Aug 26, 2011

Some Thoughts about Literary Criticism. The Guard: a Short Movie Review. Elite Eleven on ESPN.

Professor One

As I may have said before here, I often find good critical writing superior to what’s passing for good poetry and fiction. At least it can be more interesting. For example, in The New York Times Book Review, most reviewers are zesty stylists, getting me all fired up to read this or that novel or book of poems, only to have the so-called creative work disappoint me. 

So from time to time here, I think I’ll offer some sentences from fairly academic nonfiction that strike me as interesting and finely wrought, touching on the whole nature of arts and letters—and life.

I’ve already praised William Logan’s criticism as intelligent, provocative, entertaining, and full of good insights, all of which helps to wash down Logan’s sometimes excessive cruelty. I’ll probably return to him here. Northrop Frye, Robert Langbaum, Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler are other scholars and critics who deserve attention (though they receive plenty without my help).

 Going further back in the twentieth century, Randall Jarrell and John Crowe Ransom are perhaps more acclaimed as critics than they are as poets. Maybe we’ll have a look at them one day too. I’ve read some Jarrell more recently than Ransom and found him more full of zesty opinion that his supporting examples justified.  

Professor Three

So here, today, to kick off a shallow, fun-filled weekend, are remarks from William H. Pritchard in his Lives of the Modern Poets. My admiration for Wallace Stevens is growing, and Pritchard is one of the scholars who’s helping me along. Pritchard's style can be turgid, but I find the payoffs well worth my effort.

About Stevens, Pritchard says:  “He had, instead, an idea, and with beauty, eloquence, and gravity, he proceeded to set down the great humanist truth he was possessed by for much of his life:  that we are the measure of all things, and that we know how to measure because we know we will die.” (212)

In Stanza V of “Sunday Morning,” Stevens writes, “Death is the mother of beauty” (210).  In trying to summarize Stevens' thinking, Pritchard goes on to say  “. . . how vital is the imagination . . .  we must transform reality yet not transform it too much.” (212)

Happy Weekend--speaking of which, I found the movie The Guard disappointing, despite good acting from everyone, including Brendan Gleason and Don Cheadle.  The plot drags, there’s not a lot character development, its efforts at humor are brief and mediocre, and yet it lacks serious heft as well. Also, a lot of the lines were lost on this American as the director and actors go for authenticity of dialect, it seems, in the West of Ireland.

But all's well because high school football begins today, followed soon enough by college and pro games.  On one of the ESPN stations (ESPN U?  ESPN 2)  there's a three-part series titled Elite Eleven, about highly touted high school quarterbacks at a camp run by Trent Dilfer, former NFL QB, and his staff. The show could be completely scripted, rehearsed, and edited, but it felt real enough tome. If you're a fan, you might give it a look. I was hooked.



Aug 25, 2011

Sammi Smith, "Help Me Make It Through The Night"


I came across my Sammi Smith C.D. today and loved this all over again. The young need to remember some of these names.  Don't ask me how it all lives up to "elegant restraint."

Sammi Smith -- Help Me Make It Through The Night - YouTube

I'm pretty sure younguns placed the doll couple at the edge of this pond.

Sammi Smith -- Help Me Make It Through The Night - YouTube

Behind the dolls is this 20-foot waterfall.  Younguns. Gotta love their goofy carcasses.

Aug 24, 2011

Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Elegant Restraint.

Lake Superior at Marquette, Michigan

Lake Superior Morning

Seney, Michigan, Rts. 28 and 77.  Great Cheeseburgers here.

As I was looking for an easy link to the last post about Frost’s “The Draft Horse,”  I came across an intriguing comment in 2007 by “Greg,” a blogger, I guess—at any rate someone unknown to me.  In an effort at proper attribution, I’ll offer the website as well: 

I like Greg’s comparison between good poetry and a boxing match. And maybe his closing statement about aesthetics applies to the characters in "The Draft Horse" or even to Frost's work as a whole. You don't throw a punch if you don't have to; know when to walk away.

Here's Greg:  

The single most important thing
that qualifies a poem as being great is:

And the other single most important thing
that makes a great poem great is that it has
infinite rEsOnAnCeS.

And the 3rd single most important requirement
that a poem be great is...well...
-- you remember the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire in '74?

While Foreman was going down in the 8th round,
Muhammad was prepared to hit him again,
as he went down. But he chose not to.

And it was either Mailler or Plimpton who pointed out
that Ali's decision not to follow up with that one more,
superfluous punch, was an aesthetic choice.

Besides the beauty of the restraint,
and besides the possibility that Ali just
might not have connected with it (--which
would of course have spoiled the whole fight,)
there is also the fact that by not hitting Foreman
at that point Ali was in fact hitting him harder
than any purely physical blow could deliver.

Because that is what showed the world that Ali
was still in complete control of himself,
while Foreman was kissing the canvas good-night.

Universally: The single most attractive part
of any human being or poem,
is its self-control, and restraint.


I don't know how thoroughly I agree with Greg, or how completely boxing can be compared to poetry or the human personality. But in this world of extremes, I might be more than halfway to finding elegance where Greg does. In poetry, however, I might still be partial to touches of Romantic excess, if that's what it is, compared to Neoclassical restraint, which tends to include supercilious wit, symmetry, stiffness, coldness, and a host of topical allusions, which implies that "our" time in history, whether Augustan England or 21st century America, is so important that readers ought to recognize and care about its specific names and places. As much as I admire Yeats, he's guilty of that. Still, I'll take him, Hopkins, Dickinson, and Frost, for example, over Pope and Dryden. 


Aug 21, 2011

Robert Frost, "The Draft Horse," William Logan, Literary Criticism and the Power of Thought

I write this in the wake of some schools’ (cowardly?) surrender to ignorant, cowardly parents (and, remarkably, one college professor) who have supported or caused the banning of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and/or Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnI assume such parents fear their children will be led to thought, among other disturbing experiences, like laughter, kindness, friendship, along with a distaste for hypocrisy, war and bigotry, both personal and institutional.

I also write this with thanks to William Logan (see this blog,  June 2, 4, 7, 26, 2011) and The New Criterion magazine for directing me to an intriguing Robert Frost poem I had never seen.  

 Frost's horse, Wilbur's ride by William Logan - The New Criterion

THE DRAFT HORSE by Robert Frost

With a lantern that wouldn't burn
In too frail a buggy we drove
Behind too heavy a horse
Through a pitch-dark limitless grove.

And a man came out of the trees
And took our horse by the head
And reaching back to his ribs
Deliberately stabbed him dead.

The ponderous beast went down
With a crack of a broken shaft.
And the night drew through the trees
In one long invidious draft.

The most unquestioning pair
That ever accepted fate
And the least disposed to ascribe
Any more than we had to to hate,

We assumed that the man himself
Or someone he had to obey
Wanted us to get down
And walk the rest of the way.

I’d think “The Draft Horse” would spark good classroom discussions, with questions pouring from teachers and students alike.

Who is this strange couple, who speak so dispassionately about such a traumatic, mysterious event? Do they represent more than their old-timey,  agrarian selves?

Why is the assailant so anonymous and motiveless to the victims, as well as the rest of us?  

Isn’t there the feel of third person point of view, even though first person plural (“we”) is made clear in the second line?  If so, how does Frost accomplish that feeling of an omniscient perspective, and what might it add to the poem? 

Can a grove be “limitless”?  Isn’t a grove a somewhat small cluster of trees?  Is “ponderous” an okay choice of words?  Who would use it, and therefore what does it say about the narrator? 

“In one long invidious draft”—isn’t that rhythm rather awkward?  And, like “ponderous,” isn’t “invidious” an word in a poem and speaker from rural America?  “Any more than we had to to hate”—that’s natural, even folksy speech, yet it’s likely to make a reader pause at “to to” (16).  Is that okay?

If “The Draft Horse” is as teachable as I suspect it is, why is it not included in more anthologies?  Is it so ambiguous that teachers (and editors)  don’t have a comfortable number of definitive answers for student questions?

Does the poem challenge mainstream, submissive, unquestioning behavior, such as we see in the victims, who squirm at any notion of hatred?  Would too many of us, including teachers, be forced to acknowledge that we are similarly “unquestioning”—so much so that we assume a horse-murdering assailant merely wanted us to walk instead of ride in our “frail” buggies?  Or that he was the agent of someone, or some force, too powerful to investigate? 

Are those questions too uncomfortable to inflict upon American teens and their teachers (and then their angry, litigious parents who might complain that a mere poem has agitated Jimmy and Susie, made them nervous or irritable table companions)? 

I suppose that’s far-fetched . . . .  

I highly, highly recommend William Logan’s analysis that surrounds the poem in 
The New Criterion. I don’t know if I’d go where he does on Christianity or the importance of horses in America, but his arguments are always an interesting, fine example of what’s good about high-caliber literary criticism. First, it chooses a subject that deserves careful attention. Then Logan avoids glossing over things; he looks at details and provides thoughtful responses to them. His language is professional, but not ostentatious or forbidding.

I don’t expect anyone to take me up on reading Logan, but for what it’s worth, I find it an extremely worthwhile, important kind of thinking, and I look forward to reading what he has to say about Richard Wilbur in the second half of the essay.

Frost's horse, Wilbur's ride by William Logan - The New Criterion


Aug 11, 2011

"Lastness" by Galway Kinnell : The Poetry Foundation

Lastness by Galway Kinnell : The Poetry Foundation

“If you can’t catch the bird flying at you, don’t bother getting him at all.”  I’m sure there’s a purist photographer out there somewhere who would say that, but I’ve decided I’m lucky to have caught these Canada Geese in any fashion.  I’m even telling myself that there’s something interesting in the attitude of the flying pair contrasted to their floating cousin. Neither group is interested in me; it’s all about my appreciation of them, heedless birds in a green world.

As for poems, I was looking for something about a mockingbird to connect to yesterday’s little frolic. What I came across instead is my first experience with Galway Kinnell’s poem, “Lastness.”  It’s an unlikely comparison of a bear and a newborn son, both negotiating the world in which they find themselves, both with their black, glistening mammalian hair—and all that compared, in turn,  to the grasslands and ferns of a newborn planet. It feels a little like my appreciation of the geese—unlikely, beyond logic, and stunning for the human observer.  

I’m sure one could argue that Kinnell’s conceit is too much, a bridge too far in stretching figurative language and in thinking about the likenesses among dissimilar entities.  For now, however, I’m good with it, happy to be shocked again by what the human mind is able and lucky enough to stumble onto, perceive, and guess about. If validity is a question, it seems a job for some ill-tempered cousin from the wrong side of the tracks.

I’m interested too in the way Kinnell’s animal steps out of himself in the first stanza. About both bear and human speaker, we can ask who is seeing what, and how, and on whose terms? By what unconscious way of perceiving?  Is it trickery? Magic? Mysticism?

Thanks again to The Poetry Foundation for discovering these poems before I did and offering them to us all. In case I don’t get to it soon, another poem somewhat along these lines is Meghan O’Rourke’s “Inventing a Horse.” The voice and language are nothing like Kinnell’s, but both poems intrigue me as they find themselves wondering about the mind of an animal, much in the vein of the movie Buck, which was discussed here on July 16.
Inventing a Horse by Meghan O'Rourke : The Poetry Foundation

Lastness by Galway Kinnell : The Poetry Foundation


Aug 7, 2011

Revisionist Gospel: Farther Along, Winter's Bone, Maredith Sisco, Mississippi John Hurt

 Here are two versions of a grand old song I'd forgotten about. You might want to stop with the two cuts I've found and skip my reflections. The lyrics are also included at the end.

‪Mississippi John Hurt - Farther Along‬‏ - YouTube

‪Winter's Bone Soundtrack - "Farther Along" Marideth Sisco‬‏ - YouTube

The version I remember best is on the album called Trio (Dolly Parton, Linda Rondstadt, and Emmy Lou Harris) in 1986. The two here today are by Mississippi John Hurt and Marideth Sisco (who had escaped my attention until her fine musical performances in the movie, Winter's Bone. Several of those are available on YouTube).

Back in the 80s, I found the tune and the Trio's voices irresistible, but I fussed about the song's motif of whiny envy, comparison and competition, beginning in the third line and recurring in several of the verses. I still hear something bitter within the melody I love, something that reminds me of the old idea of keeping up with the Joneses, except that the Joneses can't be kept up with--they get to sin and prosper till the cows come home while I have to sit around being tempted and tried, though perfectly holy, or at least pretty damned holy, or at least holier than the bastard across the street, with his Mercedes, single malt, and nubile harem. He makes me so mad I could just spit--or start a holy war, whichever comes first.

As human and inevitable as those emotions and thoughts might be, their self-righteousness is also one reason Christianity and (I presume) other religions get hit hard by satirists--and get abandoned by a lot of decent, thoughtful people. 

In the last two verses, the song tries to resolve all its preceding neighbor-blaming. That might be too little, too late, especially in a piece so long. But in time, I've grown somewhat immune to the hymn's theme of covetous rivalry and resentment because I like its main idea--which might be as relevant to science as it is to theology.

Sometimes I like the way I've edited it so that I can feel the music. My amended script goes something like this:  by prayer or test tube, t's unlikely we're ever gonna understand it all, but if we do, it will be much, much farther along. So try a little patience--oh, all right, a little tenderness too. Then shut up and go with it. Shut up about the other guy; I don't know his demons, and there's plenty for me to glory in right here if I keep my eyes and ears open. Of course, like other humans, I preach better than I practice.

Enough. Here are the actual lyrics: 

  1. Tempted and tried, we’re oft made to wonder
    Why it should be thus all the day long;
    While there are others living about us,
    Never molested, though in the wrong.
    • Refrain:
      Farther along we’ll know more about it,
      Farther along we’ll understand why;
      Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine,
      We’ll understand it all by and by.
  2. Sometimes I wonder why I must suffer,
    Go in the rain, the cold, and the snow,
    When there are many living in comfort,
    Giving no heed to all I can do.
  3. Tempted and tried, how often we question
    Why we must suffer year after year,
    Being accused by those of our loved ones,
    E’en though we’ve walked in God’s holy fear.
  4. Often when death has taken our loved ones,
    Leaving our home so lone and so drear,
    Then do we wonder why others prosper,
    Living so wicked year after year.
  5. “Faithful till death,” saith our loving Master;
    Short is our time to labor and wait;
    Then will our toiling seem to be nothing,
    When we shall pass the heavenly gate.
  6. Soon we will see our dear, loving Savior,
    Hear the last trumpet sound through the sky;
    Then we will meet those gone on before us,
    Then we shall know and understand why.

    Aug 3, 2011

    W.C. Williams, "To Waken An Old Lady"

    I think most people take William Carlos Williams’ famous dictum, “No ideas but in things,” to mean a preference for the physical, the image, over abstract ideas and generalizations. That seems to be the founding principle of The Imagist Movement.

    I don’t know if this is odd or wrong, but I also hear “No ideas but in things” as encouragement to see things in isolation, creatures or objects explored completely and more or less alone, in relief, against backdrops that are secondary or insignificant. I think of the dragonfly here yesterday as an example.

    So here is yet another cardinal, quite alone and very loud in a treetop. What a braggart he was. What a horny pitcher of woo. And I think he was an adolescent—that’s morning sun on him, yet he is as close to rusty-brown-orange as he is to red.

    I don’t think he’s one of the birds William Carlos Williams had in mind in his fine poem, “To Waken an Old Lady,” but I’m not going to wait for winter and snow to include this poem and photograph.

    To Waken An Old Lady by William Carlos Williams

    Because I can hear you nagging about my bad timing and lack of patience, I’ll re-post the song sparrow, who's more suited to Williams' poem and who also seems alone and prominent against his backdrop. But to me the backdrop might be as interesting as the bird; it flatters him.

    Bird Songs and Sound of Song Sparrow

    If the birds are “things,” what ideas might they create or involve? If Williams or you wrote a poem about one, what idea might he or you be driving at? Would either bird create the same kinds of ideas without the backdrops?

    To Waken An Old Lady by William Carlos Williams

    Aug 2, 2011

    William Carlos Williams’ “Death”: How Much Conciseness Is Enough?

    Wiliam Carlos Williams’ poem “Death” is new to me, and I thank Robert Frost's Banjo blog for the Williams poems he recommended. Here are three versions. Which do you prefer?

    Here is A:

    He’s dead
    the dog won’t have to
    sleep on his potatoes
    any more to keep them
    from freezing

    Here is  B:

    He’s dead
    the dog won’t have to
    sleep on his potatoes
    any more to keep them
    from freezing

    he’s dead
    the old bastard
    He’s a bastard because

    there’s nothing
    legitimate in him  any
            he’s dead
    He’s sick dead

    He’s come out of the man
    and he’s let
    the man go—
            the liar

        his eyes
    rolled up out of
    the light—a mockery

    love cannot touch—

    And here is C, the version Williams actually settled on.

    He's dead
    the dog won't have to
    sleep on his potatoes
    any more to keep them
    from freezing

    he's dead
    the old bastard—
    He's a bastard because

    there's nothing
    legitimate in him any
               he's dead
    He's sick dead

    a godforsaken curio
    any breath in it

    He's nothing at all
                  he's dead
    shrunken up to the skin

                Put his head on
    one chair and his
    feet on another and
    he'll lie there
    like an acrobat—

    Love's beaten. He
    beat it. That's why
    he's insufferable—

    he's here needing a
    shave and making love
    an inside howl
    of anguish and defeat—

    He's come out of the man
    and he's let
    the man go—
                      the liar

           his eyes
    rolled up out of
    the light—a mockery

    love cannot touch—

    just bury it
    and hide its face
    for shame.

    Has Williams added important or essential elements?  Or is he obscuring or cluttering or digressing and detracting from a powerful primitive starkness, which I hear in the trimmed versions?  Do the additions in Version C  earn their keep and deserve to be there?

    I like the poem as a whole, but I feel it never regains the force and momentum of the brutal first stanza. So I'm partial to  Version B   right now, but I'm just getting to know the poem, and I might be missing something obviously important, essential, in Williams' additional words. 


    Lovers' Lane