Sunday, October 28, 2007

Paul Klee and Keith Ratzlaff

One of the assignments for the end of the semester portfolio involves writing 3-4 poems on a single "subject." By single subject, I mean a series of pieces that look at the same piece of art, the same song, the same composer, or the same artist. (Notice, also, that I've reduced the required number of pieces to a minimum of 3). You may want to take a different approach to a poem you've already composed. You may want to write several new pieces. We'll discuss your approach at your portfolio conference, but you'll want to already have some ideas in mind for class on Tuesday.

To ready ourselves for this assignment, we'll undertake several exercises and readings. First, we'll read and discuss Keith Ratzlaff's ekphrastic poetry collection, Dubious Angels. I've proposed a series of questions below that might help us into the book. First, though, you might want to know more about the writer and his approach to poetry, generally, and ekphrasis in particular. This multimedia interview from a few years back, including many mp3s of the poet reading from his poems, could offer much fuel for discussion about the poems and about the processes that lead to poems.

Second, you'll want to familiarize yourself a bit with Paul Klee and his work. The Klee Museum in Bern is a rich resource, including not only images but wonderful articles. (As it turns out, by poking around here I learned a great deal about Klee's interest in music.) A full, translated text of Klee's diaries used to be available online, but I have not been able to find it recently.

Each poem in Ratzlaff's collection responds to an image of an angel created by Klee, mostly engravings made near the end of his life. Read Ratzlaff's preface, where he concludes, "I don't mean for the poems to speak for Paul Klee, nor have I wanted to turn the drawings into illustrations for the poems, or to make poems that are passive ekphrastic exercises."

Instead, the poet pitches his attempt as approximating Klee's "tragicomic voice and his jazz-like technique" as a way to give "the angels voices that do justice to the bodies Paul Klee created for them." Consider these questions as a way into the poems (and as a way of discovering means of your own for making similar poetic attempts).

1) Which angel poems seem mostly to be verbal transcripts of the images? What liberties does R. seem comfortable with in these pieces? What fidelities does he seem compelled to keep?

2) Which poems take the most fantastic leaps from the images? What fragments of the original do they retain? What vehicles carry the poems away (narratives, voices, forms)?

3) Note the uses Ratlzlaff makes of Klee's own writings (esp. in "Precocious Angel"). What do they do to the poem's voice and texture? Can you tell where the painter's voice starts and where the poet's takes over? How does this matter or not to you? How do masks work in such poems?

4) What use do you make of the notes? Should they be there? Why or why not? How do you think of the notes in relation to this quotation from Ratzlaff:

But no poet I know writes to make meaning, at least not initially. I write to make things, to control the world in some modest way. One thing many of my beginning literature students seem to believe is that poets are intentionally obscure. When students are really paranoid, they seem to believe poets mean for them personally to feel stupid. But that confuses the reader's problems with the writer's. I don't know any poet who is willfully obscure. When I'm in the act of writing a poem--and during that first ur-reading writers do--I'm convinced there's only one meaning for the poem and that the meaning is clear. Content isn't the issue, style is. Thus Klee's emphasis--always in the Sketchbook--is on the how. Criticism and theory, interpretive acts that rightfully belong to the reader, come later, hopefully traveling along at least some of the paths the work has cut out for it. When it works right, the poet and reader walk the path together.

5) How do you make sense of the collection's title, "Dubious Angels?" Read carefully the poem "Doubting Angel" on p. 63, which includes the lines: "Raising my hand / in the air as blessing / only requires / that I believe in air." What kinds of belief do the poems require of us? What kinds of belief do you require of your readers?

The note to "Last Earthly Step" refers to Walter Benjamin's discussion of Klee's "Angelus Novus." Here's that image and Benjamin's quotation:

“A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one perceives the angel of history. His face is towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

Walter Benjamin Theses on the Philosophy of History

The Silence of the World Before Bach

The Silence of the World before Bach--Lars Gustafson

There must have been a world before
the Trio Sonata in D, a world before the A minor Partita,
but what kind of a world?
A Europe of vast empty spaces, unresounding,
everywhere unawakened instruments
where the Musical Offering, the Well-tempered Clavier
never passed across the keys.
Isolated churches
where the soprano-line of the Passion
never in helpless love twined round
the gentler movements of the flute,
broad soft landscapes
where nothing breaks the stillness
but old woodcutters' axes,
the healthy barking of strong dogs in winter
and, like a bell, skates biting into fresh ice;
the swallows whirring through summer air,
the shell resounding at the child's ear
and nowhere Bach nowhere Bach
the world in a skater's silence before Bach.

An Excerpt from a Coltrane Bio

Coltrane loved structure in music, and the science and theory of harmony; one of the ways he is remembered is as the champion student of jazz. But insofar as Coltrane's music has some extraordinary properties — the power to make you change your consciousness a little bit — we ought to widen the focus beyond the constructs of his music, his compositions, and his intellectual conceits. Eventually we can come around to the music's overall sound: first how it feels in the ear and later how it feels in the memory, as mass and as metaphor. Musical structure, for instance, can't contain morality. But sound, somehow, can. Coltrane's large, direct, vibratoless sound transmitted his basic desire: "that I'm supposed to grow to the best good that I can get to.

from Ben Ratliff's Coltrane: The Story of Sound

P. S. What's due on Tuesday, you ask? Read Ratzlaff's poems, come with a draft of a poem--either the David Hooker poem or something else, come ready to listen in class to some Bach and to be exposed to a piece of contextual detail that will lead to an in-class poem. Be thinking about your portfolio and what you want to include in it. Also, look here later today for the poetic habits.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A prose poem about bird song

So, forget most of what I said about line:

Frailty, that rarely, like the thrush, the gorgeous song in us climbs, a bird ashamed of its arriving at a possession of beauty by unsanctioned means, a slouching off to such a dim-lit place where the song erupts in spite, its open-winged remembering, seining from the quiet—

from Of the Song Bird by Margo Berdeshevsky

Friday, October 19, 2007

More on Turner

Because several of my links didn't work in responding to Blade's good questions below, and because it might be a useful way to help think about deep context, and because I'm vain, here's a respost of my lengthy response from that earlier thread:


Thanks for the comment on the Turner poem. A couple of things, one of which, at least, we talked about over lunch. The formatting of the version here is from the on-line journal where it was published. The space is meant, more or less, to mimic the bright strip of light down the painting’s middle.

In the interest of “deep context,” let me show you what a mess this kind of writing can lead to. Your question about “fanacious” was posed a number of years ago by a woman who was leading a discussion group on a web board. After searching through some very old emails (back when most of the folks in this class were not yet in high school--sigh) I found the exchange below, updated a bit to make links a bit more relevant.

She wrote: At my instigation, my online reading group has started a discussion of your poem, Before You Read the Plaque About Turner's 'Slave Ship.'" . . . we've all run aground on "fanacious." One of us discovered that it's in Turner's epigram to the painting, but we still have no clue as to its meaning.

I wrote back: When I included the Turner poem on my list for a humanities class, I did it because my students asked if I'd written about paintings. I had not expected too many others to visit the site. Still, I'm quite glad it found you (or you found it). I was, in fact, a bit surprised as I moved on from Richland this fall to take a teaching job here in the Chicago area.

In answer to your question: "fanacious" is a term stolen straight from Turner's epigraph to the painting. He attached to it these lines: "Hope, Hope, fanacious Hope!/Where is thy market now?" I included it for two reasons. 1) Because I wanted to slide Turner's own voice/sensibility into the conversation, somehow. 2) Because I loved the sound of that word, fanacious.

Like you, though, I couldn't figure out for the life of me what it meant--despite my best efforts to search dictionaries, including the OED. I guessed roughly what one of your group members suggested—a conflation of fanatical and tenacious. Still, I including the word because I loved its sound. I initially read about the epigraph from this very
helpful site, a web version of the work of Victorian scholar George Landow.

Since then, I've been asked a few times about it, and I've dug around enough to learn that the lines are purported to have been an altered quote from the 18th century writer James Thomson (turns out I wasn't getting Turner's voice into the poem after all). The entire quote was this:

'Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhoon's coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying--ne'er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?'

(I picked this up from a site at the U of Texas which is no longer available on-line. The hard copy I have quotes a good deal from the work of John McCoubrey (as does Landow)).

So is the term fanacious or fallacious? I'm not certain. I AM certain that the power and foolishness of the "market" determining the fate of human lives is a kind of evil that the painting helps me to see, to imagine and include myself in, somehow.

Later, in response to an additional inquiry in the discussion group, I wrote:

With the risk of shutting down discussion on a another concern you raised, I use the term "master" at the end of the poem in a way that, I hope, suggests three possible connotations of the term, all of which have interesting resonances given the subject matter. There's the use of "master" in regards to slavery and the ship. The use of master to refer to the master painter of a masterpiece (who cannot light the depths, no matter how good he is at light-play about the surface) and, yes, the master God, whom Turner saw as punishing the perpetrators of this crime, yet, troublingly, who doesn't seem to save those very human bodies sinking down.

One final note about how deep context works. In reading about this painting, I also found John Ruskin’s lines about Turner’s work, and I included a few in the poem. Here’s a portion of the quote (Landow uses it to, in part, critique Ruskin’s gushing about Turner):

Purple and blue, the lurid shadows of the hollow breakers are cast upon the mist of night, which gathers cold and low, advancing like the shallow of death upon the guilty ship as it labours amidst the lightning of the sea, its thin masts written upon the sky in lines of blood, girded with condemnation in that fearful hue which signs the sky with horror, and mixes its flaming flood with the sunlight, and, cast far along the desolate heave of the sepulchral waves, incarnadines the multitudinous sea.

What’s important to me, though, as a writer, is how way leads on to way. I ended up getting fascinated with Ruskin and his idea of the pathetic fallacy. That ended up leading to another long poem, this one engaging Ruskin and nature and poetry, and all sorts of other false leads and deep contexts and whatnot.

More Poetics

"A poem is like a human face — it is at the same time an object that can be measured, catalogued, described, and also an appeal. You may hear an appeal or ignore it, but it's difficult simply to limit yourself to checking it with a tape measure."

--Adam Zagajewski

Monday, October 15, 2007

Turner and the Critics

Poor old Turner: one minute the critics were singing his praises, the next they were berating him for being senile or infantile, or both. No great painter suffered as much from excesses of adulation and execration, sometimes for the same painting.

In the New Yorker a few weeks back, Simon Schama has a sympathetic look at J. M. W. Turner's paintings and their engagement with history as well as their critical reception both within Turner's lifetime and since his death. The online version of the article also includes an 8 painting slide show. Schama even talks about one of my favorite Turner pieces, “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon Coming On," which can be viewed, usually, at the Boston MFA. Shama reports that when it first appeared in an exhibit, the painting was:

mocked by the reviewers as “the contents of a spittoon, a “gross outrage to nature,” and so on. The critic of the Times thought the seven pictures—including “Slavers”—that Turner sent to the Royal Academy that year were such “detestable absurdities” that “it is surprising the [selection] committee have suffered their walls to be disgraced with the dotage of his experiments.”

The article is a great example of combining close ekphrastic attentions with a reception history of a paritcular artist (a deep context even?). For those in my 381 course, this is not a bad example of one kind of work you might do. My own tendency with deep context has always been, surprise, to tend towards poetry in such matters.


Friday, October 12, 2007

Visiting David Hooker's Studio

Artist David Hooker has some great stuff displayed on his web site, giving you a good idea of his sculpture, potttery, drawings, etc. We'll meet at his studio on Tues. around 1:15 and stay for an hour. Check your email on Monday for directions, details, and other delights.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Two poems on practicing the piano

Piano Practice--Rainer Maria Rilke

The summer hums. The afternoon fatigues;
she breathed her crisp white dress distractedly
and put into it that sharply etched etude
her impatience for a reality

that could come: tomorrow, this evening--,
that perhaps was there, was just kept hidden;
and at the window, tall and having everything,
she suddenly could feel the pampered park.

With that she broke off; gazed outside, locked
her hands together; wished for a long book--
and in a burst of anger shoved back
the jasmine scent. She found it sickened her.

Trans. by Edward Snow

Practicing--Linda Pastan

My son is practicing the piano.
He is a man now, not the boy
whose lessons I once sat through,
whose reluctant practicing
I demanded-part of the obligation
I felt to the growth
and composition of a child.

Upstairs my grandchildren are sleeping,
though they complained earlier of the music
which rises like smoke up through the floorboards,
coloring the fabric of their dreams.
On the porch my husband watches the garden fade
into summer twilight, flower by flower;
it must be a little like listening to the fading

diminuendo notes of Mozart.
But here where the dining room table
has been pushed aside to make room
for this second or third-hand upright,
my son is playing the kind of music
it took him all these years,
and sons of his own, to want to make.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Deep Context Ekphrastic

William Clark Dreams of the Souls Who Will Travel to Unknown Country

A white hole opens in the map’s very center,
hole burned by a magnifying lens,
hole worn through by folding, unfolding,
hole that began as a tiny puncture from a compass leg.

At night, he envisions the men returning to find
their camp fallen into the white hole,
a few hundred yards of oiled cloth caught on one side,
half sewn into tents before the world opened up
with a seering light so clean it burst through the riverbank.

He sees Joe Whitehouse diving into the crevice
one hand on a roll of tobacco,
one hand tangled in his flannel shirt.

He sees Merriwether with a whetstone around his neck,
one hand holding a sextant,
one hand making the sign of the cross.

He sees himself stopping the returning men by the edge,
one hand holding up the map,
the other pointing to the hole in the middle.

He always wakes before he can tell them: how it will split open wider,
and wider, maps needing, as they do, to be opened again and again.

Two quotations from this week's dept. chapel

from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets

But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint—
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime's death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.

from Wendell Berry’s A Timbered Choir: Sabbath Poems

Best of any song
is bird song
in the quiet, but first
you must have the quiet.

Dress Rehearsal

Dress Rehearsal
by Floyd Skloot

His second act costume weighs fifteen pounds,
and he must dance in it under hot lights
while singing with an alto whose voice sounds
like a full moon blazing on summer nights.

Smiling all the while, he must project ease,
the wit of a rogue prince whose true passion
is for battle, and grace enough to please
this young partner. But his face is ashen,

brow drenched. Breath is elusive as the birds
he tries to describe in this endless song.
He stops. If he could recall the rhymed words
that take him offstage now, he would be gone

for good. Nothing comes to him. There are wings
everywhere, action shattering the still
moment he hoped to create. Hazy rings
of light, behind which an audience will

be applauding at this time tomorrow,
fade as he awaits the falling curtain
now, lost in a soft, rapturous sorrow
where nothing moves and nothing is certain.

Friday, October 5, 2007

To the Stone Cutters

To The Stone-Cutters

by Robinson Jeffers

Stone-cutters fighting time with marble, you fore-defeated
Challengers of oblivion
Eat cynical earnings, knowing rock splits, records fall down,
The square-limbed Roman letters
Scale in the thaws, wear in the rain. The poet as well
Builds his monument mockingly:
For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth dies, the brave sun
Die blind, his heart blackening:
Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found
The honey peace in old poems.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Art Institute Poems--Rachel H.

Farm near Duivendrecht, Piet Mondrian

First acquainted with your Lozenge Compositions,
thinking your art was black and white, primaries,
perfect lines and geometries, chanced upon this farm.
You knew the elements

more than in their seclusion. Elemental understanding
allows for more understood blending. Colors you
blend now, pastels of a setting sun sky are fragmented,
dominating presence of branches.

Yet colors are blending, lines bending. Can this be
the farm near Duivendrecht more than branches
and strokes of color? You approached the farm
from across the water,

broken too now. Can water be shattered vertically
as your strokes imply? Ripples spread outward
with a grace more compelling than your reflection,
though it may be still.

But the farmer's wife has been washing at the edge,
using the power of water to clean, power that
I don't want to see, just believe. But you remind me
that belief can know,
and knowing, believe.

Art Institute Poems--Dayna C.

The Artist in his Studio--Dayna C.

Casts his genetic inheritance on
a girl like a sister to him, who
practiced sorcery with certain fabrics,
the other actually his sister.
What he got was a lot of canvas-
the length of a room high
or higher if space permitted-
and what he covered
I could tuck under my arm
with the book of sign language
I studied in front of the painting,
inarticulate, and Whistler even quieter,
suggesting the space
between the subjects is now
and then the difference between
favorite and cousin, a retarded
hand movement, or how my sister
learned to cook burning a hand
shaped like e on the stove, not facing me.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Art Institute Poems--Bethany P.

On The Home of the Heron by George Innes--Bethany P.

Is this a painting
Or did the marsh seep its own portrait
Slowly into the canvas
Its fingers spreading out
In fine lines and murky smudges
And dark muds deepening to stains?
And who supplied the heron,
Some small creature
Stepping its foot onto the gleam of light?
(that is how we know there is water
That it reflects the light
And that is how we know there is grass
That it obscures the gleam)
But are there really trees?
Questions for the heart
Was the picture left
Like a portrait of the savior
In blood upon a cloth?
Did it appear to the artist
As he went deeper into the woods
Following a mysterious bird
longing for hope and peace?
Was the heron closer once
On the piece of canvas?
Could the artist see his face;
And did he maybe follow him
Into his hazy orange land
His land of sunset
And transparent, rootless trees.