Feb 27, 2010

Crazy Heart and Tender Mercies: More Discussion

I'm glad some others remembered Tender Mercies fondly in the visitor comments on yesterday's post. Here's the Betty Buckley link Altadenahiker donated, plus another of Robert Duvall teaching guitar to the son of his landlady and romantic interest, Tess Harper (in the background).

YouTube - Betty Buckley from "Tender Mercies" singing "Over You"

YouTube - Tender Mercies Clip

I might have second thoughts about saying Jeff Bridges is the better singer--might be apples and oranges, though both are certainly country. Maybe some people will return to Tender Mercies and Nashville now that Crazy Heart is getting such acclaim.

Anyone interested in either movie or country music in general ought to look also at the links in yesterday's visitor comments from Paula at Pensacola Daily Photo. Good stuff.

The redhead with the clawhammer banjo is Becky Buller of the band, Liberty Pike.

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Feb 26, 2010

CRAZY HEART, movie review

Crazy Heart A-

Crazy Heart
deserves its good reviews, but here are some reservations, as well as praise, for a first-rate movie.

First, I can’t help thinking it’s one more story about one more entertainer who’s down on his “luck” because he’s made a series of self-destructive and self-involved choices. These days, I think we might be hearing too much about good people making bad choices. When do we require the character in question to make some bolder, harsher statements about himself?

Also, flawed as our hero is, does he require such a hyperbolic, country-music-outlaw name as “Bad Blake"? My brain burped every time I heard it, and this time I agreed with my brain. (Maybe I’m thinking of the Jimmie Dale Gilmore song, “My Mind’s Got a Mind of Its Own.” Great title, great song. What if the movie's title were, “My Mind Makes Some Bad Choices”?)

I know something about marketing country singers, but "Bad Blake" crosses the line into theater, self-parody, fatuousness. Yet it's our hero’s first choice; he won’t even disclose his legal name to his love interest, Maggie Gyllenhaal (who would be a remarkably lucky choice for a guy his age and in his condition, by the way).

I also wanted more sense of how and why Bad Blake made so many bad choices, more specifics about how and why he gave up on himself and others. Are we supposed to respect the envy he feels toward his big-start protegee? Don't we want to know about the rift between him and his son? How can we be sure Bad Blake is more than a whiner, a 50-something brat?

I’m also bothered by the movie’s debt to Tender Mercies (1983), in which Robert Duvall played a similar role (by the way, Duvall has a supporting role in Crazy Heart). Bridges’ acting range might be greater than Duvall’s, and the conclusion of Crazy Heart might be a touch more realistic. Also, Maggie Gyllenhaal is a more intense actress than Tess Harper was as female lead—though I’ve always thought Harper’s flatness came across as prairie strength, simplicity, focus.

Now that I’ve created a competition between two fine movies, perhaps a bad choice on my part, let me mention that Crazy Heart gets points for Jeff Bridges’ singing; it's surprisingly good, probably better than Duvall’s in the older movie. Ditto the songs themselves, though Tender Mercies had some winners.

In realism and power of setting and atmosphere, in creation of an important, believable world apart, Tender Mercies wins by several points. It has the soul that most country tries to be about, whereas Crazy Heart is more concerned with the evil commerce of the music business and its toll upon humans. It's country music corporate.

Although I’ve emphasized my reservations, I recommend Crazy Heart almost without hesitation. But I do feel it needs to footnote its predecessor in some way; maybe that’s what Robert Duvall’s presence is supposed to do, but it doesn’t seem clear enough.

And nowhere did I pick up on a note of apology for the self-indulgent choice of name for Bad Blake, a protagonist who, though not exactly heroic, does not need to go around announcing himself as a bad blade (a knife blade or a strand of grass? I guess I get the symbolism). After all, it’s just that the guy has made some bad choices, prior to the movie’s present tense. His soul is intact.

And it is, actually; he just has to find it. Most people will end up pulling for him, including me, even though I too often had to say, "Oh, come on now."

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Feb 23, 2010

"The Bean Eaters" by Gwendolyn Brooks

The Bean Eaters by Gwendolyn Brooks : Poetry Magazine [poem/magazine] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

I like the simplicity of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Bean Eaters,” but notice also the subtle rhyming and the long last line’s break in structure and expectation, all of which adds complexity and surprise. Why the details Brooks’ selects in that final line? Why this ordering of them? Why end the poem on “fringes”?

Her characters are nothing like me and everything like me—as well as scores of other people I’ve known. We might compare it to Ciardi’s “For Instance” (Banjo52, Feb. 17). Both poems outline kinds of people and patterns of lives, but both works also manage to see their characters as individuals. Don't they?

I don’t think I could care this much about a mere category of human. For some reason—is it the poets’ affection for their characters?—neither poem shrinks its people to types or formulas; they are humans with histories, and they matter, even though they also represent thousands with roughly similar histories.

The Bean Eaters by Gwendolyn Brooks : Poetry Magazine [poem/magazine] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

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Feb 22, 2010

Banjos, a Few More Lines

I admit to pride at catching a pileated woodpecker, but see if you don't also think his inner motor is a banjo.

Thanks to Gothpunkuncle for broadening my banjo horizons. If you look at the first video, please take the time to let Eddie Peabody move from guitar to banjo. Things get livelier and a little comic. He appears to be much more of a showman than Saturday's Eddy Davis, but both are a great change of pace from what most of us listen to these days:

Dailymotion - Eddie Peabody - Strum Fun - une vidéo Musique

(Left: Ernie Evans of the Liberty Pike bluegrass band)

And in case anyone's forgotten one of the great movie scenes, here is Dueling Banjos from Deliverance.

YouTube - Dueling Banjos Deliverance

Of course you can't say banjo without saying Earl Scruggs, here with Steve Martin:

YouTube - Earl Scruggs & Steve Martin - Foggy Mountain Breakdown (Best

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Feb 20, 2010

Eddy Davis & Conal Fowkes: Dated or Timeless?

There's more than one way to skin a banjo, so I hope you'll give this a try. If the upbeat stuff wears you out, or you're short on time, skip ahead to minute 4:00 for "My Foolish Heart."

YouTube - Eddy Davis & Conal Fowkes / Ory's Creole Trombone - My Foolish Heart

A few years ago, a younger friend gave me an album of Conal Fowkes alone on piano with some golden oldies. My buddy said his mother gave him the CD, and he, a serious pianist and student of music, didn't know what to think of it, but a geezer like me might have the lowdown. I loved the stuff, though it also got points for making me think of my Depression-era parents, who, to my clumsy, teenage, male mortification (and envy), actually did the Charleston on occasion.

So I'm glad Conal Fowkes has found a music mate. If you explore on YouTube, you'll see they also play with Woody Allen, though I suspect that's a status thing--I think they sound better as a duo. They look plenty skillful and sound great even if it isn't bluegrass. I hope somebody besides me buys a record. Variety, spice of life, etc.

I think the movie making here is also skillful.

YouTube - Eddy Davis & Conal Fowkes / Ory's Creole Trombone - My Foolish Heart

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Feb 18, 2010

Constantly Risking Absurdity by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Which bird is the poet?

(reminder: you can enlarge any photo on Banjo52 by clicking on it)

Constantly Risking Absurdity by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

On the Valentine's Day visitor comments here, Paula spoke apologetically about reading Ferlinghetti; in fact, she was so ashamed that she's changed her icon to a duck. So I'm offering a Ferlinghetti poem that deserves our respect (except for the superfluous, grandiose last two words).

I've mentioned a couple of times a similarity I see between poets and stand-up comics, so why not Charlie Chaplin too? For some reason, "a little charliechaplin man" teetering high on a rope has stuck with me as one of the perfect images for almost every kind of performer, from symphony, jazz, and bluegrass musicians to stand-up comics to acrobats, looking to catch Beauty as their world understands it.

And this month, why not see Olympic athletes like Shaun White in the same light, in the "empty air," spread-eagled for an audience that might secretly be as thrilled about a dramatic fall as they are for the successful execution of a trick.

"Copy that, Danno" for race car drivers and their audiences?

I also like Ferlinghetti's implication, as I hear it in "a little charleychaplin man," that if the poet fails, if he falls or lets Beauty drop, embarrassment will be as awful as injury or death. You can't be a bumbler; you've imposed upon yourself various "sleight-of-foot" requirements so that you look good as you take each step toward "taut truth" and Beauty. After all, any peasant could catch her in a big basket. That's not a performance; that's not art and deserves no audience. That's just staying alive, eating potatoes, paying the rent. We all do that for awhile.

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Feb 17, 2010

John Ciardi, "For Instance"

If you’re bumper-sticker friendly, I hope you’ll look into this little company in Minnesota. http://www.northernsun.com/. My car is sticker-free, but some have called me a sucker for tee-shirts and coffee mugs, which I buy to remind me of pleasant places, almost all of which are college campuses.

I wanted something bright or flippant for a photo because today’s poem today is so negative, maybe downright nihilistic. It was a long time ago when I discovered John Ciardi’s “For Instance,” so I wasn’t sure it would have held up for me. It’s almost all generalization and conversational style, which, if you’ve been here much, you know is not my aesthetic of choice. However, if more conversations in poems moved with the brutal efficiency of this one, I might reconsider.

For Instance by John Ciardi : Poetry Magazine [poem/magazine] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

I wonder too if “For Instance” might be self-indulgent in a way that only dire teens and 20-somethings find appealing or valid. That would be ironic since the poem’s perspective is clearly that of a speaker with some hard years notched on his bedpost.

People who are serious about poetry seem ready to accept its often grim outlooks. Pessimism can seem a more supportable view than its opposite, whatever that might be. In any case, I find that “For Instance” still packs a wallop. Surely we all have moments—if not entire philosophies—like this, and surely it’s true that misery loves company, especially the company of someone who can just nail that brooding, bitter mood, as Ciardi does here.

And it's only an outline, really. We know almost none of the particulars; the poem asks us to accept that the details don't matter, and I'm astonished to find myself inclined to agree--never mind how often I've screamed at students, "The devil's in the details!" Whatever our own experiences or interpretations, however jolly we may wish to be, we have to accept Ciardi’s sketch here as one plausible review of a life. Don't we?

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Feb 13, 2010

Bass Players, Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike, Auden's "The Unknown Citizen," Stevens' "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock," Bass Players, Catching Tigers

The Unknown Citizen by W. H. Auden : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

How about we reprise Goodnight, Moon, but instead of a mouse, we say to the little one, "Where's the bass player?"

Here is my latest encounter with an unsung hero, the pretty upright bass player in a bluegrass group. Is she their unknown citizen, the unseen anchor who holds the beat behind the scenes for the flashy, shifty others shifting and bopping all over the stage?

I don't think she looks one bit like an old sailor, drunk and asleep in [her] boots, yet here I am, dropping the comparison. She might be catching tigers in red weather. Is she one of Hopper's Nighthawks? Was she free? Was she happy? The question is absurd . . .

By the way, this group is Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike, and their show was first-rate. Ms. Smith is fine, with that old-fashioned smoky voice, and I wondered about a kinship with Sammi Smith, whose drinkin'-alone songs made Kris Kristofferson's tunes even better than they were on paper. But in Liberty Pike, it's the back-ups who are fantastic, and Ms. Smith wisely gives them plenty of room to wiggle and shine.

This talented group played to an audience of about 70 people at Cafe Eleven in St. Augustine Beach, Florida. That was a scheduling fluke, I learned, but for aspiring musicians, it's still a daunting note about the wealth of talent (that is, competition) out there. If this much skill was available for $5.00, how could a dad encourage his daughter to follow her bliss and hit the road with her bass, or fiddle, or tuba?

I suppose it's always been this tough in the arts. And who knows how much fun any group is having on stage? Remember the movie, Nashville? Or what happens after the great banjo and guitar scene in Deliverance? And now the first-rate film, Crazy Heart, descended from Tender Mercies, shows us once again the down and dirty side of making it big in county music, or entertainment in general.

So should a parent tell a kid, "Put that fiddle down, Sue. Go to Wall Street . . ." where's there's money, security, and integrity? Of course, the kid won't listen anyway. That's why there are banjos and fetching, steady bass players.

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Feb 12, 2010

More on Stevens' "Disilussionment of Ten O'Clock." Hopper, Edward: Nighthawks

In case you were bad and didn’t read yesterday’s Banjo about Wallace Stevens’ “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” these three followers did, and their comments prompted me to get windy again, to think and say so much that it’s become today’s post.

Barbaro, interesting as always. I've come to Larkin only in the last few years, and he’s bowled me over several times. Now I'll keep your comparison in mind as I continue to explore Larkin’s stuff. He can be very sad, especially if I set aside any pretensions about New Critical purism. The little I know of Larkin’s life is unsettling. Maybe he was the librarian who drove a big rig (see below).

A.H., your idea sounds right to me, and I think Stevens would approve. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it's frustrates me to expect to die without knowing whether so many people actually live the hauntingly colorless inner life they show to the rest of us. Maybe they're just hiding it, out of a sense of privacy or uncertainty about how to express it? Or that damned dignity thing again? I've heard a lot of people sound very certain about their answers on the business of others' interiority, and I don't trust such certainty. How can any of us really know diddly about the Other? How many of us even try?

Brenda, your comment certainly doesn't seem to describe your online friendships, and I hope it's not as dark as it sounds. But I did just speak to how we don't know each other, didn't I. And who knows—maybe it's better that way. It relieves us of any obligation to be good listeners, and it eliminates those bugaboos, sympathy and empathy. Moreover, it opens the door to the hundreds of writers whose theme is our isolation from one another. Do you know the Edward Hopper panting, Nighthawks?

Hopper, Edward: Nighthawks

On a lighter note, I hope, way back in college, when I got into "take this job and shove it" moods (as if I’d actually been working hard), one of my primary fantasies had me driving a big rig over the road. I don't remember if I knew the Stevens poem then, but it would have rung true. Or was I just faking it? Are we all just faking it—our big loneliness, our awesome angst?

By the way, about the semi-truck driving . . . nobody told me about loading and unloading the trailer or city driving or back problems or hemorrhoids.

Another fantasy was to become a hermit in some pastoral idyll. I would move to the Lake District and become Wordsworth’s “Old Cumberland Beggar.” My cynical sophomore roommate, who taught me more than any professor did, asked, “Nature? What about mosquitoes? They're Nature too.” A real fantasy-killer, that guy, that corporate lawyer-to-be.

For now, that’s enough and then some. Maybe tomorrow I can get to the bass players—I wonder about their isolation. I don’t worry as much about lead singers.

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Feb 11, 2010

Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock by Wallace Stevens : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock by Wallace Stevens : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Here is Wallace Stevens again, this time with a view of the imagination that might be a little rosier, or downright red, compared to yesterday's "The Snow Man." On the other hand, how many of us would claim to be (or want to be) the old sailor in the poem? If we're honest, aren't we tamer than he is? But if there's no middle, if we must choose between him and the white night gowns with
their boring dreams . . . .

Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock by Wallace Stevens : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

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Feb 10, 2010

"The Snow Man" by Wallace Stevens

The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

As he did in "Anecdote of the Jar," (Banjo52, Nov. 12, 2009) Wallace Stevens values the human imagination in “The Snow Man," although his approach here is to expose those without imagination as imperceptive people made of snow. The poem is something of a wonder in syntax, but I think those who go slowly through it a couple of times, appreciating the gems along the way, should be all right.

I find that the core of the poem is “a mind of winter.” Is that a good thing? Does that mean one has the imaginative power to be one with the scene and the season, something like Keats’ Negative Capability, the power to leave oneself momentarily and become what one perceives, such a Grecian Urn or a Nightingale?

Or is “a mind of winter” a dead thing, so dormant, numb and blind that it does not perceive the nothingness everywhere around itself? I think this second interpretation makes more sense. The emphasis on “nothing” and absence in the concluding lines dictates the more pessimistic meaning of “a mind of winter” as an absence of awareness. The snow man is one who does not perceive (he fails to? refuses to?) the barrenness that should be pounding him in the face. He is one who cannot or will not see.

"I was blind but now I see"? Maybe "The Snow Man" is the grim flip-side of "Amazing Grace." Is one perspective more plausible than the other?

The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

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Feb 5, 2010

The Lovely Bones: a Movie Review


Get there on time: The Lovely Bones opens with good story telling—in fact, a gripping 30-45 minutes of murder mystery, after which there will be at least an hour-long coffee break for you because you were wise enough to read this review.

It’s hard to imagine what director Peter Jackson and the other writers were thinking when they inserted all that digital afterlife crap into the endless, tiresome, trite, Harlequin-drenched, dime-store philosophy of a middle. Edge-of-the-seat suspense dissolves into a boring heap of redundant images and soapy talk-overs, during which respectable viewers will go to the john, or hike part of the Appalachian Trail, even if it's night, or just step outside to smoke ‘em if they’ve got ‘em. (The movie’s middle could cause people to take up the fatal habit).

When should the savvy viewer make his break? After the third minute or so in digitized heaven. From there to the beginning of the movie's climax and denouement, it’s a quicksand of the tried and trite, as Peter Jackson and Co. try to use electronics to re-invent Alice’s adventures in the rabbit hole.

Find out what time the final 30 minutes will begin; come back then to be sure you don’t miss the other good stuff. As mysteriously as it disappeared, genuine suspense returns, along with a couple of nice turns against predictability.

If you hadn’t already, you will realize that sinkholes make good symbols. Also, there’s more than one outcome for a bad guy, and I’d never have thought of this one. What an ingenious way to avoid the moral complexity and responsibility of capital punishment. Of course, we could also argue it's an irresponsible gesture at justice, the avoidance of a statement.

The acting is excellent, one more reason not to dismiss the movie out of hand. Young Saoirse Ronan (Atonement) makes a good lead and does as much as anyone could with the schlock she's forced to read in the middle. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz do just fine as her parents and as Hollywood’s requisite beautiful couple.

In supporting roles, Susan Sarandon delivers once again, adding humanity to Grandma Lynn’s main function as comic relief. Stanley Tucci contributes a spooky dimension in his superb embodiment of the Creepy Psycho; he should be remembered (fondly?) for this role. Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos, Law and Order) is surprisingly believable as a compassionate, yet competent cop. As Susie Salmon’s sister, Rose McIver is much more than eye candy, especially in the last half-hour.

So who knows if you should go? If someone important to you wants to see it, don’t say no too hastily. But take some kind of medication for that middle hour-plus, yet something that leaves your senses intact for the excellent last half-hour. If only this were the 1950s and I could in good faith say, “Pick up an extra pack of Luckies on the way . . . .”

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Feb 4, 2010

Avatar: movie review

Who needs Pandora?
Who needs a booby-trapped box?
Let's save this guy.

Avatar: B-

I finally gave in and went to see Avatar in 3D, expecting to leave after 15 minutes because of motion sickness or boredom or irritation. However, I had no problem with vertigo except for a couple of flying scenes, during which I simply closed my eyes for a few seconds. I must admit the movie was visually spectacular, and I never stopped wondering how anyone conceived of these images and techniques, never mind implementing them.

In the end, however, I’m afraid Avatar is typical sci-fi/fantasy fare—special effects, a lot of message, and caricature instead of characterization. Considering it for awards alongside genuine achievements like Hurt Locker, The Road, A Serious Man, and others is one more red flag about the quality of American intellectual life.

I don't really follow entertainment news, so maybe I've missed any uproar about Avatar’s offenses to this or that group, including the American military-industrial complex and mainstream culture. As always, those targets deserve to be examined by, and take some hits from, the art and science communities.

However, the pseudo-intellectual assault by Avatar is so hyperbolic and one-dimensional that it’s fatuous, yet bothersome. The movie would have us believe that, except for scientist Sigourney Weaver, hero Jake Sully and one female helicopter pilot, there are no good guys in the U.S., just psychopathic land developers and killers-in-uniform. I wonder how many of the film’s creators live in areas cleared--nay, ravaged—by precisely the unthinkable means portrayed in Avatar.

Oddly, I also found much about Pandora’s jungle people to be laughable in a way that could be insulting to native peoples of North and South America as well as Africans—or any non-industrial culture. In addition to their harmony with nature, the indigenous humanoids of Pandora have mouse ears, long tails, and noses that appear crushed by multiple boxing matches. I cannot be sure their language sounded more odd to me than any foreign language, but I found it hard to take seriously, I suppose in the context of their other features.

Like The Book of Eli, this movie owes much to the tradition of American westerns of the 1950s. “A stranger rode into town.” It offers native peoples about as much dignity as those old flicks did, or maybe less, and its heroes are even less believable and more one-dimensional than the old B movies, western or otherwise.

In short, Avatar is extraordinarily skillful and original in terms of technique, but in depth and complexity of theme and characterization, in creative uses of language, it amounts to just one more cartoon.

It’s also one more reason for the political Right to flap its feathers about a simplistic, laughable or even treasonous Hollywood Left, which is their way of flapping about creative, thinking people with legitimate ideas and axes to grind. Maybe Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh were secret partners in the production of Avatar. It's a flick that gives them ammo. (And you thought the Right had a monopoly on paranoia).

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Feb 3, 2010

"Ulysses" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

As Brenda requested yesterday, here is Lord Tennyson. I hope a few people can use a memory refresher on the famous "Ulysses." It's a fine work and makes an interesting companion to Richard Wilbur's "Still, Citizen Sparrow," posted here two days ago. Both poets see heroes as solitary figures who do work that others cannot (Tennyson) or will not (Wilbur).

Tennyson's Ulysses speaks of his citizens in much the same way Wilbur sees sparrows or carrion, and Ulysess wants none of it:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race . . .

His son, Telemachus, tries to bring order among these ruffians (or sparrows and Wildebeests, if you read Monday's visitor comments). For that, Ulysess offers a supreme example of damning with faint praise (the "He" is Telemachus): "He works his work, I mine." I hear, "Telemachus is a good boy, and somebody has to carry out these dull functions, but I'm too lofty for that." (I wonder if Richard Wilbur would have made Telemachus the hero of this poem . . .).

Here is Ulysses' famous conclusion about setting out for one final adventure:

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

And here is one way to paraphrase the guts of Ulysses' monologue, taken as a whole: "I am Ulysses The Great, adventurer, warrior, hero, bored with daily life among mere citizens. I was made for greater things, even in old age, wandering till I drop." Are we hearing gallantry we should admire or arrogance we should judge?

"Ulysses" is a dramatic monologue, in which the speaker is an identified character in a dramatic situation. Such a poem is like an excerpted speech by one character to another in a play, or one end of a telephone conversation.

Professor Robert Langbaum has said of dramatic monologues (especially Robert Browning's) that they are not likely to produce a feeling of resolution or tidy conclusion in the reader, but a tension between sympathy (which involves respect, not condescending pity) on the one hand and judgment on the other (usually judgment in a moral context).

In cruder terms, it's okay to feel in part that Tennyson's Ulysses is a wonderful old leader, full of spirt and spunk; but he's also an egocentric, bombastic old fart. He's not one or the other; he's both, though each reader might tilt one way more than the other.

When Ulysses speaks of "unequal laws" for a "savage race," isn't that admirable realism from a man looking back over his life? Surely any leader of any society has, with cause, felt that way about his people. And surely we must respect an important man who, in his final years, says with conviction:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world . . .

But the same guy has a patronizing, if not contemptuous attitude toward his dutiful, responsible son and toward the citizens in whose name Ulysess carried out his great adventures and became heroic.

In short, the sizing up of a human, even one widely accepted as a hero, is complex; it's not a greeting card. That's probably true for every serious piece of literature in which characterization is a factor.

And so, on a lighter note, it is for both good reasons and bad that we might urge senior citizens to climb into the Winnebago one more time and "Hit the Road, Jack." Behold now the other end of the aging spectrum:

YouTube - Hit The Road Jack - Sungha Jung
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Feb 1, 2010

"Still, Citizen Sparrow" by Richard Wilbur


Although I predict that several of Richard Wilbur's poems are canon-fodder (that is, immortal--I couldn't resist playing with Falstaff's words), I especially admire "Still, Citizen Sparrow," which offers the scavenging vulture as a hero in whose shadow mere sparrows are told to be still.

In "Still" as the opening word, there is more muscularity of language, more purposeful ambiguity and layered meaning, than I find in many entire poems, especially those we politely call "conversational." First and foremost, I hear "Still" as "Be still," an instruction to the chattering sparrows, who are that most mediocre of things, "citizens." Shut up and behold the hovering vulture as he lords ("Lords"?) it over trivial you with his necessary, purgative work.

However, that meaning of "Still" doesn't hold up grammatically; we'd need a semicolon or period after the command to "citizen sparrow." So the literal and grammatically sensible meaning is probably, "Even so, citizen sparrow . . . ."  It's an introduction to the more elaborate argument that follows. It's as if the sparrows, just before the poem begins, have proposed their own cuteness along with the vulture's grotesqueness, whereupon Wilbur's speaker is offering a counter-argument. "Oh yeah? Well, consider this about Mr. Vulture, whom you call ugly . . . ."

I won't continue with this kind of attention to detail or I'll never finish. But do, please, take time to admire a couple of gems:

". . . lumber again to air / Over the rotten office . . . ." What could better capture the rhythm of the buzzard's flight than "lumber" or the brutal accuracy of its mission than "rotten office"? Remove the carcass in order to eat it: ". . . bear / The carrion ballast up . . . ."  And because the vulture's the hero who does the dirty work, he is able to "lie cruising" at the "Tip of the sky."

". . . the frightfully free // The naked-headed one . . . ."   Maybe he's "frightfully" free because what he does seems, or is, "unnatural." It's not just garbage collection; it's also something like cannibalism, and by virtue of this shredding and munching, the hero "mocks mutability."  Death? I laugh at it.  I casually eat Death and cruise on.

". . . childheart . . . bedlam hours . . . slam of his hammer . . . " All of those am sounds are verbal sledge hammers against the chirpy multitudes of sparrows, who, in their small lives, might protest,  "Oh, Buzzard, stop preparing for heroism--we sparrows can't sleep (or chatter) with the slam of your hammer going on and on and on."

And these bits of elegance speak for themselves, I think:

How high and weary it was . . .

He rocked his only world, and everyone's.
Forgive the hero, you who would have died
Gladly with all you knew . . .

Wilbur proclaims that sparrows didn't know much. They haven't "rocked" anything; they know nothing of "high and weary" labor--or the soaring that goes with it. Trash collectors and undertakers probably know a lot more than most of us. Odd as it may seem, the poem is an apotheosis of those who tidy up after messes, including our corpses. And there we find the vulture glorified as the lofty, silent one, the solitary Noah among us nattering nabobs of sparrow-hood..

As something of a skeptic about heroes, I don't know how much I agree with Wilbur's argument, but I admire its creative logic and presentation, the power of its imperatives ("Do this; do that"), the poem's passion bucking against the constraints of its formal structure, just as its argument bucks against the expectations of most of us, who might like a sparrow in the back yard rather than a buzzard, no matter that the sparrow makes messes while the buzzard cleans them up.


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Lovers' Lane