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The Sower, by Vincent Van Gogh

My longtime readers are familiar with my view of an art making world that is so striated that the layers often never even touch each other. For the alien who arrives on earth wanting to crack the code on what is going on with these humans and contemporary art, good luck making sense of its many faces. The rarefied strata of auction houses and by invitation only art events is its own unisphere. Meanwhile there are millions of fieldworkers sowing conceptual seeds, plowing the plein air furrows, harvesting the artifact grain, leveling the minimal fields for the inertia of winter.

Like Howard Zinn‘s wise reminder that the newspaper is a completely inaccurate portrait of reality (it’s where the bad news gets reported with little of the immeasurable good that happens every day), the point of view of the field workers is rarely heard. Meanwhile news about Jeff Koons, one of the many Kardashians of the art world, streams at us steadily.

So how refreshing to find someone who is speaking for the rest of us. Jeffrey Skinner‘s book, The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets is a quirky blend of memoir, mentoring and comic musings on a life in the arts. While poetry has its own particular terrain, Skinner’s mapping of that territory produces useful guidelines for visual artists, musicians and other expressive aspirants. This is the first book I have found that is written to the middle of the spectrum, to those who are neither beginners nor celebrities. Full time field workers.

Also absent from this assemblage of wisdom and wit is the dour disappointment (or its variant, condescension) that can be sensed in other poets’ writings. For example, Donald Hall, a poet I admire, starts his collection of essays, Poetry and Ambition, with these words:

I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems.

An ambitious project—but sensible, I think. And it seems to me that contemporary American poetry is afflicted by modesty of ambition–a modesty, alas, genuine…if sometimes accompanied by vast pretense. Of course the great majority of contemporary poems, in any era, will always be bad or mediocre. (Our time may well be characterized by more mediocrity and less badness.) But if failure is constant the types of failure vary, and the qualities and habits of our society specify the manners and the methods of our failure. I think that we fail in part because we lack serious ambition.

The field workers I know have no shortage of serious ambition. That is not the missing piece, Donald.

On the other hand, Skinner speaks to the practical, every day nature of an artist’s life. From his introduction:

Moderately successful poets have one recompense that more than rights the balance of unfairness, that keeps them hoping, and dreaming words, long after the realization that what they do will not lead to fame or money in this world, nor immortality in the next:

They get to write poetry.

That’s it, really. Sometime early in life moderately successful poets discovered the world and felt their DNA rise up and lean toward it like iron filings to a magnet.

And later:

Nothing in life is certain. It’s less certain as a poet. You have to commit to the uncertainty. You have to commit to unreasonable devotion, and to an art that, though practiced by many, is appreciated by very few…

Every (moderately) successful poet I know has taken the long view. What is the long view? Well, what it’s not is a stab at the art, a dabbling, a part-time avocation. Taking the long view has nothing to do with a desire for the cool of being a poet. . . . The long view is not an infatuation.

The book can be read in one sitting but the wisdom stays with you. Two thumbs up for anyone who has made creativity their life path.

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poetry

I am not a poet. But I turn to poetry instinctively to navigating the inner life. As a painter I have given myself a hall pass to not have to chip away at language in an attempt to replicate, resuscitate or reconstitute those intense experiences that happen outside the domain of language. Outside my domain anyway.

So I lean on those gifted ones, the ones who can dig, distill and divulge. The ones who can crystallize in words what I have felt through my eyes, my body. They voice what I cannot.

Not all poetry is written to ameliorate the lyrical needs of a tongue tied visual artist. But the viability and general health of poetry matters enormously to me. And even though the bean counters continually claim that the audience for poetry is in perpetual decline, I don’t believe it.

So I was particularly pleased to run across this piece in Newsweek that speaks to that very issue.

In January, the National Endowment for the Arts released a report titled “Reading on the Rise,” announcing that the number of American adults reading fiction had increased for the first time since the NEA began tracking reading habits in 1982. According to the report, 50.2 percent of adults had read a work of fiction in the previous year, compared with just 46.7 percent in 2002. The results were greeted with a mixture of excitement and caution by education experts. Some saw them as the long-awaited reversal of the trend toward a dumber, TV-obsessed United States; others, more wary, called them a statistical blip. Almost as an afterthought, the report also noted that the number of adults reading poetry had continued to decline, bringing poetry’s readership to its lowest point in at least 16 years.

The dismal poetry findings stand in sharp contrast not only to the rise in general fiction reading, but also to the efforts of the country’s many poetry-advocacy organizations, which for the past dozen years have been creating programs to attract larger audiences. These programs are at least in part a response to the growing sense that poetry is being forgotten in the U.S. They include National Poetry Month (April); readings, lectures and contests held across the country; initiatives to get poems into mainstream publications such as newspapers; and various efforts to boost poetry’s presence online (poets.org, the Web site of the Academy of American Poets, even launched a mobile version optimized for use on the iPhone). Yet according to the NEA report, in 2008, just 8.3 percent of adults had read any poetry in the preceding 12 months. That figure was 12.1 percent in 2002, and in 1992, it was 17.1 percent, meaning the number of people reading poetry has decreased by approximately half over the past 16 years.

Sunil Iyengar, the NEA’s director of the Office of Research and Analysis, says the agency can’t answer with certainty why fewer adults are reading poetry. He and others believed the opposite would be true, largely because of poetry’s expansion onto the Internet. “In fact,” he says, “part of our surmise as to why fiction reading rates seem to be up might be due to greater opportunities through online reading. But we don’t know why with poetry that’s not the case.”

Dana Gioia, who was chairman of the NEA when the new report was released but has since stepped down, credits the rise in fiction reading to a number of things, including more reading online; initiatives like the NEA’s “Big Read,” which began in 2006 and seeks to have whole communities read a literary work together; the efforts of educators; and the success of series such as the Harry Potter books and Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight.” He also mentions Oprah’s Book Club as a catalyst.

Poetry, for all its merits, has no program or volume to rival the current popularity of Oprah and Harry Potter, but even so, the decline of its already modest following is noteworthy. Some critics and readers claim that most poetry today is too cloistered and inaccessible, or that it is just plain bad. Yet a telephone survey conducted in 2005 by the National Opinion Research Center on behalf of the Poetry Foundation found that only 2 percent of respondents said they didn’t read poetry because it was “too hard.” And Donald Hall, a former U.S. poet laureate, points out that most poetry in any age is bad, and that hasn’t kept people from reading in the past.

There might be other factors at work. According to the NORC survey, which included about 1,000 adults who read for pleasure primarily in English, people who don’t like poetry-and therefore don’t read it-are typically those who haven’t been exposed to much of it. “Their in-school experiences were fairly limited, and most of them first read classic poetry, poetry which may be less accessible and which may seem less relevant to teenagers than might contemporary poetry,” the report concluded. “It seems likely that people’s perceptions of poetry are the greatest barriers to participation.”

Exposing more people to poetry is exactly what advocates have been trying to do, and evidence suggests they’ve done quite well. National Poetry Month, for instance, which began in 1996, has become a fixture in thousands of schools and is celebrated in communities all over the country. Poets.org had more than 10 million visits last year, up from about 4.5 million in 2001, and Poetry magazine, one of the form’s oldest and most venerable outlets in the U.S., has seen its circulation triple to 30,000 since 2003.

Perhaps the most successful, and forward-looking, program of the past few years has been Poetry Out Loud, a recitation competition for high-school students that is often compared to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. It was created by the NEA and the Poetry Foundation, and in 2006, its first year as a national contest, about 40,000 students participated. This year, nearly 300,000 students are taking part, reciting both contemporary and classical poetry. Stephen Young, the Poetry Foundation’s program director, says the event was devised as a more lively way of engaging a young audience. “I think the timing seemed good because, in the years that memorizing and reciting of poetry had gone off the pedagogical map, the slam movement and hip-hop poetry and performance poetry had hit the scene,” he says. “We conceived of Poetry Out Loud as another approach to teaching poetry, but perhaps more pleasurable than [how] poetry was taught when I was a high-school student.”

Attracting young readers who haven’t yet formed an impression of poetry has been a particular focus of the foundation. The recent successes of poetry advocates on that front are generally not reflected in the NEA numbers, which looked only at the reading habits of those 18 and older. Anne Halsey, the Poetry Foundation’s media director, says the group is confident that its efforts will eventually become more broadly evident. “We’re a young organization,” she says. “We’re taking the long view of this.”

Still, despite the anecdotal evidence that interest in poetry is on the rise, at least among some parts of the public, the NEA numbers are difficult to discount. The report is based on “The Survey of Public Participation in the Arts,” conducted in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau. The survey’s sample was more than 18,000 adults, which the report points out is “roughly 20 times the size of the average media poll,” and it was balanced by the Census Bureau to “reflect the present U.S. population.” It is by far the largest recent study on reading in the U.S.

Even if readership is down, not everyone is concerned. In fact, popularity is itself a fraught subject in the poetry community. In an address to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs this February, the president of the Poetry Foundation, John Barr, described how the popular poet writing for the common reader essentially disappeared with the advent of Modernism. The 19th-century model of poets publishing in mainstream venues such as newspapers was replaced by the 20th-century model, in which the increasing fragmentation and difficulty of poetry required specialists to discern it, moving it into the college classroom. Today, to call a poem “accessible” is practically an insult, and promotional events like National Poetry Month are derided by many poetry diehards as the reduction of a complex and often deeply private art form to a public spectacle.

A few years after the launch of National Poetry Month, poet Charles Bernstein wrote in a caustic essay that April is now when “poets are symbolically dragged into the public square in order to be humiliated with the claim that their product has not achieved sufficient market penetration.” He added that “National Poetry Month is about making poetry safe for readers by promoting examples of the art form at its most bland and its most morally ‘positive’.”

Barr, who presides over an organization that tries to represent poets-even those who say they don’t need or want publicity-while broadening their readership, says it’s “not necessarily a bad thing” if fewer people read poetry. The goal is to find each poem “its largest intended audience,” he says. Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, says, “Because of the nature of poetry, it’s not just ‘more people, more people, more people,’ but deeper engagement and more kinds of poetry and moving people along to interest in poetry that might be more challenging.”

Of course, poetry has been supposedly dying now for several generations. In 1934, Edmund Wilson published an essay called “Is Verse a Dying Technique?” Fifty-four years later, Joseph Epstein chimed in with “Who Killed Poetry?” and former NEA chairman Gioia gained fame with a 1991 piece titled “Can Poetry Matter?” In answering their titular questions, all three to some degree concluded that poetry’s concentration in the hands of specialists and the halls of academia was bad for the art form’s health.

Former poet laureate Hall, who published an essay called “Death to the Death of Poetry” in 1989, has heard it all before. “I’m 80 years old,” he says. “[For] 60 years I’ve been reading about poetry losing its audience.”

Despite what national surveys may suggest, and despite rumors of its demise, poetry seems likely to persist, in one form or another.

halla

Donald Hall is a poet whose life and work I have written about many times before. His new memoir, Unpacking the Boxes, was reviewed by Peter Stevenson in the New York Times on Sunday.

This book follows his poignant memoir about life with poet Jane Kenyon, The Best Day the Worst Day, as well as a volume of poems dedicated to her memory, Without. The narrative that is still so present in his voice focuses on how “a 23-year marriage and idyllic life in his family’s ancestral New Hampshire farmhouse, Eagle Pond Farm — where mornings meant writing poetry in separate rooms, afternoons a romp in bed and then reading aloud Keats, Wordsworth, the Bible and Henry James — came to a thundering end with her death from leukemia at the age of 47. It is a mark of the honesty of Hall’s work — the generous refusal to look away — that in his new book, he tells us he bought condoms two weeks after she died,”

Lust is grief
that has turned over in bed
to look the other way.

(From the poem, “Ardor”)

I found Stevenson’s review engaging, particularly the significance he makes of a single comma’s omission in Hall’s phrase, “In childhood nothing happens.” And what frailty and undefendedness is highlighted by what Hall wrote about his experience of having a stroke: “It was a morning like a green field, and I felt good — attended to by shepherds who spoke softly to each other and to me.”

This life has been (and continues to be) an extraordinary one.

“In childhood nothing happened.” So Donald Hall writes in his enchanting memoir, and what’s admirable about that sentence is not just the pleasure in coming across such a cheeky volley in the opening pages of an account of a life in our post-Freudian age, but the choice Hall made not to insert a comma between “childhood” and “nothing.” A comma — “In childhood, nothing happened” — would have insisted on a dramatic pause that the reader would be expected to applaud politely, nodding at the poet’s foreshadowing that clearly something did happen and it must have been simply stupendous, and here we go. But Hall means what he says, repeating the phrase “Nothing happened” twice, like a chorus or incantation, on the following page.

What he’s getting at, of course, is that “nothing” is a perfectly appropriate way to describe how the unfolding of life — particularly a child’s life — can feel. He is hinting at that uncanny sensation one can have as a child when something vividly alive and unfathomable, which defies description, is very much “happening.” (The parent asks the child what she did today. “Oh, nothing.”) The fact that Hall can evoke the fused aliveness and alienation of such “nothing happenings” is one reason for his success as a poet…

At 80, Hall now lives in “the thin air of antiquity’s planet.” He recently endured a stroke that led to an early-morning endarterectomy to clear a carotid artery. “It was a morning like a green field,” he writes, “and I felt good — attended to by shepherds who spoke softly to each other and to me.”

When I started this blog in 2006, I did not anticipate how deeply satisfying it would be to develop companionship around content that matters to me. Sharing visual art and poetry are gestures that happen best outside of time, ones that are well suited for the disembodied 24/7 nature of cyberspheric reality. Discovery in this venue is much less invasive and more self-directed than getting a phone call from me at 2AM saying, “You have to see (or read) this!”

Connection based on content matters to me, even more than I had supposed. So of course I was thrilled when my new poetry pal Pam McGrath sent me some excerpts from an article, The Third Thing, by Donald Hall.

The relationship between two extraordinary poets, Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, has become something of a legend in the world of contemporary poetry. There are many salient narratives in the story of their life together: The theme of two artists supporting each other’s work; the challenge of two highly individualistic people cohabiting with respect and kindness for each other; the burden of extreme suffering and grief (Hall had several bouts of cancer, and Kenyon suffered from depression. Eventually it was leukemia that ended her life); the ongoing longing for meaning, authenticity, expression. In speaking of this extraordinary marriage as its sole survivor, Hall exudes dignity and grace. I love his concept of the “third thing”, which of course can take so many forms in a relationship.

Thank you Pam, for this and for being such an engaging fellow traveler.

What we did: love. We did not spend our days gazing into each other’s eyes. We did that gazing when we made love or when one of us was in trouble, but most of the time our gazes met and entwined as they looked at a third thing. Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention. Lovemaking is not a third thing but two-in-one. John Keats can be a third thing, or the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or Dutch interiors, or Monopoly…

Meantime we lived in the house of poetry, which was also the house of love and grief; the house of solitude and art; the house of Jane’s depression and my cancers and Jane’s leukemia. When someone died whom we loved, we went back to the poets of grief and outrage, as far back as Gilgamesh; often I read aloud Henry King’s “The Exequy,” written in the seventeenth century after the death of his young wife. Poetry gives the griever not release from grief but companionship in grief. Poetry embodies the complexities of feeling at their most intense and entangled, and therefore offers (over centuries, or over no time at all) the company of tears. As I sat beside Jane in her pain and weakness I wrote about pain and weakness. Once in a hospital I noticed that the leaves were turning. I realized that I had not noticed that they had come to the trees. It was a year without seasons, a year without punctuation. I began to write “Without” to embody the sensations of lives under dreary, monotonous assault. After I had drafted it many times I read it aloud to Jane. “That’s it, Perkins,” she said. “You’ve got it. That’s it.” Even in this poem written at her mortal bedside there was companionship.

From Donald Hall’s poetry volume, “Without”:

Her Long Illness

Daybreak until nightfall,
he sat by his wife at the hospital
while chemotherapy dripped
through the catheter into her heart.
He drank coffee and read
the Globe. He paced; he worked
on poems; he rubbed her back
and read aloud. Overcome with dread,
they wept and affirmed
their love for each other, witlessly,
over and over again.
When it snowed one morning Jane gazed
at the darkness blurred
with flakes. They pushed the IV pump
which she called Igor
slowly past the nurse’ pods, as far
as the outside door
so that she could smell the snowy air.

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