Jul 31, 2013

Green: Thoreau, the Turtle, David Wagoner


In looking for information about Thoreau and turtles (what? that doesn’t interest you?), I came across the site of Dr. Sandra Harbert Petrulionis:

She writes:
As some of you have doubtless noticed in your own reading of the Journal, in the mid-to-late 1850s Thoreau becomes . . .  obsessed with turtles. Robert Khun McGregor has characterized these scenes as 'small dramas of survival' where Thoreau attempts 'to find the meaning in a mud turtle’s lunch' (2). In 1854, Thoreau’s turtle endeavors include paternally watching over a nest of eggs that he’s stumbled on; struggling to lift the unobliging and unwieldy creatures into his boat; and sleeping with a large turtle shell in his bedroom — an event that occasions pure delight. Recalling in the morning that the shell lies near him, Thoreau exclaims, 'That the first object you see on awakening should be an empty mud-turtle’s shell!! Will it not make me of the earth earthy? or does it not indicate that I am of the earth earthy?' (Journal 8 300).
Should we ask ourselves to be of the earth earthy? If we do not sleep with turtle shells to feel earthy, what shall we do instead?

I’m not the only one who finds the subject appealing. Here is David Wagoner’s poem,  “Thoreau and the Mud Turtle” from Michigan Quarterly Review.

The poem is a bit prosy for my tastes—it feels like raw content more than honed poetry, but that raw content is pretty compelling. Based on the scant evidence above, what would you say about Thoreau's mental health?

Jul 26, 2013

Movie Review: The Way, Way Back

MOVIE REVIEW:  WAY, WAY BACK                                    A-

The Way, Way Back is a coming-of-age story centered on a 14-year-old boy, Duncan, who is dreadfully shy. His mother Pam (Toni Collete) and her boyfriend of almost a year, Trent (Steve Carrel), take Duncan to Trent’s house in a beach community for the summer. In terms of socialization, it’s sink
or swim for everyone. The adults cavort with other couples in a summertime way that one teen girl labels "spring break for the parents." The teens are too full of earned angst and painful awkwardness for much cavorting, but they do stand, sit, and play near each other.

Sam Rockwell is Owen, manic owner and theoretical manager of a water-slide fiefdom, which draws youngsters by the dozen. For Duncan, it acts as another world—somewhat like the other side of the tracks, compared to the upper-middle-class families that surround his mother and prospective stepfather.

There. I don’t think I’ve spoiled anything, and I declare this popcorn-welcome movie worth seeing. It’s a comedy with realism and substance.

I have some questions for who have seen it:

         What do you make of the vintage Buick station wagon? It’s clearly supposed to mean something.

         Alison Janney’s wonderfully acted role as Betty, next-door neighbor, is somewhere between amusing and hysterical. On a scale of 1 (low) - 5 (high)  how well do you like her?

    With which of the adults do you sympathize? Remember, unlike condescending pity, sympathy involves respect and probably some sense of connection with the character in question.

    Are you satisfied with the ending? Is it insufficiently romantic, or too romantic, or just right? Is your answer different for the teens compared to the adults?

Jul 18, 2013

John Berryman, "Dream Song 14"

Dream Song 14 by John Berryman : The Poetry Foundation

I haven’t had much luck with John Berryman and haven't tried him for a long time, but the literary community takes him very seriously. So I went to the trusty Poetry Foundation to find a thing or two by and about him. I’ve seen “Dream Song #14” a few times—maybe it’s one of Berryman’s most famous in the series. 
Angst? Boredom? Nirvana? 

Poetry Foundation says John Berryman's Dream Songs “portray [the speaker] ‘Henry’ [as] an anguished and often-deranged character very much like Berryman.”

 The Dream Songs display an astonishing variety of poetic resources that include slangy diction and a nervous, fractured syntax. Influenced by the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, psychoanalysis and Berryman’s beloved Shakespeare, they also stirred controversy by drawing on nineteenth century minstrel shows in which white performers in blackface enacted racist stereotypes.
The frankness of Berryman’s work influenced his friend Robert Lowell and other Confessional poets like Anne Sexton. The poet’s lifelong struggles with             alcoholism and depression ended in 1972, when he jumped off a Minneapolis             bridge in the dead of winter.
Angst? Boredom? Nirvana?
I don’t find enough to love in the poem. At the risk of sounding insensitive toward clinical depression, it seems a self-indulgent whine with no specific causes for the speaker’s angst (if “angst” is not too ennobling a word for the boredom that ails him).

Also, I wonder about Line 3 with “Peoples bore me,” instead of “people.”  Is that another self-indulgent Look-at-Me-Me-Me-so-different-so-different? Or is Berryman trying to introduce an ethnic or cultural peoples-of-the-world theme? If so, he leaves it completely undeveloped.

I do like “the sky flashes, the great sea yearns, / we ourselves flash and yearn.” Those verbs make me wonder if all earthly motion and effort amount to, can be reduced to, flashing and yearning. I cannot dismiss the possibility.

The last line engages me, too. The speaker, Henry, wants to go away with the dog, presumably because the animal is more interesting than humans. Many of us might see it that way, but the poem leaves it an undeveloped and unconvincing proposition.
I don't know these guys, but I like the attitude

Finally, there’s the appealing play on “wag.” The most obvious meaning to most of us is probably the dog’s tail wagging and the speaker’s missing that happy activity. But that flies in the face of the structure and punctuation. Forgive me, but the grammar, the syntax, and the comma matter. I see two possibilities. First, the speaker might be urging himself to wag like the dog's tail. Secondly, "wag" might be a noun in apposition to "me" in which case the speaker is calling himself a “wag,” somebody who’s witty or jocular and gossipy.

What does either possibility do to or for the poem? Turn the whole thing into a joke on the reader?  “Don’t take me seriously—I’m just being a wag.” Or, "I'm terribly bored, and I'm telling myself to wag like a dog's tail. That would fix everything."
Mackinaw Bridge, 5 Miles Long, Connecting Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas

Even if you find the closure an effective, or at least interesting, choice of words, can it carry and conclude the poem? Or does it shrink the poem to a writer’s effort to mess, perhaps cleverly, with his reader?

These aren't rhetorical questions; I'm really interested in others' takes on the poem and the closure in particular. And if someone out there has Berryman titles that would make me want to explore more of his work, please let me know. 

Dream Song 14 by John Berryman : The Poetry Foundation

Jul 10, 2013

Everybody Poops and Everybody Aphorizes: Emerson, Thoreau, and James Richardson

“Mother Nature is a serial killer. No one’s better.”  That's from the movie World War Z. The speaker is a brilliant young Harvard M.D., who might seem a more likely savior of humanity than Brad Pitt.  

Lake Michigan, a Little West of Mackinaw Bridge


    1. A pithy observation that contains a general truth.
    2. A concise statement of a scientific principle, typically by an ancient classical author.
               1. A tersely phrased statement of a truth or opinion; adage 
               2A brief statement of a principle.

        Synonyms: maxim, saying, adage, precept, proverb, moral
Amish Buggy, E. of Sault Ste Marie, Ont.

From http://literary-devices.com/:   “An aphorism is a concise statement that is made in a matter of fact tone to state a principle or an opinion that is generally understood to be a universal truth. Aphorisms are often adages, wise sayings and maxims aimed at imparting sense and wisdom. It is to be noted that aphorisms are usually witty and curt and often have an underlying tone of authority to them.”
Blind River, Ontario

  Banjo Reasons for resisting or hating aphorisms:

  1.     I don’t trust certainty.  Basic info is one thing: today is a Wednesday in July of 2013. Okay.    But if someone says he knows the gods, the gods are friends of his, and they want us to eat cotton candy today . . .  because “Wednesday” sounds like “wedding” and we must overeat sugar at weddings . . . when someone starts adding inferred or symbolic meanings, from the clouds or the Academy, our red-flag antennae should start to hum.  
  2.     Almost by definition, aphorisms are condescending. How much should I listen to anyone  speaking from on high to me, at me?  
  3.     Aphorisms are, or sound like, oversimplifications of complex ambiguities.
Rush Hour, I-75, South of Mackinaw Bridge, Northern Michigan
  4.     A bugaboo of our times is our demand for speed; aphorisms pretend to offer high-speed truth, bumper-sticker truth, fortune-cookie truth, although a moment’s thought reveals that most truths worth having do not come in nutshells. 

        Perhaps I'm just aphorizing about aphorisms. Like most people, I think, I sometimes find myself trying to reduce the universe and human experience to my own aphorisms, which might be like trying to write my own Bible.

However, the poet and Princeton professor, James Richardson, in his book Vectors (2001), has made me aware of how un-final, open-ended, subtle, and poetically pregnant aphorisms can be. Here are just two of the briefer examples:

#4.  Despair says I cannot lift that weight. Happiness says I do not have to. 

#6.  Our avocations bring us the purest joys. Praise my salads or my softball, and I am deified for a day. But tell me I am a great teacher or a great writer and you force me to tell myself the truth.

Does any of the above explain my caution—maybe it’s a love-hate response—toward Emerson and Thoreau? They play Daddy to my Child, even when they tell the truth. Yet they knock my brain’s socks off rather often.  

Here’s Emerson (1803 – 1882) at age 61 in a journal entry (an entry that also instructs us about the importance of commas, for his opening word, "Within," is a crucial pause):  

“Within, I do not find wrinkles and used heart, but unspent youth.”

In 1845, “. . . the best part, I repeat, of every mind is not that which he knows, but that which hovers . . . .”   
I like the possibility of ending the sentence there, on the hummingbird note of “hovers,” but Emerson goes on, “that which hovers in gleams, suggestions, tantalizing, unpossessed, before him.” That’s pretty good too.

What did we all write in our journals today?

Jul 3, 2013

Emerson, Thoreau, Georgian Bay

Northern Rim of Lake Huron, Blind River, Ontario

Ten days ago I returned from a four-day, thousand-mile drive along the east side of Georgian Bay in Ontario, then back down I-75 from Sault Ste Marie to Detroit. If you can’t picture Georgian Bay, it’s fair to think of it as a sixth Great Lake, attached to the east side of Lake Huron. 
In the car I listened off and on to Professor Arnold Weinstein lecturing on the transcendalists, Emerson and Thoreau, whose love of nature suited the drive through rural Ontario. I’ve been trying to find a way to write about that landscape and those writers for more than a week, with no luck, so I’m turning it over to reader input: what is your most or least favorite idea or quotation from Emerson or Thoreau?  
The one I remembered from college was Thoreau's line, “I’d rather sit alone on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” I guess my aversion to cities and conspicuous consumption had already kicked in at age 20. 

On the other hand, I've learned to take some advantage of what cities can offer, and I consume more than is necessary:  life without central air and a reliable TV clicker is not worth living. 

From Emerson’s “Circles” here’s a short passage I find fascinating from a thinker who usually seems determined to get beyond surfaces into transcendence and essences:  “Life is not intellectual or critical, but sturdy. . . . We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them."  The "true art of life" is not to penetrate into areas more lofty or more mystical than surfaces, but only to skate well on those surfaces. I wonder what Wordsworth would have said.

I’m also struck by those lines' play against our expectations. If life is not “intellectual or critical,” then what is it? Air-headed? Moronic? Stolid? Superficial? Obnoxious? Republican?  

No . . . .  It’s . . . “Sturdy?” 

Sturdy! How the hell is sturdiness the counterpart or antithesis to the intellectual or the critical?  Sturdy like a boulder? Sturdy like a cow? Sturdy like a linebacker? Maybe it begins to make sense after all. Then I begin to imagine cow, rock, and linebacker ice skating . . . . 
For cooler, sturdy skaters
I've imagined a conversation at Jeremy's Country Restaurant and Convenience Store. Someone has just referred to himself as an intellectual, to which I’ve applied an Emersonian response:  “Intellectual? You, Sir, are no intellectual!  You, Sir, are . . . sturdy!  I knew an intellectual once. An intellectual was a friend of mine, and you, Sir, are no intellectual. You, Sir, are _________ !"


Or is this the sturdy, skillful skater?
Well, I’m charmed and fascinated by all that, but for me, here is the primo study question for me:  Do I, and should I, live in a way that would pass muster with Emerson or Thoreau? How? Why? And so what? 
Also remember the original question:  what is your most or least favorite idea or line from either of those two 19th century American icons, who hoped for an American literature free from European shackles? Was it just a teen rebellion against authority, or was it meaningful, or was it both? 

If you’ve left your copies of Emerson and Thoreau at Danny’s Donuts—again!—or at Jeremy's Country Restaurant, you can look for quotable quotes here, but I hope you're ashamed:


It’s wrong to reduce important and thorough--if troublesome and sometimes snotty--thinkers to a few of their aphorisms, but there’s only so much time and space here. Also, these two writers are so fond of the aphorism, the quick-hitter, the bumper sticker, the cookie’s fortune, that I feel permitted to begin there, but it’s only for starters.   

Lovers' Lane