I recently posted “Portrait,” an odd, dream-like “journal” written as if I had gone and recorded what it was like for me to be a “poet” in an academic’s universe. The work is really a contradiction, and a deliberate one at that. If I can say that I drew the contours of a face in “Portrait,” I can also say that it is not my own face on the page.
I am now going to look again at the work, taking a moment to describe what it is and is not. Taking a moment to describe a terrifying complexity embedded in its entries.
Let me first confess that I am convinced that artists, all artists, do not know what they are doing when they do it. This is a point that needs a lengthy meditation. Artists follow the hidden laws of the realm they work in – art – but do not usually have explicit awareness of those laws. If they step back and critique their work, trying to puzzle out its meaning outside of its original terms, the result is dry leaves and unsettling staleness. Critique kills art, especially if the artist is the one doing it. A major modern figure who exemplifies this danger is W.H. Auden (and here I insult a great many of his admirers), a poet of no small talent whose poetry suffered as his literary critiques gained incisiveness. His earlier poetry is more interesting than his later works, which became cold experiments of impressive skill. Another example can be found in Rainer Maria Rilke, whose poetry is difficult to underestimate in brilliance, but whose letters about poetry are so vapid as to be agonizing.
Artists should not go and try to explain the meaning of their work outside of the work itself. I do not mean they should be silent; I do they mean they ought to be humble, and sparse. In other words: let people read it themselves, for God’s sake. All this bluster over proclaiming one’s “message” is a great way to render it impotent and irritating.
Two major exceptions come to mind. The first is Flannery O’Connor, who is as skilled and vigorous in her essays and letters as she is in her written stories. Much has been said about O’Connor’s works, much of it using her own self-assessments and much of it wrestling with her ardent Catholic convictions and the influence those convictions had on her work. There is a lively conversation between O’Connor’s life and her work, much of it spurred by her own essays and letters. We do not blink at it. Perhaps we should: the intensity of her engagement with art is unusual, and not the rule. She speaks about her own work with skill that – so my argument goes – should not be found in an artist. Yet there it is anyway, and through it O’Connor astounds in a manner perhaps not often surmised.
The second is John of the Cross, the poet-mystic whose analyses of his poetry enliven the verses while never overcoming them.
John of the Cross and Flannery O’Connor were both, as artists, immensely concerned with the movement of God’s grace in the world. O’Connor said of herself, “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.” John’s poetry bears the same conviction, and some of his most effervescent lines about the God whose grace is everywhere (“A thousand graces diffusing”), are woven in the sinews of deepest agony: “Oh! Who can heal me?/ Give me at once Yourself … Why, after wounding/ this heart, have You not healed it?” What in O’Connor’s work is the brutality of small human hearts shrinking before the grandeur of God’s grace is, in John’s work, the agony of a heart being made endless enough to love God in return.
It is this, this theological focus, that permits both artists to look back at their art with clarity. They no longer look at it on the same horizon at all; they view it from the perspective of the cross. Only the cross has the breadth and length and height and depth to understand art, precisely because it comprehends art with a wholeness not native to art itself. The cross transcends art, and so grasps it.
With that rant riveted in place, I can now commence a commentary on “Portrait.” The first caution, given such a rant, is that I must acknowledge that I have no rights to a full understanding of what I do when I do it. My second caution, almost against this first, is that I am a trained academic and not a pure artist. No one will ever find me claiming to be a real poet, only someone who plays at poetry. I am a logician dressed in poet’s clothing. Or, to be more cheeky about it: I am a Minotaur, half theologian and half artist. I am a monstrosity. Only a monster would go and do what I now gleefully attempt.
My favorite way to interpret the whole work is to consider it an essay on how writing papers is sometimes hard. This is superficial and unhelpful, but it makes me smile.
“Portrait” develops two ideas simultaneously: the poet’s struggles in real life (papers!), and an emerging tragic poem (the ballet dance). The two threads converse with one another, and indeed develop one another. Things encountered in real life – from shadows to pained expressions to difficult conversations – fuel images of balletic futility, which in turn interpret increasing frustration with understanding the things encountered in real life. We must wonder if the person writing is at least partially mad, since the dialogue is so fluid.
I do think art works in dialogue with the experienced life of the artist. But note the breadth of that experience: friends, arguments, painters (here: El Greco), other art forms (ballet), other poets (Rilke, Donne, Hopkins, Eliot), academic papers (!). Art as “self-expression” is misleading. It is really the expression of many things and figures through the individual artist. And it most of all ought to leave room, not for the artist, but for the person who experiences the art. All those voices come together to let someone else speak to them. That is why it was so important to me, when writing “Portrait,” to describe a nettled confusion about what the poem (the ballet scene) means. It is, as it were, too much for the artist to really know – except inchoately (“I know and do not know.”). The poem only slowly comes to light, as a “climbing terror.”
I often wonder how much I might be able to vanish behind a poem. At my most daring, I will try taking up someone else’s perspective entirely. I am too tired of myself, since I spend all day with myself every day, to write exclusively about myself.
But that is, of course, true of all great portraits. Any one of Van Gogh’s famous self-portraits, wild and almost abstract, is a portrait of him – but it is also, and primarily, an interpretation. He does not record himself exactly. If artists, in landscape paintings, move whole trees and buildings to give the composition a better shape, I do not see how portraits are any different. It is more than a Photoshop touch-up: good portraits indicate the unspeakable inner realm of a person, and face the observer like a distorted mirror. We see in that face ourselves looking back at us, and not-ourselves, and the strange meeting-place shows us something at the crossways. Sometimes we say, “I resonated with that sculpture/painting/song.” Well, yes: resonance is reflection of a sound.
Artists make decisions. They rearrange, exaggerate, remove. So as to better produce a sound that resonates. Nothing is an exact reproduction and, given the need to reach across the distance of human hearts, nothing can be a mere reproduction. It must be more “exact” (in Charles Péguy’s sense), by which I mean more incisive. More flexible and more iron.
So “Portrait” does this, too. Things have been rearranged, removed. I drew from an actual poem-idea (the ballet scene), and I gave the basic shape of its real-life inspiration (the glance into a window). The “poem” as it emerges in the text is different than it would have been had I written it as a poem, and I knew it. I worked from and changed yet more: the moments with friends in them have a touch of the real, but is not autobiographical. Of course I have argued (duh), of course I remember faces more than I do words (I am simply that way), of course I become frustrated with art and theology. None of the references were to specific moments, however, and their descriptions have an intended haze to them: vague enough and yet palpable enough that any of us could say, “Ah, I have been there, too.”
I did include names, originally, as a tribute to how my friends inspire me even when I fail them – but the Internet made that tribute an uncertain medium. I can be a dramatically tortured poet when I am tired, but most days I realize that I am not important enough or smart enough to be that tortured. Being a theologian is not a mask, not for me.
So these are all ways – among many – that I quite deliberately took up qualities of my life and remade them for the sake of something else. When I write anything – poetry, theology, a letter – I try to be better than I am. More compassionate, more careful, more honest. Writing is for the sake of others. It is not for the sake of inflicting my own narrowness on others. It is more complex, or perhaps simpler.
“Portrait” reviews these relationships, too. The writer’s inability to grasp another’s pain in real-life is transformed into the tragic ballet dance, which shows a similar desire to reach for another (fraught with much more tension than in real life – note how that shades it differently). But this failure to fully understand is extended into the poetic imagination, not dissolved, since the poem does and does not control its own dialogue. Poetry is not a refuge from our struggle to comprehend.
There is an ambiguous relationship with theology, too. The writer whines that images are logical, as if to complain that theology is working against that logic. But all the same, as the writer better understands the meaning of the poem, theological terms enter to clarify: “the whole play of images is a kind of anti-sacrament.” Theology assists meaning; theology is – it is hinted – not a “mask” to thwart the rather pathetic little poet.
There is horror, of course. And there should be. Art does not exist to soothe away mysteries. It lays them to bare. There are innumerable struggles in the act of laying them to bare. But let us not pretend the artist understands what has been opened up like a wound; the artist sees, and in seeing comprehends something of the pain, but does not comprehend it totally.
Again: only the cross can.