How Is Your Heart? by Charles Bukowski

The original poem I had selected to illuminate for our workshop was “My Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke because I thought the variety of interpretations symbolized a type of dance style on its own – a style I could then highlight through the illumination. However, the morning of our illumination workshop, I was handed a poem titled, “How is Your Heart” by Charles Bukowski. After reading this poem the first time through, I was sold. I chose to select this poem for illumination because it involved such deep and vivid imagery that I simply couldn’t pass it up. I also felt more connected to this poem that Roethke’s poem – I felt as though I could relate to the imagery that Bukowski was painting and that is why I favored this poem over “My Papa’s Waltz”.

I illuminated this poem in the form of a maze – a maze that had a ball of fire at almost every turn. I chose a maze because my first, second, and even third reading of this poem had me feeling as if the narrator himself were in some sort of maze and everywhere he turned there was a dead end. When you’re in a maze trying to find your way out, you’re constantly hitting dead ends and taking sharp turns, going this way then that way, all just to get out. Bukowski writes this poem as if the narrator were everywhere and no where all at the same time – kind of like how one feels when going this way and that way trying to find the end of the maze. I wanted my illumination to be a depiction of the overall message of the poem, not a literal line for line translation. After all, it was the overall message of the poem that really grabbed my attention. Through my interpretation, I gather the overall message to be: it doesn’t matter how many wrong turns you take through the maze of life, what does matter, is how you go through that maze. Or as Bukowski so elegantly puts it: “what matters most is how well you walk through the fire”.

If you were to look at my illumination before reading the poem, I feel as though the reader would be intrigued to learn more and that is how the image illuminates my poem. Surface level, the image looks like an impossible maze to get through due to there being a ball of fire at every corner. The reader would notice that there is a beginning and an ending to the maze, but would wonder if reaching the end of this maze were even possible. The image illuminates the poem through being the book cover that poems don’t have. Before diving into the reading of any novel, we are always faced first with the novel’s illustrative cover. However, with poems, there typically is no cover unless the poem is in a book of a collections of poems. Therefore, I thought illuminating the image with the overall message and imagery of the poem would suit as a type of descriptive cover for the reader. Also, poems are known for being pretty complex and being someone who reads poetry through this struggling lens, I wanted to perhaps make clear some of the poem for the reader so that they had more time to enjoy it and less time stressing over its meaning.

I always thought of text and image as related, however, this activity showed me just how much they are and can be related to one another. After reading an imagery heavy poem, I started this workshop staring at the page with blank ideas. I wondered: how does this happen? The images are basically falling off the page in yet, I can’t put my pen to this page – why? I realized that I was putting too much pressure on myself to not make a mistake and to produce the perfect image for this poem’s illumination. This weight of pressure that I was experiencing during this activity really changed the way I thought about illuminators and their processing of illuminating a poem. When we analyzed the illuminations from the Canterbury manuscripts, I remember thinking they were elegant but thought they were there as a fancy distraction rather than acting as a story before the story. With this illumination activity, I was challenged to think like an illuminator and that made me realize that these images aren’t just fancy pictures to please the eye or to motivate you to read the story or to distract you from the story, but also,  these illuminations are there to show the audience that there is a story occurring before they even read the story – the story through illumination.

This exercise also helped me to realize that although text and image are related, they are able to relate while displaying different types of messages. When thinking about how to illuminate my poem, there was mention within our class that the illumination could depict the message of the story, it didn’t have to showcase a literal image for each word. Therefore, when I saw words like “jail”, “wrong”, “worst”, “hangovers”, etc, I thought about drawing something that could represent all of those words rather than drawing a jail or someone with a hangover (for example). This idea challenged me to think of the message of the text and portray an image that represents that message. Contemplating how to draw a message rather than describe it was a different form of interpretation that this exercise really opened my eyes to.

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2 thoughts on “How Is Your Heart? by Charles Bukowski

  1. I think what you did with the maze is really well done. I like how you use the walls of the maze to interact with certain portions of the poem, especially after you describe how you feel the author uses the words to create a maze-type feeling to the poem. By drawing the walls this way, the separation between the words and the images are both indistinguishable from each other, and entirely separate entities, allowing the reader to have not just one, but multiple different interpretations of the poem, depending on how the reader chooses to understand this text. Really great job!

  2. I agree with John that the “maze” works very well here, offering a kind of “choose your own adventure” quality to the poem, a sentiment that seems to match the experience of reading the poem. Also, you might know, labyrinths were occasionally features of medieval architecture and art, mostly as forms or mediums of meditation.

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