Poems · Ponderings

Poetry and Music

On the roof before breakfast, Herbert Knapp

Poetry’s Future

I was surprised when Bob Dylan got the Nobel Prize for literature, So was he. But after I thought it over, it made sense. Few people read literary poetry anymore. In fact few people read literary anything anymore, so why give prizes for writing stuff few people read?

In the last century, the professors persuaded us that literary poems and novels were incomprehensible without their help. But who wants to read a poem or a book with a professor looking over his shoulder? People blame technology for the decline in our reading skills (80% of US families did not read a book last year), but long before computers our teachers drained all the fun out of reading. Remember “Run, Spot, run. See Spot run”? Has anyone ever cared if Spot ran or not?

If poetry has a future, it lies in the revival of its ancient partnership with music.

Music and poetry went together like a horse and carriage before the invention of the printed book. Maybe the internet, which is causing a realignment of our ways of communicating that is every bit as revolutionary as the printing press, will revive the alliance of poetry and music. Maybe in the future, poets will need to read music and play an instrument. 

Technology has made available not just the songs of today but those of yesterday and the day before yesterday. Maybe this will promote a greater historical consciousness. (“I’m just a cockeyed optimist.”) I think music does this better than just words on a page. Maybe those who look back nostalgically at Gimme Some Lovin’ will come to appreciate the nostalgia of us antediluvians who look back nostalgically at Tea for Two and Make Someone Happy, especially the latter.

Make someone happy,
Make just one someone happy.
Make just one heart the heart you sing to.
One smile that cheers you,
One face that lights when it nears you.
One gal you’re everything to.
Fame, if you win it,
Comes and goes in a minute.
Where’s the real stuff in life to cling to?
Love is the answer,
Someone to love is the answer.
Once you’ve found her,
Build your world around her.
Make someone happy.
Make just one someone happy
And you will be happy too.

Lyrics by Betty Comdon and Adolph Green, music by Jule Styne

Paintings · Ponderings

Finitum Capax Infiniti

This is not the picture I started out to paint. It took on a life of its own. I’m not sure where I came across the phrase on the bowl: finitum capax infiniti. I’m no Latinist. But I read it somewhere and looked it up. It means is we are capable of seeing what is infinite and eternal in things the are fragile and finite. I think that’s true and am reminded of that phrase every time I look at a still life.

Still life paintings depress some people, and I see why. The images of fruit and stemware remind them that real fruit rots and real stemware breaks. You can count on it. But the unreal painted images of fruit and stemware don’t break or rot. They just sit there in another world, and for me they seem to link what is fragile and temporary with what is permanent and  eternal. 

Here is another still life by a much better painter than I am: Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744-1818). She made a speciality of still lifes. Most of her customers were guillotined during the French revolution including her friend and admirer Marie Antoinette, who was a witness at her wedding. But Anne kept out of sight and, against the odds, managed to live and paint again another day.


Art, what is it?

Who knows? Nobody. The Woke are redefining gender, marriage, education, history, politics, manners. What counts as art these days is anybody’s guess.

The poet Phillip Larkin said, “The impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art.”

When we value something, we want to save it, to protect it, to make it last. Thus, we protect our own lives, the lives of those we love, certain poems and paintings, certain photographs, and our children’s homework. Art is an object or a performance that defies time—even if it lasts only a minute or two, like a song or a tapdance.

I have just read Henriette Roosenburg’s memoir of her days as a prisoner of the Nazis, The Walls Came Tumbling Down. (Good used copies are available on ABE Books and Alibris.) Henriette and three other girls in the Dutch resistance were caught and condemned to death. But the bureaucrats screwed up and the girls weren’t executed. They were moved from prison to prison, and the paperwork never caught up with them. Freed by the Russians in Eastern Europe, they had no way to get home, and nobody to help. The four scarecrows often sang together. One of their favorites was “Show Me The way to Go Home.”

To preserve a record of their time in prison, Henriette (code name Zip) and the other girls cut squares from their underwear and collected strands of colored thread. Somehow they got hold of needles, and Zip embroidered her square with the name of each prison they passed through, her cell numbers, the dates, her friends names (in Morse), a gun, to show they could hear gunfire, and around edges of the square she embroidered the song title: “We Don’t Know Where We’re Going Until We’re There.” When she got home, she gave this to her mother, who declared while weeping with joy, that Henriette couldn’t have made it, because she never knew in which hand to hold the needle. My contention is that Zip’s embroidered square of underwear is a work of art. We have no aesethetic standards anymore. Consider Duchamp’s urinal, Hirst’s embalmed shark, Manzoni’s cans of excrement, or Judd’s philosophical boxes. Today’s art doesn’t have to be beautiful in a way that Renoir or Rembrandt understood that word. Art in our deconstructed, fragmented, godless age is whatever a person choses to save, protect, and return to. 

However, wealthy people who choose to save, protect, and return to urinals, dead sharks, tins of an artist’s shit, or painted boxes exist beyond the limits of my old fashioned imagination.

Paintings · Ponderings

The Girl In The Mirror

Above is a picture of a woman “making herself up”—i.e. “making something of herself.” She is “painting” herself into existence—creating a work of art.

Raymond Tallis is a doctor of geriatric medicine who branched out as a philosopher, poet and culture critic. He says that art is something—an object or a performance— that “offers us intermittent relief from the otherwise permanent condition of never having been quite there, of not quite arriving.” 

I like that idea. It’s not an idea that we can explain exactly, but we all know what Tallis means by “the permanent condition of not quite arriving.” When the woman in my painting stands up, puts on her clothes, straightens her skirt, and rubs her lips together to smooth her lipstick, she has arrived, even if she hasn’t left the house.

I feel the same way when I finish a painting.