Tag Archives: poet

Mark Rothko and Langhston Hughes – Subway Face

28 Jan

Today we are going to take a look at one of Mark Rothko’s early works called “Entrance to Subway” which is part of his series about New York City’s subways.

Mark Rothko, Entrance to Subway, 1938

Paintings from Rothko’s subway series don’t really display an outstanding skilfulness, they are not breathtakingly beautiful either, but their mood is striking. Rothko used an everyday urban scene and transformed its simplicity and banality into a psychological portrait of society’s alienation and depersonalisation. The series, painted mainly in the 1930s when Rothko was in his thirties, is filled with thin elongated figures with mask-like faces, tired commuters detached from themselves, their environment and each other; there’s no communication between figures. They seem so mute, apathetic and defeated. One can almost feel the heaviness of silence between them. Instead, they pass the time reading the newspapers or immersed in their own thoughts as they wait for the train, or for Godot? In “Entrance to Subway”, the lost souls of New York City’s wasteland descend into Hades’s underground where tall brown column stretch in a repetitive never-ending row. The urban scenery and the energy of these paintings reminds me of Kirchner’s Berlin street scenes laden with anxiety and frenzy. Still, if Kirchner’s thin figures are about to burst from anxiety and frenzy, then Rothko’s figures are about to melt into a shapeless grey puddle.

Mark Rothko, Subway, 1937

A visual detail to notice here is the dominance of colour over the line. Rothko said that “colors are performers” and indeed, it seems that the figures or the tall columns were made out of single brushstrokes. There is little or no shading and brushstrokes are thick and visible, leaving the edges of colours visible, just as they would be in Rothko’s later works. Although in “Entrance to Subway” the colour palette is rather cheerful with those blues, purples and yellows, in other paintings of the series a murky palette of browns prevails. Rothko had some strong opinions about the importance of colour on a painting. In 1936 he started working on a never finished book which was suppose to explore the similarity between children’s paintings and the art of modern painters which was inspired by primitive art. His thesis was that “the fact that one usually begins with drawing is already academic. We start with color.”

It took a long time and a lot of experimenting and thinking for Rothko to find his own unique artistic path. These paintings are merely the seed of what was to become of his art. As we can see in these early examples of Rothko’s art, it is clear that he always wanted to portray a deeper truth, the tragedy of humanity with spiritual overtones, but he didn’t know quite how to achieve that until he found an artistic path that was entirely his own – colour block painting.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Woman in Subway Station), 1936

Mark Rothko, untitled, (The Subway), 1937

I feel that there is something so romantic about these ephemeral city experiences. The pointless frenzy over a train that eventually arrives whether you spend time worrying about it or not, the tired faces, the fact that you will probably never see the person that sits opposite you ever again, for better or for worse. Langhston Hughes, a poet of the Harlem-Renaissance took a more cheerful approach to the subject than Rothko and here is his short and beautiful poem called “Subway Face”:

“That I have been looking

For you all my life

Does not matter to you.

You do not know.

 

You never knew.

Nor did I.

Now you take the Harlem train uptown;

I take a local down.”

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Emily Dickinson – Amherst Maiden in White

10 Dec

Shy, introverted, eccentric and immensely prolific American poet Emily Dickinson was born on this day in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her poetry is perpetually enigmatic and misunderstood; her genius wasn’t recognised in her time and when later eras took interest in her poetry, it only brought sentimental views on her verses, ignoring the rawness and vigour they possess. In her book “Sexual Personae”, Camille Paglia devotes the last chapter to Emily Dickinson and calls her “Madame de Sade from Amherst”. Paglia refers to her poems as prison dreams of a sadomasochistic imaginative mind which imprisoned itself, and she goes deep into her poetry revealing its layers of darkness, morbidity, violence and sexuality, which are all themes one would not immediately connect to a Victorian era spinster. Dickinson possessed a unique imagination, especially for a woman of her time. Still, with her poetic work put aside, Dickinson was an interesting individual: she lived almost as a recluse, developed a penchant for dressing in white, was rarely seen in Amherst, her social life restricted to correspondence thorough letters; when someone paid a visit to her family home, she’d only answer from the other side of the door; she studied botany and kept a detailed herbarium which is still preserved. She often mentioned flowers in her letters and poems, and connected each flower with a certain emotion or an idea. Violet was a flower she particularly cherished; this needn’t be strange for it is a delicate little flower that holds beauty both in its colour and fragrance.

Emily Dickinson, December 1846 or early 1847; This is the only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. “Heart, keep very still, or someone will find you out.” (From a letter to Susan Gilbert Dickinson, 5 April 1852)

Since the Amherst Lady in White is celebrating her birthday today from the depth of her tomb, why not read a few of her poems? These are some of my favourites:

They might not need me – yet they might

 They might not need me – yet they might –

I’ll let my Heart be just in sight –

A smile so small as mine might be

Precisely their necessity.

***

VII. With a Flower.

I hide myself within my flower,

That wearing on your breast,

You, unsuspecting, wear me too —

And angels know the rest.

 

I hide myself within my flower,

That, fading from your vase,

You, unsuspecting, feel for me

Almost a loneliness.

A page from Emily Dickinson’s herbarium. You can read about it here: “The photo facsimiles of the herbarium now available to readers at the Houghton Library still present the girl Emily appealingly: the one who misspelled, who arranged pressed flowers in artistic form, who with Wordsworthian tenderness considered nature her friend.”

The Tulip.

SHE slept beneath a tree

        Remembered but by me.

I touched her cradle mute;

She recognized the foot,

Put on her carmine suit, —

        And see!

***

Heart, we will forget him!

Heart, we will forget him!

You and I, tonight!

You may forget the warmth he gave,

I will forget the light.

 

When you have done, pray tell me

That I my thoughts may dim;

Haste! lest while you’re lagging.

I may remember him!

Violets from Emily’s herbarium.

XIX. I noticed people disappeared

I noticed people disappeared,

When but a little child, —

Supposed they visited remote,

Or settled regions wild.

 

Now know I they both visited

And settled regions wild,

But did because they died, — a fact

Withheld the little child!

***

If I may have it, when it’s dead (577)

If I may have it, when it’s dead,

I’ll be contented—so—

If just as soon as Breath is out

It shall belong to me—

 

Until they lock it in the Grave,

‘Tis Bliss I cannot weigh—

For tho’ they lock Thee in the Grave,

Myself—can own the key—

 

Think of it Lover! I and Thee

Permitted—face to face to be—

After a Life—a Death—We’ll say—

For Death was That—

And this—is Thee—

 

I’ll tell Thee All—how Bald it grew—

How Midnight felt, at first—to me—

How all the Clocks stopped in the World—

And Sunshine pinched me—’Twas so cold—

 

Then how the Grief got sleepy—some—

As if my Soul were deaf and dumb—

Just making signs—across—to Thee—

That this way—thou could’st notice me—

 

I’ll tell you how I tried to keep

A smile, to show you, when this Deep

All Waded—We look back for Play,

At those Old Times—in Calvary,

 

Forgive me, if the Grave come slow—

For Coveting to look at Thee—

Forgive me, if to stroke thy frost

Outvisions Paradise!

Poetic Memory, Beauty and Milan Kundera

9 Jul

The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful.”

Picture found here. Notice how beautifully the delicate white porcelain and fresh pink roses contrast with the worn out grey surface? In one word – poetic.

As you may already know, I am a big fan of Milan Kundera’s novel “Unbearable Lightness of Being”; I think the way he explored the inner struggles of characters is wonderful, but there’s so much more to the book. Kundera tends to be very analytical and philosophical and while he often explores the ideas of other thinkers such as Nietzsche, he tends to have interesting theses and concepts himself, like this one:

The brain appears to possess a special area which we might call poetic memory and which records everything that charms or touches us, that makes our lives beautiful.”

Kundera ends the chapter with this sentence, connecting love and poetic memory, which only emphasises the importance of poetic memory in one’s life.

“Love begins with a metaphor. Which is to say, love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into our poetic memory.”

The first sentence perfectly describes my knightly quest for Beauty in everyday life. Kundera expressed in a sentence something I felt for a long time, but had no words to describe it. I usually just say “this is beautiful” or “I like the aesthetics”, but from now on I shall call it “poetic memory”. Poetic memory is an individual thing; one can see beauty where others do not, but many things are universally beautiful such as sunsets and flowers. But it is not merely about beauty itself as much as it is about a dreamy, charming, heartbreaking sight that makes you sigh and that lingers on in your memory, reappears in your mind again, that touches you and can even brings tear to your eye. I believe one needs to develop sensitivity towards beauty in order to see it every day, and in the most random and strangest of places.

I just love pretty porcelain! Beautiful flowers on this tea cup have dazzled my imagination and stayed in my poetic memory, and so did the dreamy sight of pink magnolia blossoms, pear tree and a cardinal, photo by Molly Dean.

I am constantly fanatically and ecstatically seeking and finding, stumbling upon, beauty all around me, and when I see a sight that deserves a place in my poetic memory, I am overwhelmed by rapture that seems to me better than an acid trip. Here are some examples of scenes from my life that have charmed me, touched me and made my life more beautiful, and that I have rightfully saved to my poetic memory: cherry tree twig that adorns my vase every spring, my neighbour’s laundry drying outdoors and dancing in the breeze, bright yellow flowers in my garden, one decaying used-to-be-white-but-now-grey wall with little windows and bricks showing through and ruby red roses overgrowing it, ginkgo tree in autumn which leaves a magical gold-yellow carpet of leaves, one old grey house with two small windows and rain leaves a trail under them so that it looks like eyes crying and a damp garden with sombre pink and blue hydrangeas, three gentle and sad looking birch trees in front of an old wooden house, silence and stillness of winter afternoons and snowflakes, pink and lavender coloured sunsets as well as the orange and purple autumn sunsets tinged with melancholy with chillness descending, rose petals scattered all over my room and The Smiths in the background, morning dew on roses and white peonies in my garden, old decaying roofs, iron gates adorned with rust, old walls overgrown with moss and ivy, tree branches white and crispy from frost, red poppies near the railway, large white moon, listening to rain and Chopin at the same time; coming home from school last April accompanied by the smell of freshly mown grass, birdsong and pink magnolia blossoms. Colour combinations too; lavender and ruby red, or purple and yellow are amongst my favourites. The sight of flickering candles and old books with yellowy pages. And a special sight I saw last August on one rainy evening, coming home from a walk; apple tree and yellow sunflowers intertwined, like lovers, announcing autumn. Along with the steady beats of hard summer rain on my umbrella, it was enchanting, almost fairy tale like for me….

I imagine poetic memory as a beautiful little antique wooden box with elegant carvings and an invisible silver key that I carry around my neck, and when I see a scene of beauty, I can just unlock the box in my imagination and save it there. And later, in sad and dull moments, I can sit by my window with a cup of tea, close my eyes and enjoy the contents of my “poetic memory box”. Poetic memory isn’t limited to sights you see in your life; it can be found in photos and art as well, anything really that charms you. Here are some pictures that I recently “saved” in my poetic memory:

Seaburn, Sunderland, England by DM Allan.

Photo found here.

Wild flowers of Pacific Northwest, Images taken from around Washington State

Milldale, Staffordshire, Peak District, England, UK; isn’t the contrast between old grey stones and bright greenery around it so so dazzlingly beautiful?

So, what do you think of Kundera’s thesis? Are you building your poetic memory? What kind of scenes charm you? I should also add that it is my opinion that poetic memory is a basis for good writing; poets and artists see beauty everywhere and it later becomes part of their work. As every day, month, year passes, I see more and more beauty around me, so much so that I should probably walk around carrying a notebook and a pen and write it down, “A Book of Beauty” I should call it. Sometimes I walk the streets thinking: “Look at that lantern, look at that crack in the pavement where flowers grew, or a pine tree, how did I never notice it before!?” My point is that noticing beauty is a skill that needs to be learnt, and I’m not pretending I’m above it, in fact, I wonder what sights will charm me five or ten years from now. Perhaps I’ll notice flowers in places I never even thought of looking.

If anything, I hope this post will inspire you to see more beauty around you.

Sappha – I Sleep Alone…

9 Jun

A lovely poem by an ancient Greek poetess Sappha who lived on the Isle of Lesbos and was famously called the “Tenth muse”, accompanied by a beautiful, magical painting of vivacious stars shining on the vibrant blue sky painted in psychedelic swirls. What seems to be an utter source of fascination for me, is that the same moon that Sappha had seen in those warm Mediterranean nights, is the same moon that Van Gogh had gazed at, in the absinthe-laced nights of Arles, or Percy Shelley, and look from your window, go for a late evening walk – you shall see the same lonely, bright, white face gazing at you with melancholic eyes, surrounded in glorious darkness, singing wistful songs to his nymphs the stars which flicker and flicker, until, consumed by their own light, they don’t vanish …. into eternity. We are but mortals, the moon – with no beginning or ending. So should one have pity for us mortals and our transience or for the Moon and his eternal loneliness?

Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night, 1889

“Well, the moon has set

And the Pleiades. It is the middle

Of the night. And the hour passes by,

But I sleep alone …….”

(Translated by Terry Walsh)

Arthur Rimbaud – Dawn

18 Jun

1861. Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld, 1861

I have kissed the summer dawn. Before the palaces, nothing moved. The water lay dead. Battalions of shadows still kept the forest road.

I walked, walking warm and vital breath, While stones watched, and wings rose soundlessly.

My first adventure, in a path already gleaming With a clear pale light, Was a flower who told me its name.

I laughted at the blond Wasserfall That threw its hair across the pines: On the silvered summit, I came upon the goddess.

Then one by one, I lifted her veils. In the long walk, waving my arms.

Across the meadow, where I betrayed her to the cock. In the heart of town she fled among the steeples and domes, And I hunted her, scrambling like a beggar on marble wharves.

Above the road, near a thicket of laurel, I caught her in her gathered veils, And smelled the scent of her immense body. Dawn and the child fell together at the bottom of the wood.

When I awoke, it was noon.*