Category Archives: beauty

Out of Order

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 33.1
Chapter 11: Living Poetically

What Does It Mean to ‘Live Poetically’?

Moonlight Sonata, by Harrison Cady
Moonlight Sonata, by Harrison Cady

We are getting rather close to the end of this course, and I am finding bits and globs of material that should have been included earlier. If it’s a small bit or glob, I just quietly insert it. But if it’s a big fat key to the understanding of a major concept, which is the case here, I feel bound to call your attention to it. The left-out part is What Does It Mean to Live Poetically?” and I have stuck it in its logical place, namely, Chapter 11, “Living Poetically,” which began with Lesson 33. The new segment is Lesson 33.1 and you will find it here. 

A Living Poetically Fortune Cookie

I believe, when all is said and done, all you can do is show up for someone in crisis, which seems so inadequate. But then when you do, it can radically change everything. Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith


Art and Beauty

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 9


Chapter 3: Art, Poetry, and Beauty
Part 2: What Is Beauty, and Is It Optional?

Still Life with Fruit Dish and Mandolin, 1919, Juan Gris

Cubism: Still Life with Fruit Dish and Mandolin, 1919, Juan Gris


Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

Many will object to the word beauty in any definition of art. I doubt if most people seeing a Picasso cubist work for the first time are struck by its beauty. Many artists paint or dance or compose primarily to demonstrate the breadth and depth of their talent, or to innovate, or to shock people out of their complacency, or to reflect what they perceive as “reality.”

I read this anonymous posting to an artist’s blog: “Art is an attempt to objectify the world as the person sees or knows it”  (
I submit that “the world as the person sees or knows it” is not very different from “the person as she sees or knows herself.” I think that to improve or beautify the world, or oneself, is more worthwhile than to “objectify” it.

And I believe that art works both ways. It is not just something that the artist imposes on the medium. Creating the work is part of the perpetual creation of the artist. And the artist can choose the path of that creation: toward life, energy, beauty, love… or not.

Intellectually, we may try to justify the layering on of ugliness and chaos. Intuitively, in everyday speech, we equate beauty with art. We hear the phrase “poetry in motion” used to describe someone who moves gracefully. A person whose voice is charmingly melodic is said to “speak musically.”

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor

You have ordered a custom-made chest of drawers from a skilled woodworker. When you see the finished piece, it takes your breath away. The grain of the oak, the craftsmanship, the carving, the proportions — all are lovely and elegant. “Do you like it?” the woodworker asks anxiously. “Do I like it?” you echo. “It’s a work of art.”

Beauty is in the eye of the baby

If we agree to create and evolve beautifully, can we agree about what constitutes beauty? There is too much variation in cultural programming and personal history for beauty to be recognized universally. On the other hand, humans do seem to share a core aesthetic sensibility. (If this were not true, there would be no supermodels or movie stars.) Visually, we find characteristics such as luminosity, color, and symmetry to be aesthetically pleasing.

Numerous studies have investigated the way adults and infants react to sounds, sights, and scents. Researchers at the University of Texas and elsewhere have found that babies look longer at people who are generally considered beautiful, regardless of ethnicity (Langlois Social Development Lab, the University of Texas at Austin, 2006. Cited from this page on the Langlois Social Development Lab website).

In any case, inasmuch as we will never agree completely about what characterizes a chair or an ocelot, how can we expect to reach a common understanding about beauty? When I say “chair,” an image of a chair pops into your mind. It might be an upholstered chair, a desk chair, or a captain’s chair. In my case, the word chair invariably brings to mind my father’s Morris chair.

So I think that we will not turn ourselves inside out trying to define beauty in a precise way. Let us agree, for purposes of our current endeavor, that something is beautiful if it stimulates the best within us… if it makes us feel peaceful, inspired, loving, or joyous… and especially if it arouses our own creativity.

Lesson 9.1: Assignment
Examples of Beauty


Examples of Beauty

Examples of Beauty


Please submit your assignment via e-mail to Assignments will not be graded but will be returned to you with comments.

Next: Chapter 4—Me, Myself, and I

Belching Doom Kangaroo

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 8


Chapter 3: Art, Poetry, and Beauty
Part 1: Leftover Pizza Is Not Art

Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

Cradle of Ptomaine

Cradle of Ptomaine

In philosophy, as in many other disciplines, good definitions are the product of lengthy debate…. Children talk, and know what they are talking about, although they cannot define even one of the terms they use. Using and understanding a language does not involve being able to define its terms…. Definition allows us to improve our use of language….  —Norman Swartz, “Definitions, Dictionaries, and Meaning”  Copyright © Norman Swartz 1997
This revision: September 27, 1997. Department of Philosophy, Simon Fraser University

Art: A Definite ‘Maybe”

Now, let’s define and clarify our terms.

Art, poetry, beauty, and the self are huge ideas, not easily defined. The practice of defining is practically a science in itself, one that is rather neatly described by philosopher Norman Swartz (quoted above) in “Definitions, Dictionaries, and Meaning.” In that article, Swartz describes seven types of definitions. The type we will be using here is called “operational.” Briefly, an operational definition is one that we agree to agree on, whether or not it is strictly accurate.*

I have chosen and adapted the definitions that I believe will be most useful to us. Here are a few to get us started:

Some Definitions of Art, Poetry, and Verse

Some Definitions of Art, Poetry, and Verse



In short, art (including poetry) requires creativity, emotional honesty, originality, skill, imagination, and intention. In our current context, beauty and spirituality must also be present.

For there to be art, there must be an artist. Therefore, according to our operational definition…

Leftover pizza is not art

Just as you can call yourself Arnot-Jean-Jacques Feuillette [Seventh Sanctum French Male Name Generator ] or Belching Doom Kangaroo [Seventh Sanctum Humorous Monster Name Generator] if you want to, you can string a bunch of words together and call them a poem:

The magneto lurches into fetid paste
spurning the crispy scythe
on a poaching ä safari in Kenya
shadowing the uncommon solicitor.  **

U Ua-Uo U (uracil) (NLM) UA UAA UAG
UAL Ubidecarenone Ubiquinone
Ubiquitin Ubiquitination Ubiquitous
UBT UDP-glucuronosyltransferase UGA
UL Ulcer Ulcer aphthous Ulcer
Buruli Ulcer duodenal Ulcer esophageal  ***

At a poetry reading, you could breathe raggedly into the microphone for precisely seventeen seconds and then pronounce the word ruction — and call it a poem.

The following “poem” consists of randomly selected html code:

<TD WIDTH=”50%”>&nbsp;<A HREF=”HistoricalDocuments.html”><IMG
SRC=”BookFeatherPen.gif” WIDTH=”70″ HEIGHT=”62″ ALIGN=”BOTTOM”
ATURALSIZEFLAG=”3″ BORDER=”0″><FONT SIZE=”-2″ FACE=”Verdana”>Historical
<TD WIDTH=”50%”>&nbsp;<A HREF=”index.html”><FONT FACE=”Verdana”><IMG
SRC=”caplink.gif” WIDTH=”50″ ALIGN=”BOTTOM” BORDER=”0″ HEIGHT=”65″
ATURALSIZEFLAG=”2″></FONT><FONT SIZE=”-2″ FACE=”Verdana”>National
enter Home Page</FONT></A></TD>

If art is merely “an expression of human creativity”—a widely held belief—then anyone can be an artist. You don’t have to take classes or anything. There’s no particular discipline involved. You thought of it, you created it; ergo, it’s art.

Let’s say you have created a painting that looks something like this  (the outside border is the frame):

Dash, by You

Dash, by You

It’s art, all right, no question about it — an “expression of your creativity.” But surely you have applied your creativity at other times in other ways that might not qualify as “art.” Like the time you told your dad you had been detained at a roadblock while law-enforcement officers searched hundreds of vehicles for an escaped homicidal maniac, and that’s why you got home past your curfew. “Creative,” your dad said, and then he grounded you “for your own protection” until the missing maniac had been returned to custody.

Notwithstanding, you take your painting, which you have titled Dash, to an art gallery for validation by a real professional art personage, but Monsieur is unavailable at present. Still, you are encouraged by the inscrutability of the other works of art on display, although, examining them closely, you wish you had thought to vomit on your work of art before framing it.

Depending on the year and the location, you might see the following examples of art in the world’s most respected museums:

  • One of 90 copies of Merda d’artista, by Piero Manzoni, consisting of thirty grams of Manzoni’s feces sealed in a tin can. The Tate gallery in London reportedly paid more than $20,000 for one of these copies in 1961.
  • Piss Christ, a crucifix immersed in the urine of the artist, Andres Serrano. This is one of Serrano’s more traditional works.
  • Tom Friedman’s Untitled, a dead ladybug in a Styrofoam cup, which sold for almost $30,000.

Other works given the stamp of approval by critics and patrons of the arts include

  • This poem (reproduced here in its entirety):


The poet, Aram Saroyan, explains that his intent was to change the word light “from a verb (the agency of illumination) to a noun that yet radiates as light does. The double ghgh seems to work in that way.” The poem was published in the 1969 American Literary Anthology [Source: Rapportage, the literary journal of the Lancaster Literary Guild, Fall 2005].

  • A novel consisting of blank pages.
  • A musical work by composer John Cage titled 4’33” (Four Minutes Thirty-Three Seconds), in which a pianist sits at a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds without playing a single note.

My opinion on the more mystifying or malodorous forms of art mentioned above is that they represent a variety of artists and motives:

  • The genuine artist who has been formally trained, has exhibited talent, and has grown bored with pretty pictures and conventional media (water colors, for example, as opposed to the more exotic elephant dung à la The Holy Virgin by Chris Ofili).
  • The person who may or may not have talent but whose principal motive is to shock.
  • The artist who wants to make a social or political statement, illustrating the ugliness and depravity that surrounds us, as if we didn’t know.
  • The con artist who has seen an easy way to make $20,000 and get invited to lecture at prestigious universities by creatively assembling the contents of a wastebasket using duct tape, which can be analyzed for its likeness to the ephemeral quality of substantial yet emergent flora that have been dispossessed of their progression toward ultimate decay and regeneration… which everybody swallows (figuratively) because they don’t want to admit that they think it’s stupid.
  • The true artistic genius who is totally out of my league.

I repeat, art is not merely “an expression of human creativity.” If it were, then Auschwitz was art.

Art is disciplined

Few would argue that art is an external expression (a dance, a sculpture) of a spiritual or at least an intangible quality (such as love, beauty, anger, or despair). I believe, with Keats, that “beauty is truth, truth beauty.” I am unable to separate spirit from beauty, or to believe that whatever emanates from the life-force common to us all can lack either truth or beauty.

Again, beauty is essential in our operational definitions of art and poetry. In theory, however, I am willing to entertain other viewpoints.

Is found or readymade art — noted examples are Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel and Tracey Emin’s My Bed — intentional? Does it require skill? Can you just pick up any old thing and call it art?

Possibly, if the picker-upper is legitimately an artist. As my poetry professor at Stanford University explained when we wanted to let our free spirits loose on paper and he made us write sonnets instead: You must work from the inside out; examine the interior of your territory before you explore the nether reaches; know what the boundaries are before you stretch them; internalize the discipline until it is part of you; master the discipline in order to not be mastered by it.

I know a few people who have arranged every aspect of their lives so as to spend as much time as possible hang-gliding or soaring. “It is the ultimate experience in freedom,” they say. “It sounds wonderful,” I say. “I’d like to try it.”

Do they hand me their gear and say, “Great idea. Go for it”? No. They warn me about the expense and the hours of training and practice and the necessary physical conditioning and the skills, specific to the sport, they had to acquire. The cost of freedom was servitude to the goal. 

In these pages we are concerned with the discipline of poetry as a tool to realize your potential for joy.***** We are not “searching for joy” or “journeying toward joy.” The joy is right here, right now. It might be guilt-bound, fear-encrusted, or anger-suffused. It might be hiding in your gut, having run for cover from an abusive parent or an oppressive spouse. (Many people, not all of whom are modern-day snake-oil salesmen or delusional, believe that the site of a physical illness is related to the way in which you have tried to shield your core being from harm.)

NEXT: What is beauty, and is it optional?


* “Many philosophers have chosen… to leave some terms undefined… [claiming that we] cannot define being, unity and similar concepts.”, accessed January 12, 2008

** Assembled from numerous Random Sentence Generators on the Internet

*** medical dictionary

****  Duchamp’s urinal, which he exhibited as My Fountain (1917) created quite a fuss in the art world, as did Emin’s My Bed. According to Wikipedia (, “the artwork generated considerable media furor, particularly over the fact that the bedsheets were stained with body secretions and the floor had items from the artist’s room (such as condoms [and] a pair of panties with menstrual period stains…. The bed was presented as it had been when Emin had not got up from it for several days due to suicidal depression…. [During the Tate exhibition] two performance artists, Yuan Chai and Jian Jun Xi, jumped on the bed with bare torsos in order to ‘improve’ the work, …[calling] their performance Two Naked Men Jump Into Tracey’s Bed. The men also had a pillow fight on the bed for around fifteen minutes, to applause from the crowd, before being removed by security guards.”

***** We will explore the discipline of poetry in “The Therapeutic Value of Strict Poetic Forms” in a later chapter. Gosh, that sounds so pompous. A better title might be, “When You Focus on Form, Feeling Flows.” It’s alliterative, too.


True and Not True

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

Free E-Course Lesson 7


Chapter 2, Why We Need Poetry

Part 4: ‘Acting Creatively through the Arts Is an Exercise of Genuine Power’


Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1.

Key Component of Apple Crisp

Key Component of Apple Crisp


People worry. It’s unfortunate, but there you are.


The world is full of magic. I don’t mean phenomena that violate natural law. I mean that, in the vast body of natural law, we know maybe a toenail. Maybe a bacterium on a toenail. And by “we,” I mean “everybody in the world, including Stephen Hawking.”


We think that A plus B equal C, and often they do, assuming that we can wrap our minds around A and B, as in 2 plus 3 equal 5.


But then it gets a little more complicated. Two plus three of what? Apples?


Two apples plus three apples, plus some cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar, butter, an hour or so in the oven at 325F, and a little love and artistry, equal warm apple crisp upon which you must spoon an avalanche of real whipped cream. Then you serve it to your friends in pretty blue bowls, set upon doilies, set upon pretty blue saucers.


KEY CONCEPT: Metaphorical truth


In these tables, adapted from the assignments for Lesson 6…


…all the expressions are metaphorically, or figuratively, or spiritually true. They make sense in the language of poetry and emotion. It is one’s spirit that is in pieces when one is “torn up,” not (usually) one’s physical body. When your friend says, “Hey, Man, get it together,” he’s not telling you to go retrieve your hand or your cerebral cortex. If he’s a true friend, and your brain has gone missing, he’ll go look for it himself.




We create in order to grow spiritually


I said earlier that “once we have achieved order, there remains a nagging discontent.” I explained that living things are programmed to grow. Without the energy of growth, there is entropy and there is decay.


The conscious incentive for growth is the lack of perfect contentment with the status quo.


However satisfying things are, they can be better. If that weren’t true, the concepts of wanting, improving, and evolving would be meaningless, and there would be no reason to get out of bed.


We might want nothing more at the moment than to open the blind and let a little more light in, or to warm our coffee. This little unit of life, perhaps this quarter of an hour in the early morning, would be better with a little more sunshine, a little more steam rising from the coffee cup.

Where's the Steam?

Where's the Steam?


We could probably agree about hundreds of qualitative comparisons. For example:
(1) Love and harmony in the home are better than bloodshed.

(2) It is better to be healthy than to have double pneumonia.

(3) Playing baseball is a better activity for children than using crack cocaine.

(4) It is better to live in a tidy neighborhood with flowers and trees than in a rusted station wagon under a bridge.


The values that underlie these comparisons are widely, almost universally shared. If you are an adult, the Gallup people might call and ask whether you think a particular Republican would make a better president than a particular Democrat, but they will never mail you a survey like the following:


Which Alternative?

Which Alternative?


Because some things, such as health and harmony, are self-evidently better than others, then there must be, at least theoretically, a best. When we move from point A (bad) to point B (neutral) to point C (better) to point D (better still), our progress is usually represented as being upward toward the ideal or the perfect.


Moving Up

Moving Up


If a theoretical Ideal and theoretical Perfection exist, then so, in theory, does God. (The English word theory arrived in our language in the sixteenth century through Latin from the Greek thea “a view” plus horan “to see.” Thea was also the feminine form of the Greek word theos “god,” which gave us theology in the fourteenth century. Some etymologists insist that the linguistic resemblance between theory and theology is only coincidental. These are the types of things etymologists like to argue about.)


A perfect box of eggs


The words perfect and perfection are often misused. (See “The Perfect Game” in the appendix.) If there are a hundred questions on a test and you answer them all correctly, you are said to have a “perfect score.” But that’s like claiming that if you buy an item labeled “one dozen eggs” at the grocery store, and you take the item home and open it and, yes, there are twelve eggs in it, you have a perfect box of eggs.


Accuracy is not perfection.



Whether or not you use the vocabulary of religion, art is fundamentally spiritual. Any creation begins with an idea (inspiration) and gives it form and function—“the Word made flesh,” in a sense.


If you don’t yet understand this, it may become clear the first time you create something that is more than the sum of a series of mechanical processes… something that seems to have a life of its own. It’s like seeing your child, almost grown and blooming, and realizing that he is more than a genetic combination of his mother and father.


Except that you can’t go on creating children indefinitely, whereas your unique artistic capacity is infinite, once you find the source.



* Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. (accessed: September 02, 2007).


Lesson 7.1 Assignment

What are the meanings of metaphor?


Write one or two paragraphs (about fifty words) on the meaning of metaphor and the differences between metaphor and simile, with examples.


Please send assignments via e-mail to Submissions will not be graded but will be returned with comments.


Go to Lesson 8—Chapter 3: Art, Poetry, and Beauty