The most important experience of my art history education happened in a small gallery off Melrose, on a field trip for Aesthetics class, or maybe it was Modern and Contemporary Art. Professor McManus sat us down in front of these huge Morris Lewis paintings and said, “I want you to look at these paintings until you can stop your mind from making them into pictures.”
(The earlier Abstract Expressionists were the ones who put all those feelings into the paintings, but the Soak Stain School (Morris Lewis, Helen Frankenthaler, et al) had a more literal approach. I like both schools.)
Here’s a poem I wrote about abstract art:
Your Art Historian Daughter Has Never Been Prouder
On the way home from the Thanksgiving weekend
when first niece was born
and New York City was still trying to find its breath
we stopped at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
on the way home from my sister's in-laws on Long Island.
I like to be alone in museums,
so we looked around separately,
but when we met up outside the Abstract Expressionists
I was looking at this red painting that covered a whole wall
and I realized oh, I get it!
It's just red.
I get so incensed whenever anyone is complaining about a Rothko or such, like –What? RED isn’t enough for you? It’s red!
It seems kind of paradoxical, but I think I like abstract art for just how literal it can be, for the break it gives me from all the overthinking and translating that my sensitive grrl brain likes to do. I’ve recently realized that I’m quite unable to manage subtext. That’s an odd thing for a poet to realize.
I made the resolution to be less abstracted, and then totally ignored it for the past few weeks, just like I ignored similar resolutions in past months. I got lost in metaphors. I got lost in the computer. I didn’t want 30/30 (or a concurrent long distance…thing) to end. (Remember the Free Love is Sometimes Real for a Minute post? I’m still laughing at myself for that. About a minute was how long it was free. I guess if it’s real, one needs a better word than free. Maybe this is a whole other post.) Anyway, I wanted to stay in that fizzy mindset where everything could be poem, where first drafts are permanent, where you could have a conversation with someone just by leaving clues and trading song links. This isn’t sustainable, and started to feel a little like, um, A Beautiful Mind, but without the white pencil or the math genius. I got ungrounded and so sad.
When I made the decision to detach a bit from the things that were making me internet-addicted and daydreamy, I felt so sad to let go of the magical thinking. I cried and cried and cried and cried. But I woke up the next day feeling so much better, still heartbroken but like “Holy crap! I’m HERE!” I paid the bills, went to work. Amy came home and we drove to the Home Depot, singing all the way the six good songs on Ben folds Five’s first album, which is called Ben Folds Five.
We got delphiniums, marigolds, lobelias, marguerite daisies, some nice spurge for ground cover, and some morning glory seeds. Saturday was the first good, hard yard work day of the year, and it was exultant, like it always is.
Last week, a friend of mine sent me this quote from Marianne Moore: “Poems should be imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” What a charming thing to say, and I see how well it works for so many of my friends. But for me, it has a little too much of a pretend-you’re-walking-in-the-woods quality to it. Recently I have made some forays into writing imaginary gardens, and they’ve helped me expand so much as a poet and as a person. In poems, abstraction is a lovely place to visit. I wouldn’t trade in a single daydream.
But I am a literal girl who like to write literal gardens, where you have to put Off on before you go outside, and sometimes you have to dig up some broken glass and grubs, but where your hands can get joyfully, blessedly dirty, and sometimes a fox sparrow will come and land on the clothesline, over and over all day.