Mar 30, 2010

Kim Addonizio, Wallace Stevens, Ukulele Boy

Where does the eye go? The eye likes red, or at least is its slave. How much choice do we have? We obey our rods and cones.

So I see a strong connection between these two poems. (Yes, "Anecdote of the Jar" has been here before, on Nov. 12, 2009, in case you'd like more discussion of it).

Ukulele Boy is here to offer relief in casy any heavy lifting has occurred.

“What Do Women Want?” by Kim Addonizio : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

from Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens : Poetry Magazine [poem/magazine] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

YouTube - I'm Yours(ukulele)

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Mar 26, 2010

Thomas Lux, "I Love You Sweatheart"

I Love You Sweatheart by Thomas Lux | The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor

I don't mean to be pushy about Thomas Lux, but I've seen more than one audience love this poem, and it shows a lighter, softer side of Lux that might not have been evident in previous poems I've offered. Also, this is Friday, time for a lite.

One more thing: Lux does worlds for his students, for rising individual poets, and for the contemporary scene in general. We owe him. (So much for The New Criticism. I told you I was not a fanatic.).

Be sure to look at spelling in the poem. And take advantage of this chance to hear Lux's unique reading style. You'll see where to click at The Writer's Almanac site.

I wonder if the poem was written for this female Downy Woodpecker. I wish I could've convinced her to hold still, but I'll take it as my first photo capture of a Downy.

I Love You Sweatheart by Thomas Lux | The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor

Mar 25, 2010

Yeats, Lux, Ciardi, Toomer: Can We Pull It All Together?

A Little Tooth - - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

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

RPO -- William Butler Yeats : A Prayer for my Daughter

Reapers by Jean Toomer from Cane, 1923

Thanks to bloggers Altadenahiker.blogspot (hereafter, AH) and Brenda’sArizona.blogspot (Brenda) for substantial and clever responses to Thomas Lux and William Butler Yeats poems that I discussed only lightly on March 23. What I say today will make more sense if you check out that day’s exchanges in the Visitors’ Comments and have a look at yesterday’s poem, “Reapers,” by Jean Toomer.

I agree with practically everything AH and Brenda say, except that I wouldn't be as hard on "Little Tooth” as they are.

AH, your comparisons have never been better, including the coffee and salad remark (I won't rush it with today's talk, which is really just part 2 of Tuesday's talk, and thus pretty long, for which I apologize). Your linking of Daisy Buchanan to Yeats’ hopes for his daughter seems right on the money to me.

Or, how about this: Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire aspires to be, or thinks she is, Daisy Buchanan because she lacks . . . what? . . . the character? the depth . . . to think about herself the way Yeats thinks about his daughter? Blanche seems to mistake graciousness and dignity for aristocratic noise (southern style). Or, are Yeats’ hopes almost as aristocratic, muted by a dollop more intelligence and grace?

Also, AH, your comparison of "Little Tooth" to Ciardi’s "For Instance" (see the Feb. 17 Banjo52) is intriguing. Someone (not me) could probably make an interesting argument about the ways one of those poems succeeds more than the other.

Brenda, I think you and AH are both right about reasons the Yeats is not sexist, but I bet there are those who disagree. (I know there used to be such folks).

In Lux’s “A Little Tooth” I see him pulling the camera lens back, looking at all people, families, parents, and all daughters from a distance, and saying something like, "Here's what we look like once you strip away our soft self-interest, our delusions about our importance in the larger scheme of things, and various other sentimentality.”

Even from that sort of cold, scientific or sociological perspective, the conclusion, "Your daughter is tall," packs a wallop for me. It's a variation on the old Latin maxims, tempus fugit and ubi sunt. Or, remember Malvina Reynolds' famous song, "Turn Around”—“Turn around and you're a young man with babes of your own”--isn't that the line? Well, that’s a nice song (which I don’t mean to be dismissive—I’ve always liked it), but if a serious poet tried that, without the music and with different expectations from his audience, it would come off as sentimental claptrap.

The risk for a poet of reigning in his emotions as completely as Lux does (or John Ciardi) is that he might strip the poem of feeling altogether. If most readers agree with AH that Ciardi succeeds in this gamble and Lux fails, the reasons for that are still interesting. Has Ciardi managed to leave his characters with their humanity in a way that Lux has not? If so, how?

So I don't think Lux is as indifferent as you say, especially about a daughter; instead, I think he's saying about us all, with a self-restraint that borders on bitterness, "It was hard. And this is what it all comes to. And the kid got tall. She's gone. So is everything." (I think now of Dean Young’s scarecrow . . . ).

I won't argue that that's a complete explanation of a life or a family, but I think most of us err in the other direction, looking for ways to soften hard truths, letting ourselves off one or another hook. Maybe Lux is trying to look those truths in the eye, which might actually add depth to his feeling for a daughter. "Life is pretty much over—much ado about nothing. What hurts most is her absence, her distance."

Maybe this effort at objectivity is also an element in Jean Toomer’s “Reapers” (see yesterday’s post, March 24). Labor in southern fields is a subject that might tempt us toward idealized, pretty notions of a pastoral idyll. Here, it leads to the death of a rat, blood on the blade, and nary a word of sympathy for the animal or for the workers. In spite of the sensual rhymed couplets, we have a seemingly objective portrait of rural life as a rote process, devoid of compassion.

By the way, the workers are black, and Toomer was black, a figure in the Harlem Renaissance. To what extent is “Reapers” about race? And is its perspective at least a little like “For Instance” or “A Little Tooth”?

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Mar 24, 2010

Jean Toomer, "Reapers"

Here's another view of the pastoral, or at least the agrarian. Who has it right, Hopkins or Toomer? Toomer's clause, "as a thing that's done," strikes me as especially chilling and worthy of discussion.

Reapers by Jean Toomer from Cane, 1923

Robert Jones' biographical sketch of Toomer is fascinating. Next time someone tells me, "Get a life," maybe I'll consider it more seriously.

Jean Toomer's Life and Career

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Mar 23, 2010

Lux and Yeats on Daughters

A Little Tooth - - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

RPO -- William Butler Yeats : A Prayer for my Daughter

Okay, okay, so I already posted "A Prayer for My Daughter" back on June 17. Here it is again. I predict you'll get over it, and it makes an interesting comparison to Lux's "A Little Tooth." Maybe someone would like to comment on that. Minimal yak from me today.

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Mar 22, 2010


The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

“The Windhover” might be Hopkins’ most famous poem, unless that would be “God’s Grandeur,” another work of praise for natural beauty and the divinity within it. “More complex and more interesting than “God’s Grandeur” or “Pied Beauty,” “The Windhover” is an Italian sonnet in which a central metaphor compares Jesus Christ to a falcon, a bird of spectacular physical beauty, a bird of prey, a killer—which is also seen as a knight, a lover, and a plowman.

These dramatic, shocking, and beautiful aspects of the falcon are most evident when it dives, which is signaled by the (curious) word buckle. That is, the falcon’s hovering collapses, as in knees buckling, and all the bird’s glorious qualities latch together like a belt buckle and shine as he dives, seeming to fall toward his prey.

Consider the qualities of Jesus that most emphatically and happily stun Hopkins into ecstasy and adoration (and a whiff of lust). The falcon is royalty, a prince, a knight and warrior (“dauphin,” “dangerous . . . chevalier”). He's even French, for heaven's sake. True, he’s also a servant (“minion”) but a servant who’s a darling (again that word, “minion”) of the morning sky, (“daylight’s dauphin,” a prince of the whole sky). And maybe most shocking—unless it’s more a part of Catholic doctrine than I realize—Hopkins’ Jesus stirs potentially erotic feelings: “my heart in hiding / Stirred” and “ah, my dear.”

Is this somewhere close to the idea that nuns marry Jesus? If so, is the speaker presenting himself as a female admirer? If so, is Hopkins, as author, aware of that, or has the poem gotten away from him—maybe the way, according to some scholars, that Milton’s Satan got away from him in Paradise Lost and became the most attractive character in the story?

In any case, the Jesus of “The Windhover” is no meek, poverty-stricken, pal-of-the-beggars or turning-the-other-cheek kind of guy. Christian humility is not what has snowed Hopkins. This is a Jesus of speed and power in the free-fall dive of a predator who stabs field mice and soars upward with them. This Jesus is one of those bullying knights with “brute beauty, valor, pride, plume.” And the speaker feels such a suggestion of erotic love for Jesus as falcon, or the falcon as Jesus, that his heart must stay “in hiding” as he expresses his rapture.

What would Pat Robertson think of Hopkins’ Lord? What would the Puritans have said?

As he was in “Carrion Comfort,” Hopkins is so excessive about his emotions, his word choice, and his indulgence in sound devices that he risks self-mockery. (In my judgment, this is only true in “my heart . . . / Stirred for a bird”). But if we’re supposed to think of a Christian’s religious love as a passion, what better illustration of it than to make lovers of the mortal servant and his eternal Lord?

Notice, however, that the bird’s flashy power has not come out of nowhere; he has to earn it. In the poem’s opening six lines, notice the hints of labor, as the falcon works in the wind, and has to “rebuff” it. That’s beautiful in its way, but finally in lines 5 and 7—and not until then—we come to freeing words of soaring or victory, like “ecstasy” and “rebuffed the big wind.”

In the poem’s final three lines (the second half of the Italian sonnet’s sestet), we return explicitly to the idea of labor coming to fruition—something like the way “Sheer plod makes plow down sillion shine” in “Pied Beauty.” The soaring of the falcon is now (re)viewed as “blue-bleak,” or nearly dead, “embers.” But like the diving falcon, they suddenly, dramatically “fall.” Even in a domestic hearth, they crash, and it’s in that fall that they “gall” themselves and produce a flash of brilliance that can “gash gold-vermilion.”

So it’s at least a plausible argument to say the whole poem has been about a prince (or merely a knight) who’s had to struggle against, negotiate with nature’s “rolling level underneath him steady air” before he can dive into glory, fall, plummet, and in that descent become “fire” and “mastery.”

I haven’t been back to “The Windhover” for a while, and I must say, it holds up terrifically well for me. I’m not sure I can think of a poem that’s any better in demonstrating what I’ve meant at Banjo52 when I’ve harped about super-good poetry offering gifts along the way to the even greater gift of a whole that consists of major ideas, emotions, experiences. Maybe a great poem is something like a falcon—we stand and witness as it hovers, it dives.

The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

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Mar 21, 2010


Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

After “Carrion Comfort” on March 17, it seems only fair to present the joyful Hopkins. This is Sunday, so let’s keep it short and sweet with “Pied Beauty,” where it's dappled and contrary things that are beautiful—or, reduced to clich√©, variety is the spice of life. But for Hopkins the spottedness of the physical world, its bounty of opposites or merely differences, is not just beautiful but also evidence of the God that he finds beyond “change.” And that permanence, that’s the force to be praised.

Notice too that the devil is, as always, in the details. If Hopkins had said, "I like all the variety I see in the world," and left it at that, we'd probably respond, "Ho Hum." But in his images and pairings of opposites (like "adazzle, dim"), he's giving visual and auditory examples to make palpable his opening statement: "Glory be to God for dappled things." Because of that, it's a poem we should probably not dismiss as simplistic.

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Mar 18, 2010

Faith Shearin's poem, "Retriever": Dogs, Poetry, Music, and Complexity

Fido Fetches Dollar Bills from the Orange Tip Bucket and Delivers Them to the Master.

Or, So Much for Dignity.

Or, "The Idea of Order at Key West"

Left: "The Master"

It's very hard to write a dog poem without going sappy, but I think Faith Shearin's "Retriever" succeeds. The speaker's relationship with her father adds some essential complication to the Old Shep theme. In fact, for another kind of complexity, I might hear some jealousy in the speaker as she considers the pooch a replacement for her, her siblings, and her mother. I'm not sure that her happiness is the only note I hear in the last line, and that's a nice ambiguity. On the other hand, the Retriever of the title is "retrieving" from the past the father she longed for, as well as a happier man.

(In stanza 7, line 2, "fan" should be "van." Note that that's two poems of the last three that have been marred by a typo--and this on rather prestigious sites. Next time I sound like an anal grammarian, remember this. It's a short step from typos to significant errors in meaning. The devil's in the details. Well, until the video-internet generation came along with its cognition bingo and "speed is god" mindset [anti-mind?]. Speed kills. If you love it, spell it. Do not set it free; it cannot fly, and it cannot read a map).

Retriever by Faith Shearin | The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor

Can we say that an important difference between most music and most poetry is that music gets to be more sentimental? It gets to say "ain't" and "baby, baby" because the element of the music complicates the lyrics, no matter how simple or sentimental each may be alone. Composers like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and others challenge my point, but the fact remains that I can cite them as exceptions to the rule.

Speaking of music, simplicity, and sentimentality, especially if you're one of the millions who liked the movie I Walk the Line, look what I stumbled onto at good ol' YouTube (of course, I forget what I was looking for, and I never got to it). June Carter and Johnny Cash made a great team, but it seems right to remember that June was alive and kickin', long before Johnny came along. To its credit, the movie was fairly clear about that.

YouTube - june carter-grand ole opry

I'm not sure our current approach to country or other popular music is any more sophisticated than you see here, and it strikes me as less endearing, though that might say more about me than it does music or popular culture.

(I have absolutely no doubt that I have at least one typo or grammatical error here and in every post. I am not a prestigious site with paid, putatively educated editors).

YouTube - june carter-grand ole opry

Retriever by Faith Shearin | The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor

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Mar 17, 2010



“Carrion Comfort” is one of the “Terrible Sonnets,” poems of religious questioning, doubt and anguish by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit priest in Victorian England and Ireland. The poem also illustrates some points I was trying to make in response to the visitor comments on March 15 and 16, concerning Dean Young’s poem, as well as poetry in general.

Some grim, sad, and depressing poems are also difficult, perhaps never completely understood by Reader X. Yet he might love such a poem or at least some of it if it offers gifts along the way, probably images, lines, passages and music to feel connected to, but also thoughts and emotions, conveying something of what Reader X had thought or felt himself, but would never have considered uttering in this way.

A Victorian poet (1844-1889), Hopkins’ language can be, or seem at first, self-conscious, jerky, grandiose. His experiments with language can be so dramatic, so bold that many scholars say he is (along with Emily Dickinson and Robert Browning) more modern than Victorian in manner and maybe thought as well. I take that as high praise, but I also worry that some readers will find these experiments excessive, or even an unintended self-parody. So let’s keep in mind how bizarrely unconventional Hopkins’ style is for its era. Let’s cut him some slack, for it’s in these very excesses that we’re likely to find the “wow factor” as he blazes new trails in poetry.

Carrion Comfort by Gerard Manley Hopkins : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Hopkins doesn’t strike me as all that different, conceptually, from the Romantics. In nature, he finds not only the variety, beauty, and awe of the physical details, but also a revelation of God. I see a blend of Christianity and Pantheism (though for honesty’s sake, I must add that I don’t know enough about either of those schools to make such a statement).

With Hopkins, I allow myself another privilege: violating the New Criticism’s "Biographical Fallacy" (and you thought I was timid!). I find it unusually important to remember that Hopkins was a Catholic by conversion—that is, he presumably knew something about the faith before committing to it. He believed in it so completely that he became a Jesuit priest. So, while I don’t usually like reading much of an author’s life into his work, in this case I’m moved by the fact that this writer is not just you, me, or Joe Schmoe having a crisis of faith, but a man who lived his religion as completely as Hopkins did.

Maybe I need to add that, if someone hasn’t had a few crises of faith, I don’t put much stock in that person’s faith (including atheism). So I can only try to imagine how agonizing it must have been for the devout Hopkins when he had these times of wondering, fear, intense doubt.

Back to context: I was not planning to post Hopkins any time soon, but I think he illustrates what I was trying to say one and two days ago about poets who leave plenty of gems along the way to a poem's closure and wholeness. We might not like, agree with, or understand the entire poem, but we can be bowled over by individual images, lines, passages, or the work’s overall music, atmosphere, texture. In turn, those gifts might keep us coming back until we feel comfortable with more and more of its parts, or even its entirety.

Carrion Comfort by Gerard Manley Hopkins : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

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Mar 16, 2010

Dean Young, "Scarecrow on Fire," Part Two


Dean Young, “Scarecrow on Fire,” continued . . .

I'm suspicious of Young's trail of associations, yet my instincts tell me to trust him, not necessarily because I agree, but because he more or less announces, "I'm guessing about some big things here. Come along and guess with me, if you wish." He's been simultaneously careful and strange enough to make me think, "Okay, I'll keep re-reading. For now, I believe you were being straight with me."

One spot where Young steps away from this credibility is the arbitrary and puerile use of “Hell” in “Hell, even now I love life.” There’s that excessive love of the casual and conversational again, this time barging in on a poem that is otherwise all poem, a hard slider down and away, despite its appearance of chat.

Some readers might also object to Young’s assuming the privilege of grand proclamations about life. In fact, the poem opens dangerously in such a vein: “We all think about suddenly disappearing.” Or in lines 11-12, “We all feel / suspended over a drop into nothingness.” And maybe, in lines 16 – 18, “Whenever you put your feet on the floor / . . . it’s a miracle.” However, those three lines are probably metaphorical enough to rise above didacticism.

A poet is always on a tightrope with declarations like these. Even if the statements are true, who is he to speak for us? But Young more or less gives us a drop of metaphysics, then jumps back to the specific and concrete world and its puzzles, as if he’s aware of how easy it would be to go too far, to step into presumption or pamphleteering.

Along these lines, I also think of Sharon Olds’ line in “On the Subway” (March 9): “I will never know how easy this white skin makes my life.” I think she and Young, among others, are saying things they know to be provocative; maybe they also think we need to hear these thoughts because we act as if they haven’t occurred to us, or we haven’t cared enough about them on our own.

Too many conversational or prosy poems of the last few decades fail to offer this gift-and-challenge package, which I also see as an oath of honesty: "This really is the way I see the world, and this is the only way I can say it. Anything else would be inaccurate or dishonest."

The absence of that oath and those gifts is what I was complaining about back in January and February. Everyone of us is guilty of posturing; that doesn’t mean we have to like or respect it, in ourselves or in a poem. It might mean we should admire poems that are free of it, poems whose voice is genuine, no matter how quirky.

And the wonderful problem is, we’ll never entirely agree on which poems, or even short passages, are the pretenders and which are the real article. Is there anything better than that to talk about, to fight about?

Mar 15, 2010

Dean Young, "Scarecrow on Fire"

Scarecrow on Fire | American Poetry Review, The | Find Articles at BNET

Like Sharon Olds (March 4, March 9 and back on Sept. 17, 2009), Dean Young is one of those poets whose style is conversational (see the discussions here on January 14 or January 31, for example), but his trains of thought are more unusual than other poets we call conversational or "accessible." Young is also an example of a poet who lays a gift or challenge upon us in just about any two- or three-line passage, whether or not we feel we've followed the whole of his argument.

I won't pretend that I always follow his train of thought or emotion, or the trails through layers of subconscious association, but almost always, I'm intrigued by the journey. Most importantly, in today’s “Scarecrow on Fire,” I rarely or never feel that Dean Young is intentionally yanking me around, being narcissistically avante-garde, a mind unveiling itself like a melon full of ellipses.

"Scarecrow on Fire" offers the very kind of gifts as a poem that it talks about in life; it puts "something small / into your hand, a button or river stone or / key to I don't know what." And "I don't know what” is Young’s honest admission that he’s wondering much more than he’s making declarations.

The title's “Scarecrow on Fire” is an image of a fake man, on fire, dying. So the poem might be a farewell from a man who's recognizing the mortality of his flesh and bones, his sticks and stones.

The speaker wonders "What counts for a proper / goodbye." Maybe the poem itself "counts," with its tentative statement at the end, concerning souls. The images of stones, black angels, and ladybugs lead magically to the conclusion that poems are like boiling water that "cajoles" souls into freedom, agitates them out of their comfort with the "solidity of the boards, the steadiness / coming into the legs."

How many lesser imaginations have linked the "breath" of poems to the vapor coming off boiling water—and then that breath and vapor to the human soul? Notice that, with appropriate modesty, Young introduces that whole chain of images and thoughts with "Maybe."

Maybe our bodies, our mortal selves amount to the inert physicality of a stick-man. It's humbling to think of ourselves as that lone bundle out in a field, trying to scare away crows (like ravens, a bird often associated with death). Yet in the end we have souls that can be "cajoled" into freedom.

That's enough for one day; my latest posts have been too long. But I have more about "Scarecrow on Fire" and related matters, might add it tomorrow.

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Mar 12, 2010

Green Zone; White Ribbon. Movie Reviews.

THE GREEN ZONE with Matt Damon: B+

In The Green Zone, there’s plenty of action and it feels convincing. The center of the movie’s plot is the question of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq and what that question means for the soldiers assigned to finding them.

For me, the center of the movie’s soul is the casual risking of lives—American soldiers, Iraqi citizens, bystanders and patriots—based on unreliable information and political tyranny. It’s hard for me not to see our Texas royalty sipping liquids in comfort, while amazing, awful things are going on daily at a distance that’s safe from D.C. or Texas.

Yes, the movie pushed my political buttons, and it had almost the feel of realism that I found so convincing in The Hurt Locker.

So why only a B+? Matt Damon is a good action hero, but he’s all action and hero, not the complicated character of multiple facets, which we saw him reveal in The Informant. Damon does all the script asks him to do, which makes for a good guy, but not a great, multidimensional character. The white hats and black hats here are sharply delineated, which makes the story less interesting, even to one who agrees with the film's take on what's black and what's white. But if you're calm about your politics (did I say calm about politics??? in America???) and you like constant action, step right up and get your popcorn.


Black and White. German with English subtitles.

If I give much attention to The White Ribbon, I’ll be here till Monday, and the pay for this is job is so-so. Also, the movie will probably play only at art theaters, to which many of you don’t have easy access.

And finally, The White Ribbon is work. There are some beautiful scenes in its black and white cinematography, which creates the feel of an insider’s look at real life in Western agrarian culture in the early 20th century. Here is the trailer; I hope you'll click the full screen option.

YouTube - The White Ribbon HD Movie Trailer

Remember, however, that things moved slower then, even mysteries. And this is a group story, several families long.

Still, despite the ambiguity of its conclusion, The White Ribbon is a compelling, disturbing portrait of a German village in 1913. Several weird misfortunes occur and serve as catalysts for a societal study that seems utterly realistic and horrible--at least to this non-historian who likes open spaces, green fields and barns. Here is no pastoral idyll with cute farm animals and nearby copses. (Corpses, maybe; copses, only a little). What’s revealed is a paternalistic, cruel little world, from which anyone's escape seems difficult or impossible.

The narrator is the young schoolmaster. His romance with the baron's nanny is the streak of innocence, the genuine white ribbon, crawling through the narrative. However, even that love story is fraught with conflict and danger.

Some reviewers might have made too much of the setting as the breeding ground for a specifically Nazi mentality; here are Hitler’s henchmen as children, they say or imply. That might be true, but I suspect it’s a valid portrait of small towns anywhere in Europe or America at that time. For example, I think of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, its puritanical voyeurism, paranoia and repression.

This is not a movie for intellectual sissies; you'll need to pay attention. Also, if you normally need to . . . stretch your back? . . . at a movie, do so by the 90th minute; this ugly little beauty lasts over two hours, but the conclusion is important, and the whole film is well worth the trial. I think I'll be seeing some of these images for months or years.

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Mar 9, 2010

"On the Subway," 2. Visitor Comments. MishMash.

"You lookin' at me?" - On The Subway

Concerning Sharon Olds' poem "On the Subway," I began with this response to visitors’ comments here on March 4: “If I try to do justice to these comments, I'll end up with another post that's a mish-mash of responses to visitors. That would be fine with me, but I don't know if anyone else is interested. So unless you ask to keep this going, I'll let your commentary here stand as is—meaty, good stuff that it is.”

Well, I kept going, let it grow into another MishMash, and it still only scratches the surface of your interesting comments.

I must say I'm surprised at the tepid (at best) response to the poem itself. I just read it one more time and continue to find both the ideas and the images pretty riveting. Yes, they tend toward stereotyping—of both characters—but which parts of the stereotypes are false in any important way?

There will be exceptions, of course, but isn't the overall pattern of black-white and male-female relationships laid out pretty accurately? “A stranger rode into town” has been called one of the only two plots in all of fiction, and that’s what we’ve got here, a stranger who seems the menacing outlaw rather than the savior on the white stallion. (For the life of me, I cannot find or remember that other plot, or the writer who made the comment; well, one is more than zero).

Also, as Paula points out about "church-think" (my term, don't blame her), don't we tend rather easily, instinctively, toward facile judgment, stereotyping, and therefore facile fear and hostility?

Isn't our first response to any of the many versions of "The Other" more or less fight or flight? Fear, judgment, aggression? I've heard that argument applied to evolution itself: if you don't first fear the unknown, then The Unknown, The Other, might eat you. Suspicion is healthy, intelligent. Trust is for babies. Something in our reptilian brains better recognize that we are not reptiles, or we might end up as breakfast for the crocodile we were trying to pet, with whom we wanted to become Best Friends Forever. I never like agreeing with a former colleague who was fond of saying, "If the lion's got to lie down with the lamb, I wanna be the lion." And yet . . . .

Of course, at the other end of that line of thought lie Hitler and his little friends, such as: Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Stalin, Genghis Khan, and the hundreds of their kind. (Why does Spell Check not recognize Idi Amin?).

But if someone wants to argue that a stranger who appears different—at least for a few seconds or maybe for decades—does not seem more threatening than strangers who appear similar to the perceiver . . . well, let's hear it.

What I'm talking about is not our good self, the self we want to be and in some areas do become. But to deny that this bad self sits in there, a lizard, is willful blindness as well self-destructiveness. And isn't that approximately the idea about which the poem is unusually candid? How many people can say aloud that they've never had this thought about some important Other: "I wish you well, but don't ask me to trust you"? Isn't Olds' poem a confession, at least by the speaker, of that unwanted, unseemly, but essentially human reflex? (Well, I suppose Beck, Limbaugh, Inc. wouldn't call it unwanted or unseemly. I find the thought or impulse sad and embarrassing, but I won't deny its existence.).

Now, as for that pesky poet-speaker distinction . . . How do we know if the events, thoughts and emotions in a poem have actually happened to the author? How many of the details must be proven accurate in order to declare that Sharon Olds is the speaker?

I think there's no verifiable answer to those questions, and that's the case with any piece of writing. We tend to think of Robert Frost as some avuncular agrarian, probably in even his most bitter poems. But from the bits I know of his biography, he was a pretty nasty guy, at least in some ways. One of the great ironies of art and of intellectual history is that we receive what we call wisdom from our lunatics. A line I’ve always loved is, “Society creeps ever forward on the backs of its neurotics.” Sorry, can’t remember or locate the source.

So, yes, we can probably get some overall sense of the soul or psyche of a writer, but in any one piece, looking for certifiably autobiographical info is perilous. Writers lie and writers die. Who knows how much of Poem X or Story Y is factual, or even what the writer thought about the experience a year after he wrote it down?

Hence The New Criticism's "Biographical Fallacy" and "Intentional Fallacy." (Banjo52, August 19, 20 and Nov. 3,4, 2009). We cannot know that this or that piece of an author's life has found its way into a story, no matter how similar the experiences are. And we cannot know what the writer intended; we can only try to interpret the words on the page and their relationship to each other as they build character, setting . . . and beauty, we hope, even if it’s tragic.

I doubt that Sharon Olds or her speaker is a racist, but in any case, she has captured some age-old responses about the history of race in America, even as the facts of the topic continue to change almost daily.

And by the way, do not try to argue that the U.S. is the only spot where tolerance of The Other is a problem.

And that, friends, was an attempt to avoid a lengthy piece . . . . Shall we continue?

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Mar 8, 2010

THE OSCAR CRANK : “I want to know”

In Philip Roth's great short story, "The Conversion of the Jews," there is a refrain about his inquiring boy-protagonist: "What Ozzie wanted to know was always different." Call me Ozzie. Or call me Andy Rooney, whichever comes first.

Last night was my first experience with the Oscars on a flat screen TV, and I enjoyed the show more than I ever have—which isn’t saying much. 3.5 hours of flapdoodle and gossip, 3.5 hours of celebrating the flashy halfbacks of Hollywood (and to the Academy's credit, the writers and techs, who are the unthanked offensive linemen of the movie industry), 3.5 hours of self-indulgence on the part of hair and clothing designers who make women look plasticly absurd, far worse after than before—even so, it was a better spectacle than usual, or at least less boring, less offensive.

As emcees, the Steve Martin-Alec Baldwin team worked well. Scripted, corny humor can be good for the soul if it’s actually funny, and theirs usually was. Most importantly, the recipients’ speeches were shorter, a few actually said something, and no one tried to run for political office while accepting. As the stars sat in the audience, the candid shots of them were also more entertaining than I remember.

Even so, it was one more Fireman’s Festival, one more ceremony, and I hate them, with or without the corn dogs. For a long time I’ve suspected about all awards what one recipient implied last night: people get to that stage through connections and politics more often than skill. Then the performers read carefully scripted, vanilla statements (Shall we think of the Hippocratic Oath and "First, do no harm."). The women’s clothing and hairdos are absurd—I'm working to avoid words like "obnoxious" and "fatuous" and "sociopathic." Yes, a sociopathic hairdo.

A day or so ago, some show was featuring Sean Penn’s superbly good works in Haiti, which seemed to confirm my hunch that he’s one of those bad boys who does very good work but refuses to play certain stupid games. Last night he was handing out an award and appearing very awkward in the process. Was he blackmailed? Did he owe somebody?

And by the way, how hard do the up-and-coming young guys work at getting their hair to point in nine different directions? And why?

Which is dumber, that hair or sideways, stiff-billed baseball caps? I've heard that baggy pants evolved because of their efficacy in concealing handguns, so I guess I won’t blithely mock the britches, lest I be shot. If that story is true about the origin of baggy pants, how come I didn’t hear it until a couple of years ago? Why are they keeping me out of the loop?

Why can’t I know what I really want to know, which has nothing to do with gowns that draw white circles around the breasts of the starlet or gowns that make for pointy boobs, like ice-cream cones plastered to the pecs. For some reason, I think of headlights on a VW Beetle, transmogrified from prominent ovals to pointy radar detectors. I think of geometry.

I want to know who needs to pee during that or any ceremony. Who’s sitting there smiling through a significant ache in the buttocks or knife-pain in the lumbar? Who got plunked next to someone who just ate a gallon of (fashionable) garlic? Why else all that gum chewing? And which celebrities are as put off by such farce as I am? There must be a few. Sean Penn? Quentin Tarantino?

I want to know what it's like in a typical session of writers for a movie or TV show. Is it full of rivalry and acrimony? Or is it a brotherhood, a group bonding in pursuit of a common artistic objective? Why can’t I watch them in action? (Do I sound like Andy Rooney yet?).

On a positive note, I sort of believed Meryl Streep and one other actress—I’ve forgotten—who said they liked the occasion because they got to see so many of their friends gathered in one place. On the other hand, if their lives are that frenetic, what good is their gazillion dollars? They can’t have coffee or drinks together when they want? They could buy the restaurant each time they felt like getting away from the mansion to shoot the breeze with pals. Yes, they'd have to wear a disguise and sneak around in a modest car. Life is hard.

Speaking of acrimony, I'm sorry to say that I’m interested in who hates whom in that room, as they throw eloquent lines at each other. Who envies whom? With whom would I enjoy having lunch? Is there a vice versa to that, or would they be slumming to lunch with me?

(I ask the same questions about big-time athletes, another major category of entertainer. I admire their feats, but could we enjoy each other’s company? Ditto the most respected of serious writers. And do I really want the answers to these questions? I do not ask them about CEOs, by the way. They know what they can do with their lunch).

If some of the celebrities have insomnia, why? What do they lie awake thinking about? If they’re merely entertainers and not artists, do they know it? And how do they feel about doing something so inessential? Are they as phony or toxic as legend says they are?

What do they say with their mates and friends, when there is no script? Is it interesting? Could I interest them?

In their interviews on Letterman, some would appear to be intelligent, enjoyable human company. But those TV conversations don’t go deep. I cannot guess what they would contribute if the Breakfast Boys and I invited them to join us. Would they be mean to us as we speculate on the free will of barnacles or the tunes that are and are not plucked according to string theory? In what key does the universe play itself? As the saying goes, if you don't want the answer, don't ask the question. Or, in Hollywood, "You can't handle the truth!"

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Mar 7, 2010


As a self-proclaimed movie critic, I guess I should weigh in on the Oscars before the show is over.

Of the ten movies nominated for Best Picture, I regret that I have not yet seen Precious, Inglorious Basterds, and Up. The other films I regret missing are The Last Station and Invictus. I hope to catch up to each of them.

Of the remaining seven, my choice for best picture is The Hurt Locker; the contest shouldn’t be close, although An Education and A Serious Man are worthy efforts, and if they won, it would aggravate me less than other choices would.

The Blind Side is a sweet story, and I wish its real-life characters well. As art, however, it’s simple and syrupy and doesn’t belong in the company of these other more inventive, substantive films.

Up in the Air has substance and excellent performances, but in the end, it’s slick work, its soul stuck in Hollywood.

District 9 has an originality that feels promising for 20 – 30 minutes; then it devolves into predictably didactic science fiction, with sermons and gimmicks completely supplanting fully developed humans. Avatar is a great technical achievement; it has even more of the kind of technical originality we see in District 9, but it also suffers from the same limitations.

I've missed too many movies to comment on the best actor and director nominations, but there's the best movie scene according to Banjo, and that’s the truth.

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Mar 4, 2010

Sharon Olds, "On The Subway"

Sharon Olds' name has come up before here, and she is one of the best known living poets in the U.S.

Before we leave racial issues for awhile, let's have a look at "On the Subway," which appeared in her book The Gold Cell.

Click here. - On The Subway

         For now, I'll ask only three questions:

1. I've had students who said the poem itself--meaning Olds, not just her speaker--is racist. What do you think?

2. As for the speaker, is she racist, or just unusually honest about her preconceptions?

3. Can somebody explain Sharon Olds' line breaks? I've seen other poets handle lineation in a roughly similar way, but I do believe Olds is the champ at ending lines with articles, prepositions, and other relatively minor words in order to befuddle readers named Fiddlehead and Banjo.

A student once said Olds is putting the important words at the beginnings of new lines, rather than letting them sit at the ends of the old lines, and I was surprised at how much sense that made. I've also wondered if she's going for a bit of suspense by making us wait for the new line before we hear the next important word, usually a noun or verb.

In terms of our conversations here a few months ago about poetry versus prosaic conversation, I think Sharon Olds walks that line more successfully than most others who try it. "On the Subway" never leaves me doubting that it's a poem and deserves to be--in fact, needs to be--broken into lines, in spite of the fact that it's a somewhat narrative work. - On The Subway

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Mar 3, 2010

Mish-Mash Responses to Visitors. The South. Hamlet. "Dream Deferred." Language and Symbolism.

The visitor comments last time were so good that I’m responding to them as a post today. Therefore, organization today might be a little iffy. Hang in there. Pretend this is a somewhat elliptical poem.

Altadenahiker, I’m glad you like the poems. I often worry that poems so rhyme-y and didactic will seem simplistic, but in their different ways, I don’t think these are. In fact, I’ve always thought “Dream Deferred” (the title I’ve seen everywhere but Poetry Foundation), is as much about human psychology—repression, denial—as it is a protest against ethnic or economic deprivation.

Harlem by Langston Hughes : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

As for Hamlet, I might have mentioned a while back that I find it to be approximately six superb speeches strung together by ridiculous actions and not one human who makes me care, with the possible exception of Ophelia. Give me Lear, Macbeth, Henry IV both parts, and As You Like It. And ketchup.

Altadenahiker and Jeff, the small fraction of my brain with good sense knows to strive for the more or less Zen approach you advise (by the way, I love the E.B. White quote, along with Jeff's fantastic "cognitive sloppy joes" [speaking of Hamlet] ). But sometimes I just can't get the good brain to fire up and the bad brain to calm down. That’s why I mentioned Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “My Mind’s Got a Mind of Its Own.” (Frisky beat, witty lines).

Brenda, when I lived in Tennessee. the Yankee comments were one of surprises for me. Among the events, my then-brother-in-law introduced me to a couple of his friends: “Yeah, he’s a Yankee, but he’s a good ol’ boy.” He meant well, I think.

I figured there would be comments behind my back, but I wasn't ready for the remarks to my face, though that might be the better way to get them. And they were always jovial, not at all pernicious like yours. I've never witnessed anything like your 11th grade English teacher and hope I never do.

I'm (pleasantly) surprised those two poems were taught in Tennessee high schools, by the way, especially if you go further back than I think you do. But I suppose it wasn’t the 11th grade teacher who gave them to you . . . or did you come across them on your own?

My school in Ohio also used the paddle, but that was in the 18th century. Also, I only remember one paddling, plus a father-to-son swat across the face—two teachers with bigger problems than we understood at the time. Yet they had long careers as teachers. In fact, the swatter was a good teacher, but his son, my friend, was hard to handle, and subtlety was not in fashion there.

About the "rebel flag"—what a shame that it's linked to so much awful stuff. Regional pride can be such a comfort if you stop it well short of fascism. I'm not a historian, but it does seem there was a different way of life in the ante bellum (and later) South, which might indeed have been more elegant, etc. than the industrial North. But how can anyone separate that elegance from the slavery used to support it? And how much of elegance anywhere, anytime is a matter of sugar-coating monstrosity.

To fly the flag on public buildings in the 1990s and 2000s is strangely confrontational and alienating to those who aren't members of that fraternity of blood or thought. If "history is told by the winners," and the South lost, why are they clinging to the story of southern gentleman and Yankee monsters? What motives could there be other than clinging to bigotry and bitterness about having lost?

Of course, many tell the story in romanticized terms, then turn around and bellow "You lie" to people who probably have a firmer handle on accurate information, on the truth, "revisionist" though it be. (Ever since the lunatic Right started flapping about "revisionism," I've thought the word was a synonym for the latest attempts at accuracy, like doctors revising their prescriptions as they learn more about a disease).

So maybe I'd aspire to be a revisionist. Yet I'm no renegade—in fact, too much the boy scout, as I see it, which might account for much of my bafflement about epidemic hatred. But I've managed to refuse to swallow whole everything my parents, church, school, and nation have told me to swallow. I’m sure that means I’m going to Hell, but that Hell was good enough for Huck Finn, and it’s good enough for me.

Commie Lib. Revisionism. Yankee. Redneck. Bigot. Language is so much more important than we realize until it’s drawn us into confusion and hatred far too often.

Jeff, if you’re still with me, when you fart at the pump, has anyone called you inelegant? I think Ma Kettle in that black pickup might have found you inelegant, her with her pinkie in the air . . .

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Mar 2, 2010

Langston Hughes' "Dream Deferred" and Countee Cullen's "Incident"

For Black History Month in February, I thought of referring folks to one or both of these poems, but I wondered if they were angry downers more than celebrations. I also reasoned that everyone already knows both poems and the arguments behind them. I’ve changed my mind.

Incident by Countee Cullen : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Harlem by Langston Hughes : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

A few weeks ago at a gas station on I-95 in Florida, the vehicle in front of me was a large black pick-up with Florida plates and a West Virginia sticker in the rear windshield. Pumping its gas was a broad-shouldered white woman with short, straight, salt-and-pepper hair. She appeared not to have smiled in years. (I always smile while pumping gas).

Her bulk suggested that in her time she’d wrestled a few critters into the slaughter pen. When the gun jammed, she used a hammer.

Her bumper sticker read, “Don’t blame me. I voted for Jeff Davis.”

I was dumbfounded. I thought of saying something to the woman, trying to open a dialogue. I always think that and always return to this: What could I have said that would have mattered, would have done more than make me feel good? What skills do I have that could have made her question herself, her thoughts, feelings, motives?

Who hurt her so badly that she needs to parade her anger that way, to strut her festering rage?

Had I said something, how long could I have remained non-confrontational? Though larger than I, and probably capable of pounding me into pink flakes, she was a woman. How would that aspect of the situation have played out? Can a male take a tire iron to a racist’s pick-up if the fart-mouthed racist is female?

Did she mar the day for anyone else? Did somebody else call her on it? If so, who will narrate that episode?

As of the 1980s, a stale, stereotyping quip about the (Caucasian) South was, “They’re still fighting the Civil War down there.”

I know the limits of such slogans; I've lived in the South, have often traveled in the South, and have probably seen as much evidence of racial harmony there as in the North. After all, the cities of Pontiac and Howell in Michigan were centers of KKK activity not so far back. About 20 years ago, I went to a bluegrass concert at a county fair in central Michigan, and just as I heard the music from the parking lot, I also saw the confederate flag flying. (I haven't been back; they miss me desperately).

So my brain knows better than to over-generalize because of one pickup owner who might be somehow connected to Florida and West Virginia.

I just checked the facts and discovered my brain . . . (that sounded so cute I decided to let it linger. Forgive me).

I learned that my brain is less than 2% of my body weight. The thinking part of the brain is about 10% of that 2%. I guess Madam Pickup, that muscular Ma Kettle, and I share a limitation. I wonder if she knows.

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Lovers' Lane