Poetry Sunday: “Ars Poetica,” by Diane K. Martin


Poet’s Note

Vivian Maier was a street photographer, entirely unknown in her lifetime, who supported herself by working as a nanny and whose 150,000 pictures were taken in her spare time. Her photos, largely black and white, mostly of street scenes in Chicago and New York in the 1950s and 1960s, show people on the margins of affluent America. The twin-lens Rolleiflex she used is carried low—the photographer looks down into the ground glass of the viewfinder—and it allows eye contact between shooter and subject.

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
Everyone keeps telling me I’ve got to watch the documentary called Searching for Vivian Maier and this poem clinches it. What a fascinating subject! Vivian Maier is kind of like the Emily Dickinson of photography, right? Another great poem for Women’s History Month, “Ars Poetica” celebrates a woman artist whose work did not become known and appreciated until after her death, a true sister of the overlooked poets called out in Kim Bridgford’s “To the Women Poets” featured here on the first Sunday this month. And, like last week’s poem, “Instructions, Final: To Brown Poets from Black Girl with Silver Leica,” it also features a camera.
The term “ars poetica” originated in the title of Horace’s poem meditating on the art and techniques of poetry, but has come to mean an artistic dedication of creed, a sort of “why-I-write” piece.  Today’s poem can certainly be read that way, as in I write to sing unsung heroes like Vivian Maier, or I write in order not to be unseen and unheard as Vivian Maier was, in her lifetime, unseen and unheard. Art can crystallize a human life or spirit, and time’s sieve does the rest so that sometimes, as with Maier’s photographs and Dickinson’s poems, what is worth saving is retained and eventually (if posthumously) appreciated. More importantly for many of us, though, art gives us a voice while we are still alive.
So, the poem can in fact be read as an ars poetica, but in line 1 it also calls itself an “ode,” a traditional form and subset of occasional poetry written to celebrate a particular occasion or person. [Lewis Turco, The Book of Forms (University Press of New England 2000), p. 216.] The ode, or praise poem, has been popular for centuries. Greek odes followed a particular format and were performed with musical accompaniment. Odes popular in nineteenth century England were lyrical stanzas often following in a rhyme scheme; Keats’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn” is a well-known example. Neruda wrote free verse odes that paid tribute to humble subjects, such as “Ode to an Onion” and “Ode to my Socks,” and Sharon Olds recently published Odes, a book of poems that include “Ode to my Whiteness” and “Ode to the Tampon.”
Today’s poem pays homage not just to its purported subject, Vivian Maier, but to all women, artists or not, whose creative work remains unknown. Men are sometimes underappreciated and ignored too, of course, but this poem’s particular interest is women relegated to supportive roles, often in the service of men whose art is recognized. The overlooked includes the anonymous women “who wove tapestries” now recognized among the world’s great treasures, “Shakespeare’s sister” (more on this below), and finally, the women who made and carried urns like the one praised in Keats’s famous poem.

Intrigued by the idea of “Shakespeare’s sister,” I did a little research. The words seem to designate a helpmate, the stock artist’s wife, mistress, or muse who enables a master to create his important, recognized art, and they make me remember Camille Claudel, the artist who carved the hands and feet of so many of Rodin’s sculptures. But I think “Shakespeare’s sister” is also a reference to a character who shows up in Virginia Woolf’s powerful feminist essay, “A Room of One’s Own.” A manifesto on the foundational conditions required for women to be able to create art, the essay includes this vignette:

I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee’s life of the poet. She died young — alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed.  .  .  . This may be true or it may be false — who can say? — but what is true in it, so it seemed to me, reviewing the story of Shakespeare’s sister as I had made it, is that any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at. For it needs little skill in psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty.  .  .  . To have lived a free life in London in the sixteenth century would have meant for a woman who was a poet and playwright a nervous stress and dilemma which might well have killed her. Had she survived, whatever she had written would have been twisted and deformed, issuing from a strained and morbid imagination. And undoubtedly, I thought, looking at the shelf where there are no plays by women, her work would have gone unsigned. [From Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One’s Own.

Martin’s “Ars Poetica” adopts the form of unrhymed free verse quatrains. Meter fluctuates, but the four-beat (tetramer) line dominates. Except for line 2, line breaks are conventional and occur where we’d take a breath; 10 of 15 lines are end-stopped and coincide with marks of punctuation indicating a pause. The first three quatrains (lines 1-9) focus on Maier and her art, sketching the arc of her life (“insignificant upbringing,” “babysitter,” “nanny,” and “alone”), describing how she practiced her art (street photography) and who she captured as her subjects (“shadows, reflections,” and people on the margins of affluent society). The last two stanzas are more lyrical and use metaphor (“the found poem” submitted to the certain oblivion of a small Midwestern press) together with anaphora and direct address (“O . . .  O . . . O . . .”) to communicate the author’s passion for her subject. The poem ends in a triumphant, passionate lyric that does its best to make up for society’s failure to acknowledge Maier’s work. I appreciate Martin’s “Ars Poetica” for its aspirations, both universal (celebrating all unknown women artists) and personal (the poet singing out so that she will not herself disappear without a trace in the annals of history), and I’m happy to bring it to you today as another poem that celebrates National Women’s History Month.]]>

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