Someone asked me a while back, if I thought there were any genres that deserved a revisit. Personally, I think it would be OK if we found a way to print good poetry again. I don’t mean that there is no good poetry today, but that there is a kind of unmooring of our sense of what a good poem is. Open any major journal. Open The New Yorker. Sure there will be good poems. But for the most part there will be a collection of impressions of good poetry, a kind of exaggerated reflection of one or another form. Meanwhile, in the ultimate sign of giving up, some poets offer un-poems, cut-ups with almost no agency, copies of random texts, or performance art with words.
I can’t say why, or what the solution is, or that I have something good to offer. I think about when I grew up – it was a time when schools still had dedicated art classes. Our elementary art class, however, was mainly focused on crafts. We’d take popsicle sticks and Elmer’s glue, and wrap colored yarn around them to make dreamcatchers, or something, or glue mosaic tiles onto wooden blocks. I signed up for extra-curricular art, an introductory drawing class, after school, looking for something different.
We had these sessions in the chemistry lab. There were tall tables, and metal stools. The tables were coated with some kind of anti-chemical lacquer, a black, waxy surface that high-schoolers had ruthlessly carved into with a palimpsest of initials and angular profanities dating back decades. We had other extra-curricular classes there too, where I dissected some kind of white worm for science with an X-Acto knife, and discussed criminal justice (for a field trip, we went to the local courthouse to see a downcast young man in a muscle tee sentenced for growing mushrooms).
Our art teacher was the high-school teacher, Mr. Fazio, a tall, raw-boned, red-faced man with salt-and-pepper scruff, a gruff voice, and a long scar on his neck that ran from ear to ear. He made competent watercolors, hunting scenes with pheasants and the like. I later found out that, in Vietnam, someone had come at night into his tent, and cut the throats of four men with a kind of bowie knife. Only Mr. Fazio survived. This was my introduction to the concept that art could be serious stuff.
The first thing we learned, if I remember correctly, was how to make a frog or an owl from a series of ovals. It was a sublime bit of magic, a transformation of soulless graphite into animal life. Here too, though, was a kind of craft, I realized after a while. I was following a recipe to mimic an imagined creature, the idea of a frog, the idea of an owl. Even when Mr. Fazio put a glass jar down, with a few flowers in it, I struggled to recreate it in watercolors. I was happy enough with the effect I had managed to create of a transparency in the glass, and the general look of a flower. But it was not the flower, perhaps my vision had not properly apprehended its reality – I tried to see the flower without looking at it, and found I could not, with every touch it receded into darkness. Nor was it precisely my vision of the flower, since I could see my lack of technique had failed me, although I was unable to articulate how. Nevertheless, I signed it with a red flourish.
Mr. Fazio gave us a number of exercises to help improve both our vision and our technique. Limitation in palette, varying materials, contour drawing, having us draw simple shapes and forms. Victorian art-critic, social thinker, and draftsman John Ruskin thought that art could be used as a tool to improve vision, to help people to better perceive reality. He imagined that by teaching the mine-worker and laborer to follow the lofty divagations of the trees branching into blue air and their ten-myriads or so of leaves you could teach him to appraise his situation, and so knowing, better it.
But although seeing may be believing, it’s not necessarily an understanding. Ruskin’s philosophy missed something, and it’s a hole we continue to try to fill. Modernism tried to complete the path, perfecting vision by expressing all unseen thoughts that round out the thingness of things. So in school, after a bit of three point perspective and shading, art tumbled into the Modernist and Post-Modernist project before any sufficient technical competency could convince us of representation’s failure. We drew cubist chairs, and color-fields, made photocopies of cans of soup, and in music listened to 12-tone opera.
Something in the striving was lost, as we aged. It was because we tried to do too much, to educate ourselves out of the problems of life. Because art became a ticking off of the various boxes. Gradually, people in the community, in the face of budget woes, began to ask when the value of art was, and art classes were cut. When did we fail, and why did we fail? I think a modern sensibility, imbued with the values of an entrepreneurial imagination, mistakes thinking about things for doing them, and knowing about something for learning it.
What is good art? What is a good poem? By now, we have no way of saying. I go back to that room, that in its form exists that way no longer. The chalkboards have been pulled out, and sold off for slate. The tables auctioned off, two of them sit in my parents’ basement. The empty shell of a room just had its long broken windows replaced, and is being rented for artists’ studios. I make my oval, an owl’s body, cut across it to form the head, another oval and the owl has a chest, and wings, and then the thousand tiny ovals of feathers, eyes, beak, talons, horns. The owl blinks, and turns it head.
Bad art is craft without transcendence. Art, poetry that is good is a thing that brings wisdom to the living, from stuff that is dead. Poetry is labor with no end.
Benjamin Harnett (@benharnett) is a senior digital-infrastructure engineer at The New York Times, and publishes the newsletter, “Don’t Read Me” (http://www.tinyletter.com/benjaminharnett). In 2005, he co-founded the fashion brand Hayden-Harnett. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in The Brooklyn Quarterly, Wag’s Revue, and the Columbia Review.