A Luminous Halo

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." --Virginia Woolf

My Photo
Location: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States

Smith ’69, Purdue ’75. Anarchist; agnostic. Writer. Steward of the Pascal Emory house, an 1871 Second-Empire Victorian; of Sylvie, a 1974 Mercedes-Benz 450SL; and of Taz, a purebred Cockador who sets the standard for her breed. Happy enough for the present in Massachusetts, but always looking East.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Bad Poetry: Rain

One of my fantasies is to host a literary salon; in fact, "literary salon" has been officially napkin-listed as one of my resolutions in the past. I've got the perfect space, and I'm slowly assembling enough literary acquaintances to populate it. Fellow writer Christopher would undoubtedly be a regular.

But since I don't have a salon--yet--and since Christopher for the time being is finding it inconvenient to travel to Massachusetts (long story), we have been for some time holding court in various decidedly un-literary spots near his home in Connecticut. This week found us at a noisy sports bar in Enfield. One of the topics we tried to discuss during the evening was a "poem" Chris had posted on his blog (http://www.cfaille.blog-city.com/a_poem_or_notes_of_a_journalist.htm):

Rare in the desert.
Running? Effect on war.

Chris poses the question, "When we say that some set of words is a poem, do we mean that something specific has been accomplished or only that something has been attempted?" If we assume that the above lines were intended to be a poem, and find literary merit in them, does that make them a poem? What happens if we subsequently discover that they are, in fact, only notes made by a journalist? Does that disqualify them as a poem?

Henry and I both jumped on Chris for citing authorial intent as a criterion. We both place art in the eye of the beholder. Henry calls "the fact that it was created by accident" "merely an incidental historical fact."

Three years ago I hung my first hubcap on the wall simply because a nail happened to be sticking out there. I didn't want to forget to give it to the person I'd scooped it out of the snowbank for. But as I looked at it every day, I began to appreciate it as an object, apart from its intended function. Now I've got a wallfull. In another context, that wallfull might be a junkyard or a warehouse. Instead, I've got a gallery.

The hubcaps, though, are beautiful. Although the manufacturer didn't intend them to be art, and although I didn't initially begin displaying them as art, as a viewer I submit that they are art. The above lines, on the other hand, even if printed on ivory vellum in a chapbook, just don't do it for me. Sorry, "Rain," you're not a poem.

Labels: ,


Anonymous Christopher said...


I'll come at this sideways for a moment.

We can, and sometimes must, take an intentional stance toward various fictional characters. We understand them as wanting to say something, and failing to say it.

Mrs Malaprop clearly wanted to refer to a "nice arrangement of epithets," when she spoke instead of a derangement of epitaphs. If we don't make that inference, we don't get Sheridan's joke.

Sometimes linguistic conventions are violated more deliberately than they are by Mrs. Malaprop, and we know when this has happened to the extent that we can get inside the author's head, which is perhaps more difficult if the author is a real-world human being, but still in principle possible.

Consider Forster ending a novel with "Weybridge, 1924." Why? Because it seemed like an anti-romantic flourish, and thus a riposte to James Joyce's, "Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914-21"?

What I'm suggesting, then, is that we'd want to know where Forster wrote A Passage to India. If he did in fact write some or all of it in Weybridge, he was following a convention. If he wasn't in Weybridge, maybe he was deliberating breaking one for effect.

4:05 PM  
Blogger Cicily Corbett said...

ok, christopher, i admire your persistence; also your apparently limitless fund of literary esoterica.

HOWEVER, your example is not a valid argument for taking an intentional stance in assigning literary merit to a work of art. the fact that forster wrote a passage to india in weybridge in 1924 (which, in fact, he did) is a piece of biographical information, but that doesn't make it an intentional fallacy, as wimsatt and beardsley point out in their seminal essay. had forster NOT composed APTI in weybridge in 1924, the irony would be derived from the contrast between the postscript and the contextual evidence available to the informed reader. contextual evidence is not the same as intention.

7:32 PM  
Blogger Henry said...


I passed your hubcap story on to a friend, who replied:

THESE OBJECTS ARE ART, AND ARE INTENDED AS ART. THEY ARE DESIGNED AS ART BY "DESIGNERS" (read "COMMERCIAL ARTISTS"). Do you think that automobile design is simply functional, and that aesthetics play no part in marketing success?

8:10 PM  
Blogger Cicily Corbett said...

yes, thank you. of course, auto design, a subset of popular art, is an amalgam of form and function. extracting one element and framing it or hanging it on a wall emphasises the beauty of the form.

9:22 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home