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Notes from the Editor

Tapestries and Collages: Some thoughts on poetry and the arts

Stop a moment. Think modern art. What do you think of?

A Picasso nude? A bit of abstract expressionism?

Tone it down a bit. Something that will sell (in the savvy art market, and not in K-Mart.) Trendy, without being too extreme. Then what?

Whatever you think of, I am sure of one thing: it will present you with something small, something boiled down (if possible) to a single image, a single detail, a single concept, made intense. A cameo or miniature, but properly Bauhaus.

Now think medieval art. What do you think of?

A tapestry perhaps? Or an illuminated manuscript?

Swarming with details, but the details fit together somehow, form a larger picture. The scenes in a tapestry tell a story: the illuminations in the manuscript illustrate - or decorate - its content.

Of course, we have our larger arts. The movie industry, perhaps most saliently; the novel, if you go down one technological revolution or so. Yet they too show similar trends. Movies - television, even more - trends toward rapid cutting between images: nothing stays on the screen long, it all flashes past as if each piece were a separate moment in eternity. Even novels pick up the pace: they do not linger lovingly, describing intricate human relationships, slowly unfolding plots. Pacing. It's all a matter of pacing. Get on with the action. Get on with the images.

Needless to say we see the same thing with poetry. It's even more affected than many of the other arts.

How many poems in a modern poetry magazine exceed a single page in length? It's bits and pieces of disconnected lives, likely as not, assembled into a collage. Or if the poem gets longer, it will often shift from one image to another at a pace that would feel at home on MTV.

The trend toward short poems is sometimes justified by arguing that poetry is focusing on what it does well: the image thrust home, the perfectly captured moment, and avoiding those things that are now more properly the province of the novel or the movie.

I don't buy it. It's an esthetic that goes through the arts, an esthetic that feels more comfortable with images and collages than with stories writ large. Tell a story if you must, but keep it small, keep it intimate, keep it personal. Epics, elegies, odes, all the modes which connect the poem with the larger world, are somehow passé, or perhaps a bit embarrassing.

What is worthwhile is never passé.

Give me something that resonates with meaning, something that fills the empty spaces between the words with all the richness of life lived well. Old fashioned?

If so, give me old fashions that will wear well in the next millenium.

Something as small as poetic form has its part to play. Alliteration and other poetic structures suggest connections, links that go beyond the bare literal meaning of our words. A tale told in full has time to make connections, to give significance to the actions it describes. I think they go together, a chain of significance from vowels to events.

Copyright ©1999, Paul Deane