Poets On Beauty

“You are an artist, are you not, Mr. Dedalus? said the dean. The object of the artist is the creation of the beautiful. What the beautiful is is another question.”   –James Joyce, Ulysses

The dean sounds very sure of himself:  the artist seeks beauty. But chances are he’d be a lot less sure these days. As art critic Arthur Danto tells it, the modernists by and large rejected traditional beauty, and art in the years that followed grew increasingly “ugly” on the one hand and conceptual on the other. Some say that beauty was handed over from art to advertising.

Danto’s narrative may not be the whole story, but it does seem true that beauty has rarely been talked about in art circles in the last century. Even today you don’t see it much, at least in literary life—when was the last time you read a serious book review that discussed the book’s beauty?

Given this silence, I’ve been wondering if the dean can still be right. If so, to what degree, in what way?  I’ve also been wondering about the “other question” of how artists might be inclined to describe or think about what beauty is. The two questions are intertwined:  if I understand beauty in one way I might tend to reject it, but understood another way beauty might be something I seek out.

Do you hope for, look toward, seek out beauty in your work? I’ve been doing an informal canvas of poets over the last few years, asking this question. I’m interested because in the 1980s various theorists/critics/philosophers thought that the art world was ready for a “return to beauty.”  But most of the people interested in this return to beauty were looking at visual art; as a poet, I started wondering about the general feeling toward beauty among poets in my country. I hadn’t heard much about it, so I started asking.

On Lemon Hound I’ll be doing more of this asking, in a slightly more formal setting. I’ll be putting three questions about beauty to a range of Canadian poets and posting their answers on this site—in the next issue look for interviews with Sonnet L’Abbé, Sachiko Murakami, Steven Price, Robyn Sarah, and others.

I don’t expect unambiguous answers, but I do hope for an interesting variety. Beauty seems to evoke quite a range of emotions and thoughts, sometimes within a single person.  It’s partly because my own responses are so complex that I’m interested in how other poets relate to beauty; I’m eager to hear what they have to say.

–Sue Sinclair

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