“The poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all, they just stand back and let it all be.” The words of an arguably pretty good poet, Bruce Springsteen, from a song called “Jungleland,” not necessarily his best ditty, for his best songs are all on his first album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.” That record that was, like The Curious Autobiography that inspires this blog, quirky, innovative, and pushing the envelope of its genre. Nonetheless, the words that open this paragraph and stand out in “Jungleland” are of interest here, offering as they do a not-so-subtle criticism of poets “down here,” meaning, I suppose, the poets of the pockets of cities where trouble brews, where fights break out, where lawlessness rules.
Yet that is not what I want to talk about with this installment of the Residual Welshman’s blog. Rather, I want to say that, thanks to Elaine Jakes, I knew, even when I was a child, some pretty fine poets, whose names have not abode in my memory, for my mother introduced me to them when I was too young to remember. I think, though, that they were not the poets that Bruce Springsteen criticizes, for though they were “down here,” they were nonetheless writing something meaningful. I met them and heard them read in Philadelphia when Elaine lived on Pine Street with Sheila, who loved me as if she were herself my mother. Those poets performed at the Egg Bar on the corner of Twelfth and Spruce. They had profoundly deep bathos, reading their works aloud with insufferable pathos and an earnestness that befit a time of social upheaval and change. They wrote about racial equality and social justice. They didn’t write “nothin’ at all.” But Bruce Springsteen did not hear them. I did.
When Elaine moved to New Hope she became part of a new circle of friends, many of them artists. A few, like Leni Fontaine, whose workshop was on Fisher’s Alley, James Martin, whose small woodworking gallery was on North Main, and Gretchen Laugier, whose rather spacious atelier was on South Main, were quite good. Others, like Cookie McMurphy, were rather bad. Cookie did not seem to me to know much about art. She did, however, know a great deal about “texture,” a word she liked to use quite frequently when attempting to speak about art. As a lad I took “art lessons” from Cookie, which was fun, for I liked playing around with plaster of Paris and paper-mâché, two artistic expressions that seem curiously French (particularly the latter). “Why should French art forms,” I wondered at age nine, “be of such great interest to a woman who is obviously of Scottish descent? And why,” I continued to muse, “is she so concerned with texture? And why,” my juvenile mental nattering mustered one final thought, “does she smell of cheese?” Of these three queries I only ever got a satisfying answer to the third: her apartment was directly over Ye Olde Cheese Shoppe of New Hope. That is why Cookie and her dog, Thom (with a silent ‘h’), always smelled of cheese.
But to return to the art lessons. I am overbold in criticizing Cookie McMurphy’s lack of precision, shall we say, when it comes to art, for I am even worse at it. But I learned not so much from Cookie—though I did learn from her quite well the importance of texture—about the value of art as I did, say, from Simone Martini, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Marc Chagall, Rob Evans, Paul McCoy or Makoto Fujimura. These taught me on their own, through their art.
Art and poetry. That’s where we began, and that’s where we shall end. I think Paul McCoy or Mako Fujimura would agree with me that the point of art is the expression of something true, something real through a means that reflects that something; I say this, because on separate occasions I’ve had dinner with Paul and Mako and I have been lucky enough to hear each of them speak about their own artistic creations. Leaving aside any Lessingesque difference between verbal and non-verbal expression, I think I can say at least that poetry shares a particular quality with good art: each points beyond itself to something else, a grander idea. Neither kind of artistic expression is meant to be pretty; rather each wants to be good, divulging a kind of beauty that is not associated with an aesthetic ideal of beauty. Rather, poetry and art direct the viewer or reader toward something beautiful not as beauty is known with the eye, but with the soul.
Another word for what that beauty might be or at least encompass is, I think, “meaning.” Art and poetry can remind us in this flood of mortal woes, in the chaos of life that, while there is not always order or deliverance from our immediate circumstances, there is meaning in the middle of them. Would that there be comfort, too, but that is perhaps the subject of a future blog—nay rather, it is the provenance of poets and artists, of which I am certainly not among the latter. I do not have a dog with a silent ‘h’, I do not smell like cheese, and I was always a bit skeptical about “texture” as being vital for every art project (though Paul and Mako would be right to say that it is for some). Nor do I believe that plaster of Paris comes from France or even that paper-mâché is entirely French. To wit, another friend of mine, a papyrologist, tells me that the ancient Egyptians used it liberally for mummy masks. But more on mummies and their masks on another occasion. For now, perhaps it is enough to admit that I could be wrong about plaster of Paris. But if I were, would it not in that case be le plâtre de Paris?