Civilised (I spelled that with an English s instead of a z, and Word took the piss) civilized people, smart people, don’t make resolutions. Do we? Remember Keyser Soze? “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he wasn’t real.” Well, the greatest trick that people ever pull is convincing themselves that nothing has to be hard. Resolutions are hard. If you don’t make a resolution you can’t fail at it. Last September 1st I resolved to quit drinking. Done. I can’t really resolve to keep not drinking, because to not drink implies that, in different circumstances, I would be drinking. It implies a battle against impulses and urges. I don’t have those. Can’t fight an impulse that I don’t have.
What do I resolve?
I’m sitting in Starbucks, where the interior designers give zero shits about the concept of personal space. The guy next to me is so close that if I lose focus I might start typing on his keyboard. This is not a good arrangement for me. I resolve that by the end of 2017, this will be a perfectly acceptable arrangement for me.
What else do I resolve? Moar Poetree. I took that Creative Writing class last quarter, which turned out (to everyone’s surprise I eventually learned) to be a poetry class. I’ve written some poems over my life. I’ve read some. I’ve railed against free verse because it is the written version of every modern art installation going. It is the manifestation of the mantra that “art can be anything, and anyone can be an artist.” Neither of those things are true, and neither is it true that hammering out a 15 line free-written run-on sentence of f-bombs and sex, then breaking it up into random lines, is always poetic. Or even artistic. Sometimes – often times – it’s just bad and inaccessibly personal. What would be the point of something like golf if it had literally no rules save requiring a club and a ball? When poetry has no rules save requiring words, there’s nothing left to be good at. There’s nowhere to put the beauty. And I’m afraid I will not back down on this one. Whatever the paint-splatterers and fecal-smudgers may pretend about art existing for shock and discomfort, they are wrong. Art is for beauty and intellectual improvement. Art can, of course, be beautiful and uncomfortable. The two are not mutually exclusive. Look at how many people are made uncomfortable by Christmas plays. Imagine the furor if something as incredible as The Assumption of Mary showed up in a courthouse.
So yes, beauty can be uncomfortable, but not because it’s beautiful. Rather, because we’re not. The arrangement is supposed to be that the beauty in art can show the viewer his ugliness and help motivate him to aspire to greater things. Not that the ugliness in art can show the viewer just how ugly art can be and help motivate him to be miserable. Cans of Shit (It’s Wiki, no pictures) come to mind, but the list is long.
I digress. I prefer (preferred) rhyme because it requires discipline where free verse eschews it. It’s harder to be good when you have limitations, and so it is better to be good when you have limitations. But I have come around. That someone simply insists his free verse is good does not make it so. I certainly don’t have to believe that it is. Also, that there are no – or fewer – rules, does not mean that free verse cannot be good. I proved that several times last quarter. Free verse can be spectacular.
Moar Poetree. I carry prejudices. So do you. Saying “Welcome, refugees!” does not mean that you approach the world with harmonious magnanimity. I do not deny my prejudices. How does my prejudice work? I write a little formula in my head. It’s poetry – it’s art – so in this day and age it’s likely to be very preachy. The saying goes that all art is political. All art is politics. So, the first number in my formula is “art” and its attendant political meanings. Next we have the first poet we examined in my Creative Writing class: Naomi Shihab Nye. “Naomi. Shihab. Nye.” Can you imagine a more wildly identity-packed name than that? She’s from somewhere that isn’t Nebraska, that’s for damn sure. So in today’s political and artistic climate, that name wields a heavy ethnic aggressiveness. When you are named like that, you are armed. You are weapons hot in the Western culture. So my equation looks like this right now:
“Art” + “Weaponized ethnicity”
This, by my calculations, can only result in one outcome:
Art + Weaponized Ethnicity = White People Suck
Unlimited license to rail against whiteness and privilege and all the dull usuals that populate places like art, where mediocrity bullies its way to power. It’s a title IX officer’s wet dream.
And so we dove into the poetry of Naomi. Shihab. Nye. I was doubtful and skeptical and preparing my defense. And we read “The Art of Disappearing.” And it was beautiful. It is beautiful. Nye is Palestinian, she is Texan, she is American, she lived in the West Bank, she went to Trinity University. She could be killing us with political accusations. But she does not. Politics exist wherever they are sought, and her poems are no exception. But she is a child in an adult’s body, writing with an informed innocence that I think is impossible if you have never been loved. I mentioned that the beauty of art can exist to show us where we are not beautiful, and to inspire us to improve. Nye’s poetry ups the ante, making me not so much aware of my ugliness, but making me feel more beautiful than before I started. Oscar Wilde said “Anybody can sympathise with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathise with a friend’s success.” Her poetry, I think, does that. It makes me sympathise with her success. It makes me happy for her. That’s really something. She wrote this one about time:
Burning the Old Year
Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.
So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.
Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.
Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.
I am happy for her that she wrote that. Last night, friends and I scribbled wishes on wispy sheets of paper. Gossamer parchments. We lit them and they rose up as they burned, the ash falling slowly back down so it could be caught, carefully, and the wish could be made real. The first stanza of “Burning the Old Year” seems to have been written for that moment. What a nice way to wake up on New Year’s Day – sober and poetic.
So my other resolution: More Poetry.