Monday, October 18, 2010

what is art? Emily Dickinson and the spider

Last week while I was doing some hand-finishing on a large quilt, my local NPR station played an interview between Christopher Lydon and Helen Vendler on the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Now I will be the first to admit that I have never seriously studied the poems of Emily Dickinson. Though I live in western Massachusetts, I have never even visited her home in Amherst. Sure I know a few of them--who doesn't. "I did not stop for death..." But quite frankly, I like my art to be in story form. Indeed even my quilts tell a story.

But the new quilt was on my lap. The sewing was progressing and I kept telling myself--just a few more stitches. So I began listening. Poems as the ashes of her (Emily's) soul. "Ashes reveal the fire that was..." Stark, chilling poetry. I found myself wondering what her innermost thoughts must have been. An atheist in a land of believers. Hunting for immortality through her art not her religion.  I began listening more closely. It was a deep well-organized presentation. It curved and circled the poems and then returned to art as the ashes--the distillation--of the essence of the person. I want to hear it again. Then read the poems and listen again. You can check it out here.

Ms Vendler--who has just written a book analyzing these poems--spent time on the spider and its web. As she admitted this is a difficult and complex poem that needs to be studied carefully. The first stanza fairly easy--simple one syllable rhymes. An image. Indeed almost a story.

                                    A Spider sewed at Night
                                    Without a Light
                                    Upon an Arc of White.

The second stanza more complex. Turns to the male search for truth. The rhymes longer and more complex. Not quite rhymes. Is the ruff of this world--ie for the dame or is it more of the fantastic--shroud of gnome.

                                    If Ruff it was of Dame
                                    Or Shroud of Gnome
                                    Himself himself inform.

The final stanza most complex. I look up the word physiognomy. Merriam-Webster defines it as : the art of discovering temperament and character from outward appearance. Note the most complex rhymes.

                                   Of Immortality
                                   His Strategy
                                  Was Physiognomy.

Do I understand this poem--no. Not yet. I must ponder it more. It does return to the concept that art is the ashes--the distillation--of one's life. 

And yet I look at the quilt I am currently finishing and think it is related. Many of my quilts tell stories--the bigness of the sky on the prairie, the perfect day in autumn. What is the story of this quilt?
It feels to me that it is going beyond story to another place where the colors and the motion sing. The quilt too large to be glimpsed in anything but sections in my studio.

And you dear reader? What is art? Immortality? What was the spider doing? A ruff for Dame or Gnome?  Is art physiognomy? The ashes of the soul?


  1. Oh my what questions?
    I am reading The View from the Studio Door by Ted Orland and blogging about it chapter by chapter along with another blogger. He asked what is art?
    Is something art on it's own or only when the viewer has completed the 'story'??????

  2. Thanks for the comments Robin. I just joined your blog to follow that discussion.

  3. I think poems always inspire us, even if we don't understand them. This is lovely, Ann.