Thursday, May 31, 2007

Old Mud Blood at the Banshee

"And I do not want anymore to be useful, to be docile, to lead
children out of the fields into the text
of civility, to teach them that they are (they are not) better
than the grass."

-Mary Oliver, excerpt from Rain, originally published in "New Poems"(1991 - 1992)
A year or so ago I met a friend for drinks at The Banshee on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Sitting next to us at the bar was a poet, in his early fifties, who had recently moved to New York from Los Angeles. Feeling uncharacteristically social (after sufficient lubrication), I got into a conversation with the man. He had experienced some critical success within west coast poetry circles but had grown frustrated with "the scene," and opted to try on NYC for size.

After a half-hour of talking, he announced, "Well this is really great. You're the first person I've met since moving that's really got me feeling like there is that creative pulse you always hear about New York." He insisted on giving me his card and asked for information on my website and future exhibitions. I've lived in New York long enough to view his gushing with some skepticism; still, I'd enjoyed the chat and exchanged information with him agreeably enough.

As the gentleman prepared to depart, he paused, cocked his head quizzically, and asked, "So who are your favorite contemporary poets?"

It was an easy question to answer. "At the moment I'm enjoying collections by Mary Oliver and Galway Kinnell. I've always..."

I couldn't finish my reply; the poet broke into a peal of laughter. I was understandably taken aback by this reaction. After regaining some semblance of self-control, he exclaimed, "And the whole time you had me thinking you knew good poetry from bad poetry. Mary Oliver is garbage. Kinnell is little better." I stared at him blankly. He laughed a little more, shook his head, and continued, "I mean, that's like me telling you that my favorite painters are Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell. You'd be appalled. That's not even art! That's illustration!"

I wasn't quite sure what to say. I shrugged and finally said, "Well, I read a fair amount of poetry, so my landing on those two isn't just chance. I think they're good."

He appeared genuinely crestfallen. It was as though my bad taste sapped New York of the intellectual and creative energy he believed he had just become acquainted with. He may have pegged me for an appreciator of mundane poetry (guilty as charged, I suppose), but his explosive dismissal of Oliver and Kinnell, both gifted and rewarding poets, and his use of Hopper and Rockwell as parallels reveals inherited (or adopted) prejudice.

Hopper and Rockwell painted with reproduction in mind and, indeed, both worked as professional illustrators for a time; this being the case, labelling them illustrators isn't entirely inaccurate but, as Peter Schjeldahl wrote recently, "If 'Nighthawks' is an illustration, a kick in the head is a lullaby." Hopper and Rockwell aren't favorite artists of mine, but their work is not deserving of the lambasting it receives from so many art world experts. (The unintentionally comical Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, comes to mind here. In the documentary, "Who The $#%& Jackson Pollock?," Hoving dismisses the opinion of someone outside the art establishment by wagging a finger and saying, “She knows nothing. I’m an expert. She’s not.”)

The truth is, many critics and connoisseurs build upon the existing scaffold of criticism and connoisseurship to such a degree that, generations down the line, their tower of opinions is an esoteric curiosity, shaky and too tall to be buttressed by the masses. I'm not suggesting that experts don't have a place nor that populist art is superior to "high" art, but merely that it is unfortunate that so many members of creative communities are eager to demonstrate their "expert" status by espousing those ideals or ideas most removed from the general consensus.

I sometimes struggle to explain Mary Oliver's value to non-believers. One acquaintance described Oliver as "the Thomas Kinkade of poetry." The comparison is ludicrous. Oliver writes of the "live animal," of a becoming with the natural world that impregnates experience with a meaning distinct from reason. Kinkade is the master of commodifying kitsch. They are worlds apart.

At any rate, I was all too happy to read Bioephemera's recent toast to Oliver. Cicada observes, "Some critics grumble that [Oliver] is insufficiently challenging or unsurprising, but she leans so heavily on the sense of wondrous recognition fed by nature, I wonder if a failure to be moved isn’t primarily a failure of that wonder-sense." Or, in the words of Oliver herself,
"I don't want you just to sit down at the table.
I don't want you just to eat, and be content.
I want you to walk out into the fields
where the water is shining, and the rice has risen.
I want you to stand there, far from the white tablecloth.
I want you to fill your hands with the mud, like a blessing."
-from Rice, "New Poems" (1991 - 1992)
Later in her post, Cicada describes the sense of belonging, if you will, that an Oliver poem provides. "...her poems make me feel rooted in humanity, grounded in my own body, aware of this lumpy, piecemeal tangle of cells which is somehow, miraculously, taking pleasure in language. Oliver’s poems are spiritual experiences for those who would not necessarily describe themselves as spiritual." But why take her word for it?

The Fish
The first fish
I ever caught
would not lie down
quiet in the pail
but flailed and sucked
at the burning
amazement of the air
and died
in the slow pouring off
of rainbows. Later
I opened his body and separated
the flesh from the bones
and ate him. Now the sea
is in me: I am the fish, the fish
glitters in me; we are
risen, tangled together, certain to fall
back to the sea. Out of pain,
and pain, and more pain
we feed this feverish plot, we are nourished
by the mystery.
-from "American Primitive" (1983)

I guess it's true that one man's "garbage" is....

Photo credit: Hungry Hyaena, 2002


Oly said...

Love that fish photo, Chris.

It reminds me of when I used to go fishing for "croppies" when I was about 12-- 'gators would be by the side of the boat all the way, as well as the turtles sunning themselves on the cypress logs.

PS-- email me sometime if you're ever up for seeing a show or opening.

I'm getting all art nerded out with this month's shows.

I'm going to the Matta-Clark show-- it's last day-- on Sunday at Whitney.

Kicking myself for waiting so long.

PS-- also now work part-time at Denise Bibro fine art in Chelsea.

Need to get back into the art world full-time again.

Hope you're well, sir.



bioephemera said...

I'm so glad I'm not the only one who feels this way about Mary Oliver. Your story about the "expert" rings all too true - especially "that's not art, that's illustration." I HATE that statement. They aren't mutually exclusive, well-defined domains on a diagram. That Schjeldahl quote is a treasure.

You'd think expanding the Canon of "real art" would add to its power, not dilute it; but then again, perhaps it just dilutes the ego of he experts, and thus must be avoided.

Anyway, I'm glad you posted Oliver's "The Fish," because I can't read it without thinking of Elizabeth Bishop's poem of the same name. The two poems fit together like bookends, mirroring and chellenging each other.

zipthwung said...


Did the dude have a poneytail? A beret?

Oliver seems a little too touchy feely flowery for me, but on the other hand, laughing is often a cover for insecurity and frustrated ambition, no?

The weather IS good.

zipthwung said...

yeah, the bishop is more for me.

Steppen Wolf said...

I guess the gist was best summed up when you said "If 'Nighthawks' is an illustration, a kick in the head is a lullaby". I laughed aloud on reading that… Thanks for introducing me to the poetry of Mary Oliver. I am planning on finding more. I like classical poetry a bit more than contemporary, but I do enjoy contemporary every once in a while. I remember reading Crow (Ted H.) sometime back entranced by the darkness and the visions, but haven’t read much since. This also reminds me that we need to see that DVD movie of Sylvia Plath.

Tree said...

I LOVED that Schjeldahl line in the New Yorker!

Have you seen the Rockwell work where he perfectly reproduced a Pollack painting? I always thought that whole illustration was a brilliant bit of work.

Hungry Hyaena said...


My love-hate relationship with the city and the Art World usually prevents me from getting too art nerded out. Coupled with my preference for seeing art alone, that makes me the sort to avoid openings altogether (except those of friends) and the guy who doesn't like to do gallery slogs with other folks.

If, however, I'm feeling out of sorts and arty social one day, I'll let you know.

I hope you're well, too.


The two poems fit together like bookends, mirroring and chellenging each other.

Umm...thanks for the introduction to that poem. I haven't read much Bishop, actually, but I quite like this one. Your're absolutely right, the two poems do mirror and challenge.


No beret, unfortunately, but he did have a move of the elbow that was soooo Fear and Loathing.


Thanks. I might as well take this opportunity to say that I meant illustration - good illustration, anyway - no disrespect, and I don't think Schjeldahl does either. He's just using it as an assumed perjorative, which I suppose is risky...but it does make for a splendid quote.

I need to see the Plath movie, too, though I don't have high expectations.


Yup, that's Rockwell's best painting by far, and I always get a kick out of it. It's called, in fact, 'The Connoisseur," which nicely brings the whole thing full circle. The piece is that much stronger for being equally representative of Rockwell's frustrated ambitions and wry humor.

Anonymous said...

This is the nerdiest blog I have ever visited. Go lick a penis with peanut butter.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Lick a penis with peanut butter.

Umm...and how are things at Business Week, guy?

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