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Poems for Boneheads: A Criticism of the Artsy-Fartsy

I’ve never paid much attention to poetry.

I don’t like esoteric art. Maybe it’s that I’m too lazy to think about it long enough to find the point. It also might be that I’m offended by elitism–not offended, annoyed. It gets under my skin when art is so lofty it takes a doctorate in baloney to sort it all out, and I’m skeptical of anyone who claims to have a handle on it. It seems more likely they’re faking it to look smart than that they’ve deciphered the thousand layers of something nonsensical and discovered the genius beneath.

For example: At an uppity exhibit here in Nashville I stood in front of a 12″ x 12″ off-white canvas–painted white, nothing more–and read the docent’s statement on the plaque beside it with a mixture of amazement, frustration, and indigestion. It was hailed as genius, as a bold statement because of the “delicate egg-white tone”.

The only thing about it that was ingenious was that the artist had made a ton of money on something that only cost him five minutes and a 2 oz. tube of acrylic paint. That guy drives his Maserati with a wide grin, I bet. Sometimes in the art world, the emperor has no clothes

(There’s a great documentary about this very subject, called My Kid Could Paint That, about a little girl whose paintings fetched big prices and were later claimed to be hoaxes. Read a review by Jeffrey Overstreet here. I watched it twice in two days.)

I realize as I write this that I’m wading in murky waters. I suppose there’s a chance that white painting might deeply move someone, or enhance their understanding of the world, or create a conversation about the nature of art–oops. It just did, didn’t it? Okay, so there’s a place in the world for the inscrutable and the absurd. That place just isn’t in my brain or in my house. No, I want art to mean something.

I want to approach the beauty or the horror or the sadness of a piece of art (be it poetry or story or film–whatever) like Indiana Jones crawling through the Well of Souls, looking for the treasure at the end of the labyrinth because he believes the passageway actually leads somewhere. He’s willing to brave the snakes because he has faith that he’ll find something worth seeking. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

All I saw in that little white canvas was darkness.

There are other ways to appreciate art, too. The artist can create simply as a means of expressing the darkness and light in his own heart–but even then, I think he hopes to create resonance. His art’s consummation is when another soul finds communion in it.

And art doesn’t have to be a riddle to be solved. If you don’t want spelunk, you can also experience it like a Sunday drive. Roll down the windows and breathe in the air of the work, looking for nothing but serendipity. I do that, too, and it’s a fine way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Beauty is reason enough for something to exist (just ask the daffodils). But I don’t see that happening with the aforementioned “painting”.

Let me get to the point. I started out talking about poetry and my lack of interest in it. But that all changed when I heard my friend Al Andrews recite a poem by Billy Collins. The poem, called “The Revenant”, made me laugh. I experienced delight. In the space of less than a minute and about 300 words, a light flicked on in an internal closet and slipped through the crack under the door. This particular combination of words produced a physical reaction in a room full of people. It wasn’t anything soul shattering or theologically explosive. It was just a poem, but it lit the room like a roman candle. Listen:

The Revenant by Billy Collins

I am the dog you put to sleep, as you like to call the needle of oblivion, come back to tell you this simple thing: I never liked you–not one bit.

When I licked your face, I thought of biting off your nose. When I watched you toweling yourself dry, I wanted to leap and unman you with a snap.

I resented the way you moved, your lack of animal grace, the way you would sit in a chair and eat, a napkin on your lap, knife in your hand.

I would have run away, but I was too weak, a trick you taught me while I was learning to sit and heel, and–greatest of insults–shake hands without a hand.

I admit the sight of the leash would excite me but only because it meant I was about to smell things you had never touched.

You do not want to believe this, but I have no reason to lie. I hated the car, the rubber toys, disliked your friends and, worse, your relatives.

The jingling of my tags drove me mad. You always scratched me in the wrong place. All I ever wanted from you was food and fresh water in my metal bowls.

While you slept, I watched you breathe as the moon rose in the sky. It took all my strength not to raise my head and howl.

Now I am free of the collar, the yellow raincoat, monogrammed sweater, the absurdity of your lawn, and that is all you need to know about this place

except what you already supposed and are glad it did not happen sooner– that everyone here can read and write, the dogs in poetry, the cats and the others in prose.

Of course, you may read this poem and feel none of the fireworks or laughter. That’s fine. But try reading it again, aloud. (That’s a rule of poetry.) If you still don’t like it, it might be that you don’t have the advantage of Al Andrews’s baritone doing the reading.

My point is, I’m a new fan of poetry–or at least, I’m a new believer in the power of it. Until I encountered the poems of Wendell Berry and Billy Collins, I assumed modern poetry was generally as self-indulgent as that white canvas, only available to the intellectual or artistic elite (or the fakers). But I’ve since read Berry’s A Timbered Choir and Collins’s Nine Horses, and have found my soul enriched by their careful and kind use of words.

And I didn’t need a doctorate.


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