Last night I went to see Nicole Brossard in Conversation with Mary Ann Caws at The Poet’s Center 72 Spring St, New York. Nicole Brossard has published more than thirty books of poetry, essays and novels since 1965. She co-founded and co-directed the literary magazine La Barre du Jour, co-directed the film Some American Feminists and co-edited the acclaimed Anthologie de la poésie des femmes au Québec, first published in 1991, then in 2003. Distinguished Professor of English, French, and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Mary Ann Caws is the author of many volumes on art and literature as well as editor and co-translator of the Yale Anthology of Twentieth Century French Poetry.
Nicole likened herself to an explorer, rather than a witness of her own life. She considers herself to be a woman of the present, of the here and now. She looks to the present, rather than to history, for meaning in her life. Another thing that is important to her is a sense of place. She loves travelling not only for the pleasure of discovering new people and places but also for the state of mind that you are in when you travel.
For her, writing poetry is writing in the present tense whereas with a novel you have to in it all the time. You can’t forget about it. It’s like being in a prison for three or four years. Some of the questions that preoccupy her as a writer are: Where is justice and equality fading away? What does la liberte mean now? What does it mean to be human? We need to ask ourselves what can literature do?
What does it mean to be human and What can literature or the arts do? are some of the most useful questions we can think about as artists and writers. In pondering this question I found myself travelling back to the days of Renaissance Italy, during the days of Lorenzo De Medici.
Medici was the name of a great ruling family of Florence. Lorenzo, the Magnificent, was the most famous Medici, who made Florence the most powerful state in Italy and led it to its highest flowering. Many Renaissance artists worked at his court, including Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Lorenzo’s support for artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Andrea del Verrocchio and Michelangelo Buonarroti was instrumental in the development of Florence as the epicenter of 15th century Renaissance Europe. Macchiavelli called Lorenzo Medici ‘the greatest patron of literature and art that any prince has ever been’. He was also a very religious man, one who deeply loved his country.
He also started the collection of books which became the Medici Library, and his agents retrieved from the East large numbers of previously unknown classical works, and he employed a large workshop to copy his books and diffuse their content across Europe. He supported the development of humanism through his circle of scholarly friends who studied Greek philosophers, and attempted to merge the ideas of Plato with Christianity.
Lorenzo Medici was a man of vision in the right place at the right time to provide the atmosphere in which some of the greatest minds of civilization were able to flower. And thanks to his patronage the works of Da Vinci and Micheangelo have inspired and uplifted down through the pathways of history. Great art not only shines a light in the darkness of its times but also in later times, we can revisit the pages of history and draw lessons relevant to the challenges of here and now.