I was reminded about poetry when I went to the ballet this week. And not necessarily what you may expect…expressions of beauty through pattern or escape to a lyrical world (although that certainly happened).
No, I was reminded about the quest for meaning in art and the effect of succumbing to fads and affectations.
The Quest for Meaning
The National Ballet’s mixed winter program began with two offerings of classic Balanchine choreography: The Four Temperaments and Rubies. As the knowledgeable and always eloquent creative Director and Principal Ballet Master, Lindsay Fischer reminded us in the pre-performance talk, Balanchine choreographed always with the music uppermost in his mind. He didn’t start out with an idea he wanted to express. Instead, he listened to the music and let the music suggest the movement.
When you listen to a symphony, you don’t spend that time wondering what it means. You let it transport you and enjoy the way it makes you feel. Balanchine’s ballets are like symphonies. You enjoy them for the emotions they stir in you, for the beauty in the patterns that delight you, for the surprises that please you when you least expect them to.
Good poetry is like that too: the music of the words and rhythms, the surprise of juxtapositions and turning points, the satisfaction of found mutual experience and ah-ha moments. And the delight of images that make you feel like you see what the poet sees. To paraphrase Chekov, poems that allow the reader to experience the moon by seeing “the glint of light on broken glass”.
And always emotion. It’s not necessary to read poetry looking for meaning. Allow the images to evoke whatever emotion or memory they do for you. There is no right or wrong reaction to what is written. Like a symphony, or a Balanchine ballet, let the poem transport you and move you.
Fads, Trends and Affectations
The final offering was a new work by Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman called Cacti. At first it was disturbing, confusing, but it didn’t take long to become comical, in fact, hilarious.
It poked fun at all the trendy things we’ve seen on stage and in dance competitions: androgynous dancers; bizarre props that seem to be symbolic but aren’t; weird, intrusive (and often annoying) lighting and stage sets; contorted body positions and music that isn’t sure what rhythms or mood it’s going for.
In short, it was using conventions and trends that others had been using, in fact, overusing. And did it result in “art”? Was it trying too hard to be “art”? What resulted was a parody of art.
In this case, the choreographer was going for that and succeeded brilliantly. But it was a heads up to those who forget to open their minds and let the muse be original.
It took me back to 2004 when Ruth and I were on the editorial board for the literary journal LICHEN Arts & Letters Preview. Submissions of poetry went through a “fad” at that time, where everything was lowercase, even the pronoun I, and the poet’s name. Poems were made up of numbered parts, had words in italics, parentheses and were often divided by slashes. And all of them (it seemed) started with a quote from someone else or notes on what inspired the poem. That’s not to say that these devices cannot be used; there are some very fine poems with one or more of these elements in them. But what we were seeing was random, put in there without meaning or context because the poet had seen it elsewhere and was imitating without understanding why it was like that in the first place. That’s the pretentious part.
Given that we had to deal with hundreds of submissions, it was frustrating. Our 2004 spring issue was the “fun” issue, so as a lark, and to do much the same thing that Ekman did in the ballet Cacti, we (the editorial board) collectively wrote a poem that parodied all these affectations. We published it as “The Typical Canadian Literary Journal Poem” by a fictitious poet called bobbi le blanc (Notice: non-gender, possibly French and/or English and all lowercase name.). It was a hoot. But in the fun, like the ballet Cacti, there was that same heads up to those who forget to open their minds and let the muse be original.
It was a long poem with many numbered parts (of course), but just to give you a taste, here are the first two stanzas. Enjoy a giggle.
Can You Use Parody?
Interestingly, parody is a great way to loosen up the mind and your writing. Try taking something you’re editing and rewriting it in the same style of a well-known writer, say, Ernest Hemingway (simple, direct and plain prose) or William Shakespeare (image-rich, iambic pentameter, 16th-century prose) or Margaret Atwood (precise, ironic and witty). When you are finished, consider how your own work is different. What makes your style, your voice, unique?