My favorite poem of the year is a toss-up between Lao Tzu or this Ron Padgett gem, from his Collected Poems. It’s unfashionable to admit it, but I do own a television, two of them, in fact: one is our old 40″ that lives in our living room, so my boys can watch Daniel Tiger or whatever and leave me and their mother alone for half an hour so we can actually accomplish a simple task like a shower or dinner or just staring into a coffee cup for five minutes, and the other TV is a gigantic 4K monster that I went out and bought at Costco on a whim. It lives in our bedroom, connected to a $5 antenna, and it is beloved. Last night we lied in bed with bourbon and watched My Man Godfrey and Rockford Files and Star Trek and fell asleep. It was heavenly and I am unashamed to admit it.
The Dunning-Kruger effect, which seems to explain so much of our current moment, is paraphrased here by John Cleese: “The problem,” he says, with some people, “is that they are so stupid that they have no idea how stupid they are.”
You see, if you’re very, very stupid, how can you possibly realize that you’re very, very stupid? You’d have to be relatively intelligent to realize how stupid you are…. [Knowing] how good you are at something requires exactly the same skills as it does to be good at that thing in the first place. Which means—and this is terribly funny—that if you’re absolutely no good at something at all, then you lack exactly the skills that you need to know that you’re absolutely no good at it.
Or, here’s Charles Darwin, almost 150 years ago, in The Descent of Man:
[I]gnorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.
The terrifying thing is that we live in a world in which the most confident—confident, as in con(fidence) man—often weasel their way to the top. I’m not sure that this hasn’t always been the case for at least the past thousand years, some of my evidence coming from the Chinese poet Su Shi, aka Su Tung-Po (1037-1101) in one of my favorite poems, “On The Birth of a Son”:
Families when a child is born
Hope it will turn out intelligent.
I, through intelligence
Having wrecked my whole life,
Only hope that the baby will prove
Ignorant and stupid.
Then he’ll be happy all his days
And grow into a cabinet minister.
Hence, the above prayer, which was part of last summer’s art show: “Let them be smart, but not smart enough to know how dumb they are because then they are really screwed.” (At least when it comes to worldly suck-cess.)
Then again, here’s another prayer, one for decent human beings, who can be humble enough to learn and improve themselves, and just maybe, the world:
See also: You probably don’t deserve it
If you turn to the “first lines” index of many poetry collections, you can find bonus poems the poets probably never intended you to read.
I found this one in Bill Knott’s I Am Flying into Myself:
A short one from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson:
And the alphabetical end of Ron Padgett’s Collected Poems:
In this short Life that only lasts an hour
How much – how little – is within our power
Here’s the original, from the fantastic book, The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems:
Young artists are always being told to “find your voice.”
Whatever that means!
I’ve never heard anyone explain it better than Billy Collins at a White House poetry workshop. I couldn’t find the text anywhere, so I transcribed it below. (If you’ve read Steal Like An Artist, this might sound really familiar…)
Taken with my Iphone, doctored with the Brushes app, filtered with the
CameraBag app Tiltshift Generator App.
Think I might call these things de-signs.
A little experiment. Photo taken with my Iphone, altered with the iRetouch app, filtered with CameraBag.
The above snippet came from a Texas Monthly article on Texas songwriters I read on the plane this morning.
It reminded me of Ronald Johnson, in his introduction to radi os, a long poem made by erasing words from Milton’s Paradise Lost: “I composed the holes.” (Johnson was quoting a composer whose name I forget at the moment.)
Composing the holes. That’s what we do when we craft a piece of art, whether it’s drawing or making a blackout poem.
It’s often the holes in pieces of art that make them interesting. What isn’t shown vs. what is.
The same could be said of people. What makes them interesting isn’t just what they’ve experienced, but what they haven’t experienced.
Devoting yourself to something means shutting out other things.
When it comes to education, it’s not just the holes, but the order you fill them in. For instance, if you read the canon straight through, from Homer to McCarthy (or whoever), how original would the connections in your mind be? Better to start with one author you love, who speaks to you, and move in every direction, backwards, forwards, sideways…the juxtapositions you see and the connections you make in your brain will be more unique.
The same is true when you make art: you must embrace your limitations and keep moving.
Compose your holes.
(Written on my iPhone in the Houston airport.)