On Being An Aesthete

72-1I’ve never really liked aesthetic theory. I studied quite a bit as an MFA student years ago but haven’t continued. As interesting as it is to learn what writers and artists think “good” is, thinking about “good” can be distracting, an invisible, meddling hand.

Impatience also prevents me from learning. Theorists push me toward affirmation or argument whereas I’m improvisational, hoping for discovery and skeptical of restrictions. Artistic goals re-form like horizons as I walk, work. Sometimes, just the next word or mark appears. Sometimes rhythm lays down tracks to follow.

I fail often and hope to see failure rising up the next time so I can skirt it.

Orson Welles despised the necessity of being “with it,” for, he said, “an artist always has to be out of step with his time.” Mostly, I think he’s wrong—who would an artist be talking to if not to his or her contemporaries?—but I get his thinking about being out of step, that required estrangement. I wonder if anyone would read or listen or watch or look if all art verified the perceiver’s own limited experience. In that sense, maybe aesthetic theory could be helpful. It could shake your frame, throw perspective out of angle. Some artists seem to benefit from knowing what others do so they can do their own thing.

But I prefer finding out for myself, trying, trying, trying until some anchor holds.

For the last month or so, I’ve been writing haibun (I posted a sample recently) and have been thinking much more deliberately about what I’m doing. Composing in an established form means, on the most fundamental level, making your work recognizably fit. With haibun, that’s easy enough. The convention requires prose and haiku. If you look at the page and see a paragraph and a three-line poem—or any variation on that order and number of paragraphs and haiku—you’re looking at a haibun.

Form, however, is paradoxical. As limiting as any rule might appear, rules invariably require a higher order of resourcefulness. Dancing on one square meter of floor space would quickly become tiresome, but if you moved brilliantly, inventively, startlingly… your dance might be more impressive than one granted the whole stage.

Restrictions lead into subtle territory. With haibun, you ask how the prose and haiku interact, whether the haiku echoes, complements, or disturbs the prose. You ask which comes first, whether one supersedes the other in flash or substance, which might stand out of the way for the other, or what balance or imbalance creates the greatest dissonance or harmony. Looking at each element independently, you might experiment with purely evocative prose or purely metaphoric haiku. Or reverse that. Or even it out.

Most importantly, you do whatever you didn’t last time and see what happens. Robert Frost’s famous description of free verse—“tennis without a net”—disrespects barriers artists make, form created themselves, rules forged… and then pointedly violated. “Art,” Alfred North Whitehead said, “is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is the recognition of the pattern.” The pattern’s source, convention or invention, matters little. Something tells us we’re in familiar and unfamiliar territory, which is where we want to be.

I’m aware of the hypocrisy of beginning by rejecting aesthetic theory and then writing like an aesthete, but I’ll offer this defense—ultimately, you make any theory your own, never absorbing what you might test instead. Only then do you make making your own.


Note: My celebration of NaPoWriMo is to write a haibun for each day of April. I’ve cheated—I’m 16 ahead. But I intend to reach 30 no matter what, and, for April, I’ll be posting a haibun each Thursday in addition to my regular posts on Tuesdays and Saturdays.


Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Art, Essays, Haibun, Haiku, Identity, Meditations, NaNoWriMo, NaPoWriMo, Play, Poetry, Thoughts, Visual Art, Work

5 responses to “On Being An Aesthete

  1. Speaking of tennis, can we play “Quote Tennis”?

    “Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is the recognition of the pattern.”

    “What matters within any particular formal decorum is variation: the making of pattern along with the simultaneous disruption of pattern.”

    “I fail often and hope to see failure rising up the next time so I can skirt it.”

    “Failure is the key to success. Every mistake teaches us something.”

    As to horizons, may I yet again be a bit narcissistic by pointing you back at some things I wrote?


    The concept of “horizon” is one that I find myself returning to again and again and here you have shown how fitting it is as an image for artistic growth and the need for unclear, fuzzy boundaries. We must be ever vigilant and watchful for too-solid, too-fixed ideas.

    So many wonderful, quotable lines here, David. This jibed with my thinking on so many levels that I will have to return to it when I have more time.

    I look forward to your haibun.
    And I’m kind of cheating too. I just plan on posting one poem a day, even if it means finishing something that I’ve already begun. I have a lot of stuff in the oven…

    • dmarshall58

      I love your quotations… and to be included among them is an honor. I am no Alfred North Whitehead, that’s for sure.

      As I often say to students, it’s not about this poem but about poetry. If you’re able to get some valuable experience in April, that’s great. Where the poems come from—and whether you make it to the end—is less important than the doing. –D

      • “it’s not about this poem but about poetry” So true. It’s about the act,
        the striving,
        the spiraling staircase
        in this Babeling Tower
        that we tread ever-upward.

      • dmarshall58

        Apparently one of my colleagues heard me saying “it’s not this piece of writing really, but writing” and has been saying it to his students. I wish I could take credit for it. One of my poetry teachers said it to me. Thanks for commenting. –D

  2. Pingback: Thursday Haibun (Episode One) | Signals to Attend

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