Tuesday, January 27, 2009

ideas as comfortable as chairs


Chagall liked chairs and tables overturned,
but not the right way up. I think that old
ideas should all be similarly spurned,
because they lead to paths that are potholed.
It’s possible to polish them like fur-
niture, provided that you first remove
their legs, and view them like a connoisseur,
objectively, as ready to disprove
the premises on which they have been based
as you are to upend your chairs and tables,
which very often need to be replaced,
not fashionable for ever like old fables.
When your ideas are comfortable as chairs,
they may need, like old furniture, repairs.

Linda’s suggestion for the first four lines is:

Chagall liked chairs and tables overturned,
but not the right way up. I think that glutted
concepts should be similarly spurned,
because they lead to pitted paths all rutted.

Inspired by a quotation by Chagall that inspired “The Tables Freed,” by Kay Ryan, one of the poems in her collection “Flamingo Watching”. I cite below the poem and the Chagall quotation that inspired it:


The presence of real objects is a nightmare for me. I have always overturned objects. A chair or a table turned upside down gives me peace and satisfaction. Chagall.

A companionable flood can
make things wobble. The
sober table at last enjoys
the bubbles locked in her
grain, straining together
good as Egyptians to shift
the predictable plane.
Dense plates and books
slide off and dive or bloat
but she floats, a legged
boat nosing the helpless
stationeries, the bolted
basin, the metal reliquaries––
in short, the nouns. All over
town tables are bumping
out of doors, negotiating
streets and beginning to
meet at water corners
like packs of mustangs,
blue, red, yellow, stenciled,
enlivened by swells as
wild horses are stretched
liquid and elegant by hills.

The day after I wrote this poem, David Brooks wrote an article (“What Life Asks of Us,” NYT, January 27, 2009), underscoring the importance of institutional thinkingg. The implication of his article is that one should study furniture before throwing out old tables and chairs. Brooks writes:
A few years ago, a faculty committee at Harvard produced a report on the purpose of education. “The aim of a liberal education” the report declared, “is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves.” The report implied an entire way of living. Individuals should learn to think for themselves. They should be skeptical of pre-existing arrangements. They should break free from the way they were raised, examine life from the outside and discover their own values. This approach is deeply consistent with the individualism of modern culture, with its emphasis on personal inquiry, personal self-discovery and personal happiness. But there is another, older way of living, and it was discussed in a neglected book that came out last summer called “On Thinking Institutionally” by the political scientist Hugh Heclo. In this way of living, to borrow an old phrase, we are not defined by what we ask of life. We are defined by what life asks of us. As we go through life, we travel through institutions — first family and school, then the institutions of a profession or a craft. Each of these institutions comes with certain rules and obligations that tell us how to do what we’re supposed to do. Journalism imposes habits that help reporters keep a mental distance from those they cover. Scientists have obligations to the community of researchers. In the process of absorbing the rules of the institutions we inhabit, we become who we are. New generations don’t invent institutional practices. These practices are passed down and evolve. So the institutionalist has a deep reverence for those who came before and built up the rules that he has temporarily taken delivery of. “In taking delivery,” Heclo writes, “institutionalists see themselves as debtors who owe something, not creditors to whom something is owed.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/26/09

1 comment:

  1. I like the way you've encapsulated 'go for change' by anthropomorphizing, almost, the furniture. Art, poetry, can do that but like clowns who have to be as clever as the acrobats they're whackily imitating the artist has to acknowledge that his/her presentation is standing on the shoulders of those 'institutions' which have served well for so long. As for political change, that's scary; Obama's call for 'change' is actually for a revolution - but a nice safe one. So reconsidering presumptions and cultural institutions are a quiet way of approaching a complete change of behavior: try it out on a canvas first, or a novel or a poem. But don't try it in the kitchen until you're sure it won't poison anyone. Still... I do like your poem, Gersh.