on The Invisible Dragon, Essays on Beauty, by Dave Hickey (Univ of Chicago) and Beauty, essays ed. by Dave Beech (MIT Press)

Poets don’t talk much about beauty in their critical writing, since Keats spelled out all ye need to know. But I’ve recently come across a few notable instances. In 1935. Luis Cernuda spoke of the relation between the poet and beauty in “Words Before a Reading”: luis-cernuda-2.jpg“The poet tries to fix the transitory beauty of the world that he perceives, relating it to the invisible world that he senses, and when he grows weak and fails in this unequal struggle, his voice, like that of Satan in the Moslem theologian’s reply, weeps, still enamored, for the loss of what he loves.” Nevertheless, “a terrible happiness” may be born in the poet. A big part of the satisfaction is believing one may have pulled off a strangely alternate beauty in the form of the poem itself.

W. S. Di Piero says in his essay “Work” in City Dog, “The most commonly accepted notion in our time is that the work of the poet is not to make a thing of beauty but to produce a beautifully functioning thing ... We would indeed like poems to be regarded as things, or as essential facts, because this would pull poetry farther into the thing-world and make it more an impinging piece of reality.” Servility to pre-approved functional beauty may be committed by poets bound to either more familiar forms and voices or to the theory-of-the-month, depending on which in crowd you’re in. As Di Piero puts it, “Poetry is neither diminished nor debased by the mechanical model – though it is debased by the inauthenticity and professionalism the model encourages.” Where’s the beauty? In the making of a “complex and elusive thought-character.”

Hank Lazer asks the following question in Lyric & Spirit (Omnidawn, 2008): “How does contemporary poetry participate in changing the nature of what we hear as ‘beautiful’ in poetry?” It’s a generative inquiry – because most poets weep like Cernuda for the absence of the beautiful sound and form that may or may not materialize, then sober up by striving for Di Piero’s “elusive thought-character.” Beauty takes shape in – and is -- the desire for the beautiful. Picasso said, “Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we don't start measuring her limbs. What is beauty, anyway? There's no such thing.”

beech.jpgIn the mid-1990’s, beauty made a comeback in art criticism – and some of this output will help poets mulling the appearances of beauty in poetry. Beauty, a collection of 39 essays edited by Dave Beech, is an especially valuable overview of the revived conversation. Some of the key pieces include statements by Elaine Scarry, Wendy Steiner, Arthur Danto, Fredric Jameson, T.J. Clark, Caroline Jones and Jay Bernstein. But there are also earlier essays by Derrida, Adorno, Smithson and Warhol informing their successors. In “Whatever Happened to Beauty” (1996), Kathleen Marie Higgins lists the reasons for shunning traditional forms of beauty: “Moral outrage speaks an extreme vocabulary.” At the same time, Scarry makes the case for beauty, as it stands, as a spur to moral action.

hickey4_0.jpgBeech also includes Dave Hickey’s 1993 essay “Enter the Dragon: On the Vernacular of Beauty” in which he relates how difficult it had been to discuss beauty among teachers and students of post-modernism. But things changed. In 1994, Hickey’s The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty triggered the discourse on beauty. Now, a revised and expanded edition has been published by the University of Chicago Press.

Poet and art critic Bill Berkson wrote, “Criticism’s provisionality is intoxicating. It’s the working critic’s siren call, seductive and maddening. The concomitant pleasures and terrors derive from an uncertainty that overrides almost every impulse towards assertion of either sense or value.” Hickey concurs: “There are issues worth advancing in images that are worth admiring – the truth is never plain or appearances sincere. To make them so is to neutralize the primary, gorgeous eccentricity of imagery in Western culture since the Reformation: the fact that it cannot be trusted, that images are always presumed to be proposing something contestable and controversial. This is the sheer, ebullient, slithering, dangerous fun of it.”

Caravaggio1_0.jpgHickey’s language is charged with the excitement of Berkson’s uncertainty about (but not a shyness of) assertions – while participating in the revelatory and fugitive aims of art. His view is long, his pace is quick. He starts here with the Renaissance. As meanings assigned by church and court eroded, beauty was enlisted to “argue for things – for doctrines, rights, privileges, ideologies, territories, and reputations.” But forms of beauty harden and become silent, and when new ones appear they may not be recognized as beautiful. To make his point, he shows us Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of St. Thomas” (1601):

"The painting recruits us to be complicit spectators as the resurrected Christ calmly grasps the incredulous Thomas by the wrist and guides the saint’s extended forefinger into the wound in his wide … and we are lured forward as well.” If you look at Christ here, you doubt him. You follow the finger into the wound in order to dispel your unbelief. You “acquiesce to the gorgeous authority of the image.” You submit. “In that submission, we, like him, give ourselves up, trust ourselves to be humbled – by God, by art, by others … We may redeem our guilt and dominate, triumph before the arrested image of our desire, in an exquisite, suspended moment of pleasure and control.”

Then, Hickey leaps to Mapplethorpe. The transgressiveness of Caravaggio transfers to the photographer’s image “Lou, N.Y.C., 1978,” part of the controversial X Portfolio. Once again, a man inserts his finger – this time, into his penis, the hand splayed and/or elegant, tense and/or swooning. Thomas’ doubt of his Lord is profane. The wound itself is sacred. Can we submit?

Now return to Lazer’s question. Your notion of what is beautiful in contemporary poetry may hinge on what you believe a poem should argue for – and how comfortable you are with a poet’s tactics to persuade you to acquiesce. Have we been trained to be close-minded? Hickey’s probing essays provide an exhilarating excuse to enjoy yourself while getting a feel for, and perhaps adjusting, your own unwitting beauty-strategies – in which all elements of poetics may come into play.

Hickey_0.jpgThe Invisible Dragon is mainly about Hickey’s dissatisfactions with art criticism and its wielding of interpretive power over the experience of art. He says in “American Beauty,” “The cream of high modernist art conforms to the conditions of postmodernity” if we ignore the critics who refuse to let an art surface be just that, a surface. Then we can see what’s actually there. “Roland Barthes, after all, killed the author on behalf of all objects and texts” because “none posits meaning outside the text.”

Yes, we want our poems to live independent lives and be provocative in themselves. And no, we understand that a word is its own precedent and can only strive against (not extinguish) its own history. Every poet chooses his/her own pretenses. And every reader will take or not take delight in knowing that the poem has been written by so-and-so. In the end, Hickey’s enthusiasm for the artwork – and his fears for its vibrant life in our minds -- trump his postmodernist shtick. Pitting himself against “the banality of neutral comfort,” he helps us recognize the “true contrary” to beauty.

[Published April 1, 2009, 123 pages, nine b&w illustrations, $22.00 hardcover]

your piece on beauty

Love this piece, Ron! Thanks!