Paul Nelson, The Line Is Strong and the Escape Is Thin

Paul Nelson
-Arnaud Lefebvre

For some of us, the word “civilization” professes our sometimes sophisticated habit of living by revisable laws and questionable customs, all the while disbelieving, individually, in the fruitful eventuality of reason. Given our history of slaughter and environmental degradation, reason has never prevailed. In our failure lies a tenuous life for poetry and painting to express fear within love of being. I think of Goya’s “black period.” They say so, but he was not mad.

When asked “What are you painting?” one painter answered “paint.” A poet is stuck with words, usually black on white. But writing is mixing, nonetheless,
evoking colors, touch, scent, visuals, sounds …music. Interpretation of poetry emerges from the way words expose or suggest images in the writer’s and reader’s subconscious. A fine poem can elicit a life’s mimetic narrative. Or a book of poems can. Jacques Derrida’s basic ideas about interpretation of poetry mime the way my mind works, not linearly, but elliptically, eclectically, with revised narrative, if any. As I suppose Goya’s later mind pulled stuff together, with such incredible compression: his “Three Fates” with the escapee running toward you, predicts Surrealism that never matched his. Or think of his “Drowning Dog.” Memory, visions of things past and therefore present, is fiction making. For this poet, there is no past. The movie in my head is running.

If I seriously play, language as image leads me to form an intuition of a poem. A false faith maybe, but one that works. The process is Aristotelian. No muse from on high, but a kinesis, as if a poem were an undirected afterthought to the delight of physically laying down the words, not with intent to expose foregone ideas of what I might mean at any moment. I like the word “gist,” from the Old French, “gesir,” to lie. Often taken to mean the essence of a consideration. I lie all the time in order to field an experience made of words. I can’t work from ideas. Perhaps I should, but others can decide that. I don’t know clearly what I feel and mean until I have sorted out a body of words that make images to express my new awareness of a gist. Of which I have always, perhaps, had inklings of feeling and ideation. Lying myself into and from the image I begin with.

The image is there, or comes, as it might with the application of color one happens to mix with some fine intuition or emotion, or the waft of charcoal on handmade paper, or the incisiveness of a pencil line as one draws in modest confusion. One image can lead to another in what seems disparate relation, to invent an expanded, excited context or metaphor coming to a surprising wholeness, which I hope leaves the experience open, however leading. Like a fabulous lie. Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, none for the reader.”

If I say that the bark of a tree feels gray to the whorls of my finger tips a reader might take it to mean that the tree’s bark is dead, or a beech tree. That is the fineness of a reader’s freedom. That a writer feels the bark is gray may imply that he is feeling gray….worn, sick, quieter, less sanguine, say, than “blue.” One can live by fine images. Eventually, a good poem or painting has told the artist what it wants to be. It goes free of the artist. A whole poem may be generated by the word “whorls.” A coiled sensibility. A gyre? A rhyme with “world.” Almost anything goes.

William Carlo William’s “…red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens” does more than sit there; it lets me feel that the poet loves vivacity even more than ideas about or suggested by experience. He doesn’t need to say anything. I look for that dynamic in paintings as well. Poetry for me is not “about” anything, at least right away. It remains more experience than about it. If it is a vital experience it should cause reflection. WCW’s homely images put aside “loveliness.” A fine image can feel like a gist, an interesting lie that trails or blooms into reverie, redolent as the finish in a mouthful of fine wine.

One way poets lie is to exaggerate. Homer turned water to wine to blood with his “wine dark sea.” Doesn’t this work even out of his context? Poets are in love with exaggeration. Plath’s “Daddy, Daddy, old black shoe …” in which she felt like a foot. I wrote: “A lame raven, black pickaxe, shatters ceramic apples.” The music came with the visuals. Poets can feel like lame ravens. Or pickaxes. Or see poems as ceramic apples. Interpretations are merely plausible. Kierkegaard wrote: “truth is a snare; you cannot have it, without being caught.” Seamus Heany advises “keep at a tangent.” And Emily Dickinson said to write it “slant.” There is a tradition for indirection.

Art, poetry, is a luxury human beings must let live. It is not a luxury for those who make it. We live vicariously. More positive than theology, which it ultimately entropic, poetry and painting are peculiarly willful in any pragmatic social structure, an alert state of determined half consciousness, careful about hope, leery of the uplifting or of sincerity, and any sentimentality (which Wallace Stevens called “a failure of feeling). I indulge in a serious, playful experiment with the disparate. Poetry does not elicit perfection. Hence “negative capability.” Poets, to remain vulnerable, often choose the barely known to see what happens, given an inkling. Or use the usual unusually, separate from conventional manners and formal aesthetics, with intuitively realized insights and outsights, expanding fields one is re-born to work with. I write poetry, at least, to find out what I am really feeling, maybe believing. The ending of a poem, for me, should not clarify but fly open with vital implication, a release from depression and perfection, those cramps, though “… the escape is thin.”

*Arnaud Lefebvre is an important gallery director in Paris.


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