The Arts: Literary
Falling asleep to Chopsticks and waking to Chopin
A chance to hear and read three poets in January
The titles of some artworks add meaning. Others are just for identification. But in poetry, a title can be part of the work. Reading "Sit-ups with Mr. Johnny Keats," I thought the title a witty metaphor for struggle. It was only midway through 2009’s Utah Book Award for Poetry winner Lance Larsen’s account of his family’s visit to a cottage in England, where the great Romantic actually wrote some of his most-loved verses, that I realized, among “school teachers / from Des Moines brushing past us to intone / Beauty or Truth? before a faded copy of a copy / of the poet,” that Larsen meant it literally. Who, after all, hasn’t watched an oblivious child, full of a newly acquired skill that matters because it is hers, indulge herself in it with a fascination that ignores the circumstances? “Hold my ankles, okay?” his daughter asks, and does a set right there, on the cottage floor, the only one in how many years as alive to herself as Keats was when he lived there. It’s the kind of moment Billie Collins would build a poem around, but different in that Larsen’s preferred subjects are his wife, children, and the everyday work of being a family in surroundings familiar to us all.
As noted elsewhere in this issue, someone is always announcing the death of an art: the novel, painting, serious music. Those “slim volumes of verse” continue to appear in surprisingly healthy numbers, constituting one of the more vigorous branches of old-style, not-for-profit publishing. Since few poets make a living at it, anthologies that collect the many diverse modern approaches to poetry also name all sorts of day jobs. Many poets come with agendas: issues that structure their work like a skeleton does a body. And since poetry is like law, excellent preparation for many vocations, one might scratch a teacher, an art critic, or a singer-songwriter and expect to find a poet underneath.
One sign of the vitality of American poetry will be readily—if metaphorically—familar to followers of the visual arts. It wasn’t just painting that split into warring camps with the advent of Modernism. Just as there are painters who still see their art as an extension of centuries of tradition, in which today’s talent stands on the shoulders of previous generations, so there are poets who write long, structurally organized verses that are song-like, introspective, and respectful of individual awareness. Robert Frost is a recognizable example even today, almost half a century after his death. Asked to characterize him in one word, many readers would say “realistic.” But as mainstream painting repudiated realism in favor of abstraction—and a series of idiosyncratic movements that have yet to coalesce into a universally accepted historical progression—so poets split into many experimental movements. One widely accepted way of looking at the major alternatives, the traditional realistic and the urban experimental, is to trace the former from English Romanticism and the latter from French avant-garde. Another sees the choice as whether to focus on experiencing what the poem talks about—its content—or on the material it’s made of—words and forms. Robert Lowell liked to characterize these as “the cooked and the uncooked.”
Where poetry sets itself apart is the way these two inclinations have done what other arts have only attempted: surrendered their antagonism and allowed individual poets to experiment freely, including the liberty to use traditional structures and approaches where it profits them to do so. All three of this month’s visiting poets experiment with verse forms in search of new ways to do what poetry has always done. To take one example, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon was an early proponent of “the bop,” a form similar to the sonnet or the villanelle that Dylan Thomas revived in "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night." It’s exciting to stand today in the relation to these forms that Shakespeare stood to the sonnet while he was setting the standard four centuries ago.
A self-described African-American woman poet, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon (her name is pronounced lie–ray) has published two books of poetry, Black Swan and Open Interval, and received the Cave Canem Poetry Prize in 2001. She teaches English at Cornell University. Her poems begin in her experiences as a black person and a woman, but if they ended there she would only be reacting to how she is seen by others. Instead, she approaches each moment with the courage to transcend immediate danger or reward. Who among us has not been forced to negotiate with the limited present when we’d rather respond with the far greater possibilities we feel are within us? To borrow some words in desperate need of renewal (something poets do every day), when life gives Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon lemons, instead of lemonade she makes sunflowers.
Jill McDonough, author of Habeus Corpus, recently took a break from teaching incarcerated college students through Boston University’s Prison Education Program for a stint as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Much of her writing reflects her interest in the sorts of persons who end up being imprisoned, or worse, in our society, drawing on her own experience and the eye-witness testimony remaining from four centuries of legal executions. Her work advances a belief that even without advocacy, an accurate, detailed presentation of what happens—what is done in our name and to whom—is the least we should have, should insist on. There are no lectures in her poetry, but there are textures that draw the reader or listener into stories that turn out to be far less alien than expected. It’s not necessary to have a position on the issues raised to appreciate the skill of her word use, the vivid experience she conjures, or the connections she makes between what initially seems a marginal part of life, like conflict, and things we take to be its core, like romance.
In Animal Brilliance, his collaborative exhibit with painter wife Jacqui, Lance Larsen’s brief, caption-like lines cannot do what he is capable of. “Savanna zebras, zebras in zoos, / some of us so fleshed in our stripes / we have forgotten why we are hiding” is good, but his true strength is the anecdotal narrative of twenty, thirty, or forty lines in which he argues with himself before finally accepting the wisdom of his circumstances. Yet these epigrams give good reasons to seek his poetry in that longer form, where three “slim volumes” trace the voyage of strangers, one who writes and one who paints, who become a couple and then a family that includes a painter and a poet.
What makes Lance Larsen important might be his ability to remain open to the content he discovers in his subject matter, without infringing his Utah-bred values or forcing either to fit inside the other. But what makes all three of the writers discussed here poets is their shared ability to capture human experience in mid-trajectory, at the moment where the downward fall into mortality precisely doubles the upward flight into transcendence, neither wrenching the desirable from the contingent nor the vision from the fact.
Hints 'n' Tips
Preparing for the Delights and Challenges of Winter Painting
For a landscape painter one of the joys of winter is the exhilarating experience of painting a snow scene in the open air. The excitement of a snow painting is just as much a visual experience as it is about braving the weather. Of course the extreme conditions of winter painting pose a unique set of challenges, but since snow can transform an otherwise mundane subject into something special, it’s well worth the effort.
Before venturing out the snow painter would do well to make sure they are prepared for the worst. The following items are ones I have found useful in adverse winter conditions.
Staying warm is crucial so dressing in layers is a must. A coat with a hood is helpful when the wind blows as well as a hat with a brim to protect your eyes from the sun.
A good pair of snow boots with a thick pair of breathable socks is another good investment. I often use a pair of snow shoes for really deep snow conditions to keep from sinking in up to my waist. One time I was painting with a friend -- who shall go unnamed -- who opted to leave his snow shoes in the 4 Runner because he thought he could just stand out there in his regular boots. About half way through the painting session I heard a shriek and noticed that he practically disappeared in the fluffy stuff. I couldn’t help but mutter something like “I saw that one coming about a half hour ago”! Ha! That’s the camaraderie of painting with friends; it’s all in good fun! Another good trick I learned years ago from painting with Ken Baxter, was to take along a carpet sample about 2 – 3 feet wide to stand on while you are painting; keeps your feet in place while adding an extra layer of foot protection.
One thing about painting in snow is that the light hits your eyes from all directions, sometimes making the painting situation almost impossible. To shade my eyes from the peripheral light that comes in from the sides and the ground I always take along a pair of fit-over sunglass frames that I have popped the lenses out of, and use them if the conditions warrant. Believe me, you look like a dork wearing these, but the relief on your vision is well worth the fashion disaster. An additional bonus for the ladies is that some wisecracking guy in a pick-up truck named “Bubba” doesn’t even give you a second look, thus freeing you up to concentrate on the painting process! These glasses can be purchased from most sporting goods stores, like Cabela’s or Sportsman’s Warehouse.
The next item that is a real must is a hand warmer or two. These also can be purchased at the outlets. Additionally, for hand protection while maintaining the dexterity to paint, I recommend those brown cotton gardening gloves found in every grocery store. You can use them as is, or snip off the ends of the fingers. The best part is that you won’t care about getting paint on them because they are cheap, cheap, cheap! Top that off with a thermos full of your favorite hot winter beverage and you are set to go.
Once you have prepared for the weather you can turn your attention to the more weighty matter of painting a snow scene. Let me end with several tips.
When painting snow the biggest error is to paint it using white paint alone. The fact that snow is supposed to be “white” can confuse the mind and cloud the judgment. It’s the same problem in painting a gold or silver vase; gold and silver paint won’t do the job. It’s the way gold and silver look in a certain setting and light that gives it its characteristic look. These are highly reflective surfaces that pick up colors and values from their surroundings and that is the thing to look for. The same is true of snow and water, they are highly reflective. So the object is to paint what you are actually seeing and not what you know about a particular material. In painting gold for instance you might see brown, yellow, green or red or any other color, that’s what you put down on the canvas. Same with snow, the color choices are endless, go for what you see and that will be your safest course; then you are really painting! When in doubt of what colors would work on snow, start with colors that are in the sky and work in other colors from forms on the land as well. Observation is always the key, but this idea will get you started.
Remember the value may be something other than what you expect. To illustrate this principle, trudge out into an open snow field on a sunny day. It looks very light until you throw a snow ball and observe the edges of the hole left behind. Often these edges are a step or two lighter than the main body of the surrounding snow; that should tell you something about how light or dark to make the rest of the snow. When in doubt, observe by scanning your eyes across several forms and make comparisons constantly.
Now bundle up and enjoy that winter painting.