Liberté

Raoul Dufy's 'L'orchestre en Arles'

Aw, I feel tur’ble bad for having made fun of Edgar Guest’s poetry in the previous post. Is he corny? Well, yeah. Sentimental? By the truckload. Do his poems not meet the lofty standards set by the poets of Academe? Well, I guess not, but, c’mon, have you ever tried reading their stuff? Go ahead, pull down one of their collections from your bookshelf and… What’s that? You don’t have any of their collections? Oh. Well…

Here, then is a snippet from contemporary poet Mary Jo Bang’s The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity. (I am NOT making this up.)

The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity

We were going toward nothing
all along. Honing the acoustics,
heralding the instant
shifts, horizontal to vertical, particle

to plexus, morning to late,
lunch to later yet, instant to over. Done
to overdone. And all against
a pet-shop cacophony, the roof withstanding

There are seven more verses of this. If the suspense is killing you, you can read the rest of them HERE.

To be fair, the real contemporary comparison to Edgar Guest, whose work appeared in newspapers for the pleasure of ordinary readers, would be to the brilliant minds behind popular song lyrics. If we’re going to laugh at Edgar Guest (and we are!), then how much ridicule should we heap on these immortal lines of Bono:

Sleight of hand and twist of fate
On a bed of nails she makes me wait.

Wow, that’s painful, and I don’t meant the bed of nails. But if that doesn’t make you wince, try this bit o’ hokum from Coldplay — lines treated with utmost seriousness by critics (“a leap towards greatness” says the LA Times):

Violet Hill

Was a long and dark December
From the rooftops I remember
There was snow
White snow…
Priests clutched onto bibles
Hollowed out to fit their rifles
And the cross was held aloft
… and so on…

Just how big are those hollowed-out bibles? Well, anyhow, we’re in no position to make fun of the popular verse of previous generations.

Back in a high school English class, we were once given two snippets of verse to compare and for which we were asked to express a preference. One was some anonymous bit of fluff: “Just to be meek/Just to be mild./Just to be God’s own/Little child.” Or something like that. The other was from Gerard Manley Hopkin’s Pied Beauty: “Glory be to God for dappled things — /For skies of couple-colour like a brinded cow;”. Well, most of the class was shrewd enough to know the dice were loaded: we were supposed to applaud Hopkins and scorn the nursery rhyme. One girl, though, was stubborn in her championing the simple sentimental lines. She was marginalized, of course — we laughed at her — and thus were we guided to feign good taste. To know we were supposed to prefer, say, T.S. Eliot over Walter de la Mare — without being able to articulate why in a way that would hold water. In other words: we were educated.

What’s this have to do with that Dufy painting up there atop this post? In that same school, same year, we were asked at the outset of a painting class to name our favorite painter. I was young and dumb enough to be honest and cited Raoul Dufy, a choice which raised the eyebrows of our pseudo-intellectual art teacher so high he looked like Cap’n Crunch. We were supposed to like Rauschenberg or Stella or some such bore. I was embarassed, but I learned my lesson: Suppressed my personal taste, never mentioned Dufy again throughout all my art schooling. Didn’t so much as look at his stuff even though I never stopped loving those exhuberant colors, unfettered lines and delightful subjects.

But now I’m all growed up. I like what I like what I like. That Dufy painting, The Orchestra in Arles, is a scan from the calendar that hangs defiantly to the left of the table at which I type this. Take that, “educators!” Or, as the Great Bard of Michigan once wrote:

I have to live with myself, and so
I want to be fit for myself to know

I'm getting me a chunk o' raisin pie!

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4 responses to “Liberté

  1. But what if you really truly LOVE Hopkins and Pied Beauty? Hopkins gets to me the way few poets can.

  2. Me, too. In fact, right now I’m the middle of Ron Hansen’s novel about Hopkins and his writing of the Wreck of the Deutschland.
    My point in the post is that the class based its valuation on what we knew we were expected to say. It is possible that some of the Hopkins supporters were honest. It is certain that the lone doggerel champion was.

  3. Yeah, I did get the point. I’m just good at being difficult. It does sound like the whole exercise was consciously devised to force the “right” answer.

  4. Actually, I’m a bit sorry I seem to come down so hard on that HS English teacher. I liked her and I owe her. Her teaching techniques may have been a bit overbearing at times, but her genuine love of literature came through — and that trumps everything, no?

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