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Jackson Pollock on Art, Labels, and Morality, Shortly Before His Death

“Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.”

In 1957, writer, public intellectual, lifelong art aficionado, and self-described “aging anthologist” Selden Rodman collected several dozen of his informal, lively, amusing, and insightful interviews with iconic artists and architects — including Frank Lloyd Wright, Willem de Kooning, and Saul Steinberg — in Conversations with Artists (public library). Among the conversations is one with Jackson Pollockbeloved artist and son of one particularly great dad — which took place eight weeks before Pollock, driving under the influence of alcohol, crashed in his Oldsmobile convertible into a tree and died.

But on that June evening in 1956, Rodman bumped into a tipsy Pollock en route to a dive bar party following the opening of Willem de Kooning’s show at the Sidney Janis Gallery. When Rodman, tipsy as well, runs into Pollock near Astor Place, the painter suddenly reaches out, grabs the runt of a nearby tree, and weaves into an oddly philosophical meditation:

“What’s the use of going further than this?,” he muttered. “The tree’s got everythin’. Leave it alone and it’ll grow and grow an’ be beautiful. … No need to leave New York at all. … Thish tree’s got everythin’ … beautiful … beautiful …!” And he drifted off into the moonlit fog of dawn, dropping a package of matches. I stopped over and picked it up. The words printed on it said: “There are good jobs for everyone in the telephone business.”

About a month later, Rodman calls Pollock — who famously doesn’t answer letters — to arrange a visit. He coordinates with his wife, Lee Krasner, an abstract painter herself. Eventually, he makes his way to the family’s home in East Hampton, where Pollock emerges to greet him “in nondescript blue slacks and a T-shirt, bearded and bleary-eyed, like a bear.” Pollock’s way of conversation, Rodman notes, bespeaks a great deal of his character:

He talks with difficulty, searching painfully, almost agonizingly, for the right word, with constant apologies “for not being verbal.” The sincerity of the man is overwhelmingly apparent. He is uncouth and inarticulate and arrogant and very sure of his place in art and of the importance of the movement with which he is associated, but there is not a race of showmanship or phoniness in his make-up. He is friendly and warm-hearted — though he resists showing it, and no doubt would like to be though ruthless and without sentiment. In respect to his art, of course, he is; and this may be the tragic conflict that both makes his painting what it is and accounts for his inability to carry it further.

Jackson Pollock

When asked “to elaborate on the business of labels,” Pollock grunts:

“I don’t care for ‘abstract expressionism,'” he said, “and it’s certainly not ‘nonobjective’ and not ‘nonrepresentational’ either. I’m very representational some of the time, and a little all of the time. But when you’re painting out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge. We’re all of us influenced by Freud, I guess. I’ve been a Jungian for a long time.

When Rodman probes about Pollock’s process, the painter offers a strikingly articulate addition to history’s finest definitions of art:

Something in me knows where I’m going, and — well, painting is a state of being. … Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.

Later in the conversation, Pollock reflects on the inherent duality of human character:

It’s a different age we live in. It’s an age of indeterminacy, perhaps. Morals are indeterminate compared with other times. YOu don’t call a thing or a person ‘good’ or ‘bad’ the way you could one. We know there’s good and bad in everyone. This indeterminacy comes out in our painting. Perhaps it’s why we’re not interested in making portraits. That would be too precise a statement to lend itself to painting as we practice it.

He admonishes against vacant imitation:

When you try to emulate the old masters … you get corn, real corn. Bits of Renaissance pastiche are still bits of Renaissance pastiche, no matter how blurred you make them.

‘Autumn Rhythm’ by Jackson Pollock, 1950, enamel on canvas

Later, he takes a jab at Frank Lloyd Wright, who had designed the Guggenheim Museum’s iconic cylindrical structure, and the very notion of museums:

As for Wright, he’s a great architect, I guess, but what a *%@#! That museum! We’ve had all this trouble in doing away with the frame — and now this. Paintings don’t need all this fooling around. The hell with museums! Put the paintings in a room and look at ’em — isn’t that enough? You remember that old building where the Museum of Modern Art started? What was wrong with that? I was in a house designed by Mies once; I felt so taut I couldn’t say anything.

Pollock is equally dismissive of another facet of the art establishment, the critics and the press:

None of the art magazines are worth anything. Nobody takes them seriously. The’r a bunch of snobs.

‘The Key’ by Jackson Pollock, 1946, oil on canvas (Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago)

And just when you think Pollock’s delightfully curmudgeonly side has blossomed fully, an incident out of an old Hollywood movie: He invites Rodman to see his studio, but finds it padlocked, with no key in sight. So he does the most natural — at least to Pollock, evidently — thing:

We waited while he went back into the house. In about five minutes he returned, shaking his head. “Lee hasn’t got one either. There just isn’t any key,” he smiled wryly. “There’s something for the analyst!” he said “The painter locks himself out of his own studio. And then has to break it like a thief.”

Before we could stop him he had smashed a pane of glass.

“Couldn’t we force the window?” I said.

He tried, but without success. There were wedges nailed in from the inside.

“Damn!” With his elbow he smashed another pane, and then another, tearing away the wooden strips between them. “Wait. I’ll get a hammer and really go to work on this.” He ran back to the house while we collected the splintered glass in a pile. Returning with the hammer, he finally managed to raise the lower half of the window and, shoving a table covered with dusty sketches out of the way, stepped in. We followed him. The main studio was an extraordinary sight. Huge paintings, some of them twenty or more feet long, demonstrated clearly enough what he had meant. They weren’t French, or even American. They were simply Pollock. Paint laced, slashed or dripped on canvas after canvas, but always arrestingly, authoritatively, as only he can do it: undeniably the expression of a tormented but vital personality.

As the afternoon’s adventure comes to an end, Pollock’s singular blend of single-mindedness and sensitivity shines through:

As we walked toward the window to climb out, he took a look back into the lair of creative devastation.

“These paintings, the ones I’ve kept, are my securities. They’re all I’ve got left.” He leaned out the window and looked at the view of the distant pond.

“Painting is my whole life…”

Conversations with Artists is a treasure trove in its entirety — highly recommended.


Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to the Book”

“When I close a book I open life… I learned about life from life itself, love I learned in a single kiss…”

“A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic,” cosmic sage Carl Sagan memorably proclaimed. Books, indeed, are worthy of the deepest kind of cosmic awe, awe so profound it borders on the ineffable — so much so that only the most articulate of poets can fully capture its expansive magnitude. To celebrate National Poetry Month, I asked the inimitable Tom O’Bedlam — whose mesmerizing voice you might recall from “Gabriel” by Adrienne Rich and “Antilamentation” by Dorianne Laux — to read “Ode to the Book” by Pablo Neruda, translated by Nathaniel Tarn and found in the anthology Selected Poems (public library). Enjoy:

When I close a book
I open life.
I hear
faltering cries
among harbors.
Copper ingots
slide down sand-pits
to Tocopilla.
Night time.
Among the islands
our ocean
throbs with fish,
touches the feet, the thighs,
the chalk ribs
of my country.
The whole of night
clings to its shores, by dawn
it wakes up singing
as if it had excited a guitar.

The ocean’s surge is calling.
The wind
calls me
and Rodriguez calls,
and Jose Antonio–
I got a telegram
from the “Mine” Union
and the one I love
(whose name I won’t let out)
expects me in Bucalemu.

No book has been able
to wrap me in paper,
to fill me up
with typography,
with heavenly imprints
or was ever able
to bind my eyes,
I come out of books to people orchards
with the hoarse family of my song,
to work the burning metals
or to eat smoked beef
by mountain firesides.
I love adventurous
books of forest or snow,
depth or sky
but hate
the spider book
in which thought
has laid poisonous wires
to trap the juvenile
and circling fly.
Book, let me go.
I won’t go clothed
in volumes,
I don’t come out
of collected works,
my poems
have not eaten poems–
they devour
exciting happenings,
feed on rough weather,
and dig their food
out of earth and men.
I’m on my way
with dust in my shoes
free of mythology:
send books back to their shelves,
I’m going down into the streets.
I learned about life
from life itself,
love I learned in a single kiss
and could teach no one anything
except that I have lived
with something in common among men,
when fighting with them,
when saying all their say in my song.

Tom, whose exquisite spoken verse you can hear on YouTube, shares some words of wisdom on the fundamental challenge of reading poetry in translation:

Translations of free verse are particularly hard to read. The original poems have flow and melody — these are usually lost in translation. The translator creates phrases that are really difficult to utter with confidence and it’s always hard to choose a safe path through the syntax.

And yet the stroll along the path he takes us on feels effortless and beautiful — what a gift.

Complement with some invaluable thoughts on how to enjoy poetry.


On Loves, Lunacies, and Losses: The Little-Known Poetry of Mark Twain

“Advance your cue and shut your eyes / And take the cushion first.”

Literary history is peppered with famed novelists who also wrote verse — James Joyce, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury. Even such unlikely cultural icons as Marilyn Monroe found refuge in poetic practice.

Some time ago, while doing some research for my Twain-related labor of love, I came upon On the Poetry of Mark Twain with Selections from His Verse (public library) — a 1966 gem, published by the University of Illinois, in which Arthur L. Scott sets out to debunk Twain’s famous “literary declaration” that he detests poetry. Instead, Scott demonstrates that Twain’s impulsive remark was more likely a reflection of his skill at poetic practice — “the Muse of formal poetry held Mark Twain at arm’s length,” writes Scott — rather than of his affection for the form. For a man who “detested poetry,” Twain produced more than 120 poems over the course of his life — 95 humorous and 31 serious, with the majority of the latter written after 1890, when life began to throw Twain devastation after devastation.

Scott notes:

To compare Mark Twain’s early verse to his late is a bit like comparing a clown to a tragedian. In their unpretentious areas, many of the early poems are quite successful. The serious poems are less spontaneous, but their lack of gusto is offset by the increase in emotional and intellectual content. They show also that Mark Twain had improved in poetic imagination, sensitivity, and discipline. His good ear and his originality were qualities he had from the start; but it took time for him to cultivate expository power, verbal felicity, and — above all — a genuine respect for poetry as a vehicle of serious expression.


The worst is embarrassing. The best may not make the soul soar, but it is good enough and extensive enough to prove that here is a novelist who did more than merely dabble in verse. The range of his poetry in both topic and mood is immense. The trivialities and ‘hogwash’ are offset by poems of unquestionable power in a number of diverse fields.


They help suggest that Mark Twain’s so-called ‘literary declaration’ about detesting poetry has been common currency for too long. … It may take time for us to learn to ignore Mark wain’s hasty declaration and to convince ourselves that the evidence all proves that, in truth, he loved poetry.

Here are seven of Twain’s poems that fall on various points of the spectrum, from the playful to the poignant, and land with equal delight.

‘Last Meeting & Final Parting,’ which Scott calls ‘the gayest poem of the early 1890’s,’ was not written for publication but entered in the guest book of Twain’s good friend Laurence Hutton, then literary editor of Harper’s Magazine.

More than four decades after his advice to little girls, Twain penned some verses for one of the favorite little girls in his club, which he called the Aquarium, trailing off into complete deviation from the meter and ending with a note of playful self-awareness:


Be good, be good, be always good,
And now & then be clever,
But don’t you ever be too good,
Nor ever be too clever;

For such as be too awful good
They awful lonely are,
And such as often clever be
Get cut & stung & trodden on by persons of lesser mental capacity, for this kind do by a law of their construction regard exhibitions of superior intellectuality as an offensive impertinence leveled at their lack of this high gift, & are prompt to resent such-like exhibitions in the manner above indicated — & are they justifiable? Alas, alas they

(It is not best to go on; I think the line is already longer than it ought to be for real true poetry.)

Though spoken by the narrator of Twain’s Jumping Frog tale, this sketch could easily apply to the author himself:


Was he a mining on the flat —
He done it with a zest;
Was he a leading of the choir —
He done his level best.

If he’d a reglar task to do,
He never took no rest;
Or if twas off-and-on — the same —
He done his level best.

If he was preachin on his beat,
He’d tramp from east to west,
And north to south — in cold and heat
He done his level best.

He’d yank a sinner outen (Hades)
And land him with the blest —
Then snatch a prayer ‘n waltz in again,
And do his level best.

He’d cuss and sing and howl and pray,
And dance and drink and jest,
And lie and steal — all one to him —
He done his level best.

Whate’er this man was sot to do,
He done it with a zest:
No matter what his contract was,

Adding to history’s famous fatherly advice, Twain takes on Hamlet:


Beware of the spoken word! Be wise;
Bury thy thoughts in thy breast;
Nor let thoughts that are unnatural
Be ever in acts expressed.

Be thou courteous and kindly toward all —
Be familiar and vulgar with none;
But the friends thou hast proved in thy need
Hold thou fast till life’s mission is done!

Shake not thy faith by confiding
In every new-begot friend,
Beware thou of quarrels — but in them
Fight them out to the bitter end.

Give thine ear unto all that would seek it
But to few thy voice impart;
Receive and consider all censure
But thy judgment seal in thy heart.

Let thy habit be ever as costly
As thy purse is able to span;
Never gaudy but rich — for the raiment
Full often proclaimeth the man.

Neither borrow nor lend — oft a loan
Both loseth itself and a friend,
And to borrow relaxeth the thrift
Whereby husbandry gaineth its end.

But lo! above all set this law:
Then never toward any canst thou
The deed of a false heart do.

Though a far cry from John Updike’s heartbreaking poem about the last days of his dog, Twain’s verses mourning the loss of his beloved canine companion don’t fail to stir:


No more shall bear beauteous form
Be seen in the raging storm.
No more shall her wondrous tail
Dodge the quickly dropping hail.

She lived a quiet harmless life
In Hartford far from madding strife;
Nor waged no War on peaceful rat
Nor battled with wild fierce tomcat.

No, No, my beloved, dear ’cause dead
What tough thy coat was a brick dust red?
Like a good author, thou was a trusty friend
And thy tail, like his, red to the very end.

Written at a German health resort in 1891-1892, this tongue-in-cheek “love song” first appeared in St. Louis’s Medical Fortnightly on May 15, 1892:


I ask not, “Is thy hope still sure,
Thy love still warm, thy faith secure?”
I ask not, “Dream’st thou still of me? —
Longest alway to fly to me?” —
      Ah, no — but as the sum includeth all
            The good gifts of the Giver,
      I sum all these in asking thee,
            “O sweetheart, how’s your liver?”

For if thy liver worketh right,
Thy faith stands sure, thy hope is bright,
Thy dreams are sweet, and I their god,
Doubt threats in vain—thou scorn’st his rod.
      Keep only thy digestion clear,
      No other foe my love doth fear.

But Indigestion hath the power
To mar the soul’s serenest hour —
To crumble adamantine trust,
And turn its certainties to dust —
To dim the eye with nameless grief —
To chill the heart with unbelief —
To banish hope, & faith, & love,
Place heaven below & hell above.

      Then list — details are naught to me
            So thou’st the sum-gift of the Giver —
      I ask thee all in asking thee,
            “O darling, how’s your liver?”

Susy Clemens

Twain penned this shorter, more unguardedly serious and beautiful meditation on love, in 1896 — it is believed to be a loving tribute to his daughter Susy, who died of spinal meningitis in August of that year at the age of twenty-four, leaving Twain heartbroken:


Love came at dawn, when all the world was fair,
When crimson glories’ bloom and sun were rife;
Love came at dawn, when hope’s wings fanned the air,
      And murmured, “I am life.”

Love came at eve, and when the day was done,
When heart and brain were tired, and slumber pressed;
Love came at eve, shut out the sinking sun,
      And whispered, “I am rest.”

Olivia Langdon Clemens as a young wife

Twain turned to poetry as a salve for mourning once more in February of 1904 when Livy, his wife of thirty-four years, was on her deathbed in Florence. The poem has never previously been published.


Goodnight, Sweetheart, goodnight —
The stars are shining bright,
The snow is turning white,
Dim is the failing light,
Fast falls the glooming night, —
      All right!
      Sleep tight!

The collection ends on a more empowering note, with a poem said to have been inspired by Twain’s favorite billiard shot, embodying his remarkable gift for weaving from the thread of everyday life poignant existential metaphors for life itself:


When all your days are dark with doubt;
      And drying hope is at its worst;
When all life’s balls are scattered wide,
With not a shot in sight, to left or right,
Don’t give it up;
Advance your cue and shut your eyes,
      And take the cushion first.

Complement On the Poetry of Mark Twain with Twain’s mischievous advice to little girls and some heart-warming letters from his readers.


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