Tuesday, January 30, 2007

DIFFERENT STROKES (by Peter Schjeldahl, the New Yorker)

Van Gogh and Gauguin in Arles.
Issue of 2007-02-05
Posted 2007-01-29

Vincent van Gogh’s favorite color was yellow; Paul Gauguin’s was red. It was not a trivial difference. It pertains to the clashing, deeply complementary temperaments of two painters whose idiosyncrasies, inseparable from their talents and ideas, became keynotes of modern art and templates of artistic personality. Little about either man fails to fascinate. Both came late to art: Gauguin, the elder by five years, after fitful success as a sailor, financial trader, and family man—he met Impressionist painters first as a collector of their work, then as a protégé—and van Gogh after failures as an art dealer’s assistant and a Protestant preacher. Gauguin was short but carried himself with a swagger. Van Gogh was termed by an observer “a rather weedy little man.” Van Gogh admired Gauguin. That made two of them. While he liked van Gogh’s work well enough, Gauguin’s self-centered ambition made any appreciation of colleagues somewhat perfunctory. Van Gogh was an enthusiast for many kinds of art, including Barbizon landscape and a good deal of saloniste academic painting. He disliked, as “almost timid,” the tight little brushstrokes of the era’s most advanced painter, Paul Cézanne. Gauguin’s taste was trendy, with penchants for the medieval and the exotic. He swore by Cézanne. Both van Gogh and Gauguin revered Edgar Degas and—van Gogh, especially—Japanese art. Van Gogh painted almost exclusively from life; Gauguin favored imagination. Van Gogh was innocent and disturbed, Gauguin savvy and louche. In October of 1888, Gauguin left the art colony of Pont-Aven, in Brittany, where he was the leading light, to stay in isolation with van Gogh in the humdrum town of Arles, in Provence. It was a dramatic sojourn.

“The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles” (Little, Brown; $24.99), by Martin Gayford, the chief art critic of Bloomberg Europe, is a skillfully ordered collection of informative and entertaining nuggets of intellectual and personal biography. The book’s subtitle, however, is over the top. I count just two really turbulent nights in the story, and a few sticky days. Weeks passed in uneventful amity, or at least forbearance. The climax is sensational, of course: van Gogh razors off all or part of his left ear (the forensic detail is lost to history) and ceremoniously presents it to a prostitute named Rachel. She faints. He is hospitalized. Gauguin flees. The peculiar horror of the episode, in tension with the majesty of van Gogh’s art at the time, has made it irresistibly mythological. As a symbol of a supposed kinship of genius and madness, it resonates backward in time to the Greeks and forward to the thoughts of anyone who has wondered at the vagaries of creativity. In an extended anticlimax, Gayford hazards ingenious speculations about van Gogh’s febrile thought process (why an ear?) and proposes, for what it’s worth, a likely clinical diagnosis: bipolar affective disorder. But, in the way of myth, the event’s operative meanings exceed analysis and spurn explanation. They have a life of their own, like art.

“A time will come when people will think I am a myth, or rather something the newspapers have made up,” Gauguin wrote in 1897, in a letter from Tahiti. He was a driven self-inventor, ever conscious of his theatrical effect. Born in Paris, he spent his childhood in Lima, Peru, where his mother had family, and in Orléans, France. He went to sea in 1865, at the age of seventeen, and spent six years in the French merchant marine and Navy. Alighting in Paris, he took undemanding, lucrative jobs in finance, and married a Danish woman, Mette Sophie Gad, whom he bullied psychologically and, perhaps, physically. They had five children. Drawing and carving were hobbies for him. He began to buy art, first by Camille Pissarro and then by other Impressionists and Cézanne. The gentle anarchist Pissarro took an interest in the newcomer and effectively guided him for several years. (He eventually turned against him as a careerist.) Édouard Manet and Degas encouraged Gauguin to pursue his work, and, with little academic training, he became the first major artist formed in the ambit of what was not yet called the avant-garde.

After a stock-market crash in 1882, Gauguin launched himself as a painter. The family moved to Copenhagen, where Mette threw him out. Back in France, he became a leader in reactions against both Impressionism and naturalism, promoting symbolic expression and, in a prescient word he often used, “abstraction.” Amid the motley bohemian artists of Pont-Aven, he was influenced by the bold innovations, with black-outlined flat hues, of a much younger painter and theorist, Émile Bernard, who was a friend of van Gogh and, crucially, of his younger brother, the adventurous Paris dealer Theo van Gogh. Gauguin promptly trumped Bernard’s art with a painting made in the summer of 1888, “The Vision After the Sermon,” which charged their common style with sulfurous content: a man wrestles with an angel, watched by solemn Breton women. He then proceeded to make the most of Bernard’s connection with the van Gogh brothers.

Van Gogh was born in 1853, in Zundert, in the Netherlands, the son of a cultured clergyman and a mother who seems to have despaired of him. (She stored some of his works, and forgot about them.) He grew up religious and hypersensitive, a difficult companion and chronically maladroit in everyday matters. For seven years, from the age of sixteen, he worked for an international art firm in The Hague, London, and Paris, where he was fired for lack of initiative. He was briefly a schoolteacher in England. Rejected in attempts at romance, he had doomed affairs with demimondaines; for a time, he lived with a Dutch prostitute who had two children, gaining a taste of domestic happiness that haunted him ever after. Van Gogh came to rely on prostitutes—“little good women,” in his words—but he advised Bernard in a letter, “Don’t fuck too much. Your paintings will be all the more spermatic.” He became a lay preacher to miners in a desolate part of Belgium but was dismissed for overzealousness and general oddity. (“Children threw things at him as he walked down the street,” Gayford recounts; van Gogh suffered similar harassment in Arles.) As he gave himself over to painting, at the age of twenty-six, he invested his faltering religious faith in literature. Gayford writes, “In Vincent’s mind, modern novels, with their close descriptions of modern life, love, suffering and labor, were more than a substitute for the Bible—they were its successor. He felt that Christ himself would agree with him on that point.” He experienced the characters and events in Zola and Flaubert as virtual realities. (He wrote to Theo that a family friend reminded him of “the first Mrs. Bovary,” who barely appears in the novel.) He read Dickens and George Eliot in English. He was a luminous writer himself, in his letters, with flashes of rueful clarity about his mental condition: “I have moments when I am twisted with enthusiasm or madness or prophecy, like a Greek oracle on his tripod.”

Starting in 1886, van Gogh spent two years in Paris, living with Theo—to the latter’s exasperation and anguish. “All I hope is that he will go and live by himself, and he has talked about this for a long time, but if I told him to leave that would only give him a reason to stay on,” Theo wrote. “It appears as if there are two different beings in him, the one marvelously gifted, fine and delicate, the other selfish and heartless.” (In van Gogh’s final months, his mother wished for an end to the family’s burden, praying, she wrote to Theo, “Take him, Lord.”) At times funny and charming, and admiring of friends, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh taxed his fellows in the art world by being, in Gayford’s summary, “compulsively articulate, opinionated and tactless.” One of them recalled, “He had an extraordinary way of pouring out sentences, if he got started, in Dutch, English and French, then glancing back at you over his shoulder, and hissing through his teeth.” At last, van Gogh’s suffering sent him south in February, 1888, at the age of thirty-four—“looking for a different light,” he later told Theo, and believing “that observing nature under a brighter sky might give one a more accurate idea of the way the Japanese feel and draw.” He envisioned founding a “studio of the South” and dunned Gauguin, whom he had met in Paris, and Bernard with invitations to join him. In a little over a year in Arles, he made about two hundred paintings, dozens of them masterpieces. Why was he unrecognized at the time? Personality aside, his style of impasto brushwork (much inspired by an eccentric Marseilles painter, Adolphe Monticelli) in service to visual truth was out of step both with Paris fashion, whose new hero was the methodical Georges Seurat, and with nascent, waking-dream Symbolism, pioneered by Gauguin. Though van Gogh had spells of quiet confidence, he felt, to the last, that his art’s fruition lay years in the future.

The two artists exchanged self-portraits before Gauguin’s visit. Van Gogh’s depicts him as an austere, enigmatic character with eyes like a cat’s—as he put it, “a simple” Japanese monk “worshipping the eternal Buddha.” He described the work to Gauguin as “all ash-gray”—a cumulative, simmering effect, according to Gayford, “of mixing emerald green and orange on a pale jade background, all harmonized with his reddish-brown clothes.” It is a far better picture than Gauguin’s devilish presentation of himself as Jean Valjean, of “Les Misérables.” (Gauguin wrote to van Gogh that it portrayed a man “strong and badly dressed,” with “a nobleness and gentleness hidden within. Passionate blood suffuses the face as it does a creature in rut.”) But the Gauguin has zest. It features a lively, off-center composition and begins to divorce line from color in a way that became Gauguin’s major contribution to modern painting, notably that of Picasso. The fact that both painters chose to render themselves in fictional guise—van Gogh was inspired by Pierre Loti’s popular novel “Madame Chrysanthème,” on which Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” was later based—supports Gayford’s thesis that for them, in their different ways, life and literature interlocked. The difference emerges in the artists’ preferred images: Gauguin’s is egotistical and sensual, while van Gogh’s is humble and spiritual. With characteristic generosity, van Gogh discerned rare dignity in Gauguin’s villainous persona. He called him, in a letter to Bernard, “a virgin creature with savage instincts. With Gauguin blood and sex prevail over ambition.”

Actually, ambition was very much involved in 1888, when, as Gayford writes breathlessly, “Paul Gauguin . . . knocked on the door. It was opened by Vincent van Gogh.” Gauguin had high hopes of doing business with Theo, who would have been grateful to anyone willing to keep his unnerving brother company, far from Paris. As it turned out, Theo sold several works by Gauguin during his time in Arles—“the dirtiest town in the whole south,” the artist decided—while failing to move any by his brother, whose depressions accordingly deepened. Their two-story quarters in Arles were half of a cockeyed butter-yellow house (a grocer occupied the rest) on a busy square. The inside walls were white, the doors blue, and the floors red tile. They had gaslight and running water, but the nearest toilet was in a hotel next door. Gayford guesses that the place smelled strongly of “pipe smoke as well as of turpentine, pigment and Vincent himself—the climate was hot and washing arrangements limited.” Gauguin, with a sailor’s habitual tidiness, was appalled by the messiness of the studio. He took the household in hand and, among other interventions, instituted a budget for the modest amounts of money provided by Theo, who always supported his brother: as Gauguin put it, “so much for hygienic excursions at night” to brothels, “so much for tobacco, so much for incidental expenses, including rent,” and so much, in a separate cache, for food. He did most of the cooking.

He was amazed, perhaps despite himself, by van Gogh’s decoration of the guest room: paintings, particularly two depicting sunflowers, of a size and intensity—and, in one case, yellowness—never before seen in still-life. But Gauguin never conceded that van Gogh had anything to teach him. (He later claimed, bizarrely, to have freed van Gogh from Seurat-like Pointillism and to have enabled his yellow-on-yellow breakthroughs. Gauguin’s memory was a chorus ever improvising songs in praise of himself.) Rather, he urged the younger artist to work, as he did, “de tête”: from mental images, by invented design. Van Gogh tried, with scant success—except for one later painting that he made in the mental asylum at Saint-Rémy, near Arles, “The Starry Night,” which he soon regretted, as “another failure” caused by being “led astray into abstraction.”

The two worked hard. They sketched some of the same landscapes and shared portrait models, including the wife of one of van Gogh’s few Arles friends, the politically radical postman Joseph Roulin. (Van Gogh gushed to Theo that Roulin’s family consisted of “real characters and very French, though they look like Russians”; he seems to have planned to paint them continually over the years, as they changed with age.) Van Gogh’s output, which included the acrid and harrowing “Night Café,” was torrid. Gauguin’s style was in transition; a striking work of the period, “In the Heat,” of a half-naked peasant woman and pigs, amounts to a sumptuous dirty joke. A portrait he painted of van Gogh, “The Painter of Sunflowers,” is an animated, rather goofy caricature. Their conversation, when not marred by disagreements in art matters, was full of references to literature and the news. They were avid for crime stories, such as the latest exploits of Jack the Ripper, and closely followed the trial, in Paris, of a charismatic murderer named Prado. Gayford surmises that Prado’s speeches, in his own defense, struck a chord with van Gogh: “Who am I first of all? What does it matter? I am unfortunate. . . . My God, hurled on to this vast stage of human life, I yielded, a bit by chance, to everything I felt beat in my heart and boil in my brain.” (Prado was convicted; Gauguin attended his public execution.)

Gauguin’s habits at the time, except perhaps those involving sex, were moderate. Van Gogh drank ruinously. He explained, “If the storm within gets too loud, I take a glass too much to stun myself.” The effects were not entirely medicinal. According to Gauguin—whose testimony is often unreliable—he awakened “several nights,” toward the end of his stay, to find van Gogh standing over him, whereupon “it was enough for me to say, quite sternly, ‘What’s the matter with you, Vincent?’ for him to go back to bed and fall into a heavy sleep.” (No other evidence hints at homosexual attraction—at any rate, a tendency more thinkable about Gauguin, who was given to fiercely dominating relations with other men.) Gauguin reported that, upon viewing “The Painter of Sunflowers,” van Gogh said, “It’s me, but it’s me gone mad,” and afterward, in a café, threw a glass of absinthe at Gauguin’s head. Still, Gauguin stayed. He wanted to go, Gayford recounts, but he wrote to a friend that he meant to do it “in such a way that Theo would be ‘bound’ to him” and so keep selling his work. The pair travelled forty-two miles to a museum in Montpellier, where paintings by Delacroix and Courbet excited them. But the end was near.

On December 23rd, as Gauguin recalled a few days later in a letter to Bernard, van Gogh asked him if he was going to leave. “And when I said ‘Yes’ he tore this sentence from a newspaper and put it in my hand: ‘the murderer took flight.’ ” That evening, after the usually pacific van Gogh threatened Gauguin with his razor (or so Gauguin claimed), Gauguin spent the night in a hotel. The next morning, he went in dread to the Yellow House, where a crowd, alerted by Rachel, had gathered. In Gauguin’s telling, no one had yet entered the house. He went in with the Arles police commissioner, who asked him, “What have you done to your comrade, Monsieur?” The stairway was splattered with blood. They found van Gogh curled up in bed, motionless. Gauguin told Bernard that he “touched the body, the heat of which showed that it was still alive.” He left for Paris shortly afterward, apparently without seeing van Gogh awake, or ever again. Van Gogh was in the hospital for two weeks, then he passed eighteen torrentially productive months, between recurrent breakdowns, first at the Yellow House, until neighbors, complaining that “his instability frightens all the inhabitants,” petitioned for his removal; then a year at the asylum in Saint-Rémy; and, finally, under the care of the compassionate Dr. Paul Gachet, in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise, north of Paris. Absorbed in his work, van Gogh was flattered but unsettled by an admiring essay by the critic Albert Aurier, to whom he protested that his role in art was “of very secondary importance” to that of Gauguin or Adolphe Monticelli. One of van Gogh’s paintings sold, for a good price. But turmoil in Theo’s business life and his mental state—he was beginning to suffer from tertiary syphilis—made Vincent fear the loss of his allowance. On July 27, 1890, he shot himself in the chest; he survived for two days. Theo died six months later. Gauguin died in 1903, in the Marquesas Islands, also of complications from syphilis, just as he was about to begin a jail sentence for insulting local authorities.

Gayford analyzes van Gogh’s self-mutilation rather as if it were an art work, in a style that was influenced not only by Jack the Ripper, who cut off a prostitute’s ear, but also by at least two texts: Zola’s novel “The Sin of Father Mouret,” in which a friar chastises an altar boy, named Vincent, by pulling his ear, and later has his own ear lopped off by an assailant; and the Bible, where the disciple Peter slices off the ear of one of the men who have come to arrest Jesus at Gethsemane. Gayford piles on the evidence, making his case plausible to a degree (for instance, van Gogh had tried to do a painting on the theme of Gethsemane), but the effort begs the question of why van Gogh’s hysterical self-blame took a gruesome turn when his friendship with Gauguin collapsed. For that, the psychiatric label of bipolarity will serve both as well as and as badly as such previous conjectures, enumerated by Gayford, as “an overdose of digitalis, lead poisoning (from paint), absinthe-induced hallucinations, a condition of the inner ear named Ménière’s disease, severe sunstroke and glaucoma,” not to mention “schizophrenia, syphilis, epilepsy, acute intermittent porphyria”—George III’s probable malady—“and borderline personality disorder.”

The painting on van Gogh’s easel on the night of his self-mutilation, which he finished a few weeks later, was “La Berceuse,” a rousingly colored portrait of Joseph Roulin’s wife, Augustine, sitting calmly in a chair, holding a string that she uses to rock her baby’s cradle. Gayford describes the wallpaper behind her: “Huge white blossoms—dahlias, according to Vincent—sway on long thin stalks, tendrils and leaves twine against a background of thousands of small blue-green forms, each with a red dot in the middle, like a bud, or a pod, or a breast.” He writes that van Gogh “compared the picture with a cheap religious print” while intending it, in the artist’s words, “to achieve in painting what the music of Berlioz and Wagner has already done . . . an art that offers consolation for the broken-hearted!” Fired by Pierre Loti’s book “An Iceland Fisherman,” van Gogh imagined the painting hanging in the cabin of a boat, he wrote to Gauguin, where, on account of it, endangered and lonely fishermen “would feel the old sense of being rocked come over them and remember their own lullabies.” Gayford goes on to adduce still other literary, artistic, and religious sources of inspiration for the work. None of that comes across in the painting, though it is consistent with the subject’s oddly combined airs of looming mass and serene stillness. The work communicates mastery, revelling in itself.

Creativity takes what it needs from the person who possesses it, or is possessed by it, and discards the rest. In van Gogh’s case, two realities—that of what he saw and that of what he used (paint, line, color)—laid imperious claim to his energies. The disciplined, mutual fulfillment of subject and medium transcended whatever he thought or felt while conceiving and executing his work. Something similar can be said of any great artist, though rarely with so jolting a sense of psychological odds overcome. Van Gogh became a hero of modern culture for demonstrating “grace under pressure” to a dizzying extreme. Gayford notes that “La Berceuse” thrilled Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, and Édouard Vuillard, not with any extractable meaning but with form “which made a whole world of its own.” In an important way, that world excludes its maker, who, at the time, happened to be crazy. Here we come to a classic controversy. If dosed with the proper mood-stabilizing drug in 1888, would van Gogh have become, as Gayford ventures, “a different—and probably a duller—artist”? Given that van Gogh was never dull, I think it would have been worth the risk.

It is hard not to judge Gauguin harshly, in comparison with van Gogh; there’s a meanness about him. But keep in mind that Gauguin sought disapproval: the dynamism of his character and the intelligence of his style, organized by an antinomian urge to shock, proved more crucial to the ethos of avant-gardism than van Gogh’s genius did. Picasso spoke astutely, in 1935, of “the torments of van Gogh” and “Cézanne’s anxiety” as the engines of our interest in their work: “the drama of the man.” But when it came to active dramatizing, in the face of a projected, despised bourgeois society, Gauguin blazed a way for Picasso, his fellow artistic and sexual conquistador, and for every artist, to this day, who has adopted an attitude of renegade or subversive temerity.

As a performance, Gayford’s book is quite in the raffish spirit of Gauguin, who comes off considerably better than in other tellings of the Arles saga. He jumps off the page, to the palpable gratification of an author who is adept at sparkling quotation (in his own translations from the French) and punchy narrative. Now and then, Gayford almost seems to share Gauguin’s irritation at van Gogh’s importunate neediness and passive-aggressive sulks. The bias proves salutary. It forestalls the sentimental self-congratulation with which we may dote on a victim of misunderstanding whose actual company we couldn’t have stood for an hour, let alone nine weeks. The book breaks no new ground as art history and criticism, but it provides a vivid snapshot of issues and passions at a key moment in the formation of modern sensibility. Imagine! A couple of disreputable men in a nowhere town slap paint on canvas and thereby change everything. It has been a long time now, half a century after Abstract Expressionism, since that scenario had its last echo in a real artistic or cultural development, except in tones of irony or elegy. No individual can any longer dandle the world at the end of a brush. The legend is correspondingly estranged and enhanced.

Don’t Feed the Poets (by Jim Harrison, the New York Times)

Note to the capture: Jim Harrison in 1969 at his farm in Michigan.

Note to the capture: Karl Shapiro

Published: January 28, 2007

I recently wandered through my home library in Montana and rediscovered Karl Shapiro’s “Bourgeois Poet” (1964), a book of prose poems I first read during the vile winter of 1966. My wife and I had moved back to northern Michigan, after I’d left behind a good job in Boston on the promise of my first book of poems, “Plain Song,” having been accepted by Norton. I don’t recall what shape I expected the promise to arrive in: I ended up trimming Christmas trees and working construction for two and a half bucks an hour. Our rented house was only $35 a month, but it was drafty, the furnace was faulty and frequently the place couldn’t be brought up to 55 degrees. All of these numbers can actually describe a life.

Reading Shapiro’s prose poems under such conditions was wonderful in that I was decidedly not bourgeois. As a young Francophile, mostly because high school textbooks of American and English literature in the ’50s were so dreary, I was sympathetic with the prose poem, essentially a French genre. Shapiro seemed to be deranged by the prosperity of his academic position — he was a professor at the University of Nebraska — and since I had flunked out of graduate school for reasons of arrogance I was familiar with the atmosphere he was evoking: “Now when I drive behind a Diesel-stinking bus / On the way to the university to teach / Stevens and Pound and Mallarmé / I am homesick for war.”

I was empathetic to Shapiro’s travails up to a point, but then my wife and I were eating altogether too much macaroni and cheap cheese and he sounded like a man who had had a huge porterhouse and half a cheesecake for dinner and was complaining about indigestion. The subtext, unworded but looming, was that, like coal miners, poets have to make a living, and Shapiro had children.

It should be remembered that bourgeois was a volatile word in the 60s, frequently an insult. After our horrid winter I ended up teaching at Stony Brook on Long Island, where I occasionally noted professors in bell-bottoms with long hair saying, “All power to the people,” whoever they might be. Obviously our workday clothing is also a costume signifying who we wish to be, and professors at the time could be nervous about being bourgeois. Only a Republican would wear a clean trench coat.

Shapiro (1913-2000) had gotten the title for his book at a party, after giving a reading in Seattle, when Theodore Roethke called him a “bourgeois poet.” The question is why it caused Shapiro such severe unrest that he poured heart and soul into what is really one very long poem?

I suspect Shapiro’s evident misery started early in his life with a heroic notion of the poet. Any poet knows that to become immortal all you have to do is write a single great poem. This is unlikely indeed. Perhaps there are tens of thousands of mules and draft horses across the countryside who dream of winning the Kentucky Derby. Better yet, a bartender in Seville told me last March, “We have thousands of aspiring Lorcas but only one Lorca.” Very early on a poet is struck by the cruelty and lack of democracy in the arts — so few get it all, and the hordes receive nothing but the pleasure and pain of an overdeveloped consciousness. Ted Kooser, the former United States poet laureate and a friend of Shapiro’s at the time “The Bourgeois Poet” was written, told me Shapiro was obsessed with the French symbolist poets. This explains a lot, since Shapiro’s notion of what a poet was implies the outsider, the outcast, the outlier, one who purposefully deranges his mind to write poems like Rimbaud, or one who could not walk, so borne down was he by his giant wings, to paraphrase Baudelaire. I must here imagine myself an English department chairman, who has to deal with these troublesome creatures, and say that a poet is hubris through and through in the same manner that an unruly pig is solid pork.

Shapiro was massively famous in the 1940s and ’50s, in the manner of Robert Lowell or Allen Ginsberg in the ’60s and ’70s, though his fame seemed to dip after “The Bourgeois Poet.” He served in World War II, then published “V-Letter and Other Poems” and won the Pulitzer Prize at 32. He became consultant in poetry, now known as poet laureate. Later, on a prize committee made up of famous poets, he was one of only two who voted against awarding Ezra Pound the Bollingen Prize, and it was a grand literary scandal at the time. Shapiro cast his vote as a Jew in opposition to a renowned anti-Semite. He was also voting against the wishes of T. S. Eliot, the virtual pope of poetry during the postwar years. I would suggest the possibility of anti-Semitism in the decline of Shapiro’s reputation. But when you begin your career as grandly as he did, where can you go but down?

“The Bourgeois Poet” is disturbingly brilliant though occasionally it is inadvertently comic. How can you be raffiné, much less stridently Whitmanesque, on a campus in Nebraska? A poet must discover that it’s his own story that is true, even if the truth is small indeed. The work is marvelous in small pieces but deflates a bit in the face of Shapiro’s heroic posturing over what a poet is. There is a wonderful carelessness possible only because it is the kind of poem in which every sort of effluvium fits into the plan. The danger here is that it must be interesting effluvia.

Often in the poem Shapiro refers to himself as “The Beep”:

The Beep feels seasonal, placid as a melon, neat as a child’s football lying under the tree, waiting for whose hands to pick it up.

He also writes, the torpor overwhelming:

Office love, love of money and fight, love of calculated sex. The offices reek with thin volcanic metal. Tears fall in typewriters like drops of solder.


They erect a bust of me after my death. I know the right alcove, where the students sit, in the library corridor, smoking and joking about the professors. “I fought with tooth and nail to save my niche.”

Perhaps as a corrective and a cautionary, “The Bourgeois Poet” should be taught to the thousands taking M.F.A.’s in creative writing who wish to become poet-professors. As I said I tried it myself but found the work too hard. There’s a subdued but relentless hurly-burly in academia that swallows up discretionary time. It’s like living with a slight backache, not fatal but enervating. Besides, academic salaries are falling behind and it’s become questionable if poet-professors have truly achieved bourgeois status. Maybe lumpen bourgeois.

In the ’60s I was actually on a committee in New York City with R. V. Cassill from Brown and Ben DeMott from Amherst, among others, trying to figure out how to get universities to hire more poets and novelists. Through no fault of our own it worked out that way.

Historically, of course, the scales are tipped in favor of the non-bourgeois poet. Yeats warned that the hearth was more dangerous for a poet than alcohol. Rilke said, “Only in the rat race of the arena, does a heart learn to beat.” Well off the margins of the page in “The Bourgeois Poet” there’s an invisible Greek chorus singing, “You’ve got to earn a living.”

Ultimately for a poet the fence is so high the top is invisible, but it is what we are designed to reach for. Everything else is mere scaffolding. You will most likely get the back of the muse’s hand whether you have a chair at Harvard or are pumping septic tanks in Missouri. I must say my sympathies are still with César Vallejo, a grander poet than anyone now living on our bruised earth. In Paris between the world wars Vallejo and his girlfriend would pick out the empty wine bottles in trash receptacles to earn their keep.

Jim Harrison’s new novel is “Returning to Earth.”

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Very Fine Lines (Peter Carlson, Washington Post)

What Makes a Cartoon New Yorker-Worthy? Draw Your Own Conclusion.

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 24, 2006; D01

Two plumbers working on a sink with an alligator coming out of the faucet?


Two drunks brainstorming about starting the Drinking Network?


A guy with his hand chopped off pointing the way to the Islamic court?

Ahhhhhh . . . maybe.

It's Wednesday afternoon and David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, is picking cartoons. A few minutes ago, Bob Mankoff, the magazine's cartoon editor, entered Remnick's office carrying three wire baskets and 81 cartoons. The baskets are labeled Yes, No and Maybe. The cartoons are the ones Mankoff chose from the nearly 1,000 he received since the previous Wednesday's meeting. Now, with the help of Managing Editor Jacob Lewis, Remnick will decide which ones the magazine will buy.

He picks a cartoon out of the pile. It's by Roz Chast, the New Yorker's queen of modern neurosis. This cartoon is a gallery of fictitious "Excuse Cards." Smiling in anticipation, Remnick starts reading.

"You know, some of these are not great," he says, sadly.

"I like the concept of it," says Lewis.

"I'm not sure this is working," Remnick says and the cartoon goes into the No basket.

He picks up the next cartoon. It's another Chast: a mock front page of a tabloid newspaper, the "Arctic Enquirer," with headlines about salacious doings in Santa's workshop.

Remnick laughs. "Okay, let's take that," he says. It goes into the Yes basket.

He keeps going. No. No. Yes. No. Now he picks up a cartoon that's labeled "Good Shrink, Bad Shrink." A guy's lying on a psychiatrist's couch with a shrink on each side of him. One shrink is saying, "Face your demons." The other says, "Take a pill."

Remnick cracks up. "That'll be on every refrigerator in America," he says. laughing. It goes into the Yes basket.

No. Yes. No. No. Remnick picks up a cartoon of a corporate boardroom with a bunch of guys in suits sitting around a conference table with one chair occupied by a brain in a jar. The caption reads, "But first let's all congratulate Ted on his return to work."

" Ewwww!" Remnick says, half groaning, half laughing. "Bob!"

"It's great!" Mankoff says.

"It's horrible!" Remnick responds, laughing.

"What? A little brain in a jar?" Mankoff replies. "No animals were hurt in the making of this cartoon."

Remnick laughs. But he doesn't change his mind. "Not here," he says. It's a No.

Hey, wait a minute! Did you catch that? The guy laughs at the cartoon, but he still rejects it! It's good the cartoonists aren't watching. This would drive them crazy. Well, craz ier. Constant rejection has rendered these geniuses half nuts already. In about 20 minutes, Remnick rejects 48 cartoons and buys 33 -- that's 33 out of nearly a thousand that came in this week! It's hard out here for a cartoonist.

Just ask Matthew Diffee. At 36, he's one of the New Yorker's star cartoonists, creator of the classic drawing of Che Guevara wearing a Bart Simpson T-shirt, which has become a hot-selling T-shirt itself. But the man is practically punch-drunk from repeated rejection.

Every Tuesday, like most of the New Yorker's four dozen regular cartoonists, Diffee submits a batch of about 10 cartoons.

"And if you're really, really funny that week," he says, "you'll sell . . . one cartoon! That's a 90 percent rejection rate."

On a bad week, the rejection rate is 100 percent.

This makes for a lot of ego-battered cartoonists. It also makes for a lot of rejected cartoons, many of them very funny. Which is why Diffee recently published a book called "The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in the New Yorker."

It's a group of cartoons drawn by 31 New Yorker cartoonists and rejected by Mankoff or Remnick because they were a little too . . . well, one cartoon, by Drew Dernavich, shows a doctor handing his patient a rubber glove and saying, "Give a man an exam and he'll be healthy for a day; teach a man to examine himself and he'll be healthy for a lifetime."

"It's funny to see something drawn by somebody who's in the New Yorker, but it's way too crude to ever be in the New Yorker," Diffee says. "To me, the funniest element is that this guy actually submitted this. W hat was he thinking?"

"The Rejection Collection" is hilarious, Remnick says. "But," he adds, "I did not find myself saying, 'I wish I took these cartoons.' Maybe a few, but very few. I think a lot of these cartoons were purposely submitted knowing they wouldn't get through, and they did it for the hell of it. They know there are certain limits. There's a language limit, a grossness limit, a juvenile limit."

Remnick hates rejecting cartoons. He really does. "There's a heaviness about it," he says, sighing heavily. "Because you're conscious that a certain number of people are waiting on pins and needles to see if they've got a cartoon in that week. It's hard. We're pretty much the only place that runs cartoons consistently, and we run maybe 15 or 20 a week. It's a really tough way to make a living."
Humor Percolator

Here's how Matthew Diffee makes his living: Every morning, he sits down with a cup of coffee, a black Pilot pen and some blank sheets of white paper, and he starts thinking.

"I'll think of something," he says. "I just thought of a barn. What about a barn? A barn raising? Amish people? What about Amish people? They have those beards without mustaches. What would an Amish guy who had a mustache say to a guy who didn't? Those are ideas, but they're not good ideas. So you leave the Amish and you think: corn. And you come up with some bad corn ideas. But maybe one of the bad corn ideas combines with one of the bad Amish ideas and out of the blue, something comes to you."

He's in Washington to promote "The Rejection Collection," and he's sitting in a coffee shop cranking up on caffeine and explaining how cartoons are born. Years ago, he says, he was thinking about the phrase "I was in a different place then."

"I wrote down that phrase and I thought, 'How can I make that funny?' " he says. "And months later, I was thinking about pirates: They walk the plank. They have a hook for a hand. Well, what else could they have instead of a hook? You go through the options. It has to be about the size of a hook. You can't use a broom or a canoe paddle. So it has to be a garden tool or a kitchen utensil. And I thought: A spatula is kind of funny."

Presto! He drew a pirate with a spatula for a hand and the caption, " I was in a different place then." And the New Yorker bought it.

Diffee started drawing cartoons in the late '90s, when he was living in Boston and failing to make it as an artist or a stand-up comic. His first cartoon won a contest sponsored by the New Yorker, and Mankoff encouraged him to submit more. For a year, Diffee submitted 15 cartoons a week, every week.

"I sold four," he says.

That's four out of about 700.

The next year he did a little better. He sold eight.

Now, Diffee lives in Brooklyn and has a contract with the New Yorker, which buys about two dozen of his cartoons a year. He won't say how much his contract pays him -- and Mankoff won't reveal what the magazine pays for cartoons -- but he's getting by.

"I'm not saving money," he says, "but I'm paying my New York rent."

On Tuesday mornings, Diffee goes to Mankoff's office to drop off his latest batch and schmooze with the other cartoonists who've come to drop off their batches. A dozen or so will go to lunch at a restaurant called Pergola des Artistes and talk shop.

"If you expect a lot of one-upping each other in a Gag-o-Rama, you'd be disappointed," he says. "We have serious conversations on how to draw duck feet or whether a duck is funnier than a penguin. And there's a level of bitterness that we're not selling as much as we should."

He pauses. "Sometimes somebody will say something funny and you'll see a bunch of people do this -- " He reaches into his pocket for a pen and paper. "And somebody'll say, 'I claim it!' "
Do You Get It?

Remember the "Seinfeld" episode about the New Yorker cartoon?

Elaine doesn't get the cartoon, so she shows it to Jerry and George, and they don't get it either. Somehow she buttonholes the editor of the New Yorker and demands that he explain it. But he can't.

"Cartoons are like gossamer, and one doesn't dissect gossamer," he says, lamely.

The episode was funny because sometimes New Yorker cartoons really are baffling. It was even funnier if you knew that the script was written by Bruce Eric Kaplan, a TV writer who also draws cartoons for the New Yorker -- cartoons that he signs BEK. Brilliant cartoons that are sometimes, if truth be told, a bit baffling.

Mankoff, who has been cartoon editor at the magazine since 1997, knows that sometimes people are befuddled by New Yorker cartoons. "We don't do focus groups. We don't find out ' Does everybody get it?' " he says. "And sometimes people don't get it. Sometimes it's because we made a mistake. Sometimes it's because the reference is very elusive."

Picking cartoons isn't as easy as it looks. "The funniest cartoon is not necessarily the best cartoon," says Mankoff. "Funnier means that you laugh harder, and everybody's gonna laugh harder at more aggressive cartoons, more obscene cartoons. It's a Freudian thing. It gives more relief. But is it a better joke? To me, better means having more truth in it, having both the humor and the pain and therefore having more meaning and more, uh, uh . . . " He searches for a word, then finds it: "poetry."

Mankoff, 62, is a cartoon philosopher and a cartoonist. He's the guy who drew the oft-reproduced classic of a businessman looking at his datebook as he talks on the phone, saying "No, Thursday's out. How about never -- is never good for you?"

He is also a cartoon entrepreneur. He's the creator of the Cartoon Bank, which sells New Yorker cartoons in every conceivable permutation. You can buy books of New Yorker cartoons about cats or golf or baseball or business or technology or teachers or shrinks. Or you can buy "The Complete Book of New Yorker Cartoons," a massive tome that includes two CDs that, taken together, contain all 68,647 cartoons that had run in the magazine before the book was published in 2004. You can also buy framed prints of every New Yorker cartoon, plus T-shirts, notecards, games, even a shower curtain, so you can look at cartoons when you're naked, wet and soapy.

"Bob is a marketing genius," says Sam Gross, who has been drawing cartoons for the magazine since 1969. "He sells those cartoons on everything but mint jelly."

"Let's look at yesterday, " Mankoff says. He swivels his chair and taps on his computer. The screen fills with the record of yesterday's sales at the Cartoon Bank. "Yesterday we did $26,000," he says, happily.

And the cartoonists get a cut of the action. "On a framed print, an artist might get, say, $60," he says. Some artists have made as much as $100,000 from a popular cartoon.

"Your cartoon that appears in the New Yorker has a life after life," he says. "We pay you for the cartoon and you get royalties. Are you going to be a millionaire? I don't think so. But you can make a decent living."
Rejection Perfection

Looking a tad cartoonish with his scraggly gray hair and his hangdog face, Mankoff flips through a huge pile of cartoons.

"No," he says, tossing one aside.

"Nah," he says, rejecting another.

"Not funny enough," he grumbles, flipping faster. "Definitely not . . . No way . . . Not here . . . Not now . . . Not on my watch . . . Not your day . . . No . . . No . . . For God's sake, no! . . . A thousand times no!"

This isn't real life, thank God. It's a movie, a short called "Being Bob," with Mankoff playing himself as The Rejecter, killer of cartoonist's dreams. It debuted at a New Yorker event last year and now Diffee's showing it at Politics and Prose, the Washington bookstore, where he's promoting "The Rejection Collection."

When the movie ends, he opens the floor to questions.

"Does Mankoff ever laugh?" somebody asks.

"I've never seen it happen," Diffee says, lying about his pal for the sake of a laugh. "He has snickered. But that was because the cartoon was bad and he'd seen it before."

He tells the story of the year he sent in 700 cartoons and sold four.

"And for some reason, I kept doing it," he says. "Some people don't. They have other options, maybe."

A kid comes to the microphone and asks, "Do you get frustrated a lot?"

"How can you tell?" Diffee asks.

That gets a laugh.

"Yes, I get frustrated a lot," he admits.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing. "If you have a pessimistic outlook on life, you'll probably do better," he tells the kid. "If you think nine out of 10 of your ideas will be rejected, you'll work harder."

It's the power of negative thinking -- the perfect philosophy for New Yorker cartoonists and any other poor souls who are frequently clobbered by rejection.