The Poetry of Paul Stankard
THE INFLUENCE OF WALT WHITMAN'S
PICTURE LANGUAGE ON MY WORK
as told to Alexandra Grilikhes by Paul J Stankard
From the beginning, I was drawn to Whitman's response to Nature, his view of life as a creative spiritual journey, his references to native flowers, insects and birds which are the subjects of much of my own work. I love the way he takes seemingly ordinary experiences and shows them to be miracles. A simple flower is symbolic of the mystery of living things: "A morning glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books."
As an artist who has worked with my hands in glass for 35 years, the line, "the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery" continues to amaze me. And the native flowers he chose to write about like pokeberries and common mullein are easily overlooked, ordinary. He speaks of the ant's perfection, the egg of a wren.
I'm not wise enough, not educated enough to experience Whitman at his absolute fullest; I have to work at it. Yet the freedom and breadth of his work allows me to be personally involved with his words and the depth of feeling he offers the reader. In his poem about the learned astronomer, he grows weary and dizzy listening to the lecture, goes outside and looks at the stars. A powerful metaphor for a personal response and respect for what is alive. The lecture is meaningless compared with a firsthand experience of stars. Whitman ties it together.
For me Whitman, the guide, is a mystical being who offers a roadmap, a wellspring of inspiration. He celebrates Mother Earth and the miracles of God. His life challenges me. Walking through the woods after experiencing Whitman's walk through the woods opens my eyes. Whitman's work is about feelings towards Nature; his ideal is a harmonious relationship with Earth and attunement to mystical powers. The level of his response to living things allows me, an environmentalist, to claim Whitman as the ideal environmentalist.
Experiencing the plant kingdom with Whitman energizes me. I have internalized his works with my feelings to recapitulate and rework those feelings in glass. His work informs my aesthetic and elevates my expectations of myself as an artist. What Whitman did with words, I seek to do with glass on a visual level. My dream is to articulate fresh information about Nature in glass. My work is driven by respect for living things, and by delicacy and detail. I try to match Whitman's depth of feeling with my own passion and skill. But because my work is visual I want it to be no more accessible than Whitman's poems. You have to bring something to Whitman, it isn't immediately available at first. I want from the viewer the same openness, curiosity, and maturity that are needed for Whitman's work.
Whitman began as a worker, a carpenter -- self-educated. His journey, his yearning to articulate excellence and to honor and pay homage to Nature brought a remarkable wisdom to his life. Whitman dedicated his life, from age 38, to a body of work that celebrates the mystery of living things. He celebrates the common person, labor, and the creative spirit. He excludes nobody. He wrote poems about down and diseased people, prostitutes, even masturbation. He articulates experiences of the body that I, as a 55 year-old man would be too self-conscious about which to speak. The body is sacred; nothing is beneath him; he accepts totally the wholesomeness of living things engaged in their sacred, cyclical journey.
I identify with Whitman's creative courage, for it seemed that my life and interests took a similar journey. His concern was to be true to his vision and I relate to that singular commitment. He sacrificed, he suffered, he protected his artistic integrity. He shows us the sacred journey of the life and death cycle. The subject of my work is identical -- birth and decay.
Paul J Stankard