Thursday, February 11, 2010

Art Fight

I’m putting away another little notebook, so I’m wanting to strip out some stray ideas about poetry and art that came to me at some point last month. I must have been feeling irritated by something, but what it is I can’t recall. Maybe a book I was looking at. And I don’t remember where the quote that I started this off came from. I think maybe it was John Cage or Morton Feldman.

Here goes:

If it’s true that, “In the end, however, what really matters is the degree to which an artist’s work engages intelligently and thoughtfully with the world it inhabits,” then an artist must have some ideas regarding and feelings about the world that artist inhabits. Having ideas about the world, then, is job one. Or else, if one is going to be some sort of passive radio, one must still have some way to tune into the world. For me, that seems to be essentially the same thing.

We can sit here and talk about craft for years, but if our art doesn’t do something within a larger world context, we might as well go catch a movie. It would seem important to believe something about the world—knowing it’s reductive and mostly created—but believing it totally (for a moment at least). Suddenly I’m finding myself in Wallace Stevens’s “necessary fiction.” I never cared all that much for the Necessary Fiction when I was younger, but as I’m getting older, I’m finding myself going back to it, even if I swerve around it a bit. It’s an idea, or a way of conceptualizing something that’s already there as an idea, that, as they say, has legs.

There’s no reason to state one’s core beliefs, but there’s every reason to write from them.


Bright colors and bold brushstrokes—

What image of the contemporary is going to dominate? Whichever image dominates will then form the frame that the future will use to place around our time. It will change what the future decides is valuable to keep. Conceptions of art, then, are not idle conversations.

Idealized female nudes in classical settings?

Street junkies in partial erasure?

The lady in the red dress is waving to you.

Visible brush strokes? Invisible brush strokes? A frenetic red swath?


The importance of inhabiting rather than simply knowing one’s world. This is why it doesn’t matter to me if one has overt ideas about the world, or is simply a “natural.” The ideas don’t matter nearly so much as inhabiting them, and then making art from out of them. If one is in tune, then one shouldn’t need to think about what one is doing, one should be able to simply do it. So that whatever one does next fits.

The artistic temperament.

Does this feel like the world to me? It’s my complaint with many artists and poets. Their work might be clever or whatever, but if it doesn’t feel like the world to me, then I have no real use for it.

A few poets who feel like the world to me:

Rae Armantrout, John Ashbery, Bin Ramke, Martha Ronk, Ron Padgett. The list goes on. It’s a long list that includes many younger poets, many of whom are my friends, so it seemed self-serving to start to list them so I stopped—but I’ll leave this list short to gesture toward what I’m thinking of.

The other list, the one of poets who don’t feel like the world to me: Ted Kooser, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Kay Ryan (and yes, younger poets like Matthew Dickman), and on. This is not to say that they are not accomplished. Obviously they are accomplished. It’s just that I don’t get a sense, a sense for me that is necessary and central to the art encounter, of the world working along with the world down the street. They seem liked boxed candy to me. A synthetic experience.

Enacting the world on the page is fundamentally political—it’s a version of truth to power. But it doesn’t have to be oppositional on the surface level—which is, it doesn’t need to enter social politics to be political. We always think of the political as social politics—as opposition, but often all that art opposes is other art—I don’t believe, in the end, of the big tent of poetry—a sort of interfaith community where we will band together by shared love of poetry itself.

Art is a competition for the real—the fullest possible reality—as reality includes the imagination and the possibility of an outside.


At 2/11/2010 10:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would be interested in seeing the list of younger poets who feel like the world to you.

At 2/13/2010 1:51 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

And I wouldn't be interested in making it! It would take forever, as I'd not want to leave anyone out...

I suppose you could get a pretty good feel for that list by just scrolling down and tagging the poems I've posted.


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