The hubbub isn’t doing it for me, for some reason. I’m at the cafe, as I think I’ve been most Saturday mornings for the last several months, to do these prompts; and normally the chaos of sound and people coming and going is good for stirring up ideas and concepts in me. But today, it’s just not working out… maybe it’s because I still have some lingering sinus infection business going on and feel moderately crummy, or maybe it’s because I’ve got no one to spend the day with. I’ll do the best I can with this. Maybe I just need a change of scenery.
This week: “a matter of perspective”
I was reading about the Cubists. While Picasso is certainly admirable, Cézanne is still my favorite; the Philadelphia Museum of Art has a healthy collection of his pastels, so I grew up with a nice appreciation of his work. But the thing about these artistic movements that people often forget is that they often extended beyond painting or sculpture (sometimes coming from other media first), occupying literature, architecture, music, theatre, and dance just as much as they did the visual. No one would dispute the surrealism of Ionesco or the abstract feel of ’50s “classical” music, when electronic instruments were the rage. So it should be no surprise to learn that there were Cubist poets in 1910s and 20s France, and elsewhere, who had an approach to their subjects reflecting their painter contemporaries.
That approach is familiar to us in the form of Imagism, and poems like Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. What is arguably most important in Cubism is the fracturing of perspective, and looking at an object from multiple directions at once. Cézanne’s landscapes are better examples of this, I think, than something like Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon; while the movement incorporated visual elements like angular masks and “primitive” forms, this is secondary to the idea of seeing something from every angle at once. And I believe this concept is already applied to poetry whether we consider it consciously or not. So that will be our exercise this time around: to examine something from multiple points of view at the same time.
The first thing you’ll need to do is choose your subject. Stevens chose a blackbird, and the artists often chose human subjects. You can do the same, or you can look at something more physical (an inanimate object, a landscape), but for our purposes, try to keep it in the “real” world. The abstract will come from you, as the poet, in this exercise; you do not need to analyze something abstract. Once you have your subject firmly in mind, we are going to circle it in multiple dimensions:
two dimensions: think of the literal visual appearance of your subject as though you were walking around it, 360 degrees; how does it differ from the left side, the front, the back, the right side?
three dimensions: now go over top of it, and go underneath, look at it from strange angles; think about odd locations in space to sit on, such as on its shoulder or within its core
four dimensions: if we believe Euclid, then the fourth dimension is, of course, time; how does the object look as it progresses through time, whether at different points in the day or over the course of seasons and years?
Get as clever as you want here, as microcosmic or weirdly-angled as you want. But try not to zoom out; we are not interested in the whole here, except as a sum of small parts. Keep the wide-angle lens for another poem. And in a sense, the driving idea behind this is that we never do consider the whole: we can’t help but think of people as a sum of their features, our emotions, and the experiences we’ve had with them. If I think, “Elizabeth”, she’s not just a concept of a person; I think of the projects we’ve worked on, the jokes we’ve shared, the times we’ve annoyed each other, as well as her eyes, her hair, her preferred clothes, etc. The same holds true for animals, and plants, and so many other things. Pretend that your reader doesn’t know your subject at all, and you can’t just drop the word in, expecting them to know it. You have to pull it apart into its characteristics, both objective and (from your points of view) subjective.
The Cubists often fractured their subjects into hundreds of pieces, but we won’t be so ambitious: let’s try for ten. So if I wanted to pick my parents’ house as a subject, I might think first of visual features going around the outside (brick laced with ivy, my bedroom window, a chimney good for climbing, the side part that juts out), internal and oddly-placed features (buried window in the basement, the grey roof, peering out the slanted attic slats), and temporal ones (covered in the flowering quince petals in April, the porch light piercing the night, first moment of seeing it after being a long time away). And remember, in the paintings, all of this is flattened into one two-dimensional field. Things collide, perspectives clash, and none of it is easily separable. Although we think of the whole thing as a collection of pieces, we do summon it all up (and react to it) at once.
You have a couple options for how you want to place these side-by-side (note that I don’t necessarily say “bring these together”). Like Stevens, you could separate all the views into separate miniature poemlets; or maybe you want to spread them out like a doily. I suggest linking them together with repetition, parallelism (using similar sentence constructions) and sound, so that the outline of the subject is there. Of course, you can color it in a little bit with your thoughts on the topic. Maybe my house-poem might begin:
The brick laced with ivy breathes rusty light,
the brick breathes, and the face, in spring, breaks into
three thousand sprays of flowers:
the front-facing brick laced with love believes
in light that banishes darkness, the flowered brick
heavy with homecoming, the ivy heartbreaking,
the spring traced with fine lines of stars.
That sums up the front of the house, pretty much, along with a collection of feelings that give a vague shape. I tried not to pin down the particular moment in time, but gather them all at once; and I hope that the alliteration and repetition are evident enough. So there’s three or four images in there, and I’m sure I could get the other six or seven into another two stanzas or so. If you really want to overtly unify these, maybe the title could be your point of unification: I could call this one “Chez Moi” or whatever. That’s just my take on the method, though, and I welcome you to come up with your own way to get across the same concepts.
Play around with it and see what develops; maybe you want to try a couple different objects to feel them out, or come up with several different sets of perspectives. Please do share what you have: the best perspective is the interest of others!