Saturday, December 30, 2006

Round 'n' Round with Poets 'n' Dogs

(references to a review in POETRY of Dec. 2006, a review by Joel Brouwer, poet-blogger Greg Rappleye's review of Brouwer's review, and my own review of Brouwer's own poem.)

I'm amused. A day after shaking my head over those literalists who deny that any interpretation is involved in their reading of Scripture (see my review of Rob Bell's VELVET ELVIS) , I find this statement by Irish poet Paul Muldoon, quoted with commentary by Brian Phillips in POETRY:

"The poem is, after all, the solution to a problem only it has raised, and our reading of it necessarily entails determining what that problem was." But since this process is inevitably speculative, it also means that the reader creates the writer, that we can bring to reading anything we like, that the poem has no end.

The "problem" is to communicate an experience with any inner effects or reflections, as succinctly as possible. Of course, ye literalists, of course, the readers will bring their own background to an interpretation. We know this from the usual Law School Jury 101 experiment, in which the class witnesses some extraordinary event and immediately writes accounts of the event that disagree. When the event is also meaningful, the room for interpretation expands.

Minutes after reading the review in POETRY, I was checking blogs for comparisons to my own review of Joel Brouwer's wonderful poem "A Report to the Academy" (see "Joining the Moments, Enjoying the Moments", Dec. 10). Along the way, I found an illustration of this phenomenon: two poets disagree on how to read a third poet, and I disagree with both!

The blogger-poet Greg Rappleye at Sonnets at 4 a.m. decries "Joel Brouwer's ice-axing of Roy Jacobstein's A Form of Optimism (Northeastern University Press, 2006); a review that appears in this morning's New York Times Book Review. "

Rappleye presents the following poem by Jacobstein, and follows with his own comments:


He can't stop thinking
of his mother, contorted
in her last bed, her voice

Running to empty, able
only to repeat A point, I need
a better point, and unbidden,

he flashes to the dog track
in Florida, the loudspeaker
growling over its own static

Here comes Swifty--and they're off!:
a mass of yelping greyhounds
chasing that tiny tin rabbit

trailing the black Buick coupe.
Around and around the tamped
dirt the pack strains. Anyone

would have bet the dogs
had learned by now no matter
how fast they run, Swifty runs

faster. Then the point breaks
clear: They know and run anyway.*

I read the poem as an original (and nearly cynical) comment on the futility of life; a suggestion that many of us will choose to go on living in futility no matter how unwise that choice is. I do not read it as a sentimental comment about anyone's mother, as a sweet insight about the "Great Chain of Life" metaphor, or whatever it is that Brouwer claims the poem to be.

So Rappleye sees cynicism in Jacobstein’s poem, and Brouwer sees a sentimental message in it.

What I bring to Jacobstein’s poem is the way my dogs enjoy running for its own sake, chasing and barking at each other with no "point." So, I don't see the cynicism, and I don't see the sentimental message "Life goes on," but I do see an insight that I consider to be more positive than either: that the "point" is beside the point, as running is what the dogs do well and enjoy. Good for Swifty, too bad about the mother who wanted more.

Enjoyed as well the fact that Brouwer in his review derides "the 'anecdote + reflection = insight' school", while my whole review of his poem makes much of the fact that it reports an insight reached by reflection on an anecdote.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Teaching Technology When the Power Goes Out

(This is a response I've drafted for a report to the National Writing Project, for which I've participated in a group of teachers looking for ways to use technology in the classroom "more thoughtfully." Education )

In the first minutes of our team's first meeting, the power went out campus-wide, and we were left in the dark for a couple of hours, leading immediately to the question, "What's our back-up plan if the technology fails?"

Since then, that question has broadened to this one: "What do we teach with technology that couldn't be learned as well without it?" Collaboration, research, editing, and writing for a broad audience have always been possible and desirable in the classroom, and posting a piece of writing to the internet now makes all those experiences much easier to achieve. Still, that's old learning, just speeded up, and techno-phobes could thereby argue that technology is a luxury, not a necessity.

But, in developing our workshops, we all found ourselves addressing the dangers posed by the easy flow of shallow or false information, the rhetorical manipulation of visual elements such as images and layouts, and the digressive nature of text that allows a reader to jump to hyperlinks instead of following any thought to a logical or nuanced conclusion. Of course, these are all opportunities, too, for those who have a critical appreciation of them.

To be discerning citizens, our students must develop the appreciation both for the old-fashioned kind of long-form, developed writing, and for the new kind that develops in bits of verbal and visual text.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Rob Bell's "Velvet Elvis": Seeing Through Brick Walls

(reflections on VELVET ELVIS: Repainting the Christian Faith by Rob Bell, 2005 - a Christmas gift from friend Dr. Roger Wilk. Religion )

The title VELVET ELVIS comes from a painting Bell found, which the artist signed simply, "R." Bell imagines that the artist was so proud of his work that he didn't bother identifying himself, as he expected to be known through the ages anyway, as the one who painted the last, greatest, all-sufficient work of art. Of course, that's absurd. That's how Bell introduces his main concept: Christianity, as we've received it, is a picture from its time. It's great. But God wasn't finished when it was.

Bell's ideas seem to me to be pretty mainstream, at least in the Episcopal Church, but they are presented colloquially and packaged to appeal to people who grew up in the 90s. The cover depicts a young man in baggy jeans falling through darkness, the type is sans serif, and the page numbers are computer-ish (p. 54 is 054). Bell makes wise guy asides, and his pages are good for readers raised on USA Today and internet chat rooms: lots of paragraphs consist of six words or less. Much of what he says also finds expression in my blog entries, especially in the idea that the story of Adam and Eve and the story of the Exodus happen to us as individuals, to us as a community -- again and again. It hardly matters if they happened once in history.

Bell wants to appeal to those put off by "brickians." Brickianity is Bell's word for seeing every doctrine as a hard brick. Brickians' main concern isn't life, but life hereafter, and that's threatened if even one brick is pulled out, because the whole wall will tumble.

To those put off by Brickianity, Bell offers a counter image, faith as a trampoline that supports and exhilarates, and doctrines as the flexible springs. He gives the virgin birth of Jesus as an example, merely showing how the story of the Virgin Mary can justifiably be accounted for in more than the literal way. If we learned that "virgin" could mean simply "young wife," he asks rhetorically, "Is the way of Jesus still the best way to live?"

But huffy bloggers, brickians all, read Bell's gentle, self-deprecating book as an attack, arrogant, deliberately controversial. That passage that points out gently how the story of the Virgin birth just might be read as something other than the writer's account of an historical event gets singled out in blogs for particular invective. The story (which never appears in other gospels, or in any of the writings of Paul or other epistles) is defended as a "core" belief, demonstrating what Bell said about Brickians: unable to read the Bible as what it is (not a book, but a library), they feel threatened by light thrown on any doctrine.

One blogger who thinks he's being clever observes that a trampoline can work without some of those springs. Well, right, that's Bell's point exactly, and it's anathema to "brickians." Another blogger goes on to assert that every word of the Bible, right down to the verb tenses, represents a choice made by the creator of the universe. What a difference it would make if the blogger would see what's obvious, that every word and verb tense is a choice made by (1) a human writing about what he remembers and (2) several intermediary editors, translators, copyists, and councils, and (3) that doesn't make any of it a lie -- any more than any other memoir or textbook -- and it is to be read with consideration for the source(s) as any other writing would be.

I'm reminded of three influences that brought me out of "brickianity" :

  • Four years of study with the Education for Ministry program out of the Episcopal School of Theology from University of the South at Sewanee. (I suspect that Bell isn't aware how his ideas resonate with traditional Episcopal theology. He does make references to "empty ritual," in which I detect a whiff of his scorn for the Episcopal church.)

  • The root of it all: a walk across the main quad at Duke's East Campus fall of 1978. I was in distress, because my fundamentalism was threatened by an acquaintance whose literal reading of the Bible led to what seemed like an inescapable (and repugnant) conclusion. My friend Kendrick Mills, serenely Catholic, just laughed. "My God isn't so petty!" he said. He once asked me, incredulously, "So, you're faith depends on proof?"

Let the brickians tend their wall. I prefer Bell's vision, especially in a personal passage where he describes some moments of extreme joy and significance in his life when God spoke to him without Scripture. These are coupled with examples from Scripture of Paul and early Christians quoting pagan sources for the truths found there. He's trying to show that the Bible, like the Velvet Elvis (couldn't he have chosen a better example of art? Beethoven's 7th? King Lear?), contains enough to live on, and that's what our prayer book says about it in its earliest preface - 1549 -- but thank God for the contributions of later artists, composers, playwrights -- and religious thinkers.

Monday, December 18, 2006

New Episcopalians: Are You Comfortable?

(Reflections on a parish meeting and survey. Religion )

I'm a card-carrying partisan of the Episcopal Church. When our parish survey asked, "Why do you come to St. James Church?" I realized that I attend first, because it's Episcopalian. That it's a small, welcoming church is secondary. I wonder if we take for granted that everyone who attends fully appreciates our distinctive qualities?

Here's a draft of something that might answer some FAQs, fitting on a laminated card peeking out from behind the prayer books and hymnals. It's intended to highlight some of the Church's wonders, to explain parts that might seem alien. I welcome comments -- click on "comments" below to amend my draft, or to explain why this is a bad idea.

Are you comfortable?
While we hope that the Episcopal Church feels right to you, we realize that our church doesn't fit well with secular culture.

We are comfortable with silence.

Our music's more than fast or slow, happy or sad. Some of the music has been heard in churches for over 1000 years, and some is new. Our music sometimes expresses awe, yearning, anguish, or peace. Our lyrics are sometimes in the original languages of ancestors; other words are thought-provoking poetry.

Our service involves everyone. It's not a show or a class. While clergy lead the service, we all read, we move, we pray together, pray in silence, we sing, we eat and drink. The sermon is one part, not the core, of our worship. The focus is always on how God reaches to us.

We're traditional and modern. We are comfortable with the latest technology, and we're engaged in world events; yet we share prayers and practices with worshippers across the centuries.

We are comfortable with tension. We can agree to disagree, united in worship.

We think of faith as an action, not just a belief. It's what you do, trusting in God. We're comfortable with the fact that faith can change with maturity and understanding.

We believe that God still speaks. Our lectionary takes us through God's word every three years; we study the Bible and our prayers come from Scripture. We also believe that God continues to speak to us through reason and experience.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Rumsfeld's Conscience

(Response to Rumsfeld's resignation. News and History | Religion )

This isn't the first time that Donald Rumsfeld has left the helm of the Defense Department to someone else, under fire from all sides. It will be the last. Combative to the end, he has tried not to show the doubts that must roil within him. Here's some of what he said at the ceremony honoring his retirement Friday:

"It may well be comforting to some to consider graceful exits from the agonies and, indeed, the ugliness of combat. But the enemy thinks differently," Rumsfeld said at the ceremony.... "Ours is a world of unstable dictators, weapon proliferators and rogue regimes, and each of these enemies seeks out our vulnerability," he said. "Ours is also a world of many friends and allies, but sadly, realistically, [these are] friends and allies with declining defence investment and declining capabilities," he added.

(source: TV New Zealand,

A retrospective piece at National Public Radio ended with news that hasn't been headlined these past few years, that Rumsfeld and his wife have made regular visits, every two or three days, to Walter Reed Medical Hospital to cheer up injured soldiers. We also heard a snippet of Rumsfeld's own taped message to the troops, how he wished that he could meet every individual soldier, "look you in the eye, shake your hand" and express appreciation for courage and "professionalism."

As an actor, I see these bits of the Rumsfeld script and sense the effort it takes him to convince himself that, in spite of everything, he has done the right thing. Those visits to Walter Reed show in those words "agonies" and "ugliness," and he clearly has wanted to find a "graceful exit." But "the enemy" has determined his choices, and he is aware that the price is being paid by those soldiers.

Is there any other way? Does religion apply, here? "What Would Jesus Do?" is a fair question to guide one's personal decisions, but Jesus never accepted the role of King that others put on him. An individual can shame an enemy by "turning the other cheek," and an individual can choose martyrdom. But for a leader to "turn the other cheek" submitting his people to suffering for the sake of his own conscience -- that's unthinkable. There are kings and "judges" in the Hebrew Scriptures, and they are often advised by God to do things that don't seem worldly wise -- to march around Jericho silently without attacking, or to go into battle against the larger force just trusting in God, or to send a shepherd boy into battle against the other side's champion. They also do "ugly" things, as when the wily Jews pretend to accept the other's side's peace offering -- that is, the men of the other side will undergo the Hebrew rite of circumcision -- and, in the enemy's vulnerable state, massacre every man and enslave every woman.

Rumsfeld has clearly been considering other options. Could we step back a pace and seek a more united front with our friends and allies? Rumsfeld says no, they won't measure up. Could we retreat within our borders, take a defensive posture, and work for containment? Rumsfeld perhaps dismisses these options too easily in that line about "a world of unstable dictators, weapon proliferators, and rogue regimes," especially when he adds that "each ... seeks out our vulnerability." Truly, not one of those enemies seeks more than self-importance and self-perpetuation. Attacking the US in rhetoric mostly, in sneaky assaults through small terrorist cells sometimes, is a way to maintain power in lands shaken with feelings of inferiority and failure, where self-respect depends on having an outside force to blame.

There's also this issue of our own credibility, and here's the trap in Iraq. We fear if we "cut and run" now, as we did in Vietnam, we embolden our enemies for now and for the future. But that's the thinking that kept us in Vietnam long after the best-informed leaders knew there was no hope. President Kennedy admitted privately in 1963 that we were achieving nothing by staying there, that he would remove us after he won re-election. His successor, facing a futile situation, swore that he'd not be the first President to lose a war. So we stayed in Vietnam another twelve years simply to "save face," at the cost of fifty-eight thousand men and the loss of everything we claimed to be fighting for.

There's another religious approach, from a different religion. The Hindu epic Bagavad-Gita begins with a Rumsfeld -- Prince Arjuna -- surveying his army in the moment before ordering an attack. Considering that it's a civil war, Arjuna shudders to think that no matter which side wins, both sides lose brave warriors and family. The rest of the epic occurs in the space of that first minute, as the god Vishnu demonstrates to the Prince that the apparent differences between wins and losses, death and life, enemies and friends -- are actually infinitesimal on the vast scale of real life. Vishnu concludes that the only thing a Prince can be responsible for is his own duty.

Now, if a Secretary of Defense becomes aware that the premises for his decisions are flawed, it is his duty to do something about it. In his last weeks in office, Rumsfeld submitted a gloomy report admitting as much. He, Cheney, and Bush attacked on the premises that Hussein was a participant in the vast Al-Qaeda conspiracy with WMDs on line, and that the Iraqi people were united in their desire to be rid of Hussein and that they would be grateful to us and ready to cooperate. Within a month of our invasion, all three of these premises were in doubt. The rest has been an effort to make the best of a bad mistake, and to turn it to good, somehow.

Here's where the promises of religion do come in. The truth is, no choice is final; God works through any situation; we do not need to be trapped by what we have already decided.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Sondheim - Bernstein - Weill: "Saga of Lenny"

( Sondheim's tribute to Leonard Bernstein. Drama | Music )

For Leonard Bernstein's 70th birthday celebration, Sondheim wrote new lyrics for "The Saga of Jenny" from the Kurt Weill - Ira Gershwin musical Lady in the Dark. Thanks to YouTube, we can watch Lauren Bacall singing it at .

The lyrics cut perilously close to the bone, fingering sore spots in Bernstein's career -- i.e., the perennial complaint that Bernstein spread his talent too thin, the ridicule from some quarters that greeted his attempts to be "with it" (whether "it" was atonality or rock music), and the painful and public upheaval that his family experienced when he "came out" and left his wife Jenny. Sondheim doesn't shy away from these painful facts, but he turns them to humor, and builds to a generous and loving conclusion. I admire this greatly.

The music cleverly incorporates hefty chunks of Bernstein's own music.

Two personal notes: the pianist is Paul Ford, who accompanied the 1985 FOLLIES concert, INTO THE WOODS in 1987, the original cast of ASSASSINS, and the original cast of PASSION, not to mention his work with Mandy Patinkin. He was also the man who, fresh out of high school, was both teacher and pal at Atlanta's Northside School of Performing Arts during my summer there. He's the one who introduced me to the name of Stephen Sondheim, and he even tried to get me to see A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC with him during our field trip to New York in the summer or 1974 (but I saw RAISIN instead, to my ever-lasting regret). And Paul told me that his favorite musical (at that time) was LADY IN THE DARK, and I still have the photocopy of "The Saga of Jenny" that he gave me.

Then, the video brings back memories for me, because I wrote Lenny a long letter for that 70th birthday, telling him honestly how much his music had (has!) meant to me from my very earliest memories of wearing out Mom's WEST SIDE STORY L.P., to the influence his MASS had on my own religious views, and finally to becoming a composer myself. I got a reply to "W. S. S.*" (with an asterisk: "*Did you notice that you have the same initials as West Side Story?") and a dream-come-true offer to meet with me to discuss a possible collaboration. A project with Peter Schaffer (another idol of mine) had stalled, and he was looking for someone else with my facility with language. I'm afraid that a follow-up phone conversation made clear that he was also looking for a worshipful young male companion, confirming the worst reports of him. Within the year, he had died. Happily, the experience didn't sour me on his music, which still pushes my emotional buttons the way no other music does.

If someone has the patience to transcribe the lyric, I'd love to see it.

Sondheim's Religious Vision

(Regarding my own article: Drama | Music | Religion )

The latest issue of The Sondheim Review contains an essay by yours truly
under the heading "So Many Possibilities: Sondheim's Religious Vision." It begins

The man who wrote that “...thieves get rich, saints get shot / God don’t answer prayers a lot” can be trusted when he says that religious rites and beliefs have played no part in his life. But when a letter to the NY Times (2002) says that musical theatre has been “robbed of joy” by Stephen Sondheim, and even admiring bloggers call his work “amoral” and “cynical,” my theological training kicks in to answer the charges. Actually, his work is consistently “religious” in the sense that religion shares with ligament: it’s about what ties us to our world – how “no one is alone.” A theological look at Sondheim’s work may help future directors appealing to audiences put off by his reputed “dark vision.”

Rather than print the rest here, of course, I'd rather copies be distributed. So, Tel: 773-275-4254 • Toll Free 800-584-1020 and ask for volume 13, number two, their fiftieth issue.

Joining the Moments, Enjoying the Moments

(response to a poem and two articles in an issue of POETRY, Dec. 2006)

This blog is one way I have to salvage something from days on end of mere busy-ness. Of course, my dogs live moment to moment, and their lives teeter between lazy contentment and eager anticipation -- and I love them for it. (They're celebrating the completion of breakfast by running up and down the stairs, barking at each other as I write.) Why should a human need more than that? Because our brains are organs for making sense of what we encounter, and making sense means finding a connection between any thing and everything else.

A poem works, if it works, by stringing together words and images that go together in some surprising way, and the poem in turn suggests a connection to something in our experience. Prose does the same thing, only the connections are visible a mile off and well-marked, making it easier to read but padding the impact with all those subordinate clauses and transitional phrases.

The latest issue of POETRY includes an apology for its publishing more prose than poetry. Evidently, the editors had slim pickings this time. They needn't apologize when the essays are so rewarding. One, "Humor Anxiety," touches on the theme I've mentioned in this blog before, the discovery that a good poem and a good joke have much in common. Another one by Australian critic Clive James considers the pros and cons of tightly constructed formal poetry in eight pages of loosely connected prose paragraphs. Along the way, James finds delightful similes and cites apt examples. But, like real life, you've lost some of those by the time you get to the end, and you wish you had a poem that could wrap it all up in a nutshell.

Then I flipped to the front of the magazine to read the poetry in it, and found just that poem, on page one.

The poem is by Joel Brouwer, author of two books of poetry and professor at the University of Alabama. It's called "A Report to the Academy." The whiff of ironic humor entices. At first, I couldn't get much sense from it, but I did get the outline of a little story: man alone on an all-night bus ride through New Jersey, passing both "starry refineries" and "cattail ditches." Been there, seen those. The rider, immersed in Kafka, is surprised to arrive "presto" at the Port Authority in the morning. He walks twenty blocks to the home where the soon-to-be mother of his child is asleep. He fixes her breakfast, and she wakes up and greets him.

That's the real life part, and not all that remarkable. But one line in it struck me as a clue to reading the scenes and thoughts together with something bigger than one man's bus trip. Lost in his book, arriving before he even noticed the scenery, he "has been cheated of . . . a considered fingering of his long / and polished rosary of second thoughts." If not distracted by Kafka, he'd have been worrying -- evidently about impending marriage, mentioned in the last couple of lines. On a hunch, I checked out Kafka's biography, and found, as I suspected, that the author never married, afraid of surrendering independence.

Why a rosary? Is it because it suggests prayer? Maybe, but certainly it's a useful image because it calls to mind a sequence of beads, fingered in a cycle, each of which is supposed to call to mind a specific image. This poem itself works that way. The poem mentions Kafka's times in a "sanatorium," echoing an earlier line about a green tile that reminded the young man of a sanatorium. When he cracks open eggs for breakfast, we remember the "egg-white" sky in the first line; and when we see the "taut carapace" of his lover's belly, it's another kind of egg containing an embryo. The rosary of images leads to a paradox: "that the knowledge that dooms a marriage / is the knowledge prerequisite to marriage." Yes, like Kafka, he wants to maintain his separate identity; yes, when she asks him "what have you brought us," he knows it's too late to go back to singleness; and, yes, he's not unhappy about it. The question is academic, hence the title.

In an essay "Listening for the Flavor," Clive James calls himself a "diehard formalist," but he seems very open-minded so long as a poet strings moments of experience or insight together. "Formality and informality are just two different ways of joining the moments up," James writes. He adds what I've known since I first learned to love rhyme, that

the formal poem has a better, not a worse, chance of joining the moments up, so that its ability to contain them, and intensify them with a symmetrical framework and a melodic structure, becomes a satisfaction in itself.

This calls to mind music, which works entirely through patterns set up and then somehow varied. Just as James writes of formal poetry as a "system for manufactured unpredictability," John Updike once depicted a priest in rehab who called Bach's music "machines" for setting up tension and release.

All of this is exemplified in Bouwer's poem. It doesn't rhyme, but its twenty-six lines run consistently ten syllables. It's a simple anecdote developed through moments of growing consciousness that reach their conclusion not through rhetoric or argument, but by images that repeat with variations. In the end, it's just a few moments that suggest more than moments: a momentous acceptance in the man's life. And we feel good about it.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Make Someone Happy:
Remembering Betty Comden

(Occasioned by Betty Comden's death at 89 two days ago. Jeff Lunden's radio remembrance on NPR Saturday Weekend Edition of her is playing as I write.)

The closest I ever got to Betty Comden was in 1979, when I just missed a matinee of ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, the musical that she wrote with life-time collaborator Adolph Green and composer Cy Coleman. When star Imogene Coca took time off, Betty Comden filled in. A friend of a friend who saw her that week, commented that she looked "petrified." 

She was probably out of practice. In the Thirties, she and her pals Judy Holliday and Adolph Green wrote comedy sketches and song parodies because it was their only way to get on stage -- a very small stage at a cabaret, "The Village Vanguard." Holliday went on to become a beloved star, but Betty and Adolph kept getting turned down for performing gigs while they were chosen for writing scripts. When their buddy Lenny Bernstein asked them to write a musical play based on his ballet FANCY FREE, they wrote ON THE TOWN with parts for themselves.

From that time on, they were writing scripts and lyrics. In Hollywood, they wrote the script for that epitome of movie musicals, SINGING IN THE RAIN. On Broadway, they wrote scripts for the kinds of shows that filled theatres in the 50s, when costs were low, front row seats cost under $12, and creators were putting shows up and taking them down at a rate of one or even two per year. That is to say, these shows were flimsy and disposable, fun and light, not built to last. Does anyone remember their Fifties and Sixties shows SUBWAYS ARE FOR SLEEPING? DO-RE-MI? FADE IN, FADE OUT? BONANZA BOUND? Comden and Green wrote most often with Jule Styne, and none of their shows has been revived except PETER PAN and BELLS ARE RINGING (short-lived revival in '02). Another show with Bernstein, WONDERFUL TOWN, had more success, but only marginally, two years ago. By the late Sixties, Comden and Green's style seemed dated. Their attempt to be "with it" was a musical with an all-black cast starring Leslie Uggams, HALLELUJAH, BABY -- not a good experience, Styne said, years later. They wrote script-only for a big hit, APPLAUSE.

But Comden and Green weren't nonplussed. At least in public, they always remained the wide-eyed college graduates who were being allowed to play theatre with the professionals. I saw them on a Public TV talk show with composer-conductor Andre Previn, when they gleefuly challenged him to name any symphony by any composer, and they would be able to perform the tune of the third movement (usually the least flashy and least remembered part). And they did.

I got to know them through an LP called "A Party with Comden and Green," a Christmas present from Mom and Dad in 1977.
In their "Party," recorded live, they joke through a retrospective of their career. The mood turns a bit more somber when they introduce some new material for a revue they wrote with Cy Coleman. Evidently, that revue was focused on the world of the near-future. For it, they wrote lyrics for a dissonant waltz called, "The Lost Word":

What was that word they wrote songs about?
Wrote poems about?
What was that word that made strong men weak?
And weak men strong?
...What was that word like a lightning flash,
That could change a life at first sight?

It's a lost word, from a lost world,
A powerful word from a lost world.
It had magic. It had music.
But it's vanished away. . .

I always guessed that this song expressed the regret of three Broadway vets who were feeling that America had passed them by. They wrote the lyric in the mid-70s, seeing how our culture had turned cynical about all our institutions including marriage. Obviously, the works of Stephen Sondheim spoke to such disillusionment. (They admired Sondheim unabashedly, and, in 1985, performed in an all-star symphony orchestra performance of his FOLLIES).

Through all this time, Betty and Adolph were happily married (not to each other), and they met every morning from the early 1940s to his death in 2002. Betty remembers that they would discuss possible projects, or just gossip. Eventually, with composer Cy Coleman, they found their footing again, under direction by Sondheim's collaborator Harold Prince, to create ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, in which they re-imagined the nineteenth century operetta as a smart, glittering Art Deco farce. The oversized characters sang big-voiced songs with lush orchestrations. Even the love duet "Our Private World" was really a display of the two leads' narcissism. Later, the three collaborated again on THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES, which made no impression on me when I saw it in 1992 (I think).

Of all the lyrics they wrote, a few remain as standards, and a few more are standards among the cognoscenti. "Just in Time" and "The Party's Over" from BELLS ARE RINGING, with "Make Someone Happy" from DO-RE-MI are in the first group, as "Lucky to Be Me" and "Lonely Town" are in the second.

But Comden and Green's "special material" numbers are what make them special, and those, alas, can be appreciated only in context. A song for a lead-foot woman cabby seducing the tourist sailor away from his outdated guide book. . . a dance for down-on-their-luck stock investors. . . a French lesson that turns into a love at first sight. . . a duet for the back-up singers of a sister trio ("The Banshee Sisters") whose lead singer has run off with all the words . . . an actress with two scripts in hand, choosing between the roles of a gin-soaked divorcee or saintly Mary Magdalene. . . a roomful of people with nothing in common trying to make "nice talk." These flights of fancy were their specialty.

These were hard-working, self-disciplined people whose work always expresses one thing: the joy they took in making it. In words that Betty Comden wrote and also sang with Adolph Green:

Fame, if you win it,
Comes and goes in a minute.
Where's the real stuff in life to cling to?
. . . Make someone happy,
And you will be happy, too.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Linda Pastan's Poetry for Giving Thanks

(for Thanksgiving, an appreciation of Linda Pastan's poetry, referring especially to her collection The Last Uncle, with a nod to Billy Collins Picnic, Lightning)

For this Thanksgiving, I met my parents, their younger friends the Curzons, and their older friend Mary for dinner at "Antica Posta" (the old Post Office, transformed to an Italian restaurant). I had pasta and truffles; they all had fish, except for an osso bucco. Sometime before the entrees arrived, the conversation turned to macabre deaths of young people, and I was reminded of Billy Collins's meditation on a line from Nabokov's novel Lolita (quoted from memory): "My photogenic mother died in a freak accident when I was three (picnic, lightning)." Collins has some fun imagining all the serio-comic ways a person can die (meteorite, safe fallen from window, stroke ).

But this brought to mind another poet whose work often touches and surprises me, Linda Pastan. I often return to her collection Carnival Evening. I took her slim volume The Last Uncle with me to rre-read before the Thanksgiving service this morning, and had it in my car as I drove to the restaurant this evening.

She, too, has a meditation on sudden death, with a Russian Jewish twist. Hers is called "The Cossacks," as she explains: "For Jews, the Cossacks are always coming. / Therefore, I think the sun spot on my arm / is melanoma." I can identify, being a hypochondriac who feels the symptoms of whatever fatal disease has recently made the news. Our conversation tonight hovered briefly around how frightened I once was of death-- of "catching a heart attack" from my grandparents, I remember.

While the title poem and many others in this collection find fresh ways to express the sudden recognition that one's life can't last, there's an intriguing idea here that's new to me.
In "The Vanity of Names," she muses on how the "house" of her body will crumble long before the house in which she lives, and she imagines how future inhabitants will appreciate the same beautiful fall of the sunlight on the same wall (something I can identify with in my gift of a home), and how her house -- stripped of all her belongings -- will enter the dreams of future generations (as my Grandmother's home is so much a part of my dreams). But to "acquiesce" in this, she says, "is to love the unwritten future / almost as well as the fading past." This, she implies, is impossible. Another poem, "After a Long Absence, I Return to a Site of Former Happiness," touches on the same subject. It seems that the years haven't changed the old home at all, and this bugs her:

And as I see how easily I'll be replaced on earth,
I think if there's a poem of affirmation here,
a poem without bitterness or a shadow
of self-pity, then someone else must write it.

We want to cling to the past, and we like to think the world is going to hell as we near our end. I feel this impulse in me already, at 47. Mary feels it even more: "Remember that Broadway musical Stop the World, I Want to Get Off? That's me." I like this strange notion of holding the past and future to be equally lovable. That's a bit of Hinduism, isn't it? "Hold pleasure and pain as equal," says Krishna in the Gita.

With this theme is a related one, how past and future are continuous, as when her napping grandsons are disturbed by the noise of her old piano downstairs because. . .
my son is playing the kind of music
it took him all these years,
and sons of his own, to want to make.
- "Practicing"

Another poem conjures the ancient Greek "Fates" brought to mind by images of women in her family who sewed together from 1900 to 2000 - and she connects the "thread" of fate or time, and sneaks in a reference to those scissors, too, with which the Fates snip a life. A sweeter poem remembers the day she realized that her mother Bess had a life before motherhood, brought to mind when her newborn granddaughter is named Bess.

Linda Pastan is good at pleasure, too, just appreciating weather, her husband, leaves, dogs, literature. I love her "Travelogue" in which she confesses that, like me, she often has a printed page between her and the places where she travels, looking up from a mystery to see mountains of Greece, for example.

She is a poet of gratitude, sharing this in common with John Updike and less well-known poet Lawrence Raab, about whom I hope to write soon.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Verse Noire

(response to "The Collector's Tale" by David Mason, from his collection Arrivals.)

I'm currently reading stories by Raymond Chandler, whose novels defined the "hard-boiled" detective sub-genre. Maybe his influence on me is at work, but I believe I've just enjoyed a hard-boiled poem noire in David Mason's book Arrivals.

Called "The Collector," its first-person narrator is a laconic antiques dealer ("I thought of all the dead things in my shop. / No object I put up was poorly made") relating how he suffered the visit of an alcohol-soaked acquaintance, unwillingly hearing his confession of manslaughter. Like Chandler's detective Marlowe, the narrator affects detachment but allows himself to be drawn into others' lives in spite of himself, saying, "I listened -- that I regret." Like Marlowe, he feels ambivalent about the law, but he adheres strictly to his own unexpressed moral code.

The mood is dark, the milieu repellant, and, at the center of the story, there's a grotesque object. Its story is nested in the story of the alcoholic nighttime visitor Foley, whose story is nested in that of the narrator. Its structure and mood make me think of Heart of Darkness, as we penetrate deeper to a horror, and remain haunted by it even as we emerge from the encounter. I suspect that Mason has constructed this elaborate setting to amplify the effect of that object -- the shrunken head of a black man, fashioned into an ashtray. Once we've seen it, we see Foley's righteous indignation at the inhumanity that it represents, and how the object haunts Foley, and the narrator, and now, the reader.

The narrator speaks in rhyme A B C C A B C, a pattern that subdues the rhymes. We suspect we're hearing a regular pattern, but cannot apprehend it as we read. This control and understatement puts his verses at one more remove from us -- contrasted with Foley's unrhymed outpouring of story, with its cursing and rambling.

As a story alone, it works. It hasn't much plot, but it's creepy as anything by Chandler, or Edgar Allen Poe.

From NWP Convention: Critical of "New Literacies?"

(thoughts from the general session of the National Writing Project convention in Nashville today. Education )

Not long ago, I read an article about education in Weekly Standard that used quote marks to drip sarcasm on phrases such as "educator" and "creating knowledge" and "constructing understanding." I suppose that the same author, mocking trendiness in education, would mock the National Writing Project (though it's remained consistent in its principles through more than thirty-five years' growth) and would also snicker at the mention of "new literacies" in an address by Katherine Yancey, the chair of National Council of Teachers of English.

But the "constructivist" theory of teaching is no goofy innovation. When I was a student at Oxford, I attended just a few lectures, about which my professors were apologetic. To them, lecture was the unwelcome innovation, borrowed from American universities -- to have an expert stand up for an hour to present knowledge. The better model, used for centuries, was the tutorial, in which the experienced scholar converses with the younger one, considering questions about what they've both read. The tutor assigns, questions, listens to answers, and critiques those answers, challenging the student to articulate his opinion more clearly, changing the student's understanding in the process. In case the "instructivists" miss the point, that time-honored method is to use questions, various readings, and the students' own words to "construct" knowledge. Research, essay-writing (essay meaning "trial"), and debate -- these are all instruments of the best education because they engage the students in acquiring information, weighing opinions, and synthesizing it all. That's reading critically, the real aim of education.

"New Literacies?"
So what's to fear in "new literacies?" Yes, it's a clumsy phrase, knowing that "literacy" never had a plural form before, being literally the acquisition of "letters." Worse, from the point of view of the scoffers, the "new literacies" include images, sounds, and mixed-media.

But the old literacy was pretty limited in scope. It's only recently that a sizable proportion of the world's population could read at all, and more recently still that a sizable proportion had access to inexpensive books; and it's only a small proportion of that population who ever did read critically.

I suppose that the Weekly Standard guy thinks that time spent in front of a screen is time better spent in front of printed paper. But what inherent quality do books have to make them superior to any other "literacy?" Readers can take time to read, mark, and consider with a book, not so easily with video. Also, the writer must construct a book with logic to make sense, left to right, page to page, building an argument or story with some kind of sequence and meaningful connection from one paragraph to the next. Yes, it's true: interactivity disrupts all that.

But what proportion of adults ever learned to read critically? It was always small. And a small proportion of books were ever so good -- Mein Kampf springs to mind as the example of a tome without reason.

The era of books may have been a brief interregnum between times when learning and communication involve images and sounds. Long before the books, there were oratory, drama, graphics, song, and open conversation, all with the potential to influence citizens' hearts and minds.

The essential thing is, as always, that the largest possible proportion of our population learn that a "critical view" simply means that the viewer is aware of a message's form and context as well as its content.

Constructing Knowledge?
Let's acknowledge that critical readers are always choosing what they value most from the text (or picture, or movie, you name it) according to their own interest, prior knowledge, and intentions -- "constructing" their own meaning of the text.

Another speaker (Sheridan Blau, 28 years the director of the South Coast Writing Project in CA) used Adam and Eve to mock the traditional "instructivist" approach. What was the snake but a pedant who saw knowledge as something that could be consumed? Rather, emphasizing this year's theme of "Writing for a Change," Blau used examples to show what every writer knows: that putting one's thoughts and experiences into words always transforms how we think and sometimes transforms how others think and act. If only Adam and Eve had been writing reflectively in the Garden, he mused, they would have responded differently... and we'd be meeting comfortably undressed.

Mock This!
With alarm, I heard some teachers yesterday tell how their school system has forbidden instruction in writing because it's detracting from instruction in reading, and students' reading scores have been dropping. Now, that's an educational innovation that's worth mockery.

The teacher who told us of this had in hand data obtained from comparisons of similar classrooms with similar teachers who differed only in their approach to teaching writing. The ones who treated writing as a way to learn (by constructing) instead of just as a way to assess what kids have learned, had students who scored higher on reading, too.

Yes, let's be critical of "new literacies" -- in exactly the way we're critical of books, of oratory, and of editorial writers.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Barber of Seville, Butchers of Baghdad: Same Planet?

(further reflections on the Atlanta Opera's THE BARBER OF SEVILLE, on news from Iraq, and an interview of Gore Vidal by Bob Edwards on Sunday. Music News and History Religion )

Prior to THE BARBER OF SEVILLE, I listened to an interview with Gore Vidal, who impressed me as an arrogant, cranky, crackpot. With great confidence he told us that the Mafia was behind the death of John Kennedy and Bobby couldn't do anything about it because the mob had info about JFK's assassination plans for Castro. To the suggestion that conspiracy theories suggest nuttiness, he said America is run by conspiracists -- "the Bush gang" stealing elections left and right, Enron cheating everyone, and media. He said America is hated or scorned the world over, and Americans are lulled by a conspiracy of teachers and media into thinking that we're a great nation and envied the world over. Economists, he said, rate our quality of life below 30th in the world, and "nobody has health care." Sour, bitter, arrogant, and foolish.

Then I saw the opera, and was wholly wrapped up in playful music, playful lyrics, bravura singing, and the playfulness of the characters.

Coming out of the opera, I had to confront some news from Iraq involving more bodies found tortured, more American troops killed, and horrors that I can't conceive at the amputee ward of Walter Reed hospital.

Does the agony in Iraq make the delights of Rossini appear trivial, irresponsible, wasteful, phoney - distraction from the terrible truths? Can they really be on the same planet?

I'm inclined to think that the hateful bombers and beheaders are the ones trapped in unreality. Rossini, Sondheim, Mozart, Shakespeare -- these represent us at our best, our most generous impulses, our playfulness and appreciation of life. They keep us free of our gross concerns and consuming anger; may the same spirit, expressed in camaraderie among soldiers, sustain the troops trapped in crossfire between humorless factions.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Rossini, Poulenc, LaChiusa: Opera's Special Charms

(response to The Barber of Seville, performed by the Atlanta Opera Company, and a radio broadcast from Houston Grand Opera of John Michael LaChiusa's Send and Poulenc's La Voix Humaine. )

Rossini's music, even during a second-act thunderstorm, stays airy, light, and dry. The characters are all endearing. "Figaro" (played by Hugh Russell) sang with bravado as he boasted how his imagination bubbles with ideas like a volcano, and how money sets it to bubbling. The Count Almaviva (Bradley Williams) is his less-bright buddy whose rank and wallet save the day a couple of times. There's a great battle of wits and wills going on between Rosina and her guardian Bartolo and Rosina and Figaro. She seems so modern, so like a bored thrill-seeking teen girl of today -- except for some extraordinary high and light notes. Even bad guy Bartolo is endearing -- having as much fun catching his ward and her male admirers in their schemes as they have circumventing him. All of them do the tongue-twisting patter that earns scads of applause.

This production also stayed light and airy. The first image is a back-lit blue scrim, and the silhouette of a musician. Then we see bicyclists, more musicians, and eventually three free-standing town homes that look flat -- before windows open and we see as many as three characters in a room behind the window -- the effect being the same as when Wile E. Coyote disappears behind a thin tree trunk. Interiors were portions of walls dropped in from above, colorfully papered.

Rossini did some post-modern reflexive bits, such as the pastiche of other opera styles during a music lesson scene, and when Bartolo mocks the girl's aria, and later, when Figaro impatiently tries to get the lovers to stop their duet to escape. Wonderful moment is Act One finale, in which the main characters are mortified, "like statues," singing one syllable per measure, and Figaro sings supple lines around them, playing with the convention of their facing the audience in place.

These must all be familiar to opera fans, but they're new to me. I'd expected something cute and stylized, not vital and warm and self-knowing.

John Michael LaChiusa's one-woman, one-act opera Send, performed on the radio by Audra McDonald, had some of those same qualities. His music utilized sampling technology to allow McDonald to sing words against thoughts -- overlapping her own voice in duets. The situation is simple: the 30-something woman has sent her phone number to the man who replied to her personals ad on line -- and she's been waiting hours for him to call. While she repeats "five minutes more," she daydreams about the possible ways this on-line relationship might develop, the way people do -- and castigates herself for being so dependent on this dream of romance.

LaChiusa and Rossini share in common their attention to keeping a steady pulse going throughout the evening, though relieved sometimes by silence, or very lightly textured accompaniment.

Poulenc's piece is something else. He draws us uncomfortably into a clutching woman's desperate world, as we listen to her curses, cajoling, self-abasement, flirtation, and delusional chatter on the phone to her ex-lover. Intense, hard to take for the length of the act. I saw a production of this with a memorable set: Instead of the woman's apartment, we saw a red sports car, crashed into a telephone pole on some country road, and she crawls out of the wreck to talk on her cell phone. But there's more: the swell of the hill and the odd object hanging down from above the phone pole resolve into the dashboard of a car and its rear-view mirror. In that mirror, we see the road behind her, and images flashing of her memories, of "his" eyes, of her reflection. . .

Throughout the Rossini, I was thinking how much more real and delightful this two-hundred -year - old piece is than most Broadway musicals I've seen.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Bees, Butterflies, Worldview and Metaphor

(response to D. H. Tracy, "Bad Ideas," in Poetry, November 2006. Poetry Religion )

D. H. Tracy's essay "Bad Ideas" in the latest Poetry is rich and fun to read, thanks in part to his own apt similes, and thanks also to his outlining a scheme for analyzing and appreciating poetry on the level of one's own premises about life. But aside from those, I take personal interest in the way some of his examples relate to a recent posting here ("Faith as Rational as Language?").

His scheme borrows from a 1947 article in which an "unserious" poet is dismissed by a "serious" critic, "serious" denoting "an awareness of premises, a belief in the validity of those premises to the exclusion of competing ones, and the will to execute them." Understanding the seriousness of a poet or a critic aids one in understanding their work, in ways that Tracy describes.

Along the way, Tracy employs some striking imagery of his own. A certain critic judges a poem "upstream of the poetry itself," meaning that he's critiquing the poet's philosophical forebears before he even gets to the text. He contrasts the seriousness of Milton to the unseriousness of Donne and Marvell, "playing with ideas like brokers playing with pork bellies." I like "bees and butterflies," his analogy for contrasting serious and unserious poets. And, at least for Dante's unserious readers, Dante's Divine Comedy is "a kind of theme park for medieval theology."

I'm interested in some bits that Tracy takes from poets' works and letters. William Butler Yeats received this note from his father about William Blake:

I know that Blake's poetry is not intelligible without a knowledge of Blake's mystical doctrines. Yet mysticism was never the substance of his poetry, only its machinery.... The substance of his poetry is himself, revolting and desiring. His mysticism was a make-believe, a sort of working hypothesis as good as another.

That's so sensible, especially when contrasted with the junior Yeats' lifelong efforts to "cobble together a mythology that was not make-believe." In my personal reflection on faith and metaphor, I opined that the metaphors of faith are useful for thinking about one's experiences and choices regardless of whether the metaphors are "make-believe." How would one even know the difference? I did add that the metaphors and mythology of Christian faith stand up to experience and strike me as more true than more worldly wisdom.

But when a friend of Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed something along the lines of what I just wrote, the poet chided, "It is long since such things [i.e. the doctrines and stories of faith] had any significance to you. But what is strange and unpleasant is that you sometimes speak as if they had in reality none for me." The whole time that I was writing my own reflection last week, I was hearing the voice of one of my guiding lights, Flannery O'Connor, saying, "If the sacraments are just a metaphor, to hell with them."

Now, aside from that, I also like these lines by James Merrill (sorry, I've never heard of him), expressing an "unserious" look at the world and poetry:

Not for nothing had the Impressionists
Put subject-matter in its place, a mere
Pretext for iridescent atmosphere.

I've written something along those lines about my favorite detective novelists, how the story is just an avenue, and the interest in the sights passed along the way.

Finally, Tracy quotes from a long poem "Essay on Psychiatrists" by Robert Pinsky, and these make me want to read the rest. In the lines cited by Tracy, a professor addresses his young Lit. students about the very thing I loved in the eighteenth century poets, how

...Sometime in the middle
Of the Eighteenth Century, along with the rise

Of capitalism and scientific method, the logical
Foundations of Western thought decayed and fell apart.
When they fell apart, poets were left

With emotions and experiences, and with no way
To examine them. At this time, poets and men
Of genius began to go mad....

...and the ideas which were vital
To them are mere amusement to you.

from Robert Pinsky's Essay on Psychiatrists
full text

Tracy admits that "Whoever holds ideas to be more than mere amusement will at the very least risk being unappealing," but he admires their courage.

Poetry | Religion

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Who's Afraid of David Mamet?

(Response to A Life in the Theatre by David Mamet, performed by Theatre in the Square, Marietta GA. Drama )

I've never seen a play by David Mamet before tonight, though I've read about him for thirty years. His scripts are "disturbing," "intense," "fierce," and "savage," I've heard. I was a bit intimidated, really. So his 1980 play A Life in the Theatre may be the perfect appetizer, getting me ready to see Glengarry Glen Ross in April.

The promotional material gave away the whole plot and design of the show: "Two actors, one on his way up, one on his way down." So they'll meet in the dressing room, rehearse some lines, and we'll see one lose his confidence and memory. They'll become friends.

One expects costume changes and some hilarious snippets of bad plays -- and Mamet delivers with scenes from plays so bad, it's hard to believe that he had real models in mind. Was there ever such a stupid detective melodrama (even without the unzipped fly), or a World War I scene so fruity, or a play on a life raft? I especially enjoyed a backstage moment when both actors realize that they don't know what line follows their next entrance in a Civil War melodrama.

Later, the young actor rehearsing Shakespeare alone on stage carries on an extensive scene in which we hear but do not see the older actor, who has been watching him surreptitiously. There's a gag here, and it's repeated. It only grows funnier as it's repeated more than we expect.

Critics often say that Mamet's dialogue is distinctive. I noticed mostly his fearless recourse to repetition -- "fearless," because he lays an awful lot of trust in his actors to do something with lines that appear to be brainless -- as for instance the older actor's scene that begins, "Oh God. Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God. (pause) Is that a new sweater?" Of course, when he gives the actors so many ways to show off, there's that element of virtuosity that we expect from chamber music.

What makes this so much better than what one might expect is Mamet's pulling of sentimental punches -- taking us right to the sentimental moment and deflecting from it with humor or else with an example of that virtuosity, when the actors achieve something through silence, repetition, indirection, or a well-timed punch line that puts the edge back in just when we thought it was going to get soppy. For example, a scene that teeters on the edge of cheesiness instead leaves us marveling at how "thank you," repeated numerous times, expresses everything from incidental politeness to love.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Faith as Rational as Language (or Poetry)

Response after reading a Newsweek review of an atheist's screed against irrationality of religion; hearing songs on my nephew's gospel CD by a group "Casting Crowns"; reading the latest issue of Weavings, a journal of devotional and thoughtful readings.

A rash of atheist books and commentators have been in the public eye recently, not to mention a series of articles about religion's distortion of public policy and an expose by a Bush White House insider about his former colleague's cynical manipulation of Bush's religious base. The message is direct: faith is irrational at best.

My immediate reaction is to assert that the best things in life are irrational -- love, music, watching a play, reading a story, enjoying rhymes, enjoying weather....

Then again, those eighteenth century conversationalists who are celebrated in a new book (reviewed in Weekly Standard's latest issue) were believers both in revealed religion and in rationality. I certainly hate irrational argument, irrational behavior of mobs, and political appeals prejudices and to irrational fears.

I see a way to integrate both rationality and religion without appeal to historical artifacts of Resurrection or supposed holes in Darwin's work.

Let's ask, is metaphor rational? We communicate often through metaphor, using a shared image to bridge a gap between people's objective experiences. Stories affect us as metaphors, some kind of analogies to our own experiences. Language itself is a metaphor, in which symbols "equal" things to which they are not at all related. Math is perhaps the ultimate language, for its symbols represent universal experiences -- its statements operative whether we're counting sheep, atoms, or stars.

Language of any sort helps us to manipulate our ideas of objective experience. Without math, we can't easily divide or multiply, predict the trajectory of a space craft, calculate the right drug dose for a patient of a certain weight.

Now, let's ask if religion -- a mix of "myth" with "rites" -- doesn't work as an all-encompassing metaphor, one on which all who share it can draw upon. The CD by a gospel group Casting Crowns (appealing to fans of the popular rock group Counting Crows, no doubt) uses images drawn from the Bible as a way to work through day-to-day conflicts. The articles in this month's Weavings magazine frankly look upon the horrific and fascinating imagery of Revelation as metaphors for ends-of-worlds that our civilization periodically has experienced (as when the old Catholic order fell under the weight of Reformation, Muslim invasion, and Renaissance humanism).

As one part of an answer to those atheists angry at the falseness of religion, I'd say, "It's no more false than HAMLET or ALL THE KING'S MEN, and most of us (except some religious fundamentalists) see the merit in using those fictions as a lens for viewing our lives." I imagine a kind of chain of language, each useful in a different way:

objective reality - experienced by one <-- ordinary speech <-- metaphor, image <-- story <-- religious myth <-- mathematics As we move on my continuum further to the right of "objective reality" (something experienced by one person), we move into language that communicates the essence of that experience to more and more people. Remember that language doesn't just express, but it allows us to manipulate thoughts, as math does. So, we can apply rationality to metaphor to reach rational conclusions. Work back from metaphor to daily life, and act. So, say that Jesus never existed. Say that there is no God. Regardless, we find that the stories of the Bible, and the perrennial drama of the Church year, are a helpful way to think about ourselves, our world, our shared experiences. Now, I would add something else: that, as Paul writes, the Judaeo-Christian myths run counter to "the wisdom of the world," and seem all the more true because of that. To me, that's a sign that there's a reality speaking to us through the story that was not arrived at through human intellection alone.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Vermeer, Updike, and Poetry Editorial

(occasioned by reading an essay in the Oxford Companion to John Updike, a review of Robert Frost's notebooks in Weekly Standard Oct. 2006, and an editorial by John Barr, president of the Poetry Foundation, in Poetry magazine, Sept. 2006)

Funny how an editorial castigating contemporary poets appears in the issue of POETRY that most annoyed me by page after page of obscure, pedantic, and coarse lines. John Barr's editorial in POETRY tells poets to live life first, and write about what they see, because (echoing Dana Gioia's Can Poetry Matter?) it's becoming insular stuff, poets writing for poets.

Robert Frost, in quotatations from his notebooks, reviewed in Weekly Standard, compares poems to jokes -- the insight that got me hooked a few years ago. Poems should do something. He adds that sincere feelings are not enough: the presentation must be made "queer" and messed around a bit for the reader to "get" them. Whatever, he's after a connection with the reader.

I turned from reading those articles to a collection of essays about John Updike, whose work I've read now for over twenty years. Updike's style builds on reporting what he sees, and second, on letting the seen world reflect faith.

I'm reminded of an exhibition of paintings by Vermeer that I travelled to New York to see. Updike idolizes Vermeer, and I'd read of the old Dutch master in Updike's Just Looking. Yet I was disappointed by the exhibit, "Vermeer and his Contemporaries." It was all slice of life, with some contrast and realistic depictions of streets scenes, interiors, daily lives in 17th century Holland. It took me a couple of rooms to realize that I was looking at work of his contemporaries, not of him. I saw one that looked familiar, and thought, "Here, at last, is the real thing." That, too, disappointed up close. Then I saw that this, also, was not Vermeer's, though it resembled one that he had painted.

In peripheral vision, I glimpsed the first Vermeer in the exhibit, and chills started at the back of my neck. I approached.

What was the difference? Style, subject matter, and true-to-life drawing -- these were all the same. But Vermeer's paintings seemed to glow from the inside. I felt there that I was seeing not just a slice of life, but that it was reaching out to me.

At Updike's best, he makes me see and feel places in realistic detail, but these places glow, and resonate still, though it may have been twenty years since I read about them. He himself writes of the mythological resonance of places he knew as a child; his writing has given those places to me.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Teachable Bytes

(Reflections during a meeting with representatives of the National Writing Project in Kennesaw, GA, today. Education )

I have this response to variations of the question, "Are you teaching technology, or are you teaching writing?"

I sometimes fear that what we used to teach has become obsolete. Who writes well-reasoned speeches anymore? Who debates with reason? Who but scholars look for scholarly warrant for opinions? Who appreciates writing that conveys nuances? Who even wants writing that doesn't move or have pictures?

Meanwhile, every child and adult today routinely encounters alarming claims, arresting images, instant messages and instant reactions to distant events, images that suggest more than they depict, easy access to information of dubious value, news filtered through various media and all squeezed by commercials to tiny spaces or short bursts. This isn't all on line, either; it's radio, bumper stickers, magazines, billboards, all-pervasive tv, and it's easily possible to encounter all of the above waiting at a stop light. It happens to me daily.

Let's add a scary element, too: that even images broadcast live on tv can be altered digitally, sounds and documents and whole websites easily copied and altered. (A technician admitted a couple years back that Whitney Houston looked too scrawny and unhealthy for her Grammy performance on TV, so she was "enhanced" to look rounder and healthier for the television viewers -- during the live performance!)

When we use technology to teach research or writing, we take advantage of what a veteran teacher today called a "teachable moment" in our history to achieve the goal of literacy - which I define as the ability to respond to whatever one encounters. Today literacy isn't a matter of words alone, but of images, of sounds, of forms and formats, of different cultures' values, of commerce and commercials, of numbers and statistics, and of technological manipulations of all the above.

We want the next generation of adults to be responsible, i.e., able to respond to new information, conflicting claims, emotional appeals, as well as to numbers, data, personal quanderies, and competing values. To respond, to investigate, to recognize context, to judge, to persuade others -- these should be the goals of education.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Atlanta Opera: Elevation of Claptrap

Response to the Atlanta Opera's double bill of Paagliacci and Carmina Burana

Pagliacci is the worst kind of operatic humbug: there's no believable love, friendship, or reality in it, just a pretext for one ironic aria -- the emblematic tearful clown -- and the second act play-within-a-play. None of the other emotions are real, but somehow when they're replayed by the characters in clown makeup as "Columbina" and "Arlechino" and "Pagliacci" the stakes are raised and we can identify. Chills mount as the actors playing "Columbina" and "Arlechino" suddenly find their lighthearted scenario turning into something uncontrollable. There must be something in real life like that, or our reactions wouldn't be so strong.

The real surprise in today's double-bill, for which I had low expectations, was that I was thrilled by overly-familiar material (Orff's Carmina Burana) and ballet.

The director began Carmina Burana where Pagliacci ended - same actors, same set, same tableau. The chorus, in proletarian garb, sing "O Fortuna" as a kind of commentary on the bad luck of the earlier opera. Then a moon lowers and a tree raises, and dancers enter. The lovers become soloists in Orff's piece, each doubled by a dancer in identical clothing, and the whole cantata seems like an extension of the doomed love affair.

Children appear in the third part, "Court of Love," and almost make you cry, their freshness such a contrast to the very modern-feeling bitterness of the Tavern section. The lead singers, seated on opposite sides of the stage, meet through their dance doubles, and seem to consummate a relationship just as "O Fortuna" reprises... and they are swallowed up by the chorus as it sings about how youth and health vanish in time. The dancers in grey -- four couples, plus the main couple, and a woman with a live python -- impressed with athleticism (a woman at one point lifting the man over her head to twirl him... as he had just done to her) and humor.

It's all familiar, all cliche, and yet, performed with conviction and authority, and with precise diction and controlled orchestra, it all seemed fresh and strong and wise.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Terminally Cute: Kris Radish's Fabulous Funeral

(Reflections on Kris Radish's novel Annie Freeman's Fabulous Travelling Funeral, with some thoughts about Iris Murdoch's novel Bruno's Dream.)

Nearly every second paragraph of internal monologue in Kris Radish's novel contains a four-letter word, promptly repeated in italics for emphasis. Why? The novelist wants to write an irreverent, hilarious, grittily (wittily) realistic yet life-affirming story about facing midlife, terminal illness, and loss. Instead, she has written a tedious one-joke story. The joke is, "Annie Freeman's last wish was for her friends to cast her ashes (contained in her old sneakers -- how irreverent! how hilarious!) at different places that were important to her in life." Mostly her characters are thinking or saying variations on one thought: "Oo, dammit! Annie's gone, and I miss her." But that's unexceptional sentiment, so Radish throws in an impolite word to make it seem authentic.

After eighty pages, during which the initial situation is reiterated every five pages or so, I skipped to the last chapter, and found the same group of women, thinking more or less the same basic thought, and still those obscenities punctuating their thoughts, and, incredibly, still marvelling at the irreverence and hilarity of the initial premise -- a traveling funeral! ashes in sneakers!

Describing this book to a friend, I welcomed her short comment. "Can we say, 'belabored?'"

I'm a big believer in making lemonade from lemons, so I'll cite one sentence I liked. "Nothing's the same [because of the death of a close friend]. How wonderful is that?"

This was assigned reading for a group of teachers of a certain age who are considering issues of caring for parents through old age, Alzheimer's, and disease.

Iris Murdoch, the philosopher-novelist whose own descent into Alzheimer's (starting with her last novel Jackson's Dilemma in 1998) was chronicled by her husband and made into a movie (Iris with Judi Dench), wrote a more fantastic novel that was also more real, more deep, more wide-ranging. Bruno's Dream has a grotesque invalid at its core, a man who has become like the spiders he used to study. A web of relationships, old scores to settle, money, and guilt connect family to him and to each other. Fearful, he confesses to a nurse that he has so little reality left, it's like he's living inside his own mind, like a dream. "We all do that," says the young but wise nurse, drily.

I find more to contemplate about dying and old age in the very description of that novel than in Radish's book.

Another problem with Radish: She could only think that her "irreverence" is funny if in fact she is inordinately reverent about death. For an Episcopalian, or for a thoughtful agnostic like Murdoch, death is one big deal among many, and absolutely considered a part of what makes life worth living. Radish's view is shallow and secular, with death the ultimate obstacle to life.

For once, I don't recommend the book.

Fiction | Religion

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

7th Grade History and Current Events

(Reflection on rights from the 17th century to the 21st. Education News and History)

In the past week, my seventh graders have acted Mark Twain's PRINCE AND THE PAUPER, heard my own digest of English history, and read the Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1640). All of these materials focus their attention on the idea that "even rulers must obey the rules" and especially on a right enshrined in Magna Carta, and confirmed in 17th century rebellions against a couple of proud kings, the right to challenge the government's power to imprison someone. The Body of Liberties, written against the wishes of John Winthrop and his ruling council in Puritan New England, guarantees this right and more even to "strangers" who just happen to be passing through the community.

These rights have been suspended or bent or selectively applied before -- by Lincoln (who wrote several pages of closely argued justification based on the Constitution), the US Government vis-a-vis Americans of Japanese descent during World War II, and racist regimes in our various states. Always there's the excuse that the troublemakers pose too great a threat to risk letting them roam free, and we should trust the authorities.

But at our best, we stand for "rule of law," something I've always understood to mean that our governors are governed by rules and procedures fashioned during times of careful consideration to guide us during times of hot feeling. This is what Ronald Reagan stood for, and he repeatedly cited the Soviet Gulag as the opposite.

Our President and a majority of Ronald Reagan's party feel that this emergency supersedes the old conservative ways, passing a bill that pays lip-service to law while allowing the President prerogative to rely on his own judgement.

This isn't what I voted for, and it's not what I've taught for twenty-five years.

News & History

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Body, Spirit, and Embodying Spirit

Reflections after a second reading of Ronald Rolheiser's book THE HOLY LONGING: The Search for Christian Spirituality (Doubleday, 1999).

Theologican Ronald Rolheiser has wise observations about lots of topics, with apt examples and quotations to savor, but he has one insight above all that took me by surprise. He simply takes the familiar idea that we are the "body of Christ" and treats it as a statement of fact instead of metaphor.

His other insights relate to this physical body - including the obvious fact that has escaped me all these years, that food we eat becomes a part of us, and vice versa, that our body is what we eat. That takes the metaphor out of communion. As Flannery O'Connor said, "If it's just a symbol, to hell with it."

Now, I've been charged to write a very short personal note to parishioners I don't know to encourage them to pledge this year. I re-read Rolheiser to prepare. Let's see what I can do:

If you don't already pledge to St. James Church, I hope you'll consider a lesson I learned there. I used to pay the church every year for its "services" to me, a consumer of comforting ritual and teaching. But our true "service" is doing God's work in the community, being His face, hands, and voice. I hope you will consider pledging both money and time to help us serve our community.

If I can fit that on our little pledge note card, maybe it'll do some good.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Celebrating Celestine Sibley

(response to world premiere of Turned Funny, dramatization of Celestine Sibley's memoir, performed at Marietta Georgia's Theatre in the Square this month. Drama )

As columnist Celestine Sibley, actress Linda Stephens generates great energy and warmth. More than anything, her character loves words. Stephens savors the elegant descriptions of places and the transcriptions of odd Southern dialogue circa 1950. The story is that of the daughter of white trash who rises to become a well-known columnist at the Atlanta Constitution.

There's a built-in problem in a birth-to-death play. Eventually, as the character ages in act two, it's going to be one tearful farewell to dying friends after another. It's a drag, not nearly so emotional as the actors try to make it.

I loved a comment early in the play, one which must come straight from the columnist, that actors learn the art of loving and leaving. No relationship is so close and intense as that formed among actors in a play during the period of rehearsal. When the show ends, most of them never see each other again. So true.

Also enjoyed seeing Linda Stephens again, remembering her from roles in the mid-70s Harlequin Dinner Theatre, when she performed the song "Old Maid" in 110 IN THE SHADE and acted in the company with her then-husband Larry Shue, now primarily remembered for his script THE FOREIGNER. She was believable and charming in progress from 5 year old girl to nonagenarian.

Aside from a small blue grass band that provided interludes, the cast was just Stephens and one man who played her father, stepfather, boss, suitor(s), and other men, and a woman who played her mother, neighbor, teacher, buddy, and other women.

The play was unremarkable as a play; it did open me to looking into Sibley's own work that I'd overlooked when she was at her height and I was a teenager in Atlanta.


Sunday, September 10, 2006

Ask Not What Arts Can Do for Our Children. . .

(draft of a yet-to-be-published foreword to a school publication focused on the arts in our curriculum. Some of this material is adapted from a short address I gave on the same subject in May 2006, archived here at the Word Sanctuary.)

For a minute, let’s put aside stats about art students’ high achievements on tests, and just look at what our children do in their arts classes. Then you’ll know what arts do for our children.

You’ll see that art isn’t about career skills for a handful of “creative” people, but practice for leaders in any field.

Our children start from scratch. What teaches self-confidence more than overcoming the fear of making the first sound, word, move, or mark?

Of course, they’re also learning that old adage about inspiration and perspiration, starting over again and again until it – whatever “it” is – arrives at what they imagined. Forget about grades: they know when it’s right. People outside the arts think this is some mysterious talent called creativity, but it’s only the perseverance to find what you want. Michelangelo said that sculpting a horse was easy: You just chip away everything in the marble that doesn’t look like a horse.

Our children practice seeing what other people miss. Drawing is always about “seeing what’s there, not what you think is there.” Acting involves searching a text for clues, and noticing even the lines that aren’t written – what the character thinks while another character speaks. The musician sees a row of notes, but looks for patterns that are clues to phrasing. Outside the arts, we call that analysis, and it sounds pretty dull. In arts class, seeing and finding are a source of excitement and energy.

Our children combine things in new ways. That’s what composition means (Latin, “putting together”) and why that word applies equally to making music, writing words, and designing any visual art. Of course, outside of the arts, we call it thinking to look for connections where no one else sees them. Nothing mysterious about genius: it can be practiced, and that’s what art classes teach every day.

Our children try other perspectives besides their own. Our young actors imagine how another must feel, and practice making that feeling visible to an audience. Our children write and draw from particular perspectives, attending to place, mood. Of course, they’re always aware of the perspective of the viewer, and wondering how to communicate to that person. If we call this practice empathy, we recognize that this piece of arts education is the quality often missing in managers and leaders who don’t measure up.

Our children learn to collaborate. Often they work in small groups, and other times a director or conductor defines the overall vision. Either way, our students must take responsibility for their own parts. They identify problems, brainstorm solutions, respond to changes, and revise the project in progress in a way that everyone can live with. That’s what people outside the arts call leadership, and in the arts, everyone does it.

Finally, our children grow to connect their other classes to themselves and to each other through art. A graduate of the class of 2006 told me how he found interest in academics when he saw possible connections to his ongoing projects. His remark reminded me how the arts did something similar for me. For example, reading a soldier’s poetry from No Man’s Land brought all the names and dates of World War I home to me. Singing Renaissance motets in chorus and viewing early American art helped me to get into the minds of people who had seemed impossibly remote. Hearing a teacher’s comment that poets reduce complex experience to simplest terms, I suddenly understood what I’d been doing in math and computer programming classes. If you’ve had a similar epiphany, thank a good arts program.

So, in the pages ahead, see how Walker students pursue the arts every day, making art from everyday material. As Arts Month director, I’m making that the theme for this year’s Pursuit of the Arts Month: Art every day, Everyday art: finding the extra in the ordinary.