What makes a work of art satisfying? What is the difference between a poem we call mawkish, or overly sentimental, and a poem that carries the right amount of sentimentality and wit? How do we judge or evaluate these questions of taste? Aside from all the contentious feelings that immediately crop up when considering questions of taste – questions of taste are elitist, say, or only matters relevant to a leisured bourgeoisie – how do we evaluate a work of art? What criteria do we invoke? Is there such criteria?
Charles Wegner writes, “Fundamentally, human beings are capable of aesthetic satisfaction because they are intelligent, imaginative, active, and percipient beings, not because they are educated, ‘cultured,’ leisured, or ‘artistic.’ If we can at least hesitantly agree with this proposition, then we might ask, What is it about a poem, a work of art, or a piece of music, that can inspire in its listener, viewer, or reader an aesthetic satisfaction that brings the participant back for another viewing, listening, or reading? What makes something beautiful, or sublime? How do we even talk about such a thing? And if the work of art is not sublime but kitschy, how do we make that distinction? How can we make a distinction between kitsch and art when history sometimes blurs that distinction?
Here are two excerpts from poets who are not read widely anymore. The first is by Delmore Schwartz, the second by Algernon Swinburne. Both make heavy use of rhyme, meter, assonance and alliteration. Yet the Schwartz excerpt, I would argue, is mawkish and bloated, and the other is sentimental and beautiful. Since both poems are utilizing the same techniques, what makes one poem successful, and the other unsuccessful? What is the difference between a “good” and “bad” sentimentality?
A tattering of rain and then the reign
Of pour and pouring-down and down,
Where in the westward gathered the filming gown,
Of grey and clouding weakness, and, in the mane
Of the light’s glory and the day’s splendor, gold and vain,
Vivid, more and more vivid, scarlet, lucid and more luminous,
Then came a splatter, a prattle, a blowing rain!
And soon the hour was musical and rumorous:
A softness of a dripping lipped the isolated houses,
A gaunt grey somber softness licked the glass of hours.
O heart of hearts, the chalice of love’s fire,
__Hid round with flowers and all the bounty of bloom;
__O wonderful and perfect heart, for whom
The lyrist liberty made life a lyre;
O heavenly heart, at whose most dear desire
__Dead love, living and singing, cleft his tomb,
__And with him risen and regent in death’s room
All day thy choral pulses rang full choir;
O heart whose beating blood was running song,
__O sole thing sweeter than thine own songs were,
____Help us for thy free love’s sake to be free,
True for thy truth’s sake, for they strength’s sake strong,
__Till very liberty make clean and fair
____The nursing earth as the sepulchral sea.
I find the first excerpt, by Schwartz, dull, childish, jarring, and juvenile. Many of the sound plays – rain with reign, “luminous” rhymed with “rumorous” – seem ostentatious, more interested in calling attention to themselves than doing any work in the poem. “Where in the westward gathered the filming gown” might seem at first glance like a powerfully eloquent line, perhaps because of its feverish meter, but on further investigation should strike the sensitive reader as pretentious and bombastic, an overly fancy way of talking about fog. Much of the poem’s play with sounds strike me as similarly overly fancy and foggy – they do not seem like necessary stylistic or technical choices, but rather razzle-dazzle meant to distract the reader from the actual weakness of the poem. The first seven lines, which are all one sentence, exhibit a breathlessness that borders on hysteria; one feels Schwartz is working himself into fits, but one isn’t sure why. It’s as if the poem’s philosophy is that “good poems must be intense to the point of hysterics,” or that “a real Romantic poem must rhyme and make heavy cooked use of meter.” But neither of these assertions is necessarily true. Perhaps this is why the poem, in my book, fails to move or please. It is sentimental in the “bad” way, in the sense that it is hysterical without providing pleasure for the reader. It is pathetic (embarrassing) without being pathetic (full of pathos).
Swinburne’s poem, on the other hand, while seeming perhaps to partake in all the vices characterized in Schwartz’s, does not partake, I would argue, in a single one. (I think Swinburne is in line for a re-consideration, if he isn’t already. He can be absolutely wonderful.) It is a beautiful and strong poem, though sentimental, but why and how? We might say that all its stylistic decisions are commensurate to its content – that its form and style – sentimental as they may be – are equal to its soaring diction, and that it is eloquent rather than bombastic. “O heart of hearts, the chalice of love’s fire” is a wonderfully rich and varied line, full of interesting vowel variations. It somehow manages to speak about the most clichéd subject – love – in an interesting way – as a cup that holds fire. What a powerful image! The rhymes are not ostentatious, but unadorned and lovely. One senses that Swinburne is dealing with complicated subject-matter, and the poem is not an easy read. But the poem’s complexity in its discussion of love is part of its pleasure. The subject of the poem is mysterious – “the heart of hearts” – a burning inner core within the metaphysical heart, out of which desire and passion stem and stream. Yet despite or because of the mysteriousness of the subject, we are given images that are equally mysterious, provocative and enigmatic: flowers “hid round” it, together with “all the bounty of bloom”; a heart “at whose most dear desire / Dead love, living and singing, cleft his tomb”, (meaning, if you can pardon the clumsy summary, a heart powerful enough to awaken or resurrect in tired dead hearts a passion again); a heart whose very “beating blood was running song.” These are very eloquent and un-ostentatious lines. They shadow forth great strength in a pounding pulse, while utilizing the same techniques that Schwartz uses to such a detriment in his poem – rhyme, assonance, alliteration, rhythm. They are sentimental in the richest, fullest sense, as lines in a poem that are moving, beautiful, wrenching, and captivating.
It is for this reason that I have never placed too much value on generalized arguments that “rhyme,” say, “is always too conventional, too elitist,” or that free-verse, according to Frost, is like “playing tennis with the net down.” In the hands of a skilful poet, rhyme might be the best technique for conveying the complexity and beauty of her thought; in the hands of a different poet, free-verse might provide the poet with adequate freedom to explore the possibility of meaning in longer or just more “free” extended lines. These arguments depend upon the time-period and the countervailing trends. Yet such choices are also contingent upon the powers and predilections of the poet. They do not, in and of themselves, make a good or bad poem. In other words, as these examples hopefully make obvious, it just depends upon how such technical devices are used. (In the same sense, then, sentimentality is not a good or bad thing. It’s just the way in which it is invoked and evoked.)
What about visual art? What makes Thomas Kincaid’s paintings of houses such easy targets for ridicule, while a Hopper painting is interesting and powerfully enigmatic? For your viewing pleasure or displeasure, here is a Thomas Kincade painting, following which is the Hopper.
Both paintings make use of the same general techniques: they are interested in line and color, shape and texture, mood and tone – just as Schwartz and Swinburne are interested in line and rhythm, sound and diction, form and tone. But the way these painters use these categories is radically different, leading to a radically different product.
So: what makes the Kincade painting bad, and the Hopper painting wonderful and haunting? (Apologies to the art history majors out there, for whom this comparison probably strikes one as obvious and juvenile.)
We might start with a question about expectations. What do we turn to art for? Do we look at a piece of visual art in order to have our weaker convictions confirmed, or decimated? Kincade’s painting, I would argue, confirms a tepid taste for art. It is condescending, meaning it does not have very high expectations for its audience. It is an overly sentimental, mawkish representation of a house that could not exist, for nothing in the real world could be so garish. The colors do not accentuate the life or vividness or story of the house, but rather simply call attention to themselves, like Schwartz’s line about the fog. It is an infantile painting that feels mass produced, but not in an interesting Warhol-esque way, with interesting ramifications for such mass production – rather, the painting seems to prey on the audience’s desire for some kind of complacent cozy satisfaction. It does not even have the relevant quaintness to be considered a relic of folk art. This is a bad painting, and it is acutely unpleasant to look at. It hurts the eyes, while doing nothing for thought. It seems to put an end to thought, rather than provoke a beginning. It strikes one as lazy, as exactly the kind of thing you would expect. Therefore, in an odd way, Kincade’s painting meets our expectations, yet these expectations are low ones, the kind we might have when entering into a depressing nursing folks home or hospital. Rather than taking us out of ourselves, it simply confirms the weakest of our expectations. It is, in this sense, the opposite of strange.
Now look at the Hopper. The house is immediately striking. It looms above the railroad tracks like some ancient, gaunt grandfather. It seems to partake simultaneously of the actual world and of the vision of the painter – like the Kincade painting, I suppose, although here the artist’s vision is mature, idiosyncratic, and very mysterious, as opposed to childish, conventional, and disgustingly familiar. It is strange how the house appears above railroad tracks, which heightens the sense of isolation in the painting, a kind of distance that is both haunting and surprising. Kincade’s house is surrounded by all the bathetic coziness you would expect for such an unimaginative painting – flowers, bushes, trees, an old fence. Hopper’s house, on the other hand, is completely alone. There are no trees, shrubs, or flowers. It is not a house one could easily imagine. This mood of austerity is heightened by the dramatic way in which light falls on the house, and the painting seems to be on the borders of something surreal, something out of De Chirico maybe. Perhaps, then, one of its virtues is its compelling strangeness, its difficult-to-place beautiful oddness in the virtually empty landscape that Hopper chose to represent. It is idiosyncratic, and it defies the viewer’s expectations, while simultaneously supplying these expectations with large doses of viewer pleasure. It is simply a massively wonderful painting. Like Swinburne’s poem, it uses the techniques of its art form to create something marvelously new. Yet it is not exactly sentimental, so much as marvelously puzzling – it seems to raise just as many questions as it answers, and in doing so, provides its unique and enigmatic pleasures.
Yet it is not only strangeness in and of itself that makes for a compelling read or viewing experience. There are many strange poems out there that miss the mark, that make a virtue out of strangeness without making that strangeness compelling. For that reason, I want to make our first virtue of satisfying art be a compelling strangeness. (This idea is not original; Harold Bloom, for example, has written much about aesthetic uncanniness in the same way, and much of the Russian formalists’ work on the familiar-made-unfamiliar strike a similar note.) It is the difference between Ashbery’s greatest poems, and the poems of many of his imitators (including me). It is also the difference, I would say, between the best songs of Bob Dylan, and the worst, or between the great novels of William Faulkner versus the so-so novels of John Steinbeck. It is a strangeness that pulls us out of ourselves. When we return, we are different; we have changed. It is makes the quality of the greatest aesthetic work so idiosyncratic. I cannot imagine another Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson, because each is so fully and astonishingly their selves. A compelling strangeness, therefore, is as deep as ontology. It is an ontology and an epitstemology, and it gets at the heart of what makes art satisfying versus disappointing. The marvelous, the wonderful, the provocative, the sublime, even the beautiful, all fall under the rubric of compelling and strange. It is for this reason that a truly poignant and authentically weird work of art is the most satisfying of all.
The last poems we looked at, successful and unsuccessful, were both fairly ostentatious – they dealt with assonance, alliteration, rhyme and meter in a somewhat heavy hand, which might strike a modern reader as somewhat overwrought. Is there a way to produce a compelling strangeness that is not ostentatious so much as vividly, lucidly, fully austere, like Hopper’s house? How do we describe, for example, some of Wallace Steven’s late work, or for that matter, the poems of a young Allen Grossman? For both poets can be marvelously strange, and yet their compelling strangeness is different stylistically and aesthetically from Swinburne’s – equally mysterious, but somehow barer, less baroque, more hauntingly Protestant, though still convincing. Let’s look at an early poem by Grossman first, called “The Room,” from his wonderful book, Sweet Youth: Poems by a Young Man and an Old Man. “The Room” reads,
A man is sitting in a room made quiet by him.
Outside, the August wind is turning the leaves of its book.
The door is open, everything is disclosed, each leaf, all the voices.
The man is resting from the making of the quiet in which he sits.
The floor is swept, his books are laid aside open, his eyes are open.
All the leaves and voices are outside in the restless wind.
Soon he will rise, or take up a book, or someone will enter;
Or, perhaps, a leaf will come across the threshold, or a voice
Will blunder through the room, blind and unanswerable on its way elsewhere.
But now the room is quiet as the man has made it.
Everything in its place is at rest inside the room.
And the man is at reset, seeing each leaf, and hearing all the voices.
What is this poem about? Why is it, as I believe it is, so beautiful?
I think the answer to this question lies for this poem in a certain remarkably dramatic simplicity that, for all its lucidity, is more strange because so simple. The poem is ostensibly about a topic that might in another context reduce its audience to yawns and tears: a man, sitting in a quiet room, doing nothing. One can be forgiven, then, if, upon hearing what this poem is about, they might imagine something written by Nicholson Baker. But in this case, such an interpretation would be far from the truth. For the first part, the poem is not funny; actually, it’s incredibly serious. And secondly, the poem is not about minutia, so much as it is about minutia’s opposite: the profundity of the sublime, the sublimity of a kind of high contemplation. It is as though Grossman, with a beginner’s mind, starts with first principles; and the simplicity of the poet’s mind, reflected in the work, is beautiful, captivating, and seemingly artifice-less.
For these reasons, this is arguably one of the most peaceful, startling poems I have read in a long time. It is so exquisitely simple, both thematically and stylistically; and yet the poem conveys the great weight of thought, the great weight of contemplation going on in this man, this poet perhaps, who makes the Stevensian quiet in which he sits. There are many, many Stevensian echoes: the “turning” of the leaves echoing Stevens’s “Domination of Black,” the reference to a man sitting near books reminiscent of Stevens’s “Large Red Man Reading,” and the whole barren emptiness of the lines absolutely influenced by Stevens’s late and exquisitely modulated plangent-with-simplicity work in Auroras of Autumn and The Rock. Grossman, like Stevens and Yeats, weaves a profound tapestry out of the simplest of words – “man,” “book,” “leaves,” “wind,” quiet.” It is for this reason, perhaps, that his poem is so strange – not because the imagery is necessarily alien, but the echoes of the imagery as they accumulate in the lines is haunting, compelling, and very difficult to forget. It stays with you, even as you put the poem down; it lingers like a powerful novel, or a song that you cannot get out of your mind, because it is so overwhelmingly beautiful; (I think of the chorus of Bob Dylan’s “Nettie Moore,” from his late album Modern Times).
What about Stevens? How do we even discuss his haunting late work, which makes Swinburne look even more decadent? Here is “A Quiet Normal Life,” from The Rock.
His place, as he sat and as he thought, was not
In anything that he constructed, so frail,
So barely lit, so shadowed over and naught,
As, for example, a world in which, like snow,
He became an inhabitant, obedient
To gallant notions on the part of cold.
It was here. This was the setting and the time
Of year. Here in his house and in his room,
In his chair, the most tranquil thought grew peaked
And the oldest and the warmest heart was cut
By gallant notions on the part of night –
Both late and alone, above the crickets’ chords,
Babbling, each one, the uniqueness of its sound.
There was no fury in transcendent forms.
But his actual candle blazed with artifice.
It is as if Stevens and Grossman’s poems were talking to each other – as if Stevens’s poem provided the context for Grossman’s poem, explaining the reason why and how the man in Grossman’s poem achieves such masterful quiet. For in Stevens poem, which is also very quiet, we are given a glimpse into a certain conflict, a conflict that has faded in a magnanimous, noble way, but faded nonetheless into night, into the present that Stevens calls “here.” That conflict has to do with Stevens’s entire poetic enterprise, his interrogation in his previous poems of transcendent forms, of the “bodiless,” of the abstract, of anything whatsoever that could lead the mind away from the present moment and into a kind of shadowy cave of contemplation. Anything notional – any notions of night, or of cold, are for Stevens in this poem too distanced from reality, from the “warm heart.” And yet this diminishing does not produce depression or disillusionment, but rather makes the present stand out more vividly, more starkly, as a kind of “artifice” made “actual,” (another way of talking about poetry, among other things). And that is the achievement of his, as well as Grossman’s poem – their ability to make the present stand out more boldly, with a kind of visceral haunting embodied thrust. In this sense, both Stevens and Grossman’s poems are about poetry – each posits a scene that is half actual, half artificial, in which the sounds of the words produce an incantatory rhythm that creates the quiet in which they stir. They are so quiet, they are almost – almost – surreal, though these are not surreal poems. And both poems interrogate the very strange notion of no notion – of a sort of quiet in which sitting and being is enough, in which thought itself is made aware of its own eventual demise. Both poems are therefore compellingly strange, for they interrupt our thought, pull us out of ourselves, and return us to ourselves, so that we may see ourselves, as Stevens writes, “more truly and more strange.” They are just barely sentimental, yet they are profoundly moving. In exploring what eloquence looks like when it is reduced to first factors, they give the reader a zen experience of head-shaking clarity, austerity, and, in the Stevens poem, a haunting elegiac strain of loss.