John Keats, Cultural Appropriation, and Drawing

Via Flickr:
The eighth grade was writing poems and creating illuminations or illustrations of them, after having read a number of poems by Rumi in a book called The Illuminated Rumi. The idea was that by asking them to think about the visual images in the Rumi poems, and comparing them to the illustrations, they would see how important visual imagery is to the development of poetic language.

Then, of course, they wrote and illuminated their own poems. It was a great little design thinking project — how does a set of word provoke a set of images? How does a set of images provoke a set of words? How can words and images together provoke new feelings?

I didn’t wish to make a poster for one of my own poems, but I figured I’d illustrate one of the poems that I have memorized, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” by John Keats who died in 1827. My deal with the English teacher in question was that I would leave in the pencil guidelines and planning marks, so that students could see my design process to some degree, and have a sense of my construction process. As I described it to her and to her class, the poem is about a book, so the illustration includes a book. On the pages of the book itself are two illustrations which are themselves illustrating the second half of poem. Both of the images are about the astonishment and amazement of discovery of unexpected sights in the natural world, so someone — the current reader, perhaps? — has illustrated the margins of the book with examples of local plants and a dragonfly. The cycle of discovery continues and grows richer and deeper. Thus, Keats’s words inspire SEVERAL layers of discovery: the possibility of delving into the writings of an ancient Greek poet; the willingness to investigate history (the “Cortez” image) and astronomy (“Watcher of the skies”); and finally the natural world and the skill of drawing (the plants in the margin notes of the book, and the poster itself).

I recently said something dumb on Balthasar’s blog which I shouldn’t have said, and I apologize here, publicly… For as I made this poster, I was uncomfortably aware of the degree to which this poem — which I’ve always liked — can be read in another way as part and parcel of a bit of cultural appropriation. Keats’s poem comments on an English translation of an ancient Greek epic, and in the process of describing that work… Keats claims both Homer, and several islands dedicated to Apollo, for the English language and the English-speaking peoples. The astronomer is in one sense gazing upon the sky in wonder, but in another he’s laying claim to the heavens. And Cortez — well. It was actually Balboa who stood at Darien in Panama, and gazed at the Pacific — but the cultural -appropriation (and -destruction) of the power- and wealth-hungry captain of the Aztec conquest should be self-evident.

But I’m not sure I would have read this poem that way without drawing it out first. I needed the opportunity to create the poster before I would have seen the cultural complexities the poem raises. And in good design fashion — the solution to one problem also raises several new problems on its own. As my friend Josh says, “There’s no better or faster way to generate problems than to create a solution.”

We discover things about the world through the thought processes we use to investigate it, and any means that we use to do that — writing, or reading, or drawing, or visualizing, or ritualizing, or glamorizing — will help us make new and deeper discoveries. It’s remarkable the things that we uncover as we go through these processes. As the poet said, “pull a thread, and find the whole world attached to it.”


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