EP&M Online Editorial

Apollo Without The Mask

To those for whom literature, and culture generally,
came increasingly to stand in as a substitute for religion,
poetry -- and modern poetry specifically -- was High Church
Joseph Eptsein,  "Who Killed Poetry"

essay by Arthur Mortensen

Who doesn't love a mystery?  When the former host of Coast-to-Coast Art Bell introduced a new UFO story, a sighting in an Ohio wheat field, farm boys returning from a square dance and there, smack in the middle of highway 41, just past Mrs. Sedgewick's house -- Jack Sedgewick's widow, half out of her mind with loneliness twenty years after he was run over by a combine, came a brilliant, whirling light.  Our ears prick up; we wonder if it's really true this time, and maybe we did see something similar back when we were chasing Sylvia across the quadrangle at three o'clock in the morning.  Wow, we may think.  And yet, for all the thrills, who doesn't feel relief when the mystery is revealed?

 We find a story on page 47 of the NY Post that all that happened that night was a DEA helicopter raid on marijuana fields that just so happened to have been owned by those farm boys.  It's The Wizard of Oz again, the spook just another player treating the rest of us like personal hand puppets.   One would expect that Art Bell's show would experience a sharp decline in ratings afterwards.  Of course it wouldn't have.  Why not?

He kept introducing new mysteries of course, whether UFO's or Mel Waters and the bottomless hole on his Texas ranch or a thousand other amusements.  This is surely because Art Bell, regardless of what a lot of true believers might tell you, was at heart a storyteller with a fine skill at engaging other people to provide the plots.   He never tried to pass himself off as a high priest. nor would anyone ever mistake his wee hours program for a Mass.   He was savvy enough about radio audiences to know he could never get away with that.  Did poets once do that, though?

Joseph Epstein suggested in his 1988 Commentary essay that not only did poets before 1950 (all Modernist era writers in Epstein's examples) present themselves as cultural high priests, but that this quasi-religious authority was a source of their importance in society.   However, one wonders about that importance.   If we may agree that presentation is largely composed of appearances, then surely the importance given poets before 1950 by Epstein was itself only apparent.   And apparency is a risky position.  Consider a real priest who is limited by the nature of faith to appearances.   If the mysteries of a given religion were exposed as someone's hocus-pocus, the invention of a late night barroom fantasy, the faithful would make a quick exit from the cathedral.   Couldn't it be said that the Modernist poets mentioned by Epstein, in depending upon a popular conception of themselves as priests (a conception they pressed hard to achieve), bequeathed the unenviable gift of a mystery whose appearances dissolved when its rites were practiced by their heirs?  And who are poets to pass themselves off as priests anyway?

It wasn't always this way for poets.  One can hardly imagine a verse storyteller such as Browning ever being conceived of as a substitute for the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Audiences didn't go to the Globe to hear Shakespeare's pontifications on doomsday.  They had the Puritans to handle that stuff.  In both cases, the writers were regarded as artists with unusually good skills and talents for storytelling, the one on the page, the other on a stage.  As today fans of filmmakers intensely discuss the technical means used to achieve a moment of magic onscreen, one guesses the same was true for fans of Browning and Shakespeare, whether in conversations about versification, dramaturgy, or plotting.  Audiences for a popular art then as now were no more likely to believe such authors to be priests of a secular religion than the authors were themselves.

Indeed, in other arts, wide discussion of technical means toward achieving high art was commonplace until the Modernist revolt at the turn of the 20th century.  Alberti wrote what was essentially a manual on perspective and other painterly techniques for his collaborators, students and competitors in Renaissance Florence.  He wrote other technical books on how to achieve aesthetic values in architecture.  These were more widely read by people who enjoyed the resulting work than by the artists themselves.  Brunelleschi wrote another.   Colonna's Hypnerotomacchia Poliphili, the best selling book of the Renaissance, was more or less an esthetic instruction manual concealed as a hack fantasy.  Much of Vasari's Lives of the Artists is taken up with discussion of each artist's technique.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, highly technical discussion and criticism of classical music was commonplace as it was being written, not only so other composers and musicians could get in on the game, but for listeners who were mystified by the difference between a rondo and a sonata allegro movement in a symphony.   For such critics, artists, and fans, art was not a mystery in its making, but in how knowable means could achieve an effect akin to magic: a simple actor playing Lear totally engaging the emotional range of an audience; a bunch of canvas, pigment, solvent, and oil becoming a gripping allegory in Rubens' Consequences of War.

It was understood by critics, philosophers, artists and audiences that the artist served as an organizing force in assembling a recognizable and living thing from inanimate materials, whether an orchestra, an acting ensemble, print and paper, or a ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.   The artist was a maker, if not a bricklayer, then an architect -- of words, paint, music, walls.  In this role, the artist could only employ an active, conscious, and prepared intelligence in applying technique to a chosen form of expression.  An art was something that didn't just grow, but was mastered.  You could see this in the way artists worked, or you could read about it in criticism.  You might learn enough to try it yourself.  Artistic methods were understood as conscious, based on example and teaching, careful, objective, and refined to masterliness by long practice.  But the art they produced aroused passions in its audiences.  The mystery, in other words, was the art itself.

Largely thanks to the Romantic movement, and its many bastard children, this plausible and coherent perception of the balance between the artist and the art produced gradually gave way to the notion that the artist was a mad genius -- God's fool -- whose utter originality and unextinguishable passions would, if the artist were talented, produce work that astounded us for its unique power.   The art was not a mystery, but instead a product of a witch doctor's inexplicable rites arising out of unimaginable passions and obsessions, through a process we could only hope to achieve ourselves by investing in creativity, an ill-defined magic property which all have but only geniuses are dominated by.

Unfortunately for those holding to this view, especially the artists themselves, concurrently with this change of view came insights into human behavior which would, in the end, expose the mad genius as little more than a neurotic whose primary outlets were found in farting at audiences and calling it music, throwing paint at canvases and calling it art, or engaging in irrational phrasemaking and calling it poetry.   This is actually a quite popular view of the modern artist in high culture, often held by the artists themselves, albeit sometimes apologetically.  Freudian and Jungian observations that took those thinkers entire lives to realize in a form translatable to science are now casually expressed in daily conversation.  This is not to say such observations are trite, or conversational faddism.  As happens when science exposes a deep truth, successive generations take it for granted; it becomes a part of a world view, a piece of the furniture as Carl Sagan once described the theories and proofs of Albert Einstein.   And in such a world view, the poet as priest was surely doomed.  Why?

It seems hardly necessary to ask.  After the wizard's exposure, he can go on practicing his weird rites if he likes, but who can be expected to believe in them?  If we know that the mad genius is just somebody with a problem, what's poetry but the sincere scribbling of a neurotic?

The Expansive movement, from its inception by Turner, Allen and Feirstein, with many others in their cohort, was well informed about this problem.  And so, its practitioners deliberately set out to turn the movement's back on the notion of the artist as a mad genius or cultural priest.  Instead, they understood poems to be artifacts, not the Host.   They understood, from their own long study and practice, that the magic of a great narrative poem, whether The Psychiatrist at the Cocktail Party, or The Return, is achieved not by ritual incantations to the Muse, but by careful research, practiced skill and technique, and a commitment to deliver a perceivable work of art to someone they might never meet.   When you read their work, the last queries on your mind will regard their psycho-biographies -- those details of foibles and madnesses that any of them may have experienced, the crimes they committed or imagined, their nights of terror, their mornings of hangovers.   As when you look at Donatello's emaciated and astonishing Magdalena, or hear Beethoven's  7th Symphony, the magic expected from the Expansive movement is all in the art.  You may want to go to a priest afterwards, but it probably won't be Dana Gioia.

Apollo does not need a mask.

                                           Arthur Mortensen

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