Keats and Shklovsky at the zoo

It was a windy day in Honolulu, but I stilled the air by shooting at 1/2000 second. In my hands, a camera’s mechanism recorded an image of whipping fronds immobilized and fixed to an image plane. That record now presents you the option of glancing at the plane, closing your eyes, and no longer seeing the imaged trees but experiencing them as optical illusion and as thought. A bug in the thinking part, however, is that in this instance the mind you think with happens to be vacationing in a tourist economy. Because people were paying to see these palms and these clouds long before you arrived on your own ticket, your own first view of them wasn’t really first and your belief in what you saw on first impression was an oversight. Whatever followed for you from that, whatever idea of palm, was aborted by irony before it had a chance to communicate. Did a Norton Anthology of Poetry word such as tresses recall itself to your memory, for instance? Sorry, that won’t work now. Your memory has already been polluted by poems and shampoo commercials, and the only honest reading of tresses will be a flatfooted dumbing-back-down to trees.

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And it won’t even be your own unique dumbing-down. After all, every Saturday of every year along the fence around the Honolulu Zoo, artists sell pictures to tourists of what tourists have come to Honolulu to see: viz., palm trees. The artists call the pictures “real oil paintings,” and the only thing false about that claim is the plural marker at the end of paintings. In reality, of course, there is only one painting, repainted weekly by different painters. Its vacationing buyers buy it as a visual mnemonic, to remind them that once in the presence of a palm they experienced the miracle of first. But a mass-produced memory (the industrial term is souvenir) is perennial: experienced in community, like language, and expressible, like language, only through symbols (paint marks; words) that preexist it. How can it be reconciled with first?

John Keats’s solution was to assimilate first by simile into the continuum of beginnings across time. When Keats’s Cortez stared for the first time at the Pacific Ocean, he was on the brink of realizing that first can also, wonderfully! be all along (like the ocean) and, an instant afterward, forever (like the ocean) — and I (says Keats) felt a moment ago, in the presence of Homer, as Cortez once, for the first time, felt, and thenceforth began to feel forever. I can never feel that way again; I can never not feel that way again.

But the left side of my own composition is palmless.

In the tourist economy, the palms in my composition are also compositions: plantings at a shopping center. If I were to post their picture uncropped, you’d see that at their base is a gas station and to their right is a Starbuck’s. But, per Viktor Shklovsky, who said, “Art is the way of experiencing artfulness,” I cropped. Out of negative space I carved a diptych of trees and, on the other hand, sky. Then, for good measure, I modified my image’s pixels with controls bearing such names as Vibrance / saturation and Graduated neutral density filter. If that manipulation was aesthetically productive, you may have experienced a catch in the throat which you took to be a consequence of tropical light. But if the catch did come, it came as an aftermath of something planned and deliberate and related to the photomechanically produced surface of the picture, not the living palm.

Because you know now that you’ve known that truth all along, you’ll never again be able to experience the peak in Darien in silence. You’ll have to recognize that a camera and a computer have been up there with you all along. You might as well climb back down to sea level. On the other hand, down there you might as well also stop looking for trees in the painting you bought at the zoo and start looking for oil. But that too, it will turn out, has been there all along, and this all along will be seen to be all to the good.

A real oil painting: the picture has always told you that truth about itself. To the veteran wildcatter Viktor Shklovsky, I dare say, whatever is within its frame looks like a real gusher. His investment advice will be to see the picture’s paint as paint and let it make you wealthy in oil’s own way.

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Dogmatic note: Shklovsky’s epigram from “Art as Technique” is usually translated as “Art is a way of experiencing artfulness.” But Shklovsky wrote in Russian, a language without direct equivalents to the English words a and the, and I’ve taken that as my warrant for preferring the.

News from the twentieth century: topless is fine as long as you aren’t Allen Ginsberg

It also helps not to be unwhite.

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For several days after this story broke, the reading was front-page news in the Star. The Star’s analysis two days later (March 4, pages 1 and 4) explained:

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In all that time, the poet’s name never sullied the whiteness of the Star’s newsprint. On March 11, page 21, a reader complained:

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Ginsberg’s own record of the event is the poem “Auto Poesy: On the Lam from Bloomington,” collected in his 1972 City Lights volume The Fall of America: Poems of These States 1965-1971. It mentions the “tower walls” of the Eli Lilly & Co. plant in Greenfield where I read the Star’s coverage in a break room,

and figured out the poet’s name,

and came with a sinking feeling to the realization that I was the only person in the complex who would know or care. About that, a line from Hart Crane’s The Bridge may have the grammatical distinction of being the only factually incorrect imperative ever written:

Come back to Indiana — not too late!

It is not possible to set foot too late in Indiana.

 

 

Hart Crane’s Skygak

A strange word in Cape Hatteras, section IV of The Bridge, is Skygak:

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I’m not up on the Crane scholarship and I’m sure somebody may have footnoted the word, but if the footnote exists I haven’t come across it, in Langdon Hammer’s annotated Library of America edition or anywhere else. So with apologies for any redundancy:

Mr. Skygack, from Mars (yes, with the C) was a single-panel American comic strip by A. D. Condo which was syndicated between 1907 and 1917. In each episode, the title character observes human beings doing human things and takes notes, writing from a Martian point of view. The comic alienation-effect works much as it does in Craig Raine’s “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home.” Here, for instance, Mr. Skygack encounters Hart himself on July 10, 1916, celebrating his seventeenth birthday three weeks early.

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Sources:

Hart Crane: Complete Poems and Selected Letters, ed. Langdon Hammer. Library of America, 2006.

Ron Miller, “Was Mr. Skygack the First Alien Character in Comics?” https://io9.gizmodo.com/was-mr-skygack-the-first-alien-character-in-comics-453576089

Selected Mr. Skygack strips, including the one copied above, are at http://www.barnaclepress.com/comic/Mr.%20Skygack%20From%20Mars/.