Oct 31, 2009

Poem for Halloween Day: "The Cat and the Moon"



by: W. B. Yeats (1865-1939)

HE cat went here and there
And the moon spun round like a top,
And the nearest kin of the moon,
The creeping cat, looked up.
Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon,
For, wander and wail as he would,
The pure cold light in the sky
Troubled his animal blood.
Minnaloushe runs in the grass
Lifting his delicate feet.
Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance?
When two close kindred meet,
What better than call a dance?
Maybe the moon may learn,
Tired of that courtly fashion,
A new dance turn.
Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
From moonlit place to place,
The sacred moon overhead
Has taken a new phase.
Does Minnaloushe know that his pupils
Will pass from change to change,
And that from round to crescent,
From crescent to round they range?
Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
Alone, important and wise,
And lifts to the changing moon
His changing eyes.

Yeats's cat is creepy, roaming in the night and wailing to the moon, that changing globe we know also as luna, for lunacy. If the poem appeals to you on any level, please read it aloud, twice. The rhythm, including the changes in rhythm, make the scene more haunting.

Tomorrow I might add some slightly more academic blather about the poem, but for now, just read, listen, and . . . sleep well.

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Oct 30, 2009

Sentimental Autumn

What kind of tree and nut?

Blueberries? Galway Kinnell's blackberries?

What's left of Tennessee pumpkin.

Bambi as glutton?

Oct 25, 2009

Red Wheelbarrow re: Football

If anything at all depends upon a Red Wheelbarrow, we need to talk about awful football uniforms. In the NFL, I know everyone hates as much as I do the NASCAR jumble of colors and stripes and drunken shoulder patches on the Buffalo Bills at home. Or were they away? Who could tell?

The Bengals, this close to something snazzy, have the fashionotsomuch to put a white stripe down the sides of the black jerseys when every other trim color is orange or orange and black. What the hell is the white stripe supposed to connect to? After all, the command is, "Only connect." Years ago, when the Bengals put those fake tiger stripes on the helmets, I knew it would lead to no good. I knew the denouement would be a long downhill slide, an ordained, epic, downward gurgle in the bathtub drain, a black hole to taste and common sense.

In college ball, surely we’d all agree that Oregon’s damned dumb Ducks—oddly representing a progressive state and good team—have a lock on the worst-dressed title. Yesterday they donned fashionable black and wore no green, their principal color. Is it so extreme that it's camp? Do we care about camp?

On the subject of black, can it be true that there's no law against black socks? Black shoes demonstrate kinship with the cosmos, an appropriate sense of tradition. Black socks indicate a black hole in IQ.

I wonder, too, who is paying for all the Duck uniforms. Can it be that alums are giving their money for polka dots on shoulder pads instead of financial aid or faculty salaries? Or white socks?

In addition to their ducklings, the Ducks are followed in offensiveness by Texas Tech, the Red Raiders who wear nothing but black except for an anorexic red stripe here and there. Another sell-out, and I don't mean season tickets.

Please assure me that Tennessee’s Volunteers will never again wear their pumpkin orange jerseys and pumpkin orange pants all at once, at home, or anywhere. Just a little pumpkin goes a long way.

Should I explore Division 3 in this context? Do I dare to eat a peach? Maybe Oregon's next helmet color will be peach.

In case I don’t get back this week (papers to grade), Happy Halloween, the dumbest holiday on the planet. Anyone who likes it can bite my pumpkin.

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Oct 23, 2009



I’m not a fan of horror movies, but the appealing story about the making of this movie, plus the lure of popcorn, drew me to it. Apparently it cost only $15,000 to film Paranormal Activity, and with two little-known actors, it was shot at the director’s house in a week. Yet it appears to be a significant box office success.

As for technique, Paranormal Activity should almost be obliged to footnote Blair Witch Project and the handheld camera, the supposedly homemade movie, the accidental horror film. Ditto a debt to Cloverfield. I was more impressed by both of those earlier trials with the premise of accidental movie-making.

But Paranormal Activity brings a couple of new twists and turns, and I especially applaud the absence of disembowelments and other Wish I Were in Med School slicing and dicing, as well as the au courant requirement of vomit as a principal means of character revelation.

In a similar vein, the characters look like real people rather than Hollywood mannequins—the six-pack and his stick girl. The rising action takes a little too long, but that’s partly because we’re seeing the proverbial young couple next door. We need to know and like them even as their flaws unfold and they become less proverbial.

Paranormal Activity did scare me to yelping a couple of times, and I guess that’s important in a horror movie. Maybe it’s downright remarkable without innards and regurgitation.

Still, I learned little, except for the technique, which promises more than it delivers in terms of insight into Everywoman and her man. I didn’t find important human conflicts illuminated, and in the end, I didn’t care as much about the characters as I did in the more realistic first half-hour.

But I’m glad that a truly “little” and superficially interesting movie is doing well. The popcorn was good, I wouldn’t have done anything more constructive in that hour and a half, and a week later that young couple is visually clear in my memory, if not especially important to my heart or psyche.

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Oct 22, 2009


I don’t know enough about classical music to declare much about it, but the power of all music intrigues me. So from my cultural outpost in the Midwest, I wonder: if Bach were composing today, would he be considered a wildly experimental guy—and at the same time a subtle, complicated genius? He feels remarkably modern to me.

I’ve heard that his method lies partly in the fact of his being confined to the harpsichord, before the booming pianoforte and its sustaining pedals were developed. Therefore, more notes are required, and variety arises from unexpected movements among the notes, rather than the big changes in volume and passion we know in Beethoven and the Romantics.

Whatever the case, I feel as if I’m hearing things from Bach that are as unpredictable as I would expect from Prokofiev or some avant-garde, starving composer who was writing just yesterday in Greenwich Village. But I like Bach better. I don’t enjoy him as much as some others—for example, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, or the rollicking Johann Strauss. I suppose that means I prefer Romantic boom-boom; I need a bigger spoon to stir my soup.

My limitations concerning classical music (and the visual arts) remind me that a lot of people feel the same kind of unease about contemporary poetry. Usually lacking rhyme and regular meter, and with leaps of thought that might be more demanding than, say, nineteenth century poetry, contemporary verse causes many readers to feel adrift, baffled, bamboozled, alienated. (Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Browning's dramatic monologues, and Emily Dickinson are often considered more modern than nineteenth-century because of the complexities of their perceptions and language, but getting into that now might lead to an eternal digression).

But I think what I’m hearing in Bach, without being alienated by it, is an understated complexity of the unexpected. To my unschooled ear and soul, it's rarely or never emotionally stirring, but it makes my brain shift around in my skull. I cannot listen to Bach, or any classical music, as a soporific or as background—it’s too interesting; it keeps me awake. But the written word, spoken aloud? Puts me right to sleep.

Oct 18, 2009

Poem of the Day: "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams

The Red Wheelbarrow (1923)
by William Carlos Williams

so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white

At last count, 247,822,409 American students have been driven crazy by the stature of this poem in the literary world. Many of them, in good faith, have offered that it celebrates farm life. While I don't find that wrong, I don't see why so many American teens don't think it's enough for a poem to say, "Look." Or, more elaborately: see? These ordinary objects, these items and creatures are in the world. What do you see in the world? How might it matter? Can rain or light transform them? Can you?

I recently assigned my college freshmen a descriptive sketch in prose, explaining that they need to be aware of their obligation simply to see--to witness--all they can of what's around them before they start trying highfalutin stuff like comparing and contrasting or defining or classifying. One more time, youth was baffled. "What are we supposed to see?" Or, "My world's boring." Or, "The picture frame on my desk is brown. So what?"

They don't seem to agree, or care about, Williams's and the Imagists' notion of "no ideas but in things," though it surely makes some important sense, no matter how limited or limiting it might seem compared to fancy endeavors like transcendentalism or ethics. If you don't perceive the material world, who cares whether you think you've transcended it or moralized about it effectively?

On Bill Moyers' Journal today, guest and journalist Mark Danner said that countries like the U.S. repeatedly become entangled in wars and other messes because they don't realize how much they don't know about Country X until they're already embroiled in a situation from which it would be embarrassing if not impossible to extricate oneself "honorably." And of course, embarrassment and dishonor are more critical than death. Once troops are physically there, palpably in the realities of a place, its people and terrain and objects and situations seize policy makers by the throat; new strategies have to be implemented--despite the inconvenience of moving corpses out of the way.

I don't see how it's far-fetched to say this amounts to a failure of imagination, which in turn is a failure to see, touch, hear, and smell what was there all along, but was inconvenient and inconsistent with preconceived notions--what we thought was there, what we needed to be there.

Is it really absurd to posit that this begins with noticing red wheelbarrows? And caves, really, really deep caves where people can hide? Wheelbarrow, cave, wheelbarrow, cave . . . . That stone wall and the path to it--are they glazed prettily with rainwater or merely slick enough to slip on?

There might be ideas in addition to things, but if ideas ignore things, details, as the ideas are getting born, I have a strong opinion on how much they're worth.

(By the way, I found Wikipedia's information on "The Red Wheelbarrow" interesting and helpful. It's brief and I have an eyebrow raised about some of it, but it's a beginning).

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Oct 16, 2009

Poem of the Day: “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Once again poetryfoundation.org, has a wealth of poems and commentary on poetry. I highly recommend the site.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

“Spring and Fall”
to a young child

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Although Hopkins could be accused of being mean to a little kid here, “Spring and Fall” is one of his most accessible and most anthologized poems. It might miss my target of presenting feel-good poems, but maybe it's still a chunk of beauty to “set against evil.” (Professor Ralph Williams’s choice of verb—see Banjo52, Sept. 8, 2009 ). And surely "Spring and Fall" is in the running for the October poem. Shall we set it against Keats's "To Autumn" and "La Belle Dame sans Merci"? And what else?

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Oct 13, 2009


Too Toney
To Be Thomaston?

Bobby Marconi becomes an esteemed artist, but by the time we find him in Italy, he has, ironically, exchanged his father's Italian name for his mother’s Noonan. What does all this amount to? Is he shining the light of High Noon on the subjects in his work? But his paintings tend to be grim; so maybe he just seeks the light of noon. Maybe he wants nothing more symbolic than dodging his father's shadow, but when you begin with the name Marconi and end up choosing Noonan, it's hard to call it casual coincidence.

Big Lou Lynch’s brother is Dec, short for Declan--pronounced deck. I’m glad I first encountered “Deck” from the audio book, or I'd have been distracted by the way I was supposed to hear it. Even so, I always choked on it just a little. It's a short, tough-sounding word, which is apt. I suppose it also looks like the abbreviation of December, the onset of winter, season of death; but at the same time it's the traditional birth of Christ (and except for the Bergs, these are Catholic families). How does Dec as a character amount to December (or a deck or Christmas or anything else)? Should I stop wondering? And if there's an answer, is the symbolic name worth the attention-seeking oddness and the questions about pronunciation?

Here and possibly elsewhere, Russo seems to be stretching for something like allegory that is neither clear nor necessary. Nan Beverly has one of the most fitting names in the book; the casually abbreviated "Nan" is at once more youthful and more stately than Nancy. Combined with the surname "Beverly," it smacks of aristocracy, at least a little, without forcing some cosmic symbolism in her character or the narrative as a whole.

Jerzy Quinn. Is he a football jersey? A Jersey cow? With or without symbolism, surely we can’t say that somebody named Jerzy Quinn is just some guy; and in the story line, he is indeed more than a prop. But why the self-conscious name for him?

So, combined with yesterday's post, there's a primer on name symbolism or something along those lines in Bridge of Sighs. Are there other examples? What have I missed in the names of characters and perhaps places? With such evocative character names, why a town with a boring name like Thomaston? Maybe the oridinary name belies a complex reality. Are there any votes for doubting Thomas in the Bible? If so, how would that be relevant?

Notice that I haven’t even touched upon Tessa (Contessa? was it—a contest?) or Sarah (again a biblical possibility), or Owen (is he “owing” someone or something?). I'm reaching, I know, but Mr. Russo has opened that door.

So before you call me one more hair-splitting, anal-compulsive English teacher, ask yourself: even if I've forced the issue here, can all those names be accidental? And as for my modestly New Critical bias, I offer this: whether or not it was the author’s intent, those names have crept into the text, and there they beg for us to do something with them.

Finally, I wonder if the author is wise to infuse a realistic story with such teasing--and some might say, relentless--symbolism. Doesn't it all feel somewhat mechanical, forced, formulaic? It makes a fun game for English majors (or is it math majors who especially like this kind of thing?), but such symbolism might also imply that the characters and events don't carry enough depth and complexity in the real world and thus need an artificial, imposed scheme to become important.

My internal jury is still deliberating, but I suspect it will find that these lives and personalities have plenty of gravitas on their own, without the author's parental over-protection: "I shall enlarge my children's place in the universe by bestowing grand labels upon some of them." Besides, interference from the father is not the way one becomes a character of consequence.

On the other hand, how can you quarrel with the wit and the implications of a town character named Gabriel Mock? Do we trust his philosophizing, or is he mocking himself as well as others? If he's holding himself up to mockery, are we laughing with him or at him? How does our laughter affect our sympathy and respect for him, for surely we have some? There might have been times when I cared more about him (and his son) than any character in the book.

Why do my juries seem to be in eternal deliberation? It's tiring. In any case, a novel that raises all these questions, plus the topics I brought up last summer--surely such a work is no trivial matter and deserves much more praise than criticism.

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Oct 12, 2009

Russo's Bridge of Sighs: Name Symbolism

The Streets of Thomaston, NY?

Bobby Marconi Runs to Daylight?

Should anyone use any of the following as part of a paper for a course, please ask your teacher if any footnoting is necessary or appropriate.

My comments on Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs continue to be of interest to readers over the last few months. So here are a few notes I jotted down concerning names and their potential symbolism. I thought they were for my own interest, but who knows?

These are a bit like a study guide, and for that, one The One Hand, I say, “Shame on me.” But that equally famous Other Hand says, “What’s wrong with questions about possible or actual symbolism for serious readerss of the work in question?”

In reading and listening to Bridge of Sighs, I began to notice at some point the nature of the names. The following thoughts crossed my mind, pretty much in this random order. I’d be interested to hear additions or challenges to these:

Karen Cirrillo: she’s fond of, or addicted to, Parliament cigarettes (the brand of a fine old girlfriend of mine, by the way). So might Karen’s surname suggest cigarillo? And if so, so what? What else might it suggest?

Nancy Salvatore, Karen’s mother: Surely her surname implies something related to salvation of some kind, but so far, I can’t take it further than that. Whom or what is she saving? Might she be the one being saved? How so?

Gabriel Mock (and son): Holy cow. How symbolic can you get? Gabriel was a biblical, horn-blowing, heralding angel in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. If that’s relevant, how so? And how could it not be relevant? In life as well as art, you don't get to name someone Gabriel without some awareness of the symbolism. It would be a bit like naming someone Shithead or Freckle-Brain and claiming you didn't mean anything by it.

And Gabriel “Mock”? A mocking trumpet? A mocking archangel? Still more holy cows. Dozens of cows blowing trumpets. At least two pastures full of holy, horn-blowing cows! What could be more symbolic?

But how? Who is mocking whom about what? Surely there’s a racial overtone, and the elder Gabriel does, in an affectionate (but also disgusted?) way mock Lou-Lucy’s comings
and goings . . . .

Lynch, the surname of the hero family. Shall we stop at its Irish heritage? They are Irish-American. So what? (Then again, Mrs. Tessa Lynch is not Irish-American . . .). Shall we go on to talk about hangings and strangulation? That kind of Lynching? If so, how might that be relevant?

Bobby's surname is Marconi, like the co-inventor of the radiotelegraph system, for which he shared the Nobel Prize in 1909 (Wikipedia). Of all the Italian names possible, does someone want to persuade me that Marconi is an accident, whether or not Russo intended to involve the inventor?

Stay tuned. More on all this in a day or two.

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Oct 11, 2009


Whip It
With Ellen Page, Drew Barrymore, Marcia Gay Harden, Daniel Stern.

GPA 1.5

Again, the generosity of other reviewers astonishes me (see Metacritic.com’s averages) . I thought I was a soft touch, but this wants-to-feel-good flick is simply facile and empty. One specific complaint: how can Director Drew Barrymore think it’s useful to linger on Ellen Page’s moony, longing eyes for dozens of seconds? Marcia Gay Harden, as usual, makes us care about her as the difficult mother, and Daniel Stern is believable as the likable but passive father. Some of the roller derby scenes are entertaining for about two minutes. The rest of the movie belabors the obvious, treads water in a still pond of extreme black-and-white choices, and completely ignores vast, reasonable shades of gray that are available to Page's character and others. Roller Derby Star, Beauty Queen: why does no one ask Little Bit what else she might love or be good at?

Avoid seeing Whip It so you don't have to spend precious energy forgetting it.

On an entirely different--and positive--note, I heard an interview with Roseanne Cash the other day, along with portions of her new C.D., The List. When she was 18, her father, Johnny Cash, gave her a list of 100 songs he thought she should make her own in one way or another. It seems she has. I'm eager to listen to the whole thing.


Oct 7, 2009

MOVIE REVIEW: Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story”

Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story” GPA 3.6

Left: Who's Driving?

Somehow I had the impression that Michael Moore's new documentary would be a disappointment, but I liked it at least as well as his other work. As usual, Moore makes little attempt to be objective, but the clips he provides often cannot be challenged on the grounds of a misleading context. Most of their targets would be damned in any context.

Of course those targets are trees in a Michael Moore forest, and I’m not ready to abandon capitalism because he says so, or because of his sometimes incompletely argued examples, or because capitalism is cruel (of course it is--what system isn't?). The first twenty minutes of the movie are a particularly insubstantial, emotional preparation for more compelling points or suggestions to come.

However, I give Moore credit for reminding me of, and frightening me about, some recent cases of abuse and corruption in our free market system. And he forces us to ask: How free is the system if one or four or eight banks are the de facto owners and operators, within and just outside the White House and Congress?

As always, a problem with this Michael Moore film is that he’s preaching to the choir. How does one persuade conservatives to observe, listen—really listen—and offer point by point rebuttals to what Moore claims to be exposing? I had to listen to W. and SuperDickOfCurlySmirk for eight years—fractured English, fractured logic and fractured morality. The least my conservative acquaintances and relatives can do is listen to the goofy, entertaining, childlike, yet oddly persuasive Michael Moore for two hours, after which I’ll listen to them as they try to challenge him. I offer them the chance for a line-item veto of any point Moore makes or implies. Maybe I could hire a team of experts from the Left and the Right to analyze their complaints and their bile. Exactly why is the Right so enraged?

But these people won’t even listen to President Obama, who is a negotiating pragmatist compared to Michael Moore. And here's their charge in a nutshell: "He's an _____ist."

Is The Right listening to Ken Burns as he hits another home run in his series on the National Parks? Is Ken Burns another thinker to be dismissed (as a Commie-Atheist, Animal-Loving, Tree Hugger)?

And therefore Teddy Roosevelt? I bet Teddy Roosevelt could beat up your great great great grandpa. And you know, free enterprise hates losing more than it hates being wrong or doing wrong--if it cares at all.

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Oct 2, 2009



Left: "To Autumn"

With a weekend approaching, I hope you'll consider seeing Bright Star, a movie I liked for at least an hour. It’s the story of the tragic British Romantic poet, John Keats, that small, frail man who died of consumption at 25, far from home, with no clue of his place in the literary history of the world.

Be warned, however, this film centers almost entirely on his tumultuous love affair with Fanny Brawne. Of course, you have to love a love affair in which two passionate 20-somethings address each other as Mr. Keats and Miss Brawne. Bright Star is very much a period piece, and it seemed authentic.

I stayed away from, or fell asleep in, some other Masterpiece Theater movies that many people liked: Room with a View, Howard’s End, and such. I found Bright Star better fare, though that might be the result of my knowing a little, and at times caring a lot, about Keats the poet and Keats the human.

So imagine my disappointment to find the movie becoming only a partial look at the life and poetry of Keats, focusing instead on the most marketable feature—trustworthy, fickle old eros. To be fair, we do see a version of his friendship with Charles Brown, along with the reason Brown did not accompany Keats to Italy. But we see precious little of Keats as under-appreciated young poet, loyal son and brother, medical student, and victim of vicious reviews. Where is the condescending Wordsworth? Where are Byron and Shelley? Where is the guy who called the diminutive hero "little Johnny Keats" as part of a literary review. (And we think the banter is rough in our time and place . . . ).

I was also surprised to see Fanny Brawne portrayed so favorably. I haven’t kept up with Keatsian scholarship, but in the days when I did, I had the strong impression that she’d done him wrong. Here, she’s heroic. Of course, I don’t mind that rendering if it's reasonably accurate, and it’s an interesting take on their relationship. But after that first hour, I stopped learning things and might as well have been viewing Titanic or West Side Story.

Well, maybe that’s hyperbolic grumpiness. Some revisiting of a star like Keats is better than none, and to be fair, many of the well-known aspects of Keats’s life are given at least a passing nod. Also, of course, this film will sell better than the one I’d have made. On the other hand, I doubt it will sell as much as it should, so please go see it. If you don't love poetry or Keats, this still serves as a useful foil to our times, an aid to perspective on how pretty or graceful or tough things are or are not these days.

Above all, Bright Star is visually stunning—foggy old, sunny old, flowery old England at its best and worst. It feels like a series of one still photograph after another, a reminder of just how many powerful images movies can offer in a couple of hours.

Stay for the final credits to hear a fine reading of “Ode to a Nightingale.” And maybe read "To Autumn" along with "La Belle Dame sans Merci" when you get home.

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Lovers' Lane