, has laid down as one of the first principles of dramatic composition the importance of taking the audience into the confidence of the author. Several of his pupils submitted plays for his approval, but only one of the pieces appealed to him. It was a play somewhat resembling the Comedy of Errors, in which twin brethren suffer through mistaken identity. “This,” said Chikamatsu, “has the proper spirit of the drama, for it takes the audience into consideration. The public is permitted to know more than the actors. It knows where the mistake lies, and pities the poor figures on the board who innocently rush to their fate.”
The great masters both of the East and the West never forgot the value of suggestion as a means for taking the spectator into their confidence. Who can contemplate a masterpiece without being awed by the immense vista of thought presented to our consideration? How familiar and sympathetic are they all; how cold in contrast the modern commonplaces! In the former we feel the warm outpouring of a man’s heart; in the latter only a formal salute. Engrossed in his technique, the modern rarely rises above himself. Like the musicians who vainly invoked the Lungmen harp, he sings only of himself. His works may be nearer science, but are further from humanity. We have an old saying in Japan that a woman cannot love a man who is truly vain, for their is no crevice in his heart for love to enter and fill up. In art vanity is equally fatal to sympathetic feeling, whether on the part of the artist or the public.
Nothing is more hallowing than the union of kindred spirits in art. At the moment of meeting, the art lover transcends himself. At once he is and is not. He catches a glimpse of Infinity, but words cannot voice his delight, for the eye has no tongue. Freed from the fetters of matter, his spirit moves in the rhythm of things. It is thus that art becomes akin to religion and ennobles mankind. It is this which makes a masterpiece something sacred. In the old days the veneration in which the Japanese held the work of the great artist was intense. The tea-masters guarded their treasures with religious secrecy, and it was often necessary to open a whole series of boxes, one within another, before reaching the shrine itself—the silken wrapping within whose soft folds lay the holy of holies. Rarely was the object exposed to view, and then only to the initiated.
At the time when Teaism was in the ascendency the Taiko’s generals would be better satisfied with the present of a rare work of art than a large grant of territory as a reward of victory. Many of our favourite dramas are based on the loss and recovery of a noted masterpiece. For instance, in one play the palace of Lord Hosokawa, in which was preserved the celebrated painting of Dharuma by Sesson, suddenly takes fire through the negligence of the samurai in charge. Resolved at all hazards to rescue the precious painting, he rushes into the burning building and seizes the kakemono, only to find all means of exit cut off by the flames. Thinking only of the picture, he slashes open his body with his sword, wraps his torn sleeve about the Sesson and plunges it into the gaping wound. The fire is at last extinguished. Among the smoking embers is found a half-consumed corpse, within which reposes the treasure uninjured by the fire. Horrible as such tales are, they illustrate the great value that we set upon a masterpiece, as well as the devotion of a trusted samurai.
We must remember, however, that art is of value only to the extent that it speaks to us. It might be a universal language if we ourselves were universal in our sympathies. Our finite nature, the power of tradition and conventionality, as well as our hereditary instincts, restrict the scope of our capacity for artistic enjoyment. Our very individuality establishes in one sense a limit to our understanding; and our aesthetic personality seeks its own affinities in the creations of the past. It is true that with cultivation our sense of art appreciation broadens, and we become able to enjoy many hitherto unrecognised expressions of beauty. But, after all, we see only our own image in the universe,—our particular idiosyncracies dictate the mode of our perceptions. The tea-masters collected only objects which fell strictly within the measure of their individual appreciation.
One is reminded in this connection of a story concerning Kobori-Enshiu. Enshiu was complimented by his disciples on the admirable taste he had displayed in the choice of his collection. Said they, “Each piece is such that no one could help admiring. It shows that you had better taste than had Rikiu, for his collection could only be appreciated by one beholder in a thousand.” Sorrowfully Enshiu replied: “This only proves how commonplace I am. The great Rikiu dared to love only those objects which personally appealed to him, whereas I unconsciously cater to the taste of the majority. Verily, Rikiu was one in a thousand among tea-masters.”
It is much to be regretted that so much of the apparent enthusiasm for art at the present day has no foundation in real feeling. In this democratic age of ours men clamour for what is popularly considered the best, regardless of their feelings. They want the costly, not the refined; the fashionable, not the beautiful. To the masses, contemplation of illustrated periodicals, the worthy product of their own industrialism, would give more digestible food for artistic enjoyment than the early Italians or the Ashikaga masters, whom they pretend to admire. The name of the artist is more important to them than the quality of the work. As a Chinese critic complained many centuries ago, “People criticise a picture by their ear.” It is this lack of genuine appreciation that is responsible for the pseudo-classic horrors that to-day greet us wherever we turn.
Another common mistake is that of confusing art with archaeology. The veneration born of antiquity is one of the best traits in the human character, and fain would we have it cultivated to a greater extent. The old masters are rightly to be honoured for opening the path to future enlightenment. The mere fact that they have passed unscathed through centuries of criticism and come down to us still covered with glory commands our respect. But we should be foolish indeed if we valued their achievement simply on the score of age. Yet we allow our historical sympathy to override our aesthetic discrimination. We offer flowers of approbation when the artist is safely laid in his grave. The nineteenth century, pregnant with the theory of evolution, has moreover created in us the habit of losing sight of the individual in the species. A collector is anxious to acquire specimens to illustrate a period or a school, and forgets that a single masterpiece can teach us more than any number of the mediocre products of a given period or school. We classify too much and enjoy too little. The sacrifice of the aesthetic to the so-called scientific method of exhibition has been the bane of many museums.
The claims of contemporary art cannot be ignored in any vital scheme of life. The art of to-day is that which really belongs to us: it is our own reflection. In condemning it we but condemn ourselves. We say that the present age possesses no art:—who is responsible for this? It is indeed a shame that despite all our rhapsodies about the ancients we pay so little attention to our own possibilities. Struggling artists, weary souls lingering in the shadow of cold disdain! In our self-centered century, what inspiration do we offer them? The past may well look with pity at the poverty of our civilisation; the future will laugh at the barrenness of our art. We are destroying the beautiful in life. Would that some great wizard might from the stem of society shape a mighty harp whose strings would resound to the touch of genius.