Odal Cycles: Notes on Keats Odes Pt. 2

Another kind of subsistent cycle visible in the Odes adumbrates an unconventional approach to the odal form itself. The ode, as an established literary genre, is distinguished by a generalized celebratory sense/sensibility; that what an ode assumes as its subject has been chosen for a perceived glory or expansiveness inherent in its being-in-the-world, individualized against all else. The manner in which Keats slants this literary genre creates its own, steady-within-irregularity cycle— from ode to ode, we see the way Keats undermines the conventional processes of apostrophe and assignation, sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly. The most unconventional ode, which chafes against its own generic formality with an intense degree of force and discomfort, seems to be Nightingale. Here, the celebratory is inverted into the elegiac; and while Keats’ apostrophes and assignations do celebrate (in a manner of speaking) the happy, “full-throated” freedom of the nightingale’s passages set against his own sickness, isolation, and leaden-eyed despairs, the circle (closed at the poem’s conclusion) of all-encompassing subjective interest, awareness, and stalemated preoccupation girds around him the exclusion of what negatively capable thoughts and motives he could possibly have. The cycle of unpredictability and disregard for generic convention moves with a sharp sense of willful, dark-toned imaginative imposition through the Odes as a definitive thread— that autumn and melancholy are worthy to be celebrated, as are inanimate objects (works of art/utility tools) and “heathen goddesses” from antique cultures. The incredible, well-rounded richness and variable tonal qualities of Keats’ prosody are another thread, which established the Odes’ absolute legitimacy, past their strangeness, odd, stray angles of thematic approach, and contradictory answer to classical voices.  


Odal Cycles: Notes on Keats' Odes Pt.1

Keats’ Odes encompass cycles and cycles within cycles; they are a literary meta-monument par excellence. The most overt cyclical energy I’ve spotted in the Odes subsists between “Grecian Urn,” “Psyche,” and “Nightingale.” That Psyche and Grecian Urn set setting something in place to be reified— a cohesive gestalt vision of visions, and a blazon of the visionary as an emanation from the chiasmus between sense, tactility, and imagination— which is parodied, deconstructed and supplanted by subjective necessity against negative capability in Nightingale, is the basic premise. What is “doubled” between Grecian Urn and Psyche is profound— the visionary synecdoche, of young lovers frozen into immobility in a forest, appears to Keats on the Grecian Urn itself, and then magically manifests before his eyes as Eros and Psyche, embodied physically in three dimensions as Keats strolls through an actual forest in Psyche; that Psyche, owing to her position in classical lore, constitutes the literal apotheosis of Daphne and Syrinx in Grecian Urn; that all these processes of recognition and assimilation had to evince an (odal) sense of the celebratory; and that what becomes tactile, as Grecian Urn leads to Psyche, is another recognition, that liminal states and modes of being, “half” modes, usually situated between sleep-states and wakefulness, are necessary to the cultivation of the visionary, and visionary happiness, in such a way that the poet himself disappears into a liminal trance to channel the rough tactile materials of his trade into sufficiently honed, “quiet” (or murmurous) forms.

In short, Grecian Urn up to Psyche establish a self-enclosed, self-contained system— a system both of artistic representation and of self-awareness, poetic and otherwise, around representational processes in general. The manner in which Nightingale talks back to the two Odes constitutes both a (partial) critique and a (partial) denial— by beginning Nightingale with an apostrophe to himself, and his own vulnerability, this version of odal protagonist adumbrates the limitations of the established odal system and cycle— that the happiness of self-transcendence and liminal states of consciousness cannot always be achieved; that the tactility of things can be torturous as well as ecstatic; that the entire applied odal method, in fact, exaggerates what is inherently (partially) banal in tactility and liminal states of consciousness; and that exercising a “purple-stained mouth” perpetuates its own cycle of unrealistic expectations and weakly-strung nerves. Just as Psyche’s casement opens on love and refreshment, Nightingale’s opens on perilous seas and forlorn realms; Psyche’s forest is viewed in broad daylight, Nightingale’s in confining, “embalmed” darkness; the “heathen goddess” becomes an indifferent (immortal) animal; and the totalized purview of the visionary is revealed as an “easeful Death.” Even synesthesia, Keats’ accustomed manner of deranging and re-configuring the tactile, has its disasters— the “shadowy sounds” of the forest reinforce the protagonist’s isolation, melodious plots of greenery extend past his reach, sight and hearing do a dance more irritating than not. Because Nightingale closes and rounds out the relevant odal trio, the meta-commentary and meta-critique enact an inquiry with, as is typical with Keats, a sense of half-determinate conclusions.  


Notes on Rubens' "Prometheus Bound" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Pt. 2

That the Rubens in question hangs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is serendipitous— that the Philadelphia Museum of Art is what it is, is serendipitous too. Why it has to be that the PMA is a half-buried treasure— the American press corps has no allegiance to/with major high art consonance, or to/with telling the truth about what/where the real centers of power are in America— is the same reason that the Philly Free School, at this stage of its infancy in ’14, also must remain a half-buried treasure. Nevertheless, a solid argument could be made that (the Met in NYC notwithstanding), even before PFS, the PMA made Philadelphia, for major high art consonance, securely the capitol of the United States (and the Rodin Museum, situated in the same neighborhood, enhances this impression). The United States, like the Philadelphia it encompasses, abounds in mysteries and inversions, and is not nearly as cohesively simple-minded as century XX Europe would have us believe. The PMA, especially after PFS, encapsulates its own mystery— that it subsists as a self-contained, self-sufficient aesthetic ecosystem (the middling shows which pass through it accounted for) make an implicit argument for depth, complexity, and historical awareness as indigenously included in the American “package deal.” Abby Heller-Burnham, particularly, grew into her genius from this soil: first Philadelphia’s, then America’s.

The gist argument here is that latent in the United States has always been a certain amount of secret depth, from which could possibly grow the kind and manner of art solidly constructed enough to forge a new, historically aware, aesthetically rich America. If, within a volatile cultural context, a site for this development were to be chosen, the most considered choice, owing to the PMA and for other structural reasons, would have to be Philadelphia rather than New York, once other contenders were whittled out. By letting “Prometheus” occupy an entire wall in the European Art wing, the PMA has unwittingly consolidated and highlighted the struggle any cache of American artists would have to face, to create and sustain an indigenous vision of major high art consonance from within the continental United States. From corrupt, rotten to the core institutions and government art-funding organizations, to a comically banal, vapid press corps; and a society specifically structured (against the ostensible, barely acknowledged in practice American grain) against cohesive individualism and the pursuit of material backing for individual endeavors, especially cultural endeavors meant to encompass/assimilate significant expanses of world cultural history, favoring European history specifically. This vantage point undermines the amorphous, undercooked foundations of American art at any given present moment. Owing to the PMA, it is important to note that there is a Philadelphia conspiracy behind PFS, a subtle current working in our favor from the beginning; just as Rubens “Prometheus,” out of his own nobility and capacity for self-sacrifice, generates a current which allows us to sympathize with his plight and inverse crucifixion, and encouraging us to scrutinize to what degree our motivations are as pure as his.

The way I configure the Philadelphia conspiracy behind PFS, the school where Abby and Mary pursued their art certificates— the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA)— does not figure into the equation. Conversely, and oddly enough the buildings which constitute the PAFA campus in Center City do— their Old European elegance, solidity, and dignity created a space in the two painters for personal elegance, dignity, and solidity to enter.


Notes on Rubens' "Prometheus Bound" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Pt. 1

Rubens’ Prometheus, which hangs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, operates from 2014 on a number of different levels which would not necessarily have been operative in 2004, 1994, etc. The subjective overlay I impose upon the painting— what myself and my cohorts initiated from (as it were) Philadelphia (and Chicago and London) in the Aughts— a monstrous push behind major high art consonance, against the confounding tides of contrived, instrumentally formed and manipulated post-modern mediocrity— is difficult to transcend or even elide, standing in different spaces in the PMA European Art room where this piece is prominently featured. This surfeit of subjective awareness develops for me into a kind of pleasing pain, or a redemptive ache.

Most serious onlookers would note— reproductions of this are not going to hang in anyone’s living room, or in a doctor’s office. Despite its heroic grandeur, this Rubens also has a hinge to both ugliness and awkwardness. The composition, though even, and the semi-absurd head over heels posture in which Rubens freezes Prometheus, make a bold statement that, to enlarge a Keatsian Romantic conception, the beauty in this rendering of Prometheus and his core narrative myth is in the truthful representation of his agony.

From different available vantage points, the wingspan of the bird picking at Prometheus’ liver makes a statement, a gross and frank one simultaneously, about, not exactly man’s inhumanity to man (sort of), but about the putridity of inhuman and inhumane forces impinging upon human (or, granting Prometheus’ mythological status, super-human) life unnecessarily, muddying the collective wells, eroding the foundations of what has been erected purely. The livid, genuine disgust/revulsion of/at that wingspan, is balanced by the comfort of knowing that Rubens has made that disgust/revulsion ring down the ages in a major high art consonant context— in other words, has left the complexities in to be themselves. The inversion of the wingspan is the blood sacrifice of Prometheus himself; a sacrifice decided upon from pure, genuine, generous motivations; yet valor in the human world must always be contradicted and sometimes supplanted by humanity’s lecherous self-interest and conservation of systems of subjugation and arbitrary reward. 


I Fear (from "I Will Out")

                                                                To center this body, which
cries out its tenderness no
matter how lean, muscled,
is to be set against any
state but ultimate self-
interest, against
consummating agents
towards portals beyond—

I fear this human life
more than I fear
physical death: bereavement
of vulnerable flesh,
the mendicant’s humbleness,
accruing the cripple’s
wisdom, scorned by
those still snug on
the material swing, still “in”
the crass way round—

I do fear, because the human
race are largely a pestilence,
& the bits of light here &
there are so easily,
rapaciously put out,
with/by material, in
material, & in another,
other mode of fear against this—

happy 4th