Sunday, May 11, 2014

Since by Man


In my last post, I tried to analyze why I sometimes sit down at a keyboard and compose sentences, paragraphs, etc. rather than doing something else. Without getting into the “meaning of art” question (Red Green said, famously, 'I know what's art and what's not; if I like it, it's not art!') I've wondered lately what art form might best respond to present-day horrors in a similar manner to Pablo Picasso's Guernica response to the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War.

       There's enough doomsday news around for any artist to feed on: climate change, super bugs, Syrian, Ukrainian, Central African conflicts to name just a few. There's always a temptation in trying times to join anarchic responses to real or imagined tyranny, like early Anabaptists refusing to bow to the spiritual powers of the day.

We're seeing multiple examples of frustration breeding anarchy of various kinds and degrees in the world. Take Crimea as an example, if you like.

      Art can be political in style and purpose and it's no surprise that artists often take an anarchic stance that can appear, well, shocking . . . as Guernica or Jonathon Swift's essay, A Modest Proposal do.

      So here's my contribution (in early draft form) of an anarchist stance, a protest against the malaise we're witnessing among the powers of our time in the face of serious environmental, health threats . . . real or imagined:


Now is no time for cliches

Plastic proverbs

Hackneyed saws from ancient times

Pat answers for last year's questions.

Now is no time for wishfulness

For sounding out the stars

No time to play at cards

To risk it all against a lucky draw.

Crossed fingers will not save us now

No relic, shard or rabbit's foot

No pleading, begging, crying for relief

No word, no art, no gun, no vitamin.

Now is a time for nitro-glycerine

For trinitrotoluene, for sabotage

Now is the time to know that since by man comes death

So also restoration comes by man

Or not at all. 

     . . . and a rider. A poem is not a sermon, and lest you think that having written this obviously makes me an anarchist, not so. The apparent message that it's time to "blow stuff up" is not meant literally but falls into the category of speech figures, this time hyperbole. It's meant to shock the reader into considering that I, the poet and he/she, the reader need to consider more aggressive influence on current events. 

Friday, May 09, 2014

"Why do you write?" he asked.

Guernica - Pablo Picasso

“Why do you write?” I was asked a while ago. A good question, especially in a time when the traditions and practices surrounding writing/reading are changing. The question could probably be more general: “Why do people paint/draw/grow flowers/collect bottle caps/refinish old furniture/travel/build a deck/photograph/play the guitar/etc./etc./etc.”

A significant factor in modern-day life—whether we care to admit it or not—is the relentless pursuit of novelty. Put another way, nothing is worse than the prospect of unmitigated boredom. Experiencing and/or making something new on a regular basis is one way to guard against soul-killing ennui.

                (That may not be true for everyone; some folks seem content with monotony, strive, even, to keep their lives predictable, with each new day as much as possible like the last one. Most of us—I suspect—live somewhere between the poles.)

                There’s a case to be made for craving-for-recognition as motivation for making art. Most people who write, paint, photograph, grow gardens find a way to make their handiwork known to the public. Nothing reinforces the habits of creation like community approbation: “You’ve made something wonderful here; I congratulate you.” True, many of us who pursue artistic creation experience long periods of drought—approval-wise—but behavioural psychology tells us that intermittent, unpredictable reward is the greatest motivator. Consider the gambling addict in this regard. If he never wins, he quits. If he always wins, he will eventually quit out of boredom. If he wins occasionally in unpredictable amounts and at unpredictable times, he keeps playing until the cows come home, are milked and have returned to pasture . . . many, many times!

                Some artistic endeavours serve larger political or social purposes. Take this excerpt from poet Muriel Rukeyser’s Poem:

I lived in the first century of world wars.

Most mornings I would be more or less insane,

The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,

The news would pour out of various devices

Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.

I would call my friends on other devices;

They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.

Slowly I would get to pen and paper,

Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.

And the painting above and below (here in black and white) by Pablo Picasso:

“It was painted as a reaction to the aerial bombing of Guernica, Spain by German and Italian forces during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. The Spanish Republic, government of Spain, appointed Picasso to paint a large mural about the bombing to display at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris.”

Of course, those of my friends who write/paint/grow flowers/play guitar don’t live with any illusions that they will one day be recognized for their creations like Vanderhaeghe, Rukeyser, Picasso, Lois Hole or Chet Atkins have been. But I expect we all share the hope that in some way our creative obsessions may make someone’s life a tiny bit better, or clearer, or more amusing. 
             Change the world? I don’t expect it. Leave a small footprint as a reminder that Klavier Onk was here?

            Perhaps that’s enough.

            At least, we’re not as bored as we might otherwise have been.