As you may or may not know, a philistine is “a person who is hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts, or who has no understanding of them.”
I cannot say that I am indifferent to the arts. I majored in Art History, and the visual arts are a constant and abiding interest to me. That said, I am by no means an expert in the field, and am always willing to learn and be open to challenges.
However, I confess to having no ability to appreciate some artists’ works—Jean-Michel Basquiat’s doodles and chicken-scratchings would be one example. Basquiat was born in 1960 and died of a heroin overdose in 1988. It’s not the neo-Expressionist style per se that disagrees with me, just his particular work. He is much admired by the art world, but I’m afraid that I can’t share in that. It worries me a little that a recognized and acknowledged artist’s work gives me nothing.
I went to the Basquiat exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario some time ago, in spite of my aversion to his work, to force-feed Basquiat into my consciousness. I tried to see what “they” see, to understand and appreciate what “they” understand and appreciate. But my eyes and mind rebelled at every item of his work. It was such an effort to not just look away and walk out.
Let’s forget about the visual for a moment, since that is not really the point of this article. I want to talk about poetry, so let’s consider a piece of Basquiat’s writing. This is a poem called “A Prayer”, just as the artist/poet wrote it…
The words ‘obscure’ and ‘ambiguous’ occur to me as I read that.
(Hate the feeling that I was sent for and couldn’t come.)
I flatter myself that somewhere inside of me is a writer, and my writerly impulse is to communicate thoughts, feelings, and information in an intelligible and readily understandable way. I may not be doing that, but I’m working on it. That is my aim.
Some poets, on the other hand, seem to delight in stringing words together such that their ultimate purpose can be known only to the poets themselves.
Maybe understanding a poet’s personal history is the key to understanding the poems he or she writes.
But if that’s right, why is it right? Why cannot the words stand for themselves without a backstory to support them?
So, my problem is not the subject matter of the poem, but the fact that I sometimes have to struggle to recognize what it is. Why does a poem sometimes have to be a riddle with no solution? Is there absolutely NO way for the poet to make his or her meaning accessible to the average person without some effort expended on research? Maybe he or she is not writing for the likes of me. (I might be a little miffed, actually.)
Let’s consider poetry through the centuries, because I don’t believe that poets delighted in being obscure in the years prior to the 20th century. This examination must be restrictive, of course, since the topic is so broad, and my examples cannot be universally representative.
For a 16th century example, here are three stanzas from the poem The Lie by Sir Walter Raleigh (ca. 1552-1618)…
Tell physic of her boldness; Tell skill it is pretension; Tell charity of coldness; Tell law it is contention: And as they do reply, So give them still the lie. Tell fortune of her blindness; Tell nature of decay; Tell friendship of unkindness; Tell justice of delay: And if they will reply, Then give them all the lie. Tell arts they have no soundness, But vary by esteeming; Tell schools they want profoundness, And stand too much on seeming: If arts and schools reply, Give arts and schools the lie.
Those words are as relevant for the human condition today as they were all those centuries ago. Perhaps especially relevant to our discussion of the moment are these two lines:
“Tell arts they have no soundness, But vary by esteeming;”
Can Raleigh be saying that a work of art may not have intrinsic value, but if it gains esteem, perhaps through endorsement by a recognized artist, its acceptance is automatically assured? From what I’ve learned, Andy Warhol provided ‘esteem’ for Basquiat.
And another poet from this era…
John Donne (1573-1631)
(He likely knew Sir Walter Raleigh, and fought with him against the Spanish at Cadiz.)
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Again, this poem’s words do not leave us ‘all at sea’…we know what he’s saying. (I’m not going to discuss the poems themselves at the moment, just their degree of intelligibility.)
Donne may have straddled the 16th and 17th centuries, but the following poet wrote entirely within the 17th century. These are the opening lines of a poem by Anne Bradstreet (ca. 1612-1672)…
Here Follows some Verses upon the Burning of Our House July 10th, 1666
In silent night when rest I took For sorrow near I did not look I wakened was with thund'ring noise And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice. That fearful sound of “Fire!” and “Fire!” Let no man know is my desire.
These words capture the poet’s experience of taking to her bed on a peaceful, quiet night, in the expectation that she would arise in the morning, and life would proceed as usual. Instead, she was startled out of her sleep by the noise of a terrifying conflagration—and that, as she says, was the very last thing she needed. I get that. You get that. We all get that. Maybe that’s too easy? Not enough challenge?
Even the title gives us a huge clue to the subject matter of the poem. It’s expository almost to the point of superfluity. In any case, it does place the event in time for us, and so we in the 21st century might say that the style of this poem was pretty much in keeping with the fashion of the times, given what we know of it.
And here’s a portion of Jubilate Agno, (Latin for “Rejoice in the Lamb”). It was written ca. 1760, a hundred years after Bradstreet, by Christopher Smart (1722-1771), during Smart’s confinement in St. Luke’s Hospital, London, for insanity:
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry. For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him. For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way. For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness. For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer. For he rolls upon prank to work it in. For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself. For this he performs in ten degrees. For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean. For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there. For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended. For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood. For fifthly he washes himself. For sixthly he rolls upon wash. For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat. For eighthly he rubs himself against a post. For ninthly he looks up for his instructions. For tenthly he goes in quest of food. For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbour. For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness. For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance. For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying. For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins. For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary. For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes. For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life. [...]
Every cat lover can see Jeoffry in those lines. Christopher Smart himself can also be found there. As we can easily see, the motivation for Jeoffry’s cat behaviour is explained in terms of Christopher Smart’s own beliefs, morality, and understanding, and so the pet reflects the poet. Easy. I get that, you get that, we all get that.
And here’s a poem by Christine Rossetti (1830-1894), from another century after Smart:
Song When I am dead, my dearest, Sing no sad songs for me; Plant thou no roses at my head, Nor shady cypress tree: Be the green grass above me With showers and dewdrops wet; And if thou wilt, remember, And if thou wilt, forget. I shall not see the shadows, I shall not feel the rain; I shall not hear the nightingale Sing on, as if in pain: And dreaming through the twilight That doth not rise nor set, Haply I may remember, And haply may forget.
Again, there’s no mistaking the sentiment nor the subject matter. It’s a beautiful poem, and perhaps representative of the 19th century in that there seems to have been a preponderance of themes surrounding death–grief, loss, general melancholia–in that era.
The following poem from T.S. Eliot pushes us into the early part (ca 1910/11) of the 20th century. I never realized before that the lyrics for the song ‘Memory’ in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Cats” drew on this poem…
Preludes By T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) I The winter evening settles down With smell of steaks in passageways. Six o’clock. The burnt-out ends of smoky days. And now a gusty shower wraps The grimy scraps Of withered leaves about your feet And newspapers from vacant lots; The showers beat On broken blinds and chimney-pots, And at the corner of the street A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps. And then the lighting of the lamps. II The morning comes to consciousness Of faint stale smells of beer From the sawdust-trampled street With all its muddy feet that press To early coffee-stands. With the other masquerades That time resumes, One thinks of all the hands That are raising dingy shades In a thousand furnished rooms. III You tossed a blanket from the bed, You lay upon your back, and waited; You dozed, and watched the night revealing The thousand sordid images Of which your soul was constituted; They flickered against the ceiling. And when all the world came back And the light crept up between the shutters And you heard the sparrows in the gutters, You had such a vision of the street As the street hardly understands; Sitting along the bed’s edge, where You curled the papers from your hair, Or clasped the yellow soles of feet In the palms of both soiled hands. IV His soul stretched tight across the skies That fade behind a city block, Or trampled by insistent feet At four and five and six o’clock; And short square fingers stuffing pipes, And evening newspapers, and eyes Assured of certain certainties, The conscience of a blackened street Impatient to assume the world. I am moved by fancies that are curled Around these images, and cling: The notion of some infinitely gentle Infinitely suffering thing. Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh; The worlds revolve like ancient women Gathering fuel in vacant lots.
For me, that poem is so evocative of time and place. I’ve never been there, but I can go there. It’s not completely explanatory, but he gives us enough. We can enjoy winkling all the meaning out of it.
And here are a couple of stanzas from Maya Angelou…
Still I Rise
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
There’s no mistaking the essence of this poem…the refusal to be downtrodden, the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of adversity. We know that she’s speaking from the life experiences of a black woman, but her theme has a universal quality.
And a section from another black woman’s poem. This is from the 21st century, by Parneshia Jones…
What would Gwendolyn Brooks Do
Dawn oversees percolating coffee
and the new wreckage of the world.
I stand before my routine reflection,
button up my sanity,
brush weary strands of hair with pomade
and seal cracked lips of distrust
with cocoa butter and matte rouge.
Hold On, she whispers.
Another day, when I have to tip-toe
around the police and passive-aggressive emails
from people who sit only a few feet away from me.
Another day of fractured humans
who decide how I will live and die,
and I have to act like I like it
so I can keep a job;
be a team player, pay taxes on it;
I have to act like I’m happy to be
slammed, severed, and swindled.
Otherwise, I’m just part of the problem—
a rebel rouser and rude.
And I can understand this poem as well, very easily. Jones is writing from the perspective of a black female in American society, but I think we can all feel her words. Many of us have had the experience, or the awareness, of being in thrall to fractured humans who decide how we will live and die. At times we’ve had to stamp a smile on our faces in spite of it. Maybe not quite in the same way that she has, or to the same degree, but I very definitely know what she means.
However, I have absolutely no clue what Jean-Michel Basquiat means in his poem, A Prayer. And I’ve given it every chance to speak to me. It doesn’t. No more than does his visual art. Does that make me a Philistine?
Perhaps one must choose one’s poets. A poet for me might not be a poet for you. Perhaps there is no universality or commonality in poetry. Maybe that’s not always possible, or even desirable.
Poetry has been defined as “the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts.” Another definition is, “literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm.”
I think the first of the two definitions above is a little fanciful. Some poems express feelings and ideas that give us pain and discomfort rather than pleasure.
And, of course, some can leave us–some of us, that is–bewildered. Maybe even a teensy bit irritable.
But maybe that’s not a good enough reason to look away.