Posts Tagged ‘Wallace Stevens’

Thoughts about Getting it Right

January 29, 2020

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As January nears its end, I pause during a break this morning to revisit my New Year resolutions drafted about a month ago. I suppose the reason I pursue this annual habit of Resolutions is the hope of “Getting It Right” this year. I like the idea of resolving to improve life every time we close an old chapter and open a new one, even if it does seem artificial to do it January 1.

Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered an historic address at a Harvard commencement titled “The American Scholar.”  That speech remains one of my favorite writings of all times, and I continue to read it more than once a year.  In that day, Emerson addressed an American consciousness that was still trying to define itself. There would be those today who say such days are long behind our nation.  I am not so sure.  In fact, I am less sure today of our collective identity as an American people than I was a few years ago.  But this is what Emerson said as he marked that graduation anniversary as a transitional time for the American Scholar between past and present:

Year by year we come up hither to read one more chapter of his biography.  Let us inquire what light new days and events have thrown on his character and his hopes.

I like the childlike wonder that marks the New England Transcendentalists of the nineteenth century. At ages 30, 40, 50 and beyond, they remained curious and optimistic about life’s possibilities.

Let me take you back to a scene from our American heritage last century: It was a stifling hot afternoon in the offices of Hartford Insurance in Connecticut.  The oscillating fans were perpetually whirring, driving documents and memos all across the desktops, across the floors, into wastebaskets.  The adjustor, sweating inside his collar, was hurrying down the corridor when suddenly the Vice President stepped into his path, and said “Brownie, could you step in here for a moment?”  Surprised, Lynn Brown stepped into the spacious office, and stood hesitantly before the V.P. who merely sat on the corner of his desk, staring fixedly into space, saying nothing.  The adjustor just waited, nervously.

“Brownie, do you have any ideas on what ‘imagination’ means?” asked the V.P.

After an uncomfortable silence, Lynne replied, “Not at all.  I have no ideas on that.”

Silence.

“Well.  Why don’t you give that some thought in the next day or two and we’ll talk further.”

Years later, recalling that day, Lynne Brown told a reporter.  “He never brought it up again, and frankly, I’m glad.”

That Vice President of Hartford Insurance made a good income for his Connecticut family, benefited from his Harvard law degree, and maintained his spacious home and manicured lawn.  He walked two miles to his office every day, and walked home.  And as his mind explored during those walks, he spun the ideas into poems.  That aging Vice President who just wanted to talk to someone about “imagination” was our American poet Wallace Stevens.

Robert Henri, the American artist who founded The Ashcan School, was like an aging prophet as he continued to inspire the seven young newspaper illustrators who gathered in his studio at 806 Walnut Street in Philadelphia as the twentieth century dawned. Throughout his prolific life, he not only painted, but wrote, taught classes and gave public speeches. His electrifying book, titled The Art Spirit contains these words:

When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature.  He becomes interesting to other people.  He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for a better understanding.  Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it, shows there are still more pages possible.  The world would stagnate without him, and the world would be beautiful with him; for he is interesting to himself and he is interesting to others.

Wallace Stevens and Robert Henri in their later years relayed a message in stark contrast to the one given by our writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible.  I also like that writing and have drawn from it in previous New Years’ meditations.  But the writer of Ecclesiastes has grown quite old and cynical and argues that “there is no new thing under the sun.”  He’s convinced that he’s seen it all.  As he develops his argument about how the world continues to do the same weary routine, he laid out the words “the sun also rises.” Those words were snatched up to become the title of the first novel of a young American writer Ernest Hemingway. But as this young writer fought back depression in his early years in Paris, struggling to find a new voice, he wrote the following, which didn’t get published till years later, after his death:

. . . sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.

Emerson’s argument is that yes, the world, and all that is in it, is millions of years old—there is nothing new under the sun.  But we are the ones ripe for new experience, new adventure, primed for a New Year.  There is much left for us to discover, about life and about ourselves.

I like that sentiment.  And it stirs me each New Year.  And I think New Years resolutions are offered with the sentiment of trying out new things, but also that constant, nagging rejoinder to get it right this time.  And it’s that itch of “getting it right” that carries the tinge of guilt and regret.  I mean—why cannot the New Year be embraced solely as a new tack, the next mile of the journey, a different window through which to peer?  Can it not contain suggestions of a different collection of books to peruse?  Promptings to a change of activity?  A change of scenery, what the painter Henri Matisse called “cleansing the eye.” A new hobby?  A different kind of work?  Or, if you please, less work and more rest?

Do you not notice that the notion of “getting it right” has that all-too-familiar ring of “karma”?  I frequently told my high school students that public school was my karma, because when I was a teenager, I hated public school every day of my life, and couldn’t wait to get out.  Then once I finished all my education and joined the work force, where did I end up—high school.  The Karma complex.  High School was my Karma.  I believed I would remain there till I got it right.  In 2017, I dismissed all that as myth and just retired anyway—let someone else get it right.

How easily we drift to the negativity when we fret about “getting it right.”  It doesn’t have to be that way.  I don’t recall Benjamin Franklin being a dour sort of fellow, all the while he was tweaking his daily self-improvement lists.  I don’t recall Thomas Jefferson being embroiled in negativity throughout his mature life, though he chose to spend every night’s final hour or two in bed reading only texts that would elevate his soul and put him to sleep in a sublime state, so as to lay a proper foundation for the following day.  I see those acts as positive and constructive and forward-looking, at any stage of life.

The New Year is for looking forward.  Emerson once wrote: “why should you keep your head over your shoulder?  Why drag about this corpse of your memory?  . . . live ever in a new day.”  As we explore a new calendar year, it is a good thing, I believe, to recap where we’ve been, evaluate the good and the not-so-good, and look forward to anticipation of a new chapter.  And when we resolve to “get it right” this time, I really believe it can be out of a spirit of wishing to improve an already-good life, to make a good thing better.  Life is a gift.  Exploration of the future is an invitation.  We’ve been given an opportunity to grow another measure, to explore new vistas, and to enjoy the journey.  And what better way to start off this new era than to come to peace with what is now behind us.

Roshi Jakusho Kwong,  in his work “As It Is,” in A Man’s Journey to Simple Abundance, reminds us that every time you use a calculator, you have to clear it.  If you don’t, you’ll have all these old numbers superimposed on your present reading.  So also, when the complications of the past are superimposed on the present, one can only imagine all the distortion, confusion, and suffering that arise. We must find ways to hit the reset button as we move into the new era.  We have to clear the mechanism.  We have to make peace with our demons, as Paul Tillich used to urge.  Accept what is past, embrace what lies before us, and realize that success is the quality of our journey, not just the completion of goals.

I still remember the announcement April 12, 2006, when we lost William Sloane Coffin at the age of 81.  He had been a Presbyterian clergyman and former Yale University chaplain.  He was arrested at least three times as a Freedom Rider, was also prosecuted by the U. S. government for aiding and abetting disobedience to the Selective Service Act.  He later would be a minister at the historic Riverside Church in New York City’s Morningside Heights.  I was saddened by his death.  Just two New Years before his passing I had read his last book CredoIn the book, he recorded these words: “Clearly the trick in life is to die young as late as possible.”

I close this blog with my favorite words from his pen, as he offered perspective on life as something not snatched, but rather given, and he echoed beautifully that enigmatic New Testament passage that says “Whoever loses his life shall find it.”  Quoting him now:

There is in other words a difference between having a friend and being a friend, between having success and being successful, between getting an education and becoming learned.  If we use knowledge, music, art, sports, and eminently others—if we use them just to enrich ourselves, then paradoxically we impoverish ourselves, at least at our very core.  For all things then become as clothes: they cover but they do not touch or develop our inner being, and we become as those who believe they can only become visible when something visible covers the surface.

But if we give ourselves to art, music, sports, knowledge, and eminently to others, then we experience that biblical truth that ‘he who loses his life shall find it,’ shall find life being fulfilled, and find that joy is self-fulfillment, self-fulfillment is joy.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you will check out my website www.davidtrippart.com.

I makShultz reducede art in order to discover.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself I am not alone.

 

Working on the Fort Worth Scat Jazz Lounge Sign

July 26, 2014
Saturday Work on the Jazz Watercolor

Saturday Work on the Jazz Watercolor

Wallace Stevens is America’s great poet of the endles cycles of desire and despair.

PBS, Voices and Visions, “Wallace Stevens: Man Made Out of Words”

I could never have planned a better Saturday.  The light is bright coming through my studio windows, and I’m finding it a pleasant challenge distnguishing cool yellow light bulbs from the warm yellow sign from which they protrude.  This is calling for quite a bit of experimenting and study in color theory, but I love the exploration.  When I’m learning something new, I am inspired as an artist.

On days like today, I find it difficult, deciding between painting and reading.  Wallace Stevens and his poetry have been burning on my mind since the awakening hour this morning.  Fortunately, PBS has posted their Voices and Visions series on the Internet, and I have been thrilled listening to the readings of Stevens’s poetry during this sixty-minute documentary.  I played it through completely, twice, as I bent over this watercolor and made decisions.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

 

Strike Through that Mask!

July 21, 2014
Progress on a Large Watercolor of Fort Worth's Jazz Scat Lounge

Progress on a Large Watercolor of Fort Worth’s Scat Jazz Lounge

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks.  But in each event–in the living act, the undoubted deed–there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask.  If man will strike, strike through the mask!

Moby Dick, Captain Ahab’s speech

Nothing auspicious loomed on my radar this morning when I sat down to breakfast around 6:40.  It was Monday, the beginning of another week of summer school was waiting, fifty minutes around the corner.  I had Moby Dick lying open beside my plate and was reading while slowly chewing bites of breakfast.  I had to stop and close the book when I read this passage, ideas swarmed so thickly I could scarcely begin to process them.  I wished for an hour at my writing desk, but had to dash to school to be on time for a 7:30 class.

For nearly thirty years, I have patiently pointed out to anyone who would listen, in the lecture rooms or in the lounges, the scaffolding of Platonist thought in literature.  Plato’s split-world view was divided between Ideas and Appearances, the former permanent and spiritual, the latter ephemeral and physical.  And the transcendent ideas provide the scaffolding for the physical appearances.  In this dramatic confrontation in Moby Dick, Captain Ahab publicly confronts a reluctant Starbuck who protests that selfishly seeking revenge on a white whale is impractical business.  Ahab twice retorts that Starbuck inhabits a “little lower layer”–the realm of money, measurement, accounting and computing.  This layer is only a portion of the pasteboard mask that hides the real intelligence lurking behind it.  I heard Ahab shouting at me when he cried out: “If man will strike, strike through the mask!”  

All dissatisfaction that arises from life today springs from our efforts to “strike through that mask.”  What is the mask, the wall, the barrier, standing between us and what we seek?  I shudder every semester when my philosophy class reads and discusses Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.”  The one prisoner breaks his chains, and rises to the world of truth.  The class discussion can turn lively when students begin to discuss the chains that bind us, the masks that fool us.  The human predicament is the quest for something more, only to find out that that “something more” was a mask, and not what we really thought we were seeking.  There is so much to ponder here.  What is the nature of the mask through which we are challenged to strike?

Tonight I am posting a watercolor that I began a month or two ago and revived this afternoon.  Large works do tend to intimidate me, but it doesn’t take long to feel that I have gotten up to my elbows comfortably, wading around inside this composition.  All of my work this afternoon has been on the sign, and it’s not going fast, but I’m enjoying the process so far.  As I work, I listen gladly to PBS documentaries of various poets (the Voices and Visions series), and feel such a connection with Wallace Stevens, working in an insurance firm, but working on poems in his mind his entire life, while most of his surrounding colleagues remained unaware of the reality that was driving him.  He was constantly striking through the mask.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

Imagination

September 7, 2013
Saturday Morning in the Studio

Saturday Morning in the Studio

I do recall one time when I got to know him a little better, he called me in the office one day and he says to me, “Brownie,” he said, “Can you give  me your idea of what imagination is?”  And I said,”No I don’t have any idea.”  He said, “Well, why don’t you think about it a couple of days and come back and we’ll talk about it.”  But he never brought the subject up again.  I’m very thankful, too.

Lynn Brown Jr., recalling a conversation with poet Wallace Stevens while working at Hartford Insurance Group.

Sleep did not come easily last night.  Though darkness had descended, this watercolor, along with its possibilities, was burned into my retina, and I really wanted to return to it, but I have really become attached to the natural light.  Before falling into sleep, I turned the light on one more time, and scribbled in my journal a reminder to check out the ideas of William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound on Imagism.

Waking at 5:30 this morning, without an alarm, I rose to a dark, pre-dawn world, and, waiting for the studio window light, I took out my copy of The Literary Essays of Ezra Pound.  In the early summer of 1912, he agreed with H. D. and Richard Aldington on three principles which would later be called Imagism:

1. Direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective.

2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.

3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.

I used these words as a reaffirmation of my current philosophy of watercolor composition: (1) to paint my subjects as directly as possible, (2) to purge ornamentation from my compositions, and (3) to work all over and around my painting, instead of following paint-by-number compositional steps from start to finish.

Reading further in Pound, I was moved profoundly as I contemplated the Subject, or Image, that I always chase in my watercolor pursuits:

An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. . . . It is the presentation of such a ‘complex’ instantaneously wihich gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits, that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.

And then I laughed out loud when I encountered these words:

It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.

Wow.  In all my paintings, I am confronting some kind of Image that has held me spellbound, making me want to linger over it and use every means possible to capture its essence and put it on the page.  When viewers tell me they are “held” by a painting of mine, I’m gratified, knowing that what moved me got to them as well.  But as to presenting that “one Image” versus a great volume of work–well, how can one accomplish the former without the latter?  Frankly, I have no idea which painting from my past is my “best”, nor do I lose sleep wondering.  I find my deepest satisfaction in being prolific, and when my final painting issues from me, I can only hope that something in that “volume” can approach the notion of Quality, can meet the standard of Image in its ability to reach out to someone else besides me.

The “volume” is where I find my satisfaction, and for years now, I have enjoyed the process of painting much more than standing back and looking at my finished, framed work hanging on a wall or positioned on an easel.  My joy comes in the act of painting, and much of my struggle currently as a schoolteacher is the knowledge that the majority of my daily hours now is given to the classroom, along with all the attendant “stuff” necessary to support the classroom hours.  My reality this weekend is an enormous stack of papers to grade, because after all, I am paid to produce numbers on a spreadsheet to give an indicator of a student’s educational growth.  No pressure there.

I did manage about ninety minutes of uninterrupted, slow-moving work on my watercolor.  Using purples with some yellow, I worked in the shadows beneath the truck, finished the front end of the truck, worked on the curbing in front of and behind the truck, and then did further corrections with pencil, trying to make the drawing portions of this work as accurate as possible.  I’m still working on the complementary balance of a lavender pavement in the foreground against a warm gold background.  The complementary greens against the reds are also a constant challenge.  I’m enjoying these matters of composition and decision-making, and it was a good ninety minutes.

Now, wIth reluctance, I lay down the brush and wade through the stack of papers, hoping to return to the Image before the weekend runs its course and I begin the next five-day round in the classroom.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep

But I have promises to keep

And miles to go before I sleep

And miles to go before I sleep

Robert Frost

Thanks for reading.  It has been a lovely Saturday morning.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal when I feel alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.

Imagination vs. Technique

May 4, 2013
Vintage Bomber Lure

Vintage Bomber Lure

These students have become masters of the trade of drawing, as some others have become masters of their grammars.  And like so many of the latter, brilliant jugglers of words, having nothing worth while to say, they remain little else than clever jugglers of the brush.

Robert Henri, The Art Spirit

Our famous American poet Wallace Stevens worked all his adult life in Connecticut for Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company.  One can only imagine how alone he was in his day-to-day work environment.  He called a colleague into his office one day and asked:

“Can you give me your idea of what imagination is”?

His colleague answered: “I don’t have an idea.”

Stevens replied: “Why don’t you think about it a couple of days and come back and we’ll talk about it.”

His colleague, years later, said he was glad the subject was never mentioned again.

For the past few days, I’ve been musing over the “imagination vs. technique” issue in art.  I suppose we all do that, wonder how much of our work is technical proficiency and how much of it really is “art”.  For years I wondered if I was just an illustrator or if I actually could regard myself as an artist.

I’m reading Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit.  I am haunted by this: “An artist who does not use his imagination is a mechanic.”

Recently, in the studio, I am trying to improve mechanics, explore techniques, learn to master a few more tricks.  But all the while I’m pondering that mystery–how does a composition become “art”.  What is it that makes a work of art worth looking at longer than a glance.  I of course don’t have answers for these.  Meanwhile, I just keep playing in the studio, enjoying this enterprise.  I’m glad I got one kicked out of my way already.  Time to move on to the next endeavor.

Thanks for reading.

I paint in order to remember.

I journal because I am alone.

I blog to remind myself that I am not alone.