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Thursday, December 22, 2011

2 from Wallace Stevens (Couldn't Wait for Sunday)

I think that, apart from the awesomeness of the poetry, T.E. Hulme remains my favorite poet because I know a greater portion of his work than any other poet.  If you know a thing about Hulme, you will know what a lame claim it is to know all the poetical works of the guy.  That he died when he was only 34 doesn't help me.  That said, I know practically nothing about Wallace Stevens.  First, I only just "discovered" him a couple days ago.  Second, he lived a long full life.  Third, he wrote a lot of poetry.

He is also the newest of my favorite authors (a list to which I haven't added a name in years).

Here are two of his poems (the first must be read aloud; the second is my new personal anthem (I've never had a personal anthem before -- this is very exciting)):

Bantams in Pine-Woods
Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!

Damned universal cock, as if the sun
Was blackamoor to bear your blazing tail.

Fat!  Fat!  Fat!  Fat!  I am the personal.
Your world is you.  I am my world.

You ten-foot poet among inchlings.  Fat!
Begone!  An inchling bristles in these pines,

Bristles, and points their Appalachian tangs,
And fears not portly Azcan nor his hoos.


The House Was Quiet
and the World Was Calm
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm.  The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Wednesday for Kids XL -- Got a Hair Dryer?

Don't tell my daughter:

I've already opened and read her Christmas present.  

(I couldn't help it.)

Internet Searchers

I am a constant--neurotic, even--blogger stat checker (you know, how many people, who they are, where they're from, and how they get here--to the blog).  It's the "how they get here" bit that's led me to an issue I wouldn't have predicted when I started this thing last year.  

I use a lot of Roman numerals in my post titles (and for it maybe you've guessed where this little entry is going), and I learned that 30 (enter 30 into my little Google search bar above to see 'em all) is particularly problematic.  I'll just leave it at that.

For some reason it bothers me that people searching for that manage to end up here, on my blog.  Go figure.  As I'm putting up a new entry for Wednesday's for Kids today (yeah, yeah -- a day late -- big deal), and it would be post 31, I'm going to avoid the problem altogether and skip to forty.  


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sunday Poetry XLIII -- Harper's Anthology Disappoints, So I Apologize with William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Willams
Here's the biggest problem with poetry (2-fold): Primarily, there's so (maybe even too) much of it, and this is only exacerbated by the fact that its very nature undermines its potential to deliver its payload to any save the very determined few.

I sat down eager to dig up a few good pieces and post them here for your enjoyment.  I'd just come in from the garage where I found Harper's Anthology: Poetry and sat down at the computer.  I haven't gone through this particular anthology before (kind of the point, really, for bringing it in -- and half the impetus for me doing Sunday Poetry in the first place), opened the front cover.  Here is what I found at the outset (minus, of course, publication details and reservations of rights, etcetera):

           “  Colleges … have their indispensible office—to teach elements.  But they can only highly serve us when they aim not to drill but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and by the concentrated fires set the hearts of their youth on flame.
                             —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Well, so far so good, I thought.  I like Emerson; and some of my favorite literary experiences were had via college collections.  It was the preface, following, that gave me cause to pause – and fear:

           “  Harper’s Anthology is a series of three volumes: Prose, Poetry, and an accompanying Manual of Instruction.  The last-named volume contains a brief statement of general ideas which underlie the collection as an educational instrument, together with some suggestions for its use in relation to composition.

From here I went on to the table of contents and became so depressed I hardly have the energy to type, much less find a poem to share. 

Not that the poems in the collection are bad, but because they are the very works—maybe even all of them—that create a problem with poetry, at least for students, even greater than the one I mentioned at the top: Poetry is boring.

I’m not saying poetry should pander to the lowest common denominator.  Not at all.  I’m all about the … er … exclusion of those who … uhm, never mind.  Anyway, I like a lot of these poems, even love some of them.  But I don’t see how the editors who penned the preface could be the same editors who honestly believed they were upholding the standard set by Emerson, of youthful hearts aflame.

So, all that said, I’m putting Harper’s back in the garage.  I’ll be right back with, hopefully, something … uhm … well, not better … more, let’s say, appealing to the modern, casual reader.

[10 minutes later – and with Six American Poets: An Anthology in tow]

I grabbed it because I’m short on space and shorter on patience, and this book’s got William Carlos Williams in it, whom I love, and I plan to find a poem of his I haven’t yet read and present it here.

[30 minutes later – and I can’t post just one (dang! I love WCW!)]

Mezzo Forte
Take that, damn you; and that!
          And here’s a rose
     To make it right again!
          God knows
     I’m sorry, Grace; but then,
It’s not my fault if you will be a cat.

Short Poem 
You slapped my face
oh but so gently
I smiled
at the caress

Oh, black Persian cat!
Was not your life
already cursed with offspring?
We took you for rest to that old
Yankee farm, — so lonely
and with so many field mice
in the long grass —
and you return to us
in this condition — !

Oh, black Persian cat.

Complete Destruction
It was an icy day.
We buried that cat,
then took her box
and set match to it
in the back yard.
Those fleas that escaped
earth and fire
died by the cold.

Dance Russe
If I when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees, —
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
“I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!”
If I admire my arms, my face,
My shoulders, flanks, buttocks
Against the yellow drawn shades, —

Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?

I post the next poem, one of my favorites, only because it lends brilliant contrast to the one that  follows, that so perfectly follows in format:

From Spring and All
so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Twenty sparrows

a scattered

Share and share

Saturday, December 17, 2011

See, here's the thing about symbols:

Christopher Hitchens is dead.  Facebook was alive with the news for, uhm, about a day: "The world is a lesser place without him," some said (though apparently not so lessened that the effects of his demise reverberate beyond several hours).  I'm not too chuffed, but mostly just because I know so little about him, not because I have any particular ax to grind.  However, his death, together with the typical convergence of events or things read that generally lead me to a post like this, have made me think about a few things.

Hitchens wrote a book:  God Is Not Great, in which he asserts his atheism and appears to attempt an undermining of religion.  Apart from the utter futility of such an endeavor (I'm not sure that even God could dissuade just the moderate zealotry (you know, without pressing his "Smite" button, and all); and besides, I mean, c'mon! -- did such an intelligent person as Hitchens really think he could successfully attack and undermine something so essentially illogical with carefully meted and tempered argument, or was he, so much more likely, just trying to sell copy?), he makes some interesting arguments, the vast majority of which I'm not interested in here.  One of his weaker assertions, however, is an attack on the anachronisms--the "ill-carpentered fictions"--of the Bible, which affords a starting point for my discussion.

Let me be the first to say, and despite my love for the Bible, that the tome is chock full of some of the strangest tails and details I've ever come across.  Hitchens thinks so, too (one of the very few upon which we agree).  The Pentateuch, for instance, holds Moses doing and saying some weird stuff--freaky weird, even.  What Hitchens doesn't seem to acknowledge (or, well, he does, but sites it as a further weakness (and I'm not fighting that claim right now)) is the effects of the passage time, one linguistic/cultural and the other human error/interference.  Anyone who studies the Bible will cheerfully acknowledge the dire effect of imperfect people working on or on behalf of the scriptures--the otherwise perfect Word (of course, for most of us, one of the great benefits of the Bible comes directly from the very effort involved in parsing Truth from among all the problems) --not all of whom had good intentions.  But even under the best circumstances, people, despite God's perfection, make mistakes (and those who believe and really think about it will allow that God even permits these mistakes), so many of whom appear in their efforts to forward God's word.  Bigger still, however, than the weakness of even the best-intentioned of men (and there were plenty of malingerers), is the effect of cultural development.  Anachronisms aside, to us today, there's an awful lot, especially from the earliest books of the great Library, that doesn't make much sense and/or contradicts itself.  This brings me to the next of the convergences and closer to my ultimate point.

Languages and cultures shift and change.  Don't believe me (and, crap if you don't, you're freaking obtuse!)?  Just read a week's worth of posts from The Language Log.  Without putting too fine a point on it (and we've talked about it before vis a vis translation) it is essentially impossible--or, at best, impractical--to manage perfect cross-cultural  or cross-language shifts: a translation.  The best we can manage, and we can manage pretty well, is interpretation (hence the art and skill of interpreters against the woeful ineptitude of things like Google Translate and Word's grammar check) --interpretation which requires a ladder into the ether of metalanguage, which we are definitely not going to broach today.  The point is we cannot--EVER--perfectly understand a person of a different language and culture.  Period.  Move this to an extremity of language and culture like that of freaking Moses, and ... well ....  Get the point?

As it's Christmastime, cards and letters are starting to come in from family and friends.  In our house, we post these decoratively upon the cupboards of our kitchen.  Generally, the missives convey family news -- count on my dad to take a different tack (and I don't remember him ever being the one to scribe the annual letter for my folks; how things change!).  He talked about a conversation he and my mom had had regarding the interpretation of a word at the end of "Away in a Manger": "and fit us for heaven," the word fit, particularly, as it ... er ... fits in the line and within the song.  Unfortunately (for the issue at hand here, not the elegant point made by my father in his letter), fit is a pretty boring word, meaning essentially the same thing now as when the song was first published and even three hundred years before that.  The only difference in our uses of fit now as from before is a drop, inasmuch as Lewis Carroll did not mean, or at least did not only mean (most likely he meant both together) fit as a strong, sudden, uncontrollable physical reaction, but a canto: "The Hunting of the Snark, an Agony in Eight Fits."  This difference or change or shift or lack, or whatever you want to call it, in fit's etymology can still be sort of retrofit into the interpretation of the song, at least as a symbol.  And this is the point.

Symbols change just like words and language and culture.  (And I could write a book about this, but we're gonna keep it limited -- hopefully.  Besides, there are others far better qualified than me.)

There are all kinds of symbols, and you should get what I'm talking about by my saying that there are both universal symbols and one-use-only symbols.  The best source I can think of for any symbol--a specific symbol or type of symbol--is literature (go figure).  Authors and poets certainly use both, but the difference should be clear in, say, Catcher in the Rye, where Salinger applies a potentially universal symbol of a cliff and a very specific, one-use-only, symbol of a song lyric.  

(Want more symbols?  Dig out your freshman lit book from high school or even college.  I'd examine my own, but it's buried in the garage.  One in particular that I re-encountered recently is that of bells.  Consider their effect on faeries (or pixies -- you pick), but also in Longfellow's "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," Poe's "The Bells," and Tennyson's "Ring Out Wild Bells.")

Symbols like these, universal or not (another universal symbol, perhaps easier to see, is the black bird, used in both Through the Looking Glass and Tortilla Flat, among so many others), remain fixed, at least inasmuch as their value is fully encapsulated by the text of the book.  Regardless of cultural elements connected to the symbols or their cultural sources, the application of the symbols are self-contained.  Well, often.  Not always.  Consider Jane Eyre.  Early in the book, in the red room, there's the nastiness about the chimney.  With the exception of Santa Claus, we've largely lost our superstitions, and therefore associated symbolisms, of chimneys.

This brings me to my gripe.

It really bugs me when hyper-Christians get all bent out of shape about the "real meaning" of Christmas symbols (as distinguished from "the real meaning of Christmas," which is certainly not in dispute here; and the same goes for Easter): the Christmas tree, the yule log, Santa coming down the chimney, wreaths, poinsettias, and so on.  Easter eggs.  Generally, the hyper-Christians' gripes boil down to pagan rituals and druids and fertility rites and, somehow, the consumerism of the Holidays.  (If you're really ambitious, check out the symmetry between the development of our cultural symbols against the history of our English language.  Cool.)

(Are you offended by my coinage of "hyper-Christians"?  I apologize.  Anyway:)

Here's the thing: Sure, go through the histories--which interest me just as much as the next nerd--and, yeah, that's where a lot of this stuff got started.  But that's not what they mean anymore!  Things change!

Are you still scared of witches coming down your chimney?  I've never roasted a chestnut, but chestnuts are much closer to my cultural nostalgia associated with chimneys than hobgoblins.  (Actually, the majority of my  personal associations with chimneys involve me as a kid getting into a heckuva lot of trouble.)

Just because the symbol itself--the physical thing--persists, and entirely by tradition only (a thing much more rigid than whatever that tradition might have stemmed from (consider how many people go to church on Christmas and Easter not because they believe anything in particular--or particularly strongly--but just because that's what you do on Christmas and Easter)) doesn't mean that it's wrong to hold onto that thing!  It doesn't always matter what something means, but that it means something at all.  Think about it: what do the Christmas tree and the presents and the cookies and the fireplace and the wreath, and whatever else, mean--symbolize--for you?

See?  Right there--that internal meaning.  That is what Christmas is all about.  And if you happen to be Christian, it might mean that much more.  And not by compromise between the traditional symbols and the Bible stories, but because symbols change--we change--people change, and what we become--what and who we are--is what is most important.  You might be surprised, but examine yourself against the symbols in your life.  Those symbols probably define you (not you by them, but they as representations of who you are), not because the symbols might have meant something different to someone else sometime across the ages, but because of what it means to you and you alone.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunday Poetry XLII -- Never the Same Twice :: Lisel Mueller

“  When I am asked
    how I began writing poems,
    I talk about the indifference of nature.  ”

Alone, these words are fantastic.  Right?  Brilliant.  Sure.  Genius?  …

(See?  I’ve got this thing with “genius,” going back, as far as I can tell, to the day I learned my dad prayed that none of his kids would be one.  (Dad:  prayer answered.)  I guess I bring it up again because there seems to be this indelible connection between the definition—at least in practice—of genius and that of art—art being, or any work thereof, as difficult to define as genius is to identify or, maybe more so, explain.)

…  But it’s the rest of the poem that brings this thing really around to make a glorious connection I didn’t anticipate.  Perhaps it’s this convergence—or the millions just like it that happen all over the world all the time—that drew me in and bubbled up that word—“genius”—again from its little locker back there.

Here’s the poem:

When I am Asked
by Lisel Mueller – Pulitzer Prize winner, 1996

When I am asked
how I began writing poems,
I talk about the indifference of nature.

It was soon after my mother died,
a brilliant June day,
everything blooming.

I sat on a gray stone bench
in a lovingly planted garden,
but the day lilies were as deaf
as the ears of drunken sleepers
and the roses curved inward.
Nothing was black or unbroken
and not a leaf fell
and the sun blared endless commercials
for summer holidays.

I sat on a gray stone bench
ringed with the ingenue faces
of pink and white impatiens
and placed my grief
in the mouth of language,
the only thing that would grieve with me.

It’s those last three lines, right? —that metaphysical power of words—particularly for those who know how, even a little, to really use them?

So I picked out the book, Mueller’s Alive Together, just an hour or so ago from a box of my books I picked out from a mountain of them out in my garage.  (I think this is the benefit of having sold all my bookshelves: I can’t just pick out all the same old books because I have no idea where they are.)  This is another of the books I inherited back at the Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy from my predecessor.  Unlike the others, this one is full of that teacher's annotations.  Normally, this would bother me, particularly as I’m generally so averse to writing in books that it took me three-quarters of a semester before I started highlighting my law books.

Anyway, by way of the poem above, the experience of reading by way of another reader’s reading, and an interesting thing I heard at church this morning—remarkably apropos—I think I’m a step closer to understanding the confluence of genius in art (if nowhere else).

Hugh Nibley, a once religious studies and linguistics professor at Brigham Young University, was the source of the quotation that caught my attention.  I don’t have the quotation in front of me, nor have I found it online, but here’s the gist of it:  That scripture isn’t the words before us, penned by the prophets, but the experience of reading those words.

That’s pretty big, particularly religiously—well, if you’re one who happens to read scripture, anyway—but nearly as much so for the reader of literature, the viewer of art, and, most approachably, the listener of music.  When I’m trying to pin down why it is I think a certain work, or a certain artist, is genius, it usually begins with not the substance of the art itself, but the ineffable experience that blooms or emerges or ka-pows right there in that intangible space somewhere between my senses and the work.  Even afterward, trying to rationalize it, trying to objectify it, remove that emotional response, I can never separate myself from that initial experience, which brings me to the next of the poems from Mueller:

A Farewell, A Welcome
               After the lunar landings
Good-bye pale cold inconstant
tease, you never existed
therefore we had to invent you

               Good-bye crooked little man
               huntress who sleeps alone
               dear pastor, shepherd of the stars
               who tucked us in               Good-bye

Good riddance phony prop
con man moon
who tap-danced with June
to the tender surrender
of love from above

Good-bye decanter of magic liquids
fortuneteller par excellence
seduce  incubus medicine man
exiles’ sanity       love’s sealed lips
womb that nourished the monstrous child
and the sweet ripe grain Good-bye
               We trade you in as we traded
               the evil eye for the virus
               the rose seat of affections
               for the indispensbile pump
we say good-bye as we said good-bye
to angels in nightgowns                 to Grandfather God

Good-bye forever Edam and Gorgonzola
cantaloupe in the sky
night watchman, one-eyed loner
wolves nevertheless
Aae programmed to howl             Good-bye
               forbidden lover good-bye
               sleepwalkers will wander
               with outstretched arms for no reason
               while you continue routinely
               to husband the seal, prevail
               in the fix of infant strabismus
good-bye ripe ovum        women will spill their blood
in spite of you now          lunatics wave good-bye
accepting despair by another name

Welcome new world to the brave old words
peace    Hope     Justice
truth Everylasting             welcome
ash-colored playground of children
happy in air bags
never to touch is never to miss it

Scarface hellow we’ve got you covered
welcome untouchable     outlaw
with an alias in every country
salvos and roses               you are home
our footprints stamp you mortal


I was going to put up one more of her poems (this one inspired by Martin Gardner, no less!), but I think I’ll leave it here.  

Friday, December 9, 2011

Mickey's Christmas Carol

Last time I posted one of these ("Mickey and the Beanstalk" -- scroll to the end of the post if you want to watch the movie), my motives were literary.  This time, just nostalgia.  Please enjoy:

(As much as anything, the snow this morning and the end of finals finally kicked me into the Christmas spirit -- that and Angie read the kids the Disney storybook of this last night.)

Carl Bloch: Genius

I can't remember my first exposure to a Carl Bloch painting.  My church makes regular use of his religious works (most the Christ-centered one), and has done so since long before I was born.  I do, however, recall with poignancy the first time I saw one of his originals.

I was a poor undergrad at BYU in Provo, Utah.  The university's museum of art had managed to take on loan "Healing at the Pool of Bethesda," which in print, of course, I had seen before.  It was a winter day.  I believe I was dawdling--or, really, and likely more appropriately, "pottering and doddering," to borrow from Fitzgerald--before a steel band rehearsal in the arts center (so it would have been a Friday), and I wandered a moment into the museum.  I wasn't aware of the museum's temporary acquisition of a Bloch, nor did I have any reasonable expectation what his "real-life" paintings were even like, and so I wasn't at all prepared for what happened next.  I walked in, turned a corner, and there it was.  I remember my full arrest; I couldn't move.  I was shocked--stunned.  My eyes widened, and goosebumps crawled like fire ants up and down my arms and neck.

Like I said: I'd seen the painting before.  I'd always appreciated the painting.  Being one who, at the time, was anticipating a career in illustration, I prided myself (and with only, in retrospect, the slightest justification) on my general ability to recognize and appreciate the finer of the painterly works.  But this....  This was staggering!  (And now I will stop gushing.)

Since then, I've recognized Bloch as a genius.  (While I don't think anyone will doubt that he is, the assertion does raise an interesting tangent:  is it that those whom I'd admire also happen frequently to be geniuses, or is it that because I admire them, I think they're geniuses?)  So when I came across a new observation--or new to me, anyway--I was amazed, of course, at the brilliance of Bloch, but also that maybe I was actually right in the first place, that this guy's a genius.

In an article in an LDS magazine, The Ensign, by David Frischnecht, "The Condescension of Jesus Christ," (pdf with images here) the newness was revealed to me, and it's simple.  And I will let the art speak for itself.  The paintings in question are Bloch's iterations of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, respectively, below.  Look at the two pictures.  Imagine them one overlaying the other, particularly with the forms of Christ superimposing each other.  Notice the posture arms, the feet, the curve of the spine.

I'm awed, and I invite your thoughts.

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