We Are Pale Ramon

Ghostly demarcations of the land under cloud cover, taken over the US midsection during a recent cross country flight.

My very clever and well read niece Rebecca Ricks sent me a link to an essay published in Frieze Magazine last year. Titled Of Ourselves and of Our Origins: Subjects of Art, it is an edited version of a lecture given by Peter Schjeldahl at the School of Visual Arts.

Peter Schjeldahl of course is the long time art critic at the New Yorker magazine. I read just about every article he writes and connect with him more than I don’t. This essay is particularly full of resonant wisdom and what’s more, it includes the full text of my favorite Wallace Stevens poem, “The idea of Order at Key West” (whose final line is referred to in the title: “Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,/The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,/Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,/And of ourselves and of our origins,/In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.”) Schjeldahl says this about the poem after quoting it: “I think it’s safe to say that nothing in recent writing or art reaches this level of beauty and intelligence, so confidently, let alone with such total mastery of form.”

It just may be that there is a stealth tribe, not easily determined but primal nonetheless: the kinship of those who carry an unearthly passion for that poem. Recite it by heart, and you’re in.

A few snippets from Schjeldahl’s essay (and there are oh so many):

Good art evicts intelligence from its left-brain command centre into other parts of the brain, and of the body. It does this by some or another touch or twist of beauty, which can’t be conceptualized but only undergone, like a beneficent seizure.

To be really good at anything, assuming that you’re talented, is to work harder and longer, with more ruthless honesty and discipline, than other people could do without bursting into tears. Your secret is that, hard as it may be, it doesn’t feel like work to you. It feels normal, like eating and sleeping…

So as an artist you’re lonely. You know the fragility and vulnerability of your Great Good Place but you lean your whole weight into it anyhow. Along with wanting fame and money and sex, like everybody, you want to slip that place into the map of the world, to make the world a little less wretched to you. You will even go without the fame and money and sex parts, if necessary. You will be misunderstood, often enough by people – darling dumbbells – who praise you. (Be kind to them if you can.) That’s the deal. No one said you were an artist. You said you were an artist. You asked for it. No whining.

6 Replies to “We Are Pale Ramon”

  1. Elana Jan Bodine says:

    I love the last paragraph, especially, “You will be misunderstood, often enough by people–darling dumbbells…That’s the deal. No one said you were an artist. You said you were…You asked for it. No whining.” Smart and funny and spot on!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      So true. I’m glad that resonated for you as well.

  2. Brenda Shufelt says:

    Excellent. Always loved the Wallace Stevens poem. I first learned of it from Paul of course. Lean your weight into it.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Brenda, it is incantatory. It has brought me solace since I was 17. I am Pale Ramon, through and through.

  3. Frankie Wright says:

    Thanks for posting this. I like the humanity, the humane-ness, of this talk, and the way his mind works—going to poetry, Stein, Kafka, etc., as artists do, finding inspiration in stray but potent bits.

  4. Janet Ellingson says:

    Beautiful photograph!

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