Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Note to Self: Look for more poetry by David Mason

The May issue of POETRY magazine collects some verse of the sort that makes me think, "Hmm, this poet seems to know what he's doing, and I'm sure he's doing it well, but it's not getting to me." But one poem rated an "Ah" with a star and a check mark in the corner by a poet with the unfortunate name David Mason.

"A Bit of Skin" tells a story in a three stanzas of regular form (slant or perfect rhymes - ABBACDDC) and then takes off to meditate on it in three more stanzas of the same form. The story is simple: the poet, reading, "furtively" glances at some bare skin on the young mother across the aisle, and gets a smile from her. The meditation, however, suggests more than I've been able to catch - I just know that I'm connecting through his words to something that matters. The final image of all the passengers emerging past the officers and out under "the dark / above the parking lot" is creepier than the rest of the poem, and memorable.

His name is "unfortunate" because a search for him on blogsearch and on Google got all kinds of awful stories - criminals, politicians, dummies. A better search, with "+poetry" in the search line, suggests that Mason is a respected poet, often included in panel discussions and collections of poets' thoughts, and that he is especially interested in poetry that expresses Christian faith. He recently chaired a symposium on Auden. Sounds like someone I should investigate.

Also found a blog devoted to poetry news, There was a reprint of a column by Ted Kooser about people who won't write because they're afraid it won't be good enough. "You can't judge a poem before it's written." He adds this poem about that:

The Education of a Poet
by Leslie Monsour

Her pencil poised, she's ready to create,
Then listens to her mind's perverse debate
On whether what she does serves any use;
And that is all she needs for an excuse
To spend all afternoon and half the night
Enjoying poems other people write.

Leslie Monsour's newest book of poetry is "The Alarming Beauty of the
Sky" (2005) published by Red Hen Press. Poem copyright (c) 2000 by
Leslie Monsour

Note to Self: Look for more Poetry by David Mason | Category: Poetry

Monday, May 29, 2006

Guilty Pleasure in Crime Fiction

Reflections after reading two examples of Crime Fiction: Georges Simenon's 1940 novel Maigret in Holland (trans. Sainsbury) and Walter Mosley's latest installment in the "Easy Rawlins" series, Cinnamon Kiss (2005).

As long as I could read, I've enjoyed mysteries, a.k.a. "detective novels" or "crime fiction." For just as long, I've wanted to create my own set of characters and follow them from novel to novel, murder to murder. But my experience of real life crime is nil, and I've come to despise some elements of the genre. Reading two crime novels written sixty years and an ocean apart, I have these thoughts about what's good in a good mystery.

It's the Journey, not the Destination

First, the trajectory of any crime novel is a given. Early on, a protagonist will be drawn into some criminal situation, will meet interesting suspicious characters, will encounter personal danger closing in on the culprit. That's the plot, and it hasn't been improved. (One variation: the now-forgotten novelist Charlotte Armstrong tried something a bit different. In her novels, we watch the crimes in preparation, and we watch the protagonists unaware, and the interest lies in wondering, "Will the protagonist figure out what's going on in time to prevent the awful crime?")

Knowing the road so well allows the writer and reader to take in the scenery along the way. Simenon often takes his detective Maigret to a new place (his boyhood home, a sleazy neighborhood, or, in this case, a provincial town in Holland). Agatha Christie takes us to boats on the Nile, cars on the Orient Express, or isolated estates. P.D. James claims that all of her novels begin with a thoroughly imagined location. Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse mysteries all focus on a different corner of a real place, Oxford. (When I last visited Oxford, it had turned into a sort of Inspector Morse theme park.)

For Mosley, it's not place but time that he explores: Easy Rawlins lives in LA, but each novel finds him advancing in time, from the immediate post-World War II years to the "Summer of Love" in this most recent one.

Mosley impressed me early in his career during an interview. He was asked why much of his work is set in years before he was born. He replied, "When you grow up in a family that loves you, your memories go back far beyond your own life span." He meticulously recreates the time's fashions, music, international events, and the state of race relations in LA at the time.

Other writers I admire have used the scaffolding of the crime plot to explore a theme - loss, faith, corruption, the entertainment industry. My personal acquaintance Terri Holbrook wrote a series of excellent mysteries set mostly in England with a north Georgia expatriate at the center, allowing her to dig into her own Southern roots. She tells me that her second (my favorite) novel The Grass Widow was based on an actual incident in her family's life -- and that she fears that her fiction was too close to the truth.

The Game

That being said, there is always an element of game playing, here. Novelist Raymond Chandler scorned the kind of novels in which solving "whodunnit" (and how) was uppermost -- those locked room murders of John Dickson Carr, the Agatha Christies, and of course Ellery Queen's challenge to the reader at the point where all the "clues" had been revealed: "Dear reader, can you figure out the solution?" Chandler points out, rightly, that it's never a fair game when the author gets to be God and manipulate hidden motives, luck, and coincidence.

Chandler's own novels are still a kind of game, less about logic than about something we do every day, trying to read other characters. That's something that all mysteries have in common, a worldview that says "No one can be trusted; everyone conceals something." Simenon and Agatha Christie use that insight as a plot device; for Mosley, as for Chandler, figuring out whom to trust is the emotional thrust of the whole story, as someone attractive is bound to be concealing something.

Death or Life Matters

In a detective novel, we take for granted that we're reading something that matters, just because death is involved. Oddly, then, the body count is something we anticipate with some glee, while we focus more on the relationships of the characters, their daily routines.

We want some death scene artfully, gleefully described. Simenon usually does not deliver on this expectation, and Mosley doesn't play that game, either. At the other extreme, P. D. James obviously takes care to display death as theatrically as possible. In one memorable opening of a James novel, there's the well-dressed unidentified man found drifting in a rowboat at sea -- both hands missing, severed at the wrists. The scene that got me reading her work was set in a Church -- a bum and a Lord, both corpses laid near the altar, their heads switched. A faux-English writer, Martha Grimes, lets melting snow reveal a corpse set on the sign of an inn where a mannequin used to be. Patricia Cornwell's medical examiner Kay Scarpetta is always finding gruesome remains, none more so than what she discovers in a refrigerator -- the high point of Ms. Cornwell's whole series, for my money.

A Death in the Family

All of these crime writers mentioned above (except Charlotte Armstrong) build their work on a constant cast of characters. Obviously one attraction of the genre is our bonding with those characters. In this, the authors are helped along by actors who memorably played the detectives. I cannot read Sherlock Holmes without seeing Jeremy Brett and his wonderful Watson (actor's name escapes me); actors John Thaw and Kevin Whately were in my mind's eye as I read the complete works of Colin Dexter; and Agatha Christie's work is not nearly so good on the page as it is with actor David Suchet playing Poirot -- with the help of great scenic designers, music, and supporting actors, who create all the nuance and atmosphere that she left out.

Mosley's Easy Rawlins (played once by Denzel Washington) is someone you have to like, and his buddy Mouse is a memorable foil. In each novel, I'm always interested to follow up on a boy named Jesus that Easy rescued, a child who never spoke a word for years. (In Cinnamon Kiss he's a dependable and grateful twenty-year-old). Cornwell's Scarpetta novels took her cast of characters to a point of such exaggerrated grimness that she wisely moved Scarpetta out of Richmond VA to a new location. The move hasn't helped as much as I'd hoped, however -- Scarpetta and her friends now carry so much baggage of international intrigue, secret agencies, robot attack dogs, "werewolves," and personal misery now that there's no believing in them, and no pleasure in seeing them together anymore.

There's more to say about this. I'll return to the topic again.

Guilty Pleasure in Crime Fiction | Category: Fiction

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Attention English Majors: the Final Exam of Your Life

Category: Education Fiction Poetry (Thoughts occasioned by reading a review of collected notes and essays of students of F.R. Leavis, the professor - critic who developed "the English Major" as an academic category.)

1. Which metaphor best describes the role of professors working and writing within the English Department of any college or university? They are . . .

a. . . . priests who mediate between Great Literature and those of us who cannot appreciate what that literature tells us about ourselves and our societies.

b. . . . creative artist wanna-be's who use the work of creative writers as material, the way that creative writers use experience. In these creative exercises, the author is the protagonist, and the author's choices are the plot.

c. . . . curators who preserve and arrange displays of art from the past.

d. all of the above

The thoughts here are long-simmering ones, brought to boil this morning when I encountered an article about F. R. Leavis, whose name was tucked into the parentheses of hundreds of pages that I read as an English Major at Duke and New College at Oxford. The article reminded me how fun it was to do nothing but read D.H.Lawrence, T.S.Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and how much I enjoyed seeing what these guys (and lady) thought of each other, and how much I got into arguing that my experiences reading them were closer to the authors' intentions than what my friends may have experienced.

Leavis thought of himself as (a).

My answer is, naturally, "all of the above," with a couple of caveats. First, at their best, English Professors do what good curators and museums do, putting us in touch with our literary heritage and helping us to get through barriers that might put us off at first. In my experience, literature and visual art and music of the past put me into a relationship with great personalities of earlier times, and with their whole worlds, and all of those enlarge my frames of reference for my own life.

The other caveat is that, at their worst, these curators are more like taxidermists who kill what they preserve. Is it coincidence that Shakespeare was the supremely popular author for four hundred years among college graduates and prairie - borns (including Lincoln) until his work became a Subject for multiple-choice tests and essay questions?

Attention English Majors: the Final Exam of Your Life | Category: Education. Fiction. Poetry

Saturday, May 06, 2006

"He has put eternity into man's mind, yet. . ."

(response to remarks by Rev. Dr. Ray Gotko, and a radio interview with John Polkinghorne, author of Scientists and Theologians)

Thanks to Rev. Dr. Ray Gotko for bringing together some pop science, some daily experience, and my favorite book of the Bible, Ecclesiastes.

His recent "reflections" column in the bulletin of St. James Church begins with ways that human perception differs from what Science knows. Space and time are both somehow affected by gravity, energy is matter at high speed, bees see infrared light all around us that we can't see, and "My dog ponders the scent of a blade of grass, and I wait impatiently. . . completely unaware of the scent and its meaning." What we can't perceive does not exist for us.

So when some of us say that we inhabit a spiritual realm, "Is it a reality or a wishful conjecture that supplies meaning where there is none?" There may be no instrument to perceive this "spiritual realm," but Ray asks, why should we expect there to be one? He suggests that he has no trouble with the notion that the "spiritual realm" is something that humans are prepared to sense in the way that dogs do scents. For this, he finds support in Ecclesiastes: "He has put eternity into man's mind, yet so that we cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end."

Beyond this, Ray finds an analogy between life and quantum physics, as our own observation of small particles influences what they do. He writes,

The days come and go, bringing us mostly an unexpected set of circumstances to which we must adjust our plans. From the spiritual perspective, there seems to be a force at work that senses our plans and modifies them to suit "the plan" for the day that somehow juggles all plans for the "good" of creation."

In this, Ray echoes what I heard from pioneering physicist-turned-Anglican-Priest, John Polkinghorne, interviewed on "Speaking of Faith" (see links). Polkinghorne, speaking from a perspective of chaos theory and quantum physics, says there's lots of room for an active God to be improvising within a universe of fixed laws, without pre-ordaining anything except the general direction of things.

In teaching, as in composing and writing, I know very well how a creator can start with a strong intention and detailed plan, and how ALL the details can fall by the wayside while the original intention succeeds beyond the original vision.

Finally, Ray isolates a section of Ecclesiastes, including a line that strikes me differently in this context:

I have seen the business that God has given to the sons of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man's mind, yet so that we cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; also that it is God's gift to humanity that every one should eat and drink and take pleasure in all toil.

"He has put eternity into man's mind, yet. . ." | Category: Religion

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Importance of the Arts in Education

Smoot's Remarks at the Arts Awards Ceremony |The Walker School's Middle School, Marietta, GA | Wednesday, 3 May 2006.  The student was Andy Linn, '06.  REVISED for presentation 11 January 2012.

Welcome parents, students, and faculty. We have scheduled this time in this big elegant box of a room to honor students who have made outstanding achievements in something that we call the "arts." After this, we move on to separate boxes, where we learn about things called math or literature, science or grammar. Later, many go to another box to change clothes and do sports for a couple of hours. Still later, we'll each go to a box where our family meets to eat and rest. In our unscheduled times we often plop down in front of a box with a flat screen to relax, and many of us get all we know about the world today out of that same box -- if we don't get bored a flip the channel. Once a week, we may go to a box where we are scheduled to think about God for a couple of hours.
I'm afraid that's how students experience their lives. It's not their fault: things have to be scheduled, subjects have to be taught, and we do best when we concentrate on one thing at a time.

But surely something's missing here.

All these thoughts came to mind one spring day when I ran into Andrew, one of our Walker seniors, whose high grades and portfolio from his AP art class earned him admittance to an arts program at Cornell University.

I asked him what I might say in a speech to help middle schoolers to see the importance of the arts in their schedule. He thought only a moment before he said, "Connections." He said, "Art class was always the highlight of my day." He explained that the other classes were hard, not very interesting to him, either. But then he had to prepare a dozen works of art in different media and styles for AP credit. When he was thinking about his art all day long, he suddenly found that he concentrated more and enjoyed his classes, because suddenly he saw connections between one subject and another. He said that they all went into his designs.

Now, he didn't have time to explain that part. Did he mean that he drew pictures of Presidents after he studied history? Was he putting equations onto canvasses? I really can't say.

But he reminded me of my senior year, when everything seemed to be coming together. That's when a soldier's poem brought the First World War home to me in a way that the history book did not. In Calculus class,  compressing vast amounts of data into a single equation, I realized that writing an equation is like writing a good poem, simplifying complex thoughts and feelings into a simple statement:  "all of this," the poet says, pointing to some metaphor, equals "that."

Andy's word "connections" made me consider how all thinking in all subjects is always a matter of finding a connection between two things that don't appear at first to be related. And the arts are the one part of our lives where we  connect our vision to an audience of people who do not know us. Arts require awareness of the world outside our little boxes, and skill to use vocabularies of musical notation and design, as well as the vocabulary of words.   The successful artist doesn't just express a feeling, but gets other people to feel it, too.

So, the arts don't fit in a single box. To think like an artist is to see the connections among all of our lives' little boxes.