David M. Harris

The Art of Painting a Room


Must you know why you are painting the room?
Is this an assignment, or did you wake up
and feel a need for difference? Do you know
how you want the room to look, or
do you want to leave the past behind?
Can you start fresh, with no idea
of how the room looked
when someone else painted it?


No idea? Impossible. The past is always
tapping on your shoulder, demanding to be
heard, acknowledged. Revised. Find
a place, slap on some paint. How
does it look? Get some more on
and see if you like how it looks. If not,
you can cover this as if
it had never been. Just keep working,
and watch the metamorphosis
as the blank wall becomes
something else.


First coat done. Step back.
Let it dry. Is this
the room you imagined? What
have you learned about the room
from painting it? Ask a neighbor
to look at it. From a window.
Imagine all the furniture
in different places. Maybe Tangiers.
Now you can do the second coat.


Perhaps this one won’t need a second coat.
They always need a second coat.
Some touch-ups on the trim, some holidays
filled in. A different-colored corner can
surprise the eye that reads the room.
Surprise yourself! Make it new
and make it yours.

Author’s Statement on Beauty

When I lived in Manhattan, I found West 10th Street beautiful. Now, in rural Tennessee, I get as much pleasure from the belted Galloway cattle. Much of beauty seems to depend on what you get to see, on what is around you.

I’ve heard it said that when The Rite of Spring was first performed, most listeners found it horrible. Now it’s magnificent.

Similarly, Whitman’s poetry was reviled, and is now almost too gorgeous. And think of all the British poets laureate, or Pulitzer winners, whose names are utterly unfamiliar to us.

If there is a constancy to beauty, it lies in function, not content. So what, then, is that function?

Let’s set aside natural beauty or accidental beauty and worry about art. And let’s not be too snobbish about it. There is some beauty to be found in the Euphues, as there is in the paintings of Thomas Kinkade. We might not want to spend a lot of time with either, but there are pleasures to be found.

Where bad art fails, even when it has elements of beauty, is in teaching us about our world. The more abstract arts, such as music or much of modern art, may do this in ways that I cannot explain, but the narrative arts – fiction, film, and so on – do it very clearly. At the end of the story, someone is rewarded or punished. Certain ways of behaving or thinking are endorsed or condemned. Along the way, we are introduced to ways of thinking about, and dealing with, the universe.

Poetry does the same thing, except that it works (or tries to work) more directly on the perceptions and emotions than through narrative logic.

We aren’t likely to accept as great art something that promotes a view of the universe that we find loathsome. So good art, or created beauty, is something that advances or reinforces our ideas about how to function well (successfully, morally, whatever) in the human universe.

Plus, of course, it has to do so in an aesthetically pleasing fashion – if it’s unattractive, we won’t pay enough attention to learn from it.

Beauty, then, is the lure that draws us into what art can teach us.

Well, that’s a start, anyway.


Until 2003, David M. Harris had never lived more than fifty miles from New York City. Since then he has moved to Tennessee, married, acquired a daughter and a classic MG, and gotten serious about poetry. All these projects seem to be working out pretty well. His work has appeared in Pirene’s Fountain (and in First Water, the Best of Pirene’s Fountain anthology), Gargoyle, The Labletter, The Pedestal, and other places. His first collection of poetry, The Review Mirror, was published by Unsolicited Press in 2013. On Sunday mornings, at 11 AM Central time, he talks about poetry on WRFN-LP in Pasquo, TN (www.radiofreenashville.org).