Saturday, March 20, 2010

Beyond the Exceptional: the proper subject for poetry.

We remember the exceptional, and because that’s what we remember, we come to believe it’s the exceptional that matters, the exceptional that changes our lives. Perhaps this is so—that the course of daily habits and beliefs are from time to time, altered by exceptional events (June 21, 2004 certainly did change my life), but change from what… to what? To answer that question through the lens of “life-changing” events, conflates everything in between to a cipher lost to memory, leaves the influence and importance of most of the days and hours of our lives, unaccounted for.

We skim over the surface as though untouched—mind-bubbles floating over reality—until the bubble pops and we feel ourselves again prisoners of gravity. How many of those exceptional events are but the cumulative consequence of forgotten moments? Half unconscious habits of indulgence and neglect? The numberless cigarettes, not one of which we can remember lighting. The spot on the lung that follows

Popular novels, films, advertisements—most of what passes as news, depends on and reinforces belief in the importance of the exceptional. No poet, no artist of consequence can afford to be so blind, so unmindful of our momentary, day to day reality—if for no other reason, because nothing provides material so suitable for propaganda, ready-made to fashion collective insanity. If we think that attention to the quotidian minutia of life, that attending to otherwise forgotten moments is boring, it’s so only because we’ve failed to engage those moments with mind and imagination, because we’ve not paid sufficient attention.

Last night I was thumbing through a book on Cézanne. The reproductions included, not only the familiar still-lifes and landscapes, but many of his earlier paintings: attempts to achieve the gravity and force of classical paintings by using culturally important subjects: Christ in Limbo, Leda and the Swan. These paintings are now of interest largely as failures that indicate to greater or lesser degree what he was later to achieve. His goal must have been clear to him, but the subjects failed to achieve their purpose. What was missing, if not the fullness of engagement so visible in those paintings of pears and apples and rather humble landscapes? He had not yet discovered that a painting of fruit on a table, if one but paid sufficient attention, was no less profound than a figure from classical mythology or an image of a Madonna and child, or that every hour of every day, Mt. Saint-Victoire was created anew.

A poet may write of the horrors of war, of the aberrations of political corruption and brutality, but observations of life on a city street, of the intricacies of language or the peculiarities of popular speech, the foibles of everyday life--are no less relevant or important, and we may be more likely to find the root causes of war and suffering and visions of a better future there than in what passes as the great events in the history of our time.

I’m reminded of a poem by Christopher Seid ( Death of Cézanne), published in The Beloit Poetry Journal, 1990.  I've not been able to find an address for Mr. Seid. If he finds his way here and objects to my printing his poem, I will remove it.

Death of Cézanne
Pressing his palms to one
of the elders' houses -- cliff side,
anemic terra-cotta cracking
in summer's kiln -- he stands

in the garden surrounded by irises
nodding like skulls on flimsy
spines, under pears burning
in their darkened palatial trees.

One cloud steers slowly
as a freighter off the sun.
Pitch pines teeter like old women
into his view of Mt. Saint-Victoire.

Returning to his easel from a day
of wandering the foothills alone,
he carries what he's gathered,
the familiar objects of waking:

Peaches in a wooden bowl, blue
as the day-old dead. A worm

blossoms from an apple -- its crowned head
devouring the globe-world territory.

A tar-dense Burgundy, uncorked
in the porch sun, sours in oriental glass.

As Provençal tapestries dissolve
into evening ash, peppermint oil spills
from a cracked Majolica pitcher.
Oranges levitate among lemons.

Standing at his easel in the cold,
he awaits the first fires of daylight
to spring from dark's smoky fleece.

Last night, he says, they came for him
as bathers; stepping from the lake,
they baptized him in trees. Sprinkling

fig sap over his beard, they fed him
from the ram's horn: the marrow
of slaughtered evenings, azalea's

purple eye-grass, the bone-white ruins
on the terraced slopes. Fed him
crushed tubers of cobalt, the path

cobbled with acorns and shale,
blackbirds and small goats gathered
in pasture. Fed him the blizzard

of pear blossoms, rain of mayflies,
those farmhouses like sailboats
stranded on the horizon. Fed him,

stone by stone, Mt. Saint-Victoire

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