Poems for Boneheads: A Criticism of the Artsy-Fartsy

By

I’ve never paid much attention to poetry.

510696fes3l_ss500_I don’t like esoteric art. Maybe it’s that I’m too lazy to think about it long enough to find the point. It also might be that I’m offended by elitism–not offended, annoyed. It gets under my skin when art is so lofty it takes a doctorate in baloney to sort it all out, and I’m skeptical of anyone who claims to have a handle on it. It seems more likely they’re faking it to look smart than that they’ve deciphered the thousand layers of something nonsensical and discovered the genius beneath.

For example: At an uppity exhibit here in Nashville I stood in front of a 12″ x 12″ off-white canvas–painted white, nothing more–and read the docent’s statement on the plaque beside it with a mixture of amazement, frustration, and indigestion. It was hailed as genius, as a bold statement because of the “delicate egg-white tone”.

The only thing about it that was ingenious was that the artist had made a ton of money on something that only cost him five minutes and a 2 oz. tube of acrylic paint. That guy drives his Maserati with a wide grin, I bet. Sometimes in the art world, the emperor has no clothes

(There’s a great documentary about this very subject, called My Kid Could Paint That, about a little girl whose paintings fetched big prices and were later claimed to be hoaxes. Read a review by Jeffrey Overstreet here. I watched it twice in two days.)

I realize as I write this that I’m wading in murky waters. I suppose there’s a chance that white painting might deeply move someone, or enhance their understanding of the world, or create a conversation about the nature of art–oops. It just did, didn’t it? Okay, so there’s a place in the world for the inscrutable and the absurd. That place just isn’t in my brain or in my house. No, I want art to mean something.

I want to approach the beauty or the horror or the sadness of a piece of art (be it poetry or story or film–whatever) like Indiana Jones crawling through the Well of Souls, looking for the treasure at the end of the labyrinth because he believes the passageway actually leads somewhere. He’s willing to brave the snakes because he has faith that he’ll find something worth seeking. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

All I saw in that little white canvas was darkness.

There are other ways to appreciate art, too. The artist can create simply as a means of expressing the darkness and light in his own heart–but even then, I think he hopes to create resonance. His art’s consummation is when another soul finds communion in it.

And art doesn’t have to be a riddle to be solved. If you don’t want spelunk, you can also experience it like a Sunday drive. Roll down the windows and breathe in the air of the work, looking for nothing but serendipity. I do that, too, and it’s a fine way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Beauty is reason enough for something to exist (just ask the daffodils). But I don’t see that happening with the aforementioned “painting”.

Let me get to the point. I started out talking about poetry and my lack of interest in it. But that all changed when I heard my friend Al Andrews recite a poem by Billy Collins. The poem, called “The Revenant”, made me laugh. I experienced delight. In the space of less than a minute and about 300 words, a light flicked on in an internal closet and slipped through the crack under the door. This particular combination of words produced a physical reaction in a room full of people. It wasn’t anything soul shattering or theologically explosive. It was just a poem, but it lit the room like a roman candle. Listen:

The Revenant
by Billy Collins

I am the dog you put to sleep,
as you like to call the needle of oblivion,
come back to tell you this simple thing:
I never liked you–not one bit.

When I licked your face,
I thought of biting off your nose.
When I watched you toweling yourself dry,
I wanted to leap and unman you with a snap.

I resented the way you moved,
your lack of animal grace,
the way you would sit in a chair and eat,
a napkin on your lap, knife in your hand.

I would have run away,
but I was too weak, a trick you taught me
while I was learning to sit and heel,
and–greatest of insults–shake hands without a hand.

I admit the sight of the leash
would excite me
but only because it meant I was about
to smell things you had never touched.

You do not want to believe this,
but I have no reason to lie.
I hated the car, the rubber toys,
disliked your friends and, worse, your relatives.

The jingling of my tags drove me mad.
You always scratched me in the wrong place.
All I ever wanted from you
was food and fresh water in my metal bowls.

While you slept, I watched you breathe
as the moon rose in the sky.
It took all my strength
not to raise my head and howl.

Now I am free of the collar,
the yellow raincoat, monogrammed sweater,
the absurdity of your lawn,
and that is all you need to know about this place

except what you already supposed
and are glad it did not happen sooner–
that everyone here can read and write,
the dogs in poetry, the cats and the others in prose.

Of course, you may read this poem and feel none of the fireworks or laughter. That’s fine. But try reading it again, aloud. (That’s a rule of poetry.) If you still don’t like it, it might be that you don’t have the advantage of Al Andrews’s baritone doing the reading.

My point is, I’m a new fan of poetry–or at least, I’m a new believer in the power of it. Until I encountered the poems of Wendell Berry and Billy Collins, I assumed modern poetry was generally as self-indulgent as that white canvas, only available to the intellectual or artistic elite (or the fakers). But I’ve since read Berry’s A Timbered Choir and Collins’s Nine Horses, and have found my soul enriched by their careful and kind use of words.

And I didn’t need a doctorate.

Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


35 Comments

  1. Benjamin Wolaver

    Thanks for the intro to Billy Collins. I hadn’t heard of him until recently when I discovered he’s coming to Lipscomb University in Nashville as part of a Christian Scholars convention along with Marilynne Robinson, the author of Gilead. I’m even more excited about going than I was before…

  2. Christina

    Amen. Two of my favorites.

    Jane Kenyon and Mary Oliver also fit this category. Kenyon is my favorite. A genius at bringing out the underlying meaning in seemingly ordinary events.

  3. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Well, Andrew Peterson, you seem to assume that art can have an intrinsic meaning. But since there is no such thing, really, art just means whatever it means to you. It’s based on our feelings about the art, not on the art itself. Art is just a catalyst for narcissistic ruminations on how we feel.

    The second thing you assume is that this “intrinsic meaning” that art can hold can also be conveyed to the viewer/reader/listener through the medium of technique.

    But really, elephants can hold brushes and paint with feeling. I just saw a very meaningful painting in the movie theatre being made by a car driving in a hockey rink on the ice with various colors of paint on its tires. Sublime.

    I also just saw a picture entitled, “Square Piece of Paper with Corners Cut Off.” It was, quite in fact, a square piece of paper with the corners cut off. It evoked feelings of the stark, grim reality of being a piece of paper with its corners cut off. I was intensely affected, and immediately afterwards forgot it until just now.

  4. Chris Yokel

    Billy Collins is great. I own both “Nine Horses” and “The Trouble with Poetry” and I need to get more. I like Billy because he is sort of the quintessential American philosopher–artful and thoughtful, but sort of rough and ready artful and thoughtful.

  5. Micah

    Ron, I have got to say that I dred that car-painting commercial every time I go see a movie now. The music gets on my nerves, I find the painting to be silly, and its all about the car anyways. And what is up with the random finger doodles on the paper. No image stays on the screen for more than three seconds, and you never really get to enjoy any of it. If any of it can be enjoyed. Sorry, I’ve been waiting to rant against it publicly since I first saw it.

    On topic, I have to thank the rabbit room for introducing me to Wendell Berry, whose poetry I have found to be deeply inriching, and I will definately look into Billy Collins as well.

  6. Joan Sherman

    Agree. When I was in high school, I attended an art exhibit and my friend and I gazed upon a canvas painted with vertical stripes of red, green and blue. The name of the painting was –amazingly — “Red, green, blue.” To this day (and it’s been awhile since we were in high school), in our sophomoric way, we will pretend to be “the artist” (a term used loosely) and say “I call it ‘Red, green, blue’ — my finest work.” Enough said.

  7. sd smith

    This post is writing on the wall
    It has cut through years of fatal fog
    To answer that great question all-
    Have asked, that is, “what’s up, dog?”

  8. Aaron Roughton

    I think someone has to point out the theological absurdity of this poem. Seriously. Cats?? In heaven?? Not a chance.

    I think I’ll head down to the paint counter at the local Home Depot and get that “delicate egg-white tone” painting color matched and put on every wall of my house.

  9. K

    I so agree with the sentiments regarding the bloated self-serving world of “art” these days… but sometimes it really is more difficult knowing what to leave out. And I love this poem. Coddled dogs of the world, UNITE.

  10. Peter B

    Whoa, Aaron; are you sure you want to live surrounded by that much sheer genius?

    I’ve often wondered whether my dog approves of our treatment; hopefully she’s a bit more forgiving than this sweater-clad Shih Tzu.

  11. Chad

    I’ve embarked on some explorative painting that might come across as “artsy-fartsy,” but it was really just an attempt to find out how color affects perception and depth in painting . . . perhaps in the same way that a writer might consider how words affect the tone or tempo of the writing. At any rate I enjoyed the process whether the resulting work has a clear meaning or not.

    Here’s a link to a few online samples:
    http://chadillachub.blogspot.com/2008/05/study.html

  12. kevin

    What exactly is the definition of “artsy fartsy”?

    Coming from a long line of no nonsense farm-folk who only talk about the weather and have no room for fictional characters, I’ve often used the word for you RR posters… only in a good way, of course.

    Mr. Petersen not liking poetry was a real surprise to me, though.

  13. scott

    if you like nine horses, sailing alone around the room and the trouble with poetry are great as well. and if you ever get the chance to see billy collins live at a poetry reading, by all means go.

    one of the things he does best is to make poetry, a medium that is not easily understood by a lot of people, accessible: he takes the complex and makes it simple, all while drawing the listener into his world and painting the images around us so that we don’t have to work as hard to figure it all out.

    and as a poet, the careful and kind use of words is an apt description for the technical skill he brings to his art.

  14. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    Kevin,

    “What exactly is the definition of ‘artsy-fartsy’?”

    That’s an excellent question, deserving another post. I’ll chew on it and get back to you. When I sat down to write this post I got going on the setup and couldn’t stop. I almost forgot the reason I started to write it, which was to share Billy Collins with you guys. So I think I have more to say on the subject–I just won’t know what it is until I sit down to hammer it out.

    Here’s a short definition, though:

    artsy-fartsy adj. an artistic sensibility marked by self-indulgence and/or elitism, often in a way that leaves the receiver of the art feeling dumber for his or her lack of understanding or appreciation

    That’s a starting place. I’ll fine tune that sucker so we can use the term with confidence. Har.

  15. Roger Wagner

    If you don’t already listen, you should check out Garrison Keillor’s daily podcast, “The Writer’s Almanac,” which is full of interesting tidbits about writers (and what they write about) and it has a “poem of the day” — some old, some new, some good, some beyond me, some GREAT. You can get to it on iTunes. It’s often one of the most delightful five minutes of my day.

  16. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    Roger,

    I’m a fan of the Writer’s Almanac too. I subscribe to the podcast but always forget to listen to it, so thanks for the reminder. Collins and Berry are both regulars on the show.

    Thanks for reading!

  17. Nathanael

    I’m with Kevin in being surprised that you don’t like poetry, Andrew.
    I’m not a songwriter.
    But to me, your lyrics are insanely poetic.
    I do agree, however, that a lot of what is out there under the title of poetry is way above me.

    I am a poet.
    And I am seemingly locked into rhyming, lyrical poetry.
    Very rarely do I find free verse that I consider good poetry.
    That does not mean it is not.
    I just mean I don’t get it.

    I used to write my poetry only for myself and my God.
    But as I swallowed my pride and shared it with others, people mentioned that they enjoyed it and that I should share it more.
    That’s why I started my blog.
    Now, only about 20% of what I post is poetry.
    But at least it keeps me writing.

    There is the danger in any art form that a whole lot of people will not get it.
    But for those who do and are blessed by it, we continue.

  18. Roger Wagner

    My pleasure, Andrew. Thank you (all) for writing. I don’t do many blogs, but always enjoy yours. Do you ever get to So Cal (I’m south of San Diego) to do concerts?

  19. kevin

    Nathanael- It’s funny you don’t like most free verse. I am the exact opposite. A lot of rhymy poetry seems forced and cheesy to me, but the beauty of free verse is of a different gate that feels more natural to me. I guess it’s hard for me to not consciously notice the rhymes.

    Different strokes, I guess.

  20. Matt Conner

    YES! I just talked about Billy Collins in church on Sunday (not as some Christ figure or anything hehe) and Nine Horses is a wonderful opening. A friend bought it for me some years ago and I was hooked.

  21. Elsa

    If any of you all are interested in reading more poetry, I recommend signing up for the PoemaDay e-mail list at http://daveytalbot.com/?page_id=23 . Davey is a former college classmate of mine with a great ear for good poetry. This week he’s doing a series of poems by Louis L’Amour (yes, the guy who wrote the westerns) that are simple and beautiful.

    I find that poetry of any kind is a bit of an acquired taste, but only because people think that they won’t “get” it and therefore are unwilling to read it. Billy Collins is a great introduction, as are Robert Frost or Hilaire Belloc.

  22. » Rabbit Room

    […] kind PoemaDay subscriber recommended PoemaDay in The Rabbit Room where an interesting post and conversation focused on the inaccessibility of poetry and where […]

  23. c.Lates

    artsy-fartsy explained (or rather not) a la haiku:

    fluttering moon beams
    seek my souL and rise to you.
    i am the Cheese; sniKt!

  24. Rex Queems

    I have accused others of smelling artsy-fartsy, but confess that I have not only smelt it, but dealt it at times Wouldn’t it be the case that anyone who is learning to create would produce works somewhere in the realm of the esoteric, maudlin, or kitschy? I mean, we need to improve, but what do we need to improve toward? Does our move need to be toward genuineness? How can we know if someone is genuine? Does a work of art need to move toward what each individual can recognize took some skill? If that were the case then the impressionists (regardless of how we feel about them) would never have been noticed. If the symbolism of the artwork is foreign to us, is it then no longer worthwhile? When I think about the things God made simple, I smile. When I think about the things he left mysterious I am often tempted to disengage from them, but it is only in the meditation on it that He begins to become clearer to me. I humbly encourage you to give the artsy-fartsy a chance. However, I find the eggshell painting humorously phony as well.

    Sincerely,

    Rex Queems
    Goodwill ambassador for the Artsy-Fartsy

  25. Hunter

    Here’s a poem I read yesterday by Robert Morgan that reminded me of Ron Block. Thought I’d share:

    The Grain of Sound

    A banjo maker in the mountains,
    when looking out for wood to carve
    an instrument, will walk among
    the trees and knock on trunks. He’ll hit
    the bark and listen for a note.
    A hickory makes the brightest sound;
    the poplar has a mellow ease.
    But only straightest grain will keep
    the purity of tone, the sought-
    for depth that makes the licks sparkle.
    A banjo has a shining shiver.
    Its twangs will glitter like the light
    on splashing water, even though
    its face is just a drum of hide
    of cow, or cat, or even skunk.
    The hide will magnify the note,
    the sad of honest pain, the chill
    blood-song, lament, confession, haunt,
    as tree will sing again from root
    and vein and sap and twig in wind
    and cat will moan as hand plucks nerve,
    picks bone and skin and gut and pricks
    the heart as blood will answer blood
    and love begins to knock along the grain.

  26. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Hunter:

    I will soon be releasing my own collection of poetry entitled, “Banjos and Booze, Chicks and Partyin’: A Moonshine Still-Life of Ron Block.”

  27. becky

    I think you would also like Ted Kooser, the former national poet laureate. He writes beautiful poems about every-day things.

  28. The Rabbit Room

    […] while back, The Proprietor wrote a post about boneheads (like me), Indiana Jones (even more like me), and the awesome poetry of Billy…. We’ve got a couple of Billy’s collections for sale in the store. If you’ve ever […]

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