Monday, April 25, 2005

What We Talk About When We Can't Talk About It

In my art graduate school days, there was a certain tendency that was often observed. During critiques where a student puts up a set of paintings to be talked about by the class, invariably the one painting that always got the most attention was the one that looked the most different from the rest. It may not have the most or least successful painting in the bunch, but the very fact of its difference in relation to the others is what brought it to the forefront. It served as a catalyst in counterpoint to the other more unified work. In talking about painting, you can get lost in verbal metaphors in explaining what works and what doesn't - but when you can point to specific differences your points can be more easily made. Hence the utility of the "outlier" painting. It allows what can't be said easily to be shown by contrast.

I was reminded of this when I read a review of Jorie Graham's new book "Overlord" in yesterday's Sunday New York Times. I went to graduate school at the University of Iowa during the time of Jorie Graham's tenure there as a poet in the Writer's Workshop. At that time, I knew next to nothing of poetry - old or contemporary - but yet I knew that the Writer's Workshop was the bee's knees of the writing world. Well, to be fair, nobody could exist in Iowa City for two weeks without that getting drummed into their heads. In any case, our conceit in the Old Music Building (which was, oddly enough, where the graduate painting studios were, as if painting was "Old Music") was that those people in the Workshop *really* wanted to be painting, which was where real poetry lies. Like I said, it was a conceit and one that the Workshop writers shared, albeit in the reciprocal direction.

Every Friday morning, the graduate students in painting and drawing met in the second floor commons room for our weekly seminar/discussion workshop. Usually it was a visiting artist finishing up the week by showing some slides and discussing their work. Earlier in the week they would have visited individual studios and had a public lecture as well. Meeting these artists was invaluable in showing us the ways the art world works. But occassionally, we would have somebody from the University talk to us. I will never forget Jorie Graham's appearance in our painting workshop.

Earlier in the week there appeared pieces of paper on the bulletin board about Jorie Graham. There were reviews of her books, xeroxed copies of her poems, and a biographical blurb. The reviews were ecstatic but the poems themselves were opaque to me. But I assumed that this was because of my ignorance of contemporary poetry. By no means was I uninclined towards the opaquity of art. It was during this time that I had devoured Finnegans Wake and Ulysses in my fascination with James Joyce. A lot of the painters that I studied and emulated were very elusive: Jasper Johns, Marcel Duchamp, the Abstract Expressionists etc. So I wasn't too concerned about not "getting" the poems while first encountering them. I had learned that many treasures in art need the viewer to perform work in opening the treasure chest. What did stop my attention was the biographical blurb.

What I recall of that blurb was thinking, this woman isn't for real is she? Because the blurb was audacious in its preciousness, in its tone of "Look on my life, ye peons, and Despair!". In several short sentences the blurb portrayed a life that was beyond reach for those reading it. "Childhood in Italy"..."Educated at the Sorbonne, New York University, Columbia ..."...this award, that prize and so on. "How can anyone not just abjectly fling themselves down at her feet?" I thought. Of course this was jealousy and envy. But it was also anger. Anger that having a boring, suburban childhood in Iowa may have already determined my artistic path. Hell, if I had a childhood in Firenze and went to Paris for school, there'd be no stopping me either, gosh darn it!

I also thought that this was a person who really knew the power of words - not just those in between the covers of the book, but those on the outside as well. Of what use is it that the reader must know these facts - "Childhood in Italy" "Educated at the Sorbonne"? Aren't these words analogous to the yellow varnished patina on a Old Master painting - the patina itself affecting how one views the work and becoming one with the work? For instance some people thought it was a scandal when the Sistine Chapel restoration showed that Michelangelo painted in very vibrant colors - that was not their image of the master at all! It is my opinion that these biographical nuggets served in her early career as a patina'ed window for Graham - as a shortcut for the way she wished to be viewed. How different a career would the same poet have had if the blurb had said "Childhood in Overland Park, Kansas. Educated at the University of Kansas"? It is my position that it would have had a very discernable effect. When offered the biographical facts of Kansas and nothing else, one is not left with much - Kansas doesn't act much as a signifier. But when faced with the unarguable electricity of Italy and the Sorbonne, one is charged - one is not unaffected. Henry James made a career out of how Americans are influenced by notions of Europe that are unfounded, but are unshakeable by the poor innocent rubes. My opinion is that this "frisson" of Europe and culture could influence the reading of the poetry of Graham in a favourable way. I am aware I may be attaching too much importance to something seemingly so inconsequential, but if you read the NY Times review, I'm not so sure.

So back to the day of the Workshop. The graduate students and our professor running the workshop are waiting in the Commons Room, chatting and drinking coffee. And then the door opens and she sweeps in. Well, she and her entourage sweep in. Yes, she had an entourage. My memory is surely playing tricks on me, but I could swear one of them was holding her coffee. But in any case, there was *an entrance*. As the waiting audience of her flowing clothes, scarves, spandex, and jewelry we were in the business of being seduced. And was I ever seduced. She talked about Wittgenstein and Balthus, about the primacy of the painted image and art in her poetry, alluding to things that painters love to hear - how their images have ideas, worth and fluency. Her voice and manner had verve and intelligence. She read some poems, but again their sense eluded me, but their sheer genius did not. Or did it? I think now I was seduced by my own idea of the poet as genius - an idea a young idealistic artist as myself was rabid about. And when this "genius" arrived like she did, with all the favorable billing and theatrics, I didn't have a chance, I fell for it. Yes, I still had the bad remembrance about the blurbs, but the blurbs probably did their magic on me as well. The fact is that I accepted the seduction without doing the work of being seduced by the words on the page. And I'm a bit ashamed of that in myself.

And now, twelve years later? Her career has supernova'ed even more. A MacArthur Genius grant, A Pulitzer, A Harvard Chair. I've noticed that her later books no longer mention the Italian Childhood or the Sorbonne Education. To paraphrase Wittgenstein - she has thrown away the ladder after climbing up on it. What about the poetry? Is it worth all this adulation and acclaim? To some it appears so, to others it does not. I don't have any idea. I still cannot get into it and until I can shake the probably unwarranted suspicion that I'm being seduced by external factors I don't think I will. The problem is that the poetry is difficult. Like the painting that is different than the rest is the one getting attention, the facts of Jorie Graham's life are easy to grasp and hold, in deep contrast to her poems.

To quote Wittgenstein again, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent". If it is hard to speak about difficult poetry, one speaks about what one can. That may be the reason behind much of what was said in David Orr's somewhat harsh review, and of course, about what I've written here.


At 8:11 PM, Blogger Scott said...


Wow, tons of material here. Need to choose direction carefully and only pick best bits; Blogger comments limited in length

Lots of Iowa stuff; easy pickings
- art class in Iowa like eskimos talking about desert; they do the best they can without any first-hand experience
- Paint in Iowa is made from corn, so only color is yellow; only color they need, though, since all they paint is cornfields (too obvious? go for soybeans?)
- Iowa rubes easily charmed by French/Italian poetess; would be equally taken by poet from Paris, Texas who drove a Fiat
- Something about "Field of Dreams" being only other example of Iowa poetry; maybe he would understand them better if read by James Earl Jones?
- "Outliner painting" a very Iowa idea; similar to old Iowa saying of focusing on the front tooth that is missing instead of the other three that are still there.
- Maybe Iowa paint is made from used chewing tobacco instead of corn?
- Jim is jealous of Sorbonne mention because he never got a real college education

UI problems
- Poems seemed "opaque" because he forgot to open the cover of the book

Old age jokes
- Graham's seductive "outlier" effect due to poems being typeset instead of illuminated by monks
- Wowed by Graham's spandex; also wowed by "portable wrist sundial" and horseless carriage she arrived in
- Poems difficult for Jim to understand because ex-roommate Carl Sandburg not around to explain them

Super important not to mention that I read NYT review or even hint that I didn't really get poems quoted in review - will undercut entire basis for mockery. ("Let the dream of contagion/ set loose its virus"? WTF?) Also can't admit looking her up on Internet after reading review. (Of course, preference for bawdy limericks remains secret as well.)

Assertion: Must not let comment devolve into actual discussion of poetry!

At 2:25 PM, Blogger Jim said...

Okay, funny man, the poet from Paris, Texas drove an Opel and we were not impressed.

And FYI: Iowa paint is made from the facial grease of squeezed-up cynical Northwestern graduates. We get the raw ingredients by hosting "Think of Us As A Midwestern Ivy League School" rallies in Evanston, piping in corn syrup gas to stun them, and transporting the unconscious Wildcat bodies to our processing station in Anamosa. They awake with cleaner faces, we get some oil for our paints, and Anamosa gets some new coffee shop loiterers muttering about their undervalued school.

At 9:30 PM, Blogger Scott said...

Northwestern Motto: "Think of Us As A Midwestern Ivy League School"

Iowa Motto: "Think Of Us As A School"

Of course, the Iowa motto has to be written phonetically so that the general populace can understand it.

And BTW, none of us Northwestern students had greasy faces, since our parents paid for us all to see dermatologists. Between that, the yacht club, trips to get the Porsche serviced, and the time needed to discipline the servants, it was difficult to attend classes and keep our GPAs up. Don't tell me that private school students don't have it rough!

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