Wednesday, October 29, 2014

O pen : October 13 -- more ekphrasis... with a bit of soap...

Next Day - by Randall Jarrell
Angel Surrounded by Paysans – by Wallace Stevens
Villanelle - Two de Chiricos - Mark Strand
Vermeer - Howard Nemerov
Breughel: Triumph of Time by Howard Nemerov
too long for discussion, but interesting to read: “The Painter Dreaming in the Scholar’s House” and “Drawing Lessons” by Nemerov and
Three for the Mona Lisa by John Stone

Continuing with Ekphrastics... except for Next Day...

How does the title prepare us -- and how do you read it? The first two poems of the bunch present two very different problems. "Next Day", a persona poem of a woman fearing the aging process, can lend itself to both a scene in a grocery store, admiring all the optimistic names of laundry detergents, which happens after the lady attends her friend's funeral, or after her reflection about her friend's in the poem, or as an invitation to a general sense of "next" to load onto "day". Perhaps more. The diction in the poem, the skillful line breaks, the flow of the stanzas is rather like skating up the aisles of a grocery store, getting to the parking lot,
and thinking about "next" and ending by the grave. The "box" in line two, refers to "Cheer", "Joy" and "All"
but as scrub-away coffins perhaps. And yet, the soap bubbles and illusions subside, leaving these last and wonderfully honest lines:

But really no one is exceptional,
No one has anything, I’m anybody,
I stand beside my grave
Confused with my life, that is commonplace and solitary.

How different the Modernist poems... and abstract art. In Longenbach's elegant and articulate volume, "The Resistance to Poetry" I found this reflection helpful: "We read poetry not to understand... but "to experience the sensation, the sound, of words leaping just beyond our capacity to know them certainly." Discovering in a poem something strange in what we thought familiar, we draw fresh wonder at the alien beauty of our own becoming in the world."
Let's start with the title of the Stevens' poem:
Angel Surrounded by Paysans --
English (singular) surrounded by French (plural) -- lofty by lower class... or maybe the Angel needs the French peasants to overturn the hierarchy of things and bring some francophone culture? Or...

We'll get back to the title, after we see where the lines go, what they net, or refuse..
At first, it looks like it will be a dialogue -- "One of the peasant "There is
A welcome at the door to which no one comes?"
as if we have dropped in media res on some conversation. We know from notes that this painting, Still Life by Pierre Tal-Coat (Courtesy Peter Hanchak). inspired the poem “Angel Surrounded by Paysans" . On October 5, 1949, Stevens wrote to Paule Vidal, who had purchased the painting for him:
I have even given it a title of my own: Angel Surrounded By Peasants. The angel is the Venetian glass bowl on the left with the little spray of leaves in it. The peasants are the terrines, bottles and the glasses that surround it. This title alone tames it as a lump of sugar might tame a lion.

That explains nothing to me, the reader, who cannot see the dark Venetian glass bowl as an Angel of Reality --
give me the creased white tablecloth, which looks as if the wings are clipped...
Stevens gives us beautifully seductive language, such as "liquid lingerings" which seem (to quote Longenbach's phrase) to privilege sound over sense. And the questions marks which end both the Angel's 10 couplets, as well as the broken line of the peasant, complicate matters. Is the Peasant inside, wondering who is outside the door or vice-versa?
If we believe the Angel, " I am one of you and being one of you
Is being and knowing what I am and know.
how do we know about being? He seems to intimate that the Angel, half-figure pointing to meanings, is poetry-- both not of this earth, yet what allows us to connect to what is "real".

Strand's responses to the bleak De Chirico paintings, give a similar unease of not understanding.
The Villanelle keeps turning the gaze.... but does it develop the thought?
Both paintings are disquieting... like the poem... Some of the responses:
A sense of sterility with none of us in it and no signs of life in poem... a sense of no entry as opposed to a sense of being crushed out of reality in the painting...
The first villanelle plays on the word "content" as noun or adjective -- is it stated that the Philosopher's content? or it announcing the content a Philosopher addresses? The second villanelle, The Disquieting Muses
embraces disquiet, which contrary to what one might hope a muse would inspire, reinforces boredom and despair.

To offset such depressing and glum thoughts, Vermeer and Nemerov cheer us on.
The assurance of the first stanza, at first glance is a comfort! That "is" is stated, first, as a complete and contained standpoint, and then repeated with a looser brushstroke -- gives an optimism of "reality" -- and does it matter how to read the last sentence? Is it beautiful that modesty is seductive or that the care for daily things is -- or it is both, and why the strange adverb "extremely"?

Taking what is, and seeing it as it is,
Pretending to no heroic stances or gestures,
Keeping it simple; being in love with light
And the marvelous things that light is able to do,
How beautiful a modesty which is
Seductive extremely, the care for daily things.

The seduction of the next stanza again reassures, with the marvelous "holy mathematic/
Plays out the cat's cradle of relation/Endlessly;even the inexorable/
Domesticates itself and becomes charm.

What is wrong with us -- or what is wrong with our words and understanding as Nemerov presents the next supposition: if you could feel what I feel, I think we could be happy...
If Vermeer could paint what he did...
"In the great reckoning of those little rooms
Where the weight of life has been lifted and made light,
As it was, under a wide and darkening sky."

Perhaps it suffices to know art exists, captured in little rooms of stanzas, paintings... allows us to deal with what we know will be coming

Nemerov and Breughel, leave us with quite a different feel. The difficult language agglutinates, two stanzas, both one sentence long ending with the Triumph of Time,
"which everything that is, with everything that isn't,
as Brueghel patiently puts it down, exemplifies."

It was a relief to end the session with the John Stone -- "3 for the Mona Lisa" --
We enjoyed discussing this famous painting... and overhearing people talking about it,
not knowing quite how to respond to her delightful concentration. How does one capture emotion, feelings?
capturing the difficult reaction to the painting...

The discussion ended with a mention of the novel "Headlong" by Michael Frayn --
The plot centres on the discovery of a long-lost painting from Pieter Bruegel's series The Months. The story is essentially a farce, but contains a large amount of scholarship about the painter. Frayn distinguishes between the iconology and iconography of the paintings and suggests that rather than simply being a series of pastoral images they symbolise a Dutch populace undergoing great suffering as a result of Spanish rule.

No comments: