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.