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Poetry is as much about not saying something as it is about having something to say. There are words that come too easily to us, words that, once we have uttered them, we realize are either meaningless cliche, or simply do not say what we mean with any exactitude. They are commonplaces, or shorthands meant to avoid the truly difficult. 

Reams of bad poetry rhyme the thoughts we believe we share, or worse, believe we ought to share: emotions that are expected rather than actually experienced; ideas that were once current that have outworn their truths; expressions we overheard rather than discovered. 

And so, we struggle to find the real, the exact, the fresh, and instead, out on paper appears the tired, the familiar, the trite, and we scratch out the lines and try again. It is what we don’t want to write that drives us.

As T.S. Eliot write it in “Burnt Norton,” “Because one has only learnt to get the better of words/ For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which/ One is no longer disposed to say it.”

Each attempt at a poem is, in Eliot’s words, “a raid on the inarticulate.”

You can see it in a page of his draft for “The Wasteland:” Lines penciled through, sharp comments scribbled in the margins, even a heckling at himself — “Perhaps be damned.” 

Allen Ginsberg liked to preach the wisdom of the first draft. “First thought, best thought,” he repeated, like a mantra. Yet the published draft of his best poem, “Howl” is a mass of rewriting and crossing-outs. One tries very hard not to waste our time by saying something that is boilerplate, that is obvious, that is inelegant or imprecise. 

Which makes a successful poem all the more powerful. 

There are two ways in which poems can be essential. The first and easiest is that it delights us. These are poems we carry with us for life the way we remember a lovely tune. They are fun to recite and we very likely have memorized at least a few lines. 

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stevens. “Kublai Khan” by Coleridge. “This Be the Verse,” by Philip Larkin. A whole Palgrave’s Treasury of poetry that over and over, we come back to. 

They can be light, but they can be serious also, take us along with them past everyday concerns. Some are longer, some are just ditties. Robert Herrick’s “Whenas in silks my Julia goes,/ Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows/ That liquefaction of her clothes.” 

The bulk of poems that give us pleasure fit into this category. 

But there are other lines that more than delight, hit deep into the most central part of our selves and smack us with a kind of revelation. The first group — that delight us — are poems that we date, but these others are the poems we are married to. They speak to us with the clarity of a gong and hammer our nerves flat, and leave us moved and our our bodies full with emotion, ready to burst like an overfull water balloon. 

You will have your own candidates, poems that whisper in your ear something that can make you weep. They are poems that feel not simply true, but personal. Those that crash into me won’t likely be the same ones that hit you. But if you love poetry you must certainly have your own list of “holy of holies.” Here are a few of mine:

There is no poem I reread more than William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” I know; I know. Wordsworth can be tedious. One thinks of Rossini’s smackdown of Richard Wagner: “He has beautiful moments, but godawful quarter-hours.” But those bits. It is like taking the red-eye to New York and you are bored and sleepy most of the way, but just as the sun rises over the eastern horizon, the plane banks and the blast of light through the window blinds you with brilliance. 

There is a reason he has the fourth most quotes in Bartletts after Shakespeare, the King James Bible and John Milton. 

The “Intimations Ode,” as it is usually known, is his poem that speaks to me most heartbreakingly. I don’t share his strained Platonism about life before birth, but the central description of how childhood comes “trailing clouds of glory.” The world is lit from within when we are young. Now that I am 71, that transparency of light is clouded over as by emotional cataracts. But I can clearly remember the brilliance. And Wordsworth’s poem is not only about the “splendor in the grass,” but also about the comfort of that remembering.

No poem speaks to me more personally, more directly, more heartbreakingly. Unless that poem is…  

Three things are central to human life: Love, loss and death. One poem has them all and tears me to shreds each time I read it. Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” 

Yes, we need food, shelter and air to live, but life gives back always those three pillars: love, loss and death. In Whitman’s poem, the speaker remembers childhood when he came to know two sea birds, a mating pair. They came back to Long Island each spring from migration, until one year, only one came back. The sense of loss is palpable, and painfully familiar. The recognition of the loss, and of the death that caused the loss, drives the speaker to poetry. 

This poem has always moved me deeply, but now that my wife of 35 years has died and left me alone, the poem is nearly unbearable. This is what I mean about a poem speaking personally. It is no theory I feel on rereading it, but the recognition of truth. 

Then, there is Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” It is perhaps the most pessimistic poem in the canon. It recognizes the abject aloneness of life, and the slim but necessary comfort of sharing that aloneness. 

The speaker calls to his share-mate to look out the window at the English Channel and consider the “eternal note of sadness,” and the “ebb and flow of human misery.” He muses on the loss of any sense of divine order or providence and posits the only help is that they “be true to one another.” For the world offers nothing permanent or positive beyond that.

It is such a beautifully written thing, that the misery in it almost comes across as transcendent. The receding waves of the Channel on the beach shingle makes a hissing sound that makes the whole thing utterly palpable.

Conrad Aiken is usually thought of as a minor poet, and most of his work is known only to scholars nowadays. But one of his poems speaks to me as much alive as Wordsworth or Whitman, and that is his poem about death, “Tetelestai.” 

The title is the Greek word that the Christ spoke as his last on the cross: “It is finished.” In Aiken’s poem, he parodies the grand trumpets that blast at the death of heroes and the triumphal cortege that celebrates the heroic life, but then pleads that even a profoundly ordinary man — meaning himself — deserves the same ceremony, the same sense of importance. 

Say, he says, “two great gods, in a vault of starlight/ Play ponderingly at chess, and at the game’s end/ One of the pieces, shaken, falls to the floor/ And runs to the darkest corner; and that piece/ Forgotten there, left motionless, is I.”

Yet, he pleads, he has had the same emotions, the same drives, the same failures, as the trumpet-hailed hero. Does he not deserve to be remembered for these things? Of course he is being ironic on one level, but underneath, he is certainly sincere — Each of us, after all, is the hero of his or her own life, the center of the subjective universe. 

It is a poem of sadness, of frustration, of recollection of a life too insignificant to be grieved, yet, deserving of grief. 

The last poem I will mention here in detail was written in German by Joseph von Eichendorff in 1841. It is a poem I would not have come across in my normal reading, but it is the text set by composer Richard Strauss as the finale of his “Four Last Songs,” one of the most intensely beautiful and heart-piercing cycles of music ever written, lush, shadowed, personal. Strauss wrote it at the very end of his own life and his text choices — the Eichendorff and three poems by Herman Hesse — are each as full as a cup  brimming over. 

There are many translations — at least as many as there are recordings of the Strauss songs and printed on the CD insert — but for me, most fail be either being too literal or too conventionally “poetical.” So, I made my own translation, which for me carries the weight of the poem as I feel it in the music. I give it here:

There are other poems I could mention that move me as these five do. I love the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales; Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden;” Auden’s “September 1, 1939;” Yeats’ “Lapis Lazuli;” “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. There are others. And I continually find new ones to add to the list. 

Poetry can say with precision what we mean to say but our words fail us. Yes, it can also camouflage our fuzzy thought with pretty words, but those are the words I said a good poet fights to shake loose from. Poetry is not vague clouds of unclarified smoosh. The best is made by intense thought and concentration, and a fear of uttering cant, the commonplace, the banal. 

When the useless marble is chiseled away, the David is left for us to marvel at, and recognize as ourselves. 

wall panels

Two of the most common complaints I heard at art galleries were: “My kid could do that,” and “It’s the emperor’s new clothes.”

As far as the first, I suspect the kid could do that, although the parent could not. Kids’ art is amazing. As for the second, it implies that the artist is somehow hoodwinking the public, setting out to create something to “fool the rubes.”

But in my 25 years of being an art critic and seeing hundreds, probably thousands of shows, I have to say I cannot remember a single example of an artist deliberately scamming the public. On the contrary, no matter how godawful the art, how silly the conceit, how pretentious the content, every single one of them was utterly sincere.

The issue has been raised by my former esteemed colleague, Kerry Lengel, on his Facebook page: “What percentage of Modern art was created for the sole purpose of making rubes like me scratch their heads and go, ‘Whuh …?’ ” Included is the above photo of a four-panel Minimalist artwork. He seems to have addressed this question specifically to me.

My initial response to his percentage question was “13.7 percent.” But that was merely facetious. He suggested 40 percent. But my real answer is closer to zero.

This is not to exonerate all the really bad art that hangs on gallery and museum walls, but to claim that the miserableness is not by intent. Remember the rule of thumb: 90 percent of everything is crap. (Others calculate that at 99 percent, but I’m not here to quibble).

Nor am I going to argue that many arts professionals aren’t gargling jargon and hiding behind graduate degrees and claiming to have arcane knowledge the ordinary art goer is not privy to. Any profession has its shibboleths. I have complained many times about the ridiculous text that curators post beside the art on the wall, claiming all kinds of political and philosophical content in otherwise simple imagery. Such content may or may not be there, but if it isn’t communicated by the art itself, what good is having an explanation next to it?

The academic and intellectual world has been infected for the past 30 or 40 years with “theory,” and it has deracinated a good deal of the art, both by explaining away the work, or by substituting theory for actual experience. There is much to be learned from deconstruction or semiotics, but it cannot replace just looking at the art itself. All theory is an attempt to replace living experience with dry words. Language is a way to tame the effusive and prolific chaos of human experience. It is a map instead of a voyage.

(I thank goodness that we seem to be leaving the constipated orbit of post-structuralism. I could never understand why we should take seriously any theory that by its own tenets is meaningless. It has been one of the least helpful things the French have ever given us.)

Let’s take a look at the four wall panels above. First, they aren’t just any colors, but specifically the primary colors of the additive color system, that is, the colors in your TV and computer screen. The blue isn’t any blue, but the almost purple blue, the red is a tomato red. If you look closely at the colors and try to ingest them the way you might a salami sandwich, roll them around on your eyes the way you might roll that deli meat on your tongue, you can simply enjoy their intensity. They are a pleasure to look at.

But they may also make you consider the difference between the mediated world of digital experience and the sensuous world that you float in daily. The artist could have chosen the printer’s subtractive primary colors (the colors of the printed page), cyan, yellow, magenta and black (abbreviated to CYMK, where the K stands for black).

wall panels cmyk

So, they are not just any colors. You bring to the art your knowledge of the color choices you use daily on your iMac, the same way you bring your knowledge of biblical mythology to the paintings of Titian, or your knowledge of the French demimonde to Impressionists.

Further, the rectangular shape of the canvases (or panels, I can’t tell from the photo) is the shape of the pixels on your TV or computer screen. If you look with a magnifying glass at the screen you can see them lined up in register. These four panels seem to be about something, not merely four panels of random colors.

What you make of all this is up to you, but you should not simply dismiss the art. I don’t want to make to great a claim for this specific piece of art, but the artist clearly had something in mind.

What we are asked to do by any piece of art is to take it seriously. We may ultimately decide it belongs with the 90 percent that deserves to be flushed away, but we haven’t earned the judgment unless we first allow ourselves to assume its sincerity (even when it is clearly an ironic comment). It’s the art world equivalent of “innocent until proven guilty.” Admittedly, it can sometimes be a short trial, but it shouldn’t be a lynching.

It should also be noted that there is a difference between liking a piece of art and appreciating it. We all have tastes and sometimes we like vanilla and don’t like asparagus. But we can recognize that some people love the vegetable. Liking is not a judgment, it is an expression of personal taste. There are many works of art I recognize as important and distinguished but that I have no taste for. I have a personal animus toward all Victorian literature. Can’t stand the stuff. But just because I was put off Dickens by being forced to read Oliver Twist in eighth grade doesn’t mean I think Dickens is no damn good. I just don’t resonate to Victorian writing. I don’t enjoy Browning, either, or Hardy. Liking is merely personal; quality is something else.Holzer

Samuel Coleridge says somewhere in his Biographica Literaria that there is a difference between “gustibus” and “gusti.” De gustibus non est desputandum, he says is merely the personal liking and disliking of something, but taste, he says, is not like that. It can be cultivated and developed.

I remember recoiling at the rather glib statement by artist Jenny Holzer that “Money creates taste.” That should be, “Money creates fashion.” Taste is something else. Just ask Donald Trump.

Taste requires engagement. Spending time and effort. It is not a question of academic degrees, but willingness and openness; and an ability to forget the myriad conventional categories we have been ground down by. Art that is unfamiliar is usually art that is going somewhere beyond the norm, and invites us to go with it.stella-flowers-italy-1931-copy

So, if you don’t recognize value in the four panels of color on the wall, this should be a sign that you should stop and plan to spend an hour with it trying to figure out what the artist might be attempting that you cannot understand with the speed and alacrity you might get the punchline of a New Yorker cartoon. (See: https://richardnilsen.com/2014/07/10/how-to-look-at-a-painting/ )

Engagement — not in the Sartrean political sense, but in the sense of spending your time and attention — is the bottom line both in making art and in perceiving it. Let it absorb you as you absorb it. Seek the pleasure in the simplest things, such as the green; not just any green, but this very specific green. Taste it in your eye. For the time you stand in front of it, let the painting or sculpture, or installation, be everything in the world, a funnel into which you pour your whole life experience, and let it come back out in a torrent.

Obviously, you won’t get the big reward every time. Some art is thin gruel. But you should never just assume it is pabulum. It just may prove worth your time.

woody mugshot

Woody Allen’s peccadilloes are in the news again, as his ex and his purported son publically dis his recent Golden Globe “lifetime achievement” award.

This is not to defend Allen. Whether he is a child molester or not is not a question I can weigh in on. There is certainly something creepy about the whole affair with him and his current wife, Soon-Yi.

But whether the filmmaker deserves recognition for his films is a completely different question from whether his conduct in life is reprehensible.

We so often confuse private morality with public achievement, and demand they complement each other. They seldom do.

Not that Woody hasn’t given us a few hints over time. father andrei

In his Love and Death, Diane Keaton asks shriveled old patriarch Father Andrei for his wisdom.

He answers haltingly from behind a 9-foot beard: ”I have lived many years, and after many trials and tribulations, I have come to the conclusion that the best thing is — blond 12-year-old girls. Two of them whenever possible.”

This used to be a joke; it is now evidence.

Former fans, turned prosecutorial, now search the Wood-man’s films for this kind of evidence, ever since Allen’s former squeeze Mia Farrow accused him of sexually abusing their adopted 7-year-old girl, Dylan, and Allen admitted having an affair with Farrow’s 21-year-old adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. ronan farrow

Not that Farrow gets off: She has recently implied that her son, Ronan, may not have been Woody’s child, after all. She may have been cheating with Frank Sinatra. Looking for old-time sexual morality in Hollywood can be like looking for sympathetic liberals on Fox News.

But about Woody, there’s lots of evidence to be unearthed from the films, from the underage girlfriend in Manhattan to the shifting family connections in Hannah and Her Sisters.

Rightly or wrongly, Allen’s life and films have always been confused by his fans. After all, Allen plays the same character in each film, a character that seems to be a stand-in for the film maker. No one mistakes Chaplin for a tramp, but Allen seems to be so much like Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, Isaac Davis in Manhattan and Gabe Roth in Husbands and Wives, that the confusion is natural.

So it’s no surprise that some formerly devoted fans have decided that they can no longer stand to see their fallen hero’s films.

So, let us please re-establish the separation between the artist and his creation. For his real sins, take him to court, for his art, remember the art exists, now, on its own, just as a son or daughter now exists separate from parent, and should not be held guilty of the parent’s crimes or vices. Polish director Polanski attends news conference for film "Chacun son Cinema" at 60th Cannes Film Festival

Roman Polanski is a reprehensible human being, but a very good filmmaker. Should we stop showing his Macbeth to high school students because of his crimes? Not if we want to convince those teens that Shakespeare is actually an exciting playwright.

Separating the artist from his work is essential. Otherwise, we will need to get rid of our copies of Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll, after all, enjoyed taking photographs of nude little girls.

And if we are religious, we will have to stop singing that Ave Maria, because Franz Schubert liked sex with underage boys.Robert Frost

Artists are as venal, evil, self-centered, confused and destructive as the rest of us. The history of art is a landfill of disturbing biography.

Robert Frost sounds wise and paternal in his poems, but he was such an S.O.B. off the page that he drove his son to suicide.

William Burroughs and Norman Mailer have been hell on wives. Charges of child abuse now dog even James Joyce.

Benvenuto Cellini was a murderer. Ezra Pound was an anti-Semitic apologist for Fascism. Herbert von Karajan was a card-carrying Nazi. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Hector Berlioz were drug fiends.

And we cannot begin to count the number of drunken novelists.

Sometimes we forget that Lord Byron diddled his sister. Or that Percy Shelley married a 16-year-old girl and then told her that he was in love with another teen-ager and that maybe all three could live together. Wagner

Or that Richard Wagner wrote Tristan und Isolde while enjoying a love affair with a woman he borrowed from her husband, who was housing and feeding the freeloading composer at the time. Wagner’s wife wasn’t happy about the arrangement, either.

This rogue’s gallery of adulterers, criminals, perverts and wackos made some of the greatest art of all time.

I am not suggesting that we let Woody off the hook. If he is guilty of child abuse, he should have to pay the price. He is certainly guilty of foolishness and self-deception in his relations with Soon-Yi.

But it is the man, not the art that should have to pay. Allen is one of America’s best film makers, the one of the few who consistently make films that examine the quality and meaning of life. That his films vary widely in quality is not in question, but even Allen’s worst films — Interiors and September — are serious attempts to deal with issues.

And his best, from Annie Hall to Crimes and Misdemeanors and Husbands and Wives, are as rich and textured as the best of Jean Renoir, who, by the way, married one of his father’s nude models and later divorced her.

What is so hard to understand is that Woody Allen can be so wise on celluloid and so foolish on the streets of New York.

But this goes well beyond Allen, and well beyond artists.

Our heroes just can’t seem to keep their noses clean.

One after the other they self-destruct, turning from demigods into blackguards before our very eyes.

Pick one, let his luster shine for a few moments and then notice the worm.Lindbergh

And I mean some of the most accomplished and meaningful personalities of the American century: Charles Lindbergh was a Nazi sympathizer. Martin Luther King Jr. was a womanizer. Elvis was a drug addict.

The list is long and luxurious, and the heroes in question come from politics, sports and the arts. We admire their accomplishments, even aspire to be like them, and then come to find out, as with O.J. Simpson, that they beat their wives and perhaps worse.

It isn’t just a recent phenomenon.

For every Woody Allen there is a Charlie Chaplin; for every Roman Polanski there is a Fatty Arbuckle. And let’s not forget Ingrid Bergman.

Let us not forget the charm of Ty Cobb, the graciousness of Babe Ruth and the temperance of Pete Rose.

Madonna raised eyebrows with her reputed NBA exploits, but what of  Clara Bow, who had a thing for the 1927 University of Southern California football team. The whole team.

Horatio Alger

Horatio Alger

Just think of some of their stories, moving backward in time. Errol Flynn, the patriotic hero on screen, was a Nazi sympathizer who died in a hotel room with an underage girl.

Horatio Alger, before he became the author of those inspirational rags-to-riches stories that Republicans like to recommend to those on welfare, was a minister who lost his job because he liked to seduce young boys.

It seems as if no one can escape: Who was the most saintly man of this century? Mahatma Gandhi liked to sleep naked with young girls, and he regularly weighed his excrement in the morning.

So beside that, a governor with his pants down in a motel room may seem kind of tame.

Even if he later became president.

I do not mean to debunk all our heroes, but to better understand what they are and what role they play in public life.

Heroism is a story we fashion from someone’s life, gaining nourishment from the pulp and spitting out the pits. As a story, it is tidied up with a beginning, middle and end, and it sports a moral that is meant to make our lives better or more meaningful. Unlike a real human life, it cannot sustain the complexities, contradictions and ambiguities that are always found in people, so it simplifies to make a point.

Charles Barkley is right to complain about being a called a role model — role model is the term we use instead of hero in an increasingly bureaucratic society — because the role he is asked to play is so much smaller than the life he lives.

Flesh-and-blood heroes are like actors that step into a part we need them to play.

And we do need them.

In earlier times, the hero was the person who translated the will of the gods into history. We no longer may believe in the gods and destiny, but we still need heroes. The hero is the link between the everyday life we live in and something transcendent. He brings the sky down to us so we can see it, feel it and taste it.

Michael Jordan hanging in the air like an angel who doesn’t need wings. richard burton

But when we hold our heroes up to higher standards than humans can sustain, we are like little children who cannot tell the actor from the part.

An adult doesn’t condemn Hamlet because Richard Burton was a lush.

Our heroes are capable of doing all the things ordinary people can do, including lying, cheating and stealing. Murder and rape are not beyond them, nor is mere vanity or meanness.

Like humans, our heroes are bundles of contradictions; they are large and contain multitudes.

For their crimes, we prosecute them as we do anyone else. For their simpler sins, we develop short memories. For their heroics, we need to be grateful.

What we forget is that a hero is a hero for what he does, not for who he is.