Jan 31, 2011

Roethke's "The Meadow Mouse" Part 3, Conclusion

Part 3

Before I quit, let me discuss two of the poem’s gifts.
The Meadow Mouse by Theodore Roethke at Old Poetry
First, there's the daring opening, “sleeps the baby mouse” instead of “the mouse sleeps,” or some other less charming phrasing.

The inverted, perhaps archaic syntax in “sleeps the baby mouse” instantly creates the tone of a children’s tale, which the rest of the poem pretty much sustains, effectively forcing us to revive our childlike sensibilities. That diction might even offer the argument that compassion and sensitivity are inherently childlike responses, what Wordsworth called the “primal sympathies, which having been must ever be.”

Although I still fault Roethke’s poetic excesses in this direction, they might create an interesting position about human psychology. What if every instance of human sympathy or empathy is, and must be, the resurrection of a child’s heart and mind? What if that’s the only way we can even begin to understand compassion? What if adulthood without that inner child is limited to sterile, desiccated, egocentric, often mean thoughts and behavior?

Why would this be so? Because adults have learned to expect “adult” behavior from others—cunning, aggression, intrusion. Defensively, that requires of each adult constant vigilance, suspicion, strategizing, guile. Without those stone walls and nimble maneuvers we are children, spontaneous and empathic but vulnerable.

Maybe we are especially susceptible to feeling stupid

for not having foreseen and thwarted the trickery of our peers. “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” The adage that W. made extra famous is probably more relevant to the adult’s world than the child’s, though it’s impossible to know when and how barriers begin to rise and thicken. And, lest we over-romanticize puerile innocence, let’s remember that most of these defenses are necessary to psychic or even physical survival.

Secondly, part of my resistance to Roethke’s final line grows from what I imagine without that line. It’s considered heresy in critiquing a friend’s poem to rewrite images or lines for him, but I’m going to do just that—to an icon, no less. I’d have encouraged Roethke to consider this ending:
I think of the nestling fallen into the deep grass,
The turtle gasping in the dusty rubble
of the highway, the paralytic stunned
in the tub, the water rising.
The End. If we omit Roethke’s final line, we have a turn from vulnerable mouse toward vulnerable human, the paralytic. And stop. Although it’s a sudden, even shocking turn, it’s been implied all along. The poem is about all things vulnerable, not just baby mice.

The Meadow Mouse by Theodore Roethke at Old Poetry

In my suggestion there are risks of causing the poem to seem disjointed or herky-jerky at the end—and making the poem more anthropocentric. Maybe I’m suggesting, “You thought it was about the mouse? It was always about the human, always will be, if a human’s telling the story.”

But that would not glorify humans; it would simply pin down the nature of human sympathy, confessing that we care about the mouse primarily because that sympathy clarifies the way we care about our own, our collective Me. To say otherwise is at least a little dishonest.

Let me repeat that I have no axe to grind with Theodore Roethke, whose poem “The Waking” I admire as much as any poem I know. “My Papa’s Waltz,” “I Knew a Woman,” and “The Geranium” are not far behind.

The Meadow Mouse by Theodore Roethke at Old Poetry

I also love the parental instincts here, the compassion, the heart, the . . . reverence? . . . for everything fragile in “The Meadow Mouse.” However, I think those feelings might have more power if they’d been forced to struggle for existence, struggle to be expressed, if there were a sense that Roethke had tried to hold back more of his flood of sensitivity, if the poem were a little tougher about its emotionality. In the old, good bromide, “Show, don’t tell,” I wish the poem had told a little less and been satisfied with what it showed.

So I'm outta here on this. You think you're sick of the subject? Imagine how I feel. Happy February.

Jan 30, 2011

Roethke's "The Meadow Mouse" Part 2, Specific Complaints

Tricolored Heron (please correct me any time I mis-identify), a purty bird intended to balance the criticism (and drudgery?) below.

The Meadow Mouse by Theodore Roethke at Old Poetry

Here are a few of my reservations about “The Meadow Mouse,” which offers so many gifts when it’s not flawed by excesses of repetition and sentimentality.

First things first: the last line has got to go. The opening lines strongly imply that the speaker’s compassion has been far-reaching and is more than a childlike kindness toward baby animals. To be sure of that, he's included the paralytic human. So tacking on “all things innocent, hapless, forsaken” is an overdose of sugar—especially after baby birds, turtles, and a drowining human have just been introduced to the list of the wounded and vulnerable.

That final line is only the most salient example of Roethke’s loosened grip on the poem’s emotionality; he’s already pushed the limit. At first, the mouse “trembled and shook.” Does the poem require him to do both? After all, he’ll be trembling twice more to close out Part 1.

Along these lines, must the animal be pet-named “little quaker?” It’s a bit of a smile, I guess, but in what way is humor relevant to the poem as a whole? The diminutive “little quaker” adds even more emphasis to a quivering that’s already trembling under its own weight.

And what an odd thing it is to hear in “little quaker” a thinly veiled allusion to the brave and peaceful Society of Friends. Some might instinctively consider them victims because of their pacifism and earnest lives of self-denial outside the frivolous mainstream, but shall we therefore compare them to mice? Shy as a mouse, quiet as a church mouse?

As if that’s not enough, the mouse—the whole body of him—once again is explicitly “trembling.” Yes, Mr. Speaker, we get it—he’s small, young, vulnerable, and afraid. And by the way, he’s trembling. Are you afraid we won’t see that if you don’t repeat it several, several, several times?

Must the mouse’s feet be like small leaves as well as “little” lizard feet? Why not “His feet like leaves or lizard-feet”? The comparison to non-mammalian forms is a good way to make us see the mouse in a different, unexpected light. But those other items are small too, so why saturate the lines with the tininess of everything?

If the mouse must be compared to another young, vulnerable creature, namely, a puppy, why the gawky, hyperbolic, and unnecessary word, “miniscule.” Although others might not hear, as I do, a rhythmically awkward and scientific quality in “miniscule”—maybe words like “microscopic” or “particulate"—surely “miniscule” is not an urgent or even accurate modifier for a puppy. Instead, it’s one more instance of piling on children’s images of smallness and vulnerability.

The second stanza of Part 1 is better controlled and paints an appealing picture. It’s still plenty sweet and tender, and it offers a companion image to lizard-feet in the un-cuddly “bat-like ears.” Both images work well against our natural tendency toward anthropomorphism; humanizing the mouse is a tendency to which we’re all probably susceptible, never mind the risks of sentimentality and inaccuracy. So, to keep us from making the mouse even more of a teddy bear than necessary, the poem skillfully offers similarities to Mr. Lizard and Mr. Bat, with whom very few of us are likely to feel a kinship.

Then, as if he’d let too much brain into his heartfelt story, Roethke backslides into a heartfelt repetition of trembling, not once, but twice. I suppose the counter-argument is that the mouse’s trembling is, physically, the dominant descriptive element; it is what the speaker notices again and again, so he must make us notice it the same way. But given the connotations of the image itself—its shout of Victim, Pain and Suffering, Injustice—one “trembling” after another is excessive.

In Part 2 of the poem, the problems continue. The animal is not “the” meadow mouse, but “my” meadow mouse. I love you, Mr. Roethke, but that's pretty cloying. Had he been simply “the” meadow mouse, I would still have been concerned for the nuzzling “thumb of a child” as he escaped into the larger world of predation. So the callow possessive of “my” mouse distances me, an adult, from this cooing speaker. Cooing is a private matter, between me and my pooch or me and my infant; a poem-full of cooing is hard to take seriously. I’m not sure “poem-full” is what we have here, but we’re close enough for me to find it excessive and distracting.

Before I quit, let me discuss two of the poem’s greatest gifts . . . .

The Meadow Mouse by Theodore Roethke at Old Poetry

Part 3, Conclusion, coming soon . . .

Jan 28, 2011

Roethke's "The Meadow Mouse" and the Problem of Sentimentality

Left, a juvenile heron (Black-crowned Night Heron??) catches a crab but isn't sure what to do next. Although it took awhile, the heron gets the crab down, one piece at a time. Was the crab young too? Who knows?

The Meadow Mouse by Theodore Roethke at Old Poetry

Though probably not as well known or esteemed as "The Waking" or “My Papa’s Waltz,” Theodore Roethke’s “The Meadow Mouse” seems to be a favorite among his readers, and I can see why. There’s no reason to argue against the poem's content as raw ideas—essentially, sympathy for the vulnerable, the wounded, the doomed.

Also, most of the individual images are effective in conveying a sensibility that might fit both children and adults, which is an accomplishment. The inverted, archaic syntax in “sleeps the mouse” (2) is charming, and it immediately sets up a tone that could inform either a children’s tale or adult literature. But sometimes in “The Meadow Mouse,” Roethke’s language and thinking (if there’s a difference) fall too far into a youthful level of understanding and way of talking about experience.

Presumptuous as it must seem, I’d have urged Roethke to think again in a few places, most of which amount to a tendency toward sentimentality—which is, remember, not just the emotional content in a work, but an excess of emotion, feelings that have not been earned by the poem’s presentation of an experience, feelings that exceed any known cause for them, or emotionality that has not been controlled and balanced by an intellectual presence in the poem.

This is a tightrope that every poet must walk; T.S. Eliot said the right balance between heart and mind could be called “Felt Thought.” I don’t mean that we should follow Eliot because he’s Eliot, but that particular concept is a keeper. (Of course, we should feel free to reverse the words to Thought Feeling).

Well. That’s something to chew on and respond to for now. TGIF: what’s a Friday for if not poetry analysis? I’ve gone windy on the poem, so here’s TGIF-2: I’ll wait a day or two before adding some examples and additional ideas, maybe lots of them.

The Meadow Mouse by Theodore Roethke at Old Poetry


Jan 22, 2011

Anthony Hecht, "Birdwatchers of America": Classical Technique for Gothic Content

Beaks, Stalkers, Buzzards
: Black-crowned Night Heron, Immature (I think. Please correct me if I mis-identify); Great Egret, stalking; below, Turkey Vulture, "ghosted" by over-exposing a bit.

Birdwatchers of America by Anthony Hecht : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Though a minor leaguer, I’m a birder of some kind, so I thought I’d post this poem by Anthony Hecht as a gesture toward my open-mindedness and the not-so-Romantic sense of realism with which I try to maintain some contact.

Hecht is known as quite the traditionalist with regard to rhyme and meter and erudition. That can be impressive, but it can also be off-putting, cold, distant, or superior in the bad way. That might account for my struggle with the opening stanza, which I find difficult—not exactly impenetrable, but unwelcoming, its logic a little hard to follow, its necessity in the poem questionable.

But the second stanza picks up in clarity and appeal, and the third really brings things home with a vengeance in its knockout turn in the last few lines. So much for purty birdies, fuzzy puppies, and free popcorn.

(Try not to be confused by the layout at the beginning; the epigraph by Baudelaire bleeds into Hecht's title, an unusual formatting problem for Poetry Foundation).

Birdwatchers of America by Anthony Hecht : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.


Jan 20, 2011

SURFERS; Two Poems by John Logan

I’d never been around surfers until a few years ago in St. Augustine. Who knew there’d be dozens or hundreds of them in northern Florida? Air temps are often in the 40s and 50s. Who knows how cold the water is? How would you go about conveying that?

The St. Augustine waves probably aren’t much compared to California or Hawaii, but these folks—a few of them in their forties, by the way—are totally committed to the action, as well as just sitting out there, bobbing up and down by a pelican, waiting, maybe, not only for the right wave but also the real feel of ocean and all that Romantic stuff about nature.

One size does not fit all for any group, including surfers, but I now wonder if a lot of them are more interesting than the airheads and flakes I probably presumed them to be, if I thought about them at all. Maybe they’re the genuine article, quiet dropouts and seekers. Maybe they’re like the mountain recluses, but with more sense of philosophy or spirituality, all gestalt and no guns.

Once I said to a shivering young thing as she dried off, “I guess you’ve gotta be committed to it.” “Yeah, she said. “Commitment and technology.” I liked that. You have to wear the right wet suit and ride the right board as well as having the right vision. It seemed like honesty, not self-serving narcissism or braggadocio.

Other than that exchange, I’ve never said more than “Hi-isn’t-it-cold-out-there.” Surely they’d see me as just one more of the middle-aged middle class, one more of the bitching bourgeois. The Academy is full of us, half-assed protesters, gutless idealists. If we were lawyers or brokers, you could call us Yuppies.

On the other hand, some of us have ended up that way not just from greed or laziness, but also from disillusionment with the impurity of almost every revolutionary we’ve known (which is part of what makes King and Gandhi special). If I’m going to be a hypocrite anyway, I might as well have a newer car.

I’m probably waxing dumb-Romantic myself by even half-hoping for the existence of a genuine and nonviolent revolutionary or recluse, a mystic on a hilltop or a wave, the thinking man’s hippie, the one who makes me feel genuinely guilty for settling and for self-interest. I haven’t found him or her yet, but as I watch the surfers for awhile, I can wonder.

As for today's poetry, I was surprised at Poetry Foundation to find that when I searched for "surfer poems" I got several responses.

I haven't recently looked at John Logan's work, and I never knew it well. But you'll see why I could not resist "Middle-Aged Midwesterner . . . ." "Shore Scene" might be the better poem, but I haven't spent long enough with either work to offer confident opinions.

Middle-Aged Midwesterner at Waikiki Again by John Logan : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Shore Scene by John Logan : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.


Jan 16, 2011

Wordsworth, "The World Is Too Much With Us," More on Hirshfield and Romanticism

The World Is Too Much With Us by William Wordsworth : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

“Most wild American Crows live for about 7–8 years. Captive birds are known to have lived up to 30 years.” (Wikipedia)

Jane Hirshfield’s “The Woodpecker Keeps Returning” has me thinking once again that seemingly over-simplified writing and/or flat language can be deceptive. There is an important difference between the merely descriptive word, “simple,” and “simplistic,” which judges something as over-simplified or simple-minded.

I’m not sure which word or concept describes Hirshfield in “Woodpecker” or elsewhere. I've also felt that the simplicity of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver, for example, shifts from profundity and power in one passage to puerile self-parody in the next. Ditto the quality of their work from story to story.

I've often wondered about this business of simplicity as it relates to the ancient Eastern forms and the West's enchantment with them since about 1920 (William Carlos Williams and James Wright, to name two, and now Jane Hirshfield; but the list is much longer than that and includes some of nineteenth-century American transcendentalists.).

Some people say that to understand Nirvana we should think of still water and silence. OK. I kind of get that—the absence of conflict and complexity as a sublime. But if that's paradise or some such perfection, how is a writer supposed to convey it and make it feel desirable as an ideal rather than boring or dead?

Ditto, for me at least, Classicism’s ideals like order, symmetry, balance, rationality, restraint. That's why I've always been drawn to the Romantics and their passion for dynamism, tumult, eerie, scary mysticism, “the one soul within us and abroad.” That seems so much more alive than pale reason and order. But then I’ve never lived or taken part in a revolution. America’s mini-revolution that we call The Sixties had some admirable purposes, but also a lot of phony bullshit, as the advent of Yuppiedom has verified.

Similarly, those old English Romantics proved to be only a short step from Wordsworth's wind-baggery and others' emotional, spiritual quackery in general. Just around the corner was the late Romantic oozing into Gothicism, which could get downright silly. And what about our squeamishness over the question of just how noble the Noble Savage is? I think it was Joan Baez who wrote, “A hero’s a nuisance to live with at home.”

In any case we're back to Classicism and Romanticism—and that icky business of one’s way of being in the world. Once again, it’s not either-or, but in which ways is this or that person or characteristic Romantic and in which ways Classical? For example, most think of Keats as the most classically inclined of the major Romantic poets. Or maybe Picasso as cubist is Romantic in his revolutionary, individualistic new way of seeing the world, but in the geometric shapes he uses to portray what he sees, he is mathematical, precise, drawing between the lines—that is, Classical.

With that to chew on, I offer Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much with Us,” an orderly poem inasmuch as it’s a sonnet, with classical allusions, but a very Romantic celebration of the Natural, the definition of which might require a tome.

The World Is Too Much With Us by William Wordsworth : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.


Jan 15, 2011

Jane Hirshfield, "The Woodpecker Keeps Returning"


Woodpecker Keeps Returning by Jane Hirshfield : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

I’m pretty sure that in every encounter with a woodpecker, I’ve heard the bird before I’ve seen it, which leads to more careful observance of some grand trees. If I do sight the bird, it feels more special because it took patience.

Until last January, I’d never seen a pileated woodpecker, and I had no idea they were so large (like the crow, about 18 inches in length). Their attack on wood echoes; it sounds a lot more like a sledge than a tack hammer. Big bird, red crest, striped cheek, big drum: it’s almost too much drama to endure.

What if a woodpecker chooses the wood of your house for his searching, his hammering? Even the little Downy could become intolerable in no time. Jane Hirshfield’s short poem wonders about that and comes to a surprising conclusion in the final couplet.

Maybe the progression of experience goes something like this: Hear the bird, shoo the bird, surrender to the bird, become the bird—not only that bird but also his missing mate. And yet, at the same time, remain your human self. You and the bird are two ways of being in the world, but they can blend, become each other, at least for a time.

Surely this is connected to Hirshfield’s long and serious study of Zen Buddhism, but we don’t need to go there. An experience too big for logic has happened, but we don’t, or shouldn’t, need classes in Zen or biographies of Hirshfield to grasp it.

At the end of the poem, there’s something like an epiphany; by definition that’s more intuitive or even mystical than it is rational. I’m probably not supposed to be able to explain it all, but I want to.

For the sake of argument, let’s say my state of mind is representative of Hirshfield’s readers. Our uneasiness and feeling off balance—is that a good agitation, discomfort, dramatic tension for a reader to be left with, or is it just too open-ended, too much absence of resolution?

The poet James Richardson has said a poem should end by landing on one foot, not two. I like that metaphor. Does it describe the final couplet in Hirshfield’s “Woodpecker . . .” or does the poem not even land on one foot? I’m not being coy; I really don’t know what I think. Yet. So I'll come back, maybe several times. And that might be a statement of praise for the poem.

The Woodpecker Keeps Returning by Jane Hirshfield : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.


Jan 12, 2011

Theodore Roethke, "I Knew a Woman": The Gift of a Poem

I Knew a Woman by Theodore Roethke : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

A couple of times recently (see, for example, Banjo52, December 8, 2010), I’ve agreed with others in saying that art, including poetry, should be a gift—and bear smaller gifts along the way of its journey. As an example, Theodore Roethke’s “I Knew a Woman” is almost a cheat, the poem is so full of pleasures. It’s more playful than serious, but it illustrates my point. Male readers should appreciate the poem’s gifts without need for explanation. But female readers, even militant feminists, might smile too as they hear Roethke proclaim—and exaggerate, perhaps—women’s powers and their dominance over men.

These are not new gambits about gender, but consider a few of the new images or phrases. First, the woman sighs back at birds. Birds don’t sigh, as far as I know, but what a charming, though improbable image. If a man insists upon going dopey over a woman, what better defense for his insanity than her ability to sigh with the birds? Who could resist such a woman, gentle, at home in orchards, cousin to the finch? It's the end of the paradigm of Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll.

So, by the end of Line 2, Roethke has made clear that there will be some frippery here; if you want King Lear wailing over Cordelia’s corpse, you’ll have to go read the bard. Or Dostoevsky, or dozens of other somber works. This poem is primarily playful, though it might gently raise the serious issue of dominance, who’s running the show, and how much inequality of power is healthy in a relationship. There's also a bit of philosophy, mystery, even witchcraft:

What’s freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
Is this is enough of a non-erotic basis for worship, enough adoration for attributes other than the physical? I suspect various readers will answer that differently. But the primacy of the female in Roethke's overall scheme is beyond doubt, and that primacy resides in a sublimity that's much more than lust.

Roethke died in 1963, so he missed the most recent decades of feminism as well as the latest news from evolutionists: in mating, the female of the species does the choosing. She's The Decider. (Sorry, couldn't resist). So, knowingly or unwittingly, Roethke's playful poem might be touching on some scientific concepts, proven or otherwise.

Much of the gift in art is offering the unexpected and making it seem appropriate and be appropriate--natural and convincing, both rational and supra-rational. In this vein, Roethke’s next surprise is his adoration of his love as a “bright container.” As a pick-up line, I’ve never considered, “Hey, baby, you’re one bright container.” I wonder if it would work. It should; a suitor should get points for originality.

Whatever else she is, a woman is surely a container, a bright one; she should be honored to be called a container, though it took Roethke to show me this truth. (I suppose men are containers too, but maybe we’re not all that bright . . . maybe we're milk cartons).

I’ve contemplated a hip or two passing by, but I don't recall any hips with noses. Still, Roethke-think has persuaded me to play along, just in time for a somewhat menacing image: this fine woman of circles is also a sickle—a tool! a blade! And Walmart is fresh out of codpieces! But she and he are both happy with the male as rake, following along, cleaning up after her. Only a few weeds have been amputated; all his . . . digits are intact.

There might also be a play here on that other meaning of “rake,” the rough and ready playboy, as in the song verse, “I am a rake and rambling boy.” Maybe that’s Roethke’s effort at a shred of dignity for his gender—romanticizing, idolizing tin-cup beggars that we are. But that's a stretch, and even if it has merit, it yields to the primary image of “rake” as clean-up device.

A truer test of my assertion about gifts in art would be a darker poem that we’re nevertheless glad we’ve read. Its thinking and language are so incisive, fresh, surprising, and significant that they are unquestionably worth the new light of day (or night) the poet has given them. But there have been and will be grim poems aplenty; maybe it’s all right to begin with “I Knew a Woman”—light but ingenious—so that we might all be on the same page about what I mean by gifts in a poem.

Do you find any gifts in "I Knew a Woman"? Elsewhere?

Jan 7, 2011

Frank O'Hara, Max Weber: Sodom and Gomorrah

Ave Maria by Frank O'Hara : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

"New York Apartment Store" by Max Weber, American, 1881 - 1961

Awhile ago, I was slamming Picasso for sending his brain in to sterilize any bit of heart in his cubism. I say again, I don’t really know what I’m talking about when it comes to art, but that’s my reaction. It's the American Way.

Max Weber’s painting here, “New York Department Store” (1915),
is an example of a painting that works for me even though it strikes me as more or less at one with Picasso’s way of being in the world.

The painting also made me think of New York City, which certainly has a way of being in the world. That way, in turn, made me think of Frank O’Hara’s poems, which are surely as New York-y as poems can be—hip, wry, free-form updates of Walt Whitman.

That, in turn, made me think of growing up in the 1960s in a hilly southern Ohio village, which sat on the outer edge of Appalachia and coal country.

There were two movie theaters on the square in Clawson, a dry town of 1,700. Frank Fellows owned and operated The Roxy, and it was not unusual for Frank to show up drunk for work.

In that time and place, alcohol consumption and signs of inebriation were silently ordained to be private affairs. So when the normally dour Frank handed out free popcorn and was slurringly friendly to us teens one Saturday night, we felt as if we’d been magically transported to Manhattan. Or Sodom and Gomorrah. Or at least Marietta, Ohio, the big town 30 winding miles away, across the river from West Virginia.

The adult in charge was drunk, and the food and drinks were free. We were getting away with something. For a moment we thought Frank was too, but we knew better. We had only vague notions of what price the gaunt, graying man would pay, but we knew there would be one.

That seemed both right and wrong, like everything else in New York City—dark and bright, exuberant and grimy, elegant and coarse. Clawson, Ohio was the simple, predictable, understated center of a tiny planet. New York might as well have been Constantinople, complex and distant, morally ambiguous, not our kind of people—maybe they were cold cubists. No one in town would tell us what we were supposed to make of that.


Jan 4, 2011

Barbara Kruger, Mark Strand, Ways of Being

Right: Alex Katz, "Ann and Billy," 1981

Below: Yves Tanguy, "Shadow Country," 1927

barbara kruger - Google Search

I cannot find the post where I was first clued in to Barbara Kruger's work, so I offer the above link for a sampling.

Everyone liked a Mark Strand poem I posted a long time ago:

Keeping Things Whole by Mark Strand : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

So here's another one, by still another of our Poets Laureate. As destiny or some such would have it, Strand's "Lines for Winter" is very much about a way of being in the world, first Winter's way, then in the conclusion, the way each of us sees our own Way (which is left open-ended).

Lines for Winter by Mark Strand : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

If you're not chilled by the last two lines, read it again. Or move north, or remember North-ness. At least the days are 18 seconds longer now than they were two weeks ago, or some such myth. Who's measuring that? (And what's his way of being in the world? Is there a Way for all the measurers? What's the opposite of a measurer? A scatterer?).

Strand's style is quite spare, arguably minimalistic. Maybe the same can be said of Barbara Kruger. At any rate, neither is a Whitmanesque, prolix Romantic. But how similar are the ways of being that Strand the poet and Kruger the artist propose? If they're at all similar, how so, and what differentiates them, whether it's major or minor?

"Anxious Mom, Anxious Baby," Time Magazine, January 10, 2011: "Chicks seemed to acquire their mother's stress . . . , showing more fearful behavior in novel situations." The article is talking about species other than chickens, if you get my drift. Ways of being are contagious, it seems.


Jan 2, 2011

New Year's Resolutions and Existentialism

Didn't mean to leave you hanging . . . .

So, first and foremost, Brenda, BobG, Farmchick, Pierre, Ken, Jeff M, Susan, anonymous, Barbaro—and others?—I think I have found, posted, and tried to respond to your comments from the last three weeks or so. I’m not sure what went wrong, but I think see how to prevent it in the future. Thank you for your patience, and please don’t hesitate to email me at “corndogj@gmail.com” if I ever seem to be ignoring you again.

Now back to everyone’s favorite topic, One’s Way of Being in the World. One more reason it fascinates me, I think, is that we presume for ourselves a lot of free will, maybe more in the U.S. than in other parts of the world. We are the children of Sartre; some of us even believe we chose to be born. With the notable exception of religious fundamentalists, it’s been awhile since it was fashionable to speak of destiny or fatalism.

Compared to most other parts of the world, we have political freedom, and we figure, apparently, that this translates into psychological or philosophical freedom, or freedom in planning a business, or personal finances, or diet and exercise, or selection of a career, or selection of a mate. “Billy, you can be anything you want to be. This is America.”

Evidence accumulates concerning brain chemistry, genetics and DNA; it seems to support the notion that “biology is destiny,” but we don’t like accepting limits on what we can do or become (or spend). We are 21st century Americans, still saving the world for democracy and Walmart, still living the dream.

The lady in purple is “The Communicant,” by Gari Melchers, around 1900.

A quarter-century earlier, Renoir gives us “Woman in an Armchair” (below, left). I’m imagining Lady Purple telling her shrink about her dyspepsia, insomnia, headaches, and anxiety attacks. Dr. Frood hands her an 8 x 10 postcard of Renoir’s woman in an armchair and says, “Here, be her. If you'll just change everything, your symptoms will vanish, and you will be happy.”

Can she do it? Should she try?

How much change can she impose upon her current Way of Being in the World? How would you guide and support her, step by step in the process of her transfiguration?


Lovers' Lane