Jul 29, 2010


The Force That through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower by Dylan Thomas : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets.

Stratford, Ontario is a city of 30,000 in hilly, prosperous farmland two hours west of Toronto. It feels almost English as England does; otherwise, it’s an unlikely place for first-rate professional theater to thrive, but it does, and about half of it is Shakespearean.

Stratford has four theaters, a thriving downtown, all kinds of eateries, a few bookstores (used and new), a mile-long lake with rich greenery and walkways, just down a hill from the main drag (Ontario Street). There are scores of walkers in both places. In the couple of hours before matinees and evening performances, the place gets pleasantly busy. Families, seniors, middle-aged couples, young couples, along with singles gathering at pubs, it’s a mixed crowd, and everyone seems glad to be there.

I’m back from seeing two plays at Stratford. The first was Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, a one-man performance with Wyn Davies as Dylan Thomas. I learned a few things about the Welsh poet, and the acting was thoroughly professional, but I’m afraid I was not bowled over the way I expected to be.

I'm not sure what else Wyn Davies and playwright Leo Pownall could realistically have accomplished, but I don’t know or care much more about Dylan Thomas now than I did before the play, and that seems a less than optimal response. The lubricated Welshman struck me as one more sad, self-destructive poet, often gorgeous in his imagery and cadences, but also windy and full of himself, as Wordsworth the philosopher and Keats the sensualist converge in Thomas’ psyche.

Despite some great lines in the script, the play needed more information on just how it was America that lionized, mythologized, and thus killed the poet at the age of 39. We are asked to believe that he alone didn’t drink himself into a fatal “insult to the brain.” American groupies were equally to blame.

That’s the take on his work, life, and death that I’ve heard since college, but I don’t see why we should infer that he would have been a moderate drinker, better poet and healthier man if he’d stayed in Wales. For all its merits, the play does not address that question, or Thomas’ stature in the canon, or how he lived and wrote aside from whiskey, philandering and envy of Shakespeare. Wyn Davies' professionalism as an actor could not breathe life into those vacancies.

Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night makes for a moderately interesting, informative (re)introduction to Dylan Thomas’ work and life, but it merits are tepid and spotty, and might well leave viewers wanting more, especially if they already had some knowledge of the poet’s life and work.

Here is the most famous villanelle of all and Dylan Thomas' most famous poem, the source for the play's title:

Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night by Dylan Thomas : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.Discover Poetry.

In case this has someone all fired up about Welsh power, Dylan Thomas poems were also discussed here on May 15 an 18, 2010. These poems and the Stratford play do make clear that childhood, nature, time, and death were major concerns in Thomas' poems.

Next time: Stratford’s Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.


Jul 21, 2010


YouTube - David Holt and Doc Watson: Shady Grove

For just a bit longer, let's continue with the American Primitive--hey, that's the title of Mary Oliver's 1983 collection, my introduction to her work. Here she is. See any connection to Maurice Manning's poem from Bucolics?
washingtonpost.com: Style Live: Books & Reading

Now Maurice Manning:

Bucolics [LIX] - Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

I still think Manning's "Boss" is God, a shadow stone, a weight that won't move. But if memory serves, I didn't convince anyone last November 15.


Jul 20, 2010

Movie Review: Winter's Bone

Winter's Bone:

Is there anything lofty or even fundamentally human about a primitive mountain code? A clan’s code? Where are the boundaries between the individual and any group, from family to neighbor to law enforcement? Where do loyalty, love, and submission intersect? Where does the changing role of women fit into all of that? In the mountains? Well, mebbe.

Set in the Missouri Ozarks, Winter’s Bone is a must see. Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old girl, is the heroine (not merely a protagonist, but a bona fide heroine). She’s the caretaker for her 11- and 6-year-old siblings and lives in a rundown mountain home with her demented mother.

Despite her courage, Ree asks for nothing more, but the law will not leave her alone with the little she has. Her father, Jesup, busted again for creating “crank,” something like crystal meth, has put up the property as security against his court appearance a few days hence. Will he show, or will he leave his family to fend for themselves while he lights out for the territory? Yes, this might be the darker flip side of a Huck Finn journey.

The adult males in these hills have names like Teardrop, Jesup, and Thump. The country-fi-cation could be too much, but I fell for it big time, and I predict most viewers will. If the characters don’t get you, the landscape will—or the music. Listen for very nice renderings of “Farther Along” and “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Maidens,” by Meredith Sisco. There’s other music, but I really heard those two.

Rewriting Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor (especially "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" or “Good Country People”?) is risky business. We owe so much to those giants of the past, and it’s so easy to cross one line into cynicism about country folk as mere critters, or that other line, into romanticizing them, that one wonders why any artist takes the chance.

There must be something big, maybe some fundamentally human thing, in the rural American South to make it worth revisiting so often. Winter’s Bone is one more reason to hope superb writers and film makers keep trying.

Apparently it’s hard to find Winter’s Bone in theaters, and I have no idea whether phone calls to your local Roxy will help. But it’s worth a try. There will be talk about this as best movie of the year or the decade.

On another note, beyond Altadenahiker and Ken Mac's recent interest in rodents, is there a reason for today’s second photo? Oh, I ‘xpect. See the movie.


Jul 19, 2010

Winter's Bone, Mac Wiseman, Mythology

Set in the Missouri Ozarks, the movie Winter’s Bone is a must see. But it raises a question for folks like me: “Roots music and other mythologizing of mountain life—how far are they from the reality?” And more broadly, is it possible to know a way of life without living it? Is it possible and honest to romanticize a way of life if you have lived it?

I reserve the right to say more about Winter’s Bone, but for now: see it. It will win awards, and you don’t want to be standing in the cloak room with your nose against the wall while everyone else is cool and knows what’s going on.

In the meantime, meet or get re-acquainted with Mac Wiseman, maybe the richest, most fluid voice in Bluegrass. If you like it at all, I hope you'll wander around at YouTube, which has some of his other best stuff.

YouTube - Mac Wiseman-Did She Mention My Name (70's)

YouTube - Mac Wiseman Jimmie Brown The Newsboy

YouTube - Mac Wiseman - Wabash Cannonball & Old Folks at Home


Jul 17, 2010

African Eyes, Hardsleeper43

Barbaro is back to posting, this time from Senegal and Gambia in West Africa. His first entry makes for compelling reading at http://hardsleeper43.blogspot.com/.

In a couple of weeks, my daughter heads to Mali for a week of work there.

As a long-time believer in something vaguely like Karma, or just coincidence with a capital C, I happened to be at the Detroit Institute of Arts a couple of days ago, where the featured exhibit was African art that presented the Western . . . uh . . . visitors?? . . . as perceived by African artists over the last three centuries or so. It was a stirring show.

Then this morning I got an email from Barbaro, saying he had arrived in Dakar, was posting, would I please spread the word.

I take some good-natured crap from certain breakfast guys for proclaiming, with Hamlet, the possibility of "a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will" in the form of Coincidence. But Karma is more interesting as a word. Accuracy is overrated.

Had I known I was going to post this, I'd have taken more shots of the exterior and hallways at the D.I.A. It would be a handsome building in any city.

And the cafeteria serves very good food.


Jul 15, 2010

Education: Some Modest Proposals

John Frederick Peto, “After Night’s Study,” Detroit Institute of Arts

I’ve been debating whether to bother you with this. Well, thanks to Ohio River Life last Monday, July 12, here it is — concerning schools, some Banjo-Think.

For education to occur, whatever else there might be, there must be the following, in this order of importance (also, notice the adjectives—not “brilliant” or “perfect,” but “willing” and “well-intentioned” people):

A. a willing student.
B. a laboratory—which may be a book, a computer, a forest, a frog, or test tubes and the like.
C. a well-intentioned teacher as guide.

Everything else is optional.

I don’t go around preaching that, but when I do offer it, I get looks that say, “Isn’t he quaint? He hasn’t even mentioned my Special Interest Group.”

Here’s the junk, the hullaballoo, everyone else seems to find essential to education:

Interfering parents.

Governmental exams written by politicians (who may or may not have been educators at some point in their lives).

Political action groups, often as bodyguards for students or teachers.

Educational supervisors (bosses) who look more at lesson plans than lessons — actual classroom experiences or other teacher-student interactions, which include the personal baggage of teacher and student.

A schoolhouse culture that endorses instructional logorrhea, a teacher’s talking at students at the expense of open discussion and other kinds of lab work.

Fear of discipline, lest you anger a parent or political group who themselves lack discipline.

Packets of rules, volumes rumored to cover every eventuality.

The Surrender of thought to local or regional sensibilities, including the
Left-ness, Right-ness, or trendiness in syllabi and curricula.

External experts (“consultants”) who seem important in a field but may or may not have useful, practical information.

Teachers’ attendance at conferences. Teachers' talk about how many conferences they've attended.

Theories about education or subject matter.

Faculty meetings in which bosses or colleagues drone on about the obvious or the irrelevant when all involved could be preparing, grading, resting or having fun with family and friends.

Which conference, meeting, or packet demonstrates to teachers The How of mixing compassion for and expectations of students? Or The How of QueenBees and Bullies? Or The How of comfort with your different drummer? Who's got the instruction manual?

Teacher publications, lectures at conferences and other trophies that bring glory to the school are mistaken for merit in the classroom.

Trophies for students. No trophy = no self-esteem. Hence a trophy epidemic, trophy-inflation and students with holes in their middles. Trophies as charity? Listening to students, respecting students, encouraging and sympathizing with students are vapor that cannot be measured or advertised. Students need objects, tangible currency, not love.

Teachers who think “academic freedom” has no limits.

Teachers who see the classroom as a soap box.

Students who have surrendered.

* * *

What riled up a Sleeping Banjo? At the July 12 Ohio River Life
( http://ohioriverlife.blogspot.com ), the blogger presents a troubling situation at the University of Illinois. For details, you’ll need to go there or elsewhere, but in a nutshell, a student has taken a professor to task for his views on Catholicism, homosexuality, and the broader issue of academic freedom. For now, it’s the Illinois professor who is on the hot seat—what a surprise. But my sympathies are not as predictable as you might expect.

It's an outrage that comparative religion cannot be taught in some (all?) public schools. Aren’t religions right up there with wars as one important way of understanding a culture? But apparently neither teachers nor the citizenry are up to the task of scholarly inquiry or the spirit of curiosity. Everybody's got a pamphlet to sell and alleged sensitivities to protect.

No, I was never personally victimized by the factors above, but I resent the defensiveness I found myself developing after a few years of teaching.

Paranoia? Maybe. But if you can't bring joy to teaching, there's little point in entering the building. In addition to your subject matter, you're teaching (and modeling) a passion for ideas, intellectual curiosity, the proverbial life of the mind. Yes, even in high school, even in the sticks or the inner city. You are the alternative to what is.

But there are thousands out there who want to make this a Left or Right propaganda affair, rather than a Why and How journey. They listen only to each other, they cluster like trendy teams of germs, and insert themselves into the classroom (phallic imagery intended) with little regard for what they are replacing, such as other people actually listening to their child, young people listening to each other, creeping forward . . . "Society creeps ever forward on the backs of its neurotics" (source unknown) -- and on the backs of youth who have been jarred out of their prior indoctrinations.

An interest group behind every pillar means that well-intentioned students and teachers—the majority—are screwed. Am I talking to that Illinois prof or the students who are after him? I don't know. Probably both. But somebody needs to shut up and look in the mirror.


Jul 14, 2010

Cummings, Dickinson, Purple Finches

I think I read it right: the eyes of small birds do not rotate in the skull the way ours do; that's why they're always tilting, jerking, twitching their entire heads to catch an image.

I think this posing guy, with no dark patch on his crown, has a rich enough raspberry color to be labeled purple finch and not "just another" house finch. I have to catch myself on the verge of thinking "just another" cardinal, "just another" gold finch. They bring pleasure every day, but are not as exotic as, say, a Northern Parula Warbler at Magee Marsh.

The purple finch also made me think of e.e. cummings. Again. If the children in the poem were yours, would you be OK watching them follow the balloon man out of sight?

[in Just-] by E. E. Cummings : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

But in case that's too easy--or God forbid, too happy--here's Emily again, thinking of a lover. Did we know she thought of lovers? How could we not have suspected?

Wild nights - Wild nights! (269) by Emily Dickinson : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.


Jul 10, 2010

Movie Review: KNIGHT AND DAY

Knight and Day: C

I went only to get out of the heat, I promise. But it's Saturday, and in case you need a mindless movie — men shooting and exploding, women posing, blinking, and shrieking — I admit I had fun with this flick, and the big screen will add a lot.

Tom Cruise's action hero is a rogue FBI agent (Well, has he really gone rogue? We kind of like our rogues, but we can’t be having them as clean-cut heroes, can we?). Cameron Diaz is the girl he bumps into and swoon-i-fies.

To me, Knight and Day is no dumber than 007, and Cameron Diaz offers a beauty that looks healthier, more realistic, less cartoonish and less slutty than James Bond’s babes (on both the good and the evil teams).

My big question is not why the movie isn’t better art—did somebody expect a serious film? But I do wonder why I haven’t heard serious bellowing from serious feminists about the anti-serious woman Cameron Diaz plays. Her shrieking helplessness, moronic moves, cutesy poses, and underlying good girl are a throwback to the 1950s.

Maybe we’ve reached the point where such a blatant dismissal of women is too obvious and absurd to be worth a shout, especially when she’s abducted and governed by an equally ridiculous hero — a savvy, winking, pretty (I guess), athletic, dead-eye, in-all-ways-flawless, in fact, super-human male warrior. And by the way, like you or me, he's been wronged by The Man. (But he's only pissed off in a focused, seemly way).

So maybe the movie’s regressive treatment of gender roles is good news—the glass ceiling now has so many cracks from up-fired bullets of women that we can let down our guard. However, the box office success here makes me wonder just how our youth see males and females. Is this just a lark for them? Did they know they were checking their brains at the door, or are they being instructed on how to be in the world? But that’s too serious. Isn’t it?


Jul 9, 2010

Movie Reviews: PLEASE GIVE

Please Give

grade: A

Written by: Nicole Holofcener
Directed by: Nicole Holofcener

RATING: R for language, some sexual content and nudity

Starring Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Sarah Steel, and Ann Guilbert

Are you a buzzard if you profit from what’s left behind by the dead? Are buzzards OK, just another part of nature, like a tree?

You’re not exactly rich, but quite comfortable financially: how much guilt and gifting to charity is enough? Can it become obsessive and excessive? Can it become silly? What is the right kind and amount of schooling a teenager about the perils of materialism?

How strong and menacing must a sexual fantasy be before we say to the dreamer, “That’s too much, turn it off now”? What if I remove the word "sex" and call it beauty? And again, "That's too much, turn it off now."

How much Affirmative Action do we allot to the beautiful? Behold a stunning woman: how egocentric, vengeful and mean must she be before a man’s attraction to her stops? What stops it? A natural process or the power of his volition?

A tall, lonely young woman and a short, lonely young man: if it were you, how much difference in height could you tolerate? How much difference in other qualities of mind or body?

A cantankerous senior citizen, sometimes witty, sometimes toxic: how much do you sympathize and help her before reminding yourself she’s a chore, she’s not your blood, soon enough she’ll die, and you can turn away? Does the answer change if she is your blood?

What is the most unusual opening you've ever seen in a movie? If a terrific film ends a little too wobbly on one foot, and if every other stroke has been perfect, do we forgive its off-key closure?

Can issues like these be gracefully woven into a film more comic than dark, more affirming than cynical?

Please Give is a quiet indie film with pleasantly troubling portraits. Yes, it’s that paradoxical, kind of like most of human life, especially when it comes to issues like love and mortality. Please give it your time, money and attention. Its characters, scenes and issues will be with you for awhile, and you won’t be sorry. Or if you are, there’s something the matter with you.


Jul 7, 2010

Robert Hass, "Dragonflies Mating"

Reminder: you may click on any Banjo52 image to enlarge it.

Blurry with desire

All aflutter

I wonder if Robert Hass’s “Dragonflies Mating” is a history of humanity, at least our breeding, our complexity in love, including the evolutionary and the Oedipal implications. The poem is a bit long, so I’m offering the following teases in the hope of pulling you in.

“Such a terrible thing / came here with their love.”

“weeks of drinking she disappeared into.”

" . . . I’d bounce
the ball two or three times, study the orange rim as if it were,
which it was, the true level of the world, the one sure thing . . . “

“. . . [I] feel the grain of the leather in my fingertips and shoot.
It was a perfect thing; it was almost like killing her.”

“ . . . they mate and are done with mating.
They don’t carry all this half-mated longing up out of childhood
and then go looking for it everywhere.”

Notice how plain this language is. “She” disappeared into her drinking, or “I’d bounce/the ball two or three times,” or “then go looking for it everywhere.” Couldn’t such language be overheard in a coffee shop or a neighbor’s yard? But the ordinary words quickly lead to (or have grown from) images, actions, or thoughts that are anything but casual.

Here is the whole of "Dragonflies Mating":

Dragonflies Mating by Robert Hass : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

When I talked about Hass’s “Faint Music “ (May 27, 2010), I mentioned that he has me on the edge of impatience with his talk-y language. Is it poetry or prose, as I’ve asked repeatedly about contemporary verse? In both “Faint Music” and “Dragonflies Mating” I think Hass lands well inside the unsafe, tense zone of that which is poetry, where details are precise and compact, and the questions plopped on our plates are huge. Maybe it could be called poetry masquerading as conversation. The reverse of that is what causes my grumpiness.

It’s been a while since I’ve explicitly thanked The Poetry Foundation for the richness of what they make available to us. At their site, www.poetryfoundation.org , we find not only the poem, but a Dan Chiasson essay about it, as well as other work by Hass. The Poetry Foundation came into a bundle of money a few years ago, and I’m glad to see them spending it well. (Yes, my approval will make them shiver with delight).


Jul 4, 2010

Independence Day with Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" and a Touch of Thoreau

On a day for celebrating America, I tried to find some Whitman I could stomach and came up both empty and overwhelmed by gas. So let's try a spiffy aphorism from Thoreau and think about America in the midst of urban sprawl: "I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion."

I don't think I'm forcing the issue by offering a companion piece--a companion by contrast: one of Robert Frost's best and best known poems, "Mending Wall."

I don't want to humbug the holiday--as if I could--by wondering aloud whether Americans have a new, definite, almost hostile craving for walls between themselves and their neighbors. But I think I see and hear it almost daily, and I know of ways I'm guilty of it. Surely one of the most obvious patterns in American history, and in Frost's poem, is the country's dislike for barriers, the way earth itself dislikes walls and over time destroys them.

To re-state the obvious, every immigrant group who's come here after the first colonists has been walled out by those who came earlier. Africans, Chinese, Italians, Irish, and on and on goes the list until it becomes a cliche no one listens to, regardless of its obvious truth. Apparently we want to stick to conversations and people we know rather than what is new and interesting--and maybe challenging.

Frost's earth and its people (the hunters, for example) don't like walls, and apparently we still don't. Despite all the appearances to the contrary, our walls are temporary. However, there must be hostility, sadness and even bloodletting in the short term. Walls don't fall in a day; they crumble over time (excuse the soap box).

"Mending Wall" is much more personal as a poem than it is historical or political, but I think the comparison holds: over time, the United States hasn't tolerated walls any more than the earth has, and that might be the nation's most singular, defining characteristic. As the ground and gravity mess with the stones and bricks a little every day, they slowly but inevitably overturn the obstacles to change, especially the chunks and wads that are man-made.

Mending Wall

Okay, now let's get that beer and hot dog. Or Kielbasa? A side of hummus? Woo Dip Har? Pad Thai? Tandoori Chicken?


Lovers' Lane