As I turned away from Degas’ statuette of a dancer at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris last week, I almost missed the imitators. The imitators were lining up, looking at the statuette and striking a pose. The reaction was not mocking and somehow not disrespectful. The imitators were reacting to a man-made object created out of his imagination. The interaction is what mattered.
When I was in high school, I read a line from W. H. Auden that said “poetry makes nothing happen.” It stopped me in my tracks. It was the late ’60s. I wanted to do things that made things happen. I became a lawyer. I made things happen.
Now I know I misread the line. Auden was making fun of all those things that appear to make things happen but really don’t. Art makes things happen in that it offers the chance to interact with a created object from another person’s imagination.
But why does that matter? It seems that at the center of our existence we travel a number of years in the mundane pursuit of what we need to survive, but art offers a conversation with another who is, or has been, on that same journey. It offers, but does not demand, this conversation.
In the same gallery, hordes of people were moving from picture to picture, cell phones out, photographing the exhibit as they hurried by. They had not accepted the offer. They were just capturing the object.
The imitators had accepted the offer. They were interacting with the Degas’ statuette.
The conversation can happen in many forums but it is always between the artist and the self. It can come through some or all the senses. It can be theoretical. It can come with an artist’s demand for your attention, as with Andy Warhol asking you to notice common objects, but for me it is always a very personal person-to-person communication.
It can also be environmental. On my way home, I noticed the statues in the park and the park in the city as I walk through. The art of the statue inside the art of the park surrounded by the mundane existence of the traffic and commerce of the city.
I found Auden’s quote:
“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.”
In Memory of W.B.Yeats
(d. Jan. 1939)
He says all this better than I but I had to learn it for myself.
As a lawyer I was your advocate, but now as a Poet my job is to help you see all things differently. For example:
I have a silver gray antique BMW Z3 convertible. It looks like a ridiculous self important go-cart. It has five gears and a stick shift. It is loud. It is very low to the ground and only my head sticks out of the top.
When I drive this car I am publicly on display as a self-confessed idiot. Sort of a clown. Young boys with fresh learner’s permits pull up to me at stop lights, rev their engines, and laugh at me. I should be embarrassed.
But if I tell you, “I know I look like an old man driving a roller skate…” you laugh — but once you’ve imagined me in this car, you look at the car and the old man differently. It may be funny or it may be sad, but as a poet I have that ability to make you see things differently .
It is the ability to break the mold that we all live in and take for granted, again and again and again. The cement truck pours and we instantly take for granted that hardening cement and live with those forms forever. Poetry has the ability to break what is permanent and make it new by presenting it differently.
When I write a poem or a play I am asking you to hear my voice, look through my eyes, and see the “flash” vision that I create out of what we live in and take for granted together. I am driving the same roads, obeying the same traffic lights, and stalled in the same rush-hour traffic as you are. I’m using the same language and your words but I am aware of the sound of the words and the rhythm of our shared language in order to create that “flash” of the vision I want to create: “The old man driving a roller skate.”
That is the poet’s work. I must jackhammer out of existence something you have seen in your imagination, perhaps forever.
Let me give you two “flash” examples. Two quick comic examples from the best Poet of the English language: Shakespeare describes a drunkard who is upchucking on the street as, “Speaking with a full flowing stomach,“ or snidely describes a couple in an illicit affair as, ”being a beast with two backs.” In a “flash,” he can help you imagine what you expect, differently.
The job of the Poet is to bring you back to before the cement truck came into your life.