Friday, April 29, 2005

Two Pears

Two Pears in a Landscape
by Armando Morales (b. 1927).

While thinking about the following poem, I did an image search on Google just to see what kind of art featuring two pears I might find. It must be a popular subject, because there are loads of them. Perhaps that is why Wallace Stevens chose this as the focus of his poem; it is a subject most artists probably thought they knew quite well.


Opusculum paedagogum.
The pears are not viols,
Nudes or bottles.
They resemble nothing else.

They are yellow forms
Composed of curves
Bulging toward the base.
They are touched red.

They are not flat surfaces
Having curved outlines.
They are round
Tapering toward the top.

In the way they are modelled
There are bits of blue
A hard dry leaf hangs
From the stem.

The yellow glistens.
It glistens with various yellows,
Citrons, oranges and greens
Flowering over the skin.

The shadow of the pears
Are blobs on the green cloth.
The pears are not seen
As the observer wills.

Stevens was an analytical kinda guy. He loved to observe, think about what he was observing, and attempt to capture his experience with pen and paper. He is a popular poet, and I think that is in large part because his work evokes powerful imagery and emotions. Many of the are poignant, or even downright sad. Stevens came to know the ultimate futility of trying to capture reality with art, and sometimes his frustration with this is quite evident; but he also recognized the power, and perhaps necessity, of trying to do it anyway. He manages to be very complex and very accessible at the same time.

Csezlaw Milosz writes that this poem is "akin to a Cubist painting" in its divided listing of the pears' qualities, and that the speaker discovers that "pears prove to be impossible to describe" (64). What the poem actually tells us, however, is that "The pears are not seen / As the observer wills." This implies that the observer is trying to project his understanding of what pears are onto the pears he is viewing. He comes to the experience thinking, "Hey, piece of cake, I know what pears are. I'll just write that." The pears, however, cannot be forced into his limited paradigm. They not only prove to be something other than the speaker thought--more complex and more fluid--but they refuse to be pinned down by any static definition.

This is exciting. In that last line we can find the basis for postmodern thought. Yes, there may be truth, but we cannot capture it; as soon as we think we know what it is, it eludes us once more. There is always more to learn about it. Truth is not stagnant; and no matter how many times we try to force our static framework onto it, it will refuse to be limited. Humbling indeed.

This is why there are so many images of two pears to be found. They are all strikingly different, yet they are all two pears.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Reflections of Experience

I'm still looking through A Book of Luminous Things, which includes amazing work from poets around the world. The following work, by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, has stuck in my mind since I read it. It is translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass (128):


In the rear-view mirror suddenly
I saw the bulk of the Beauvais Cathedral;
great things dwell in small ones
for a moment.

Adam Zagajewski

The Beauvais Cathedral (the St. Pierre de Beauvais) is a thirteenth century cathedral in Beauvais, France. Like other gothic cathedrals in Europe, this structure is awesome in its size and beauty. The medieval builders were hoping to construct the largest and tallest cathedral in France.

It's difficult for me to express what this poem does for me, but it has something to do with the speaker's second-hand viewing of this huge, beautiful structure. Even in a small, backwards reflection, he recognizes and is struck by the building's grandness. The reflection of the cathedral, encapsulated in a tiny, mirrored image, still retains the power to connect the speaker with the object.

It reminds me of poetry, and of art in general. We cannot represent exactly an object, an idea, or even a thought in a poem. Consider Wallace Steven's "A Study of Two Pears." He writes several stanzas describing two pears, each a different description but each true, and and eventually admits that he can't fully communicate the experience of viewing a pear. But the reader, nonetheless, can identify with the sensation of seeing the pears, and with the struggle of trying to describe them. We cannot accurately communicate the truth of our experience with words, or paint, or any medium, but the attempt is still inherently valuable.

So the speaker is not actually experiencing viewing the cathedral; he is viewing a representation of it; but even the representation has power and value, because it allows us, if only "for a moment," to connect with the experience.

Another interesting note: The builders of the Beavias Cathedral, in either their poor planning or poor materials, did something wrong; and the high vaults collapsed in 1248. Apparently, there is still discussion in the architectural world about why the collapse happened; no one is sure. So the speaker is viewing something not only "great" in something "small," but also something that speaks to humanity's flaws and, possibly, hubris. But still, flaws and all, it has the power to move us.

Like a poem. Inherently flawed, because it cannot accurately communicate the speaker's experience, but inherently valuable because of its attempt.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Dreams and Poetry

Have you ever written something based on a dream, one that was so vivid and lingering that you had to get it out of your system?

Dreams are a fantastic source for imagery, emotion, and exploration. People write their dreams, paint them, sculpt them, talk about them, and wonder endlessly what they might mean. They are our subconsious mind's way of getting our attention and communicating what is going on in our core being. We gain a great deal of insight into ourselves when we pay attention to our dreams.

This poem by Charles Simic, found in A Book of Luminous Things, edited by Czeslaw Milosz, is a classic example of how a dream can frame a poem and power the poem's imagery and narrative quality. Simic is an American poet born in Serbia, and this poem is most likely influenced by Simic's memories of the German occupation of his country (171):


On the first page of my dreambook
It's always evening
In an occupied country.
Hour before the curfew.
A small provincial city.
The houses all dark.
The store-fronts gutted.

I am on a street corner
Where I shouldn't be.
Alone and coatless
I have gone out to look
For a black dog who answers to my whistle.
I have a kind of halloween mask
Which I am afraid to put on.

Charles Simic

The anxiety expressed in this poem is captivating, because although it is specific in its detail, and although most of us do not know what it is like to live in an occupied country, we can nonetheless relate to the feelings of lonliness, fear, and unknown impending doom. The darkness, destroyed buildings, the coatless boy, the lost dog, and the sense of being in a forbidden place create an intense sense of vulnerability and danger.

The mask perhaps represents the occupying forces, that is, if the boy put the mask on, he symbolically joins the enemy, at least on the surface. But then would his dog recognize him? The boy is afraid of the protective covering of the mask, choosing to stay in this dangerous zone until he finds his dog.

Any thoughts about Simic's poem? How do dreams power your art and/or process of self-exploration?

Friday, April 22, 2005


Thanks to some insights posted by Gilbert, I have been thinking a great deal about the Teasdale poem in the previous post. The transience of beauty is an idea that fascinates me; I return to this idea over and over whether I intend to or not.

I like the way this concept is expressed in mono no aware, a Japanese phrase frequently translated as "the ahh-ness of things." I don't care for that translation; it's too literal. Mono means "thing" or "things" in English, so when we see it in a phrase that tends to defy English translation, we cling to that word for dear life. I think of mono no aware as a brief, transcendent connection to beauty. It is a moment in which we lose the separateness between ourselves and that which we are observing. Its original meaning refers to objects in nature--animals, plants, ponds, fish, trees, etc.--but we can experience it with anything with which we feel that transcendent connection. For more details and discussion about mono no aware, check out this page.

This sense of connection to beauty, its transience, and its inherent poignancy is perhaps best expressed in the Japanese poetic form called haiku. Many English speakers understand haiku to be all about the strict syllabic form--5-7-5, for example--but the most important thing about haiku is to capture the essence of that brief connection with that which is being observed, while also expressing the transience of that connection. (If you have the "Poets Market 2005" edition, check out a great article in there about haiku.)

Here is one I really like. It is from A Haiku Menagerie, a beautiful book that includes both the Japanese haiku and the English translation. (Great for studying up on your kanji.)

An old pond--
after jumping in,
no frog!


(Photo found on this site.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Sara Teasdale

I've received a request for a poem by Sara Teasdale, a new poet to me, so here she goes:

Water Lilies
If you have forgotten water lilies floating
On a dark lake among mountains in the afternoon shade,
If you have forgotten their wet, sleepy fragrance,
Then you can return and not be afraid.

But if you remember, then turn away forever
To the plains and the prairies where pools are far apart,
There you will not come at dusk on closing water lilies,
And the shadow of mountains will not fall on your heart.

Sara Teasdale

The speaker is warning us not to return to an experience of beauty, but to instead move on to a wholly different place. Why? If we know of something beautiful and peaceful, why should we not go back to that experience?

Perhaps it is because we can never recreate our original connection with an experience; it exists only briefly and only in that original time. Beauty is transient; we cannot sustain a connection with it, but we can find it again somewhere else if we move on. If we think we can be fulfilled by staying in the same place, trying to renew the same connection with the same experiences, then we are fooling ourselves. We must move on and grow or become stagnant.

We can, of course, revisit places of beauty, and perhaps appreciate them in a different way. But since the original experience alters us, even if slightly, we will never feel it exactly the same way we did the first time. This is a truth of the human condition. It forces us to change, to move on, and to grow.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Some Whitman for Recovery

When I am in recovery from illness, in this case complications of a blood disorder plus a sinus infection thrown in for extra humility, I feel dulled in the brain and in the senses. I look for something to bring me back to life; something that encourages me to restart my five senses and engage as fully as possible in my environment. Poetry is frequently the fuel that gets me started.

In a wonderful collection called "A Book of Luminous Things" edited by Czeslaw Milosz, I found this poem by Walt Whitman. Although I am usually attracted to poetry that is postmodern and that struggles with definitions of reality and form, I find this poem to be a refreshing alternative. Described by Milosz as "a programmatic and unfinished poem," it asserts that our senses are indeed a trustworthy path to experiencing that which is real. I find it optimistic and very human. Just what I need right now.



I am the poet of reality
I say the earth is not an echo
Nor man an apparition;
But that all the things seen are real.
I have split the earth and the hard coal and rocks and the solid bed
of the sea
And went down to reconnoitre there a long time,
And bring back a report,
And I understand that those are positive and dense every one
And that what they seem to the child they are
[And that the world is not joke,
Nor any part of it a sham].

Walt Whitman