I recently went to a poetry reading at one of our local bookstores. I didn’t know the writer’s poetry, I only knew his reputation, which was considerable. As it turned out, I was deeply disappointed. As my friend Sally would have said as she left after only a few verses—if she’d been there in the first place: “There was no word magic.”
I didn’t leave, and I was glad I didn’t because towards the end of the session he explained himself. He strives to be ordinary, he said, to write the way ordinary people talk, to be natural. I wanted to cry out, “But how easily the ordinary can become the trite, the trivial!” I didn’t. The applause for him was too loud. No one would have heard me. Besides, I have no courage.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the ordinary. I even cherish it. The ordinary keeps us safe from the disorienting experiences of the extraordinary. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Life by the clock . Life shaped by household objects in tract houses—or, at the very least, by the activities and things of our every day.
The ordinary enables us to get through life in the face of death. If every day was Wagnerian, life would be impossible.
Still, I always thought poetry was supposed to free us from the humdrum, to enable us to experience what is amazing. None of his verses did that for me.
Not long after, sitting in the waiting room of my optometrist, I discovered an article in the August Smithsonian. (The magazine was so full of things I wanted to know about, and the glasses so expensive, I actually,and with barely a qualm, stole it.) The story was about photographer William Eggleston’s 1970 picture of a tricycle in the suburbs. “Perfectly banal,” said critic Hilton Kramer. “Perfectly boring.”
The photograph, and the MOMA show where it first saw the light of day represented a turn to color. An odd choice of subjects, perhaps, to employ color. Kramer complained that the show was made up of “dismal figures inhabiting a commonplace world of little visual interest.”
It wasn’t that homely objects hadn’t been photographed before—but they were generally beautifully wrought: hand tools, pottery, food…. Many people, like the writer, Eudora Welty, found Eggleston’s choice of objects more challenging. “The extraordinary, compelling, honest, beautiful and unsparing photographs all have to do with the quality of our lives in the ongoing world: they succeed in showing us the grain of the present, like the cross-section of a tree…. They focus on the mundane world. But no subject is fuller of implications than the mundane world.”
Says Mark Feeney, the author of the Smithsonian article: “for Eggleston, the profane is what’s sacred. Has anyone ever evoked the enchantment of the banal quite so well? “I am at war with the obvious,” he has said.
I’ve looked at the tricycle again. Perhaps it is more than obvious. But the poet….? I’m still missing something, I guess.