I know, I know — theoretically, we all love, love, love poetry! We love it so much, in fact, that we never read it! Or am I judging everyone by myself (I think psychologists call this phenomenon “projection”!). I pretty much skip reviews of modern poetry collections and become positively indignant when the NY Times Book Review devotes an entire issue (once a year, I believe) to poetry; I immediately click away to something else if my internet journey takes me, by mistake, to a poetry site, and yet ….. it wasn’t always so. When I was a kid, I loved poetry, read tons of it and can still recite bits and pieces of my favorites by heart. I even composed quite a bit of bad poetry myself, teenagey angst-filled stuff handwritten in a grubby little notebook, which was thankfully lost in one of my many moves (there were some advantages to living in a pre-computer age — no backup files!). Admittedly, my taste (not to mention my work product) was pretty pedestrian but it was heartfelt; poetry meant something to me and I thought it should matter to everyone else. But then, in my mid-twenties, I just stopped reading and (thankfully) writing the stuff.
I think several factors led me away from poetry. Foremost, as it usually is, was “life itself” — things got busy, there were jobs and husbands to get and lose, journeys to take and places to visit, degrees to earn — well, I’m sure you get the picture. As I got older, I took to reading different kinds of literature, switching from non-fiction and poetry to a heavy diet of contemporary and classical fiction. Then, most poetry is hard; it needs to be read with care and attention (no skimming!), with the meaning slowly teased out over time and from repeated readings; quite simply, I think I just didn’t have the intellectual energy to deal with it. Last, but far from least, when I tried venturing back into poetry at various points over the years, it seemed as though poetry had moved on and that contemporary poets were writing in a language I literally didn’t understand and didn’t much like.
So — where do I stand now vis à vis this oldest of all the arts? In the last few years, I have begun to realize how much poorer my reading life is without at least a little poetry in it. Very, very tentatively I’ve returned to reading a few old favorites and I’ve actually dipped a toe into modern waters and tried the work of a few new poets (Jane Hirshfield is a favorite. If things aren’t going quite your way, try her “Three-Legged Blues.” If that doesn’t give you a little perspective on the doldrums, you probably need some serious professional help). I pay at least token homage to poetry: every April, I buy a book of poetry; I still give shelf space to the remnants of my poetry collection and I keep a skinny little file of poems that catch my eye now and again. And, this year, I’m writing this blog post! For ideas far more creative than mine on how to make your life a little more poetic, check out these suggestions from the Academy of American Poets.
Are there any other former poetry addicts out there who’ve gone cold turkey, in a way similar to me? Or better yet, or there any avid poetry readers who’d share their thoughts on what poetry means to you or how you’ve incorporated poetry into your life?
A few years ago, whenever I took even very short road trips, I began to make a point of checking out whatever art museum, historical house or major monument happened to be in my vicinity. I can’t tell you how much fun it is to do this — it’s like a treasure hunt, with something gorgeous to look at or a fascinating bit of history to learn being the treasure. And — it’s easy to do! Going to see the relatives for Christmas and driving through Florida? Don’t miss the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum at Winter Park, which has the most comprehensive collection of Tiffany glass in the WORLD! (and there’s a great Middle Eastern restaurant a block away, where you can have lunch afterwards!) Traveling to or near Pittsburgh? You owe it to yourself to detour for at least a few hours to the Carnegie Museum of Art, whose collection includes paintings by James Whistler, Mary Cassatt and Winslow Homer. Did you know that the great Impressionist painter Paul Degas had family connections in New Orleans? If you’re lucky enough to visit that charming city, take a break from the French Quarter and visit the city’s art museum, located in the middle of a vast urban park (bigger than Central Park in NYC), which includes among its holdings Degas’ portrait of his sister-in-law, painted during his 1872 visit to the city. Do you find yourself near Montgomery, Alabama? Don’t miss the chance to visit the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Center and accompanying monument, which was designed by Maya Lin (perhaps better known for her Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.) and lists the names of those murdered in the struggle for equality.
It’s easy to forget that the smaller museums often provide a wonderful experience that larger collections often do not: they allow you to view an entire collection in a reasonable amount of time without being overwhelmed by physical or mental fatigue, they frequently have overlooked gems and/or reflect their founders’ personality in interesting ways, and they are often located in wonderful buildings that are worth seeing just for themselves, regardless of the art they contain (check out, for example, the beautiful Palladian building housing St. Petersburg, Florida’s Museum of Fine Arts, located adjacent to Tampa Bay). Google, as always, is helpful in locating these treasures or, for the more traditionally minded, guides are available; here are two good ones that I’ve used fairly often:
Last week I was very excited to add a new gem to “my collection” of small art museums when I visited Oberlin, Ohio. Unlike my previous treasure hunts, in which the museum was an incidental discovery on my way to somewhere else, this time around the museum itself was a destination. As I have no doubt mentioned at least several million times over the brief life of this blog, I’m currently spending a lot of time, not to mention energy, in researching (and hopefully writing — that comes next!) a paper on Sofonisba Anguissola, one of those (very) rare female artists who lived and worked in 16th century Italy and Spain. As I’ve been able to discover only a few of Sofonisba’s paintings in the United States, you can imagine my excitement in February when I discovered that Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum has one! Last weekend I was finally able to see it for myself and it did not disappoint:
Aside from Sofonisba’s painting, the museum has a small but wonderful collection of ancient, Asian and European art. The latter includes works by Cezanne, Monet (two paintings), Rubens, Jan Steen, Chagall, Matisse, Modigliani, Courbet and more! Admission is free, the staff is friendly and the interior of the building is as gorgeous as the exterior. Moreover, although the museum is clearly well-attended, there’s space and quiet to enjoy the art even on a relatively busy Saturday afternoon. Believe me, dear readers, it doesn’t get much better than this:
When you’ve finished with the museum (or before, preferences vary!) you can spend a pleasant few hours wandering around Oberlin, which is a great little college town with some remarkable attributes. Oberlin was founded in the 1830s by a couple of visionaries who combined spiritual aspirations and high ideals with ascetic notions about work and lifestyle (the founding “covenant” of “Oberlin Colony” expressly forbade its residents to indulge in alcohol or a rich diet!) The idealism bore fruit in the 1850s, when Oberlin was known as a hotbed of the radical abolitionist movement. It was also a key juncture on the underground railroad, that network of secret routes and safe houses operated by abolitionists and their allies who (at great risk to themselves) smuggled desperate fugitives escaping from the slave states to the north and freedom. Did you know that Oberlin College (then known as the Oberlin Collegiate Institute) admitted African American students from its beginnings in the 1830s and allowed women to matriculate as “regular” students as early as 1837?
Another thing that makes a morning wandering around Oberlin so enjoyable is that the college itself is almost an outdoor architectural museum, containing as it does some remarkable examples of late 19th and early 20th century buildings designed by the leading architects of their time.
Oberlin’s architectural jewels extend from high Victorian structures to an early Frank Lloyd Wright house; the latter, at one time a private residence, is now part of the Allen Memorial Museum.
Finally, Oberlin has many of the best features of a traditional college town:
A highly individual bookstore (actually, I saw two. Oberlin Books, however, seems more oriented towards textbooks) ….
Some interesting (albeit limited) retail shopping ….
… and FOOD! Oberlin has several interesting eateries; in my limited amount of time I had to limit myself to only two …..
In short, if you’re ever close to northern Ohio (Cleveland is the region’s “big” city) don’t pass up a chance to visit Oberlin!
Yes, dear reader, I know what you’re thinking — enough already with the bad alliteration! But you know, sometimes I just can’thelp myself — it’s like a little demon is sitting on my shoulder, urging me on! So how could I possibly resist? I will be the first to admit that, sometimes, I really, really need to (resist, that is), but if we were good all the time, well — we’d be pretty dull, wouldn’t we? And, besides, I couldn’t think of anything else to call this post!
My last few posts have included, but not been centered on, books, which is odd, because I read all the time (well, most of the time. When I was a kid, I did read all the time). Reading a book, however, is not quite the same as writing about a book; for one thing, it’s a lot more fun (although I do enjoy discussing what I’ve read). The problem, however, is that so much of my reading these days is required, which definitely changes how I approach a book. For instance, I absolutely adore Middlemarch, which I regard as the second greatest novel in English (the first being, with apologies to any ichthyophobes, Moby Dick! What’s a blog for, if not to voice your opinions?) but knowing that I have to read a hundred odd pages by next Wednesday does detract a bit from the pleasure of the experience! Also, I’m reading so much non-fiction these days for my research paper — Renaissance this, Baroque that; visions of whatever in the art of so and so — very interesting stuff, to be sure, but so serious! Do art historians never laugh? All this required reading was giving me the megrims, as Georgette Hyer might have said (another of my favorite writers, BTW, as much a genius in her own way as George Eliot. If you haven’t read Heyer yet, stop immediately, right now, run out and buy one of her books) so I decided to take a much needed break from Victorian England and Renaissance Italy and head for deliciously decadent Vienna — the city of Gustav Klimt! Alma Mahler, Bride of the Wind (and of about five other guys)! Sigmund Freud! Mayerling, Crown Prince Rudolph and Maria Vetsera! Egon Schiele!
In other words, I went for a brief but very pleasurable visit to the Neue Galerie, one of the most wonderful museums in the city of New York City. The Neue Galerie isn’t a comprehensive museum like the Metropolitan or Washington’s National Gallery; it’s focused, rather, on German and Austrian art from the early 20th century and is the brainchild of Ronald Lauder, son of Estee and heir to her great cosmetic fortune (it makes me very happy to think that all my eye shadow purchases may have inadvertently contributed just a teeny bit to the enormous amount of lolly it took to purchase this artwork!). Have any of you visited the Neue Galerie? If so, please share your experience; I’m such a fan of this place that it’s impossible for me to give an unbiased judgment, so I’d welcome someone else’s reflections. Although I’d gladly visit any time (the truly great cafe with its authentic Viennese pastries is in itself quite a draw), the specific lure this time around was the Galerie’s exhibition on “The Self-Portrait, from Schiele to Beckman.” Before going there, however, the museum itself deserves some visuals, as the building itself is a work of art.
The exterior retains its original appearance of an Upper East Side brownstone dating from 1914, transformed with great skill to house a stunning collection of paintings, sculpture and decorative art from the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop), which worked in a sort of Austrian version of art nouveau:
I will try to limit myself to only a few images of the interior. It’s difficult, for as you can see the space is gorgeous:
No matter what specific exhibition draws me to the museum, I always pay homage to the museum’s show stopper, Gustav Klimt’s 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer:
Aside from its undoubted greatness as a work of art, the painting’s history makes it even more special. Because the Bloch-Bauer family were Jewish, their fabulous art collection (including this painting) was stolen by Nazis in the 1930s. Did you notice Adele’s necklace? It, too, was stolen and eventually “presented” to the Nazi general Herman Goering as a gift for his wife. After the war, the Austrian government refused to return the Bloch-Bauers’ paintings to Adele’s surviving heirs (many of her relatives and friends perished in the camps). The ensuing legal battle went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and resulted in a landmark ruling in the area of reparations for stolen art works (spoiler alert: the family won). Anyway, if you’re interested, you can read all about it in this very good book or …..
…what’s even more fun, watch this possibly not great but very entertaining movie (worth it, just to see Helen Mirren in top form!):
For those of an historical bent, Frederick Morton provides a thorough and very readable account of a fascinating time and place, ominously ending his history of late 19th century Vienna with the birth of Frau Klara Hitler’s son, little Adolf.
But — I digress! Back to the museum and its very, very good bookstore (after all, this is a bookish blog!):
Despite my best intentions, I don’t read a lot of literature in translation and many German and eastern European writers are not familiar to me. As a result, when I browse here I usually find wonderful things that I didn’t previously know about; on a previous visit, for example, I discovered the great Joseph Roth and his Radezky March (keep this wonderful novel in mind if you need a European classic in any future reading challenges!):
This time around, my haul consisted of two shorter works, both by Stefan Zweig and published by the Pushkin Press (Zweig by the way was only one of the many writers and artists who frequented Adele Bloch-Bauer’s literary salons):
And you might ask, if you haven’t forgotten it by now, what about the exhibition itself? Although I seldom read autobiographies, I’m very interested in self-portraits, which I consider a type of visual equivalent. I love to see how an artist chooses to represent herself (and by this time there are at least one or two “herselves”) and the elements she uses to construct the identity presented to the viewer. This particular exhibition was both fascinating and troubling; many of these artists were Jewish, they all lived in troubled times; you know what’s coming and the art frequently makes you suspect that they did so as well. I particularly liked the following paintings:
To end on a positive note, I turn to one of my very favorite subjects — food! The Neue Galerie’s Café Sabarsky is modeled on the Viennese cafes that were a center of the city’s intellectual life. Beautiful period furnishings and great food — no better way to end a visit!
If you, dear reader, are even remotely like myself, you are always searching for something, whether it’s the meaning of life or the location of the laundry detergent! These days, perhaps because of the weather (will winter never just leave and go back to the arctic where it belongs?), I’m particularly restless, with a number of moderately intense searches going on. For instance:
I am …..desperately searching for spring!
…. contentedly searching for completion!
…. optmistically searching for a topic for my research project!
…. relunctantly seeking domestic order!
…. stoically searching for closure!
…. delusionally searching for physical fitness!
…. happily seeking harmonious sounds!
And you, dear reader — what are YOU searching for, in these days before the official arrival of spring?