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Thursday, June 22, 2017

On the Importance of Overcoming Painter Envy

Sardines by Mike Goldberg

A large part of the story of modern art has involved a strange dance between painters and poets.  For much of the 20th century, it’s been a pas a deux, in which the painter and poet have admired and circled one another warily, sometimes dreaming about trading places.  The poet has longed for the painter’s descriptive prowess while the painter has pined for the poet’s facility with abstraction and idea.  The modern artist – whether poet or painter – has been consumed by self-doubt about the efficacy of his or her own expressive potential and felt the urge to transcend the limitation of writing or painting, as the case may be.  This has resulted in some of the most exhilarating art of the last century and at the same time contributed to some of modern art’s most perverse excesses.

Of course I don’t mean to reduce all of modern art and poetry to this story line.  There are many trends and isms that don’t fall neatly under this rubric, from Dadaism and Futurism, to Language Poetry and Spoken Word.  But even so, it does help us understand the broad contours and movements at least within the mainstream traditions of both modern painting and poetry.  Consider the path from Expressionism to Cubism to Abstract Expressionism to Conceptual Art as a steady progression away from simple depiction towards an increasing infatuation with the realm of thought that lies beyond what is immediately visible.  In contrast with painting’s move away from naïve depiction, poetry has moved in precisely that direction, sometimes evidencing a single-minded fixation on imagery as the primary focus of poetic expression.  The grass always does seem greener on the other hemisphere of the brain, at least in the world of modern art.

One of the most telling lessons I learned from my recent attendance at a poetry workshop is that painter envy still seems to be rampant condition among the ranks of America’s most eminent poets.  At least judging by what I heard espoused in the workshop, the pedagogy of poetry today remains stuck on the idea that a poet should, first and foremost, convey meaning through imagery.  The official party line (to the extent that there is such a thing) is showing and not telling makes for the most effective poetry.

As I explained in my prior blogpost, this is a distinctly modern notion about what poetry is and should be; it’s extremely self-limiting, and also at odds with the long and glorious tradition of English language poetry by the likes of Shakespeare, Milton and Donne, who were all masters of both showing and telling.  This narrow preoccupation with showing and not telling originates in the early 20th century with Ezra Pound and the school of imagist poetry that he founded.  Pound’s ideas exerted an outsized influence on the ensuing generation of American poets, for whom the primacy of imagery became a central tenet of their poetics.   William Carlos Williams is a perfect example of this reductive tendency – a great poet who completely succumbed to painter envy, so much so that he fancied and fashioned himself as little more than a cubist, who just happened to paint with words and line-breaks, artfully striving to bring his images to life on the page.  Even a more philosophically minded modernist such as Wallace Stevens (who sometimes chafed under the stricture to show and not tell) espoused the imagist party line – namely that a poet should have a mind of winter, that is a mind capable of beholding (and describing) nothing that is not there along with the nothing that is.   As such, Stevens felt compelled to call his poem thirteen ways of seeing a blackbird, even though he was really talking about thirteen ways of thinking.    This is an approach or theory of poetry that has surrendered itself entirely to what another great modernist described as the ineluctable modality of the visible.

Why should poets – who prior to the 20th century had never felt so constrained – suddenly find themselves stifling the impulse to tell or more directly say what they were thinking?  The entire blame for this can’t be laid at Ezra Pound’s doorstep.  Surely part of the explanation lies in general cultural trends of 20th century, which placed increasing importance and value on visual communication.  As technology developed and mass communication came to rely on photography, movies and television, the world grew more and more saturated with imagery and the written word gradually ceded its place of primacy.  Painter envy became chronic and widespread.  In response to the overall cultural trend, modern poetry’s fixation on imagery may be understood as an attempt (conscious or otherwise) to retain relevancy.      

If so, the focus on showing not telling, as providing a sound theoretical basis for poetry, has been a dismal failure.  In fact, over the same time-span, poetry has been increasingly marginalized, surrendering its once prominent place in general interest newspapers, magazines and the popular imagination; instead it has been relegated largely to the pages of obscure literary journals.  This marginalization is partially self-inflicted as a result of the modern poet’s reluctance to fully speak his or her mind.   Encouraged merely to show and not tell, it’s as if the contemporary poet is being advised to head into a bar fight with one hand tied behind the back. Poetry that privileges seeing over telling ultimately cripples our capacity to express ourselves fully.
The real pity is that this is primarily a failure of theory, not a failure of poetic practice or craft.  Contemporary poetry is much richer in fact than modern poetic theory advises or contemplates.  Indeed, many of the best modern American poets long ago managed to overcome their painter envy by discovering a dynamic voice that both shows and tells.  Take for example Frank O’Hara.  No poet had more reason to succumb to painter envy than O’Hara, who lived and wrote in the milieu of mid-century New York City, the heyday of Abstract Expressionism.  Not only that but O’Hara worked at the Museum of Modern Art where he was exposed daily to risks of contagion.  And yet consider his great poem – Why I am Not a Painter.  It’s ostensibly a poem about a painting by his friend Mike Goldberg and yet O’Hara provides only the sketchiest description of the painting itself.  Imagery is at a bare minimum; this is much more a narrative poem, a description of the internal process of creativity.  Instead of paying attention to the visible aspects of Goldberg’s painting, O’Hara is far more concerned with telling us about what can’t be seen through simple depiction.  As O’Hara declares his theme:

I am not a painter.  I am a poet.
Why?  I think I would rather be
a painter.  But I am not. Well …

It’s time for poetry to shake itself free from the shackles of imagist-oriented modernism.  It is a creed that has outworn all possible usefulness.  And it’s time for today’s poets and teachers to acknowledge as much by embracing a contemporary practice of poetry in which showing and telling stand in equal importance.  Painter envy must finally be put to rest.  We say to our children use your words.  We don’t limit them to talking about what they see.  We are equally moved to know what they think and feel.  We should encourage our poets to do no less.

Note:  This is the second part of a series I've been writing in response to my recent participation in a poetry workshop. You can read the first part here.  I am planning to conclude the series next week with an article about what contemporary poets can learn from classical Chinese poetry.  Also for those of you interested in reading more on the subject of the interplay between modern painting and poetry, here is an interesting recent article from Hyperallergic about how Philip Guston immersed himself in poetry later in his career after being rejected by the art world.

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