Archive for the ‘art’ Category

Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings

May 1st, 2016

I’m reading Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, a recent book of poetry by Joy Harjo. I think it may be a great book. It certainly inspires thought and feeling. One of the things I find myself thinking about is the dilemma confronting anyone who wants to write criticism of lyric poetry. If a volume of lyric poetry is working the way poetry can work, it is extremely difficult and maybe impossible to articulate an “argument” or even a “point of view” that the volume expresses, from which criticism can proceed. That is because what poetry points at is a preverbal or nonverbal set of truths. In this it shares something with the visual arts. Who was it who said, “If I could write about it I wouldn’t need to paint it?” Poets, and especially lyric poets, could make a similar statement, except of course they are writing about “it.” So that doesn’t leave the literary critic much to work with. The critic can do the Helen Vendler thing and focus on the technical means whereby the critic thinks the poet has achieved the poem’s effects. Or, as more often seems to happen, the critic can do the Dan Chiasson thing of throwing out a lot of fuzzy impressionistic verbiage in a hopeless attempt to communicate the poem’s effects – hopeless of course because that could be done only by reproducing the poem itself. As you may be able to tell, I don’t much care for either of these approaches. The Vendler approach leads to the response, “So what? Who cares?” If I’m a good poet, she’s not telling me anything I don’t already know, and if I’m not a good poet, knowing what she’s telling me will be useless. The Chiasson approach lands us square in the middle of “I don’t get it, and I don’t see why I should.” So I will content myself, for the present, by saying that Joy Harjo, line after line and page after page, evokes fundamental human realities. Her subject matter appears to be the product of a modern day Native American woman’s meditation on the past six hundred years of European and North American history.  If you’re interested in that, check out this book.

Down the Tube

March 31st, 2014

Queets_River_Douglas-FirSo… a little less than a week ago I finished my revisions to Goldfish Rising and sent the mansucript off to the publisher of the first volume of the series, To Join the Lost.  (Which, if you haven’t bought it, you should, in preparation for Goldfish Rising.  Not from Amazon.  From this site, or from this one.)  I am old enough to remember when that would have meant packing a neat stack of pages into a special box, wrapping it with bubble wrap and butcher’s paper, addressing it in permanent marker, and taking it to the post office for the ceremony of buying stamps and handing it over to the clerk and watching it disappear into the mysterious rooms in the back of the building or (with some detriment to the sense of occasion) get tossed into a big bin.  Now it was just a matter of clicking on a “send” button.  I am no luddite, but that is definitely less satisfying.  I clicked the button, stared at the screen, and let the inevitable feelings of emptiness and “what do I do now?” sink in.

What I do now, in the evenings at least, is not what I intend to be doing for much longer.  Someday in the not too distant future, the publisher I like to think of as “my” publisher will respond to my manuscript, I hope and expect with acceptance and, if so, also with a list of possibly as many as several hundred comments, questions, and recommendations for change, which will keep my evenings happily occupied for weeks or even months.  Right now, however, I’m at loose ends.  Used to be, for the past several years, most evenings after work would consist of making dinner, eating dinner, washing up after dinner, an hour or so of brisk walking, and then working on the book. Take the book out of the equation, add in weather that is not very conducive to walking outdoors, and you get some long hours to fill between dinner and bedtime.  So, being a good American, I watch TV.

I want to tell you about two shows I saw last night.  Channel surfing, I happened across the series Nature, and enjoyed an hour-long episode about recent research into the social life and behavioral characteristics of plants.  Anybody remember that movie Steve Wonder did the film score for back in 1979, The Secret Life of Plants?  It was about plants’ responsiveness to stimuli and was generally regarded at the time as highly woo-woo and far out there.  Well, apparently not so much.  Plants engage in highly specific forms of communication among themselves and with other classes of being, engage in foraging and aggressive behavior, exhibit aspects of self awareness, create social networks for mutual defense and assistance, and even, it appears, nurture their young in some cases.  What I particularly liked about the show was the careful description of the experimental and observational bases for the scientsts’ conclusions.  We got images of scientists washing the dirt off seedlings’ roots and looking at pictures of rootlets in action and holding geiger counters to baby douglas firs.  Not only did we get to hear what the scientists thought they were learning, but what led them to think so.

After that I watched Cosmos, the remake of an old Carl Sagan miniseries.  Very flashy visuals, lots of special effects, and constant reminders to the audience of how “incredible!” it all is.  It was very unsatisfying.  I am sure that Neil deGrasse Tyson, the genial and soft-spoken physicist who hosts the extravaganza, did not intend it this way, but the only real compelling element of the series is his evocation of his own personal relationship with Sagan, who was something of a mentor to Tyson and started him on his scientific career.  Oh, and Tyson’s occasional slaps at fundamentalist religious dogma, such as that the universe is 7000 years old, are amusing if disheartening when one realizes that in America in 2014 this is rather daring.  Other than that, it is all “gee whiz! look at this!” and incoherence.

The real difference between Cosmos and the Nature program, I decided, is that Nature told us as much about the process of arriving at a new perception, as it did about the new perception itself.  Cosmos presents us with a jumbled bunch of Revealed Truths.  At the end, I found myself thinking about what I had seen on Nature, and finding my worldview subverted and transformed by it.  Plants and the forest are not what I had thought they were, but they are much more like what I had dreamed and suspected.  I have not thought much about what Cosmos presented to me, at least not substantively, because Cosmos did not give me much substance to work with.  Again, I am sure Tyson did not intend it this way, but it is the difference between science reporting and scientism; between new perceptions of the world, on the one hand, and something that can take the place formerly occupied by Holy Writ, on the other.

Unsurpisingly, Nature is brought to you by PBS, and Cosmos by Fox and the Koch brothers.  The one show teaches us something about science, how it works and what it’s like to do it and what kind of humble but startling understandings it leads us to.  The other teaches us a new wowie zowie mythology suitable for use by workers and consumers in a technologically sophisticated oligarchy.

 

Lincoln

December 4th, 2012

Here, in no particular order, are some thoughts I had after watching Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln last night.  It assumes you’ve seen the movie or have some idea what it’s about.  Warning: there may be some spoilers here.  My son disclaimed interest in seeing this movie, saying he already knows how it turns out.  But there are many surprises along the way…

Shabbiness.  This is not a clean and sparkly costume drama like Anna Karenina.  They’re going for gritty period authenticity here, not fairyland.  Lincoln visits Grant’s field HQ, a nice white house in the country with a pillared porch, and there’s mud all over everything.  The rooms in the Capitol and the White House are smoky and dingy. No vacuumed wall-to-wall synthetic carpet, no gleaming linoleum, no sterile cubbies.  No sterile anything.  At a hospital, they dispose of amputated limbs by trundling them in a wooden wheelbarrow covered with a dirty sheet to dump them in a shallow pit out back.  The wheelbarrow drips puddles of blood all along the way you wouldn’t want to step in.  At the movie’s closing scene, Lincoln’s second inauguration, he is surrounded by a crowd of people standing in front of the Capitol, listening.  They all look unkempt, their clothes ill fitting and probably not too clean.  Nobody looks too well washed.  The rich and powerful don’t look a whole lot better dressed than the hoi polloi.  No orange tans and pink scrubbed faces and sleek suits like you see nowadays – not on the floor of the House of Representatives, not in the President’s offices, nowhere.  Almost the only exception is Rep. Atkins, the dapper floor manager in the fight for the Thirteenth Amendment on the House floor.  He stands out for his dapperness, meaning his cheeks look scrubbed, his clothes reasonably well tailored and well fitting.  This was a time when there was no shampoo as we know it – getting your hair really clean was next to impossible.  Lincoln’s hair takes on an almost independent life, practically deserves its own place in the credits.

Unadventurous old-fashioned film-making and story-telling.  Straightforward narrative, for the most part in simple chronological order, from a single detached point of view, the omniscient observer.  Not much fancy camera work or framing of scenes.  Score reasonably restrained, but still – at times obtrusively – constantly commenting, telling us what to feel.  Sense after about half way through that a LOT of scenes are set pieces for Lincoln’s oratory, for him to expound his agonized or eloquent or homey or whatever thoughts while other characters sit around and listen with varying degrees of appreciation.  From these standard, hoary Hollywood materials, Spielberg has fashioned a masterpiece. There’s life in the old girl yet!  Movie rides on the intelligence of the screenplay, the quality of the acting, and the scrupulous craftsmanship of the director.

Moral complexity.  The movie has been criticized for the way that blacks are mostly in the background.  I don’t think these criticisms are justified.  The movie’s very first scene is an ugly, hand-to-hand melee in which black soldiers fighting on the Union side gradually overcome and kill all of their Confederate adversaries.  Men are stuck with bayonets, strangled, held under water, stomped on the head into the mud.  The next scene is an interview between Lincoln and some of the victors/survivors.  A black soldier takes him to task for not going far enough in the cause of racial equality.  It is almost the only scene in which Lincoln seems ill at ease and inadequate to the task; a magnificent framing device, at once powerful and subtle.   For the rest of the movie, blacks are mostly in the background of the film’s action, because, with regard to the actual events depicted, that’s where they were.  Much later, Lincoln rides through a battlefield, picking his way through heaps of dead, grotesque piles of corpses from a battle that he knows did not need to take place except that he –Lincoln – has made ending slavery a priority over ending the war.  At the end of the movie, when we hear him speak those amazing words from the Second Inaugural Address about requiting with blood for every stroke of the lash from the bondsman’s two hundred years of toil, we know what personal pain those words carried for him, and it elevates them from the realm of mere oratory, however magnificent, to a cri de coeur.  Meanwhile, Lincoln struggles against his eldest surviving son’s desire to join the army, allowing him to do so at last but making sure he has a relatively safe job, and knowing that another father’s son may die for that decision.  And at the same time Lincoln is fighting to preserve the Republic, which in his mind stands for preserving democracy and the rule of law, he plays fast and loose with the Constitution and engages in the flimsiest forms of legal pettifoggery to bamboozle Congress into ending slavery.  If he is a hero, it is not because he was pure as Galahad.  Far from it.

Representative Thaddeus Stevens, the great abolitionist from Pennsylvania, sleeping with his  housekeeper.  I will admit to a small frisson of unmerited pride in my chosen home state when I learned that Mr. Stevens was born in Vermont, although he represented a Pennsylvania district in the House.  After the antislavery amendment is passed, and the day of celebration is over, Stevens goes to bed.  The camera pans across his creaky old body releasing itself into the mattress, to his bedmate, a black woman.  It’s played a little for shock effect, and for the effect of adding to Stevens’ heroism.  Whereas Lincoln, asked by his wife’s maid what he thinks will happen after the war when all blacks are free, says we’ll have to learn how to get along, which makes him seem a man thoroughly of his time,  by contrast Stevens’ loving interracial relationship makes him seem a man way way ahead of his time.  But even he keeps it a secret so as not to create scandal; and it inevitably echoes of less laudable sexual relationships between powerful white men and the domestic help.

Level of personal vituperation in politics.  Our latter-day politicians are virtuosos of euphemism, innuendo, dog-whistles, code-words; but these guys reveled in name-calling.  They indulge exuberantly in verbal mud-wrestling.  There’s a scene where Stevens, goaded almost beyond his limited endurance, borders on the scatological in describing in detail the lower orders of life to which he claims his contemptible interlocutor belongs, ending by observing that the fellow should be smashed underfoot.  It would be even funnier if we hadn’t seen somebody doing just that in the movie’s opening sequence.  There are many such examples of high fluency and verbal inventiveness used as assault weapons.  Part of that is probably just the playwright, Tony Kushner, having fun with language.  Some of the glee with which Thaddeus Stevens describes an opponent on the floor of the House to his face as disgusting slime is probably due to the fact that it’s Tommy Lee Jones who is playing him.  But it’s also true to the times. It was a period when educated people deployed spoken language with more potency and sophistication and in some ways – despite our freedom with fuck and shit and so on – with less inhibition than we do now.  Anyway, those who decry the lack of civility in modern political discourse should take note.

Lincoln outsized compared to the other characters, literally and figuratively.  In every dimension, physical, spiritual, intellectual, psychological, he is simply larger.  Only the volcanic Thaddeus Stevens comes close.  Of all the many vividly drawn characters in the movie, Lincoln’s wife Mary alone is depicted as fully in the round as he, a woman of surprising resilience and combative intelligence, but even she is a much smaller personality.  This is partly a function of the film’s focus – it’s entitled Lincoln after all – and partly a (probably) accurate vision of what it is like to be around a truly great man.  Great means big.  He dwarfs us.  So when a room full of ego-driven, aggressive, powerful men falls silent while he spins out one of his befuddling parables, it’s psychologically plausible.  It’s not that he sucks all the oxygen out of the room the way a histrionic narcissist does, it’s that when he takes action there’s simply nothing else to watch.  Sometimes they rebel – Sec. of War Stanton fulminates I can’t stand another one of your stories and hustles away – but the rest stay and listen.  There’s an elephant in the room, and it’s him.

Lincoln’s weariness.  His gait like an exhausted plow horse plodding home after a long long day in the field. The visible effort he puts into bending and unbending that long body standing up or sitting down.  The default mode of his face – brooding exhaustion.  The horrible personal cost of being him.  He gets more stooped and hunch-shouldered as things go on, as if he is literally being dragged down by the weight of his burdens and also by the continuing need to meet his fellow beings on their level.

Lincoln’s mode of thought – narrative, analogy, metaphor.  Oh, he’s capable of powerful legal and political logic. His explanation of why the Emancipation Proclamation was not enough to do the job of ending slavery and might be legally wrong, coupled with his explanation of why the Thirteenth Amendment has to be passed through Congress now now now before the war’s end, is an almost breathtaking exhibition.  This is a guy who Thinks Things Through.  Somebody once said of the great jazz pianist Art Tatum that he was almost impossible to play with in a duet because nobody else could think that fast.  One gets the idea Lincoln was like that, as a lawyer and politician.  But: his default mode of thinking is essentially via image and metaphor; dare I say it, poetic.  Nearly every time he is called upon to make a considered response to something, whether it is a question, a situation, an interpersonal problem, the first place his mind goes is to a story, an example, a concrete reality.  It is this ability to find a bridge of resonance between one set of circumstances and another, and thus between one person or group of people and another, that is his most characteristic mode of thought.

Not just an exercise in antiquarianism.  Given our very recent history, it is jarring at first to have the party of civil rights be the Republicans, and even more jarring that the Radical Republicans are the most progressive ones, while the Democrats are the party of white racial solidarity.  But then people of my generation may remember that it was in fact more or less this way well into our childhoods, until Nixon struck his deal with the devil in 1972 and Reps and Dems switched places.  But what kept striking me over and over is how we still are repeating the same essential conversation over and over, that everything in American politics either harkens back to race or is fundamentally about race, and that all the basic attitudes we encounter today are pretty much the same as those expressed in the debate on the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.  Instead of talking about slavery, we’re talking about affirmative action and voter suppression and discrimination and minority rights and immigration and so on.  But the things we (I mean mostly white people) are saying about these subjects, although couched in radically different language, are mostly things that might have been said 147 years ago.  But there is a difference.  In the debate on the Thirteenth Amendment, the Democrats tried to force Thaddeus Stevens to say what he in fact believed, that the point of ending slavery was to promote equality of the races.  Such a bald, radical statement might have scuttled the project.  So he swallowed hard and pretended that he was only interested in equality before the law.  To the extent that he would not have to mount such a pretense today, that is the measure of our progress.

Bigger than life means dead

August 24th, 2011

I recently participated in a Facebook discussion about the new Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial.  The press clipping that sparked the discussion said that critics of the memorial are upset because it depicts King in a sombre, confrontational stance, and because it was done by a sculptor from China.  The reported criticism seems absurd to me.  It is a curious mythology that would recall King as a nonconfrontational figure.  On the other hand, I think MLK might have had some trouble wrapping his mind around the idea of a 30 foot tall statue of himself on a 4 acre plaza. I don’t think he would have much cared what country the perpetrator was from.

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The Tree of Life

July 3rd, 2011

I saw Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life yesterday, and when I left the theatre, around midnight, and crossed the parking lot, the trees and lights and cars looked more sharply focused, with clearer, more saturated colors, brighter highlights, more richly detailed shadows, than they had before, and everywhere I turned my eyes was full of life and motion, even though there was no wind.  It’s a powerful film.

There is no narrative as such, although there are narrative elements, and much of the central third seems roughly chronological.  There’s a man, Jack, who is now a successful businessman in some major city.  He may be an architect.  He’s having some sort of crisis of identity in his profession.  Much of the film focuses on his life as a boy in Waco, Texas, in the nineteen fifties.  The focal point of view in these sections is Jack’s, mostly, but it is unclear whether we are seeing things as they happened or as he now remembers them.  His mother is idealized.  He was a troubled early adolescent.  (Who isn’t?)  His relationship with his father was and remains troubled.  His father’s relationship with himself and with the mother was troubled.  Jack is the eldest of three brothers.  The middle one, the sensitive, musically creative one, died at the age of nineteen, devastating the mother.   The movie doesn’t tell us how or why he died.   The youngest brother was just sort of there, a mere vague presence, so far as Jack was concerned.  At the end of the movie, Jack experiences some sort of reconciliation with his brother’s death and his father’s emotionally brutal masculinity and other issues residual from his childhood.  He looks up at the cold, glassy skyscrapers he inhabits and smiles, a warm, embracing smile.

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Vote for me!

March 10th, 2011

Yeah, you!  I’m talking to you!

I received an email the other day from the Vermont Arts Council inviting me to nominate a candidate for Vermont Poet Laureate, and I thought, who better than me?  For all of you who agree, follow this link to help me throw my hat in the ring.  You can find everything you need to know to fill out the nomination form right here on this web site.

Poetry doesn’t need to be boring or mystifying or trivial.  It can be about more than some feeling or experience or passing fancy or perception the author had.  It doesn’t have to be a word game.  It can do more than advertise how sensitive or perceptive or humane or smart or verbally adept the author is.   It doesn’t have to come in little bite size pieces that you can read while folding toilet paper.

Poetry can engage the world on all the levels that you do.  It can make statements, tell stories about characters doing things, express points of view and arguments and ideas, contain adventure and excitement and jokes that are actually funny.  It can be so big that it takes hours and days and weeks to read.  It can be so vivid that you don’t want to watch a movie instead.

I want to wrest poetry away from the clammy fingers of the Standard MFA Workshop American Lyric that are clenching it by the throat, squeezing the life out of it.  I am sick of reading award winning poems that tell me in twenty lines or so about some tranche de vie.  Why are you telling me this?  Who cares?  Why should I care?  Why should anybody care?    I am sick of being dazzled by verbal brilliance – it hurts and it’s bad for the eyes.  I am sick of poems that dare me to understand them, like an adolescent with something to prove to himself.

Where are the poems that back an eighteen wheeler up to your head, unload, and leave you with completely rearranged furniture and a new set of tenants?  Who is writing them?  I’ll leave it to you to decide if I’m such a poet, but if you agree with me that this is something poetry needs to do and that too few poets are trying to do it, then VOTE FOR ME!

The deadline for nominations is March 25.

We do art because art is what we do

October 12th, 2010

On VPR last week I heard a reporter ask Vermont film maker and arts promoter Jay Craven to explain how the arts can strengthen a community.  I thought the question was a perfect example of our society’s cluelessness about art and its place in human life.  What surprised me was the lameness of Craven’s answer.  Jay Craven is an accomplished artist with interesting and important things to say, but on this occasion he launched into the conventional thoughtless high-minded mooing you get whenever Americans start talking in public about the role of art: art makes you a better person by opening you to different points of view and making you more perceptive and sensitive and tolerant and blah blah blah.  Well, maybe.  Some art might have that effect upon some people, sometimes.  But is that why we do art?  For its medicinal/therapeutic effect?  Because, like eating spinach or taking echinacea in flu season, it’s good for you?

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