Monday, May 31, 2010

Contemporary Authors- Garrison Keillor

I was thinking about the phenomenon of people spending the rest of their lives listening to the popular music they were into when they were in High School. Don't get me wrong, it could be the best music ever. Your taste very well be impeccable and you may listen to the greatest popular music to come from that four year period. But it's a bit like eating only grapes. They may be the best grapes ever but...variety is not only the spice of life, it's necessary for proper nutrition both mentally and physically. That's why I encourage everyone to get into everything.

There are some ways out of that trap.  One is by going into a more grown up genre like Classical music or Jazz.  One is to keep listening to new popular music, although one gets a little Death in Venice eventually (I remember from my teenage years that the creepiest person in any Goth club was inevitably the guy over 25.)  I would recommend the former road to musical freshness personally.  Although I've remarked to those around me recently how in my estimation from what I've heard, this is kind of a golden era for popular music.  There is so much good out there.

And I was also thinking about how I gravitate toward "The Classics" in my reading (and in my music for that matter.)  Partly because it's easier to find greatness there.  Partly because my sensibilities vis-a-vis religion and beauty are more in step with the Pre-Modern.  But what prevents me from being a staunch Classicist is the knowledge that 1) there is an ocean of lost masterpieces buried in the sands of time, but more to our point here 2) all classics were once new. 

And seeing as to how doing features on this blog seems to keep me posting with regularity (I am increasingly a fan of structure), I thought I might start a new feature where I give a little sketch of a contemporary author who I think is great, who you might also enjoy looking into their work.  Some of them will be major establishment authors who you may have heard of (as is the case this week), some of them you may not have heard of.  All of them, I assure you, I think you would enjoy.  I would urge everyone to patronize our living artists.  It's good for you and good for society.

Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is most famous (and probably most likely to be remembered) for his radio show A Prairie Home Companion.  It's a variety show with an old-timey feel to it, including humorous radio dramas and musical variety acts. It's a lovely way to spend a Saturday night. In the third act of each week's show Keillor gives "The News from Lake Wobegon," which is a monologue about life in a small, fictional, mid-western town (That is to say, the town is fictional. They aren't monologues about living in a fictional town like some weird meta-fiction.) The monologues are remarkable in that they are sublime and transcendent at an astonishing rate for a weekly occurrence. Keillor started the show in the 1970s, and while he isn't completely responsible for Public Radio in America, it certainly wouldn't be what it is were it not for his influence.

He also hosts the radio program The Writer's Almanac in which he talks of major events in literary history from that date and closes with a poem by a famous poet. One of the aspects of Keillor's career that I find most inspiring (which I imagine shows from the focus of my blog and podcast) is his devotion to the arts and pointing toward greatness. Even while having literary ambitions of his own, so much of what he does is to point toward other great works. He has also put out some excellent anthologies. His Good Poems collections are excellent, a must own for any household, and one of my most likely gift giving options.

His essays are also a very good starting point for newcomers to his work. I'm hard pressed to think of another contemporary author who will most likely be remembered with the title "American Humorist" in the tradition of Twain, H.L. Mencken and Ring Lardner. If you've never read or heard Garrison Keillor, first you'll need to leave your cave. I would recommend his radio show as a starting point which, if you can't find on your radio dial, the Prairie Home Companion website assures me:

Every Saturday, from 5 p.m. – 7 p.m. (Central Time) visit to listen to a live audio Web stream of the show. You can hear a rebroadcast of the live stream on Sunday, from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. (CT)
You can subscribe to The Writer's Almanac on iTunes as a daily podcast.  It's only a few minutes long and most days will give you an opportunity to work something into a conversation or introduce you to something you were not previous aware of. Also, I would recommend you go down to your local library and check out a few of his anthologies and collections. He wrote columns for a time for which you can check out at the link, but I'm noticing that he isn't doing that anymore at the moment. He is one of our more charming modern authors.  I would recommend his work to anyone.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Tree Farm Photos

Today we went to the Tree Farm, which is actually a (very) small portion of the Mendocino National Forest.  The official title is the Genetic Resource and Conservation Center.  For my readers who live in Chico, it is possible to live here for years and not even know it's there (I did) because it's sort of hidden behind the Skyway Italian Cottage in those roads behind that shopping center.  It's down Cramer Lane if you want to check Google Maps.

It was, until recently, known as the "Dog Park" which was part of what kept us from going there very often.  It was a place where people could go and let their dogs run free of leashes.  All of the havoc you would imagine from that set-up ensued and now dog leashes are strictly enforced.

Which is good for us because now we can take our dogs there.  Ginger looks intimidating to some people and Schubert is not a very well behaved little dog, so we never let them outside without leashes and try not to take them places where others don't extend the same courtesy.

The tree farm mainly looks like this.  It's like walking into a Tolkien story (except with paved trails.)

Here's Laurie on the trail.

Here's me by a very large and old tree.  I imagine a lizard just ran by my feet or something.

They have many types of trees, many of which are not indigenous to the area.  Comanche Creek runs through the park and the lion's share of the trees grow near the creekside.

One of the more recent photographs of me that I've actually liked.

It is 209 acres of land, so there is more than the creekside trees.  The back of the park looks like the picture below with many trees growing in rows.  It's a nursery area of trees whose seeds have been gathered throughout the North State.  I have heard that they are the most genetically superior of those seeds, so we're helping evolution along, fighting against encroaching civilization.  The pinnacle of Ishi Nation saplings, cultivated and preserved by one of our greatest social programs!

You can get a really nice, 45 minute or so hike on that back trail and now that they've outlawed unleashed dogs it seems like you can pretty much have the park to yourself.  We did and it's even a holiday weekend!

It was a really lovely way to spend an afternoon.  One which I imagine we'll be repeating soon.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Hamlet- Part 1

I'm glad I saw fit to break this up into three weeks instead of two.  There's a lot of material to cover here.

A few notes about the text before we get started: first of all, yes, there were different editions in the early printing of Shakespeare's plays some of which had textual variants although there is almost universal concord in the current editions you're likely to own.  Don't panic!  The variants are really not all that important unless you're an extreme theater or language geek (both of which I am undoubtedly, but I promise to keep comments on the subject to a minimum.)  In short, don't worry about it.

Also falling squarely in the "don't worry about it" category is for those who are supplementing this reading with a viewing of a production of the play (there is nothing wrong with that.  It is a play, after all, which was written to be watched.)  You should probably know that productions of the entire play are rare these days.  Famously, the Kenneth Branagh film version is the entire text and spans over four hours.  Most film versions confine themselves around the traditional two hours, but cutting some material.  If you're looking for the best, I personally think the Derek Jacobi BBC production (which is available on DVD) is the best film version, although I've not yet seen the David Tenant version.  I hear very good things about that as well.

For fun, I'll say that the two worst, in my opinion, are the MST3K version and the Ethan Hawke version.  The former I recommend for hilarity, the latter I recommend you avoid like the avian 'flu.

What is usually cut is the great portions about Fortinbras and the stuff with the ambassadors.  Which I imagine we will largely skip in our commentary on the text as well.  I see no problem with referring to productions while reading this as plays are 1) clearly in the category of literature (to deny that would be to throw out Wilde, Shaw, Ibsen, Beckett, Shakespeare, Moliere, Brecht, Sophocles, and so many more from the heading of literature and I would be willing to say that only a buffoon would do something like that) and 2) clearly meant to be watched.  I would add, however, that the language is very important to the enjoyment of this work, so it's probably a good idea to read along as well.

We open on the guard, Horatio and the first coming of the ghost, which acts as a hook to draw the audience right into the story.  I wonder if Horatio is just cold or filled with dread when he says that "a piece of him" is there.  Horatio is sort of a young skeptic although he starts mentioning God and omens as soon as the ghost shows up.  He gives some Fortinbras exposition and suggests this may be an omen of war.

Meanwhile, back at the castle, Claudius gives Laertes leave to return to his studies in France, goes on with an ambassador for a while, both of which, if I were directing, I would interpret as snubbing Hamlet by putting other business before him publicly.  Hamlet is unhappy (get used to that) because his father died and his mother married his uncle so soon after that the funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage supper.  Hamlet gets a little snarky.  Before they leave, Claudius makes a passing reference to Denmark (which is Claudius) drinking today.  Also get used to that.  It's not the last time it's mentioned.  Claudius seems to be a bit of a tippler.

One of the textual variants occurs in this first soliloquy.  Hamlet says in the later editions "O that this too too solid flesh would melt..." but in earlier versions says "O that this too too sallied flesh would melt..."  Sallied meaning "sullied."  In the production I spent two years of my life working on, the actor who played Hamlet liked "sullied" better as it was more of a foul word to be spat out of the mouth.  Which reminds me, much to the chagrin of Laurie, I find myself reading most of the text out loud as I'm reading this.  I would recommend the same to all of you as it was composed for the tongue.

Don't miss Hamlet's mentions of God and religious obligations which stand in contrast to Horatio's doubting spirit, possibly a device to give more weight to Horatio's telling Hamlet that he's just witnessed the ghost of his father.  When the skeptic tells you they've just seen a ghost, you take notice.

Enter the Polonius Family.  Laertes is about to depart.  We get the impression that he is a man who values virtue and morality from his speech to Ophelia (although I've seen Ophelia's response played as a reprimand suggesting hypocrisy before, I don't think the text supports that choice.  My friend Tom Bradac who is the head of Shakespeare Orange County and former president of Shakespeare America used to have a phrase he told me over and over through the years.  He would say "There is no subtext in Shakespeare."  Meaning this: what the characters are saying is exactly what the characters are meaning) which makes Polonius' later checking up on him seem a little comical.  Polonius in his comedically long-winded advice (notice he begins by stating that the wind is in the sails and that Laertes should haste to leave, then goes on to give 20 lines of advice) says a lot of financial wisdom, ending in the oft quoted (I just quoted it myself the other day to my step-daughter upon her graduation) "to thine own self be true."  Polonius is one of the characters that flesh out quickly.  He's pompous, verbose, long-winded, thinks well (possibly too well) of his advice, very concerned over finances, and, in spite of all of this, completely lovable.  Which... kind of sounds like me.

The second ghost scene begins with the King drinking at the blast of trumpets.  The ghost tells Hamlet about his murder, which makes Hamlet's hair stand up like a fretful porpentine.  Claudius did it by pouring Draino in his ear and clearly this is not a murder mystery because upon revealing that we still have four acts to go.

What an awesome word is "unaneled!"  If you're anything like me, you'll now wait for years for the opportunity to use that word.

There's the swearing bit at the end of this scene and then we go into Act II.  Skipping Reynaldo, Ophelia tells Polonius about Hamlet's recent distracted behavior.  This is misinterpreted as being crazy in love with Ophelia and Polonius scampers off to tattle to the king.

If you've never seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, do yourself a favor and rent it as soon as you're done reading Hamlet.

Polonius goes on and on and on about that letter.  The King hides and Hamlet enters reading a book and cleverly mocks Polonius for a while.  Hamlet gives the really fantastic "I have of late- but wherefore I know not- lost all my mirth" speech in the section where, don't miss it, the text stops being in iambic and is in plain prose for a bit.  Let that be a lesson to us all.  Speaking in prose = crazy.

The actors arrive and give a Pyrrhus speech which Hamlet loves but Polonius doesn't until Hamlet accuses him of being a Philistine.  And we end this week with the setting up of the rat trap.

We are going to be ambitious and read Acts III and IV this next week.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

New Podcast- A Selection of Sonnets by William Shakespeare

It's a little shorter of a podcast this week than in the previous few weeks, but no less awesome of material.  This week I selected six sonnets by William Shakespeare to read in this week's podcast.  Perhaps some of the more familiar of Shakespeare's sonnets, but always worth delving into again I should think.

I can't think of much more to say by way of introduction.  The sonnets were originally published eight years before Shakespeare's death.  One of the great mysteries of literature is his dedication of the book to "Mr. W.H." which has lead to centuries of scholarly speculation as to who that may have been.  One of the more mundane and obvious speculations is William Herbert who bank-rolled the publication of the First Folio of Shakespeare's works.  Although William Hart was Shakespeare's nephew.  I think Bertrand Russell suggested that it was a misprint of Shakespeare's own initials (and, indeed, Elizabethan printers seem to have observed less consistent grammar, spelling, and letter use than we in our present enlightened age.)  Oscar Wilde even wrote a short story about it, suggesting someone named Willie Hughes because of the recurring words "will" and "hues." 

Be that as it may, as usual, you can listen to the podcast here:

Or, you can go download it through this link:


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Let's All Write A Sonnet!

The sonnet is a form that has been employed for about 800 years, give or take some lapses in popularity.  It's an easy form to describe and possibly one of the best examples of form aiding the poet's capacity for expression.  Simply put, there are very good reasons why it is such a popular form.

Specifically, we are going to write a Shakespearean sonnet.  Or, rather, I am anyway and that's the type I'm going to describe here.  If you feel drawn to write a Petrarchian sonnet or a free verse sonnet or any other kind of sonnet, don't let me stand in your way.  The form was adapted into what became the Shakespearean sonnet to aid in English usage.  As Stephen Fry puts it, in Italian, every other word ends in -ella or -ino.  The Shakespearean gives more variety of rhyme.

So, here's how it is done.  Fourteen lines sectioned like so: eight lines, then six lines.  The rhyme scheme is abab, cdcd, efef, gg.  Traditionally, the topics are love or philosophy, usually on one specific thought or subject within those topics.  You make an observation or description in the first eight.  In the latter six you reveal what you think of it and what conclusion you come to on the topic.  Or, if you're like me, you just try to at least get it on that dart-board.

I must confess that I have a devil of a time with rhymed couplets, which is part of why I'm doing this exercise.  If you're like me, form poetry is a difficult thing to begin with, but so often I have found that the difficult things are the things worth doing.  I'm always afraid when I embark to write in rhymed couplets that I'm going to come out with a trite Hallmark card.  I look to W.S. Gilbert and Shakespeare.  I would encourage all of you to look at as many other sonnets as you can before starting this exercise (there are so many.  Shakespeare and Petrarch obviously, Ted Berrigan, Lord Alfred Douglas, Donne, Milton, Spencer, Browning, Millay, e e cummings, and many many more.)  First of all, it always helps to fill your brain with greatness because then greatness is what will be in your brain.  Second, and more importantly, it also helps to see another writer having fun with the form.

As usual, I will go first.

Sonnetic Advice to Some Young Men
by Paul Mathers

You gentlemen who wish to assign roles
to gender, strict as algebraic forms,
remember the variety of souls
it takes to see the ship survive the storm.

If you should wish to find a love that's lasting
and you've a rigid list of traits you'd rather
you may as well just call up Central Casting.
To you what's inside one is like another.

For when you come to love another person,
The person is the thing you come to love.
So, make sure that that crush that you are nursing's
A person you could stand to keep abreast of.

Unless it's someone you view as a friend
you're doomed to have your love overextend.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Gina's Graduation

This morning Gina graduated from CSU Chico with Bachelor's Degrees in Linguistics and Liberal Studies.  This was our view from the bleachers. 

Here's Gina and Laurie after the ceremony.  The medallion around Gina's neck is her Phi Kappa Phi Honors Society medallion.

Here's Gina and I after the ceremony.

A picture of Laurie and I which I thought came out very nice.

And a picture of Gina and her boyfriend Stefan after the ceremony.

It was a lovely morning.  We are all very proud of Gina.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Greetings From The Couch!

Hi, everyone! Paul Mathers here with a public service announcement.  Are you over 30 like me?  Then you might want to consider stretching before you go on your daily walks.  You may have noticed the photo above of me on the couch with my leg wrapped and elevated.

It happened when I was walking Ginger and I stepped off of a curb to cross a street like any normal, coordinated human being would do on any normal day.  What I did not account for it that my calf is 33 years old and apparently the tendons don't hold together like they used to.  It was a long hobble back to the house and I learned that Ginger clearly has no Saint Bernard in her.  Although putting a barrel of brandy on her collar might come in handy now that I'm thinking of it.

Actually, it may have something to do with the shoes I was wearing which were not sensible for walking.  They were nonsensical shoes.

And yes, for those keeping score, I think that equals two major nerd cred points for Paul: 1) I sustained a dog-walking injury and 2) I may be using it as an excuse to get more reading done.

New Podcast- John 17-21

This week's podcast is a reading from the Gospel According to John from the Bible, specifically Chapters 17 through 21.  This comprises Christ's betrayal, trial, crucifixion and resurrection as well as Peter's denial and restoration, Thomas' doubts, the women at the empty tomb and much more.  Along with being a great classic and a beautiful piece, this text also happens to be the basis for a good portion of my own personal spiritual walk.

A quick note on the translation: left to my own devices I would not have chosen the King James Version for reading this passage out loud.  On my own I tend to use the Revised Standard Version, but copyright laws on translations are different and I'm not entirely sure how they apply to Biblical translations.  So, instead of risking it or, even worse, attempting to wade through information on copyright laws for translations, I chose to use a translation I knew to be public domain.  So, that's the only reason I'm using the King James Version.  I tried using the Geneva Bible first, but that was even more of a challenge.  

So, you can listen to the podcast here.

Or go download it here: 

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Reading Group Reminder- Start reading Hamlet!

This week we begin our reading of Hamlet.  I think we will read two Acts this weeks, two Acts next week, and then we'll do Act V on the final week.  You're more than welcome to read ahead, but do record your thoughts as you go to share.  I don't think it should take anyone three weeks to read Hamlet but there are two reasons why we're doing it this way.  First is that we don't want to leave anyone behind, but also because I expect there will be a lot to be said about each portion we're reading.

I've been looking forward to this one since we began this group.  I think you will all enjoy it as much as I will.

So, this week, everyone read Acts I and II.  Next week we'll post our comments.

As usual, I like to post something relating to the piece we're reading and Hamlet is another one with, frankly, too much material available.  There are many parodies, raps, puppet shows, straight performances, cartoons, MST3K, also a video of Charles Nelson Reilly doing the "Oh that this too too solid flesh"soliloquy which I was so close to posting from Youtube, not to mention all the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead material,  and, believe me, you should be thanking me for wading through them so you don't have to.  I actually didn't have to either because I finally decided that I should set the bar of the magnificent work of art we are about to delve into with another magnificent work of art.  So I chose to post Natalie Dessay's simply marvelous performance of Ophelia's mad scene aria "Pâle et blonde" from the opera Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas.  I thought this was staggeringly beautiful.  The response of the audience is, in my opinion, entirely called for.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Let's All Write An Elegy!

In the interest of full disclosure, I do have a personal reason for these "working out our poetry chops" exercise posts. I am writing a libretto for an opera.  So, exploring forms and tightening up my skill are both on the menu, as well as the reasons I outlined in last week's Sestina post in regard to why we are doing this.  Although, having said that, we are going to depart briefly this week from strict forms and focus a bit on themes.

We are about to write an elegy.  The elegy is one of the old forms of poetry.  It is, put simply, a poem of mourning (which should go far in explaining why humans have been writing them for so long). Although there was a long period where people wrote elegies on the subject of love, don't let's muddy the waters that we are preparing to bathe in.  Ron Padgett clears this up (and defines the difference from an epitaph) by saying that an elegy is mourning for something that is past, gone, or lost.

There is a classical elegiac form:  Four lines stanzas, iambics, rhymed abab at the end of each line.  I am not going to be using that form strictly speaking, but it always helps to have these things in the very back of one's consciousness when writing these things.  Which is how I tend to do it myself.  I get the key concepts and try to park it somewhere in the same zip-code as those concepts.  I think next week I'll try to work within a stricter form and see what we come up with there.  You are certainly welcome to write an elegy in the classical manner if you so choose.

The looser view of the structure of an elegy traditionally begins with the thesis, that which is being mourned, then the lamenting portion of the poem, and finally some form of resolution over that which is mourned.  Keeping that in mind, let us write an elegy!  Again, you can post yours in the comments here, or on Facebook if you would like, or keep it to yourself, burn it, bury it in a mayonnaise jar in the backyard, sell it to The New Yorker, whatever you want.

Elegiac Memory
by Paul Mathers

Mourn we now the little glories lost.
The ticking sands of dailiness
that make up a life, discarded for more
dazzling, flashy peaks of moments,
no more real or valid than the mundane.

Child tired on cold medicine held
over mother's shoulder facing me
one row up in church. She watches me
my double chin wagging in baritone hymnody.
Absolutely fascinated for the moment.

I recall once telling six year old niece
that she wouldn't remember this conversation.
She would grow, recall childhood home,
that memory like a sieve on the beach
which holds stones like death and amusement parks
and a few odd large grits of sand
like when I looked in the teacher's lounge
Mr. Crabtree's sing-song voice saying
"You don't belong over here!" Thirty years gone.
Why is that still in my brain?

But this conversation would be lost forever.

"Had I but time--as this fell sergeant, Death,
Is strict in his arrest--O, I could tell you."

Theology may exist as the dim hope
that someone reliable is keeping track.
These grasping lost moments pile on my chest,
the weight of years like my high blood pressure.

The brutal oddity of my singing
viewed through child eyes on cold medicine
Is already gone for her. Not for me
as I write it here for you, pick my toenail,
prepare to mow lawn, cough, hiccup,
smell lentils, sound of Laurie playing Billie Holiday,
look at the ceiling fan's rotating
shadow on the wall from two rooms over
dot dot dot

Important updates!

First of all, we've been plate-poor since we've been married, having to wash dishes often, so we finally got around to buying a load of new plates. These are restaurant plates, plain and white, which we find very charming.

The plants are now planted. You can kind of see the black eyed susans if you make the picture large. We planted them on each side of the steps. Next to them, about a foot away, is lavender. You can't see the jasmine in this picture as it is outside of the fence. But you can see Ginger in the doorway.

The lilies have bloomed. The dark spot is a bumblebee.

Also, this beautiful little guy came to visit our back wall this evening outside by the basil bush. My hand is for size comparison and, again, my hand is the size of a normal human hand.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Jane Eyre- The Conclusion

Let me take a moment here before we get started to express how much I think that this a simply wonderful book.  I didn't know what to expect going into it, but it really was marvelous and one of my favorites in this series so far.

Let me take another moment to point out that we have passed the halfway mark in our list of 10 Essential Classics.

The descent into darkness comes this week with a rather innocent seeming invitation by St. John for Jane to learn Hindustani with him.  I thought this quickly and startlingly snowballed into St. John's proposing marriage to Jane with the pretense of the necessity for missionary women to be married, specifically her to him for her to join him in India.  She, of course, refuses and we finally come to what I puzzled over long ago.

I'd mentioned an article I'd read in which the author claimed Charlotte Bronte had a very negative view of religion, specifically Christianity.  Up until this point I thought the argument was at best a reach and at worst baseless.  Now I think I see the source of that claim.  St. John behaves beastly and I'm afraid we don't really have full resolution to this when we finally lay down our text aside from the wrap up letter (which seemed a bit little and late to me.)  The worst, for me, was the implication by St. John that if Jane does not marry him, it is a sign of a reprobate soul.  A shocking bit of spiritual manipulation (one that I wish I could say had no basis in reality of the behavior of members of the Church at certain points in history.)  His argument, by the way, is a manifestation of the darker side of Puritanism, to judge the state of souls on the basis of actions.

Luckily, the sisters side with Jane and I certainly wasn't sorry to see St. John leave the story except that he had to end so ugly.  Pride does wretched things to people.

But, before he does, we finally get our moment of breaking down the wall of the supernatural.  We'd wondered if the story was going to outright allow for the supernatural.  While one might argue for a shared unconscious impulse manifesting in similar ways by coincidence at the same time, I think it's clear that the link between Jane and Rochester is meant to be interpreted as extrasensory perception (or something of that sort of phenomenon.  We are nearly a century before Jung at this point.)

Speaking of religion, there is the almost Catholic retribution that befell Rochester in our time away from him, but now he is as humbled as Jane is elevated.  It was a beautiful ending and I did actually choke up a bit at the end.  Again, what a wonderful book.  I hope that all of you enjoyed it.

We've finally arrived at an exciting moment for me.  Our next text is Shakespeare's masterpiece Hamlet.  Next week, as usual, I will post a reminder to anyone who wants to read along where we will be reading.  Until then, secure a copy of Hamlet for yourself.  You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

On On The Road: The Movie!

So, I read on Google News that Hollywood (or, rather, a specific film company which apathy restrains me from looking up) is about to begin filming an adaptation of Jack Kerouac's book, On The Road.  There's the Fat Man bomb. The headline in which I received the news then dropped the Little Boy that the female lead in the film (yeah, I don't remember one in the book either) will be played by the girl from the Twilight movies.  That sound you hear is, in fact, the last shovelful of dirt on the grave of the Beat Generation.  That is, at least, until their work passes into the public domain long after all of us are dead and some wag feels the book would be improved if they added passages in which the protagonists travel the country fighting the undead.

I don't usually talk about film on this blog, mainly because I get tired of re-explaining Sturgeon's Law.  In this case I'm making an exception since the material is based on a work of literature and gives an opportunity to talk about a period of American literary history sparsely convered thus far on this blog. So, before we go any further, I should probably take a moment to talk about The Beat Generation. Then we can move on to the subject of film adaptations of books.

The Beat Generation was a literary movement in America starting in the late 1940s and extending... well, to various points depending on who you talk to.  I think it's safe to say it's long over now, arguably long over before I was born.  Much like The Lost Generation of the 1920s, there seems to be little unity in the styles, themes, forms and messages from the authors of the Beat Generation. They seem to be a movement revolving around some guys who comprised a circle of friends (although even that doesn't quite fit as there are people like Richard Brautigan or Charles Bukowski who are sometimes linked to the Beats even though they were never invited to the Beat parties.  And, parenthetically, both of whom I like far better than many of the card carrying Beats.)

The big three of the Beats were Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.  Kerouac was a novelist, Ginsberg a poet and Burroughs a platypus or something.   I like Ginsberg and Burroughs quite a bit individually.  I think Ginsberg "did it right" early on in extending a reach back to the older poets while seeking to blaze a new trail.  I have no qualm with asserting that Howl is one of the greatest and most important pieces of writing in the English language of the last 100 years.  In spite of his really shabby third act of writing and his lifelong insistence of the greatness of Kerouac, I think Ginsberg was one of our better poets.

Burroughs' work in his day was like taking an iPod to neanderthals.  His experimentation was light years beyond anything that I'm even seeing today much less fifty years ago.  The better of the Beats and their forerunning of Transgressional writing was of great interest to me. Which, unfortunately is the aspect of the Beat era that I don't see in Kerouac's work.  Other than that, I don't know what you could say about the unifying element of the Beats.  Maybe that they were urban or experimental or modern or inspired by jazz, but even all of those don't quite fit in all of the peg holes.

When I was talking to Laurie about this, I think she hit it on the head when she said "Kerouac is like Pink Floyd to me."  I knew what she meant.  She meant that a lot of people get really really into it and think it's the greatest thing ever when they're about 16 years old, but then usually completely lose interest in it by the time they are about 22 or 23.  That's all well and good as I suppose Kerouac could be a gateway author into a habit with greater authors down the road.  I suppose I shouldn't knock that, but I have grave doubts that I'll ever read the man again.

I have a friend who is a literature professor who recently told me that the academic market in America is absolutely flooded with "experts" on the Beat Generation.  This didn't surprise me as there was a huge spike in their popularity in the 1990s, about the time the last of them were dying off.  I was no exception in the spike in interest in their writing at the time and now I sort of feel like I dodged a bullet.  Had I gone for my teaching credentials in the mindset I was in during the mid-1990s, I very well may have focused my expertise in that direction as well.  Although, like all great literature, the flooding of that market is not indicative of how widely they are read.  Some may be fixing to object to what I've just said, but stick with me for a moment here and I think you'll see what I mean.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Beats were the counter-cultural figures in American literature. There was also a literary community of sorts of the young Establishment literary elite who included people like Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote. I absolutely adore Capote's work. Vidal I could take or leave, and those who know me know how strongly I dislike Norman Mailer.  Capote famously responded when told that Kerouac wrote On The Road in only 2 weeks, "That's not writing. That's typing!"

I would add that these men are also not terribly widely read today. There are people from that generation of authors in America who are still widely read but who wouldn't have been invited to the parties of either group.  I speak of Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut.  There's probably a lesson there for writers.

I would say that if American Literature of that period were a college, the Beats would be the hipsters or art students, the Vidal group would be the frats, and Bradbury would be like the quiet, studious honors student whose name you didn't even know but who, years later, becomes a billionaire.

All in all, as with any time period, time weeds out the awful, and the enduring remains.  This is not to say that there aren't lost masterpieces by any means.  I think history has revealed that there are tons of lost or forgotten masterpieces.  What I am saying is that what is popular today doesn't necessarily indicate what will be read in 500, 100 or even 25 years from now.

I don't want to come down too hard on Kerouac.  I do like some of his work although it's mainly the less popular, darker pieces like Maggie Cassidy or Big Sur.  I've heard rumors about a film version of On The Road for years, but one has never happened until now.  I think there is a reason for that.  I don't think there's a movie in it because I don't think the story by itself is that captivating.  What's interesting about it is the words, not the visual story.  The visual story is a couple of unemployed young men travelling the country, listening to jazz and, I don't know, maybe talking here and there about this and that.  It is in Kerouac's exposition where he attempts to elevate the experiences to the celestial, the holy, the grand.  Whether or not he is successful in that endeavor and regardless of what I say about quality, his voice is what makes the book interesting.

Fans of Hunter S. Thompson's writing can explain to you the difference between the 1980s movie Where The Buffalo Roam, which was (very loosely) based on several of his works, and the 1990s adaptation of his magnum opus Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  The former was a failure and the latter somewhat of an uneven success as a film.  That is because the former shows what Hunter Thompson is doing, which isn't nearly as interesting as showing what's going on inside of Hunter Thompson's head, which is what the latter attempted.

Which, in the end, is the problem with most film adaptations of books.  Put simply, the problem with a film adaptation is that it is not the book.  Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that no one should ever make a film adaptation of a work of literature.  I think there are fine adaptations out there of works of literature into film.  Hiroshima Mon Amor, Jules et Jim, Betty Blue, Satyricon, and, hey, if we're desiring our fallutin' to not be at quite such astonishing heights, I even liked the V for Vendetta adaptation.  I thought it cut in understandable places and reworked the material in an attempt to speak to the time and place of its release (Bush's America instead of Thatcher's England.)  And I'm sure there are many more exceptions, but still, there is a reason why "the book is so much better" has become a cliche in reference to film adaptations.

It's important for one to know why a work of literature is a work of literature.  If what makes the book great is the language of the storyteller, one might do well to avoid attempting to twist it into the medium of visual story telling.  It's the same reason we don't have Plato's Republic: The Musical.  Film is a visual story telling medium which would suggest having a story that is visually interesting.

Even better than examples of exceptions, there are films about authors which are excellent and serve to introduce new audiences to works. American Splendor springs to mind.  As does, staying on topic, Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, which wasn't an adaptation of the book so much as a collage of William Burroughs' life surrounding the period in which he wrote the book.  I have heard that the recent Allen Ginsberg biopic Howl was excellent. I thought that the recent film Capote was fantastic. It would seem to me that making films to inspire audiences to dig deeper into books would both bring in the fan base dollar as well as, look out, I'm going to go for the Newton Minnow sounding admonition, being a responsible film maker and respecting the original work.

I would also point out that there are many great, struggling LIVING authors who could use the money from a film adaptation of their book way more than a man 40 years in the grave. 

So, my whole point is that, like it or not, I don't think making On The Road into a film is a very good idea but, like it or not, they didn't ask me and they are going to make it anyway. Also, for those who know about Kerouac's life and his severe difficulty in coping with fame and the general public's misunderstanding of his work, the most honoring thing one could do for Kerouac, if one was so inclined, would be to make sure that none of one's money goes toward such a thing.

It would be unfair and irresponsible for me to say that this film adaptation will be awful. It may be the best film adaptation in the history of film for all I know. I am not a prophet. However, I think we can all sense patterns in the established data which indicate that 1) film adaptations of books tend to be uneven, probably less than 25% being worthwhile and 2) especially with books that do not lend themselves to visual story telling.  My thesis is that this book does not lend itself to visual story telling.

And, in the end, hearing a book I like is being adapted into a movie tends to elicit the same response as when I hear a song I like used as a commercial jingle. I know that the original work will outlast the parasitic offshoot. But it doesn't do much to soften the blow of watching something you love sacrificed on the altar of the god Millions of Dollars.

New Podcast- The Dream by Lord Byron

This week's podcast is a poem, The Dream by Lord Byron.  It's another piece about sleep which seems to be an emerging motif in my podcast material choices.

The piece is said to have been inspired by view from the Misk Hills in Nottinghamshire in England.  So, if you're fabulously wealthy or happen to currently be in North Central England, you can go there and see what he was on about.

Although it's not uncommon for one to take bits of dreams and put them in works of art.  There's a wonderful story by Robert Louis Stevenson which posed the question over whether or not that is a form of plagiarism.  Maybe I'll get to that piece one of these weeks.

So, here is one of Lord Byron's great poems.

And, as always, you can follow this link to download it for yourself.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Let's All Write A Sestina!

I thought we might do something a little different on my blog today, something interactive, a project, something for us to do together.  This stemmed from me feeling convicted by the words of Oscar Wilde in my most recent podcast (which you can download here) about making art versus merely talking about art.  Also about histories of art.  So, we're going to loosen up the poets within on my blog today and we are going to write a Sestina.

First, I think I should probably address those of you in the audience who don't want to write a poem by answering two questions: Why should we write poetry and what does it accomplish?  Life is not about how many credits you can earn and what you do with the limited options of goods and services to obtain with those credits.  That's called survival.  Any poet can tell you how little money poetry yields.  So, already there's a bit of a wild and dangerous side because the value of poetry is something not monetary.  We're closing in on it.  Poetry is, in fact, the opposite of money.  Money is the root of all kinds of evil, so, the opposite would be...

Good.  Okay, I'm overstating slightly.  So, let's get into the more practical side.  Aside from depth of spirit (which in and of its self should be convincing enough.  Which is better: "Oh, splendour of sunburst breaking forth this day when I lay my hands once more on Helen, my wife" or "Hey, Sweetcheeks, wake up and lookit dat sunrise.  Ain't that something, huh?") here are

Three Good Reasons Why You Should Write A Sestina:

1.  It is a mental exercise.  It will require you to think in ways you don't normally think, similar to solving a puzzle or playing a game of chess, but with an original product from your own creativity to show for it at the end.  It is an exercise in discipline, structure, planning, perception, vocabulary, and will require you to look at the world in ways you don't usually.  Form poetry is a wonderful thing.  If you're anything like me, I think you will also find that the form walks you through the process and, in the end, makes you look good.  Thanks, Form Poetry!

2.  You are going to die.  Sorry for the spoiler and even more sorry if you're hearing it here first.  So, now you stand at a crossroad.  Either you can take the path where one day you will die never having written a Sestina or you can take the path where you will die but once you wrote a Sestina.  I believe we should try to experience that which does not do us or others harm.  Which is why I once ate squid ink pasta.

3.  Laurie and I were pulling weeds earlier (actually, she was pulling weeds and I was standing in the shade telling her about New Journalism) and Laurie mentioned how keeping the yard lovely is like keeping one's hair clean to discourage lice.  Or, as a youth pastor I knew used to say, there are two kinds of people: moths and cockroaches.  One is attracted to light and the other to darkness.  If you take steps to make your little corner of the world beautiful, even if you're just attempting to, it is a small vote against the tide of ugliness pouring in.  Which is a nice way of saying that people who don't care tend to hang out in places where it looks like people don't care.  Will planting zinnias keep you from being burglarized?  Well... maybe and I'm only half joking about that.  It may be a drop in the ocean, but remember, the ocean is made up of many many many many single drops.  Within a lifetime ones actions could add up to equal an ocean.

So it is with art.  You are making something beautiful in the world that wasn't there before.

I would also point out that none of those three things require you to actually show your Sestina to anyone if you don't want to.  You are more than welcome to post your results here or keep them to yourself if you prefer.  If you're shy, we're all friends here and promise to be kind.  But I do urge all of you who could possibly be reading this to do this exercise.  I promise you it will be more fun than you expect and most likely more fun than whatever else you were going to do this weekend.


How To Write A Sestina:

As you may well expect, I do have two book recommendations before we get started.  The first is Handbook of Poetic Forms by Ron Padgett.  It's a simply technical guide for poets, written by a poet.  It goes through poetic forms, tells you how to write them and then gives an example.  Once, about a decade ago, I went through and wrote one of each to learn more about as many poetic forms as I could.  It's a great tool for people who want to write poetry and I think everyone should own it.  The second book is The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry (Yes, that Stephen Fry.  One of my living heroes and one of the several people in this world whose jobs I wish I had.)  His book is similar to the Padgett text although is a bit more focused on, in his words, "unlocking the poet within."  Simply put, if I were giving gifts I would give the Padgett text to someone like my friend New York Rob (were it not for the fact that he originally gave it to me) because he wants to write poetry and I would give the Fry text to Laurie who thinks she doesn't like poetry.  This is meant to be encouraging, not condescending, but it is my belief that there are two kinds of people: people who love poetry and people who don't know that they love poetry yet.

The Sestina, as Fry points out, is complicated to explain, but great fun to write.  In my experience, it is way more fun to write a Sestina than you will expect.  We have six stanzas with a tercet at the end.  That will make sense in a moment.  First, pick six words.  They can be whatever you want, but make sure they are words you want to work with in a poem because you're going to get a lot of use out of your six words here.  They don't have to be related, they can be any words you like, but you may want to avoid conjunctions.  Or do whatever you want.  I'm just giving out advice here.  Now, for the sake of this description, assign to each of your words a letter (A,B,C,D,E,F) and the chart below is meant to show which word is at the end of each line (you will also be providing the lines that lead up to the word. It's not just putting single words in different orders.)

Stanza 1:

Stanza 2:

Stanza 3:

Stanza 4:

Stanza 5:

Stanza 6:


In the Tercet, you are putting the first word around the middle of the line and the second at the end.  Don't panic.  Stick with me here.  I'll give you an example in a moment which should clarify your questions.  As for how long the lines should be, Fry states "There is no set metre to the modern English sestina, but traditionally it has been cast in iambics."  So, know that and do what thou wilt.

Word Processors are a great help here.  Take the chart I've provided above, substitute your words for the letters and fill in the lines of the poem in front of them.  Piece of cake.

I'll go first.  Below is my own and extremely modest effort.  My iambics will be very loose and I have doubts that this will one day end up in the Norton Anthology, but again, one does not write poetry to be a rock star.  I would also say before jumping off the diving board that I have no idea if this is going to be any good or not.  But I'm going to do it anyway so that I will have done it.  Also, we're not doing this for praise.  We're doing this because we must.

I went to Twitter to give someone the opportunity to give me my six words for this piece.  These six words come from Renee Gallo, an old friend for whom I was actually the minister at her wedding.
My words are: iron, shoe, wave, screen, reflect, exit.  Get your six words and a poem should emerge from it.

Minotaur Sestina
by Paul Mathers

I'm left at the maw of the maze in iron.
A solitary roach skitters over my shoe
and the fear of the beast grips me in a wave.
Before me a marble wall screen
Swallowing the meager light reflect
And many miles to go until an exit

Pah! Nothing further from my mind than an exit
With these chains I'll choke the bogey with iron
The last thing I need now is to reflect
how I got here. Four pebbles in my shoe...
I pass through the archway like a rood screen
and cross myself that courage may not wave.

Slightest scuff of my feet travels in wave
so far I'm sure it reaches the remote exit.
And I know there is nothing to screen
my presence from the other. My heart iron,
The command is forward. I kick off shoes.
Heel to toe, down Eastern passage I reflect.

Oh, but vain assurance on myself reflects
As Minotaur's musk wafts from behind in a wave
I turn and the sight to make my heart shoe
Steaming demon beast intent upon my exit
by another means. My wrist armored in iron.
My faculty fooling neither, a smoke screen.

Yet my only hope is that smoke screen.
I howl and all the walls my voice reflects.
I fly at the beast with wrists webbed in iron
And throttle his throat while great head waves
Horns ripping flesh. I effect the slow exit
As the bull-head comes to rest at my shoe.

Chains sloppily saw the head off by my shoe,
Back and forth. A fine mist of blood screens
Over me. I rise to seek my exit.
Decapitated head in tow. I reflect
the shadow of a gross monster and the wave
of the man I've become like a hot iron.

Burdened and wounded, like a fiery iron for my shoe,
I waver in my confidence, that useless paper screen,
as I reflect what I'll be in world beyond this exit.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Jane Eyre Book Club supplimental

I don't usually do this, but in my uncontainable amusement over this video I found I could not resist sharing this with our Jane Eyre book group.

Reading the Classics with Paul- Jane Eyre Part 6

We start this week's reading with an amazingly well written chapter on hunger, desperation, and finding one's self in that confused place of not knowing where to go or what's going to happen next (a place I've lived for a year now although obviously without so much of the hunger part.)

Jane rides a cab until the money runs out, sleeps outdoors, encounters the general populus' total lack of Christian charity, and finally finds herself moved quite by Providence to the door where an unhelpful servant awaits the return of her helpful master.  Once again, the contrasts are striking.  The lack and uncertainty of Jane's life as a self-imposed exile crescendos to the point where a simple home with the basic necessities of indoor living seem a great gift, even a luxury.  I know for me it was one of those passages that made me feel inexpressibly grateful and somewhat guilty over the things I take for granted daily.

Once inside, Jane gives a piece of misdirection that serves to extend the narrative (the ersatz appellation of "Elliot") and then indulges in one of those Victorian fainting spells we've heard so much about.

St. John is a cold sort of a man, perhaps not what one would expect or hope for in a clergyman.  Again, I think we'll have occasion to return to the subject of religion in Jane Eyre, but for now I would point out that there are two strictly religious men in the book, Mr. Brocklehurst and St. John, both of whom are emotionally distant at best.

They all settle into a life together and you would think that they were all happy or at least content.  But you would be wrong.  Both Jane and St. John's misgivings about where life has landed them in this world.   Jane's a school teacher in a lowly way.  St. John is a minister who would rather be marrying Miss Oliver.  St. John gives Jane a book by Sir Walter Scott and then flees the room after ripping pieces off of her artwork with no explanation or helpful criticism.

St. John has found her out!  She is Jane Eyre, which is not news to us, but she is also Jane: heir which is news to us.  Again, we have contrasts and again we end this week's reading in a character arch that I could not have planned better if I'd tried.  Much like at the beginning of this week's reading with food, shelter and warmth, after all this build up of want Jane finally has family and financial independence.  Both of which she plans on extending to her newfound family although St. John reacts very strangely.

Well, we've finally come to our last week of reading.  This coming week we shall read through the end of the book.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

New Podcast!

This week's podcast is a lecture to art students given by Oscar Wilde.  I thought it was an excellent lecture and am very excited to offer it here this week.  I hope that all of you are as delighted and inspired by his words and I was and am.

Did you know Oscar Wilde almost married the woman who went on to marry Bram Stoker?  Apropos of nothing.  That is just a fun fact I came across in preparing this podcast.

This week a major glitch happened in the website I formerly used to upload these.  I think in trying to get this podcast uploaded I stumbled upon a way to do it that expedites the process on my end considerably.  This means nothing to you except for the warm feelings you may experience over my job being easier, and also if you follow the link to download the podcast, this is why the page is now grey when it used to be kind of peach.

You can listen to the podcast here:

Or, you can go and download it for yourself on the link below.  Simply right click and save the 11MB link:

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

on Walt Whitman

One of the biggest fights Laurie and I have had in the course of our marriage was about Walt Whitman. That's the kind of people we are.  We don't fight often, but when we do, it's about literature.

We were talking about Walt Whitman and Laurie asked me if I thought Walt Whitman was a pantheist.  I said, "Well, I wouldn't say that.  I would say that he was a Transcendentalist."  And off we went.

Laurie's point is that Transcendentalism is pantheistic, which I don't deny.  My point was that Whitman was more specifically and more importantly a Transcendentalist or, at least, highly influential to and seeped in that school of thought if not specifically a card-carrying club member.  What I meant to say is that pantheism is far down the list of adjectives I would assign to Mr. Whitman if called upon to list important information about the man.  Also, I think Transcendentalism is more to the point and encompasses the pantheistic accusation.

In short, we were talking past each other.  We laugh about it now.

The catalyst was an interview on Fresh Air with former Poet Laureate Robert Hass who has edited an anthology of Walt Whitman (which seems to me a bit like writing a biography of Anais Nin or Spalding Gray.  Whitman's main work is an anthology of his poetry and there are very good reasons why people don't read, for example, his early temperance novel.  The man's own work precludes any need for further anthologies.  Of course, not having looked into the Hass text, I should probably reserve judgment... but I won't.)   Hass seems to have some distinct opinions and agendas regarding Whitman.  I daresay I came away from the interview thinking that Hass is attempting to remake Whitman in his own image or, at the very least, one he can feel comfortable setting on the pedestal and bowing to.  The Hass Whitman seems to be sort of a pantheistic, gentle, Buddha-like man whose feet were pink and uncalloused because he floated everywhere about six inches above the ground.  A god-like proto-hippie in the style also bestowed upon John Muir (who also had a beard and a funny hat.)   

This is not the first time someone has attempted to put Whitman into a non-Whitman shaped hole.  George Fetherling wrote about his forthcoming novel, which my blood pressure is only just now recovering from, taking great pains to express his claim that Whitman was equal to a modern, flag-waving, red meat eating, woman-hating, right-wing conservative (a Log Cabin Republican no doubt.) Fetherling's evidence for these claims are parsimonious to the point of arousing suspicion that his basis may be closer to "because I say so!"
"When I set out to write a novel that would use Walt Whitman as a conduit for a parable about Canada, I disliked him intensely. His flag-waving (flag-raving, you might almost say) had long driven me crazy. He seemed to me the precursor of everything that Fox News, for example, symbolizes in our own day."
I would point out to Mr. Fetherling the burden of proof he still bears to draw any credible lines to support that claim.  Really?  Walt Whitman was the precursor to Fox News?!!?  I mean, I don't want to fall all over myself making apologies for a man almost 100 years dead when I was born and who I will never meet should current time-travel technology trends continue indefinitely.  I'm sure Walt Whitman had grumpy days and, much like almost every other human I've met, I'm sure he held some opinions I would disagree with.  Granted, his views of abolition seem very confused to those of us assessing with the luxury of retrospect.  But I contend that there is a very thick line between loving one's country and blind, rabid nationalism (I suppose pointing out Mr. Fetherling's Canadian citizenship would open far too tangential of a can of worms at this point, so I'll keep it in the parentheses.)  Also between the political climate of America directly after the fall of Lincoln and Obama's America.  A Lincoln era Republican resembles a modern Republican about as much as a chicken resembles a dinosaur.  Mr. Fetherling has chosen to erase those lines and has roughed up the corpse of America's great poet of democracy from the sake of some book sales.  I say, "Boo!  Unfair!  Foul!"

I would also note that Hass's Whitman and Fetherling's Whitman sound like two men who could not be allowed in the same room together for certainty of one instantly biting through the other's carotid artery. Although I would also point out that neither view is utter madness.  They are to an absurd degree, but there are kernels of truth in each.

The other important aspect to my disagreement with these two scholars, in fact probably the most important point, is that what they are saying is not important.  Neither capture the super-objective of Whitman's body of work.  As with Shakespeare, having little to no knowledge about the life of the artist should have no bearing on our ability to enjoy their work.  In fact, as is so often the case, if either of them were correct, I fear knowing the life of the artist too intimately would actually serve to diminish my enjoyment of his work, as with Ezra Pound.

When I began talking to Laurie about Whitman, I started with Whitman as an American literary figure and a position I've held for some time that literature is one art form in which America has risen to the occasion.  In our short history, we have a glowing myriad of stars in that particular firmament.  I usually follow by pointing out that, in the grand scheme, we have not risen to some other art forms nearly as deftly.  Of course, there are arguments to be made for an Aaron Copland here or a Warhol there, but really I don't think we've risen to serious art music composition or painting and sculpture with the staying power or the peaks of genius that the history of Europe has produced... yet.  And, of course, there are emerging (or emerged) art forms in which we also hold our own in stomping on the Terra like fashion design or, well, the obvious one would be film.  And as for composition, one could make a fine argument for the distinctly American art form of "The Broadway Musical."

But we were talking about literature, weren't we?  And, although I am not blessed with the specific gift of prophecy, my point is that if America fell tomorrow (Heaven forfend) we will have produced hundreds if not thousands of works of literature which will be read for hundreds of years to come at minimum.  I think there are few and suspect scholars who would deny Whitman's place in that Venn Diagram.

Whitman revolutionized the poetic form by popularizing the form of free verse.  I would stress "the form."  Unfortunately, Whitman was also a bit of a Pandora.  One could make an argument that he made it look too easy in light of the third hand understanding of the care, craft and skill that went into Whitman's verse.  Oh, let's say Whitman filtered through Ginsberg filtered through Bukowski, spawning legions of slatternly poets.  But one cannot level an accusation like that with integrity.  So many great artists and thinkers have had their ideas perverted in generations that have followed them, from Nietzsche to Wagner to Plato to Luther to Marx to Spengler and I could waste a lot more of both your and my time listing many more.  Try to contain your shock, but I've even heard tell of incidents of such things happening with holy scripture!

But the man himself was a masterful poet.  That is the first part of why I love Walt Whitman so much.  He was a master at his art.  His lists are composed with great care as to the flow of the line, the sound on the tongue, the directional forces of his meter.  Like Picasso about 50 years after him, here was a man who was studied and such a master at his craft, but also possessed of such genius that he could reinvent everything.  With grace and beauty beyond description he attempts to sing everything and, while limited as any human, makes as good of any effort as any have.

My other main point about Whitman has more to do with content.  I am continually thunderstruck by his capacity for enthusiasm.  He falls into spontaneous ecstatic reveries about over life and its details.  I only wish I had his apparent capacity for such reveries for even holy things that he had for the mundane and temporal.  However, as I was stating to Laurie, oftentimes I can only enjoy his enthusiasm on a hyperbolic level as, yes, he does crank out some lines that would be deeply troubling were I to take them on a literal theological level.  I'm speaking specifically about "I see God, and in my own face in the glass" and "The scent of these armpits aroma finer than prayer."  Both are sentiments I found astonishingly beautiful, but troubling if I took them literally.  It is, however, a poem and I am, however, conversing with the recorded thoughts of a man long dead, allowing it to speak whatever it speaks to me.  Those who recall my Nietzsche post know that I strongly believe one can have just as fruitful an experience reading someone you disagree with (sometimes more so) than someone you agree with.

There are also a great deal of staggering lines from Whitman that I wholeheartedly embrace such as "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself , I am large, I contain multitudes."  But more to the point, I love Whitman's vastness, his celestial capacity for the gamut of human emotions, his reverence.  I think we could all do to learn from Whitman and that is why I would recommend his "Leaves of Grass" to every man, woman and child on Earth.  As he put it,

"This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body."   

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Hey, look, some people like home decor updates, okay?

It's been a little intense around here lately.  I apologize for the lapse in posts.  I assure you that the Book Group and the podcasts will keep coming as planned.  I have a larger post on Walt Whitman in the works.  But I wanted to take a moment here in the middle of the morning to post photos for those who have been keeping up with our home projects through the miracle of the internet.

Here is the room we just painted after Laurie completed the little homey touches one strives for in a guest room.  This was taken about a week ago and since then Tony has moved back in temporarily.  But this gives you an idea of what the room looks like and what it will be like when someone visits.  It's a cute little room.  The quilt was made by my grandmother when I was a very small child.  Each square is a letter of the alphabet with fictional characters and brands that appealed strongly to children in my generation.  At the top is my name, the names of my extended family members, birth date, time, weight, etc.  My grandmother made another quilt which is red and was made for my wedding although it's carefully stored at present, awaiting either a proper hanging display arrangement or a home on the bed in winter in some unlikely future chunk of space-time when we don't have pets.
Also, please bear in mind that we are still going to paint that closet door white.

If you come to visit, I cannot guarantee that Napoleon will be in your room, but I also can't guarantee that he won't be.  Which may be why we're still waiting on someone to take us up on our hospitality.  This is the view if you were standing next to the bed and looking to your left.

So, I won a contest.  Author Chuck Palahniuk tweeted a give-away by Doubleday of two posters for the first one-hundred people to send them an email expressing their interest.  On a lark, I applied and was counted among the winners.  Much to the amazement of both Laurie and I, not only is it a very attractive poster, but it also matches the entire color scheme of our home perfectly.  I was further amazed that Laurie was in agreement that we should frame it.  I think we're going to hang it in the dining room, but that's still being decided.
Also, as usual, you can click on the images to make them larger if your desire to read the poster exceeds your desire to squint.
I am assured that the frame will press out those folds in the poster.

That's all I have for now.  I hope that all of you are well.  Again, sorry for the diminished posts on this blog.  I will now go so far as to make one of my rare promises and say "More soon."