So much depends

Author/educator/teaching artist Eric Booth delivered a fantastic commencement address to New England Conservatory graduates, family, and friends this week, which has been posted online. In it, he offers many essential points about the role and work of an artist or an arts organization, and the ways they help create meaning in the world. He offers a new job title for all of the graduates (fitting for any cultural manager, as well): Agent of Artistic Experience. And he shares some thoughtful ways to live up to that title.

Among my favorite sections of the speech is his exploration of how artists prepare an audience to experience a creative work. I had heard about his exercise but never experienced it. And now that I have it in writing it will likely make an appearance in many of my classes in arts and cultural management.

Booth explores the many ways we might prepare a listener or observer for an artistic experience. He takes this journey by performing the same work, William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow“, four times, with four different preparations for the audience. Each time he asks the audience to gauge their own response to the work, and how it changes with each form of preparation. I’ll share extended excerpts since it’s such an important exercise:

First, no preparation at all — common to cultural performances and presentations in all disciplines. Just the work, and nothing but the work:

“The Red Wheelbarrow”
by William Carlos Williams

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

Next, a biographical preparation, common to program notes across the performing and visual arts:

In a minute I am going to speak one of the most famous poems of the 20th Century, “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. The poet was born in 1883 in Rutherford, New Jersey, began writing poetry in high school, and studied it at the University of Pennsylvania where he was also studying medicine. He struggled to decide if he should become a poet or a doctor, his parents urged the latter, and he decided to become both. He became a pediatrician and as a poet joined the Imagist movement, along with TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, but he eventually separated from them as he sought a more American idiom. He fell out of public notice in the 1940s, but was returned to popularity in the 1950s by the interest of the beat poets, especially Allan Ginzberg, to whom he was an active mentor. He continued writing poems until his death in 1963.

“The Red Wheelbarrow”

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

Next, a structural analysis of the poem and how it “works” — again, common to classrooms and pre-concert lectures by conductors, musicians, directors, and artists.

In a moment I will speak William Carlos Williams poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.” The opening lines set the tone for the rest of the poem. Since the poem is comprised of one sentence broken up at various intervals, it is truthful to say that “so much depends upon” each line of the poem. Because the form of the poem is also its meaning. By the end of the poem, the image of the wheelbarrow is seen as the actual poem, as in a painting when one sees an image of an apple, the apple represents an actual object in reality, but since it is part of a painting the apple also becomes the actual piece of art. The wheelbarrow is introduced starkly. The vivid word “red” lights up the scene, and the monosyllabic words in line three elongate the line, putting an unusual pause between the word “wheel” and “barrow”—thus breaking the image down to its most basic parts. Using the sentence as a painter uses line and color, Williams breaks up the words in order to see the object more closely. Later the word “glazed” evokes another painterly image. Just as the reader is beginning to notice the wheelbarrow through a closer perspective, the rain transforms it as well, giving it a newer, fresher look. The last lines offer up the final brushstroke to this “still life” poem, with “white” used in stark contrast to the earlier “red,” and the unusual view of the ordinary wheelbarrow is complete.

“The Red Wheelbarrow”

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

And finally, preparation that describes the artist’s motivation for the work, and the personal emotions from which it came:

I recently came across the true story of the incident that prompted Williams to write “The Red Wheelbarrow.” He was a pediatrician in the days when doctors still made house calls. And he had this one patient, a young girl, whose severe illness had her teetering between life and death for weeks. She lay in her bed all day staring out the window, and no one knew if she would make it. And one day after he examined her, he sat at her bedside and thought about what her long days must be like, day after day, and he looked down the length of the bed and out the window at the foot of it, that framed a farm yard on that rainy afternoon, and he saw a wheelbarrow, and some chickens, and he went home and wrote:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

Of course, Booth’s point is that there are many ways to engage and connect a listener/observer with an artistic experience. He also exposes the fairly anemic points of entry we’ve come to rely on in the arts, particularly in classical music — versions one through three above. So often, artists and arts organizations forgo the personal and the emotional in their preparation — by habit, by bias, by training, by lack of empathy with an audience fresh to the discipline or the work.

But as Agents of Artistic Experience, our job is not only to perform or present artistic work to our best technical and aesthetic ability, but also to find the most powerful and meaningful ways to connect that work to the humans we encounter along the way.

The entire speech is well worth a reading and a moment or five of reflective thought.

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Comments

  1. says

    Thanks, Andrew, for calling out this Commencement Address. We think the message is exactly the thing our graduates (and our current students too!) should be hearing. And, of course, thanks to Eric Booth for bringing his teaching artistry to enliven our graduation ceremonies.

  2. Ali says

    Thanks so much for sharing this! What an inspiring start to a slow Friday morning (west-coaster here).

    The volunteer flute choir I play in recently had its year-end recital with pieces played by the whole ensemble, small groups, and a few solos. Our director introduced the ensemble pieces using the 2nd preparation, which is always informative, but it my opinion doesn’t tell the audience anything about what they’re going to hear! At this recital, I performed a sonata for flute and piano by Friedrich Kuhlau and prefaced the performance with a bit about Kuhlau, but mainly talked about what *I* like about Kuhlau: juxtaposition of rhythms, that no one has a boring part, etc. I think it helped people connect to the piece, which is what Mr. Booth says about the 4th preparation. Maybe my performance wasn’t amazing, but I hope that the audience had a better experience because of the preparation.

  3. Scott says

    It is a very powerful speech, and I’m thankful that you’ve brought it to my attention.

    To me, though, none of the four versions of “The Red Wheelbarrow” are effective. The second version reads like a Wikipedia entry completely disconnected from the poem. The third version is a pretty pedantic and uninteresting analysis of the poem which completely ignores the actual aims of the poem in favor of dull word-by-word deconstruction. The fourth version tells a very interesting story that completely overshadows the poem and makes it an afterthought to the story, something inconsequential and impossible to understand without narration. The first version is close, but the poem is so based on visual patterns, and the ability to read it over a few times, that an oral delivery of the poem strikes me as not very effective.

    I don’t mean to be a downer, or overly picky. But to me as an artist, this points out a few problems I have with the world of arts presentation:

    First, there’s the problem that so much depends upon the good IDEA, and often so little effort is spent on the actual execution of the idea. So it’s a great idea to have multimedia in a musical concert, but 98% of the time the multimedia presentation itself is so much more poorly done than the music that it detracts. It’s a great idea to tell a story about some music before you perform it, but 98% of the time the storytellers aren’t particularly gifted at telling a good tale, so the audience just gets bored. And so on.

    Second, there’s the bias (in my opinion) that all art needs to connect via emotional impact. Williams was an imagist, and his idea was to just describe some things accurately and interestingly, and work to create a rich picture in the reader’s mind with as few words as possible. I’ve always loved this poem for how, with so few words, I get such a vivid set of possibilities and pictures in my head. Had he wanted to discuss the dying young patient, he could have done so, and made his poem about emotion. But instead he made the poem about simple words; about 3 words followed by 1 word, 4 times; about an image that conjures up memories and pictures for the listener. To me, when I read the 4th presentation above, I feel robbed. I love the simplicity of this poem, its art of describing a charged scene of some kind with so few words… but when I read version #4 above, it feels like the poem is being turned into a melodrama.

    It’s a very difficult ground to navigate, I know. And my second point above probably puts me in a minority… I’m sure more people would like to hear version #4 above than to read the poem a few times in a book. But I feel like the best way to present a work like this Williams poem would be to try and explore what Williams was trying to accomplish with the poem, and work at leading the audience down that path, rather than moving the poem into a more traditional “tug at the heart-strings” kind of space.

    Sorry for the rambling comment, I just wanted to discuss this article a little more, because I agree with so much of it, but the overall point doesn’t ring true for me. Thank you!

  4. ariel says

    It was nothing but the usual feel good -the world is for you to conquer blather -what was most interesting
    to see was the conservatory staff sitting in back of him watching the performance -sort of cut the baloney
    and give us all a piece . Undoubtedly this will be censored but to let you know hum bug is humbug no
    matter where you find it .Not all are taken in by a slight of hand speech .

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