The epigraph to my most recent book comes from Philip Guston. Philip Guston was a member of a school of American painting labeled Abstract Impressionism by the painter, Elaine de Kooning. By way of simple explanation, Abstract Impressionism differed from Abstract Expressionism by exchanging the latter's gut-level gestalt of attacking the canvas with paint and brush (or in the case of Jackson Pollock, with paint and bucket) for a more evenly tempered and temporal application of hue to the canvas. Where Abstract Expressionism was active and gestural, Abstract Impressionism was calm and contemplative. Guston's work, while informed by the same Hoffmanesque school of color theory, more closely resembled the carefully enlarged sections of Monet's water lily paintings than the whirlwinds of Pollock or the dark obliterations of Robert Motherwell or Franz Kline. He was famous. His work sold well. And in a show of new work in 1970, he completely changed what he was doing.
With his new work, Guston disrupted the esoterica of “pure” abstraction by invading his own work with figurative representation that allowed him to populate his paintings with more direct or directed meaning. When Guston was asked why he had shifted away from his earlier very successful work, he replied, "I got sick and tired of all that abstraction -- I wanted to tell stories." Gone were the atmospheric layers of paint, the gauzy translation of space through hue and tone, and in came a comic book's worth of hooded figures who smoked cigarettes, kept house with bare lightbulbs, guns, domineering alarm clocks and small Holocausts of shoes and their dismembered or orphaned limbs. Guston's paintings, coming midway between the end of World War II and all its revelations of inhumanity in Europe and Asia, and the end of the Vietnam and all its revelations of inhumanity possible in ourselves, were all about the anger and frustration of an artist who felt he could no longer continue to create work so thoroughly removed from daily life that it had as its premise rules which prohibited narrative representation.
I read Guston's quote at a show if his work in London at the Royal Academy of Art (an ironic location perhaps, but there you go.) At the time, I was living in Prague and spending a fair amount of time following my wife around Europe as she traveled on the business that brought us to Prague in the first place. I met people during these travels who had experienced the width and breadth of Soviet oppression, who had been betrayer or betrayed, and even some who had survived the Holocaust, the Soviet era, and now had profoundly legitimate doubts about capitalism, democracy and globalization. At the same time, I watched from a distance as my own country flirted disturbingly with democratic totalitarianism and embraced revenge as central to its international diplomacy. And we were surprised when we felt relief when the doors to the airplane closed on our return to Central Europe after visits to the country we considered our home.
I had just finished my second book. I like that book, if I can say it without too much ego. However, as I started working on my third book, I began to think of this book as an example of what I wanted to avoid. While the central object is an extended elegy, the political remained a liminal presence in just a handful of poems. Contrastingly, vivid examples appeared in the United States that suggested that one could indeed be persecuted for what one wrote in spite of Constitutionally guaranteed protections on speech. And I heard the stories of friends who experienced the Soviet era and its complete absence of those guarantees. The abstraction of a wholly lyric poetry seemed to become less and less about this world and every day more and more about mediation, deferment, and self-protection.
So Philip Guston's quote stenciled onto the wall of the Royal Academy gallery came at the right time. For me, that quote was all about permission. Guston seemed to possess the capacity to shift the mode of representation into that which best fit what he wanted to say, rather than making the expression subservient to the method. Too often artists (and I include myself in this address) unconsciously internalize a set of rules for expression that delimit the area within which creative work can occur, like those invisible fence systems people install to control their dogs. Those fences only work if the borderline jolt from the collar stops the dog from crossing into the neighbor’s yard. Once the dog has crossed, however, the jolt becomes the propellant into the wider world.
I realized I wanted the world in my next book, and for me, the world meant stories. Since I was writing poetry, that meant more narrative and the inclusion of history and politics, things I felt I did not have permission to include in a poetical work until the jolt of Philip Guston's words on the wall crossed me over. Now I felt if I was going to get in trouble with my country for something that I had written, I wanted to get in trouble for something unequivocal. Freedom of speech is perhaps not merely the right to say anything but is more thoroughly the responsibility to say something of value. But if the stories I told were to have value, especially if I wanted to tell the stories of others, the demand was upon me to tell these stories honorably. That meant researching the history of the events included in my work, keeping notes on conversations with people who had first hand experience, collecting photographs from the events in my poems, and traveling to locations myself. I did not want to propagandize. I did not want to preach. I did not want to write an essay in verse. I wanted to write poetry. But I wanted the stories most of all.
I am not sure that I was successful. I am not sure that being successful is necessarily the objective of art. Instead, I think that art is the discipline of striving, of working towards something that is not as much ineffable as it may be unreachable. However, there is value in striving for the unreachable. That's why I still like my second book. Its failures are essentially a given, so what elements are merely proximal to success feel like positive movement. And so again with my third book. I tried to go beyond what limits of subject matter I had set for myself and become more of the world than nebulous and lyric (though to be clear, I see no mutual exclusivity between worldly poetry and lyric poetry - indeed I hope they can be one and the same.) What failures are contained therein hopefully sit well beyond the failures I have achieved before.
My grandfather was a Presbyterian minister. During World War II, he and his family, including my mother, were held in a Japanese prisoner of war camp for three years. After he returned home, his profoundly spiritual social conscience coupled with his direct experiences with incarceration created a fortitude within that would not let him shy away from confronting injustice. Perhaps as a result of that fortitude, he was never given permanent position in a congregation and spent the politically tumultuous era of the 1950's and 1960's as a traveling minister. I have copies of his sermons delivered during this nomadic period, including one that examines the life of Robert F. Kennedy. My grandfather wrote as follows:
"Robert Kennedy dreamed impossible dreams. And in the memorial service held in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, his brother said of him, 'He was a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.'
He tried, even though his dreams seemed impossible.
That has been our trouble, in trying to reach out we have been satisfied with reaching what we can.
But in a day which calls for reaching the impossible dream, we must strive to reach what we cannot."
That, I think, is why I write - to reach what cannot be reached. And if my writing does one thing, I hope its reading invites a writer to go beyond what limits they have set for themselves, the way Philip Guston's words gave me the jolt to leave the yard and enter into the wider world, whatever their chosen mode of representation may be.
Jorn Ake began Boys Whistling like Canaries (Blue Lynx Prize - EWU Press 2009) while in Prague where he lived for three years. He has a BA in Fine Arts from the College of William and Mary. His MFA in Creative Writing is from Arizona State University. His first collection of poems, Asleep in the Lightning Fields, won the 2001 X. J. Kennedy Poetry Prize and was published by Texas Review Press in 2002. A chapbook of his work, All About the Blind Spot and Other Poems, is available from Popular Ink. The Backwaters Press published his second full-length collection, The Circle Line, in 2009 as an editor's choice. He currently lives in New York City.
photo credit to Dan Sheehan