Sep 28, 2012


THE MASTER:  A MOVIE REVIEW                        Grade:  A+

It’s the weekend.

The Main Art Theater

I almost chose not to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master because I’d heard it centered on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, about whom and which I know and care little. But the core cast convinced me I should go:  Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic leader of a philosophical, faux-scientific, theological group that probably deserves the label of cult; Amy Adams as his wife and probably his brain, his Lady Macbeth; Joaquin Phoenix as Freddy Quell, the disturbed, violent, needy stranger who rode into town.

Are we humans merely animals or special beings? That query is worth consideration on its own terms. And we need to know and care nothing about Scientology to be to be entranced and frightened by the main characters in The Master, all of whom live on one or another kind of psychological and moral ledge. The movie is far more about these characters as humans than any doctrines of cult, philosophy, or religion. These fine actors hit every note perfectly.

An additional miracle in the characterization is that such extreme psyches manage to involve us so completely. Maybe we too, without fully realizing it, live on ledges and edges, pulled toward people, organizations, and ideas we don’t entirely understand, much less trust. We are herd animals, and if we are starving, we follow a leader and his organization. That’s almost a working definition of political, theological, and moral danger. 

Or maybe it’s like going to the zoo. These characters are so other, and so fierce, that we forget we might be staring at important aspects of ourselves. Whom and what do we follow out of needs that are quasi-rational at best? 

Even if the characters were less gripping, we’d probably be carried through the 2.5 hours by the visual intensity of The Master. Practically every moment of every scene overflows with still photographs so splendid that masters of the camera are humbled.

The final two scenes offer an ambiguous verdict on the condition of Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix’s drifter). Is man an animal or a superior species? Is isolated man anything more than a walking illness, a danger? Yet how much help was there, is there, in the comfort of the group? The movie leans toward answers, then withdraws; ambiguity is part of its power throughout, including the final images, and that prevents a simplistic assessment of all we’ve been witnessing. 

Sep 27, 2012



I’m surprised to find myself regularly watching Boss, a Friday drama on Starz, with Kelsey Grammer as the mayor of Chicago. It’s full of the kind of unrelenting darkness and disease I’ve just protested, but the world of city, national, and international politics intrigues me almost as much as it depresses and enrages me. I don’t know if Boss presents that world with much accuracy, but events and episodes usually seem all too plausible. Also, Grammer’s portrayal of Mayor Tom Kane gains some sympathy because of his rare disease with its terrible prognosis.

If Tom Kane (as in Cain and Abel?) is a walking definition of a Machiavellian leader, he is nevertheless a brilliant and fascinating human, as he twists himself and others into abnormal shapes in his attempt at political and biological survival. In the process he aims for goals that are at least not bad and might be worthwhile or even noble.

It’s worth noting that most scenes, sordid as they may be, occur in well-lit rooms or outdoor daylight. The plot and its scenes do not dawdle or amble; they almost trot along. The dialogue is crisp and salty; it’s the way people ought to talk when they think they’re being interesting.

The Checker Players (detail), George Caleb Bingham, American (1811-79),  Detroit Institute of Art
Is it possible that it’s characters and situations like these that preserve Chicago—and this country—and move it along, or at least allow it to move itself along? But as I say that, I remember that the trial of Detroit’s former mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, has begun. If the accusations against him are true, he’s right there with Tom Kane, in a pit of self-serving, adolescent behaviors. If they have any self-control, they spend it on narcissistic, bullying, survivalist machinations.
GM Headquarters, Detroit

HOMELAND  (Season Two begins September 30 on Showtime)

If I ever take time to think it through, I'll probably say Homeland is the richest, most honestly complex, and most gripping TV viewing experience I've ever had. It's better than most movies on similar subject matter--politics, war, and political intelligence--largely because the primary focus is always on the individual human characters, all of whom are caught in dilemmas bigger and deadlier than their own flaws and mistakes. Maybe King Lear was wrong when he said, “I am a man more sinned against than sinning,” but each of the major characters in the first season of Homeland could legitimately make that claim.

Claire Danes and Damian Lewis are the two lead actors, but there are at least four main characters. Lewis is Nicholas Brody, an Iraq War vet and POW, who has finally returned to the U.S. and might be a spy. Morena Baccarin is Jessica, his knockout wife—whose sensual beauty plays second fiddle to her plight as Brody’s wife. Claire Danes is Carrie Mathison, a CIA officer, and Mandy Potemkin is her mentor and former boss. The Brody daughter, Dana, is becoming more important as the story evolves, and Morgan Saylor plays her convincingly.

Each is a multifaceted character with a legitimate claim for our sympathy as well as our criticism. Ditto that for governments, nations, cultures. How is an intelligent human, more well-intentioned than not, supposed to know what’s true and right in the midst of the vast puzzle of political, military, domestic, romantic and moral machinery?

Backyard Feral Cat

Like Boss, the episodes move right along, in various settings, usually in daylight. It’s easy to stay interested. Unlike Boss, however, it’s also easy to like each of the main characters, to see how each wakes up in a life that’s over his or her head, and is quite possibly doing the best he or she can. It’s not very good, but it’s probably better than we would fare in those circumstances. 

Sep 26, 2012


Thanks to Hannah Stephenson at The Storialist (  for prompting readers to think about high quality TV shows. I just noticed her 9/21/12 post again, and on the heels of my giving almost an hour to watching The Emmy show the other night (an hour was all I could stand, but it was a new personal best—or worst). 

Hannah mentions four shows that have been highly acclaimed:  Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy, and Boardwalk Empire, and many viewers would add Breaking Bad to that company. Mad Men is the only one of those I watch, and Hannah’s post got me to wondering why. I’ve tried the other dramas for about three minutes apiece.

In serious film and TV these days, there is a strong tendency to give us a pig trough of sociopathy, a dreary grey parade of characters with few or no redeeming graces. All of human life, especially in terms of morality, occurs between dusk and 3:00 a.m. 

I’m usually the one who’s crying Foul! Stop all that sentimental simplification about who’s good, what’s beautiful, who’s plastic enough to be sexy, and what images stands for what idea. I don’t like fairy tales. I don’t like fables. They’re insulting. They shrink beauty and moral complexity into thimblefuls and bumper stickers.

However, people seem to find depth and complexity in another kind of simplification that occurs at the other end of the spectrum, the dirty, amoral, noir end, where we find every character a one-dimensional embodiment of criminality or other kinds of antisocial behavior. People hate and use each other, climb over each other, connive and fuck each other—there’s no love-making, only fucking, though I admit, it's often amusingly acrobatic. 

There is no dawn, no dew, no greenery, no laughter, no meaningful connections among the characters—not with each other or nature or anything. It’s what a World War I foxhole must have been like, except that these days no one gives a shit about his buddy, and there are plenty of intoxicants going around to make it seem less a foxhole.

I’m sure many people live such lives, and I’m even more certain that to others they’d look more entertaining than people in my world, including myself. But those grim human animals are not more complex, and they’re not more representative of humanity or what humanity craves.

A long, grey, monotonous Michigan winter looms. I’ll look for ways to soften, brighten, and yes, escape that season for as many moments as I can. That does not mean mindlessness; it means I’ll look for the few birds dumb enough to be hanging around in the sleet, as well as friendly dogs and interesting human conversation. For company, what I won’t look for is a single, endless, atonal note played in a dimly lit room, its drama shifting between dark grey and charcoal.


I’m surprised to find myself regularly watching Boss, a Friday drama on Starz, with Kelsey Grammer as the mayor of Chicago. It’s full of the kind of unrelenting darkness and disease I’ve just protested, but the world of city, national, and international politics intrigues me almost as much as it depresses and enrages me. I don’t know if Boss presents that world with much accuracy, but events and episodes usually seem all too plausible. Also, Grammer’s portrayal of Mayor Tom Kane gains some sympathy because of his rare disease with its terrible prognosis.

HOMELAND  (Season Two begins September 30 on Showtime)

If I ever take time to think it through, I'll probably say Homeland is the richest, most honestly complex, and most gripping TV viewing experience I've ever had. The context consists of politics, war, and political intelligence, but the primary focus is always on the individual human characters, all of whom are caught in dilemmas bigger and deadlier than their own flaws and mistakes. Maybe King Lear was wrong when he said, “I am a man more sinned against than sinning,” but each of the major characters in the first season of Homeland could legitimately make that claim.


Sep 23, 2012

Jane Springer, "Salt Hill"

Salt Hill by Jane Springer : The Poetry Foundation

Jane Springer's "Salt Hill" isn't specifically about a watering hole for birds--the one I found Friday where a half-dozen robins, a blue jay, a downy woodpecker pair, and, very briefly, as if he were special or spiritual or something, a yellow-rumped warbler. They drank, bathed, shared, played, especially the young robins, whose fun went well beyond any claim that they were merely getting clean.

The stream in the photos is in suburban Detroit, not Jane Springer's Tennessee, yet I feel some kind of connection between them. I can't pinpoint it, but I think the relationship is more specific than "Nature Poem" and "Nature Photo."



What say you to this poem?

Salt Hill by Jane Springer : The Poetry Foundation

Sep 18, 2012

Follow-up to Discussion of Andrew Hudgins' "Praying Drunk"

There's about to be some talk about elevated language, and it might not be a page-turner. It might not make your day. It might be soporific.

So, rushing in, as always, where angels fear to tread--that is, rushing to the rescue, I wonder if this video clip is this another kind of prayer (notice the girl's demeanor, as if you could avoid it), or at least a language so intense that, if someone called it poetry, I'd hesitate before arguing. But the video is also a bit of comic relief preceding a bunch more old-fashioned words from visitors and me. I'll sprinkle in some photos too.

Field Hockey, Intensity, CT, Oct. 2010

Last week’s post was another occasion for visitor comments that were too thought-provoking to get only a quick response from me. So here again is Andrew Hudgins’ poem, “Praying Drunk,” along with your comments and, in italics, my responses.

I like what you say about the perils of classifying things you don’t like and then finding an example of one you like, thereby changing (or at least challenging) your world view.

Except for a few accidental whiffs of Billy Collins, I’m not familiar with any of these poets you mention. I suppose it’s not news to point out that the poem you refer us to violates every traditional precept of poetry: it uses demotic rather than poetic language, it has no form or recognizable music, it has no point (metaphysical, emotional, intellectual or otherwise), and its shaggy-dog structure is so discursive you probably couldn’t even pull it off in conversation in a bar without being accused of being totally incoherent. Maybe I’m not appropriately amused, but I haven’t learned anything about prayer or being drunk or being human from this exercise other than deer look like enormous rats on stilts (which is funny enough to willfully suspend my disbelief at the utter lack of verisimilitude in the simile). Maybe I’m old school, but I want a reason to know why it’s important that elephants clean each others asses, or why someone would feel like Wile E. Coyote without even a speck of dust to mark his fall.

The danger of letting readers do all the work is that not every reader has the self-esteem and attention-span issues of this narrator. Lurching from metaphor to metaphor as a form of prayer? Isn’t this the kind of stuff that gives poetry a bad name in the first place?
September 10, 2012 4:53 PM

William, Comment #1:   The only point I might disagree with is your last one about metaphor to metaphor as prayer. A full response would take forever, and I don’t know if I could bring it off anyway. So here’s this: over the years, I’ve become more and more concerned about a widespread sense of the divine that’s too tied to received wisdom and texts.

Egret, Alarmed, Kensington, 9/16/12
My hunch—and it’s only that—is that any godhead(s) that might be there can be perceived only obliquely, indirectly, intuitively. The other choice SEEMS to be literal acceptance of the literal words of ancestors’ sacred texts, in many languages translated by many scholars, some competent, some not, in which the godhead is a great big Uncle Billy in a rocker on a porch in the sky, offering wisdom and condolence in one breath, deathly might in the next.

So, while I may have never thought consciously of the godhead or prayer as metaphor, Hudgins led me to realize that metaphor is another kind of indirection (“telling it slant”) that might be the way I’ve been thinking about divinity for some years now.

If I’m misrepresenting your point, please let me know.

loggerJean Spitzer said...

And if I know neither sports nor poetry?

It's a good story and very accessible.
September 10, 2012 5:10 PM

JEAN – Glad you thought so.  Yes, I bet most readers would find the plot, if we can call it that, at least kind of interesting.

I didn’t know it was legal to live in Texas and not know sports . . . .  I’ve never thought of this before:  maybe you artists who are not sports fans should become fans just for the color and other kinds of imagery.  (That began as a smartass comment, but there might be something to it).  I won’t assume you’re someone who’s acerbic and condescending about sports, but there surely are some, about whom I’ve often said, or thought, “You mean you don’t see the ballet?  Wow. You don’t see the metaphor for war as something to respond to?”  

But you’re being nice and mellow, not acerbic and condescending.  And I, by the way, have been acerbic and condescending about hockey.  Just a little. More than once. From time to time . . . And maybe golf just a little.

Young Buck, Unalarmed,StageNatureCenter, June 2012
YAY, Andrew Hudgins! He's an OSU professor (and is very beloved by his students).

Interestingly, he's known around these parts as being extremely skilled with form. I see Bill wasn't a huge fan of the poem included here....but consider this one from Hudgins (which kills me):

In the Well
Andrew Hudgins

My father cinched the rope,
a noose around my waist,
and lowered me into
the darkness. I could taste

my fear. It tasted first
of dark, then earth, then rot.
I swung and struck my head
and at that moment got

another then: then blood,
which spiked my mouth with iron.
Hand over hand, my father
dropped me from then to then:

then water. Then wet fur,
which I hugged to my chest.
I shouted. Daddy hauled
the wet rope. I gagged, and pressed

my neighbor's missing dog
against me. I held its death
and rose up to my father.
Then light. Then hands. Then breath.
September 11, 2012 3:27 PM

HANNAH   Thank you!  I have a feeling that “In the Well” is one of those poems that’s immediately accessible, but will be worth many return visits for subtleties of image and idea. I’m surprised I haven’t seen it before – which probably means I’m surprised it’s not much-anthologized, it seems so classroom-friendly, so teachable.  More technically, I’m impressed that Hudgins’ rhymes are obvious and strong, yet feel natural and do not at all cause an oversimplifying sing-song effect. Thanks again for this nugget.

OK, I got around to reading the "What is Poetry?" post and comments. It's an argument probably as old as poetry itself, exemplified by the intriguingly unresolved dialogue between B52 and Brenda's Arizona. I’m big on the hypnotic power of poetry myself, which consists precisely in the systematic repetition of rhythms and sounds, as well as an elevated (or condensed) diction that would not be appropriate for prose or speech. I'm drawn more and more to this quality because it seems more of an entrée to me into the ideas specific to poetry, which tend to be deeply felt, boundaryless and fleeting. But it is the ideas I am concerned with, not the métier; whatever “catapults the propaganda” (in George W. Bush’s immortal words) is probably legit.

“The Well” I think works because the steady rhythm and rhyme mimics the feeling of being lowered into a well. While the language itself is plain, it has a stateliness that elevates it (as much if not more than its narrative does) above the typical “traumatic childhood memory” poem growing like weeds in all the journals.

I am tempted to take a more fair-minded approach to the drunk poem now. If Hannah can survive such influences yet write so much better and differently, I should have nothing to fear.
September 11, 2012 5:23 PM

WILLIAM  #2:   I like your comments about “In the Well.”  “Stateliness” is a good word. Ditto “’traumatic childhood memory’ . . . growing like weeds.” 

In both your comments you make  a point (or is it two, or a few) about the language and ideas that are apt for poetry. I’m okay enough with the contemporary scene to worry about that, to think that most kinds of language can work – if, as you say, it reinforces what’s being said, and if what’s being said is worth being said. 

Of course the “what” there leads us to your point about “ideas specific to poetry,” and I question just how many ideas cannot be made “specific to poetry.” Very few, I’d say.

Yes, I cautioned students about their slim chances for success in a piece that apotheosized a door knob. (I also said, if you’re convinced and determined, go ahead and try. Who knows?).  

On the flip side, I’ve said two of the very best poems in the English language are Roethke’s “The Waking” and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”  To my ear and mind, both are elevated and musically hypnotic, both respond to your desire for “systematic repetition of rhythms and sounds, as well as an elevated (or condensed) diction that would not be appropriate for prose or speech,” and both address subjects almost everyone would find elevated and appropriate for poetry.  

So I think it’s risky to say that only certain kinds of elevated language and subject matter are suitable for poetry, especially from about 1900 onward, into the major democratization we’ve seen in literature. Surely hate-mongering, bigotry, bullying, cheering for battlefield gore, and some other “ideas” aren’t likely to make worthwhile poems; otherwise we might attribute to Hitler’s “hypnotic” oratory the label of great poetry.

You’ve heard my unease (euphemism noted) about too many weeds in the journal-gardens out there, so I doubt we’re too far apart. But I’ve been moved and provoked into deeper thought by some poems that I initially heard as prosaic and simplistic, so I can’t pretend a complete agreement with you. We’d probably need to compare specific poems, or even specific passages, lines and images, to see just how near or far apart we are. But I thank you for elevating the discussion here.  I hope others are drawn in . . .
Redwing, Meditating, Kensington, 9/16/12

Favorite SOA poet: Robert Frost. Favorite SOA poem: Home Burial.

Banjo, there is a lot to digest here. I fear I have to do it in increments... like good poetry, your posts aren't prose. Pure poetry...
September 12, 2012 12:09 AM

BRENDA – Thanks for the compliment. I did worry about length here, both Hudgins’ and my own, but if you’re offering that I’m not a pretentious windbag, just too richly lyrical and profound to be digested quickly . . . should I decline in favor of modes posturing? Hudgins?  Hudgins who?  (But, Brenda, I do hope you return for more bites).

I like the concept: that of Praying Drunk; my favorite part being the paragraph about the sin of despair. Maybe we've all been there? I know I have. Other than that, I can't say I am going to be a huge fan. That is to say, I don't feel compelled to track down more work by this author so as to gobble it up.

Loved the photos though; the selections, subjects, order of appearance. Especially the monks and the 2 church images. The images always enhance your posts!

Mid-September, SE Michigan

STICKUP -  Thanks for the support on the photos. I still never sure I know what I’m doing, or what makes a photograph good, but I’ll admit I do like some of my own. And yes, I wonder how many of us even think of despair as a sin. Doesn’t that idea deserve a pause, some consideration, hard-nosed though it is?

As for Hudgins, I say again, we can’t all love all the authors, photographers, painters we’re supposed to. That would be like lying down for the Uncle Billy mentioned above.  I’ve always thought a fun—or serious—game is to ask oneself, “Can I have a lasting friendship or romantic relationship someone who adores _________?”  (In my case, it might be Milton. Or Dryden.).  That may sound extreme and self-important, but think about it. Could I love a head-banger, or vice versa? Could I get married in a mosh pit?

Sep 10, 2012


Praying Drunk by Andrew Hudgins : The Poetry Foundation

Regulars here at Banjo52 know I’m concerned about prose masquerading as poetry. In youth, I was dunked in a vat of serious poetry flavored with Keats, Hopkins, and Yeats; I can’t shake them and don’t much want to.  

So, if you know their work a bit, you can see why I have a knee-jerk suspicion about Billy Collins, Denise Duhamel, Mark Halliday, Barbara Hamby, Tony Hoagland, David Kirby, to mention only a handful of poets now writing in a chatty, easy-going manner that many readers love. It’s been called “The School of Accessibility” (SOA), and people of my orientation tend to label it cop-out, sell-out, dumbed-down pandering. But I’m here to say that’s too easy, as most sweeping generalizations are, especially the harping, negative sweeps.

(If you become interested in this topic, you could revisit my post on January 31, 2010   There’s some repetition, but also some different samples.).

What usually happens in SOA poems is something like a prose poem, but with more storyline. There is often such a dominant narrative thread that we might wonder why the writer didn’t simply choose the short story (or “flash fiction” if he wants to grab the newest trend) as his genre. 

Also, there’s usually more wit and hominess in SOA poems than there is in tighter, more lyrical work. They can be or seem too cute, merely clever. In both theme and manner, the SOA poem tends to be more obvious than traditional lyrical poetry. As the “Language Poets” (see Rae Armantrout here last March 11, to name one) have tried to be new by boiling language right down to bone so bare that it’s perhaps incomprehensible, the SOA poets might be putting extra meat on the bone to make sure we can taste its juice. The most severe critics of SOA might say it’s so much message-meat that we gag on it.

In any case, these SOA poems are broken into lines, sometimes with a discernible logic, and in the best of them, there is from time to time enough density and richness of image, thought, and emotion, along with deftness of phrasing, for the work to have earned the title of Poem with room to spare.

But at other times, the power and ingenuity of a piece are so dependent on its whole rather than stunning words, lines, short passages and ideas along the way, that the work can seem to drift comfortably, even lazily, to a bland conclusion. There’s an overall Whoosh at the end rather than a lot of Whishes along the way, perhaps in every line, as well as a big Whoosh at the end.  

The traditional lyric is so condensed and crystallized that it’s a shotgun shell containing individual pellets, each of which could have blown off the top of Emily Dickinson’s head. (Hey, that shotgun metaphor is E.D.’s, not mine; and she often lives up to it). 

Put all these issues together, and what rears its ugly head is slick entertainment supplanting the high art we’ve been given in the twentieth century by Stevens, Eliot, Roethke, Bishop, Williams and others (most ironic of all might be E.E. Cummings).

However, those of us who find poetry to be an important richness in our lives want others to find it so too. Maybe we have messiah complexes, but don’t we all want others to love what we love, to be saved the way we were saved? I don’t mean that sarcastically; I think it’s a pretty human orientation. And if more and more folks like and are shaken into greater awareness by this new, strolling, wandering, loitering SOA, isn’t that better than reading no poetry at all?  Isn’t that more soul-enlarging than Reader's Digest?

When I like and respect an S.O.A. poem, and I often do, I feel it as a guilty pleasure. I feel and even think—if suspecting is thinking—the poet and I have both gotten away with something. We’ve had our minds and souls stirred in a way that was probably more pleasure than challenge.

To see the world anew is by definition a change, and change is threatening; a poem challenges what I thought I knew—about poetry, life, history, politics, science, you name it.

But if change menaces, it also refreshes and expands. If I allow myself to receive the poem, on its terms, I might learn something new—a way to see deer, or to kill rats, or a more scientific, less trite transformation of landscape into a cleansing wave (see Hudgins).

To my surprise, there are good SOA poems; they are not as simplistic as gossip or reading a comic book or watching porn for the same period of time. Now and then a new kind of bastard comes along and seems legitimate, which feels all wrong. It goes against everything I was taught and came to believe I believed.

Now consider how many significant topics that last sentence could fit.

I suspect that’s more than enough prep for Andrew Hudgins’ “Praying Drunk,” but as a tease I’ll also offer a few passages from the poem, which might reveal why I find the piece a shotgun shell that’s also full of pellets. Never mind that in a more traditional poem, I’d be offering single words and short phrases to admire, while it’s passages of several lines in this case. It’s still true that I like, envy, and respect the following images, ideas, and phrasings, especially the last two quotations, which offer the best new twists I’ve seen on the meaning of “religious experience” since Raymond Carver’s masterpiece of a story, “Cathedral.”

But do please read Hudgin’s whole poem; surely you want the Whoosh and not just these wonderful Whishes.

deer drift from the dark woods and eat my garden.   
They’re like enormous rats on stilts except,   
of course, they’re beautiful. But why? What makes
them beautiful? I haven’t shot one yet.   
I might.

                                                               It’s hard   
to kill your rats, our Father. You have to use   
a hollow point and hit them solidly.   
A leg is not enough. The rat won’t pause.   
Yeep! Yeep! it screams, and scrabbles, three-legged, back   
into the trash, and I would feel a little bad   
to kill something that wants to live   
more savagely than I do . . .
Wave of Landscape

I’m sorry for the times I’ve driven   
home past a black, enormous, twilight ridge.
Crested with mist, it looked like a giant wave   
about to break and sweep across the valley,   
and in my loneliness and fear I’ve thought,   
O let it come and wash the whole world clean.
Forgive me. This is my favorite sin: despair—

Dear Lord,   
we lurch from metaphor to metaphor,   
which is—let it be so—a form of praying.

I want a lot of money and a woman.   
And, also, I want vanishing cream. You know—   
a character like Popeye rubs it on   
and disappears. Although you see right through him,   
he’s there. He chuckles, stumbles into things,   
and smoke that’s clearly visible escapes   
from his invisible pipe. It makes me think,  
sometimes, of you. 

Lovers' Lane