Richard Bear: It's Just One Art Among the Many

Richard Bear

I have suspected for some time, though I have no proof, that there are no untalented persons, only unpracticed ones, and that the acquisition of any skill is mostly a matter of attention and practice. And I currently proceed by the theory that art is any activity of which one component is a display of skill. Any activity will do. The veteran always recognizes the accomplished soldier's mastery, a thing which cannot be feigned indefinitely in time of war, just as the true seeker of peace can be recognized by fellow activists as the one who will find the right words and gestures for bridge-building to the other party, in ways and at moments no one might otherwise have expected. Paintings, sculptures, and poems are not art, but are traces, evidences, of a skill in practice. The art itself is never a noun but something more akin to a verb.

In my own practice I look for a moment of clarity associated with an emotion, something anti-entropic, or what the modernist impulse against sentiment might deprecate as "uplift." Anyone can be despondent; I suppose that's an art too, but it's the common disease among the intelligentsia now, and I'm of a more populist and democratic turn. Mithridates died old. I'd like to do the same, after many years of walking about, seeing the cherry hung with snow; but I want to extend to all others the privilege of doing the same, and of not being ashamed to weep at beauty.

There are many ways to approach such a project. Beethoven's sixth symphony more than suggests one way; in fact it rather hogs up the territory in that direction. I don't have the patience for that. Morris's painting (a virtuous painting, which is more than we can say of Rosetti's paintings of her) of his wife as Iseult suggests another way. That leaves some room (perhaps too much?) for other artists; but I don't have the patience for the brush either. Like many of blue-collar extraction, my arts have been mostly utilitarian: carpentry, baking, planting. But also I like words. I like the sound of "full on the casement shone the wintry moon," or "go not gentle into that good night." Or, "Bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang." Such lines use the natural beat of the language to its best advantage, marrying sound to sense by the choice and placement of vocabulary. Perrine teaches this by producing variants on the first example above, things like "right on the windowsill the winter moonlight fell." Striking, but nowhere near as good, and the difference is the poet's domain, assuming the story needs telling.

To me the ultimate marriage of sound and sense, in English at any rate, may be in these stanzas from Faerie Queene Read it aloud (no cheating!) and remember to pronounce the -ed ending syllable where it is so spelled ("altered" has three syllables). Keep it slow and stately, because this is a point to which many, many lines have been bringing the reader:

All things from thence do their first being fetch,
  And borrow matter, whereof they are made,
  Which when as form and feature it does catch,
  Becomes a body, and doth then invade
  The state of life, out of the grisly shade.
  That substance is eterne, and bideth so,
  Ne when the life decays, and form does fade,
  Doth it consume, and into nothing go,
But changed is, and often altred to and fro.

The substance is not changed, nor altered,
  But th'only form and outward fashion;
  For ev'ry substance is conditioned
  To change her hew, and sundry forms to don,
  Meet for her temper, and complexion:
  For forms are variable and decay,
  By course of kind, and by occasion;
  And that fair flower of beauty fades away,
As doth the lilly fresh before the sunny ray.

Great enemy to it, and to all the rest,
  That in the Garden of Adonis springs,
  Is wicked Time, who with his scythe addres'd,
  Does mow the flow'ring herbs and goodly things,
  And all their glory to the ground downe flings,
  Where they do wither, and are foully marr'd:
  He flies about, and with his flaggy wings
  Beats down both leaves and buds without regard,
Ne ever pity may relent his malice hard.

Eight lines with five beats, and a ninth with six: like the rollers coming in from the sea, which similarly crest in one larger wave after several. Some other tools of the trade are here. Rhyme, of course: ababcdcdd. In Italian this would not be so difficult to sustain, but in English no one could do it like Spenser, even back then; and we refuse to resort to such extraordinary wresting of available vocabulary and inventing of pseudo-archaisms as he did to achieve his purpose. Sometimes, though, a rhyme well placed, if only within a line, is what's wanted. Keep it on the spice shelf. Alliteration: Great Garden godly glory ground flings flaggy regard. Still powerful. On the spice shelf, nearer the front. Meter, as above, but also: change of rhythm. "Ground down flings" in spondees: we can hear the fragile life forms smacking into the unyielding earth. Keep a jar of that handy; you'll need it.

While we're on the cooking metaphor, let's ask again: Why are we here? To cook. Why? To eat. Why? To live. Why? To spite wicked Time, I suppose. To which end, eat well rather than badly, whenever possible. This is my approach, in intent, if not always in execution, to my own dinners. Try one, tell me what you think. (I won't be offended if it's not you're kind of thing.) Check for the spices: internal rhyme, alliteration, use of spondees:


He sleeps now much of the day, my Florida visitor,
conserving life, its slight thread thinning out.
His head slumps back in the big plush chair, and the eyes

that so much hurt him close in shallow rest.
The children want TV. I must distract them,
blunt their cheerful noise. A book soon fills

my hand with sumptuous paintings of old ships.
we whisper together of bronze ramming keels
built by war-minded Rome, the clever upwind sailing

of Spanish merchants, or the knife-sharp lines
of opium clippers, and murdering squat shapes, end-on,
of the cold grey battlewagon fleets of the Great War.

We speak quietly of these things, and I gently open out
the folded center, the book's masterpiece: a cutaway view,
rich in red and black, of the long-hulled liner: Normandie.

I seem to remember having read this was an unlucky boat,
yet knowing nothing of the particulars, only indicate
admiringly its intricate design. The big chair stirs.

The clouded eyes swing briefly into focus. His voice
comes clear: "I was on that boat the day she sank."
We gape at him. "Yes, I fought ship fires in New York

Harbor, in a suit of white asbestos, spaceman-like.
The ship, they said, was hit by saboteurs. We tried
to save her, but she settled sullen in Harbor mud

and was to be broken up for scrap." We wait for more, but he
lolls back his head again, and that blood-blown lobe
of brain strikes sleep. I shoo the kids outdoors

and rearrange the coals to keep his body warm,
wondering what else I do not know about
this loved and fading flesh that gave me life.

It's just one art among the many, but it gives me access to places inside myself that I need to see better. If it it does the same for others, that will be a nice plus. And if it successfully thumbs the nose at wicked Time, that will be best of all.

March 21, 1977. RSB