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Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

I have a project that needs tending this morning so I am going to replay a post about a painting from the enigmatic Symbolist painter, Fernand Khnopff, whose work has been described as “visual realism combined with a mood of silence, isolation, and reverie.” It also includes an interesting video about this painting from the Khan Academy which is a great free site for well done courses and videos on a wide variety of subjects. For those of you with a lot of extra time these days, it’s worth a look.

Fernand Khnopff I Lock the Door Upon Myself

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God strengthen me to bear myself;
That heaviest weight of all to bear,
Inalienable weight of care.

All others are outside myself;
I lock my door and bar them out
The turmoil, tedium, gad-about.

I lock my door upon myself,
And bar them out; but who shall wall
Self from myself, most loathed of all?…

Christina Rossetti

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The painting at the top, I Lock My Door Upon Myself,  is from Belgian Symbolist painter Fernand Khnopff who lived from 1858 until 1921.  The title is taken from a verse of a poem, Who Shall Deliver Me? (shown in part above), from Christina Rossetti, the pre-Raphaelite poetess whose brother,  Dante Rossetti, was an influence on the work of Khnopff.

It’s a haunting painting, one that always makes me stop a bit when I stumble across an image of it. Perhaps it is the symbolist elements in it but for me it is probably the beautiful construction of forms and color that give the overall piece an almost abstract feel. Just a great image in so many ways.

I came across a video from the free educational series Khan Academy that offers a short and insightful exploration of the painting’s symbolism. Very interesting if you have five minutes or so.

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Acquainted with the Night

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.

― Robert Frost, West-Running Brook

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The painting at the top is called Socially Distant. It’s a 20″ tall by 60″ wide canvas (much larger than it appears on the screen) that is part of my annual solo show, Social Distancing, scheduled to open June 5 at the Principle Gallery. Of course, I say scheduled because of the uncertainty for anything in the near future given our current situation.

The series of cityscapes I am doing in recent months was began just as Covid-19 was just taking hold in Asia. Not many here were following it closely or, at least, closely enough. I can say with all certainty that when I started painting these pieces they were not intended to be a commentary on this situation. I saw them as being both about its constructed form– its shapes, colors and contrasts– and the feeling of anonymity and separateness that the crowded streets and looming structures that a city offers.

But sometimes the work and the times converge. As the crisis has unfolded these paintings seem more and more prescient with their empty streets and vacant windows. The anonymity that I initially saw transformed into the social distancing required to combat the spread of this virus.

Even the colors seemed to point to this crisis. The reddish skies suggest the the warmth and fetid fertility of the hot zones that have often spawned outbreaks.

This particular painting has one differing feature from the others in the series –a lone figure standing in a second story window, just to the right of center. I wasn’t sure about this and left the figure out of the painting for weeks as I mulled it over. But as the current situation unfolded and grew, the figure loomed larger in my mind and I finally relented.

In a way, its inclusion makes the vacant city seem even emptier.

To accompany this piece, I’ve included a Robert Frost poem that I have liked for a long time, Acquainted With the Night. In this context, I especially like the last four lines of the poem and their convergence with the empty clock face high atop a tower in the center of the painting that serves as a false moon and creates a strong diagonal in the picture plane between it, the moon and the lone figure.

Take care today and have as good a day as possible.

 

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Interesting history behind the Henry Wadswoth Longfellow poem below that was transformed a few years after it was written in late 1863 into a well holiday song.

The 1860’s were a tragic time for the poet Longfellow. In addition to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, his wife was killed in a tragic fire at his home. In early 1863, his oldest son enlisted in the Union Army despite his father’s protests. That same year he was severely wounded at the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia. He survived but the injuries ended his army career.

This poem was a response to the times from Longfellow. The next to the last stanza points out his despair and his waning faith in the face of a divided nation:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

But in the last stanza, upon hearing the loud pealing of the Christmas bells, he regains his belief that good will overcome evil:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.

The poem became popular at the time and was first set to music as a song in 1872 by British organist John Baptiste Calkin and then again in 1956, by American songwriter Johnny Marks, whose version, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, was first recorded that year by Bing Crosby. The Marks song has been recorded by over 60 artists and has sold over 5 million copies.

It’s a poem and song of hope for dark times. We can certainly use that these days.

 

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Christmas Bells

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1863

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GC Myers- Night Comes OnThe post below from a few years back is very popular, receiving quite a few views each day. As I prepare to lead my annual painting workshop next week, I thought it would be appropriate to replay it here today.

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Whenever I am asked to speak with students I usually tell them to try to find their own voice, to try to find that thing that expresses who they really are. I add that this is not something that comes easily, that it takes real effort and sacrifice. The great poet e e cummings (you most likely know him for his unusual punctuation) offered up a beautiful piece of similar advice for aspiring poets that I think can be applied to most any discipline.

Or to anyone who simply desires to feel deeply in this world.

I particularly like the line: To be nobody-but-yourself -in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else- means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.  That line alone speaks volumes and no doubt resonates with anyone in a creative field.

Take a moment to read this short bit of advice, substituting words describing your chosen discipline wherever the word poet (or a word describing poetry) is used, and see what you think– or feel.

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A Poet’s Advice To Students

(e e cummings)

A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feeling through words.

This may sound easy. It isn’t.

A lot of people think or believe or know they feel-but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling-not knowing or believing or thinking.

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself -in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else- means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time-and whenever we do it, we’re not poets.

If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.

And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world-unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.

Does this sound dismal? It isn’t.

It’s the most wonderful life on earth.

Or so I feel.

 

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I came across a short quote from the late Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz, that I wanted to share here:

“In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.”

I found that these words came from his speech given at his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. But while researching this quote, I came across this other poem that really spoke to me. I thought I would share this as well. It was written in Warsaw, Poland in 1944 in the midst of the German army’s destruction of that city.

Basically, he is saying that though the world might seem to be in chaotic and deadly turmoil, that the world for some is ending, there are those who will not notice it. The sun is shining  as it always does and the moon will rise soon after as it, too, always does. Birds sing and fish swim as they always do. People go about their days, working and playing, as they always do.

How can this be the end of the world if such things go on unaffected?

But the end he may be describing may not be the actual end of the world, though for some it surely does. The world is always changing sometimes in small ways and sometimes in large swipes. Every change means the end of one world and the beginning of another. Perhaps, while he is surely pointing to an actual ending of worlds for his neighbors in WW II Warsaw, he is also referencing a symbolic ending to worlds of innocence, of worlds of gentleness, replaced with worlds of violence and treachery.

I don’t know for sure but that is how I am reading it. Take a look and decide for yourself.

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A Song on the End of the World

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be.

–Czeslaw Milosz   (1911-2004)

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The Gallery Talk was a bit of fun on Saturday at the West End Gallery. But more than that, it gave me a bit of hope being in the midst of people who were concerned at that moment with things that affirm our own existence rather than condemn the existence of others. As I said in the talk, I am pro-affirmation. It became a running joke on Saturday but I would like to believe it is true.

Unfortunately, there are a lot more of those who condemn the existence of others out there today. Maybe it is the same amount as always. But they feel emboldened and have the ear of a president* who will say and do anything to maintain his control.

And along with them, there are a lot of folks who have refused to pay attention and just assume that it will work itself out without them needing to lift a finger or even think about it. These folks are the ones who really worry me, maybe more than those who willingly hate others, who willingly despoil our world, who knowingly twist the rule of law and gleefully profit from it all.

These folks who just turn a blind eye enable them because they think they have no power to stop anything. They accept a gentle cut here or there. It doesn’t hurt anyone they know so what’s the harm? But in doing so, they move the line for what is acceptable and normal away from where it has been for generations. Soon, the cuts are not gentle any more and hurt some of the people around them, maybe even themselves. And the line for what is normal keeps moving away from them to create a world they couldn’t have imagined when they weren’t paying attention.

They will be as powerless then as they feel now. But, in fact, they have the power to stop much of it now if they simply open their eyes and refuse to accept this new normal. They must pay attention, they must speak out, to act if needed. But most of all, they must be willing to say “No.”

How do you make these sleeping giants understand that they need to turn their eyes to this situation? That’s a tough one. The great poet Wendell Berry wrote this poem below, Questionnaire, back in 2009 and it asks us how much awfulness we are willing to accept as normal. We need to answer with great honesty if we want to live in a world that is acceptable and beneficial for the most of us.

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QUESTIONNAIRE
by Wendell Berry

  1. How much poison are you willing
    to eat for the success of the free
    market and global trade? Please
    name your preferred poisons.
  2. For the sake of goodness, how much
    evil are you willing to do?
    Fill in the following blanks
    with the names of your favorite
    evils and acts of hatred.
  3. What sacrifices are you prepared
    to make for culture and civilization?
    Please list the monuments, shrines,
    and works of art you would
    most willingly destroy.
  4. In the name of patriotism and
    the flag, how much of our beloved
    land are you willing to desecrate?
    List in the following spaces
    the mountains, rivers, towns, farms
    you could most readily do without.
  5. State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
    the energy sources, the kinds of security,
    for which you would kill a child.
    Name, please, the children whom
    you would be willing to kill.

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Bazonka

Hard to believe I’ve been doing this blog for nearly eleven years now. It’s just part of what I do now so I don’t really think about it much. I was going over some stats from the site and found that the entry below from ten years back, in late August of 2009, has the most views of any single post, well over a hundred thousand hits. It’s a silly bit of verse from the late British-Irish comedian Spike Milligan called Bazonka.

In a world where everyone is trying to tell you what you should do, saying Bazonka might not be the worst advice you’ll get today. So, let me be the first to say it. Bazonka!

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BAZONKA

Say Bazonka every day
That’s what my grandma used to say
It keeps at bay the Asian Flu’
And both your elbows free from glue.
So say Bazonka every day
(That’s what my grandma used to say)

Don’t say it if your socks are dry!
Or when the sun is in your eye!
Never say it in the dark
(The word you see emits a spark)
Only say it in the day
(That’s what my grandma used to say)

Young Tiny Tim took her advice
He said it once, he said it twice
he said it till the day he died
And even after that he tried
To say Bazonka! every day
Just like my grandma used to say.

Now folks around declare it’s true
That every night at half past two
If you’ll stand upon your head
And shout Bazonka! from your bed
You’ll hear the word as clear as day
Just like my grandma used to say! 

— Spike Milligan

 

 

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