In 1941, divorce lawyers insisted that Henri Matisse put all his art into storage. In photographs of Matisse before 1941 we see him in his studio surrounded by his artwork. Then, rather suddenly the walls were empty. At this same time, Matisse, who was 71 years old, underwent surgery and was then confined to a wheelchair. His painting career came to an end. Imagine him, sitting in a wheelchair surrounded by the white walls of his studio.
Matisse is on my mind because I went to the Minneapolis Institute of Art to see the special exhibit of his work that is on loan from the Baltimore Museum of Art. On display in several rooms are paintings, sculpture, prints, and his book Jazz.
Matisse took up a pair of scissors – or, let us say shears, an old-fashioned word, but closer to what Matisse was doing: as he put it, painting by cutting up paper. Scissors is related to chisel; whereas shear is related to cut, separate. He could sit in his wheelchair and cut shapes out of brightly colored paper. It is probably these paper cutouts that most of us know Matisse by. He’d sit in his chair with pieces of bright paper and cut shapes, letting the paper fall away onto the floor around him, until he was surrounded by mosaic.
Many of the cutouts we know come from Jazz, a book of cutouts that Matisse paired with text in his open, curvaceous, and playful script. He began this project intending to illustrate a series of poems by a French poet on themes of the circus or the theater. How delightful that, while his body was uncooperative, his mind and his hands could imagine acrobats and clowns. He abandoned the poet’s verses and instead wrote his own messages.
On one of the pages he wrote:
If I have confidence in my hand which draws, it is because when I was training it to serve me I resolved never to let it overshadow my feelings. I am very aware if there is any disagreement between the two of us: between my hand and that undefinable part of me that seems subjugated to it.
The hand is but an extension of sensitivity and intelligence. The more it is supple, the more it is obedient. Never should the servant girl become the mistress.
The artist, Henri Matisse, at a ripe age, forced to give up the means of expression he’d depended upon for decades, had a supple hand. He could turn it to his purposes—make it obey—no matter whether it was grasping brush or shears. What does this mean, this business of suppleness, of obedience.
Carry water long enough and you do not splash, your shoulders rise to the labor. Pluck strings and you grow callouses, your fingers know where to land and they do not complain.
The artist, by making every day, by putting the hand to work, builds up a relationship between brain and hand, between imagination and sable dipped in carmine, in which the hand carries out whatever the brain calls upon it to do, without hesitation. And the hand does it without complaint.
This suppleness, this obedience – can the writer claim it too?
Someone who sits down to write a sonnet for the first time does not enjoy the suppleness and obedience that Matisse speaks of. In fact, this writer begins to sweat when she has written a line that’s short one iamb and she can find nothing to complete the line. Or she bleeds because she must rhyme with “oat” and boat/coat/moat take her away from the poem so she bleeds more. She has become the slave herself, slave to the rhythm, slave to the rhyme.
My first book of poems is a collection of fibonaccis – all poems that follow the same form: if you count the syllables of each line you get the fibonacci sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13). I remember writing the first fibs, stopping to count syllables, asking whether the number of syllables met the rule. But after awhile I did not have to count any more; I felt the pattern. My hand had become supple and obedient.
It is perhaps no wonder that so many writers stick with a form over a long period. The beginning sweaty, bleeding time has its excitements—a frisson of danger. But the creative full-body experience only comes later, when the hand has become the servant.
Here are a few books by poets who stayed with a form, kept at it until their shoulders rose to the task, until their fingers knew the patterns:
Dream Songs, John Berryman
Kyrie, Ellen Bryant Voigt
All Night Lingo Tango, Barbara Hamby
American Sonnets, Gerald Stern
Please, add to the list in the comment section below.
Author’s Bio.: Athena Kildegaard writes poetry mostly, but she has also written short stories, scripts for television, columns, and nonfiction. Her books of poetry are Rare Momentum (2006), Bodies of Light (2011), both from Red Dragonfly Press, and Cloves & Honey (2012) from Nodin Press. Her poems appear widely in literary journals and anthologies. She has received grants from the Lake Region Arts Council and the Minnesota State Arts Board and the LRAC/McKnight Fellowship. She is a lecturer at the University of Minnesota, Morris. Check out her blog/website at http://athenakildegaard.com/.