Sunday, November 04, 2012

`Use Artifice to Complement What's True'

The first poem in Catharine Savage Brosman’s new collection, On the North Slope (Mercer University Press, 2012), is “Ars poetica,” which begins:

“In art I like verisimilitude—
not slavish imitation of the real,
but—even the extraordinary—viewed
for truth’s increase and durable appeal.”

In a note, Brosman acknowledges the poem's debt to Horace and Boileau, “the French arbiter of classical prosody,” but she hardly writes like a hard-shelled classicist. She favors art that renders a faithful account of the real, tempered by respect for “truth’s increase.” Art has its reasons, and so must the artist. In the third and fourth stanzas she writes:

“Peculiarities and accidents
Of landscape, person, fruit need not be changed,
yet profit from restraint and ornaments.
The tulip’s streaks may well be rearranged,

“as language purged of oath and vulgar words,
Save bits of flavoring: a phrase or so
Reveals the man; we do not want the turds.”

Hints, inklings, allusions, synecdoches – the tactful and efficient etiquette of art. Even when rude, art is polite. The tulip reference is to Chapter 10 of Rasselas. Imlac, the speaker, is not always a stand-in for Johnson:
“`This business of a poet,’ said Imlac, `is to examine, not the individual, but the species; to remark general properties and large appearances. He does not number the streaks of the tulip, or describe the different shades of the verdure of the forest. He is to exhibit in his portraits of nature such prominent and striking features as recall the original to every mind, and must neglect the minuter discriminations…’”

Yes and no, we might say. The finer strains of Romanticism and Modernism – say, Thoreau and Joyce -- favored the notion of “luminous details.” The modern taste is for specificity. Brosman says the artist must “direct / uncommon focus to a common theme, / by vision, measured understanding, tact.” According to this understanding, the contemporary infatuation with the “transgressive” is offensive, yes, but also pointless, ineffectual and dreary. It’s not art. Brosman concludes her poem with these lines:

“Depict, then, golden peach and worm; eschew
grotesque or alien creature, vicious act;
use artifice to complement what’s true.”

There goes science fiction, Sharon Olds, William Burroughs.

1 comment:

Helen Pinkerton said...


Thanks for citing Brosman's fine line:

"The tulip's streaks may well be rearranged."

I think Johnson would have liked it.