Tag Archives: Essay

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong; A review.

Ocean Vuong
To Purchase the book click on the image.

Editor’s Note: Vuong was awarded the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection at the Forward Prize 2017

In living with Ocean Vuong’s book over the last week or two I have on occasions mistaken its title for Night Sky with Exile Wounds. It will become obvious why. But it has also been hard to ‘see’ this collection because of the accumulated material – interviews, awards, perhaps hype – that already surrounds it in a way that affects none of the other Forward First Collections this year. Vuong has already appeared on the cover of Poetry London and been interviewed by The New Yorker. He has been nominated as one of Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers. Such recognition is even more extraordinary given that Vinh Quoc Vuong was born in 1988 on a rice farm outside Saigon and, at the age of two, he and six relatives emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut, where they lived together in a one-bedroom apartment. On learning that ‘ocean’ (in American English) is a body of water that touches many countries – including Vietnam and the United States – his mother renamed her son.

Ocean Vuong is also gay. Hence his exile – the word that kept coming into my mind – is one not only from his birth country and culture but also from the mainstreams of his adopted country. It’s no surprise there are several Ocean Vuongs in this book in terms of subject matter as well as in its use of a variety of poetic forms. This might – reflecting his given name – be an essential, protean, shape-shifting style or it might reveal the kind of casting around in the sea of form and content one might expect from a first collection. I think it is more the latter than the former, though the thrashing and contortion involved in such self creation (we used to refer to ‘self discovery’ – the book title has ‘self portrait’) is now a topic of such ubiquity in Western culture that Vuong’s personal struggles may come to be considered as representative in themselves.

Though 13 years before his birth, ‘Aubade with Burning City’ portrays the American withdrawal from Saigon in 1975. Apparently, Armed Forces Radio played ‘White Christmas’ as a sign to commence the withdrawal and the poem assembles a montage of the song lyric, events on the streets of Saigon and a sinister, coercive-sounding male/female dialogue. The result reflects the chaos of such a moment of violent transition (though the ironies of the sentimental song are a bit obvious) and introduces a recurrent thread in Vuong’s work, the uneasy alliance between power and sex. ‘A Little Closer to the Edge’ seems a reminiscence, perhaps of his own conception (Cape’s cover image of the young poet encourages this biographical approach). Among bomb craters and anticipated domestic violence, a young Vietnamese couple are at first “hand in hand”. Then:

He lifts her white cotton skirt, revealing

another hour. His hand. His hands. The syllables

inside them. O father, O foreshadow, press

into her –

 

For his mother’s part, the narrative voice asks her to show “how ruin makes a home / out of hip bones” and also to “teach me / how to hold a man”.

Once in the USA, there are poems that treat both parents with some tenderness. In ‘The Gift’, the son teaches his mother the alphabet. She can hardly get beyond the third letter, the fourth, gone astray, appearing only as

a strand of black hair – unravelled

from the alphabet

& written

on her cheek

Several portrayals of Vuong’s father suggest violence and drinking but in ‘In Newport I Watch my Father Lay his Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back’ he is seen to express concern for the creature, “the wet refugee”, though the poem is fractured by bullets, Huey helicopters, shrapnel and snipers as if to suggest the root of the father’s violence and his inability to express affection for his own family.

Or perhaps such things innate to a man? Another major theme in the book is masculinity itself as expressed through father figures and a young gay man growing up. The former is seen in two poems involving guns. ‘The Smallest Measure’ has the father instructing the boy on how to handle a Winchester rifle (it reminds me of a photograph of Hemingway and his son). ‘Always and Forever’ (Vuong’s note tells us this is his father’s favourite Luther Vandross song) has the father substituting himself with a Colt.45 in a shoe box: “Open this when you need me most”, he says. The boy seems to wonder if the gun might deliver a liberation of sorts: “[I] wonder if an entry wound in the night // would make a hole wide as morning”. This image of an aperture being made in darkness – most often through an act of violence – to let in light recurs in these poems. I can’t quite see what is intended here but there are again links to the erotic/violence motif. Later, the gun barrel must “tighten” around the bullet “to make it speak”, making further obscure, but interesting, links to violence and the ability to speak (or write).

aseq

What it is to be a (young, gay) man is explored in the second part of the collection. Andrew McMillan’s physical comes to mind in reading these poems (McMillan interviewed Vuong for Poetry London recently). ‘Because It’s Summer’ is a more conventionally lineated poem in the second person singular (some distancing there) of slipping away from a mother’s control (and expectations) to meet a boy “waiting / in the baseball field behind the dugout”. It’s particularly good at conveying the exciement (on both sides) of a desire, previously played out alone, being mutually gratified: “the boy [. . .] finds you / beautiful because you’re not / a mirror”. ‘Homewrecker’ evokes the energy of erotic discovery as well as the ‘wreckage’ it threatens (to some) in the “father’s tantrum” as much as the “mothers’ / white dresses spilling from our feet”. ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ is particularly inventive in its form. The poem – set as prose, but with line break slashes included (a baggy, hybrid form Vuong uses elsewhere) – appears as a series of footnotes. The footnote numbers appear scattered across a blank page. The poem deals with the murder, by immolation, of two gay men in Dallas in 2011. The mainstream silence is cleverly played against the passionate love poem only recorded as footnotes.

Elsewhere, Vuong hits less successful notes and styles. There are some dream poems – like ‘Queen under the Hill’ – which don’t always escape the hermetic seal around an individual’s dream world. On other occasions, he wants to use mythic stories to scaffold his own. ‘Telemachus’ is probably the most successful of these (the materials again feeling dream-like to me) as the son pulls his dead (shot dead) father from the ocean. Elsewhere we find allusions to Orpheus and Eurydice (and to Lorca’s ‘Sleepwalking Ballad’ and Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’). Certainly, Vuong is not fearful of taking on big subjects such as JFK’s assassination (‘Of Thee I Sing’), the murders of Jeffrey Dahmer (‘Into the Breach’) and 9/11 (‘Untitled’).

But actually I think ‘ordinariness’ and those poems which show the influence of O’Hara and the New York School prove a more fertile direction. In an interview, Vuong has discussed the Rilkean imperative to look, what the young poet calls the “inexhaustibility in gazing”, something with which we might “resist the capitalist mythos of an expendable gaze”. So ‘On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous’ (I do hope Vuong thinks, as I do, of Jay Gatsby whenever he uses that last word) the fragments of vivid perception amount to more than the sum of its parts. ‘Notebook Fragments’ – which appears to be precisely what the title says – works better than some more crafted poems in the collection. And ‘Devotion’ – with its concluding placement suggesting Vuong knows how good it is – rises out of the sometimes conflicting biographical currents that by his own admission have buffeted him. It’s a beautiful lyric (the form, tripping, delicate, this time not drawing attention to itself) about oral sex; its debatable claims made with utter conviction:

there’s nothing

more holy than holding

a man’s heartbeat between

your teeth, sharpened

with too much

air

The lilting lineation, the brush-strokes of punctuation, work better here than in some of Vuong’s more Whitman-esque streamings of consciousness. The enviable, insouciance of youth – “& so what” – is thrillingly conveyed. Yet, it turns out,  this is not really about the provocative challenges of a variety of states of exile and  ‘otherness’, but about the need to feel anything “fully”, however transient it may prove to be:

Only to feel

this fully, this

entire, the way snow

touches bare skin – & is,

suddenly, snow

no longer.

 

______________________________________________________________________

Martyn Crucefix’s recent books include The Time We Turned (Shearsman, 2014), A Hatfield Mass (Worple Press, 2014) and Daodejing – a new version in English (Enitharmon, 2016. Just published is The Lovely Disciplines (Seren, 2017) and forthcoming are limited editions of O. at the Edge of the Gorge(Guillemot Press, 2017) and A Convoy (If a Leaf Falls Press, 2017)

This article is republished with permission of the author. To find more of his reviews, click here: Martyn Crucefix

Advertisements

Welsh Poetic Forms and Metre- A History

Translations:

Welsh Poetic Forms and Metre

 

A History and a Little Bit More

 

The language of Wales is vivid and vivacious. To hear it spoken is to listen to music and to understand it is to be part of a culture that has existed for centuries. There is more to Wales than its language (and I’m not talking about food), Welsh poetry has been influenced and written in the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd since at least the fifth century.  It is a part of our culture that has evolved directly under the influence of the Welsh language.

 

The cerdd dafod (Welsh poetic forms) and cynghanedd (Welsh metre) remains in use throughout modern Wales, with the most notably example being the annual Eisteddfod. The cerdd dafod comprises of twenty-four poetic forms that involve internal and end rhyme with many stanzas ranging from two to four lines. The cynghanedd is made up of four metres that use alliteration, rhyme and consonantal harmony to balance the sounds within a line. These twenty-four poetic forms and metre date back to when Wales was an independent nation and the courts of the Princes of Wales were informed by the poetic voices of master craftsmen.

 

One of the most famous and earliest examples of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd in Welsh medieval poetry was during the fifth and sixth century where poets such as Aneirin and Taliesin, the great bards of Wales, wrote in these forms and metre. There is no known beginning of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd but it is certain that as the Welsh language evolved Welsh poetry matured alongside it. During the following centuries the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd underwent a critical transformation but it wasn’t to be formally codified until the thirteenth century.

 

The most striking transformation took place during the twelfth and thirteenth century amidst the battle for Welsh independence. Prior to the death of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1282, poets were afforded the privilege of being a respected member of court. These poets were known as the Poets of the Princes (‘Beirdd y Tywysogion’).

 

The highest position that a poet could hold in a royal household was that of the ‘Pencerdd’, a literal translation would be ‘master craftsman’. It was a great honour for a medieval poet and the position would have brought with it many benefits as well as responsibilities: through the patronage of his prince, a poet could trust to receive a formal pay structure, swords and other weaponry but, counterbalancing this great luxury, he would have been expected to participate in battles as a warrior fighting by his prince’s side. It is of little surprise that medieval poetry during these centuries focused predominately on the reality of the battlefield, often describing the aftermath with horrific accuracy.

 

When battles were not being waged the ‘Pencerdd’ held a chair in court. Religion and superstition empowered the medieval court poet: they were believed to be able to predict the future (prophecy) as well have a strong connection with God. The ‘Pencerdd’ would use his position to advise the prince; before battle he would declaim a poem to God and another that would honour the prince or his ancestors’. Royal blood in medieval Wales was cherished. Many held the belief that a prince was chosen by Divine rule and by composing verse that praised his ancestors’, the poet was still honouring the living prince. This form of praise poetry is common in medieval Wales with its practise commanding a great deal of respect. That is not to infer that a ‘Pencerdd’ was a corrupt figure, indeed, many were fiercely loyal to their patrons choosing to risk their life on the battlefield. The elegy was a widely used poetic form during this time. It depicted absolute grief at the loss of a patron. The most beautiful example of an elegy poem was written by Gruffydd ab yr Ynad Coch entitled, ‘Llywelyn ein Llyw Olaf’.

 

“See you not the way of the wind and the rain?

See you not the oak trees buffet together?

See you not the sun hurtling through the sky,

And that the stars are fallen?

Do you not believe God, demented mortals?”

 

There were two lower positions within a royal court for a poet still learning his craft. The ‘Bardd Teulu’, the literal translation would be ‘poet of the household’; the lowest was that of the ‘Cerddor’, the literal translation would be quite simple ‘musician’. All positions within the household would have had formal and informal duties, although the role of ‘Cerddor’ is not completely known but it is safe to assume that they would have required the ability to play the harp or lyre. The ‘Bardd Teulu’ was one of twenty-four officers at court. He was expected to perform his poetry before battles and to entertain the Queen. The duties of medieval court poets would have included the role of chronicler, oral archivist and entertainer, three vital responsibilities to a society that depended on oral traditions for its religion, history and entertainment (which would have most likely been a concoction of praise poetry, history and morality).

 

A court poet did not originate from a position of privilege although they would have been of noble birth. Their training was long and arduous. If they did develop an attitude of self-importance then they could hardly be blamed. It would take nine years to master the necessary skills to become a court poet and upon completion of training a ‘Pencerdd’ would demand twenty-four pence and the right to the ‘amobr’ (the virginity of the ‘Cerddor’s’ daughter). A court poet would be required to recite extracts from the Bible and famous verses from memory; he was also expected to be a master at composing verse written in the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd within his head and at the whim of his prince. For all its requirements and demands, a court poet still held an enviably position within medieval Welsh society.

 

After 1282 and the loss of Welsh independence, the Poets of the Princes suffered a great indignation: they became uprooted and dispersed, thrown out of their royal residencies and into the age of the Poets of the Gentry (‘Beirdd yr Uchelwyr’). To survive they began a tradition known as ‘clera’; this demanded that the poet undergo an expedition, wandering from manor to mansion seeking food, coin and anything else that would assist in their survival. These expeditions enabled them to continue receiving the patronage of their princes, now demoted to gentry by English rule, keeping the practise of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd flourishing within Welsh culture. If the twelfth century established the practises of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd, then the thirteenth century defined them.

 

A Little Bit More…

 

The tradition of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd remains vibrant throughout Wales. It is far from being forgotten, evidenced by the continued popularity of the Eisteddfod. My study, entitled Translations: a poetry project, researches how Welsh poetic forms and metre could be used to reconsider, engage and accurately represent the changing cultural identity of modern Wales. It does this through two considerations, firstly, a critical analysis of three relationships: the coastal and industrial landscapes of Wales; Welsh, Anglo-Welsh and English speaking poets; and, mainstream and grassroots publishing. Secondly, the creative response translates the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd into the English language and applies that translation practically in the shape of two poetry collections each with an accompanying epic poem of substantial length.

 

The project has two aims: to engage with a wide readership by promoting the use of the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd through myself and modern poets; to discover all the voices that define the modern Welsh cultural identity; to challenge mainstream and grassroots publishing and by doing so establish a national platform where all the voices of modern Wales have an equal representation.

 

The study is in its primary stage and in order to remain loyal to its values and principles, the project researches and experiments with the ideology of direct translation. It uses a Welsh perspective to inform these translations through interviewing Welsh speaking poets who have knowledge of and write in these forms and metre in Welsh and English. My MA thesis, Grandiloquent Wretches (then titled Hiraeth) translated the cerdd dafod into the English language. It is a poetry collection that combines history, mythology and Welsh poetic forms to create an urban fantasy. It doesn’t focus exclusively on Welsh mythology and history; instead, it draws from a wealth of international identities, all of whom live and contribute to the social, economic and culturally wealth of modern Wales.

 

The cerdd dafod’s twenty-four forms are made up of two to four lined stanzas. The collection reconsidered these forms to develop a modern variation that had a more visual relationship to that of a sonnet. This supported the use of poetic devices, such as an octet and sestet, which provided a formal narrative structure. Grandiloquent Wretches achieved this by experimenting with the stitching together of two complementary and, at times, conflicting poetic forms to create a sound that a modern readership would appreciate. For example:

 

Justice*

 

 

Let us just play this arid game,

if we lose then you should not blame

them, you got cocky, let bedlam

dictate where the pious venom

strikes in righteous indignation;

 

 

war sought the tired Thracian

lilt, invoked wrath from lethargy

and called it justice. Liturgy

transformed from sacred to mundane,

fudged fingers gouged out his left brain.

He had cold justice on his side;

least the Imp took the time to chide

 

 

him with keen doe-eyed promises;

justice lobotomises…conscience.  

 

*Poetic form: Cyhydedd Fer (Welsh sonnet).

 

The Wolf’s Honey**

 

 

The rat snatched the wolf’s honey;

sore, he tore its soft, bunny

flesh into a gunny mess, bejewelled

he bugled an umbrae

with sugar-snapped bayonets;

laced with perse, cloud silhouettes

will make the plaster sweat; hope to previse,

incise these mottled webs;

the spider drank flaxen cider,

drunk, the piper used the barrels

to play a sniper’s tune, cipher

tasseomancy from pyre ashes;

hope that it was not your fault.

Suck a lolly dipped in salt,

thwart their strikes with rumour, club her cries

to equalise and escort

her moans with guided patience,

mistake twists for gyrations

of pain, stained laces tremble at the scream,

cetirizine harks, chases

the tussles that burst the bubbles

as convulsions spilt drooling

from silver buckles, sand knuckles

with piteous justice mewling.

 ** Poetic form: two stanzas of Englyn Crwca; two stanzas of Rhupant Hir; two stanzas of Englyn Crwca; two stanzas of Rhupant Hir.

 

 

The collection is unapologetically baroque in language and style, revelling in its past through the use of Welsh poetic forms whilst firmly set in the present. Translations: a poetry project places a higher value on a cohesive narrative but it does not deviate too far away from its grandiloquent nature. See the poem below taken from The Silver in the Water, Chapter Three.

 

 

Swathes of Empyrean Heather***

 

                                                   Wyled**** curdled the stomach;

                                           Cistern snagged the Bittern co…pse.

                                              Scourge dirge steep like Icarus,

                                                  periwinkle him; skim milk

                   to the broth,                              froth                 this relief;

        temper                                                     this heather                    charnel****

                                                                                                                           with carrion,
virion******

river

     malingers

       and infers

                                                                                                                          sea.

 

 

***Poetic form: Cynghanedd Sain. Seven syllables per line. The poem uses a rhyme scheme between the first and second caesura of the line; the second bar decides the consonantal harmony for the third bar and third caesura creates a bridge over additional consonants to create a harmony with the two. For example: X X dog | bog | B (N D N) B. The final syllable in the second and third is stressed.
 ****“Wyled” means to deceive or entice; it also means sorcerer.
 *****“Charnel” short for charnel house; associated with death.
 ******“Virion” means the complete, infective form of a virus outside a host cell.

 

These poems use internal and end rhyme along with consonantal harmony that has been demonstrated by the use of alliteration. Swatches of Empyrean Heather follows the pattern of cynghanedd sain. The writing of Welsh poetic metres has a strong similarity to a line of music: the line is broken into caesuras ( | ). These sections dictate where the rhyme, stress and consonantal repetition fall. See the example below for a visual breakdown of the poem’s structure:

 

Swathes of Empyrean Heather

 

                                                   Wyled | curdled | the stomach;

                                           Cisternsnagged the Bittern | co…pse.

                                              Scourge | dirge |steep like Icarus,

                                                  periwinkle him; |skim | milk

                                                   to the broth,                        |froth |   this relief;

                                temper  |                                                      this heather  |                  charnel

                                                                                                                           with carrion,|
virion |

river

malingers  |

                                                         and infers  |

                                                                                                                            sea.

 

Ultimately Translations: a poetry project ensures that the forms and metre continue to evolve into modernity. Preserved, not like a museum artefact but as a living organism; an organism that is open to failures as well as successes and, most importantly, informed by its history and culture, constantly evolving, harmonising to the needs of its society.

___________

Rhea Seren Phillips is a Ph.D student at Swansea University. Rhea specializes in the cerdd dafod and cynghanedd (Welsh poetic forms and metre) and is reconsidering them through the English language for a modern Welsh readership.

Twitter: @MissRheaSeren

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/grandiloquentwretch

Website: https://rheasphillipspoet.wordpress.com/

The Sad Part Was- Prabda Yoon

the sad part was
The book is available to purchase here – The Sad Part Was


The Sad Part Was – Prabda Yoon

 

“They catalysed my consciousness as though it had been struck by lightning, and I briefly became abnormally perceptive, able to absorb information about my environment instantaneously and effortlessly. Thank god I stopped just short of Nirvana.” – Prabda Yoon, “Miss Space”

 

Prabda Yoon’s collection of short stories The Sad Part Was (Tilted Axis Press, 2017) invites the reader into a world of idiosyncratic characters often confronted with the impermanence of experience and the choice of how to view and remember each moment. A short definition of the term “ploang” – to be at peace with letting go of past events, without assigning any negative or positive emotions to them – announces the collection’s most important theme. Many of Yoon’s characters are confronted with situations beyond their control (just as the text itself is beyond the reader’s control), but their emotions and reactions determine how they will cope.

The stories in The Sad Part Was pull us into their various worlds, distilling information about characters that seem both familiar and utterly baffling at times, before pushing us out again to reflect on the act of reading itself. What right have we to assign meaning to a writer’s words? What purpose does it serve?

Yoon’s unusual approach is clear from the beginning. “Pen in Parentheses”, the very first story, immediately subverts expectations by placing the bulk of the text within parentheses, thus creating different levels of reading. “Miss Space” stands out through its narrator’s almost hysterical need to understand a young woman’s penchant for leaving large spaces between words when she writes. Every time he sees her, he launches into an in-depth analysis of all the possible causes for her behaviour, but rather ironically, he never gives her the opportunity (or space) to speak. He is more invested in his own line of questioning than whatever she has to say.

The same occurs in “Shallow/Deep, Thick/Thin”, where a traveller discovers a secret from outer space. The whole world begs him to reveal it, because there are no other secrets left, but the traveller soon realizes his audience is more interested in exploiting the sense of mystery than the knowledge itself. No one cares about the insights he has to offer. People look to others to teach them, when they should be looking inside. They should seek experience, rather than the passing on of second-hand information. Yoon puts forwards the idea that knowing everything does not bring happiness, because then only the absence of knowledge seems interesting… and once it is broken, it cannot be reversed.

Yet the author himself is not exempt from this rule. Cleverly placed near the end of the collection, “Marut by the Sea” acts as a tongue-in-cheek reminder not to take Yoon and his ideas too seriously:

“Don’t waste your precious time with his nonsense. Granted, he might say or do things to amaze you. He might write words that tug on your heart strings. You might find his unusual perspective charming. He might lead you to believe that he has something important to say. But believe me, every single thing that you think you learn from him in fact comes from you yourself.”

Yoon plays with our natural tendency to experience excitement upon discovering new and intriguing ways of understanding and experiencing life. He warns us of the fleetingness of such a sense of revelation and tells us not to trust even our own impressions. This of course calls into question everything we have read so far, but if we do indeed adhere to the notion of “ploang”, we come to realize that judgement of a thing does not change the thing itself. Yoon’s words are there for us to do with as we please. We can draw our own conclusions, without feeling right or wrong.

“The Disappearance of a She-Vampire in Pattaya” is the perfect example of this. The reasons given for Rattika the She-Vampire’s sudden absence vary widely and contradict each other more than once, yet it is still tempting to come away believing one version or the other. At the very least, we understand that something dramatic has happened and that the people interviewed are explaining it in their own way. Truth has nothing to do with it.

As for the language Yoon uses in his stories, it is deliberate and precise. It serves to build an atmosphere in which we must find our own balance, our own understanding. The texts are peppered with Thai words, deliberately left in by Mui Poopoksakul, who translated the book into English. The sense of setting (all the stories appear to take place in Thailand) is thus reinforced in a subtle but effective way. The stories carry a sense of national identity (foreigners, Westerners in particular, are described with a distinct sense of “otherness” and are never given names) while at the same time veering away from more traditional Thai literature, as Poopoksakul explains in the Translator’s Afterword.

The result is an intriguing collection where words and form matter more than coherence. Yoon doesn’t seek to persuade the reader; rather, he invites us to examine his stories without passing judgement. We may find some funny, others sad, but we are free to draw our own conclusions and move on.

____

Zoe Perrenoud was born in Switzerland in 1987. Her work has appeared in Aesthetica’s Annual Creative Works, Crossing the Lines, Delano Magazine (online) and Stardust, Always. One of her short stories was shortlisted for the 2016 Bridport Prize. She has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Bangor University and currently lives in Luxembourg.

THE ARTS IN DANGER ! or ?

Disclaimer: This is an Opinion based essay. The views expressed herein are purely based on the author’s perspective. Agree or Disagree with the sentiments? Have a thought on this very topic? Why not comment below.

There can be little doubt that the ravages of technology are taking their toll on human society and human nature.  Caught up in a maddening rush for material gain resulting from the unchecked advances in science and technology, man has little time or even an inclination to smell the flowers.  The flowers in this case are, of course, the arts.  The demeaning and diminishment of the arts as a measure of our humanity represents a distinct threat to that humanity as it was meant to be.  It is no overstatement to suggest that the very survival of the race may lie in the balance.

Just as the arts define a social culture, the lack of art suggests a lack of culture.  There are myriads of definitions, purposes and forms for art, but for the purpose of this article, I would ask that we consider art not as an act or an object, but as a disciplined creation emanating from the mind which brings balance, meaning and beauty to life.  I would ask that we consider culture as a measure of what it means to be human.  Humanity is the only form of life capable of creating art, creations that go beyond any utility. It is therefore through our art that we are defined as being human.  As human beings, cursed or blessed with a self-awareness that brings us into confrontation with the mystery of our very existence, we find ourselves in a most uncomfortable situation: we are by nature bound to question our why and wherefore.  In my attempts to do so, I have come to the conclusion that it is only through the arts that we are afforded an occasional glimpse into the otherwise incomprehensible.  Attempts to avoid the question with a myriad of other pursuits only adds to the angst and insecurity we seek to overcome, which in reality may prevent us from becoming truly human.  This being the case, one would think the inquisitive human mind would drive us to a veritable obsession with the arts.  But such is not the case.  Those other less than satisfactory pursuits often become our cultural obsession with material gain that has relegated the arts to a periphery of our concerns at best.

The rapid changes in our society, resulting in rapid changes in the priority of our values and following on the equally rapid advances of technology has raised a serious question of just what it means to be human.  The question for debate then becomes whether or not art as such has any real value or purpose. Caught, on the one side, between the ranting of a religious right wing conservative segment that would do away with all administrative funding for the arts, assuming them to be both frivolous and superfluous, and on the other hand the political machinations of a liberal left who would make a travesty of the arts in their efforts to politicize them, is the third side, whose position was best stated on a bumper sticker proudly displayed on a pick-up truck which read, “The arts are not a luxury.  They are a necessity.”  This side faces a continual struggle for survival.

Ironically, the battle being waged is between two of the sides, neither of which has any real understanding of or appreciation for the arts.  The thought of the arts as a product of disciplined and creative minds bringing luster and emotional well-being to our lives is completely foreign to many of those of the religious/conservative right.  In fact, in many respects, the liberality of artistic thinking may represent an actual threat to some of the questionable moral convictions they often hold.  On the other hand, the politically motivated left, all too often, will with malice under the guise of art produce an array of often offensive and manipulative works under the banner of multiculturalism or political correctness whose purpose is not to enlighten but obscure.

Should the extreme right prevail, they could extinguish the light of aesthetic creativity in favor of a rigidity and stagnation. The whole concept of beauty for the sake of beauty could be lost.   Should the extreme left prevail, with its false guise of multiculturalism, the very opposite might be achieved, with the pitting of one enclave against another, as opposed to the universal need for tolerance and a unanimity of purpose to be found in the arts.

There is no greater threat to a pluralistic society than these two warring factions who, in the arrogance of their ignorance would subvert and ultimately destroy any ability we might have to live harmoniously together.  Without a universal understanding of our human condition, continually rediscovered through the arts, we could be splintered into any number of self-serving races, genders, sects, religions, ethnicities or ideologies.  We need the arts, and we need a better understanding of what constitutes art as defined above, an internal appreciation of the balance and beauty in life.  The purpose of art thus defined is not to preach old truths but to open the doors to new truths. The purpose of art is not to indict injustice but to help us understand the causes of injustice.

Have no fear; the arts will survive. Their demise has been predicted over and over again, but we could once more lose countless generations to the ignorance and stagnation that beset the human race during the Dark Ages.  Only our enlightened voices speaking loud and clear can counter the alienation and depression that is certain to follow with a continuation of our present trend toward cultural deprivation.

____

Hal O’Leary, now at age 90, has been published in 18 different countries. He lives by a quote from his son’s play Wine To Blood, “I don’t know if there is a Utopia, but I am certain that we must act as though there can be.” Hal, a Pushcart nominee, is a recent recipient of an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from West Liberty University the same institution from which he became a college dropout some 60 years earlier. He currently resides in Wheeling.