Dana Gioia

Tiny Poetic Vessels

“That was epic!”

This is what contemporary teenagers often exclaim after experiencing something impressive, whether the epic in question is a blockbuster film, a huge fantasy novel, a multi-state road trip, or a resounding crash by an accident-prone friend.

From the Greek epic to the haiku, the tragic drama to the sonnet, poetry has spanned the history of literary scope as well as of social and linguistic change: in other words, poems can be big or small. Each size has its attendant values and uses, of course. An Oedipal agony will not fit into a haiku, but neither does Oedipus Rex focus a sharp beam of attention on one exquisite blade of grass.

At the moment, American poetry tends towards the smaller end of the scale. A full-length collection usually runs between 80 and 100 pages, somewhere in the range of 40 to 60 poems. The poems themselves are not expected to run onto a second or third page. We like to be able to take in the shape of a poem at a single glance.

There are, of course, exceptions. Dana Gioia’s brand-new collection Pity the Beautiful includes an extended narrative poem. It’s called “Haunted,” and it runs for an impressive 8 pages. There are a few genres that still require poetic virtuousity over considerable length: opera libretti come to mind.

But in general, Americans are not writing epic poetry. We’re not writing long verse dramas. We’re not writing extended narrative ballads. Our poetry is tiny, isolated, incidental, and frequently insignificant.

 

Tania Runyan’s A Thousand Vessels manages a large scope within the confines of contemporary minutiae. It is a collection of 46 painful, exquisite, prosy monologues. The book as a whole sweeps across thousands of years of Biblical history, from “Genesis” to “The Empty Tomb.” Her organizational method is also ambitious: in a mildly feminist strain that yet reaffirms many stereotypes, the “Thousand Vessels” are women. This volume gives voices to women from the Biblical narrative: Eve, Sarah, Dinah, Ruth, Esther, Mary, the woman at the well, Martha, Jairus’ daughter, and Mary Magdalene. There are four or five poems for each of these women’s stories, all imagining ways into their lives. Yet the concept is far more nuanced and original than this description suggests. The poems in each section are not predictably and consistently in first or third person, nor even tied to a historical locus. Rather, 11 are in the third person, 32 in first person, and 3 in a second-person direct address. More interestingly still, 27 are set in biblical times (the “right” time period for the characters in question), but a few in each section (19 total) are set in the author’s own time and place.

In other words, we are also numbered in the Thousand Vessels. When Sarah waits at home to see whether Abraham comes home with Isaac—or with Isaac’s body, or ashes—for instance, Runyan herself worries about “Keeping My Daughter” in perhaps the most perfect poem in the collection. She is at her best with the intimate details of mothering—or fathering; when Jairus mourns the death (and struggles through the strange restoration) of his daughter, Runyan pairs his grief and confusion with a poignant three-section poem on “Children of Near-Death.” These children, nearly drowned, electrocuted, or smashed in a bike accident, could be our own kids, ourselves, or ancient children. What’s the difference, anyway?

That seems to be the overwhelming effect of Runyan’s book: to take away the differences between ourselves and Ruth, Boaz, Jairus, Mary Magdalene. This is brilliantly done: prostituted children are identified with the ravished Dinah (“Drift”); two teens in bikinis compete in King Xerxes’ beauty-and-sex contest for virgins (“Beach Walk”); Runyan herself gives birth to the first baby in the world (“The Birth of Cain”).

The sad side of these stories haunts Runyan’s verse. Her twist on the title is metonym for this approach. “A Thousand Vessels” first appears to be a reference to the thousand ships launched by the beauty of Helen of Troy; however, in the “Sunday” section of her poem “Mary at Calvary,” Runyan re-interprets the phrase thus:

God creates women for no reason

but grief. He can’t cry himself

and needs a thousand vessels for his tears.

Helen of Troy herself, then, is a vessel, and joins the historical procession of all the fragile vials for holding tear drops, cups for wrath, vases for grief, down to today when Runyan and I add our crystal agony to the shelf.

This is not a very pretty picture of God: pouring women full of suffering, setting them aside, letting them break. A reader can imagine this deity dropping the spun-glass woman and watching her shatter into agonizing fragments.

Nor does the story have a particularly happy ending: outside the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene “for a moment / held the souls of the nations like a basket of figs.” Which way will the figs go? Will they become nourishment, or fall to the ground in her astonishment, to be trampled underfoot?

The end of A Thousand Vessels leaves the reader with another question, too: What, then, is the scope of these poems? Do they manage to hold a thousand women and many thousand years in their slender lines? The technique argues against a huge compass: Runyan tends towards the easy word choice, the random line break, and the facile simile. The pieces are simple, generally avoiding the kind of double vision that can lend depth to truly great verse. Yet there are also surprising turns in these poems, unexpected endings, and memorable individual lines. Her greatest strength is bringing ancient women to life through a consistently impassive narrative voice, giving stories and characters a different color than they ever had before.

Here is one final example, showing Runyan at her imaginative best. After the expulsion from Eden, Eve watches Adam grow more and more distant:

For a moment I see

his eyes, then they float over my shoulder,

as if another woman stood behind me,

beckoning him toward paradise.

The reader might be that other woman, with a chance at a second Eden; it is more likely that the reader is Eve, watching her husband fade away, entering into the age-old grief of all women at all times, in all places. That may not be “epic,” but it strains the limits of these tiny poetic vessels.

Where Are We Now?

The image to the left it Caspar David Friedrich’s painting “The Wanderer Above the Mists”: that quintessentially Romantic image. In it, the solitary, heroic individual stands with his back to civilization, facing the Nature’s sublime and formless power. The color palate is earthy, mysterious, suggestive, and primitive. Vast distances stretch to the vanishing point directly behind the central human figure. This is the icon of the nineteenth-century Artist: the lonely Genius standing by himself before the infinite canvas of Nature’s might, untouched by squalid crowds, and bending Chaos to the shape of his Will.

Now, in your mind’s eye, change the picture. The man turns around, smiles, and beckons you forward with one hand, while his other gestures towards the scene, offering it for your interpretation. In place of jagged mountains, the skyscrapers of a cosmopolitan city rise through smog. Instead of swirling mists, the distances are crowded with working-class people, all cheerfully clamoring together as they pick up rocks, flowers, and rubbish for communal examination. Every ethnicity is represented in the throng, both genders, and all sorts of lifestyles.

This is the twenty-first-century arts scene: friendly, open, and diverse. The image of the Starving Artist in the garret has been supplanted by the Savvy Artist-Administrator in the office, on the stage, and on the iPhone.

A year ago, I began asking “Where are we now?” I was teaching at a homeschool program where each academic year corresponded to one historical time period. I had already taught literature and music from Medieval through Modern: the upcoming year would be “Postmodern” (1960-present). I realized that, while I had some idea of the prevailing ideas, themes, and techniques of the past (in Europe and North America), I could not characterize my own era with confidence.

So I set out to take the pulse of the moment. To do this, I began interview people in the arts.

For a year, I have posted these interviews on my blog. I have talked to poets, novelists, musicians, composers, actors, theatre directors, graphic designers, photographers, college arts students, arts educators, movie reviewers, a film art director, a sculptor, an editor, a publisher, an arts journalist, an arts theologian, and a former NEA chairman. I met them in New York City, Philly, the Berkshires, and my own Lehigh Valley; I talked to them on the phone; I interviewed them via email. I asked them the same questions over and over:

“What topics tend to recur in your work?”

“What specific techniques do you use?”

“What theories inform your work?”

“Do you think these are typical of those working in your genre?”

“Do you belong to any particular ‘school’ or ‘movement’?”

“Who are your favorite writers, composers, filmmakers?”

“How is the ‘sacred’ faring in contemporary North American arts?”

“How are the arts reacting to postmodernism, posthumanism, and globalization?”

“How do you think we got to the phase where we are now?”

“Where are we going?”

—and anything else that came up in conversation. We talked about the internet, Sherlock Holmes, mystical minimalism, Shakespeare’s view of time, recycling, the Parable of the Lost Chicken, adults with disabilities, Miley Cyrus, nude paintings, Pop Surrealism, quantum physics, Photoshop, Romeo & Juliet’s robot, dirty dancing, virginity, an inaudible instrument, missionary work, Greek and Buddhist chant, 3-D movies, El Sistema, vampires, and opera libretti. Mostly we talked about each individual artist’s work, which was exactly what I wanted. I wanted to build up a picture of the current arts scene in North America by a series of snapshots.

Now I have a composite portrait, made up of glimpses into fifty-some-odd artistic lives, and what does that palimpsest reveal?

It reveals the death of Romanticism. Of course, we already knew that Romanticism is dead everywhere except, well, except for film scores, individualism, environmentalism, landscape painting, figurative sculpture, our idolatry of sexual romance… But we may have overlooked the fact that the Artist of the nineteenth century no longer works in the twenty-first.

The Solitary Genius has been replaced by the high-energy young artsy person who understands money, management, public relations, and education as well as she understands her craft. She believes art is an industry, not a monastery. This person, latte in one hand, SmartPhone in the other, opens up to the audience, inviting viewers to share in the creative process from idea through execution to interpretation. This suit-clad hard-working urbanite has one goal: engage the audience. It’s about collaboration, entertainment, openness, and diversity. It’s about real people, not inspired supermen. It’s about making connections across the arts.

A theatre company performs free Shakespeare plays in public. A pop singer stands around for hours, meeting her fans. An actor performs his life story, then holds a Q-&-A for audience members to drink beer and ask him about his religious journey. A symphony orchestra director and her visual artist husband recreate a Medieval altarpiece in conjunction with a musical performance. A violinist performs Pachelbel while a dancer dances and a painter paints—in church, during the worship service. A symphony orchestra invites college kids to sit amongst the musicians during a rehearsal. A theatre director invents a new genre of textual performance. A poet and a fiber artist collaborate on a chapbook, then the poet and a dancer perform a commentary on the Iraq war. An actress jumps into a freezing pond so a photographer can create composite images for a new style of graphic novel. A Broadway show tweets out to half a million followers. A painter sets up his easel in a Philadelphia park and talks to passers-by as he paints the Crucifixion.

Why? Why should artists care about reaching out to their audiences? Why should they take the time away from honing their peculiar craft?

Well, for one thing, because everybody’s broke, and nobody’s coming to the old-fashioned shows anymore. Every artist and arts organization continues to deal with the aging of its original, subscribing audience. Every artist and arts organization has to deal with technology. Audiences are asking: “Why should I pay all that money and go out in the cold when I can sit at home and watch it on YouTube?”

And for another, artists have to figure out what to do in a strange new environment of vapid freedom. As has happened over and over in the history of the arts, the old revolution became the new tyranny, then the new tyranny was overthrown, and the current rebels and their children stand in the colorless streets asking, “What do we do now?”

The revolution in poetry was the invention of free verse, around about the nineteen ’teens and ’20s. This led to a second wave of confessional verse. By the ’80s, the only way to be radical was to write formal poetry, and a poetry war began. All of the poets I interviewed pick and choose from the gamut of free and formal techniques without inhibition. Some of them have learned that the only way forward is back.

The big revolution in music was the invention of the 12-tone row, or dodecaphonic music, around about the 1940s. By the ’60s, this was the new establishment. Any composer who wanted to be taken seriously had to write 12-tone, or at least atonal, music. Minimalism was a re-reaction, but has become another familiar member of the ruling regime. Many of the composers I interviewed are trying to find a newly tonal voice of either simplicity or expansion.

The revolutions in the visual arts in the 20th century included cubism, photorealism, minimalism, pop surrealism, and street art. Some of these movements became so experimental that they threw the very nature of art into question. Some artists have reacted by retrograde motion. One painter I interviewed has returned to the meticulous, demanding, and dangerous techniques of Baroque glazing to create masterpieces on a scale and with an emotional impact like those of Velasquez, Goya, Caravaggio, and Vermeer. A sculptor I interviewed uses the 5000-year-old method of bronze casting, completing every stage of the work himself from the initial sculpture through making the molds, pouring the metal in his own foundry, and putting the patinas on the final sculpture.

So the old rebellion has become the new tradition, and the new rebellion is turning back to even older traditions. At this moment of transition, there is an openness to new ideas, new voices, new methods, and newcomers. The positive side of such openness is the rich variety it makes possible. The negative side is the proliferation of, quite simply, bad art. Also, art about badness. Lewd content is old hat. Moral certainty is rated as propaganda or, worse, hate speech. Nobody wants to admit to communicating a message through art.

And, unsurprisingly, hardly anybody wants to talk about theories, put themselves in categories, or offer a label for our times. One composer might consider herself a “Maximalist.” One poet might fit the term “Expansive Poetry.” One theatre director has developed “Panoramic Theatre.” One graphic designer advocates stewardship of the “Creative Economy.” There is a movement towards more Storytelling in literature, film, and radio. Form and Narrative are alive and well. While I am not prepared to label my era yet, either, all of these words suggest something large, welcoming, vital, and comprehensive.

Yet, oddly enough, while there are individual arts and artists worth getting excited over, American poetry is pretty boring right now, publishers are wondering if the Book is going extinct, the visual arts are a gallimaufry, and music is just struggling to pay the bills. Artists are searching for a sense of order in the universe. Contemporary art is trying to make meaning from disparate pieces rather than from a holistic cosmology or a rationalist epistemology. There is nothing to hold on to as towers fall, economies crash, and truth is always just out of reach.

Artists long to offer something for the sustenance of the inner life. They look to the past to find what the present is missing. They value mystery and intimation over virtuosity. The source of their inspiration is in their embodiment. Some of them are recovering their lost role as public voices: heralds of ceremony, satirists of government, and meaning-makers after tragedy. Beneath the varied techniques, artists offer what human beings have always needed: horror and hope, fear and faith, grief and glory. Dana Gioia told me, “I want my poems to have clear surfaces and troubling depths.” The art of the moment that has troubling surfaces and no depth will not last, no matter how accessible, engaging, entertaining, or inclusive. Works that are profound and well-crafted will last, as they have always done.