Nov 29, 2009

The Airplane and I

Although I fly if necessary, I’m never happy about it, and I’m the sole "decider" of what’s necessary.

Jetliners. What better illustrates the sardine factor?—the human transmogrified to insignificant fish crammed in tin? Or in the butcher shop's multitude of meat, the smallest kielbasa tube hanging among shiny knives and silver counters.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (Dell 1968) offers many of the greatest lines in all of literature and philosophy. In the last chapter, his friend Bernard O’Hare comes across the prediction that the world’s population will double to seven billion by the year 2000. Vonnegut responds, “’I suppose they will all want dignity.’” Ditto the passengers on a 747.

Then there’s the bladder factor. My closest thing to a scary plane experience was the prospect of having to retrieve my old fullback skills and bowl over the linebacker-stewardess who stood between me and the john while some CEO’s airplane sat on the tarmac in Chicago. I think she knew I meant business about my business; she stepped aside.

I understand the safety statistics of flying compared to other modes of travel. I even understand an ounce of the principle of lift and all that physics jazz. But the whole business remains unnatural, and the larger the plane, the more unnatural it is to take off and stay aloft.

For some reason, I’ve become more aware of all that in recent years, and it results in a lot of childlike staring--the small planes at the little airport a mile away or the monsters blowing away my chimney as they approach Detroit Metro 25 miles southwest.

My getting the camera a few months ago was a mixed blessing, partly because it results in my trying to photograph planes. If you think today’s pics of hovering metal cigar cases look natural, if you see nothing odd or downright spooky about them, especially when juxtaposed to warm, earthbound trees, let me know, and we can try to find the right kind of doctor for you.

Till then, I insist that humans + flight = voodoo, and I don’t intend to discuss it.

My counter-voodoo, by the way, is scotch. A doctor friend once recommended it, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Nov 26, 2009

NOVEMBER 27, 2009. Hawthorne's America, Artists and Intellectuals, Part Two

"My Kinsman, Major Molineaux":
Bumpkin Robin Discovers the Complexities of Town Life.

Or is this the village to which Ethan Brand returns?


So, as the artist makes self-centered, enlightening, courageous, impulsive, self-centered, self-destructive, egocentric, narcissistic decisions, the artist’s family and friends may have paid terrible prices—not always, I'm sure, but often. William Carlos Williams was a practicing physician, Wallace Stevens was a lawyer with an insurance company, and I’ve often wondered whether friends and relatives found them good human company, more stable—and altruistic?—than the “school” of Berryman, Plath, Hemingway, and a host of others. Banking didn’t seem to help Eliot much in his personal life. Maybe I'm grossly over-valuing what it means to look normal, hold down a steady job, to be in fact a professional. Am I the first?

Also, the same family, friends and social conventions may have been a cage, may have provided inane constraints and may have inflicted psychic wounds that half-created the young artist and sent him on his quest as much as his instincts and talent did. He might have been running from mundane demands or family pathology as much as he was running toward artistic expression and a defensible perspective on the world.

All of this is mostly likely a huge chicken and egg question. I’d be shocked to discover anything less than dozens of books on the subject, and maybe one day I’ll read some. What would I google? "Psycho Writer"? "The Dysfunctional Family and the Artist"?

For sparking all this, should Paula gets Comment of the Month, or does it just clinch the fact that Banjo has logorrhea? That’s a false apology. What I actually don’t understand is how so many people find questions like these boring, irrelevant, nerdy, especially when no one expects definitive answers—and especially compared to more manly, more exciting, mainstream problems like curing that slice at the Golden Parachute Golf Club, where the starboard rough is a genuine quagmire.

* *

Imagining America, Continued: Hawthorne, Artists and Intellectuals

Honing his craft

He embarks. (Could be Robin in Hawthorne's "My Kinsman, Major Molineaux")

In response to my November 17 post on Individualism, Paula wrote:

“I'm very sleepy so maybe I shouldn't tackle this but it occurs to me that without Mozart we would simply have something else, most likely good and possibly better. I'm more interested in how people respond to the works than the works themselves anyway.

"Artistic geniuses like Glenn Gould are often so tortured and their lives so unhappy and I'm no fan of romanticizing the creative process, too many family and friends hurt and damaged. Sometimes taking care of your family is a deeper and more important creative act than being a noted musician or poet. I'll know more when I wake up in the morning.”

I think Paula hits on an important pair of ideas. The problem with the point on Mozart, of course, is that we can’t know what might have been. Odds are that Paula is right, but we’ll never know because Mozart did happen. I guess I find it tantalizing to wonder about the “what ifs,” even when I know I’m setting myself up for frustration.

Paula's second point is scarier: art versus life, one of the old, old questions. How do the major talents know they’re major talents and therefore “have permission” to choose art over life and other humans? I realize that borders on a false dichotomy, but I'm throwing it out there anyway. Also, I’m sure that very few young artists (I mean in all fields, including literature) would claim to know their greatness, their long-term significance; if anything, they’d probably tend to say it’s all a scary adventure, but one on which they must embark. The urge will not leave them alone; they don’t choose the urge—it chooses them. Even if that sounds a little LaDeeDah, I can’t discount it. Given the odds against being the next Emily Dickinson, in one’s own lifetime or in eternity, why would anyone choose that path? Arrogance is one answer; lack of alternatives is another. Most likely there are more, but I'm not sure any of them offer foolproof health insurance.

At best the young artist has to make the proverbial leap of faith into another kind of religious pursuit. However, that may be a leap into Self more than an exploration of the mysteries of being, of the Universe, of Spiritus Mundi, of gods and such.

At worst, it stops at plain old self-indulgence. Still, from a handful of such adventurers, we strangers benefit decades and centuries later—not because the artist particularly wanted to help us out, but because he wanted to explore and express himself and his world because it was the only thing that felt good, felt right.


Nov 24, 2009

Nathaniel Hawthorne, American Heritage

I’m pretty sure it’s not cool to like nineteenth American art, but in my last two visits to the art museum, I wandered into those rooms and was taken by much of what I saw. More and more often in looking at history, I think, “These are my ancestors. What do we have in common?”

My sense of connection also arises partly because of Hawthorne’s story, “Ethan Brand,” which has popped up in conversation a couple of times lately; his unflattering portrait of New England villagers intrigues me.

Ethan Brand left his town eighteen years before the story begins. Now he’s back, and the town’s atwitter about his return. We learn that he left in order to discover “The Unpardonable Sin,” and, guess what, he found it. It’s the sin of pride that causes someone to set himself apart from, and therefore above, “the brotherhood of man.” By seeking the Unpardonable Sin, Ethan Brand commits it. He knows it, and says he would do it again.

Labeling the seeker, the rebel, the iconoclast an “unpardonable” sinner—that sounds like a pretty democratic and reasonable value system, right? But when we meet Ethan Brand’s fellow citizens, we’d consider lighting out for the territory too. They tend to be drunk, ugly, and uninteresting, except that they’re sort of weird, sort of a traveling circus that doesn’t travel.

So are we supposed to identify with the arrogant “intellectual” and title character, who says he's not repentant for his self-imposed exile, which amounts to self-exaltation? Are we up to it, that kind of defiance, solitude, and acceptance of responsibility? Or should we see ourselves as one of the tedious, unattractive Everymen of the village? At least the motley crew in the town square have each other—right? Is that what we’re supposed to say, out of a sense of modesty and a need for others, a sense of ourselves as herd animals? The townsfolk are the only alternatives to Ethan Brand in the world of the story; so to play fair, those are our choices.

“Ethan Brand” is my favorite Hawthorne story, along with “My Kinsman, Major Molineaux.” I think both pieces ask more complex and subtle questions than most of his work does.

So when I saw the paintings, which are roughly contemporary with Hawthorne, I couldn’t help but see the rag-tag bumpkins of those two stories, or the pious folks of Salem who render Young Goodman Brown an isolated cynic in one of Hawthorne’s other famous stories.

If the humans in these paintings are our norm, the best or only prospects for fellowship, how do we respond? To which male would you hand over your daughter? Which female looks like the best candidate for interesting talk over coffee? Or is coffee not the point? If these are our predecessors, who are we?

* * *

Nov 22, 2009

MOVIE REVIEWS: The Blindside; An Education

The Blindside GPA 2.3

Full review to follow, maybe Tuesday.
A syrupy football movie, but also a fascinating story, based on fact. Sandra Bullock seems to have hired a new trainer and seems to like the results.

An Education GPA 3.8

Full review to follow, maybe Tuesday.
London, 1961. A 16-year-old brainy beauty is tempted by a 30-something wannabe sugar daddy and the fast life he offers. An intelligent acting out the details of a fairly predictable plot; I never lost interest, but did think our heroine's dimples and giggles were a touch overdone. Of course, with her beauty, my complaint is faint.

I got busy, so I offer a couple of pictures, and I hope a tease for more complete movie reviews or other absolute wisdom later in the week.

Nov 17, 2009

Individualism: Glenn Gould and Other Heroes


For context, you might need to look at, Saturday, Nov. 14, in order for my comments today to make more sense. But I’m in the midst of paper-grading again, so I’m going to use my long-winded comment to him as the core for my post today. It makes for something like a follow-up to my Sunday thoughts about Maurice Manning’s poems in Bucolics.

Among many other intriguing comments about pianist Glenn Gould, Barbaro (at says, " . . . after a few minutes you begin to wonder if everyone else is playing them 'wrong.'"

Here’s my reply, plus a bit more.

That's a great line and thought. I wonder if you've hit on the measuring stick for all greatness in the arts. There's only one Gould, one Mozart, and so forth. I don’t know if that’s true, but it sounds good.

Of all the significant writers in the canon, how many sound exactly like a predecessor or contemporary? I haven't done my research, and this is not an objective test, but I bet the answer is "none." Apparently we value the new, the individual, or the unique that much. I’ve always thought something along these lines—haven’t we all, including authorities on the subject of art?—but saying it just then felt like a splash of cool water in the face. Refreshing cool or icy? Not sure--it does raise the bar, doesn't it.

Then, of course, there's a companion issue, one that's contextual and therefore bothers that quasi- and half-assed-New Critic in me: as the saying goes, "You have to get here to get there." Maybe this: could there be Whitman if there hadn't been Wordsworth? Academic scholarship might over-do the search for influences on any given artist, but exploring the question somewhat seems reasonable (or necessary?).

Don't people say we had to have Mozart before we could have Beethoven? So, in a related field, I wonder who had to come first in order to open the door to Gould. Or Coltrane. Or Willie Nelson.

I think it's widely accepted that bluegrass grew from Scots-Irish music in order to be re-born as Appalachian music. Yet the banjo itself was born in Africa, or so I read somewhere.

So when students or friends insist upon their free will or individualism, I think, and sometimes say, “Really?”

Nov 15, 2009

Poetry: Maurice Manning's book, Bucolics

With two confessed Wordsworth lovers being good enough to offer comments recently, I tried to find a suitable poem of his to post and talk about. But the best Wordsworth is too long, and to my ear, his shorter poems are just too reminiscent of Hickory Dickory Dock, on top of didactic content, even when I try to allow for two hundred years of changing tastes and the fact that Wordsworth’s "language of the common man" was a breakthrough in its time.

But I do like a lot of his more ambitious thinking about nature (The Prelude, “The Intimations Ode,” and “Tintern Abbey”), and as I’ve said before, I feel some attachment to the old guy as one of my first icons when college days dropped the poetry balloon on my head.

So out of regard for both Wordsworth and nature, here’s a compromise. I’ve been posting poems I like or admire, but they’re also pretty famous, safe, mainstream work. For a change of pace, here is Kentucky’s Maurice Manning, a contemporary and unique voice as far as I know, in nature poetry and poetry in general.

Believe me, my skepticism goes on red alert when a poet experiments as much as Manning does. My first question: Does the material need to be presented this way, or is it an affectation, a choice to seem rather than be a new perspective or a new style?

The poems I’ve read in Bucolics strike me as accessible, authentic, and compelling. Of course, I don’t mean that Manning is the primitive, eccentric persona speaking the poems (by the way, his other books don’t bear much resemblance). But the voice he’s found and exploited in Bucolics seems earned and urgent, not some empty or faked gesture at an Appalachian pastoral.

As for form, at first I chose just to accept Manning’s decisions about line breaks as unconventional and arbitrary; I've thought that about plenty of other contemporary verse. Then I looked more closely and discovered a fairly regular iambic tetrameter in poem after poem. So there’s a more traditional music here than we might have expected, a logic governing line structures that might have seemed a chaotic ramble. To my ear and brain, the rhythms help to create in the speaker an actual character, a developed sensibility. It seems right that in his theological conversations, his queries, his wonder, there's a sense of music—maybe country gospel harmonies, maybe mountain music.

Theological? Yes, I think most readers will find themselves seeing the poems' recurring “Boss” as a god, and the poems become a rustic speaker’s questions and monologues directed at his deity.

If you don’t like the poems, you might yell “Fraud!” If you approve, you might whisper, “Magic.” Or, “Holy cow. That took guts.” Or, “How did he do that?” Literally, holy cow. Holy horse, holy pasture, holy rock and stream.

These selections come from the online Virginia Quarterly Review. Whatever else you choose, please try Numbers 1, 5, and 6. I’m really eager to hear reactions—agreement or disagreement. For better or worse, you won’t hear anything like these poems anywhere else anytime soon.

Here’s the link to copy and paste in your browser:



* *

Nov 12, 2009

Poem of the Day: Wallace Stevens' "Anecdote of the Jar"

Anecdote of the Jar
(published 1919 in Stevens’ first collection, Harmonium.)

Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

The appeal, or lack of it, in this much-anthologized Wallace Stevens poem has always interested me. I offer it now because it seems a good November (or early March) poem. Although it’s rather theoretical or symbolic, it also makes sense on the literal level: there’s no foliage to block the view of a jar placed upon a hill. So the jar’s centrality in the scene has at least a bit more plausibility than it might in seasons of full leaf or snow covered mountains.

If memory serves, my first reaction years ago, at age nineteen, went something like this: “How un-pretty this language is. Even the poet calls it a mere anecdote. As for theory, what a lot of bunk. One jar sucks up a wilderness? All those trees, branches, snakes, worms, bugs, birds. Surely not.”

Or here I was, holding forth: “I’m nineteen, and I’m just starting to get dunked in this poetry business, which is also philosophy biz, and I want nature to win. In fact, I’m on the Wordsworth team, and I agree with him that nature has already won, will always win, even as it stoops, bothering to bless and teach us, rather than rubbing our noses in our insignificance. Only some arrogant yappers out there don’t see and smell their smallness. Why, I’m pretty sure I feel the ‘correspondent breeze’ flowing through my shirt, even as we speak.”

Oh, yes, that’s precisely what I said one March day while traipsing across a ridge in southeastern Ohio.

So who was this impenetrable, unmusical, cerebral shell of a Connecticut insurance guy named Stevens, this mere American, telling Anglophile me—and my Wordsworth!—about some banal jar’s “dominion”?

At least Keats’s version of the story (in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”) had the courtesy to elevate the jar to the loftiness of “urn,” which he connected to immortality. The wise, tragic Keats would never think to set a jar in competition with a mountain, then claim that some plain old cylinder of glass or clay had actually won—a jar with no carvings, nothing else special, shrank mountains, brambles and skunks, put ‘em in their place. I think not.

And Keats had the judgment to keep his peculiar admiration for jars and art in the parlor, a small room where art belongs, along with his quaint notions about art as your taxi to eternity.

I said all that too, verbatim, out loud, right to Nature—the one woman who might listen. (Easy, now). I meant it, but I also wanted to remain in Her good graces. It was clear that She was bigger than I was. And artsy jars? Not so much. I could smash them and corporate Wallace Stevens with one youthful, manly sneeze.

Now, decades hence, I haven’t done a complete reversal. If I want peace, I go to nature--or some convenient, suburban variation on nature--a Metro Park. But nature is often too hot or too cold, rainy, muddy, full of mosquitoes.

And, can there be any doubt that if I see a jar in the wilderness, I’ll focus on it, even a plain old canning jar, homely, man-made thing? The eye must go to something. It might focus on a bobcat, but I’ve seen a lot more jars than bobcats, even on hillsides, in the form of litter and illegal dumping.

One jar—not dozens in a pile of roadside junk, which doesn’t count—one jar "placed" upon a hill in Tennessee? That would be the different thing and the man-made thing that would draw my merely human attention. Maybe I’d be embarrassed to call it kin or confess its “dominion,” but I hope I’d be honest enough to admit the truth: I’m at least as connected to it as I am to the trees. As the lone and different thing on the hillside, the jar makes me see it, along with a new fact or two.

* *

Nov 8, 2009

Roseanne Cash's C.D., THE LIST

On October 11, I mentioned my inclination to like Roseanne Cash’s new C.D., The List, after her interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. Ms. Cash came across as a down-to-earth, likeable human, and I found it hard to imagine her as the product of such a star-studded life with her father or in her own career. Also, the few passages NPR selected from the songs on The List sounded great—both the song selection and the performances. I bought the C.D., and now that I’ve listened to it several times, that initial impression has been pretty much borne out.

To re-cap, in 1973, Johnny Cash made a list of what he considered 100 essential country songs and gave them to his daughter when she was 18. As Ms. Cash says in the liner notes, however, these are important American songs more than country music alone—for example, “500 Miles” and “Long Black Veil” from the folk tradition.

Ms. Cash’s rendering of those two, by the way, are among my favorites on the album. As she and Terry Gross agreed in the interview, she slows down “500 Miles” so much that there’s a sense of desperation in it. That’s an interpretation that’s valid and could have been lost to us in the wake of all the versions we might have heard by now, some of them pretty homogenized. Also, by “desperation,” I do not mean melodrama; this version has plenty of dignity and self-control, but it’s more earnest than the marshmellow-and-campfire overtones the title might have accrued over decades.

Ms. Cash’s “Long Black Veil” surpasses any version I’ve heard, except for Joan Baez’s, which was my introduction to the song. The simple guitar work (I think that’s her husband, John Leventhal) is perfect—impossible to miss, but not at all in competition with the vocals.

“Bury Me under the Weeping Willow” illustrates another tradition (bluegrass or mountain music) to which Ms. Cash is faithful. Her voice is just right for the song, and she seems to want to honor the tradition, rather than faking it with artificial bluegrass gestures or some jazzed up interpretation on a tune from the hills.

Maybe the nicest surprise for me is the first track, a piece I’d never heard before, “Miss the Mississippi and You.” It’s a bluesy, swing thing, and every note, every move seems right.

My mild reservations about the other songs boil down to two tendencies. First, there’s more modernization than I’d like—some wah-wah, other electric gadgetfying, including some of that growling machine that sounds like a cross between a dinosaur burp and a rhino fart. Shockingly, it appears for a few seconds in “Long Black Veil,” but in each listening I recover enough to soak up the song one more time.

These new-fangled electrics are only occasional intrusions. My second and larger concern is a tendency to slow things down too much, to turn slow songs into dirges—for example “Take These Chains from My Heart.” Or a fast song goes molasses, in the case of “I’m Movin’ On.”

And here’s a note, not a complaint. Surely people hear some of the quality of Patsy Cline in Roseanne Cash’s voice. As Ms. Cash herself noted in the NPR interview, that is a mixed blessing, for there is only one Patsy Cline. In fact, I wonder if the Cash/Leventhal tendency to slow things down too much is an effort to avoid sounding like a Patsy Cline clone. If so, the price is too high. Besides, Ms. Cash’s voice is plenty satisfying in its own right.

As if you need my instruction, please take my comments for what they’re worth. I am mostly unschooled in music, and there’s very little I’ve liked since about 1980. I plan now to look at other reviews of The List to see what people say when they know what they’re talking about.

On the other hand, I love things as various as: several pieces from Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well, some of Leonard Cohen’s work, a lot of Odetta and Joan Baez, some jazz, a lot of classical music, practically all of Patsy Cline, a lot of Linda Ronstadt, and a lot of the 1970s country stuff, particularly Willie Nelson singing and Kris Kristoferson writing.

In short, I’m not sure how stuck in the old days I am, but I surely won’t deny a dose of it. So it’s that guy who’s saying Roseanne Cash’s The List is very pleasing, much more often than not, and I hope it sells. This kind of music sweetens a commute and needs to survive.

* *

Nov 7, 2009

A Touch More on Yeats

Apse mosaic at Sant-Apollinaire in Classe

I worry about overkill in my posts on poetry, especially the last two, where I hope to show or remind people of the richness of language when poetry is done well, even in a seemingly simple work like "The Cat and the Moon." Though I realize the technical talk runs the risk of pushing people away, my hope is to send or return folks to poetry. In spite of all the readings, conferences, and MFAs in poetry, it remains an art in need of a much broader fan base.

With no plan for my next entry, let me use an Altadenahiker question as the entry to a short post for today (I heard that sigh of relief . . . ). In the latest visitor comments, AH asks, “What's your favorite Yeats?"

Without looking at a table of contents, the Yeats poems that leap to mind are "Sailing to Byzantium" ( and "The Second Coming" (

But the last stanza of "The Circus Animals' Desertion," is also superb, I think, especially the final two lines. It’s one of Yeats's last poems, in which he summarizes his career, its themes, important characters and tropes. Frankly, I find the middle three stanzas rather tedious. But the first stanza is excellent, and all of it sets up this conclusion:

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

* *

Nov 5, 2009


First, let’s talk about the music in “The Cat and the Moon,” the rhythms produced by its meter. Most of the metric feet here are quite audibly iambic: “The CAT went HERE and THERE,” or “The CREEPing CAT looked UP.” But several anapestic feet find their way into the dominantly iambic music. The cat’s very name begins with an anapest: (min-a-LOO-she: short, short, long—that is, two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable).

Over the course of one line or several, anapests are often considered a waltzing rhythm (dah dah BOOM). Here they are only scattered, but if we add to them the “loudness” of the iambs and the shortness of the lines—which means we hear the simple rhymes rather often—the poem develops quite a musical quality.

To my ear and mind, these sounds are prominent enough to echo a children’s tale or maybe something like an adult nursery rhyme. The conspicuous music could even suggest a child speaker, but some of the more ominous lines make that unlikely. What child would say, “troubled his animal blood” or “The sacred moon overhead / Has taken a new phase”?

So what we have is the appearance of a simplicity in the poem’s simple story: a cat moves in a dance-like way in the moonlight. But other lines and images bring adult complexity into the perception of the scene. Here’s another example: “. . . the moon may learn, / Tired of that courtly fashion / A new dance turn.”

To the extent that the music feels innocent or childlike, there is irony. It might seem that we see sweet animal-waltzing, but there's also "troubled" animal blood, as a black cat wanders, wails, and tiptoes, changing the shape of his eyes—by volition?—under the "pure, cold light" of the moon. If we’re tempted to think of purity and light as forces of good, surely “cold” and “moon” make us uncertain, uneasy. If purity, light, and the moon are cold, do we still welcome them?

So, in spite of the music, the rhythm, the dancing, there's no comfort we can count on. The moon that’s called "sacred" is apparently weary with its “courtly fashion” and is ready to learn a new tune, perhaps something quite menacing.

Then, appropriately out of nowhere, the cat's new way of being in the world is announced as three consecutive stressed syllables—"new dance turn"—thud, thud, thud, a spondee plus an additional stress. That’s a jolt; the cute minuet we might have thought we heard has just been hit three times with a sledge hammer.

In cahoots with, or even in obedience to, the nocturnal, howling, waltzing, spooky-eyed, longing (horny?) cat, the moon enters a "new phase," and we have a cat-moon union. Minnaloushe might be "important and wise," but there’s no warm-fuzzy episode born in that wisdom. He’s also “alone”—as in lonely? or just solitary? or regal? And he may or may not be aware that his eyes are changing; he might be fairly out of control. If he’s “important” yet unsure of his vision, can we feel confident that any wisdom he has is a force of good? Maybe he’s just shrewd. Maybe he just looks wise. Cats do that, don’t they?

To emphasize the chill in this foreshadowing, the three or four iambic beats we've become accustomed to in each line shift at the poem’s end. We close abruptly with a shorter line and only two iambic stresses: "his CHANGE-ing EYES." The end is another boom, another nail in the coffin.

Can that portend anything good? Minnaloushe's eyes are linked by rhyme to the word "wise." Here, or when anything changes, are wisdom and comfort what we feel? Surely not. We wonder what’s next, and chances are, we’re not optimistic. Surely the final line and last notes of the poem are an ironic take on any notion we had of a nice kitty, benevolently wise and dancing in a children’s story.

Instead, the prancing animal harbinger and the "pure, cold" moon form a bond in and of darkness, the feline eyes lifted skyward for instructions from the night. Those are the closing sounds and images in the poem.

If all this heralds a new cycle in history, a new gyre, or if Yeats is psychotic for thinking so, well, bully for gyres, bully for Yeats, and bully for psychosis. May you wake with Druids standing over your bed and Byzantium sitting outside your window. I might be interested in reading your account of all that, but I’ll still see “The Cat and the Moon” as a poem that stands perfectly well on its own, with its haunting music, compelling imagery and dark prophecy.

Nov 3, 2009

Yeats, Blather, and The New Criticism

Concerning The New Criticism or Yeats’s “The Cat and the Moon,” I am a nearly empty suit (or empty corduroy jacket?). Of course, that didn’t stop me from going on and on about The New Criticism back on August 10,18,19,20 of this year.

Now Altadena Hiker has issued a desperate plea for more blather (is that like more cow bell?). Eager to please, but also to protect myself from charges of impersonating competent scholarship or gross pedantry, I offer here some quasi-New Critical, quasi-academic remarks about Yeats’s “The Cat and the Moon,” first posted on October 31. In fact, I offer so many remarks (surely you're not surprised) that I’ll divide them into two posts, today and tomorrow or Thursday.

First, here is the poem again:


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

The 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.

* * *

Opponents of the New Criticism—let’s say New Historicists or Deconstructionists—would probably dwell on the fact that Minnaloushe belonged to Maude Gonne, Yeats’s major love interest. Those biographical facts might seem essential to many serious, well-intentioned readers. Those readers would also pay much attention to Yeats's theories of history, the “phases” of the moon, and the way Yeats found important patterns occurring in the shape of a spiral or “gyre” (hard g). So line 2, "the moon spun round like a top," might well suggest a gyre and the onset of an epoch of some kind.

If the moon spins like a top, it could tip; it’s a moon that’s occasion for crazy-cat waltzing and mysterious feline wisdom. But do we need all that to understand, appreciate, and enjoy the poem, especially when much of its tone and mood feel like a children’s song?

Yeats was also caught up in Byzantine art and Gaelic mythologies, plus early 20th century Irish politics. While the portions of New Critic in my corduroy don’t mind if we talk about such background material as interesting supplements, the minute someone says we cannot understand a poem without that information or speculation, or the poem is only there to serve or illustrate its historical or cultural context and be of little value in its own right, as an aesthetic object that’s relevant in any historical period, at least in the West—then my corduroy gets its dander up.

Because writers lie and die and deceive themselves, they are unreliable interpreters of their own work. So The New Criticism has the integrity to pay attention primarily to the poem itself, the words on the page, the imagery and figurative language, the punctuation, the line breaks, the music produced by meter and other sound devices like alliteration and assonance.

A writer fathers or mothers a poem into the world; we are the world, conversing at length with the child-poem, which is now an adult. We don’t begin by asking who his daddy was or what his daddy thought of him or in what country and epoch his daddy was a citizen. The child has been put into the streets and now must stand on his own, stared at and questioned by strangers.

So tomorrow or Thursday I’ll attempt at a bit of that questioning in an approach I think of as New Critical. I hope to show that we can get the core meaning and beauty of this poem and most others without digging into history books or literary scholarship.

Nov 1, 2009

Poem of the Day: Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay"

NOV. 1, 2009

Last Thursday, October 29, you saw at this site a late October scene at a maple-rich, golden Michigan park, photos taken that day. As if to prove Robert Frost’s simple but great title, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” here are some of the same spots in that park today, three days later, after a little wind and rain on Friday. How can these trees know or care that the human calendar says we’ve entered a new phase?

To top it off, I saw Bambi’s ma and pa today, but not long enough to get a photo. They flashed across a path, into some trees, and in seconds went invisible. It also occurred to me that Daddy Bambi, 6-point buck, might want to face off with me, and I didn't want to embarrass him with my latest martial arts moves.

I’ve lived east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason Dixon line most of my life, but it still stuns me every year how fast “dawn goes down to day,” as Frost says. I do see in these shots that November has its pleasures. But on the whole autumn color is a tease; love it, maybe, but never trust it.

Here is Frost’s poem:

Nature's first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

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Lovers' Lane