"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Monday, February 28, 2011

American / British / Indiana Gothic


You probably don't need me or Wikipedia to tell you that Grant Wood's American Gothic "is one of the most familiar images in 20th century American art, and one of the most parodied artworks within American popular culture. . . . one of the most reproduced – and parodied – images ever. Many artists have replaced the two people with other known couples and replaced the house with well known houses."

As you can see, this is just what my friends and I have done! First of all, in the picture above, my neighbors Katy and Peter got dressed up and posed in front of an historic Indiana frame house in our neighborhood. Then their talented daughter Emily took a photograph and added her own artistic finishing touches.

In the pictures below, I was photographing my British in - laws along with some gardening tools that they had been given on their 50th Wedding Anniversary. Inspired by that stark English sky, I suddenly had the idea to pose them just so and then juxtapose their photograph with the original.

Ron might have been having a little bit too much fun,
but Rosanne really caught the spirit!

British / American Gothic

The painting is also the inspiration behind a number of American poems, including

American Gothic
after the painting by Grant Wood, 1930

Just outside the frame
there has to be a dog
chickens, cows and hay

and a smokehouse
where a ham in hickory
is also being preserved

Here for all time
the borders of the Gothic window
anticipate the ribs

of the house
the tines of the pitchfork
repeat the triumph

of his overalls
and front and center
the long faces, the sober lips

above the upright spines
of this couple
arrested in the name of art

These two
by now
the sun this high

ought to be
in mortal time
about their businesses

Instead they linger here
within the patient fabric
of the lives they wove

he asking the artist silently
how much longer
and worrying about the crops

she no less concerned about the crops
but more to the point just now
whether she remembered

to turn off the stove.

by John Stone (b. 1936 - )
found in Where Water Begins, 1998

and this one by one of my favorite poets, William Stafford (click for a reading):

American Gothic
If we see better through tiny,
grim glasses, we like to wear
tiny, grim glasses.
Our parents willed us this
view. It's tundra? We love it.

We travel our kind of
Renaissance: barnfuls of hay,
whole voyages of corn, and
a book that flickers its
halo in the parlor.

Poverty plus confidence equals
pioneers. We never doubted.

by William Stafford, 1914 - 1993
in The Way It Is, 1999

Is it that we are reminded of ourselves when we see American Gothic? Or, as Stafford says, maybe our parents? Or, more likely, our grandparents or great-grandparents. Stafford hints at faith and endurance. Both poems express the sense we get when looking at the painting that life is just so daily, as indeed it is. Stone mentions patience and points out that even the things not visible -- the farm animals, the smokehouse -- would be mundane, entirely predictable. The worried thoughts within the minds of the farmer and the housewife are routine, quotidian.

Yet life can also be so surprisingly strange, so Gothic, like that window. The house may look ordinary, but the window does not. In the middle of my farmyard, here's art! Inside my house, here's a tapestry! Inside my barn, here's a perpetual Renaissance!

!How cute is this?
My older sister & brother dressed up Grant Wood Style!
1955 or so

Next Fortnightly Post
Monday, March 14, 2011

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

You might also enjoy my previous posts on the poetry of William Stafford:

9 January 2010
26 February 2010
11 June 2010
18 November 2010

Monday, February 14, 2011

Cold Morning Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye

Happy Valentine's Day:
"Come and sit by my side if you love me!"


"Look around you, look up here
Take time to make time, make time to be there
Look around, be a part
Feel for the winter, but don't have a cold heart"

lyrics from "Lady"
by The Little River Band

I first discovered the poems of Naomi Shihab back in 1975, in a publication called Power: Personal Reflections by Youth for Youth. My friends and I enjoyed subscribing to this little St. Louis - based poetry magazine and ordering gift subscriptions for each other every Christmas. Although Naomi didn't know it, I was her groupie in those days and copied all of her work into a notebook that I kept throughout high school and college. The following cold morning poems have long been among my favorites:

I would be no one.
I would have no head, no hair, no comb.
I would be the thin mist in the air of a cold morning;

I would rise and disappear early, before the sun
and the noisy streets and everyone moving.

I would hum and greet you when you awaken,
with no words, no face, no promise but my love,
like a river.

I would be here, be here, be here invisible, forever --
when all the braver ones have gone to hide --
when all these tears have years and years been dried.

It is a new day, chill and icy like a cold, sharp, knife.
It is a new day in a long line of new days in a life.


I walk in wonder to watch
The bundled people in the early light returning with nods
A morning hello

And to think we felt alone all night.

Now, I think I might read this second poem somewhat differently than I did back in the years when I was first such a fan of Naomi Shihab's youthful poetry. More often than not, the "bundled people" do not respond with a nod or a morning hello. No acknowledgement whatsoever of your shared humanity on this planet. Life can seem so harsh, making it through the maze of obligations and errands, dealing with this conflict or that, so many daily unpleasantries. Then, as evening falls, home at last to the inner sanctum of family, friends, and loved ones. Such security!

And to think we felt alone all day!

Home Sweet Home

Here is one more "cold morning" poem, written some twenty years later than those above. This one carries a more somber tone, a sense of loss, and a bit less certainty that all is now or ever will be right with the world:

Once with my scarf knotted over my mouth
I lumbered into a storm of snow up the long hill
and did not know where I was going except to the top of it.
In those days we went out like that.
Even children went out like that.
Someone was crying hard at home again,
raging blizzard of sobs.

I dragged the sled by its rope,
which we normally did not do
when snow was coming down so hard,
pulling my brother whom I called by our secret name
as if we could be other people under the skin.
The snow bit into my face, prickling the rim
of the head where the hair starts coming out.
And it was a big one. It would come down and down
for days. People would dig their cars out like potatoes.

How are you doing back there? I shouted,
and he said Fine, I’m doing fine,
in the sunniest voice he could muster
and I think I should love him more today
for having used it.

At the top we turned and he slid down,
steering himself with the rope gripped in
his mittened hands. I stumbled behind
sinking deeply, shouting Ho! Look at him go!
as if we were having a good time.
Alone on the hill. That was the deepest
I ever went into the snow. Now I think of it
when I stare at paper or into silences
between human beings. The drifting
accumulation. A father goes months
without speaking to his son.

How there can be a place
so cold any movement saves you.

Ho! You bang your hands together,
stomp your feet. The father could die!
The son! Before the weather changes.

from Fuel

all poems by Naomi Shihab Nye (b 1952)
Contemporary Palestinian / American Poet

A few more of my Naomi Shihab Nye favorites from the mid - 1970s appear in previous posts:

Intellectual Cup of Lyrics (November 4, 2009)


"My Cat" & "Feeding the Cat"
Quotidian Cat (November 6, 2009)

and one more

"Spiritual Journey"
can be found in the right hand column of mantras on
The Quotidian Kit:

"Where are you on
your spiritual journey?"
you ask, your sharp eyes
thumbtacking the question
on my heart.

What can I say?
I am somewhere beyond "go"
I have not stopped.

Years have shown me
the idea of travelling
is a game we play with ourselves
to pretend we're not home.

Next Fortnightly Post
Monday, February 28, 2011

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading