I once began a poem by asking “Is art a way / of denying emptiness?” I believe in some sense it is. Not in the sense of denying that emptiness exists but in denying it its power to submerge us in a vast sea of namelessness. Making art fills the time, and it literally fills the empty space of the page, the canvas, the empty space of sound, of movement, speech. Of course, there can be too much movement, too much speech. And there begins the process of editing, which is partially a social process. Some might say it’s largely a social process, as the interior editor is aware of and responding to exterior voices, some internalized, others external, when engaged in the act of self-editing.
I’ve been thinking about the difference and relationship between art and life. There are many thoughts on this topic. I remember sitting in a cafe with Eileen Myles, asking her if she had to choose between life and art, which one she would choose. She said life. One of my favorite parts of the Odyssey is when Odysseus visits the underworld, and Achilles tells him he would rather be a slave on earth than ruler among the dead. And of course, there’s the unforgettable ending to Frank O’Hara’s poem “Having A Coke With You,” referring to the errors and lapses of the great artists: “it seems to me they were all cheated of some marvelous experience / which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I’m telling you about it.” Or we could look at O’Hara’s “Personism,” which includes the realization that picking up the telephone would be just as good as writing a poem to someone. “Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to,” O’Hara wrote, “if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too. And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies.”
Marianne Moore shared O’Hara’s impatience with poetry, but she realized, as did he, that poetry serves a purpose, is useful, even necessary. Often, only the first four words of her poem “Poetry” are quoted in isolation. The next few lines reveal an important glimmer:
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
it after all, a place for the genuine.
This respect for the genuine—something that is equivalent to nature and to other human activities—returns in the poem’s final lines:
...if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.
William Carlos Williams also admits the improbability of poetry’s playing a part in the “real world” of business transactions and hard scientific facts, while simultaneously pointing out poetry’s “extra” quality, which may be something like Moore’s genuineness:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
(from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”)
All these poets stand for life—as it is lived, as it must be lived, as it should be lived. Yet they all also stand for, live by, and with, and die by, poetry.
However, this does not yet answer the question, What is art? Charles Olson put it succinctly, when he wrote, “Art is the only twin life has, its only valid metaphysic.” I would say that art is a necessary human activity. I need it when I am disconnected, and all I want to do is return to the Fitzgerald story I am reading. The story has little to do with my life, but it gives me a sense that, while redolent of life, it is separate from life’s chaos and uncontrollability.
“Impatience is the greatest sin,” ends the poem with which I began this meditation. I still believe that (though I don’t believe in sin, literally). Conversely, patience is the greatest virtue. Paciência, as they say in Brazil, which might be translated, “Accept things as they are—wait, and then go ahead.” But I find I no longer feel any guilt, as I did when I wrote that poem, many years ago. I like finding in earlier poems ideas I no longer agree with. It means my poems were accurate records of my states that allow me to chart my changes. “The poem doesn’t need to be true,” Allen Ginsberg said. “It just needs to be true that I felt it at the time.”
Edwin Denby wrote, of the dancer Markova, “When you watch her, the whole body shows that unpredictable burning edge of movement that the living images of real life have, which continue so mysteriously to live inside our hearts, and out of whose inexhaustible light art is made.” (Modern Music, January – February 1942).
That beautiful phrase, “the living images of real life,” connects itself to life, as Denby’s criticism is continually connecting to the reality of dances on stage, yet the phrase itself is an artifice composed of words.
Art, then, is an activity, a response to the thing we are doing all the time, to what is happening to us. Even at its most intentionally informal, art is a way of taking control, of saying, there is part of my life, of life, that I can control, where I can edit out (or in) the mess and chaos. Art, too, is a response to nature. Nature can be the middle of Times Square, but the nature I am thinking of is the more traditional one, that one finds on paths rarely traveled, points reached only with difficulty. There, one can observe how plants grow unimpeded by man’s interference. One can see the multitude of animals still present, actively pursuing their needs. There, one can be still, without any need of anything for the moment, without the need for art.
Vincent Katz is the author of the poetry collections Southness (2016) and Swimming Home (2015) and of the book of translations The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius (2004). His next book of poems, Broadway for Paul, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2020.