The other morning I chanced upon this poem, and it blew past my defences and burst me open.
i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
~ e.e. cummings ~
Why should a poem that one can’t make sense of have such an impact? It’s like some part of the psyche makes sense of it when the other parts cannot. Maybe the lack of sense confounds those parts and meaning jumps into the space left behind. In his book, “Precious Nonsense”, Professor Stephen Booth suggests that the greatest appeal of our most valued works of literature may be that they are, in one way or another, nonsensical. Precious nonsense is precious indeed.
I’ve been wondering whether the same happens in other arts. In painting, I would say yes. It’s what happens in a still life with the appearance of a sudden skull. It happens either when something unexpected is there, or something unexpected happens inside me when I see it. “It frustrates your expectations, actually”, as our aesthetics Professor used to say. So if it’s about what happens inside the viewer, then it’s not within the control of the artist. And no two people may experience the same thing.
I think of Magritte and Dali- except I feel there is such a sense of deliberate provocation in both cases. They want us to be surprised and perplexed- and it’s obvious why we should be.
At the recent da Vinci exhibition in the National Gallery, London, his two “Madonna of the Rocks” paintings hung opposite each other. Same artist, same composition, completely different result. In the painting from the Louvre, the figures radiate a tender peace, every limb is gracefully rounded, their faces glow. In the London painting, however, their faces are pale, angular and ghostly, their presences lifeless, flat and posed. Surely this must be the earlier painting- it has no spirit. Yet no, the experts think it is from a later date.
I also think of the medieval painters’ way of depicting subjects such as the Annunciation- Flemish painters showing Mary surprised by Gabriel as she makes lace or cooks waffles; or the cat takes centre stage, its fur on end as the angel appears. In one painting of the Ascension, only Jesus’ feet can be seen protruding from a cloud. Did the medieval viewers laugh as hard as I did when I saw those? Did they laugh at all?
What about music? Are there pieces that transcend or flout the expectations of the intellect? Everywhere. Mozart’s “Dissonance” quartet is a classic example. Steve Reich’s Six Pianos that morphs from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic – infinitely busy to infinitely peaceful- and back again. Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue, which initially seems to have no coherence or tonal centre. The moment in the Gloria from Bach’s B Minor Mass where the music moves from 3/4 to 4/4 symbolizing the spiritual contrasting with the material (the number three traditionally representing the Trinity and four Earth), when I feel more elation as the music descends to earth than I did when it hovered in the stratosphere. The mystery of how the Goldberg Variations can sound as fresh at the 50th hearing (or the 500th) as they did the first- if not more so.
Such moments of surprise can be found anywhere. I recently discovered a Soviet-era version of Winnie the Pooh in which the classic childhood character morphed into a fretful, obsessed, existential little bear who sang aggressive tuneless snippets as he stomped across the Steppes. He was still using a lot of A.A. Milne’s words and plot lines, but he was no English Winnie.
I want to write like greenly day-mazing cummings. I want to care as little as he did about what others thought of his work. I want to blow myself open and share the freshness of my imagination. Starting today.