I’ve been spending the last month falling madly in love with the sculptor Edward McCartan, and was delighted to get yesterday my copy of his 1923 sculpture Diana.
Here’s the original. Aside from the beauty and elegance of the representation, what gives this sculpture its dynamism and meaning is the marvelous flow between the wolfhound and Diana’s restraint of him. To me, this sculpture magnificently expresses the essence of femininity. In the original myth, Diana dispatched her hunting dogs to kill Actaeon after he accidentally saw her nude at her bath. Here. the ravenous animal lunges for a chance to devour—he's pure id—but she restrains him with nothing more than a tiny leash, in just the way that a confident and sexy woman can, with sometimes the tiniest gesture, simultaneously provoke and enforce respect. Notice the way she holds the bow back with her left hand, not flung out—which might indicate a loss of control—but firm and disciplined, just enough to help her lean back against the animal. And that glorious left leg, striding forward, but only touching her toes to the ground, bold but delicate; utterly precise. In an age that decries “the male gaze,” this is a supremely politically incorrect work of art: it is entirely about what a woman represents to a man. Yet Diana is not a victim or a plaything in the least—on the contrary, she is a bold, self-possessed woman (a goddess, of course) and supremely unafraid. She is the one who holds the power, and she damn well knows it.
McCartan is little known today—I had not known of him until recently—but he was a genius at capturing femininity at its most compelling. Another masterpiece is Nymph and Satyr (1920)—a magnificent commentary on the negotiation of male and female.
Put aside the technical excellence (those shoulders!), and notice how the satyr is sneaking his left hand around to reach the fruit she holds. He’s smiling, no doubt saying something clever and calculated. But she is no fool—she’s looking him straight in the eye, and she is not going to give him her fruit unless she gets what she wants in return. She likes his attention, but she is not going to only play on his terms. And if there were any doubt what this sculpture means, note the diagonals: the satyr's leg and chest align perfectly with her groin on one side, and their arms with the other, intersecting at her delta, which is the very center of the sculpture. This is the sexiest work of art—and I mean that in a serious, spiritual sense—that I’ve seen in a long time.
And then there’s this: Girl Drinking from A Shell (1915) (sometimes called Nymph Drinking from a Shell).
Once again, the pose is light and alive, the balance believable yet ideal. Here is a girl on the brink of womanhood, strikingly symbolized by her just beginning to take a drink. But she is no naif, and certainly not a victim. The best part of this piece is her face—serious, prepared, and, again, unafraid. McCartan is said to have been an admirer of Houdon, and you can tell from this face.
One source I read claims McCartan was also an admirer of Rodin, but that Rodin had little artistic influence on him except for a sculpture of a mother kissing her child, but I was only able to find one crude photo of it. It looks great, but I can only imagine how lovely the real thing must be.
Edward McCartan’s best known work is the pediment over the doors of the Helmsley Building in Manhattan (model for the Taggart Transcontinental Building for you Atlas Shrugged fans). And he did a few other monumental pieces. But his sculptures of women—many of which depict Diana—are breathtaking in their beauty, their poise, their confidence, and their humanity.
Flipping through the latest issue of Poetry magazine (why do I do this to myself?) it occurred to me that for the grievance and protest poets out there, politics is the message the poem seeks to convey—but that in reality, the politics is what holds the (purported) poem together in lieu of form.
Stick with me here: a lyric poem is about creating a mental structure to convey an idea or an impression. The meter, the rhyme, all that formal stuff is designed to establish a frame so that the poem’s substantive “argument” fits into the logical patterns the brain has evolved to expect. In that sense, a poem is very much like a joke: a joke also establishes a mental frame and then follows it up with something that’s “apt” or “fitting”—namely, the punch-line—which in a perverse way fits into the logical structure that the joke has established. That’s why many jokes come in “triples”—for example, the old joke about the Frenchman, the German, and the Rabbi who are lost in the desert; the Frenchman says “Oh, I’m so thirsty! I must have wine!”; the German says, “Oh, I’m so thirsty! I must have beer!” and the Rabbi says, “Oh, I’m so thirsty! I must have diabetes!”
The form (i.e., the triple) helps to set up expectations in the listener which the punch-line then disarms in a way that, in retrospect, has a perverse sort of logic to it, and that expresses some amusing conclusion, like a twisted sort of syllogism.
A poem does something similar. The formal trappings—including not just the rhyme scheme, but the metaphors and such, also—help create expectations in the reader that the conclusion then follows up in some apt or fitting way. A good sonnet is the clearest example of this: the envoi ties up all the rest in a neat, insightful, and memorable little package.
But for free-verse, anti-formalist poets, there has to be some substitute for this in order for the work to not melt into mere prose—a fate many fall into anyway. So what’s the substitute for form? It’s politics or ideology, as expressed in the poem itself. If you connect with your reader through something like hating Donald Trump, then that can perform the same function (crudely) as connecting with your audience with rhythm, vocabulary, metaphor, and such. Then you can basically rant as you like, and the readers will follow along because they’re already in that mindset.
In my view, this makes for lazy, redundant, forgettable, bland, me-too style poetry, but I suspect it’s one reason why there seems to be such a strong trend among the activist poets toward this kind of “verse.” Or I could be completely wrong. It’s just a thought I had.