Wednesday, June 26, 2013

poetry and cheez-its: getting an edumacation in modern art

Get widget
"Like many members of the uncultured Cheez-It consuming public, I am not good at grasping modern art." - Dave Barry

I have a confession: I really like Cheez-Its. I know they are bad for you and full of questionable ingredients, but every so often I eat them anyway.  

I have another confession: I really like poetry. And I'm not in college or psychotic or on drugs or a communist or any combination of those.
Emily Dickinson enjoying a Cheez-It


Don't act all surprise. You probably like poetry, too, if you stop and think about it. Listen to music much? 

But, just like I don't "get" all music, I've discovered I don't "get" all poetry. 

When I decided to start writing again, I subscribed to Poem-A-Day from the Academy of American Poets. I thought it was important that I bone up on current literary trends to stay educated and relevant.

Then something called Modern Poetry smacked me upside the head. Now I just feel unedumacated and irrelevant. And a little bruised around the ego.   

When I think of poetry, I think of something like "Stopping by Woods" by Robert Frost. Most of us have read that. It's not as simple a poem as it seems on the surface. It actually has lots of layers. You could pick it apart for days if you wanted to. 

But it doesn't take a whole lot of work (or various language dictionaries) to read it. The words are simple and familiar. Woods. Snow. Road. Horse. Miles to go. A picture forms in your head readily. It's accessable. 

Unfortunately, modern poetry seems to be the furthest thing from 'accessable.' There is some very ODD stuff posing as poetry out there these days. I can't even understand half of the poems that drop into my inbox. 

Forget iambic pentameter, forget rhyme or scheme, forget words that actually seem to go together to make a coherent thought. They're just...weird. 

Recently I decided to come clean to a trusted poet friend about my sheer ignorance when it comes to modern poetry. I'm glad I did, as she was very illuminating and never once looked down her nose at me. Although she could have, as I am quite short. 

She explained that poetry as an art form lags behind other art forms in innovation. She likened this 'odd' poetry to modern/post-modern visual art. 

Sometimes it's not about what it says on the page, but about how it sounds, or how it looks, or how the individual interprets it. Think Jackson Pollock instead of Rembrandt.

I can't say I get Pollock either. Much to the chagrin of my cousin Ron, a mixed-media artist whose work is very modern and very Pollock-esque. 

But at least I try.

And I wanted to try to understand this crazy stuff they call modern poetry. 

So last September I took a free Modern and Contemporary Poetry (ModPo) course from the University of Pennsylvania through Coursera

By "took" I mean I signed up for it. I didn't actually participated very well.

Ok, at all.

I recently finished the first session. Only *mmm* months later. Thank goodness for internet archives. (PS - They're offering it again this September. Maybe I'll do better second time around.)

But it was worth going through the archives for a second look. The first session focused on two people I admire the most... (sorry, Don McLean just started singing in my head)  No, I don't mean the Son and the Holy Ghost (although I do admire them). I mean Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

I guess I never thought of Emily Dickinson as a "modern" poet because her, I get. She has always been on my top 5 hit list. And for a dead girl, she's a great mentor. Her sparse words give an impression of simplicity. Oh so deceptive, because simple gifts in the hand of a master can confound the wise.

I don't like dissecting her too much. All her punctuation and capitalization paint a picture in my head that dissolves when I start taking the poem apart word by word. It's like killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Sometimes I just want to enjoy the richness of a poem without dissecting it too much.

Like Cheez-its. If I looked at the ingredient list, I would probably retch. Eaten occasionally with a glass of sweet tea, they won't kill me. Sometimes you should just enjoy things for what they are and move on.
And maybe that's the best way for ordinary people like me to "get" art of any kind, modern or not. Don't dissect it. Think only a little bit. Does it move me? Does it connect me to something or someone? Does it make me feel something, even if that something is anger or confusion? Do I see things or people differently afterwards?

The first reading was one of Emily's gems that I haven't read in some time. It sings of infinity of possibility, of nature and of poetry and of portals, of our limited hands somehow being capable of gathering Paradise. 

It speaks particularly to me right now. I see a vastness of promise in it as I continue down this strange new road, and I want to share it. 

Read it, but not too closely. Step back and let the picture unfold. Maybe, just maybe, it will reveal new possibilities for you, too. 

I dwell in Possibility – (657)

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

Emily Dickinson

No comments :

Post a Comment

Have something to add? Let me know what you think!