Auld Lang Syne

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Peter Peter ... ekphrastic writing

I am feeling happy today about photography. Actually CERTAIN photography. I went to the book launch of Peter Ralston's "Islands in Time" at Archipelago/The Island Institute last evening and am in a heightened state of art today because of it. I love the new photographs Peter has done and have several notes for poems. You see, that's it with me and art... for sure the photographs of Peter R. In my 2nd book there are 2 poems and in the 3rd book (just out) there are also 2 poems written in response to his work. So far, over the past four years, I have written ekphrastic poems to nearly 20 of his photographs.I hope there is a collaboration on the horizon there. Stay tuned.

So this takes me to a few ideas about ekphrastic writing. First of all, I love doing it. But the point here is that everyone can do it and ought to try it. Take out your notebook and begin.

This way of writing is not new, just often overlooked. Famously Auden wrote Mus ée de Beaux Arts from Breugel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. In his piece, Auden begins with a clear, head-on statement "About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters: how well they understood/its human position." and then moves to a seemingly literal description of the painting and what it contains. But does he?  It is easy enough I suppose (in the relative lack of ease when writing a poem) to simply describe poetically what one sees. Auden does a bit of this of course but only insofar as the "stuff" of the painting and the message of the painting are heightened by his view of the larger issue: that life goes on despite tragedy overhead.

[side note] For Breugel, there was no instant media, no Wikileaks, no reporters on the scene with cameras and made-up assessment. He chose to make art his message board, his screen. For Auden, who lived in the modern time, there was certainly media reportage, but not the mess we have now, and not the intensity of reporting since 9/11. Both relied upon something that is overlooked now by many: non-electronic imagineering.

I digress. In Auden's poem, he connects the dots in a most amazing way. We get the description paired with what probably or might be going on for everyone going about their routines as Icarus plunges to the sea and is lost. In fact, the actual fall of Icarus is a tiny splash, two white legs above water in the lower right corner of Breugel's painting. Not lost on Auden is the irony of that, and keen for him the responsibility of showing us the folly of being too engaged in the mundane and missing the tragedies all around us:.

... how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash. the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
as it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing. a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to go and sailed calmly on.

It is fantastic what Auden does here with this painting and its message. No mere description at all. No mere message, but a marriage of image and message, a sense of artistic hands clasped across time for high purpose.
I'm no Auden to be sure, and Peter Ralston is not Breugel. But what is common to the asynchronous collaboration is the message and the means. Ralston has a vision through his lens and makes his statement thereby. I take what I see, my emotions or sensibilities stirred to a vision of my own, and make poems. The two of us have not discussed, put heads together on the "message" and come up with any sort of a plan. THIS, dear friends and poets, is why asynchronous collaboration is so beautiful. Sometimes the message is a set of identical twins. Sometimes fraternal.
Always richer when combined. 

What does this kind of writing do for the average poet? In simple terms it provides material. But it is not that simple. The material it provides has already been sieved through the artist's sense of what he/she saw in the first order. From that eye and heart came the art itself, now viewed by the poet. If the poet is good at what he/she does, there will be the notes, with specifics about the painting and the FEELINGS it engendered. Then the poet will step away. Step far away. It is in this removal period that the message and the intensity of the visual will form itself into word, image, and line. The process of writing takes over here and the poet sets about to identify the message for him/herself. When I view a photograph of Ralston's for example, or a painting by Wyeth, I get a jolt somewhere in my gut. I am attracted to one or two images or the way the light makes a point of emphasis. I begin to identify where, in my repertoire of experience or knowledge, there is or has been a similar jolt. The notes I take record the pairing, record the details that caused the jolt, and some ideas about a message. In my poem, In the Haul, I connect  with the hard life of an island wife. Peter's photograph, March, is a rich domestic landscape with laundry hanging on the line as a central feature of the piece and the sea beyond. I couldn't help thinking of the men and boys whose clothes hung there, and who would come home or not from their hard work at sea. I chose to focus on people NOT in the photograph, the chilled existence they bore, the underlying message of how tough island life really is. The photograph is exquisite and rich in color. The lives of the people not in the photo need to be honored in this way, to be given center stage in the drama that unfolds for them every day. As a poet, I could pull them into the photo and give them their due. What excites me here is some of the imagery that came forward to send a different message: use of the laundry as warning flags suggesting danger at sea, the use of words like chilling. Is island life romance and are these folks iconic figures? Not exactly. Not really. True enough that they are rugged (iced and hard-edged). They live a bit out to sea, and are by virtue of that self-sufficient. But their lives are also normal. Women do laundry, they meet as neighbors for coffee and chatter. My message is that. My joy in this particular poem is the people who are not in the photo. Collaboration, confabulation. Poetry does that. 

I am grateful that Peter does what he does, foraging about with his camera in places I don't get to go. He provides me with a boatload (pun intended) of "material" from which my poet brain can derive message and my poet's pen can pass that message along. 

Now it is time to get off the computer and go finish planting. Have I mentioned that the yard is another place where my poet self gets all jazzed and ready to write? Another day, another blog.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Sonnet Part 2

Now I have cooled off a bit from May 22 post when I began a bit of a rant against poets who are tied absolutely and resolutely to the five beat line in sonnets. I've had time to regain a sense of calm. In that time however I did a bit of research into the four beat line, the world of iambic tetrametry, so to speak. I wracked my brain for the sonnet I learned in 6th grade because I THOUGHT it might not have been iambic pentameter. AHA! Today I located it by searching all of Shakespeare's sonnets for the one line I readily recalled: Those lips the Love's own hand did make. Sonnet CXLV! I was very pleased to see this sonnet again.

A quick scansion of the poem confirmed my recall. Iambic TETRAMETER with some trochaic substitutions and an anapest in the line just before the couplet. Whew. Not crazy (not provably crazy anyway). Reading this sonnet again after many years was a pleasurable thing this afternoon. And it is fine indeed to have my thinking about tetrameter upheld at the highest level.

So what to do now about those who would eschew tetrameter? Well, to start with I must promote this meter whenever possible. Keep writing in this most natural of meters. Involve poet friends in use of this metric stance.
And do NOT enter sonnet contests where there is no clear acceptance of the four beat line! Ta Da! Vindication AND a plan!


I had a chat today via email with a former professor and friend on the issue of historical and cultural references, specifically the inability of some contemporary editors or contest judges to recognize them. He stated that his recently published sestina was questioned by the editor who mentioned having to look up things in the poem that related to baseball and WWII. Makes me wonder about the education of this editor in the area of history and popular culture (beyond Facebook and other social networks).  There is a trend that seems to be viral in some readers of poetry: lack of ability to make referential leaps to make meaning. And just as it is a preferred stance for readers to look up words they do not know, why not look up references they do not know? What's wrong with that? It is easy to do and fast in the computer age, the age of Google. But really, who does not know about World War I or II? Who does not know where these wars took place and what the phraseology of these wars was? Who has not at least heard the terms of baseball? Will we as a people be satisfied to only understand terms that apply to warfare of our own age? And even if we do not play and enjoy particular sports, are we not obligated as writers to be aware of its certain and particular phraseology? Gone are the days when reading and knowing OUTSIDE our comfort zones was a given if we were to be teachers and/or writers. But I still admit surprise when I hear stories of this kind. I am discouraged and deflated by such narrow enterprise.

There may be something more pervasive at work here, however. I worry that in this age of teaching to testing, some students may graduate from high schools and colleges without a broad enough knowledge of the world to actually thrive intellectually IN it. In other words they might not know that they don't know. And do they then reject out of hand anything that points out their lack of knowledge? I saw this in many of my students. It is worrying to say the least.

When I was still teaching in the college classroom, I used a supplemental text to help students "catch up" with what they ought to know about reading in order to understand the way professors want them to read. I am of a mind that every high school student  should be given this book upon entering 9th grade and use it through college: How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. The book is a lively read and very helpful for the student who wants to not only know "facts" but how to connect the dots and understand literary and cultural references made in what they read. It is a code-cracking wonder of a book.  There are references made to many and varied pieces of literature, and I believe if a reader would simply list all of them and READ all of them, we'd not have such a divide between reading and education.

Now THAT is something to chew upon, reader, something very healthy for your mind to chew upon indeed!