Bad writing commits two cardinal sins. First, it violates our need for clear communication and for meaning in a world that is too fragmented, too ideological, too complex. We desperately need writers who strive for clarity, who provide explanations of our world without trying to fool us into thinking they have a Theory Of Everything. The second is that it violates our need for beauty. Bad writing is ugly in the way an ill-made skirt or a poorly-constructed bookshelf is ugly. It is ugly in the way anything done carelessly, without thought for self-respect or use or craftsmanship--that quality that Bill Reid says spoke to us through the ages, regardless where it is found--is ugly.
So in the wake of my marking glut last week that ended in some of the poorest marks I've ever given (though the top 15 or so students are good thinkers and writers, so perhaps Ken Coates is right), this week I am looking for beauty. And I'm going to be trying to make beauty and meaning. I am working on the ekphrastic poems that are inspired by Veronica Geminder's photography. Because so much of her work is urban, a capturing of surprising spaces, I've been reading Mark Kingwell's Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City. Here's where I had my first siting. Explaining that New Yorkers, ever cool and purposeful walkers, never look up, he notes that one late afternoon many of them were doing so. He got out of the ever-flowing crowd ("I never thought death had undone so many") to look up, and this is what he saw:
"I saw the awesome central shaft of the Empire State, that blocky heavy-shouldered slab--so masculine and tough--almost brutal, compared with the slim spaceship grace and gorgeous Art Deco silver of the Chrysler Building--burnished gold in a bath of late-afternoon, early March sunshine. It was 5:30 and the base of the building was covered in slanting shadows thrown by the surrounding buildings, and out of the dark pedestal the high tower soared and floated in a way I have never seen before, the never-used dirigible mooring at the summit sparkling and sharply limned, seeming almost punched out physically--sharply etched--against the cold blue sky. The sun on the stone was like plasma, nearly alive, and I thought of the way the same evening glow used to cloak the neo-Gothic buildings of my university town, felt the same mix of comfort and awe" (48).
The writing that is clear, expressive, and beautiful, as are the visual image Kingwell creates. Yet what struck me was his observation that unflappable uber-cool New Yorkers had stopped for beauty. For some reason, I find that singularly hopeful.
I had my head down, writing, for most of the week, so the other encounters with beauty came on the weekend. On campus I spotted a flock of surreal Bohemian Waxwings, and much to Bill's puzzlement, stopped the car and rolled down my window so I could hear their joyful chittering. For some reason--I am no birder--spotting Bohemian Waxwings always makes me feel as if winter is coming to a close.
This morning, I had another glimpse at beauty as I eavesdropped on a Scottish grandfather shopping with a twelve-year-old grandson, perhaps for a family party; there was a considerable stack of frozen pizzas in the bottom of the cart. I'd had them in my ears throughout the store as the grandfather explained why he wanted to buy this rather than that or told his grandson that they had two kinds of pizza--pepperoni or Hawaiian--and asked rather formally "Which would be your preference?" and then when the boy said "Hawaiian," did a little soft shoe off into Hawaii 5-0 and a very Scottish "Book 'em Danno." The grandson, who by all rights should have been singularly unimpressed with anyone over 16, was entirely charmed by this outing with his grandfather.
Then today's Globe and Mail had a nostalgic look at Marimekko fabric, which is being featured at Toronto's Textile Museum of Canada. Marimekko arose in the early fifties, its bright colours and graphic designs a distinct contrast to the polite, fitted clothing of the fifties and early sixties. Katherine Ashenburg pointed out that the early Marimekko clothes challenged the fashion aesthetic of the times: loose and lightly structured, you popped them on over your head and forgot about them, except to be cheered by the patterns or the colours. You didn't need to think about whether the crinoline beneath your poodle skirt was ruining your stockings or whether your bra was showing through the sweater that was too tight. No tugging on miniskirts. You can now get Marimekko Converse sneakers, which I think is marvelous. I might be tempted....Because aesthetic joy is always tempting.
Tonight's Government House concert was my most recent meeting with beauty. There are two things I love about this series. One is that the musicians themselves pick the repertoire, and they often play things I've never heard. The second is that chamber music is so much more intimate. Tonight they played two "viola quintets"--pieces written not for the typical string quarter--two violins, viola, and cello--but for a string quintet--two violins, two violas, cello. There are all kinds of terrible jokes about viola players, most of them circling around the fact that the viola is seldom heard. Yet the string quintets make clear how much body the middle-voiced viola gives to a group of strings. They played a Mozart G minor quintet, very dark with only splashes of sunlight until the final movement, and a quintet written by Antonin Dvorak while he was on vacation in Spiilville, Iowa. I had known he'd gone there during his time as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, but didn't realize that he had sought out its large Czech community.
What is it about chamber music that makes you so aware of the stories around you? The intimacy somehow creates an optical illusion that makes everything seem closer. I had the sense of being at the edges of stories: the older woman in front of me who came with her husband and another couple but sat reading a book. Was she desperate to get to the end of a page-turner, or trying to carve out space for herself, or even passive-aggressive? What's the story behind a woman with a beautiful scarf that brushed my head as she fled the Ball Room after a single cough? There certainly have to be stories about the scarves, toques, gloves, and shoes piled in the Lost and Found box.
What's the relationship between curiosity and beauty? Does beauty provoke our curiosity in a very human way, making all kinds of suggestions about stories and asking questions about how the world is made, how it shifts and changes miraculously under our very feet? The doorway you see at the top of the blog is in Saskatoon, in a downtown back lane. It instantly reminded both Veronica and me of Mark Rothko's painting, though Veronica pointed out that, in contrast to my opening pronouncement that ill-made things are ugly, the door is beautiful because it's been so carelessly cobbled together. It's one of her photographs that captures the back doors of our lives. And like all her photographs, it provoked my curiosity as I wrote about it this week. The poem has no title yet, and it's certainly not finished.
One day she decides to paint over the words
seldom seen anyway,
studying the grain of the cheap plywood
and the words no longer true
as they slide under the paint brush, the colour
chosen by last year's tenant.
As the wood takes the blue paint,
the grain raises slightly
in whorls like watered silk
until it dries to dull cheapness.
She steps back to see if the words are gone,
lights a cigarette and stands in a rare
noontime stream of sunlight between the buildings
and checks her watch.
She's taken enough photos of city streets
to know you can't erase them,
though back lanes invite censorship and oblivion.
This is not eraser and text,
not camera and photoshop.
She thinks of the city's archeology in reverse, except
not in those words.
She thinks instead
of going down to the basement with her Uncle Mike
after her father no longer knew
what his tools were for.
Down among the smell of mice and terpentine,
she found the wood she needed while
her uncle claimed the router and the drill
along with a dusty unopened can of miracle
to cover formica countertops. Fresh! Yellow!
Tools still in the truck bed, he hammered
the length of unromantic plywood
over the sidelight some one used
to tart up (or redeem) the door. Security risk in a back lane
and camera shops are targets.
Rothko knew how little we need to make a door—
two or three interwoven colours
infused with one another that ask
where inside and outside begin. Harmonies
and discords that make a mood
with no name but that we pour over
An orange door frame
into a purple frame of mind with deeps of colour
infusing back into blank infinity.