Friday, December 16, 2016


If you want to know the author—or supposed author—of a medieval Hebrew poem, you often need only run your eye down the right margin. Take this Spanish ode, a prayer for the forgiveness of whoring Israel:

Looking closely, you’ll find that the first letters of each stanza spell out the words “Moshe Hazak.” This refers to Moses ibn Ezra, the twelfth-century author of the poem.

The acrostic’s history in Hebrew poetry dates to the Bible itself. Each verse of Psalms 25, 34, and 145 begins with a successive letter, though the received Hebrew manuscripts are missing alphabetically required verses here and there. The first four chapters of Lamentations follow a similar pattern, with the verses grouped into batches by the letters beginning their first word.

This is an introduction to a certain class of artistic features that I’ll call tinsel. Here are some more scrapings that artists have used to deck their firs.

First look at this poem by George Herbert. High school teachers adore this one, or at least figure that it’ll catch their students’ attention:

It’s called “Easter Wings”, and its clever conceit is that look, the poem looks like an angel’s wings when you turn it sideways! Proceed in a modern anthology of English poetry, and you’ll find variations on this theme, with words squeezed into the shape of ostriches or condoms or other things like that.

There is also such a thing as ‘found poetry’. This involves finding a snatch of text on a bottle of lotion or a grocery receipt, and calling it a poem, perhaps with a word or two added. Close kin is the ‘erasure’, which amounts to finding a scrap of writing and scratching out most of it to yield a penetratingly profound sequence of words. Look at this erasure I just made from the New York Times.

Next there are codes to be found in music. In The Marriage of Figaro, during Figaro’s climactic rant against fickle women, Mozart blows two horns together as a symbol of cuckoldry. Robert Schumann supposedly encoded the letters of his wife Clara’s name into his piano concerto in A-minor, so that the oboe’s melody begins with the notes C-H-A-A. The sequence B-A-C-H, for its part, has been written into over four hundred scores. (means in German-speaking countries, and means B-flat.) In February 2010, I was unfortunate enough to be at the premiere of Odna Zhizn, a clanging symphonic poem that you might be able to hum if you were an alien. The composer wrote in the program, if I remember right, that the piece’s notes spelled out the story of some woman’s life – but he wouldn’t tell us which notes or which woman. 

Then there is visual art with a backstory. This statue of an innocent girl, for example, is made of steel salvaged from a Francoist nunnery. This likeness of Willy Brandt is made of postage stamps from the DDR. This elephant is carved out of the bones of poachers. This kippah is sewn from the chest hair of an artist uncomfortable with Jewish masculinity. This building is exactly 1,776 feet tall.

Finally – I stop for mercy not exhaustion – , there’s the novel La disparition by Georges Perec, translated into English as A Void. Neither original nor translation contains a single instance of the letter e. Amazing! 

Hopefully you’ve grasped the common theme. These are all works of art whose main point lies in something other than the art itself. The emphasis is on a clever intellectual fact about the art. This fact is only visible to the contemplating brain, not the real senses of the person who listens to the poem or hears the concerto. 

Anyway, tinsel is always frivolous, whether spun in the fourteenth or the twenty-first century. An acrostic in an ancient Hebrew poem is excusable, because those poems are meant to be committed to memory, and frail human minds need as much support as they can get. Take away this excuse, and acrostics – like all gimmicks – become ostentatious and trivial.

I don’t think it gets mentioned enough that English-language Haikus are really bad.

crinkled autumn leaves
drifting gently into a teapot
it is almost dark.

Haikus have been held to be easy, but I’ve never understood that. An illiterate farmer can think up a native English poem at the plough, and sing it that evening at the free house. A haiku can’t be sung, and it needs pen and paper. (The above might be a haiku, or it might not, but you’ll have to check.) Easy? I can recite a hundred metrically complex stanzas of Horace, but I’ll never be able to get a single haiku into my head. If I didn’t know that this random arrangement of syllables was a culturally important form in Japan, I couldn’t tell a haiku from the words scrawled by vandals onto subway cars and called “Poetry in Motion.” Its only distinguishing merit among unmetered poems is that it ends mercifully quickly.

But worst of all is that a haiku’s touted feature – syllable-count – is something completely divorced from its substance, which is meant to be poetry. Haikus do not rely on the regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, which nearly all English poetry does. Instead they are built on the raw number of syllables, which is effectively inaudible to anyone who isn’t counting. It is an art form predicated on a gimmick; tinsel all the way through.

I am not arguing for simple art; extreme complexity, both of themes and of execution, is in fact necessary (though not enough!) for the best effects. Nor am I saying that every aspect of a novel’s construction must be immediately apparent. But complexity, if it’s to exist, must be the tissue of the work itself; it cannot be an external ornament without being vain. (Ah, you’ll ask, but is there really a difference there? That question is not ennobled by its refined tone of voice. There is. It is the difference between 20,000 notes in K. 331 and 273 seconds in 4′33″.)

You might also object that ornaments are constraints, and constraints are good for art! It is dogma in academic fiction-factories that a piece of art is more likely to “work” if it is produced under restrictive conditions. This, like so much said by program-fictionmongers, is a rotten cob of falsehood that sports a single kernel of undecayed truth.

Which kernel is this: every schoolboy knows that it’s easier to be forced into a story about a three-legged dog and an octopus on a Thursday than to face a blank page with only a pen and an imagination. Even a professional author is better off if he has a frame to work in; otherwise he might spin aimless in chaos with nothing to go on. This is one justification for modern poetry that follows the old formal patterns, like Robert Frost’s and Richard Wilbur’s. It is a weak argument – but no strong argument is necessary – against the shapelessness of T. S. Eliot and everything after him.

Then again, I think the fictionmongers have it backwards. A formal work of art is not good because it is constrained. It is constrained because it is good. In other words, beautiful art will have a traditional form because, dare I say it, the traditional forms are beautiful. The art of the Renaissance was not sweet and lovely because it wanted to be formal; it was formal because it wanted to be sweet and lovely.

Man with goatee and pierced ear:
“I think this really works. It takes a risk for sure, but it grabs me.”

There is nothing, however, to be gained from constraining a work of art for the sake of constraining it. Artists who don’t see the beauty of the forms, and insist on using them anyway, are playing a sick intellectual game. Parenthesis closed.

The real reason I dislike tinsel is not that I hate frivolity. (Hell, The Mikado is one of my favorite things on earth.) I hate frivolity that replaces our quest after real art. Art, seen right, is the earthly form of human feeling. We are all vessels of a great human oversoul, and the feelings that stir that soul – however glimmering and subtle – can be incarnated by a craftsman whose mind goes deep enough and whose hands are nimble enough. Tinsel is an abuse of the holy craft. Wherever you find it, there a scheming brain has replaced a mind that might have sounded eternity. 

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