All the Art that Fits
All my books are packed up. Actually, most all of the house is packed up. So I don’t have many texts left to hand. I saved out a few books for travel purposes. But not John Cage, and it’s suddenly John Cage I’m wanting to look up. That’s how it works, right? I remember (In either SILENCE or A Year from Monday) him writing about one of the necessary aspects of an art, that it fits the sound of its time. That you can place it next to an open window, the sounds from the street, and the two blend together as a concordance.
I’ve always liked that. The sound of the context. But that’s just the first push. The art must fit its time, yes, but it must also push it, move it along into the future. The way The Beatles “fit” 1963, but then pushed into 1967. Or how Picasso pushed the 20th Century forward, after first, fitting into it. Anyhow, it’s a pleasant idea, as I’m sitting here surrounded with boxes wanting pleasant ideas. So many boxes.
I was thinking about this while reading John Ashbery’s “Grand Galop” this morning over coffee. Or actually, I was thinking about wanting to find the John Cage, and then picked up Ashbery’s Selected Poems, and there was a bookmark on page 172. It’s all chance operations.
And here’s what I read:
Better the months—
They are almost persons—than these abstractions
That sift like marble dust across the unfinished works of the studio
Aging everything into a characterization of itself,
Better the cleanup committee concern itself with
Some item that is now little more than a feature
Of some obsolete style—cornice or spandrel
Out of the dimly remembered whole
Which probably lacks true distinction. But if one may pick it up,
Carry it over there, set it down,
Then the work is redeemed at the end
Under the smiling expanse of the sky
That plays no favorites but in the same way
Is honor only to those who have sought it.
And I’m thinking right now that this is why critics (us) can never truly see the work that will continue to be present in the future. Because our knowing is always outdated. We can only pick up what we’re going to pick up. We can’t know what the future will pick up, will, literally, hold. In regards to art, we are always chasing it as it runs away from us. As critics (each of us is an art critic [lucky us]), we can only speak from experience, which is, we can only speak from out of the past.
Some work speaks well with its present but doesn’t help carry the present forward. It reflects the present upon itself, or as its real or imagined past. That’s one thing. A thing of comfort or value to the present, but not of much value (necessarily) to the future. Poets like Edna St. Vincent Millay or Archibald MacLeish seem to be falling into that category, perhaps, while others mirrored their time while also mirroring a consciousness that will be. The plays of Shakespeare are good examples of this.
In the current conception of things, there’s little doubt that Wallace Stevens is this type of poet—but there’s no guarantee that this will continue to be the case. We’re still so close to the 20th Century. In my lifetime I’ve already seen the rising and lowering of several poets (Robert Lowell!).
Back to the “Grand Galop”:
As long as one has some sense that each thing knows its place
All is well, but with the arrival and departure
Of each new one overlapping so intensely in the semi-darkness
It’s a bit mad. Too bad, I mean, that getting to know each just for a fleeting second
Must be replaced by imperfect knowledge of the featureless whole,
Like some pocket history of the world, so general
As to constitute a sob or wail unrelated
To any attempt at definition. And the minor eras
Take on an importance out of all proportion to the story
For it can no longer unwind, but must be kept on hand
Indefinitely, like a first-aid kit no one ever uses
Or a word in the dictionary that no one will ever look up.
The custard is setting; meanwhile
I not only have my own history to worry about
But am forced to fret over insufficient details related to large
Unfinished concepts that can never bring themselves to the point
Of being, with or without my help, if any were forthcoming.
Still other artists speak less to their own time than they speak to a future time. Surely Gertrude Stein is more talked about now as an important writer than she was when she was alive (and maybe our present will become her end point, or maybe she’ll go one), while Pound has less and less to say to us each year, and seems—so far at least—to be staying that way for some time. Melville is perhaps the most recent famous example of this, much more major in the 20th Century than he was in the 19th. Or the transformations Emily Dickinson’s poetry went through in the 20th Century.
The great machine of our listening continues. Who is the Ezra Pound of the future? The Gertrude Stein? We’ll never know. So we play at guessing, for in guessing we imagine we’re making the future, and in guessing, we don’t have to continually feel ourselves and our age ending. We ruffle the hair of our children. We see them on their way.
I’ll give Ashbery, as these are questions people are asking of his work often,the last word. Back to the “Grand Galop” one last time:
It is this
That takes us back into what really is, it seems, history—
The lackluster, disorganized kind without dates
That speaks out of the hollow trunk of a tree
To warn away the merely polite, or those whose destiny
Leaves them no time to quibble about the means,
Which are not ends, and yet . . . What precisely is it
About the time of day it is, the weather, that causes people to note it painstakingly in their diaries
For them to read who shall come after?
Surely it is because the ray of light
Or gloom striking you this moment is hope
In all its mature, matronly form, taking all things into account
And reappropriating them according to size
So that if one can’t say that this is the natural way
It should have happened, at least one can have no cause for complaint
Which is the same as having reached the end, wise
In that expectation and enhanced by its fulfillment, or the absence of it.
But we say, it cannot come to any such end
As long as we are left around with no place to go.
And yet it has ended, and the thing we have fulfilled we have become.