In our hotel room at Lake Chelan, on the wall across from our bed, hung what appeared to be a reproduction of a painting by Richard Diebenkorn. There was no signature and the frame was sealed to the wall so I couldn’t examine the back, but it looked convincingly like a painting from the “Ocean Park” series – irregular pastel grids, like landscapes viewed from the air. It resembled this. I assume it was either a Diebenkorn reproduction or an anonymous ripoff of his style. Either way, I enjoyed its company.
Since returning home, while reading more about Diebenkorn and looking at his paintings, I came across two sentences reportedly scrawled on a scrap of paper and found in the artist’s California studio after his death in 1993, age 70. I haven’t documented the source but even if it’s apocryphal it’s intriguing and worthy of contemplation – like the painting in the motel room:
“I seem to have to do it elaborately wrong and with many conceits first. Then maybe I can attack and deflate my pomposity and arrive at something straight and simple.”
These are not the words of a young man. They have none of the willfulness, self-indulgence and impatience of youth, even brilliant youth. They reflect a full life’s experience, its dead ends, flops, erasures, detours, the inevitable depression and self-loathing, at least in passing – but not defeat or surrender. We could learn from them, especially from “elaborately wrong,” which is how many of us wrote and lived when young, congratulating our daring and individuality while slavishly serving the Zeitgeist.
At Lake Chelan I was reading the poems of Janet Lewis and her husband, Yvor Winters. The latter’s “To a Young Writer” seems apposite, in particular the final quatrain:
“Write little; do it well.
Your knowledge will be such,
At last, as to dispel
What moves you overmuch.”
Knowledge (experience) tempers emotional over-indulgence -- “What moves you overmuch.” The risk, of course, is over-compensation in the other direction, turning cold and sterile. In his note to the poem in The Selected Poems of Yvor Winters, R.L. Barth points out the poem was dedicated to Achilles Holt (1911-1993), a poet, fiction writer and student of Winters’. Barth writes: “Holt’s writing career ended relatively early with the onset of severe mental illness.” Yet he lived to the age of 82.
For what it’s worth, Diebenkorn, Lewis and Winters lived much of their lives in California, though none was a native, and all were associated with Stanford University.