Poetry and Prisons

I’m not that interested in verbal poetry. When a poem does catch my attention it seems to be one that creates a verbal image of a visual image in very simple language, something that I “see” in my mind and places me with the scene—a new experience.

Like in Robert  Frost’s Mending Wall:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.


Or Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues:

Johnny’s in the basement

Mixing up the medicine

I’m on the pavement

Thinking about the government

The man in the trench coat

Badge out, laid off

Says he’s got a bad cough

Wants to get it paid off

Several years ago I came to the realization (finally) that the art that I enjoy the most tends to be that which gives me an instant of poetry, that makes me understand, or see, or feel something differently. An instant where I think anew about something. Robert Frank said something related to that:

“When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.”

As I recall, my first notice of this came in looking at a small photograph by Rich Rollins (a colleague who teaches photography at Marylhurst University). It was a picture of a building that was unfamiliar to me. I asked Rich what building that was and he said it was the Fine Arts Building in downtown Portland—a building that I’d seen hundreds of times. But I hadn’t seen it the way Rich saw it and his photograph showed his seeing to me.

This is prologue to saying that I’m getting a similar  kind of experience with the current exhibition (through May 17) at The Art Gym at Marylhurst University (marylhurst.edu/theartgym).

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Opening day talk, April 21

Julie Green — The Last Supper: 500 Plates 

Buddy Bunting — The Prison Industrial Complex

Julie Green shows 500 plates depicting the actual last meal requests of condemned prisoners. Each plate, and it’s description, is a haiku-like instance where we are given a straightforward  image painted in a matter-of-fact way, on a plate, in blue—a modern delftware look.

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But each instance draws us in to consider the ultimate individual humanity of the requester. Each of these people who we have decided to deprive of life becomes someone we must think about now. And each of us will think in our own way, in our own time. It is important that we see 500 of these plates together, to somehow, in each case, pull an individual from a crowd.

Buddy Bunting gives us the anonymity of the containers for the prisoners in huge spare works on paper.



Some of these bleak views are 20-30 feet wide. The wide open spaces of the west, with the boxed enclosed spaces for prisoners.

We have precedents for this kind of straightforward presentation in Ed Ruscha’s books Twenty-Six  Gasoline Stations or  Every Building on the Sunset Strip, and in tract house photos by Lewis Baltz. In all of these cases the normally anonymous is presented and we are beckoned to pay attention. With Bunting’s works we consider the prison, not the romanticized prison of Piranesi (where we might imagine the screams of the tortured):



Or the scenic view of Alcatraz.



In Bunting’s works everything is silent and nothing is beautiful except for the quality rendering by the artist.

It is the bare understatement—down to the key point of focus, with no frills—in the works of both of these artists that allows meaning to be coaxed from the mind of the viewer.

“Less is more.” Ludwig Mies van der Rohe


ps. It is interesting what one learns when fact checking what seems to be surely known. Evidently Robert Browning used the line “Well, less is more, Lucrezia” in his poem Andrea Del Sarto, Called “The Faultless Painter”  in 1855. I can’t hardly begin to read that poem.


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