The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Something to say, something to keep

Posted by Ron George on October 16, 2011

This nourishing poem came today via Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac.

When the Vacation is Over for Good

by Mark Strand

It will be strange
Knowing at last it couldn’t go on forever,
The certain voice telling us over and over
That nothing would change,

And remembering too,
Because by then it will all be done with, the way
Things were, and how we had wasted time as though
There was nothing to do,

When, in a flash
The weather turned, and the lofty air became
Unbearably heavy, the wind strikingly dumb
And our cities like ash,

And knowing also,
What we never suspected, that it was something like summer
At its most august except that the nights were warmer
And the clouds seemed to glow,

And even then,
Because we will not have changed much, wondering what
Will become of things, and who will be left to do it
All over again,

And somehow trying,
But still unable, to know just what it was
That went so completely wrong, or why it is
We are dying.

From New and Selected Poems. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2009

Poem (Mark Strand) by Mary Vernon

The almanac went on to disclose Oscar Wilde’s commentary on the uselessness of art. Maybe I just don’t understand Mr. Wilde, but I don’t agree. Art is provocative and evocative; it always calls forth something from the viewer. Art that doesn’t, well, it’s just not art. It’s only pretending. I’ve never known an artist who didn’t want to evoke and provoke; otherwise, what’s the point? Ah, saith Mr. Wilde, art is of the essence, simply that. It intends nothing. It does nothing. It simply is.

“Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility,” Wilde said in a letter to a reader who asked why he said so in the preface of Dorian Gray. “A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it. That is all that is to be said about our relations to flowers.”

Maybe he’s just pulling our leg. He’s the genius, after all, so I guess we’re supposed to pay attention and take notes. Perhaps the statement itself was a send-up of critics – people like me; and perhaps it was artful for being so provocative. Yep, I took the bait.

It was an awfully clever editor who led today’s Writer’s Almanac with a magnificent, stylish poem that provokes and evokes, thus giving short shrift to Wilde’s aesthetics; but, does it call for action? It seems to. It seems to say between the lines that there’s still time for – whatever: to save the planet, to save ourselves from dreary decline, to discover who we really are, to do what we’ve always said we wanted to do but didn’t have time; perhaps to live mindfully and thoughtfully while we still have our moment, because space-time goes on, expanding, perhaps forever but at least for a very long time, and we do not. We’re not so much as a blip on the vast easel of the universe; not that we’re insignificant, but like Mr. Wilde’s flower, we just don’t last very long.

Mark Strand by David Levine

Mark Strand might be appalled at such commentary; or, perhaps not. Ask an artist to tell about a completed work, and you’ll likely get the following response: Tell me what you see. Tell me what you hear. Artists know what it means to them, but they’re far more interested in knowing what, if anything, it means to you. They’re not inclined to impose their views, not the good ones, anyway, the real artists. In any case, what I see in this or any other work says more about me than either the artist or the work. It’s not always true that we see our reflection in a work of art, but when we do, it’s worth noting. 

I want to believe that Mark Strand, a former poet laureate of the United States, would simply smile, nod and say, Thanks for reading my poem. Oh, he says as though almost forgetting the question, and what does it mean to me? It gave me something to say – and you something to keep.


One Response to “Something to say, something to keep”

  1. drfred60 said

    Very nice piece, Ron. I especially enjoy thought provoking whimsy.

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