Brathwaite, Picasso, Nichols, and Maar Step Into a Writing Class

From 2013, when I had the pleasure of teaching English Composition at The College of New Rochelle.

Last week, I shared this (regarding Brathwaite), with my students:

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I got that from the amazing Robert Antoni.

In the context of the class I’m teaching, it’s important to present the modern formal structures of essay clearly, and for students to be able to execute these schema even as they learn to hear, develop, and deliver their unique, respective voices. It’s also important that they (and that all of us) read widely and across foreign and familiar cultural and linguistic settings.

Braithwaite, of course, is not saying that iambic pentameter is a more formal, academic, or polished form of expression than are the cadences of his experience. The old English forms, unlike the basic structures of essay taught at the undergraduate level, are not conventions to be mastered and then moved on from. They are simply different from other expressions, and just as valid. But the insight he gives about the ways in which experience, geography, and culture influence our voices and our framing devices is brilliantly stated: the hurricane does not roar in pentameters.

In writing, the old sports adage also holds true: you have to get good before you can get fancy. Braithwaite or Ferlinghetti aren’t “fancy” in this sense, nor are the old English conventions necessarily “good.” But we do, all of us, carry points of reference, and for better or for worse, the discipline, practice, and art of writing in English or in the West in general requires a certain level of engagement with things like pentameter and people like Shakespeare, Chaucer, and, later, Whitman, Emerson, Twain, Conrad, Hemingway, etc. In writing and in physics, we’re dealing with relative values and definitions: neither our experience nor our execution manifest in vacuo, neither are they hatched like Athena, fully formed, fully armed, out of Zeus’s head. Motion is always relative, and so too is the spectrum from “good” to “fancy.”

But developing our voice as writers or as people requires the mastery of certain modes of expression. We might even say that without the narrative frames afforded to us by the convention of language, we’d be a very different species arranged in very different communities. Even if we can’t read or write, language has given us the ability to think of ourselves as objects with stories moving through time. Self-reflection is in most cases a function of narrative, ours or someone else’s. Mastering the elements of basic structure (getting “good” with the basic tools of the written trade) brings deeper possibilities of expression closer to our reach. I may understand, conceptually, a great many things about black holes, but I’ll likely make no significant contribution to the study of them if I’m not conversant in the language of higher mathematics, even if I say, with Einstein, that all motion and velocity are relative (save the velocity of C). “Good” and “fancy” may be relative terms, but they occur within a written and spoken frame of reference alongside our experiences and efforts toward understanding and expressing them.

The Physician's Palette, Pablo Picasso.
The Physician’s Palette, Pablo Picasso.

It’s been said by Malcolm Gladwell (and Macklemore and Ryan Lewis) that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any given discipline. I like for students to keep this general idea in mind: you have to get good (proficient, comfortable, familiar, conversant) before you can get fancy.   Visually, I’ve used the work of Picasso to drive this point home.  Before he did his groundbreaking work, he become very proficient at using the language of the art world around him.  Before he was a cubist or surreaist, he plied his craft in the artistic realm of realism.  He became conversant at this formal aspect of the craft and, of course, transcended it.   But without The Physician’s Palette, we wouldn’t have The Old Guitarist or Guernica.

We’ve been talking about all of these ideas over the first few weeks of class. While preparing for our most recent session, I decided I wanted to revisit the Brathwaite quote in particular and did a google search for “the hurricane does not roar in pentameters.”   The second result was for a tumblr blog called Poets of Color using the quote as a tag line.  The most recent post on that blog?

Picasso, I want my face back.

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Even my hat mocks me
laughing
on the inside of my grief –

My twisted mouth
and gnashing teeth,
my fingers fat and clumsy
as if they were still wearing
those gloves –
the bloodstained ones you keep.

What has happened
to the pupils
of my eyes, Picasso?

Why do I deserve
such deformity?

What am I now
if not a cross between
a clown and a broken
piece of crockery?

3

But I am famous.
People recognise me
despite my fractures.

I’m no Mona Lisa
(how I’d like to wipe
the smugness from her face
that still captivates.)

Doesn’t she know that art, great art,
needn’t be an oil-painting?

I am a magnet
not devoid of beauty.

I am an icon
of twentieth-century grief.

A symbol
of compositional possibilities

My tears are tears of happiness –
big rolling diamonds.

14

Picasso, I want my face back
the unbroken photography of it

Once I lived to be stroked
by the fingers of your brushes

Now I see I was more an accomplice
to my own unrooting

Watching the pundits gaze
open-mouthed at your masterpieces

While I hovered like a battered muse
my private grief made public.

15

Dora, Theodora, be reasonable, if it weren’t for Picasso
you’d hardly be remembered at all.
He’s given you an unbelievable shelf-life.
Yes, but who will remember the fruits of my own life?

I am no moth flitting around his wick.
He might be a genius but he’s also a prick –
Medusa, Cleopatra, help me find my inner bitch,
wasn’t I christened Henriette Theodora Markovitch?

Picasso, I want my face back
the unbroken geography of it.

– Grace Nichols

Dora Maar (nee Markovitch) was Picasso’s long-time partner and the muse/model for much of his best-known work.  She was also an up-and-coming artist in her own right in the 30s and 40s and photographed the creative process of Guernica.   The diamond tears Nichols speaks of refer to Maar’s role as the face of The Weeping Woman, a sort of Guernica writ large.   She also wrote poetry, and so we’re able to move from seeing Maar through Picasso’s lens to hearing Maar in Nichols’ voice to finally arriving at a place all writers want to be:  seen as we see ourselves, heard in our very own voice:

Pure as a lake boredom
I hear its harmony
In the vast cold room
The nuance of light seems eternal
All is simple I admire
the full totality of objects.

The soul that still yesterday wept is quiet — it’s exile suspended
a country without art only nature
Memory magnolia pure so far off
I am blind
and made from a bit of earth
But your gaze never leaves me
And your angel keeps me.

The hurricane does not roar in pentameters.  Dora Maar does not speak in the voice of Picasso or Nichols but is still, for them, an indelible symbol, a cypher for their own struggles (theirs and their peoples’).  Behind that is a person with a point of view and a voice, a photographer-poet wrestling with the ecstatic anxieties of having both and of using them.   That’s what we’re talking about here.

Related articles

Forthcoming: Social Media is Sincerely Awesome (Sorry, Aldous Huxley)

Good afternoon, friends.

Easy there, Chris.

I’m hoping to record and post two new video blogs later today or tomorrow.  One is going to be about social media in the hands of people watching the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt from afar. I’ve talked about it already here, but I what I think I’ll end up saying in the new post was inspired by a question from my good friend and frequent reader/commenter here at TDC, Chad Hogg. Chad is a supremely super-intelligent and thoughtful man.  You should read his blog.  By the way, Chad, I’m listening to a track from Tragic Kingdom as I type this.  I thought you should know.

In related links below, Andrew Sullivan makes fun of Malcolm Gladwell for the later’s agnosticism on the impact social media has had on the Tunisian and Egyptian movements.  Confession:  I love Andrew Sullivan and am a frequent reader of his Daily Dish, but I haven’t read the linked piece yet.

R.E.M.
The history of social media contained in an outmoded archival paradigm. Wait, what? Yes.

That said, you probably know that I’ve been very interested in this whole topic and have been following it across various forms of media. Something immediately apparent to me is my almost shocking desire to refer to news sites as “Old Media” in this discussion.  I really was just about to say that I’ve been following the story across New and Old Media online, but New Media is, by definition, online.  We’re realizing more and more, though, that online media is not necessarily New Media.  In many cases, New Media has become old media, and the unquestionably new New Media is social.  Twitter and Facebook are to CNN.com what CNN.com is to newspapers.  I think that’s becoming clear.   But the new New Media isn’t just new.  It is, in very real senses, a media outside of time.  It almost doesn’t make sense to call it New or to even call it real time.  It is the media of witness, and that’s what I’m going to talk about.

If you’re following at home, I’m now listening to the Ronettes.

Last night, I came across this very well-done cartoon that outlines a popular essay about which plausible dystopian anxiety (George Orwell’s or Aldous Huxley’s) is more likely in our present and emerging future.  It’s long, so let me say up front that I think both propositions need to be guarded against (that might be the most obvious thing I’ve said, ever), but that I obviously can’t go all the way with the “Huxley is right” argument when it comes to things like social media.  (And neither should you.  Pesky normative statement alert.)

Needless to say, I believe in curating beauty and that loving things worth loving (and sharing that love) will actually make us better. Loving crap is something different.  Loving pop culture?  Like anything, that’s a mixed bag.  I love Pet Sounds because its beautiful.  I love Elvis because he’s singular.  I love “Sweet Child O’Mine” because it’s awesome and life-affirming.  I think the balance lies precisely there…do the things we love encourage us to live bigger, more fulfilling, more creative lives, or do they diminish the expectations we have for ourselves by their sheer size and repetition?  Friends, isn’t that finally up to us?

The other video will about about The New Sincerity. That is to say,  I think I’m going to encourage everyone to keep on being awesome.