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Sunday, 22 September 2013

Hart Crane: General Aims and Theories / Hughie Lee-Smith: Rooftop View


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Untitled (Rooftop View)
: Hughie Lee-Smith (1916-1988), 1957, oil on masonite, 61 x 63.5 cm (Cleveland Museum of Art)



I put no particular value on the simple objective of modernity. The element of the temporal location to an artist's creation is of very secondary importance; it can be left to the impressionist or historian just as well. It seems to me that a poet will accidentally define his time well enough simply by reacting honestly and to the full extent of his sensibilities to the states of passion, experience and rumination that fate forces on him, first hand. He must, of course, have a sufficiently universal basis of experience to make his imagination selective and valuable. His picture of the "period," then, will simply be a by-product of his curiosity and the relation of his experience to a postulated "eternity."

I am concerned with the future of America, but not because I think that America has any so-called par value as a state or as a group of people. It is only because I feel persuaded that here are destined to be discovered certain as yet undefined spiritual quantities, perhaps a new hierarchy of faith not to be developed so completely elsewhere. And in this process I like to feel myself as a potential factor; certainly I must speak in its terms and what discoveries I may make are situated in its experience.
 


But to fool one's self that definitions are being reached by merely referring frequently to skyscrapers, radio antennae, steam whistles, or other surface phenomena of our time is merely to paint a photograph. I think that what is interesting and significant will emerge only under the conditions of our submission to, and examination and assimilation of the organic effects on us of these and other fundamental factors of our experience. It can certainly not be an organic expression otherwise. And the expression of such values may often be as well accomplished with the vocabulary and blank verse of the Elizabethans as with the calligraphic tricks and slang used so brilliantly at times by an impressionist like Cummings.

Hart Crane (1899-1932): from General Aims and Theories (1925)



Confrontation: Hughie Lee-Smith (1916-1988), c. 1970, oil on canvas, 83.8 x 91.4 cm; image by Gandalf's Gallery, 23 October 2009 (Smithsonian American Art Museum)


Sunday Afternoon: Hughie Lee-Smith, 1953, oil on masonite; image by jyoga3, 18 August 2012 (San Diego Art Museum)

12 comments:

TC said...

Hughie Lee-Smith

Black Surreality: Art of Hughie Lee-Smith

Wooden Boy said...

I keep expecting to see that baby tank on the horizon line.

The illusion that Crane sets out is compelling (you do have to take note of the caution in those inverted commas set about eternity).

Submission, examination and assimilation: I want to catch the glimmer of something critical in this. Not sure if that's wishful thinking.

TC said...

Here they come then, rolling inexorably over hill and dale, on manoeuvres near you...

Perhaps as with the previous post, the critical intelligence of the writer here appears to be caught as if in transition, from the larval state.

A common symptom, it seems, of arrested development, among the culturally-deprived life forms of the gaping continental interior.

There was not going to be much sharper thinking ahead for either one, alas, but then, being of that same strain, I'm (almost, mildly) consoled by the absence of something that was probably always going to be a poor fit, there, then, in any case.

In the 1950 poem "Hart Crane", read aloud as the first piece on this 1959 tape, Robert Creeley personalized the theoretical deficit: "... the ones with the knowledge, lacking it himself..."

And it must be said that when it came to the grand simulation-project of resuscitating blank verse from the bloody hillside upon which the Seventeenth Century had left it flopping and gasping, there was no one was a patch on Crane.

As for the painter, I've gone back and forth on the work, but in the end my sense is that the vision encounters the ism and manages to come out of the collision relatively intact. The expressive and the rational, curious playfellows at the best of times.

But then I've once lived in both Cleveland and Detroit, so it's not a simple matter to be "objective".

Wooden Boy said...

The paintings are honest and wonderfully composed - like de Chirico, if he'd had a sharper political conscience.

Schools often kill the life in things.

TC said...

The more ancient and daft I get the more it appears to me that art was always an out of school proposition, taken up by the schools, when it is, because something must be taken up, and usually done significant harm in the process.

About the De Chirico influence, plainly the enveloping mysterious silence, the architectural fantasia, the occasional breath of portent and disquiet in the air, and of course the little blowing flag thingies -- a motif, I guess would be the proper term -- certainly evoke De Chirico. But Lee-Smith could hardly be called metaphysical. And it would be a great stretch to accuse De Chirico of any form of historical realism whatsoever.

ACravan said...

Crane's three paragraphs are among the most beautifully and thoughtfully composed statements of purpose I have ever read. Going over them I wonder how they emerged in the first draft and what changes he made in order to render his thoughts as complete, bold and still modest and unpretentious as they are. Yesterday my daughter sat for a practice SAT session with a group of high school juniors at one of those standardized test prepping businesses. Emerging exhausted, but thankfully in good humor (as she said, it isn't the best way to spend a Saturday morning), she told me all about the exam and where she thought she did best or might need to improve. When she told me about the essay portion, I got irritated because it was so banal (it reminded me of that standard job interview question where you're asked to identify your weaknesses and you're meant instead to describe how you're actually Superman) and I started trying to calculate how the clever student might try to score brownie points with the examiners in her answers. I would love for students to be given this paragraph to react to instead and I think their reactions to it would reveal a great deal about how they intend to approach the world, including their future academic studies. They would also be given the Hughie Lee-Smith pictures to consider, just as they're presented here. Now that would be an improvement in standardized testing. Curtis

TC said...

Crane wrote this essay in an attempt to account for the language and forms of his first volume of poems, White Buildings.

As there's some interest, I'm going to try to put the whole piece in, herebelow.
__

When I started writing Faustus & Helen it was my intention to embody in modern terms (words, symbols, metaphors) a contemporary approximation to an ancient human culture or mythology that seems to
have been obscured rather than illumined with the frequency of poetic allusions made to it during the last century. The name of Helen, for instance, has become an all-too-easily employed crutch for evocation whenever a poet felt a stitch in his side. The real evocation of this (to me) very real and absolute conception of beauty seemed to consist in a
reconstruction in these modern terms of the basic emotional attitude toward beauty that the Greeks had. And in so doing I found that I was really building a bridge between so-called classic experience and many divergent realities of our seething, confused cosmos of today, which has no formulated mythology yet for classic poetic reference or for religious exploitation.

So I found "Helen" sitting in a street car; the Dionysian revels of
her court and her seduction were transferred to a Metropolitan
roof garden with a jazz orchestra; and the katharsis of the fall of Troy I saw approximated in the recent World War. The importance of this scaffolding may easily be exaggerated, but it gave me a series of correspondences between two widely separated worlds on which to sound some major themes of human speculation love, beauty, death, renascence. It was a kind of grafting process that I shall doubtless not be interested in repeating, but which is consistent with subsequent theories of mine on the relation of tradition to the contemporary creating imagination.

It is a terrific problem that faces the poet today a world that is so in transition from a decayed culture toward a reorganization of human evaluations that there are few common terms, general denominators of speech that are solid enough or that ring with any vibration or spiritual conviction. The great mythologies of the past (including the Church) are deprived of enough facade to even launch good raillery against. Yet much of their traditions are operative still in millions of chance combinations of related and unrelated detail, psychological reference, figures of speech, precepts, etc. These are all a part of our common experience and
the terms, or at least partially, of that very experience when it defines or extends itself.

The deliberate program, then, of a "break" with the past or tradition seems to me to be a sentimental fallacy. . . . The poet has a right to draw on whatever practical resources he finds in books or otherwise about him. He must tax his sensibility and his touchstone of experience for the proper selections of these themes and details, however, and that
is where he either stands, or falls into useless archeology.

I put no particular value on the simple objective of *modernity*. The element of the temporal location to an artist's creation is of very secondary importance; it can be left to the impressionist or historian just as well. It
seems to me that a poet will accidentally define his time well enough simply by reacting honestly and to the full extent of his sensibilities to the states of passion, experience and rumination that fate forces on him, first hand. He must, of course, have a sufficiently universal basis of
experience to make his imagination selective and valuable. His picture of the "period," then, will simply be a by-product of his curiosity and the relation of his experience to a postulated "eternity."

TC said...

[continues]



I am concerned with the future of America, but not because I think that America has any so-called par value as a state or as a group of people. It is only because I feel persuaded that here are destined to be discovered certain as yet undefined spiritual quantities, perhaps a new hierarchy of faith not to be developed so completely elsewhere. And in this process I like to feel myself as a potential factor; certainly I must speak in its terms and what discoveries I may make are situated in its experience.

But to fool one's self that definitions are being reached by merely referring frequently to skyscrapers, radio antennae, steam whistles, or other surface phenomena of our time is merely to paint a photograph. I think that what is interesting and significant will emerge only under the
conditions of our submission to, and examination and assimilation of
the organic effects on us of these and other fundamental factors of our experience. It can certainly not be an organic expression otherwise. And the expression of such values may often be as well accomplished with the vocabulary and blank verse of the Elizabethans as with the calligraphic tricks and slang used so brilliantly at times by an impressionist like Cummings.

It may not be possible to say that there is, strictly speaking, any
"absolute" experience. But it seems evident that certain aesthetic experience (and this may for a time engross the total faculties of the spectator) can be called absolute, inasmuch as it approximates a formally convincing statement of a conception or apprehension of life that gains our unquestioning assent, and under the conditions of which our imagination is unable to suggest a further detail consistent with the design of the aesthetic whole.

I have been called an "absolutist" in poetry, and if I am to welcome
such a label it should be under the terms of the above definition. It is really only a modus operandi, however, and as such has been used
organically before by at least a dozen poets such as Donne, Blake,
Baudelaire, Rimbaud, etc. I may succeed in defining it better by contrasting it with the impressionistic method. The impressionist is interesting as
far as he goes but his goal has been reached when he has succeeded in projecting certain selected factual details into his reader's consciousness. He is really not interested in the causes (metaphysical) of his materials,
their emotional derivations or their utmost spiritual consequences. A kind of retinal registration is enough, along with a certain psychological stimulation. And this is also true of your realist (of the Zola type), and to a certain extent to the classicist, like Horace, Ovid, Pope, etc.

TC said...

[contiues}

Blake meant these differences when he wrote:

We are led to believe in a lie

When we see with, not through the eye.

The impressionist creates only with the eye and for the readiest surface of the consciousness, at least relatively so. If the effect has heen harmonious or even stimulating, he can stop there, relinquishing entirely to his audience the problematic synthesis of the details into terms of their own personal consciousness.

It is my hope to go through the combined materials of the poem, using our "real" world somewhat as a spring-board, and to give the poem as a whole an orbit or predetermined direction of its own. I would like to establish it as free from my own personality as from any chance evaluation on the reader's part. (This is, of course, an impossibility, but it is a characteristic worth mentioning.) Such a poem is at least a stab
at a truth, and to such an extent may be differentiated from other kinds of poetry and called "absolute." Its evocation will not be toward decoration or amusement, but rather toward a state of consciousness, an "innocence" (Blake) or absolute beauty. In this condition there may be
discoverable under new forms certain spiritual illuminations, shining with a morality essentialized from experience directly, and not from previous precepts or preconceptions. It is as though the poem gave the reader as he left it a single, new word, never before spoken and impossible to actually enunciate, but self-evident as an active principle in the reader's consciousness henceforward.

As to technical considerations: the motivation of the poem must be
derived from the implicit emotional dynamics of the materials used, and
the terms of expression employed are often selected less for their logical (literal) significance than for their associational meanings. Via this and their metaphorical inter-relationships, the entire construction of the poem is raised on the organic principle of a "logic of metaphor," which
antedates our so-called pure logic, and which is the genetic basis of all speech, hence consciousness and thought-extension.

These dynamics often result, I'm told, in certain initial difficulties in understanding my poems. But on the other hand I find them at times the only means possible for expressing certain concepts in any forceful or direct way whatever. To cite two examples: when, in Voyages (II), I speak of "adagios of islands," the reference is to the motion of a boat through islands clustered thickly, the rhythm of the motion, etc. And
it seems a much more direct and creative statement than any more
logical employment of words such as "coasting slowly through the
islands," besides ushering in a whole world of music. Similarly in
Faustus and Helen (III) the speed and tense altitude of an aeroplane are much better suggested by the idea of "nimble blue plateaus" implying the aeroplane and its speed against a contrast of stationary elevated earth. Although the statement is pseudo in relation to formal logic it is completely logical in relation to the truth of the imagination, and there is expressed a concept of speed and space that could not he handled so well in other terms.

TC said...

[continues]


I know that I run the risk of much criticism by defending such
theories as I have, but as it is part of a poet's business to risk not only criticism but folly in the conquest of consciousness I can only say that I attach no intrinsic value to what means I use beyond their practical service in giving form to the living stuff of the imagination.

New conditions of life germinate new forms of spiritual articulation. And while I feel that my work includes a more consistent extension of traditional literary elements than many contemporary poets are capable of appraising, I realize that I am utilizing the gifts of the past as instruments principally; and that the voice of the present, if it is to be known,
must be caught at the risk of speaking in idioms and circumlocutions sometimes shocking to the scholar and historians of logic. Language has built towers and bridges, but itself is inevitably as fluid as always.

TC said...

Hunting and pecking away the nutty insomniac dead hours on Hart's essay has definitely improved my appreciation of its eloquence, not to mention its courage, and, overcome in the course of these inane labours by a flood of memories of plunging through a double-pane wire-mesh window and spending a week having skin grafts in hospital in 1959 in Cleveland (of all possible hells), I've now been transported deep into the heart of my inner Ohio, where all flesh is withered from the lake, or was it sedge, and the view is as through a gauzy undergrowth of some sepia toned toxic fungus.

By the by, have I mentioned that this riveting brace of posts was conceived as a double-barrel popgun assault on the idea of modernity?

The set text for the (stationary) exercise, the bit from Baudelaire's startlingly brilliant essay:

"By modernity I mean the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent which make up one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immutable."

I suppose I had thought Hart was attacking that same thought from another angle, as it were.

ACravan said...

Thank you for posting the rest of the essay, which I'll be able to tackle after breaking loose from the various Sunday chores which have tackled me. "The vision encounters the ism" is a very good expression, by the way. Curtis