The art of being complete

A work of art lives always in the present

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In 1927 Charles Lindbergh flew nonstop from Long Island to Paris in just under 34 hours. This was less than two and a half decades after the Wright brothers made the first manned and motor-driven flight, which lasted a bit more than 12 seconds.

That kind of advancement in aeronautics burgeoned throughout the 20th century as airplanes were used for warfare, postal and cargo delivery, recreation, transportation of passengers from city to city as well as from continent to continent. This has always affirmed for me that aeronautical science, as well as every other science, is a work in progress. New inventions and technological discoveries invariably open new scientific frontiers in flight, surgery, telecommunications or architecture.

This is not the case with the arts. Every work of art is created complete, whether it be a poem, a song, a play, a painting or a sculpture. Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" was, is and always will be one of a kind -- a work pristine and inimitable. The same holds true for Michelangelo's David, Maurice Ravel's "Bolero" and Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken."

All of these were created just once in their entirety and endure in an eternal present because people who read, hear or see them find them unforgettable and return to them again and again. Always themselves in their original perfection, they outlive and continue to outlive the times and places of their creation.

This suggests to me that the essential difference between science and the arts is the difference between progress and perpetuity.

There is no question that most Americans prefer progress. Technology (applied science) serves multiple purposes and is always being updated. The new succeeds the old, and we Americans, as a matter of habit, opt for novelty. The arts offer something entirely different -- something made by head, heart and hand in perpetuity and beyond further improvement once completed.

Consider poetry. No matter who the author might be, a genuine poem stops us in our tracks, and we remember it because we simply can't forget it. Without such experiences in our lives we become historical creatures, even though something in us yearns for moments that will outlive the present. Poetry and the other arts are capable of giving us those moments.

Of course, much of what passes for poetry today in public life is not poetry at all. Mawkish Hallmark jingles are not poetry but sentimentality versified. And what appears in many magazines and journals, i.e., The New Yorker, Poetry and The Atlantic, under their current editors sounds as if the writers all went to the same clique-ish workshop. Their poems read like messages from pen pals to pen pals. There is strong dependence on typography while others who write solely out of ethnicity, race or gender create nothing but sociology without imagination.

The annual award juries, looking for another Ashbery or someone equally shallow and indecipherable, do nothing to correct the record. Similarly, poems written on demand, like those heard at recent presidential inaugurals, make us wonder who did the choosing, and why.

Another reason for poetry's being disregarded by the public at large is that many poets who say their poems in public do so as if the poem were just a page in the telephone directory. Ideally, poetry readings should actually be recitals. Poets who are totally dependent on their books at the rostrum are like actors who are still holding their scripts in their hands during a performance. The drama evaporates.

The printed poem can best be compared to sheet music, which does not become music until it's heard. Once a poet has committed his poems to memory and can recite them directly to the eyes of his listeners -- only then does the poem come to life.

Ezra Pound once said (correctly) that all poetry is contemporary, and this is true since poetry's subject matter is whatever is timeless in the human heart and spirit. Good poems are available in libraries and public bookstores and even on the air, thanks to Garrison Keillor's "Almanack." To its great credit, this very newspaper for two decades has prominently published a weekly poem on its Saturday op-ed page.

In other words, poems are there for the reading or listening if we take the time to read or listen. But we don't. Almost all that we read or hear daily is prose -- advertising, government or legal jargon, newspaper and magazine writing, gossip and the like. Most of it is eminently forgettable. If you doubt that, try to think of a single phrase or statement you have read or heard over the last two days that you cannot forget.

As I've said, poetic moments, whether they appear in a formal poem or not, cannot be forgotten even if we wish it otherwise. They are indelible.

I remember listening to the late James Gandolfini interviewing the mother of an army officer who was killed by a sniper in Iraq. She received his last letter postmarked on the day he died. She told Gandolfini that she read it often, then added that every time she returned it to its envelope, she slowly licked it shut so that her tongue could taste her son in the last thing he ever touched.

In a totally different mood was a statement by a boy of 6 or 7 who was bouncing a rubber ball in front of his father and saying, "Look, Dad, I'm making the ball happy."

Or there was a little girl who "mistakenly" called a napkin a "lapkin."

Or it could be those memorable lines from Yeats' "The Second Coming" that bared the essence of the Irish rebellion or "troubles" a century ago and resonate equally if applied to the constitutional damage done to our own country from 2001 to the present:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world ...

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Those who live exclusively by the clock and calendar rarely make time for poetic moments that help us define and transcend our circumstances. Poetry and the other arts offer this gratis in perpetuity. If we open ourselves to them, we will be rewarded tenfold and share in the everlasting now that is art. We will find ourselves living with ongoing presences. And ongoing presences have no past tense.


Samuel Hazo is McAnulty Distinguished Professor of English emeritus at Duquesne University and director of the International Poetry Forum ( His most recent books are"Like a Man Gone Mad: Poems in a New Century" and a novel entitled "The Time Remaining." First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM


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