Thursday, April 10, 2008

Where’s Polonius? — And Jasper Johns

CLAUDIUS: Now, Hamlet, where’s Polonius?

HAMLET: At supper.

Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 3

Yeah, I sometimes talk in a roundabout way, too. In fact, I probably have two or three different ways of speaking roundabout. Today I’m going to talk about one of them.

Today and tomorrow I’m going to finish up what I started talking about in the aside of Monday’s post.

Tomorrow I will put up the short, direct version of last week Friday’s post. (I haven’t gotten anybody’s permission to post it, but I think I’ve worked out a way to do it that won’t cause an international incident. But I’ve been wrong about such things before! Tune in tomorrow.)

Today I’m going to talk about the process of getting from the first poem, the short, direct version I’m going to post tomorrow, to the longer, roundabout version that I posted last Friday.


This blogging sequence is strange, starting with the final form from last Friday and talking, today, about what I’ll post tomorrow. But this seems kind of well-suited to a blog. You don’t hear the word “hypertext” much these days, but it used to be a very big buzz word. The whole idea of text on the net is that sequence can be defined by links and links can arrange different sequences in any order imaginable. The whole notion of ‘chronology’ becomes a kind of incidental condition, a variable condition . . .


Last week Thursday I wrote a short, direct poem. It was ten lines long and although I liked it, for various personal reasons I didn’t want to post it Friday.

So I thought of what Jasper Johns once wrote to himself about the process of creating art:

Take an object,
do something with it,
and then do something else with it.

Jasper Johns
from his notebooks
but quoted all over,
for instance, at the end
of this article

Thursday afternoon and evening, I did that with the short, direct poem.

I took it as the original object, and I did something with it. I wrote a second draft that removed one or two aspects of the poem that raised posting issues for me. I didn’t much like that second draft, but I knew it was only an intermediary stage. I then took that second draft and applied the second part of Johns’ advice, I did something else with it. I eliminated things, added things, and created a new version that I liked.

That’s the version that I posted Friday morning.

However, although I liked that post, it was quite different in many ways from the short, direct little poem that I’d started with. The original said something about a person. The original said something about my feelings. The original had—I hope!—a bit of humor to it.

The longer, roundabout version juxtaposed some of the original, person-oriented language with a mechanical subject. I thought that made for an interesting effect that would evoke different meanings for everyone who read it.

But it was completely different from what I’d started with.

This is an interesting issue that entertainers and artists have struggled with in many different media.

The painter Andrew Wyeth once said (quoted in, “The Helga Pictures”) that he’d like to get the spontaneity of a watercolor painted in twenty minutes in the solidarity of a finished painting. I’ve known musicians who would only buy live recordings because they felt studio work never captured the spark of a spontaneous performance.

Is it ever possible to keep the original spark and life of something you create from deep within yourself, responding to the particular, instantaneous realities of a moment—any moment!—while at the same time working over that creation consciously, systematically, adding and subtracting things based on conscious and external issues?

I don’t know. I suspect the answer is no. I suspect that’s why painters like Berthe Morisot remain true to Impressionist ideals their whole life—they become entranced by the primacy—and magic!—of the initial imperative and initial response.

But a very cool thing about the modern world, with the seemingly limitless quantities of digital storage available with easy indexing, is that everybody nowadays can have the best of both worlds.

Entertainers and artists can—somewhere—save their original creation and preserve the spark, the possibly idiosyncratic, possibly troublesome version of an idea. And they can—possibly somewhere else—save the more conscious, more crafted, possibly more presentable version of an idea.

Entertainers and artists win because they get to express all aspects of themselves.

Audiences and consumers win because they get—or can sometimes get—access to every manner of aesthetic experience imaginable. Art is food for the soul, and nowadays people have access to every manner of—so to speak—aesthetic protein, carbs and fats entertainers and artists can whip up.


Tomorrow will be a first for me and the blog. I’ll have two versions up of the same idea, one direct, straight from the heart. One more crafted and thoughtful.

I’m going to paraphrase Monty Python about this: If people reading these two versions enjoy themselves half as much as I did writing these two versions, then I’ll have enjoyed myself twice as much as they did!

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