Images, Ideas and Tension

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The first part of the Return from Parnassus, by Cy Twombly

The image cannot be dispossessed of a primordial freshness, which idea can never claim. An idea is derivative and tamed. The image is in the natural or wild state, and it has to be discovered there, not put there, obeying its own law and none of ours. We think we can lay hold of image and take it captive, but the docile captive is not the real image but only the idea, which is the image with its character beaten out of it.

This quote from poet John Crowe Ransom was referenced by the late painter Cy Twombly who, interestingly enough, employed a lot of text, often from Dante, in his effusive and expressive canvases. It’s a powerful set of sentences. As a visual artist, I was caught by its boldness.

In her book Madness, Rack and Honey, Mary Ruefle references this quote as well in her essay, “On Beginnings.” This piece pokes and prods at just how a poem actually starts as well as how it finds its way to its end, into closure.

This essay, like the rest in Ruefle’s book, is compelling, playful, wide ranging and smart.

From a review by David Kirby in the New York Times:

Ruefle’s mission is not to—yawn—remind everybody how precious poetry is; rather, it’s to give pleasure by showing how the mind works when it’s working most pleasurably.

In this she succeeds. Typically, she begins a thought with a quotation from a sage (“Gaston Bachelard says the single most succinct and astonishing thing: We begin in admiration and we end by organizing our disappointment”), then develops the thought to give it her own spin (concluding, in the case of Bachelard, that we can at least dignify our dashed hopes “by admiring not the thing itself but how we can organize it, think about it”). Now this sounds like poetry to me, but it also sounds like my thoughts on the last overpriced restaurant meal I ate, as well as the American political system. And that’s the point: we begin in one place, then we’re all over the map, but we’ve been up a time or two before, so now we’re bringing that thought in for a nice soft landing.

Poets continue to speak most saliently to me about the process I experience in the studio. They are wordsmiths after all, and they are better at calling forth the furtive and the fragile.

Here’s another theorist referenced by Ruefle in a passage that every painter can identify with (from Poetic Closure: A Study in How Poems End by Barbara Herrnstein Smith):

Perhaps all we can say, and even this may be too much, is that varying degrees or states of tension seem to be involved in all our experiences, and that the most gratifying ones are those in which whatever tensions are created are also released. Or, to use another familiar set of terms, an experience is gratifying to the extent that those expectations that are aroused are also fulfilled.

That’s a set of issues I work on just about every day.

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6 comments

  1. Altoon’s avatar

    “bringing that thought in for a nice soft landing.” wonderful image. In reference to the final quote, I often think of tension in my work, but rather than the sense of them being released, I think more in terms of balance; that may be more of visual than literary, though.

  2. Cindy’s avatar

    “Gaston Bachelard says the single most succinct and astonishing thing: We begin in admiration and we end by organizing our disappointment.” This is so true for me. It infuses every part of my life as a seeker, as a young person growing up Mormon, and the gaggle of teachers I have had since. What a simple and brilliant way of relating that experience.

    “Or, to use another familiar set of terms, an experience is gratifying to the extent that those expectations that are aroused are also fulfilled.”

    As a teacher, massage therapist, actor, writer, my days are filled with managing other people’s expectations. And nights managing my own.

    Thanks always Deborah for your ability to deliver thought provoking passages. They don’t disappoint.

  3. daramark’s avatar

    I love the Ransom quote – it’s going into my collection of quotes on art – another eloquent way of noting the primacy of experience over thinking.

  4. fshiels’s avatar

    I was drawn into these ‘musings’ at three intersecting points: my veneration of Ransom (and buddy Robert Penn Warren), which one imbibes at their alma mater, and mine, Vanderbilt; my affection for the “primordial freshness” of many of Cy Twombly’s ‘seemingly’ whimsical– but in fact– paintings of ‘…wild state.’ Oh– and 3. my delight at Deborah’s putting things like this together and then making me want compulsively to order BH Smith’s and Ruefle’s books on Amazon, (excuse product placement)
    hands shaking for another “mind fix” as an aspiring poet.

    Backing off from more abstract, “neurosynaptic and endocrine” art to realist/ representational work, I am reminded of the k[sic]razy Ezra Pound dictum (arch?) for ‘young?’ poets: “Don’t be “viewy”—leave that to the writers of pretty little philosophic essays. Don’t be descriptive; remember that the painter can describe a landscape much better than you can, and that he has to know a deal more about it”.

    This soft target old curmudgeon I suspect was employing overkill to rein in poets, some of whom bother to read his Imagist dicta nowadays. But he has a point. It may be that Deborah has crystallized a piece at the Venn- diagram- overlap of what Pound and Warren are trying to say about art, idea, and poetry. Even if that is not what you meant, Deborah, I put it together like this.

    I am a voracious consumer and collector of hopelessly reductionist 1-2 liners about what poetry and poets (or visual artists) are trying to achieve. What a poem is, poet does. What a painter is, does. The common denominator of these is impossibly elusive, but is surely something about artists’, poets’ incredibly variegated “wetware” making “lensed sense” or “playful non – sense” out of the cascade of moments that our sentience allows us.

    1. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      Some seriously juicy stuff here Rick! Thanks so much for this, it really adds to where the post was headed. I love the concept of “wetware”!!

  5. Ann E. Michael’s avatar

    Really enjoying the intersection of Twombly and Reufle. I’ve always been fascinated by visual artists who incorporate text into the painting/sculpture/collage/mixed media ‘frame.’

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