Did that grab your attention? Probably moreso than if I had entitled this post “Truth and Beauty” and begun with a less provocative photograph, which I must admit was originally taken purely in a spirit of wit and whimsy, not sociopolitical or aesthetic agenda, and is used here to make a point about the loss of the former and the surfeit of the latter in today's art world.
I am not sorry, and in fact I feel quite grateful and fortunate to be able to say that there has actually been not much remarkable trauma in my life, aside from the usual grievous disappointments and losses that happen when you are a feeling thinking striving human being in close contact with other human beings who have as much power to make as break you. Gender and identity issues I have none. I was born a woman, and live and love as a woman, and have never suffered for being one except for the most basic and mild discomforts and inequities biology and society can inflict here in the 21st century in my mostly enlightened peaceful and prosperous part of the country. And my identity may be a work in progress, but one for which a strong foundation and general structure have been in place for a long time and any changes have been along the lines of surface detail and not a rebuilding from the ground up as result of utter devastation due to forces from without or within.
Mask and Mirror
Truth and beauty, on the other hand, are very much lifelong influences and concerns of mine, which would seem to be a good place to be, unless of course you are an artist seeking a place in today’s art scene. It’s the same in the literary scene, and why I left it decades ago to write my poetry in isolation, even if it meant giving up any hope for recognition or reward. As artists we are always told to create from the heart, know who we are, do what we love, and the success will follow. Unless of course if what you lovingly create from who you are doesn’t fit the current trends of what is considered worthwhile, noteworthy and marketable art.
You Are Not Alone
When I first started writing poetry, I did so with a vast background as a reader first, a writer second. This has nothing to do with formal education. I learned as much on my own, if not more, than I did in any classroom, and support both ways of acquiring knowledge. However it happened, I developed what I didn’t even yet dare call out loud my “craft” by absorbing countless examples from the pens of the past, as well as plying my own pen daily in journals, letters to friends and writing assignments in school. I approached every piece of writing, voluntary or required, as if it were a “study from life,” a careful, considered exercise in rendering what was before my eyes in a way that was systematic and calculated at first, and then somehow blossomed with a beauty and spontaneity all its own. This is what is called “finding your voice.” I am of the old school way of thinking, that to find your voice, you have to first listen to and learn about everyone else’s voice, and then practice, practice, practice. There are no shortcuts. You have to master your craft in order to transcend it. And if you are lucky, you never do reach the point where there is no more to learn.
One on One
In my twenties and thirties I wrote exclusively in form, not knowing that this traditional approach to poetry was meantime being reviled and rejected by writing programs nationwide. I especially liked sonnets and sestinas, and the more obscure and complex forms that required the kind of facility with rhyme, meter and word placement that could create a final product that involved almost mathematical precision in its formulation yet sounded as if it emerged with ease and couldn’t have been written in any other words. To me, that was far more challenging than writing freestyle. It was as if the muses were saying “here is a small box, here are the rules you must abide by to fill it, and yet you must still be utterly truthful, and utterly beautiful and natural in your expression. You must create a tiny perfect miniature, and it must look, feel and sound like the whole world on its first day looking at itself in a mirror.” I had such reverence for language and what it could do in the right hands, it seemed obvious to me that the way to get language to flow freely for you was to work it, with respect, discipline and passion, the way you train your body for an athletic event. The way a musician gets to know their instrument. You don’t just show up at the Olympics or Carnegie Hall with good intentions and a clever marketing strategy. You have to log hours of what may seem old fashioned, routine and repetitive work in order to even qualify for the Big Event during which you can finally let it all fly. You have to be flexible, open and humble, but in the end you had better know what you’re doing and be able to do it.
Then at age 40, I went to graduate school, where they treated my formalism like a bad habit or personal defect to be cured, removed, despised. I guess this ironically may qualify as my one instance of being unjustly persecuted and traumatized simply for who I am! I presented a well-crafted, intelligent and heartfelt sonnet in a workshop, in which the poem discussed before mine consisted of what appeared to be random notes written on matchbooks, Post-its and cocktail napkins, provoking a lengthy discussion – and when my turn arrived all I received in response from my professor was the question “for God’s sake why are you writing in form??” My stunned reply, as I choked back tears, was “that’s just how it comes out!” And theirs, “well, stop it.” The rest of the group had nothing else to offer, as if the screen of my formalist approach blinded them utterly to what the poem actually contained. Only one of my fellow students confessed (nobly but sheepishly) to ever having written in form or admired those who did. I let the vocal majority convince me that I was being held back by deep unrecognized fear and not simply following an alternate personal style that suited and pleased me. They believed strongly that behind all these tidy little old fashioned songs of longing and despair was some big ugly contemporary truth that needed to be vomited out chaotically onto the page in all its raw power to be valid. They could not be bothered to look for my truth, right where it was, living and breathing within the timeless order of every line.
You Caught Me
Two years into my graduate program, I was writing in free verse. I missed rhyme and meter and tried to hide them in the middle of lines when and where I could. I was like a recovering formalist addict, careful not to discuss openly my love of Shakespeare, sneaking a couplet here and there and hoping not to be discovered. I had to earn my “lapses” by writing whole poems without any of the complex wordplay and music I craved, and then ending with one beautiful flourish they let me get away with. I may have stopped writing like Edna St. Vincent Millay, but I also never wrote one successful deconstructed poem about trauma, gender or identity issues. Don’t get me wrong, my time at this program was some of the happiest I’ve known, I left it stronger as a person and feeling more connected to other writers, and I would recommend it to anyone. But in my particular case, strictly in terms of my poetic output, it took me a long time to find my true voice again. Part of me understood that in any of the arts the learning process involves letting go of old techniques and beliefs and subject matter that may be limiting your potential and trying some new things to stretch some different muscles. But I often wondered, what if this is what I do best, who I am, and letting go to embrace something I lack is the wrong thing to do when I should be perfecting what I’ve already got? I also wondered, if I am willing (read: compelled) to abandon my style and technique to learn yours for the sake of growth, why is it that none of you freestylers is willing or compelled to learn mine on the same terms? Especially when mine happened to be favored by the greatest poets of the past few centuries?
Go No Further
I will admit that there were benefits from my academic education. I have an advanced degree I will never use except to impress people who are impressed by such things. I have learned how to stand my ground in spite of someone looking me in the eye and telling me “no one will ever publish or read you if you write this way. Persist and you condemn yourself to obscurity.” And bear in mind the writing program I attended was one of the most open-minded and encouraging of individuality and going against trends at the time! Rest assured, in the years since graduating, obscurity has worked out a lot better for me than putting my name on what I consider to be lazy, unskilled writing, indistinguishable from everything else coming out of the majority of writing programs, in which the power of the work is based on manipulating the reader into thinking here is something raw and real and troubling going on, which they don’t quite understand and makes them feel a little weird, so it must be GOOD, right? And as long as university faculty continued to train their students in the same style as got them their own publications and jobs, and accepted no other new way, even if it was the old way returning from the past to be recognized, and these students went out into the world to keep perpetuating that process, the literary world was not and is not one I want to be part of.
In the arts, there are pioneers and guardians. We need the ones who leave behind the past to explore new territory; we also need the ones who secure the old outposts. But something strange has happened in the ways we educate our up and coming creative souls. The academy more and more is favoring a rejection of tradition outright, tradition sometimes meaning anything that happened more than 30 years ago, and pushing its students toward art and writing that are more based on the market they will be facing after graduation than a solid background in their craft, as if that were a waste of time, instead of an invaluable enrichment and basis for any direction they later take. Meantime anyone seeking a more traditional approach is limited to elite groups whose approach may include old techniques but can also exclude modern sensibilities. So who are today’s rebels? It would seem there is no room for those who seek to innovate within tradition, stuck as they are between the true diehards who never let go of their rigid ideals, and the newcomers who are equally limited by their inability to look anywhere but forward.
Eye of the Beholder
But arts always follow the cycle of experimental to classic, revolutionary to refined. Once you go too far, and art becomes a matter of who can most efficiently shock and disgust and virtually manipulate the work and the audience from day to day and trend to trend, when the attention-deficit-friendly approach of making immediate and easy effectiveness and marketability of content trump beauty and integrity of presentation is infecting all the arts, you can only come back again to the old values. For painting it’s the figure study from life, (which I was recently horrified to learn is nearly absent from art school training today!) for the poet, working with traditional rhyme and meter. As I emerge from my private studies as a photographer into the public realities of working in this medium, I will likely rub up against the same conflict of values. Already there seems to be an encouraging sense of rebellion against technology in the resurgence of and return to the use of film. I would love to think this is a genuine respect for the potential of the medium and not just another trend everyone is eager to be identified with until the next one comes along.
Streak of Light in the Darkness
Though I cannot imagine the foundation and future of painting without renderings of the human form, as a photographer I don’t do many human portraits. If and when I do, it will be on my own terms and in my own style, most likely studies resembling those of the great black and white film photographers who through lighting and dramatic angles turned human form into landscape or architecture. This is how my eye works and what my heart desires when I put a camera in front of me, and what the masters who have taught me by example have done that most stirs my soul. I would rather spend my whole unsung life capturing on film or in writing one effect of light or shadow on a stone or in the heart, until it becomes the whole history of human feeling and thought, than follow trends and create on demand the kind of works that guarantee grants and solo shows at prestigious modern art museums. If that is what it takes, those who work that way are welcome to it. It is not my way. And neither way needs to be wrong to make the other right. Unfortunately wallets and minds rarely open for more than one current accepted way at a time, and it takes a lot of time to change that.
Wait and Watch
For my part, I do not believe that knowledge of the works and a facility with the techniques of the masters indicates or encourages a lack of imagination or guts or relevance or the potential impact or value of the finished work or works to come. It does however now unfortunately ensure a challenge for anyone brave enough to follow this path in today’s art climate in any medium. I do believe, whatever the current trends are, there are other old school rebels out there who think and feel the same as I do, and eagerly await the next turning of the tide, or will turn the goddamn tide themselves. To them I say: stay strong, stay beautiful, stay true.
This post is dedicated to Damon and the Boston Figurative Art Center. Aux barricades!