Make Something Happen: Museums as Inspiration
n The Triggering Town (1979), Richard Hugo writes, “The initiating subject [for a poem] should trigger the imagination as well as the poem.” Hugo’s subject of choice is “a small town that has seen better days.” My “town” is a museum. Any museum will do, whether it contains art or dinosaur bones. Museums force us to slow down, and they are filled with images. They share these qualities with poetry.
I love museums. I love the idea of museums: places where objects are stored simply for us to look at. Moving slowly from display to display, looking at a painting, sculpture, installation or diorama from different angles, eventually reading the little card that accompanies the piece, is a form of walking meditation. As I move through rooms staged and lit for specific effects, I notice how a painting, surrounded by the white space of the wall, is like a poem, surrounded by the white space of the page. This observation, which I’ve made countless times, helps focus my mind, and invites creativity.
Auden wrote that poetry makes nothing happen. Neither do museums. Museums, like poems, are repositories, the results of forces that have acted upon them. When art confronts itself — for example, when the poet visits an art museum — things happen. When we look at a museum piece, our gaze has been anticipated; even so, our experience is still genuine, for our interpretations are always individual. In a similar way, when we read a poem, we feel it stimulate various parts of our brains. The effect on our imaginations is unpredictable, but we know for certain that although we may start this process with a poem or art object, we soon move away from this point into unfamiliar territory, where true creativity begins.
Museums, like poems, are repositories, the results of forces that have acted upon them. When art confronts itself — for example, when the poet visits an art museum — things happen.
Hugo’s concern with the problem of the familiar — he writes, “the stable set of knowns that the poem needs to anchor on is less stable at home than in the town you’ve just seen for the first time” — expands his idea that as a poet goes deeper into the process of writing, the subject of the poem begins to fade. Emotional investment in the subject weakens the feelings the writer has available to put into words; conversely, detachment from the subject gives the words of a poem more power. The ostensible subject of a poem is rarely its true theme – to discover this, the poet must keep moving. In a museum, filled with possible subjects for poetry, I find it a relatively easy task to find — and lose — those personal associations that interfere with writing.
Museums in specific towns and countries often explore the most painful, tragic episodes of their history. The majority of museums in the present-day Germany, for instance, display various aspects of World War II, as part of an effort to heal, recover or “rehabilitate” their collective identity and social consciousness. This is especially the case for museums in Berlin, the last German city that collapsed with Hitler’s death, and the city whose people had lived between a wall until 1989. For a poet, such sites of memory deliver revelations about the human spirit. The new wing of the Jewish Museum in the former East Berlin (opened on September 11, 2001) is designed to create the most unsettling experience possible. Hallways narrow into dark spaces. A set of stairs leads to a blank wall of concrete. Display cases hold battered suitcases, letters written in faded brown ink, articles of clothing, photographs, even pots and pans. The Garden of Exile is an outdoor space consisting of enormous pillars arranged in corridors; walking between these pillars, I soon became lost, unsure of how to get out, and separated from my family. The feelings of fear and vulnerability stayed with me for a long time.
After I left the Jewish Museum and the blur of images began to settle, the overriding impression I received was the human need to communicate. Not only did the museum show me something profound, the voices of the long-dead seemed to be murmuring to each other, and to me. Here was a place filled with triggers — multiple places to begin the search for a deeper meaning.
- The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, (W.W. Norton, 1992)
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