Tag Archives: Norman Swartz

Belching Doom Kangaroo

How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically

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

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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.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definition, accessed January 12, 2008

** Assembled from numerous Random Sentence Generators on the Internet

*** MedicineNet.com 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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Bed), “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.