Tuesday, July 31, 2012

`From Light and Not From Primal Dark'

“The great artist always gets right to the heart of the matter. His technique is so natural it’s invisible or unhearable. I’ve always had good facility, and that worries me. I hope it doesn’t get in the way.”

The speaker is jazz pianist Bill Evans as quoted by Peter Pettinger in Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings (Yale University Press, 1998). His anxiety about technique is typical. In Pettinger’s words, Evans was both “a supremely natural pianist” and “the most self-critical of artists.” Decades of heroin addiction ended his life in 1980 at age fifty-one, yet Evans’ tone when playing was notably clear and warm, gentle and often classically elegant. That he and Glenn Gould were correspondents and mutual admirers is hardly surprising. The lines quoted above are preceded by this passage in which the pianist describes his fondness for William Blake:

“He’s almost like a folk poet, but he reaches heights of art because of his simplicity. The simple things, the essences, are the great things, but our way of expressing them can be incredibly complex. It’s the same thing with technique in music. You try to express a simple emotion—love, excitement, sadness—and often your technique gets in the way. It becomes an end in itself when it should really be only the funnel through which your feelings and ideas are communicated.”

Evans must have had Songs of Innocence and Experience in mind, not Vala, or The Four Zoas. “Simple” is a complicated idea, and never simplistic, and Blake is not the first poet who comes to mind when judging “simplicity.” Rather, I think of Robert Herrick, George Herbert or Helen Pinkerton. Each, when crafting a poem, knows his or her subject. They leave no room for muddiness or confusion. Their lines read as though illuminated. Intentional mystification is an artistic failing rooted in egotism, not profundity. Take the first two stanzas of Pinkerton’s “Celebration” (Taken in Faith: Poems, 2002):

 “Another spring dries in the wild-oat grasses.
The morning wind rises in leaves of rose
And radiant green--the black-oak at our windows--
While ocean fog drifts down the skyline passes.
Before the summer's leaf and its repose
Mowers will pile the white-gold hay in windrows.

“In this loved scene being and essence shine;
 It is and is itself, like Dante's wheel,
 While whole and part, each subatomic spark,
Dependent for existence, undivine,
Disclose the self-existent, first and real.
Light springs from light and not from primal dark.”

Profundity of thought – here, the scene in which “being and essence shine” -- coupled with clarity of means is always rare, virtually nonexistent in contemporary poetry. One of the reasons Helen’s poems reward repeated reading is their luminosity, the opposite of so much pseudo-profundity. To her poem Helen adds an epigraph, “Lumen de lumine,” from the Nicene Creed: Deum de Deo lumen de lumine Deum verum de Deo vero (“God from God, light from light, true God from true God.”)

1 comment:

Finn MacCool said...

G.K. Chesterton makes a similar point about Blake: that the Poetical books are far superior to the Prophetical ones. In an essay on Blake, GKC wrote: "No one who really understands Imagination, or how near it seems to Inspiration, would hesitate to give pages of the rambling epics about Albion and Urizen, for four lines like these . . .

How the Chimney-sweeper's cry
Every black'ning church appals;
And the hapless soldier's sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls."

Unfortunately, I spent dreary summer school days in graduate school listening to the professor's eye-glazing theories about Albion and Urizen. I was saved by meeting my future wife in the class; we promptly dropped the course, and the summer improved immeasurably.
J.D. Flanagan