This week, I’m especially happy to post an essay by Michael T. Young—a poet whose work I greatly respect and admire. Michael has published three poetry collections: Transcriptions of Daylight (Rattapallax Press), Because the Wind Has Questions (Somers Rocks Press), and Living in the Counterpoint (Finishing Line Press). His fourth collection, The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost, will be published in 2014 by Poets Wear Prada Press. He received a fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and was twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He was runner-up for a William Stafford Award and recipient of the Chaffin Poetry Award. His work has appeared in numerous journals including Fogged Clarity, Louisville Review, Off the Coast, The Potomac Review, and The Raintown Review. His work is also in the anthologies Phoenix Rising, Chance of a Ghost, In the Black/In the Red and forthcoming in Rabbit Ears: TV Poems. Michael lives with his wife and children in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Michael’s website: www.michaeltyoung.com/
Michael’s blog: inermusic.blogspot.com/
Margins: A Meditation on the Relationship of Love and Art
By Michael T. Young
I have always believed that love is, by definition, creative and that true creativity, likewise, is loving. This belief is conveniently circular, but then again, so are some symbols of love and eternal life like the wedding ring and the Ouroboros. Like the circle, love is what repeats itself because love is what we wouldn't want any other way. But what binds us into these circular love affairs are not seamless, hence the constant misunderstandings of love and art.
Generally, our relationship with art is as clumsy as our relationship with other people: we trap ourselves in what we mean to each other. But love is not only defined by what someone means to us but by the freedom we grant them to be and become themselves.
To love is to pay attention to the highest degree. Such attention is what the lover gives to his beloved and what the artist gives to his creation. He willingly gives his time and energy, the substance of his life, to bring something into existence. Lack of attention is what renders a manufactured product meaningless. Invented for profit, pieced together by machines, our commodities posses function but not meaning. Meaning is not a mechanism an artist puts into a work of art but arises through the love he invests in it. The artist creates a vehicle through which something comes into a meaningful existence. Thus his attention is a kind of obedience to an inspiration, which he allows to define itself. Of course, the meaning of an artwork has limitations. No single work of art can mean everything at once. But then again, every single artwork tends to resist reduction to a singular meaning. If a poem or painting would impart its meaning to us it demands in return no less than that we live with it. It demands that we give it attention, the freedom to continually redefine or clarify itself.
So even for the reader of a poem or observer of a painting, it is the sustained attention he gives to it that will reveal its meaning. But it isn't something that once seen is fully had, like understanding the function of something, such as how a hammer works. For the one who experiences a work of art, meaning is the perspective he gains on himself and the world through transcendence in the work of art. It is what Shelley called, "morals" in his Defense of Poetry when he said:
The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own.
The moment one assumes full understanding of a work of art or a person, one has effectively locked them in the past. When you look at them, you will see them as they were but not as they are or as they are becoming. To pay attention to someone or something, to love someone or something is to continually extend to them the freedom to renew themselves in your eyes without jeopardizing what they have always meant to you. In this way one's perspective grows. It is what makes friendship and love profound. It is the depth perception of the mind's eye.
But the horizon sets limits even on perfect vision and nothing shrinks the world's horizons faster than pain. When Dante Gabriel Rossetti saw his wife in her coffin, he placed a collection of his poems into it with her. It was the only perfect copy of his poems and only existed because she had asked him to write them down. Silence followed him out of the room and through the next seven years. Through that time his friends, people like Swinburne, William Morris, and George Meredith became famous poets and novelists. Finally, Rossetti had his wife's coffin exhumed and the poems retrieved. They were published eight years after her death. One could argue that Rossetti retrieved the poems to achieve fame. But that would require ignoring what inspired those poems: the love not just for his wife, Elizabeth, but for the life in her. What calls forth song is not just love but a love for life, whether it's the life one loves in another or in one's own day to day. When the life he loved died in Elizabeth, he felt it founder in himself. He felt a pain for the loss, a tear in the fabric of what he was. With that he threw the poems into the coffin with the spent life that inspired them. But he continued to feel pain and only the living feel pain. When life had stretched that pain thin over the years and Dante stared into it, what he saw was the blank page he was returning to life instead of the love he truly felt. He had to retrieve from the dead what belonged to the living.
Blake said, "Life delights in life." As many poems that have been written for the beloved, whether man or woman, there have also been many inspired by other art works: symphonies inspired by poems, poems inspired by paintings, paintings inspired by paintings, paintings inspired by poems or philosophy. It is life delighting in life, the motion of love, a circling of life back to itself creating a place for us to mean something to each other. It is also the frame around a painting, the margins around the poem.
(Copyright © 2013 by Michael T. Young.
All rights reserved.)
Note: When I asked Michael if he had a poem that expressed something of his essay’s spirit, his response was, It occurred to me that my poem “The Word ‘Anyway’” would make a perfect accompanying piece to the essay. This poem embodies and enacts the idea that the essay states as love and attention being a constant extension of the freedom of renewal without jeopardizing existing meaningfulness.
The Word “Anyway”
Every time I write it’s there at the end of my paragraphs,
so much so, my friends see it as a kind of signature word,
and I realize that whatever it means, it is, in any case,
like a ramp off the highway leading me somewhere else.
And where it takes me, regardless, turns and carries the letter,
the conversation, the e-mail, in another direction, though not,
necessarily, in a better one—the detour this time taken
to wrench the heart from its daily obsessions,
which is to say, I wasn’t trying to take us to our destination faster,
on the contrary, I was trying to spare you,
trying to take us both somewhere neither of us had been,
a place where the view over the valley
gives way to a lake reflecting late summer light
and the crisp air in our lungs expands
like a space we allow each other to become whatever we wish.
(From Living in the Counterpoint, copyright © 2012 by Michael T. Young.
All rights reserved.)
All rights reserved.)
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Thanks so much, Michael!