Saturday, December 29, 2007

Gerald and Sara Murphy: Muses of the Roaring Twenties

Gerald Murphy, Ginny Carpenter, Cole Porter, and Sarah Murphy
(reflections on EVERYBODY WAS SO YOUNG, a biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy by Amanda Vaill)

Before I knew that Gerald and Sara Murphy ever existed, I wrote the scenario for a musical play about them. It was to be called "Cafe Americain," set in Paris, mid-20s, and the story would include a pair of arch-wits modeled on Noel Coward and Cole Porter, and a monstrously egotistical American adventure-writer modeled on Ernest Hemingway, and a romantic affair. These characters, like wayward children, would all meet at a fictional cabaret called Cafe Americain, and there would be a maternal figure modeled anachronistically on singer Mabel Mercer. (She was indeed in Paris, 1920s, but was a girlish young woman, decades away from the maternal cabaret singer she would become.) Anyway, my play was to be an evocation of a place and a time when the characters' only concerns would be self-expression -- while they searched for something of substance to express. Of course, at 19, I was in that boat, myself, and the project came to nothing.

I'm reminded of this long-abandoned project because it turns out that all the real-life versions of those artists, and more, really did gather at one place, and it was called Villa Americain. The Great War had ended wars forever, the American dollar was strong, Americans and their culture were idolized, the avant - gardists in music and the other arts were having fun and occasionally producing works of lasting value. Their hosts really did fulfill the roles of the grown-ups among the bunch.

I've now read about them in Amanda Vaill's bittersweet biography, EVERYBODY WAS SO YOUNG, the biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy. Checking up on them in Google, I find a consensus that this is the couple everyone means when they talk about making one's life a work of art. The first biography of them, in 1971, was called LIVING WELL IS THE BEST REVENGE.

Gerald had been a socializing bon-vivant at boarding school and at Yale, always a couple of percentage points away from failing. He rejected outright the life that was expected of him, to follow into the family business, a fashionable retail outfit called the Mark Cross Company. His later letters suggest that he was also homosexual, but he wouldn't admit this to anyone in clear terms, not even to himself. Despite that, his marriage to childhood friend Sara seems to have been happy on many levels: they adored their three children, they were partners in important decisions, they enjoyed each other, they developed their tastes at a time when "anything went," and they enjoyed what they could do for others with their money.

Gerald took time out to enroll in the army for the Great War, though he saw no combat. He emerged with a stronger sense of himself, and he applied himself (for the first time) when he began to study drafting and architecture. One of his art teachers discouraged any kind of representational art, focused entirely on abstract shape and design.

During the 20s, Murphy made a splash as an American painter (or "Amurrican" as Picasso called him, approvingly). Vaill has interesting things to say about Murphy's paintings, and how they apply his draftsmanship and penchant for abstraction to objects that had personal significance for him: his father's watch, his martini mixing paraphernalia (he reportedly mixed drinks "like a priest saying Mass"), and objects in his library that represented his father's regimented world and disapproval. Here's what Ken Johnson of the Boston Globe wrote in a review of Williams College Museum of Art's (WCMA.org) retrospective of the Murphy's memorabilia and artwork (summer 2007):

Gerald's seven surviving paintings are the heart and soul of the exhibition. "Razor" (1924), a still-life picture of a safety razor and a fountain pen crossed before a box of safety matches, is like a Jazz Age coat of arms, as coolly controlled and explosively lively as a Fred Astaire dance number. "Watch" (1925) is a dazzlingly complicated, 6-by-6-foot enlargement of the inner works of a pocket watch rendered in an exacting, Precisionist style in 14 shades of gray plus two shades of mustard yellow.

Another critic points out that Murphy's works anticipate Pop Art by forty years.

Johnson comments on another painting, in light of what Murphy called his heart's "defects":

In this light, "Wasp and Pear" might be revealing. The pear's generous bottom is easily read as a human behind, a luscious, ambiguously gendered object of sexual desire. Yet the desiring subject is a hideous monster - a reflection, maybe, of Murphy's anxiety over the nature of his own passion.

Perhaps Murphy realized more or less unconsciously that he was approaching a fateful juncture: to continue painting would be to reveal more openly the truth of his secret urges and shame. (He considered "Wasp and Pear" his best work, by the way.) Yet to cover up the truth - by means, say, of an emptied-out formalism - would constitute a kind of creative suicide. Perhaps it was better, all things considered, to just stop painting.
But there were two more clear reasons to stop painting in 1929. Young son Patrick fell ill with TB, and lingered for years before it killed him. In the meantime, his healthy older brother Baoth contracted measles at boarding school, and the treatment led to an infection that became meningitis, and he died suddenly, all in a matter of days. "Lightning striking twice,"said Gerald in forlorn retreat from the life he and Sara had known. Beginning with these deaths, he finally went into the family business, the Mark Cross store in Boston, which he had avoided so long.

The story becomes more and more sad, tainted by the Depression, the rise of Fascism, and the repeated personal betrayals by ungrateful artists who had accepted Gerald and Sara's hospitality, patronage, and huge personal loans. Foremost among these are the obnoxious F. Scott Fitzgerald and back-stabbing Ernest Hemingway. Tender is the Night and A Moveable Feast make clear and unflattering portraits of the Murphys.

The one person I was most interested in before beginning to read this was Cole Porter. I was surprised to discover that Gerald and Sara Murphy appeared prominently as supporting characters in the Porter bio-pic DE-LOVELY that I saw a couple of years ago. Here, I learned about Porter's one orchestral score, WITHIN THE QUOTA, a ballet about immigrants in the US, for which Gerald Murphy conceived and executed a backdrop consisting of a fanciful mock-newspaper ("UNKNOWN MILLIONAIRE BUYS ATLANTIC OCEAN" reads the headline).

In the 1950s, New York became the center of the avant-garde, and they watched "from the sidelines," writes Amanda Vaill. Gerald became anti-communist, though this lost him the company of old friends -- Dorothy Parker took anti-communist to be "anti-Dottie," Murphy said. Gerald died of cancer; Sara began to show signs of alzheimer's in the mid-60s, and lived until 1975.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Second Thoughts on SWEENEY, Seconded

So, I'm posting about SWEENEY TODD for the third time in five days. Why not? I've waited twenty-eight years for the movie.

I've seen the movie three times, now, and I've checked web sites that compile reviews from published critics as well as from casual movie fans. So far, the only people who seem to have disliked it are the ones who've been sitting with me. The third time, I went alone, and the audience behind me laughed and audibly gasped at the surprising twists - very gratifying.

Speaking to a friend who asked me today how I liked it, I had to admit to a harsh ambivalence: the movie is everything I ever dreamed it would be, and yet I cannot recommend it to anyone I care about.

This week's WEEKLY STANDARD includes a review of SWEENEY TODD that touches on the revulsion one feels watching the movie, which I experienced as shame at myself for enjoying it. Critic John Podhoretz begins his reflection with reference to Brooks Atkinson's comment in 1940 about PAL JOEY, a musical now recognized as a masterpiece: Despite the merits of the music (Richard Rodgers), lyrics (Lorenz Hart), and performance (Gene Kelly as Joey), Atkinson asked rhetorically, "Can anything sweet come from a foul well?" Podhoretz says, "this remarkable movie [SWEENEY TODD] isn't merely a foul well, but an open sewer."

Yet Podhoretz calls himself a "devotee" of Sondheim's show, having seen it five times and claiming that he can sing the show from start to finish by memory (something I've done on long trips for many years now) and he is "lost in admiration" for this movie, a "brilliant truncation of Sondheim's sweeping three-hour tragedy into a brisk and intimate two-hour musical thriller." Still he, too, uses caution recommending it. He says that people "will be justified in walking out and demanding a refund at the box office."

He offers this bit of justification for the "Vital Gore" (as he cleverly calls it -- two weeks after the magazine's obituary for that crank Gore Vidal):
Burton's decision to be brutal and graphic was a necessary one. If he had held back, Sweeney Todd [and Mrs. Lovett] might come across as lovable. . . and the whole project would have descended into camp.
Podhoretz is one of the critics who praise Helena Bonham Carter. Even the raves have been snarky about her. I appreciate her performance more each time I see it. I'm put off by the doll-like immobility of her face in this film, but that seems to have been a purposeful choice, to strike a fashionable stance called "Goth" in contemporary culture. But her eyes tell a wide range of stories -- notably, when she whispers in Todd's ear, "Silver's good enough for me . . . Mr. T.," and when she's justifying her repulsive plan: "Such a nice plump frame wot's-his-name has . . . had? . . . has!" One critic observed that she's not so much Sweeney's lover as his manager -- and that helped to put her performance in perspective for me. Near the end, as events spin out of her control, her eyes tell that story, too: narrowing with defensive hatred when she orders Toby to "throw the old woman out!" and widening with involuntary panic when the Beadle startles her, and welling with tears when she realizes that the boy Toby knows too much to live.

Even my friends who disliked the movie have singled out young Edward Sanders for his performance as actor and boy soprano in the role of Toby. When the movie seems to have hardened into pure gore and heartlessness, he softens it. He's the one truly human being in the whole movie.

Another critic pointed out a line added for the movie that makes a stronger connection between Sweeney Todd and his nemesis Judge Turpin. There's always been that line about their "fellow spirit" and their "fellow tastes in women," but screenwriter - producer John Logan adds an offhanded comment for the judge moments after we've seen him sentence a little boy to hang:
JUDGE TURPIN: Was he guilty?
BEADLE BAMFORD: If he wasn't, he certainly had done something to justify the punishment.
JUDGE TURPIN: As which man has not?
That is, of course, the same thought that Sweeney sings in "Epiphany": "We all deserve to die."

There's more to say about musical technique. Intrigued by a blog posting ("The Obtuse Melodies of Sweeney Todd" at a blog called "The Playlist"), I read Johnny Depp's comment that Sondheim's melodies are "obtuse." The blog posted my comment about the melodies, as follows:

I wonder if Depp (quoted in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY) was thinking of some other word when he said "obtuse?" That word usually connotes stupidity of the stubborn sort ("ob-" meaning, "in the way of," like an obstruction). "Obtuse" angles are wide and fat, and yet Depp seems to be commenting on the "acute" intervals in the music: literally "sharp"-edged.

I've tried to pick some of the melodies and accompaniment out on the piano, and discover that, playing the melody to one, I'm also playing the accompaniment to the other. Sondheim, a puzzle-lover and a trained composer, likes to cross-reference bits of songs this way.

For instance:

- the main theme played so loudly in the opening credits is hundreds of years old, going to the words "Dies Irae, Dies Illae" ("Day of wrath, day of mourning") of the ancient Catholic requiem.

- The same pattern of notes, played rapidly and softly (in musical terms, an "ostinato" because it's stubborn or "obstinate!") then altered a bit, show up often in the score (associated with the phrase, "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit," and with Mrs. Lovett's song "Wait").

- While that same pattern plays in the low strings during the opening title, we hear some wind instruments play a counter melody above -- and that becomes the second phrase that Sweeney sings in the movie: "Life has been kind to you," and appears all the way through the movie. The melody that fits over those becomes, "There was a barber and his wife. . ."

- and the notes for the words "There was a barber and his wife" also begin each phrase of Sweeney's lovely melody where the movie is most gross, a song called "Johanna," when he sings, "And are you beautiful and pale . . . Johanna?" though the melody turns in another direction.

So maybe Depp meant "angular?" "Obscure" (in the sense of dark)? "Ostinato?" Maybe "abstruse" -- pushed to the limit, difficult to comprehend? All of these: but not obtuse!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

SWEENEY: Second Opinions

So far, I and my friends are the only ones who've expressed anything negative about Tim Burton's film of Stephen Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD. I'd be happy to change my mind; after all, I've been looking forward to this movie since 1979. Maybe my outlook was influenced by my friend's reaction to the gore, coupled with the fact that I had excited my seventh grade students about seeing this show. How could I respond if a parent were to ask me angrily, "What made you think that slasher film was appropriate for my child?" For the stage show, that was never problematic.

Here's some writing I've found relating to my qualms, including some comments by Stephen Sondheim himself.

Writing in the Washington Post (12/21/2007), columnist Peter Marks writes, "By excising choral numbers and highlighting the sorrow inside the sordidness of Sondheim's wit-strewn score, Burton invites us into a more intimate communion with horrible yet hummable aspects of human nature." While I worry that the gleefulness in gallows humor is missing, Marks notes the same thing as a strength:
"Helena Bonham Carter [makes] Mrs. Lovett — Sweeney's cannibalistic comrade-in-harms — a woman less comical than, but just as poignant as, the Broadway character Angela Lansbury created 28 years ago." As for the sadness and goreyness, which to me seemed unredeemed by "joy in the telling" (as a religious man, that's important to me), Marks observes that, in "the slightly distorted consistency and color of what oozes out of everyone's necks . . . we are not in the domain here of chainsaw massacres, but art."

Sondheim himself responds directly to my concern about the way that a film musical cannot generate the same rapport between audience and singer as a stage musical can do. He is interviewed on the subject of his movie by David Benedict in an article in the London Observer ("The Singalong-a-Slasher," Sunday December 23, 2007). Sondheim says:

'On stage, generally speaking, the story is stopped or held back by songs, because that's the convention. Audiences enjoy the song and the singer, that's the point. Static action - if that's not an oxymoron - is accepted. It's what writer Burt Shevelove used to call "savouring the moment". That's a very tricky business on film. It's fine if the songs are presentational, as in a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers-style movie where you watch them for the fun of it, but not with storytelling songs. When the song is part of the action and working as dialogue, even two minutes is way too long.' The interviewer continues: "He's considerably cheered, however, to learn of a test screening in California after which college-age audiences besieged Logan with positive comments along the lines of: 'I forgot they were singing.' [Sondheim exclaims], 'That's exactly what I wanted!'"

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Missing Applause for SWEENEY TODD

(reflections on the film SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET by Tim Burton, script by John Logan, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. For the record: I saw the original Broadway cast on the day after they wrapped up the recording, 1979; the original London cast, Drury Lane Theatre, 1980; a wonderful small-scale production on a basement stage by Atlanta's Theatre Gael, 2000; the Kennedy Center's "Sondheim Celebration" production, 2002; and a passable production at a local college, around 2004.)

I've always recommended SWEENEY TODD to my students without a qualm. The tale of bloody revenge was redeemed by the excellence -- and fun -- in its telling. Now I've seen the movie, and I have a qualm.

Ecstatic reviews led me to hope that this film would do for composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim what the film of WEST SIDE STORY did for his friend Leonard Bernstein. People would crowd the theatres to see Johnny Depp and come away elated as I've always felt after seeing SWEENEY TODD on stage. At last, the world would understand what I (and a few hundred thousand other people) have treasured for decades.

But, while the stage version ends with a gruesomely funny chorus, warm applause, deep breaths and smiles, the film ends with a very grim, very gorey, very sad final image. Where I saw it in a packed theatre, the audience just shrugged and silently emptied the seats. If the movie is going to be your introduction to SWEENEY TODD, please, don't see it. Wait for the next stage version to come to town.

What's missing? The movie's creative team preserved as much of the original material as any Sondheim fan could hope, and the performers inhabit their roles with conviction, and they hit all the right notes. The roiling dark skies over 1840s London match Sondheim's ominous music with a breathtaking macabre beauty. It's a pleasure to see the stage picture realized, at least, at first. All the jokes are intact, though only scattered chuckles greeted moments that have caused uproarious laughter when I've seen it in theatres.

Here's the main difference, and it's nobody's fault: musicals, even this one, are built to generate goodwill between audience and performers, and that can't happen when the actors aren't there.

For example, on stage, when an actress playing "Mrs. Lovett" sings "The Worst Pies in London," it's a virtuosic and comic turn. She kneads dough, pounds it and rolls it, swats bugs, attends to her customer, all the while singing rhythms and tongue-twisting lyrics that reflect her scatter-brained character. She has high notes, low notes, laugh lines, and, during her final long note, there's a flurry of activity to wrap up one complete pie on the last downbeat. For her efforts, and for the live orchestra that keeps up with her, the audience always breaks into warm applause.

When Helena Bonham-Carter does the same thing, it's all finely timed and flawlessly sung -- but she's doing it for a camera, not for us. It's more cinematography than choreography. The song was pre-recorded; the bugs appear on cue thanks to editing; her hands could be stunt doubles for all we know! Imagine seeing a juggler, not live, but an animated cartoon, and you'll understand what's lacking.

Something else is missing that happens when we applaud for a live cast musical. We tell the performers how they've pleased us, and they acknowledge us by waiting for the applause to fade. So, at the end of every scene, there's this moment when the story and characters are suspended and we all tell each other: this is a play, you're doing this for us, we're grateful. Then we resume the story.

Without the rapport that applause generates in live productions of SWEENEY TODD, its highpoints fall flat. Twenty-eight years after seeing the original cast, I remember chills when Len Cariou as "Sweeney" turned to my section of the audience and pointed his razor at us: "Who sir? You sir? No one's in the chair, c'mon, c'mon!" We laughed because we were startled, and Len Cariou as "Sweeney" seemed to enjoy the effect he was having, while he prowled up and down levels of the stage and exerted his voice to its highest pitch. In the movie, this same moment is performed as a kind of fantasy sequence, and Johnny Depp's voice and expressions and body language are appropriate, and the staging is very good, but his invitation to us is deflected to third persons, men on screen. The medium blunts the impact, kills the laughs, and fails to connect us to the character.

Most disappointing of all in the movie is SWEENEY's most lauded musical number. On stage, it's the end of Act One, and the two main characters mug for the audience in a blackly comic song, "A Little Priest." They perform for us like music hall singers of old, and the song even includes a straight-up vaudeville comedy routine with puns and a rhyming contest. At that point in the show, the audience and the actors are sharing laughter, and it's all in fun. An amazing thing happens: we become complicit with the main characters, being in on their joke, eager as Sweeney for revenge. Every house I've been in has applauded wildly at the end as the couple strike their iconic pose -- knife and rolling pin raised. In the movie, their pose is just an odd image at the end of a mildly amusing song.

More intimate songs, such as "My Friends" and "Wait" fare better. One song actually lands in the movie with even more impact than it does on stage, thanks to a wise casting choice. The song "No One's Going to Harm You" was a relief from all the blood and thunder of the original, a lullabye from "Toby," the childlike adult simpleton, to Mrs. Lovett. In the movie, the character Toby is a tousled boy soprano, and Mrs. Lovett is touched and amused. As he sings more earnestly about how he will protect her, we watch Helena Bonham-Carter's growing awareness that the boy knows too much.

Isolated moments are wonderful; the music is rich and layered as ever; the plot clicks into place like the blood-lubricated gears in the opening credits. Yet, if this movie had been my introduction to SWEENEY TODD, I would never have loved the show. Sondheim has always written his music and lyrics for live audiences, and his work seems out of place on film.


( It so happens that I've seen High Definition live broadcasts of Metropolitan Opera productions in this very movie theatre, and, tellingly, much of the audience does applaud, and the producers cannily draw us into the performance via backstage shots and interviews at intermission. The effect is very close to that of being in a live production.)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Rumi at 800: Muslim Poet for us all

(ruminations on the poet Rumi, in translation by Coleman Barks, set to music by Christopher Theofanidas, and as discussed on the Radio Program SPEAKING OF FAITH by Fatemeh Keshavarz, professor of Persian & Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis)

Across the eight centuries since his birth, and across the oceans separating his homeland Afghanistan from us, the personal voice of the poet Rumi came through a chorus and three soloists with full orchestra, in dozens of colors and textures during a memorable concert a couple years ago, at the premiere of "the Music of our Final Meeting" by Christopher Theofinidas. What I heard was tenderness, playfulness, generosity, sensuality, and a saintly focus on eternity. Theofinidas's music responded in kind, with clarity and inventive variety.

After hearing that concert, I bought selected poems of Rumi, in their popular translation from Persian by Coleman Barks, the book that had inspired the composer. Reading it, I bogged down, not least because I'm put off by Barks's choice of re-grouping Rumi's two- and four-line fragments into longer poems with made-up titles. While I often liked what I read under such titles as "At the Tavern," I wondered if this contemporary of mine was putting a spin on Rumi. I lost trust in the translator.

Yesterday, hearing the discussion of Rumi by professor Fatemeh Keshavarz, I heard some confirmation of my suspicion. She was unflaggingly upbeat in praising Barks and others for their work, while also observing that Barks has systematically downplayed the worshipful nature of the poetry. I was struck by the fact that Keshavarz never once mentioned the relationship that Barks emphasizes above all themes in Rumi's work, a friendship (teacher - mentor?) with a travelling mystic named Shams.

I'm re-reading Barks, more carefully, and finding much to enjoy. I particularly liked an image of one's shadow, which follows behind, but sometimes rushes ahead -- as a metaphor for language. Yes, words lag behind the reality, and sometimes words get ahead and shape our perceptions.

Religiously speaking, I'd say Rumi's whole theology / philosophy comports well with my favorite letter of St. Paul, that to the Philippians: "I press on towards the goal of the upward call of perfection in Jesus Christ." Again and again, Rumi is telling us that we will ALWAYS feel incomplete, and that's GOOD -- if you think you've arrived, you're dead. Our dissatisfactions are good for us: we are separated from God, and dissatisfaction is a sign of our longing for completeness in God.

Other desires are good, too, stopping-points on the way to completeness in God. One poem includes the lines, "If anyone asks how did Jesus raise the dead / Kiss me on the lips and say, "like this."

Keshavarz explains that Muslims don't have the Christian concept of original sin. Rather, we are separated from God because we "forget." Thus the first words of the Koran are about "remembering."

Finally, the conversation turned to that monkey in Hindu iconography, the one that represents our restless minds, endlessly grasping at branches and vines. (see earlier blog entry, "Gyrovagueness.") Rumi evidently writes of this a lot, and advises centeredness on a goal to counteract the enervating effect of that "onrush" of concerns.

He also breaks down compartments in our lives, always juxtaposing opposites.

I know good when I see it: Rumi is good. I shall seek an alternative translation, perhaps via this Keshavarz.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Those Who Stood at Nanking

(reflection to interview heard on Bob Edwards's radio program today.)

Like the producer of the documentary NANKING, I must admit that it's news to me that twenty-two westerners working in China, men and women, chose not to escape the Japanese onslaught in 1937. Their home governments sent ships to rescue them, and the Chinese officials of Nanking escaped, but the Westerners stood together to create a "safety zone."

I visited the website and reprint these bits of information:

Ted Leonsis, Vice-Chairman of AOL, read Iris Chang’s book THE RAPE OF NANKING . Leonsis was shocked that he knew nothing about an event that had been such a terrible injustice and he felt that telling its story would have real meaning for today’s world. ...[He was] moved by the courage of the handful of Westerners who stayed behind in Nanking at the beginning of World War II to create a Safety Zone, protecting over two hundred thousand Chinese from rampaging Japanese troops. Their story shows that the actions of ordinary individuals in extraordinary circumstances can make a difference.

The events now known as ‘the rape of Nanking’ lasted approximately six weeks. The city was looted and burned, and marauding Japanese soldiers unleashed a staggering wave of violence on Nanking’s population. According to the summary judgment of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East – also known as the Tokyo Trials, “estimates indicate that the total number of civilians and prisoners of war murdered in Nanking and its vicinity during the first six weeks of the Japanese occupation was over 200,000. Approximately 20,000 cases of rape occurred in the city during the first month of the occupation.”

Prior to the fall of the city, many Chinese fled the approaching troops and all foreign citizens were ordered to evacuate. A group of 22 European and American expatriates, however, refused to leave. Despite devastating air strikes and the threat of an oncoming army, these Westerners – including John Rabe, a Nazi businessman; Bob Wilson, an American surgeon; and Minni Vautrin, the American headmistress of a missionary college – remained behind in order to set up a Safety Zone to protect civilians. Some two hundred thousand refugees crowded into the Zone, which spanned two square miles. During the brutal occupation, Safety Zone committee members vehemently protested the army’s actions to the Japanese authorities, but the carnage continued. Every day John Rabe, Minnie Vautrin, and the others fought to keep the Safety Zone’s boundaries intact and the refugees safe. (from Nanking the Film, official web site http://nankingthefilm.com)
According to Leonsis in the interview, the headmistress of a girls' college slapped a Japanese officer and stood alone against the marauding soldiers each night to protect several thousand girls on her campus. A German businessman, member of the Nazi party, personally intervened to prevent rape. An American doctor wrote to his wife how the situation could not get worse -- there were so few people left for the Japanese to kill -- and that he could not leave China for comforts of home, because he would always carry with him the regret that he didn't do what he could to help the helpless, and that would make him less of a husband, less of a father.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Opening Windows: Impressionists and Joyce

(Reflections on the exhibit "Inspiring Impressionists" at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, following which I attempted another foray into Ulysses by James Joyce.)

My brand loyalty to Impressionism is very strong. At art museums, I save the Impressionists' displays for dessert. I sigh when I hear music associated with the "impressionists," and I'm liable to weep for Debussy's last three sonatas. So Atlanta's High Museum special exhibit Inspiring Impressionists was a special treat.

Most of the big names were gathered there. There were Cassatt, Degas, Sisley, and my favorite impressionist dark-horse, Pisarro. Here, Pisarro is represented by a close view of a young female servant carrying an empty drink glass on a tray. Just as I was noting how often an unfamiliar impressionist painting that I like turns out to be Pisarro's, I noticed the first impressionist painting in the exhibit that I didn't like, and it was his: desultory depiction of a servant sweeping a floor around a carelessly drawn table.

The big stars are Monet and Manet, and now I will be able to remember which is which. Monet is the bad boy, and Manet is the team player. Manet's modest words, writ large in the first chamber, tell us, "No one's work is less spontaneous than mine: I learned it all from studying the old masters" (quoted badly, from memory). This is the thesis statement of the exhibit. At the other end of the exhibit, Monet strikes the opposite tone, claiming total spontaneity and nothing owed to tradition. The exhibitors juxtapose his works with others that he would have known by Dutch and French artists of the century previous to his to show that his work owes something to them.

The outstanding pieces, though, were interesting precisely because they were not typical and not necessarily even likeable. It was a bit startling to see, for example, that a big canvas re-telling of the Biblical story of Jephtha and his daughter, done in the grand old style - only more stiff, more drab - was by Manet. Early work, it falls flat between the two stools of illustration and impressionism. Nearby, we see Manet's smudgy version of a Renaissance scene of the Crucifixion, beside a photo of the original. His blurring of the original's crystal-sharp images adds nothing good to the scene, but his comment about his version helped me to understand what he was after, and what he and the other impressionists do achieve in their most characteristic work. He remarks that, while he admired and copied Italian and Spanish Renaissance painters, "one cannot breathe the air" in their works.

Manet is so right! Run-of-the-mill Renaissance works are so neatly realized, so purposefully arranged, so rich in detail, that the viewer can only appreciate them, as if admiring a display through a frame, behind glass.

Impressionists seem to have opened the window to let the viewer breathe the same air as their subjects. I've always felt this about my favorite Monets, and it's true of the ones, here, too. We see some windmills under grey-white sky; we see a Dutch church at the end of an avenue bisected by a canal; we see a distant town from a curve of the Seine. We do get the impression of water's lapping, of the haze in the air, of motion, of our just happening by a scene. We feel the temperature, we hear the rustling of the tall grass. I suppose, if I were a Martian or a Saharan, I might not understand that those blurred green waves in the corner there are thick tall grasses; but, having been in fields and streams before, I feel strongly the power of these works to evoke sense - memory. Their practices of cropping the frame, of hurrying and broadening the brush strokes, of choosing subjects that are ordinary, of blurring the distinctions between objects and backgrounds, also blur the distinction between observer and observed. We feel like the artist has opened a window onto real life at some moment, somewhat carelessly, instead of feeling like the artist has staged a tableau.

To use a slightly different analogy from my own experience, it's the difference between watching a play and being in it. The blurring, the odd cropping, the lack of apparent story-telling, all leave room for the viewer (the actor, in my analogy) to imagine the environment and the feel for himself.

The impressionists are not the only ones to get this effect. For example, the Dutch masters of the seventeenth century, Vermeer especially, have that same quality of opening a window onto real life, and it's no accident that windows so often figure in their works, as the source of light for interiors, and as a source of interest as we get glimpses through them in depictions of Dutch streets. A few of those are here in this exhibit, too, including a portrait by Hals, whose work always impresses me with this quality and something else, too: good humored affection for whoever appears in his work. Another artist I didn't know, Fragonard, b. 1730, uses those same broad brush strokes in a painting of a young woman reading that achieves the same effect.

Curiously, while the Impressionists were ridiculed for their triviality and carelessness in a time when artists were expected to portray the great and to teach religious ideals, it is the impressionists' work that speaks religion as I understand it. It revels in the beauty of creation and perception itself, dignifying the homely people and objects with their close attention. It's a prominent theme of the Bible, that God is present in the smallest, the weakest, the most overlooked (cf. Joseph, the Jews, the suffering servant, the widow's mite, the Good Samaritan, and the cornerstone which the builders rejected).

All of this came to mind as I struggled once more through chapter 6 of ULYSSES. I know that Joyce struggled mightily to write it, and it's a struggle for me to read it; but when I do "get" what I'm reading, there's that same feeling that the mediator Joyce has stepped aside, and I'm really there with Dedalus and Bloom and whoever else. Again, I'm having to read like an actor, learning to make the mental connections between one line and another, with no director there to lead me through it.

I wonder if anyone has ever tried to re-write ULYSSES in a conventional narrator's voice, stage - managed and careful to distinguish thought from spoken word, past from present, main action and side-show? It wouldn't be very interesting in itself, but it might help someone (the writer, perhaps) to appreciate Joyce even more.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Updike on Beauty: Refocusing the Eye of the Beholder

(reflection on a couple of readings in DUE CONSIDERATIONS, a collection of prose by John Updike, published this past month.)

An earlier article in this blog takes up the age-old question, "Is beauty merely a matter of opinion?" (see March 27, 2007

Skirting a definitive answer, John Updike provides a succinct partial answer. "The beautiful is, from one perspective, simply what we need -- a meal to the hungry, a bed to the weary. . . ." But "appreciation of beauty is empathy with a creator." Updike, whose aspiration to be an artist was sidetracked by writing, describes the way a painting by Vermeer draws the viewer into "an ordinary world re-created by a human hand and eye, and our sense of the beautiful becomes a kind of awed applause at another human being's extreme and tender skill" (Due Considerations 663-4).

In the context of an article on "the future of faith," Updike describes the negative of his Vermeer experience. On a vacation in Italy, feeling the ubiquitous images from the life of Christ becoming "a repetition like that of certain maddening television commercials," Updike took in a contemporary art exhibition, he writes,

"I made my way from one pavilion to another, exposing myself to artificial fog and upside-down dandelions... unintelligible whispers and showers of magenta dust... a room of electronic numbers.... Everywhere, abrasive irony and nihilism. ... The desire to shock the hardened art connoisseur into some kind of response had become veritably frantic; there was hardly an inch of the void, of disgust, of scorn left to expose, in this age of post-faith. Only the vegetation and the other spectators... belonged to a world I wanted to be in, a world I could recognize to be continuous with the world of my childhood" (32).


The two passages meet in "religion" in its broad original sense of "connection" (as in ligament). The glass of water, the youthful museum-goers, the painting by Vermeer, and a stand-out painting of the Annunciation connect to the beholder's physical need or remembered experiences. The works of art connect the viewer to the creators' minds. The ugly works deny connection, except in the way they divide their audience into camps of those who look for beauty and those who deny that beauty has any reality beyond the eye of the beholder.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Gyrovagueness

(reflections on an article in the November 2007 issue of WEAVINGS by Mark S. Burrows, and a poem in POETRY by Dean Young from the same month.)

"Gyrovague," I learned today, is St. Benedict's term for the kind of monk who never settled into one monastery. Compounded from gyro "to spin" and vague, the foam on a wave, it's a perfect word for those who "drift . . . slaves to their own will and gross appetites." And who, today, doesn't?

Restless on this day of rest, I flipped idly through one journal, then another, happening on two articles germane to this topic.

First, a poem by Dean Young struck me as a kind of secular psalm celebrating the world's constant movements, its tectonic churning and the "sluggish seeth[ing]" of ice bergs and tides. Young's own lines demonstrate how the mind flits from one things to another, associating sounds (mouse, house, moon, mood, "sadness heaving" and "gladness somersaulting... like a kid's drawing of a snowflake"). Even when the poem seems to be settling down into a love lyric, it flies off again with a fantasia on terminology shared between cars and guns:
...No matter
how stalled I seem, some crank in me
tightens the whirly-spring each time I see
your face so thank you for aiming it
my way, all this flashing like polished
brass, lightning, powder, step on the gas,
whoosh we're halfway throught our lives . . . .
- "Easy as Falling Down Stairs" by Dean Young

A few lines after that, watching the sleeping loved one's face as she has a "galloping dream," the poet muses, "Maybe even death will be a replenishment."

That dovetailed with the next article I picked up in the journal WEAVINGS. Through time, in both life and death, the author writes, a "stream" flows "like a winter river buried beneath layers of ice." That thought, expressed by church history professor Mark S. Burrows, takes off from lines by Rilke about "the eternal flow" of time -- identified as an aspect of God -- that connects past and present, living and dead, in one continuum or community.

Burrows writes in the context of an article, "Vigils and the Rest," about life in the slow lane, a monastery he visits. He writes of "stability of place" experienced by monks who don't "gyrovague" around. In opposition to the life of constant motion that Dean Young seems to celebrate, Benedict's discipline offers a life of cyclical regularity in prayer and song, chores and simple meals, a stability of life that allows one to be attentive.

Just writing that, the in-born Protestant side of me shouts, "Attentive? If that's all you're doing with your life, there's nothing to be attentive to!"

So one source says, life's in constant flux, and just enjoy that. The other one says, all this motion is keeping us from ever being "present" in our own lives, and keeping us from ever knowing God's presence.

I guess both sources would agree that whooshing through our lives isn't a good thing, and they agree that something important is moving in us, "replenishing" us even in repose. The essential thing, if we can do it, is to pay attention, so that something other than drift and appetite directs us.

Of course, "paying attention" is what poetry, the arts, prayers, and this blog, are for - to hold our fleeting moments up to scrutiny, for appreciation.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Last Five Years: Self-Expression isn't Enough

(Reflections after seeing THE LAST FIVE YEARS, written and composed by Jason Roberts Brown, at Actor's Express Theatre, Atlanta, and JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS at the Alliance Theatre, Atlanta one month earlier.)

For the last ninety minutes, a pair of appealing singing actors and an ensemble of instrumentalists took me and an audience through THE LAST FIVE YEARS, a frankly autobiographical work in which the freshly divorced Jewish composer-playwright wrote about a freshly-divorced Jewish novelist . It required a great deal of stamina from all concerned, in a way that a three hour performance of KING LEAR does not. Now I'm trying to figure out why. My thought -- which began to detach from the action around one-third of the way through the show -- is that KING LEAR somehow is about us and our world as much as it is about an ancient king. But THE LAST FIVE YEARS never gets beyond the artist's self-expression. It's never our story, and it feels a little distasteful to be watching this artful dissection of the affair, however brilliantly it's done.

Here's what's right about this production: The two stars Natasha Drena and Jonathan MacQueen were likable and pitch-perfect in songs that stretched their ranges and their breath control to the limits. The playwright-composer begins the play with Natasha as "Cathy," singing to her 28-year-old ex-husband how his leaving "still hurts." The composer follows that immediately with the husband "Jamie" at 23 singing about the "Shiksa Goddess" named Cathy whom he has just met. Beginning at opposite ends of the five year relationship, the arc of their story reaches both backwards and forwards on parallel tracks. The evening alternates between Cathy and Jamie, each singing to a telephone, or to an invisible partner, except for a magical sequence mid-way, when they marry, and another song at the end, when one is saying "Good-bye" for the night, and one is saying "Good-bye" forever. We appreciate their attraction to each other, and we sympathize with their frustrations. For awhile, we feel like participants in the affair.

Also right are the songs themselves. There's a pop-Broadway pastiche, and a classic Broadway pastiche, and a lilting waltz that could have been composed any time in the last century, but most of these songs are extended AABA songs with folk-rock sounds and pop vocal techniques. The rhymes fall into place neatly, always making a point. The lyrics seem natural, like speech. The music is composed in multiple meters to make it supple and expressive, swinging and rocking one minute, pensive the next.

Here's where I begin to find my dissatisfaction, though. The lyrics sometimes tell a specific story, as Cathy tells of her odd roommates in summer stock in Ohio, and as Jamie tells about his agent and John Updike's review of his new novel. More often, though, the lyrics are scrubbed free of specifics, and are generalized iterations of the well-worn grooves of relationship-speak: I love you, I miss you, I need to be free to pursue my dreams, I believe in you, I can do better than this, or -- old, old story -- I'm tired of my wife, so let's be lovers. I noticed that the lyrics occasionally resorted to images that had nothing to do with the milieu of the story -- something about flight here, something about water there. Only those trite images reached beyond the stereotyped concerns of the two stereotyped principles. The knowledge that this is essentially the story of the author and his ex-wife doesn't make this any more bearable. In fact, considering what a self-centered jerk the once - endearing young man turns out to be, I wondered if the whole play isn't a personal apology to his ex?

This is essentially drama as imagined by adolescents: The girls whom I teach are endlessly fascinated with who's going with whom, and who's jealous, and who's flirting -- but the interest is all in their insulated circle, nothing of interest to the rest of us.

At the end, my hosts turned to each other and said, "Okay, who's the one you hate more, him or her?" We all agreed, 'him," but that's not much of a reason to drive to Atlanta and sit through ninety minutes.

Looking back over the whole play, I can say that I'm glad I went once. I feel like I've been through the affair. That's an artistic achievement. I also appreciated the craftsmanship of the music, lyrics, and the overall structure of the play, with its backwards-forwards movement ( reflected in the song - fable about a man for whom time moves backwards). But I'd have preferred melodrama, artifice, or some kind of question to be considered besides, "Why doesn't their relationship outlive their sexual attraction?"

For contrast, there's another all-sung revue JACQUES BREL, its eponymous composer-lyricist evidently self-indulgent and self-important. Songs toyed with the same two techniques: strophic repetition, so that verse after verse travelled the same melodic ground, building to a faster or louder climax. Then there was irony: incongruously vivacious music setting grotesque and bitter lyrics, sweet little melodies for pathetic stories. Unlike FIVE YEARS, these songs are usually political, sung from a vantage point far above the personal: whether they're about "timid Frieda" or about the toredadors' bulls as a metaphor for soldiers, they're about types and groups, people who are alienated or hypocritical. The songs all have their effects, and they give the performers chances to sing softly, or growl, or sing stridently, or to dance like Vaudevillians. The end result is, rather like LAST FIVE YEARS, to think, "Gee, that composer sure is skilled, and, gee, I wouldn't want to invite him over for dinner."

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Play Rabbit Hole: No Easy Answers

(reflections on RABBIT HOLE by David Lindsay-Abaire, produced by Theatre in the Square, Marietta, GA, directed by Susan Reid)

Before the play RABBIT HOLE begins, the audience at Theatre in the Square in Marietta, GA, can admire a perfect recreation of a handsome contemporary living room and kitchen, the fourth wall cut away. Once the play begins, we see maternal Becca (Antonia Fairchild), her punk sister Izzy (Kate Donadio), her affable husband Howie (Charles Horton), her ebullient mother Nat (Marianne Fraulo). For the duration of the play, they talk intelligently and naturally about the kid sister's latest boy friend, and about work, the gym, grocery shopping, real estate marketing, the dog, the Kennedys, sex, birthday gifts, and recipes. No matter where they turn for conversation, each one turns to "it" -- the couple's grief over the loss of their five year old boy Danny. By the end of Act One, this maze of conversational dead ends has the audience feeling trapped on that handsome set with the characters. When Howie tells Becca, "Something's got to change," we're there, too.

The change we hope for may come via Jason Willett, the teenager whose car struck the boy. In a letter, he asks to be allowed to meet with the parents. He says that he didn't know Danny, but the obituary mentioned Danny's toy robots, and Jason is into science fiction. Is the playwright positioning the older boy to be somehow adopted by the couple? As played by actor Matthew Judd, we hope so: he's an appealing kid, well-spoken, a little awkward, honest and earnest. We guess that he will show up at the house in Act Two, there'll be cathartic recriminations and tearful forgiveness, and in some way, he will become a part of their family. We're wise to all of this: we saw it in movies about psychotherapy (from SPELLBOUND to ORDINARY PEOPLE and beyond) and we see it enacted daily on talk shows. We know the language: "We've got to talk about this . . . It's never going to be the way it was . . . I'm in a different place from you . . . No one is to blame. . . You should talk to someone."

But these characters are too aware of popular psychology, as we are, to accept any such easy answers. That's how it is that the characters articulate their feelings clearly and honestly, yet still can't communicate. Every attempt to reach out is thwarted by their second-guessing ulterior motives. For example, when the husband gets amorous, the wife accuses him of wanting to conceive a child to replace Danny. In that scene, and nearly every scene that follows, someone protests, "That's not what I'm saying... that's not what this is about."

Usually, I find some technical aspect of the script to hold on to when the emotions are getting to me. (See my blog entry last month about THE YELLOW BOAT, another play concerning the death of a child). Here it wasn't until late in the second act that the playwright knocks a little hole to let in light from the world beyond those "four walls." It's the teenager's sci-fi story concerning a son's search for his late father through eponymous "rabbit holes" to alternate dimensions. Becca immediately draws a parallel to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, how Orpheus can't accept the death of his loved one, and he goes to the Underworld to bring her back, but, Becca says simply, "It doesn't work out."

That idea of infinite potential endings seems to me to be a key to the playwright's method in this play, as each scene is built around one or two alternate solutions to the problem of their grief, none of which quite pan out.

The characters all mean well, and they all speak well, and we like them. We laugh at their foibles and, sometimes, at their lame attempts to cover up social discomfort. We hear reflections on loss and grief that strike us as true (such as, it never goes away, but you learn to cherish it as your last link to the loved one). By the time the end of the play had arrived, I was hoping it wasn't over -- still hoping for a final resolution. What we get is less than final, but more real, and more satisfactory.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Niebuhr on Hubris

(reflection on a discussion of Reinhold Niebuhr's theology and his ideas' applications to current political controversies, on the radio program SPEAKING OF FAITH.)

Pacifism and cynicism are two ways to avoid deciding. That's an insight from Iraq correspondent Chris Hedges, in context of a discussion of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr on the radio program SPEAKING OF FAITH (see my links). It strikes me that this is about right, and, along the same lines, there is another theologian's explication of Niebuhr's ideas about the "idolatry" of "purity." We tend to seek purity in ideology, doctrine, the power of the free market, whatever -- and that's (1) not going to happen and (2) going to lead to injustice.

Author Paul Eli has another insight. He wrote an article in ATLANTIC MONTHLY about the phenomenon of Niebuhr's emergence as a voice in recent politics. The theologian has been quoted alike by Senators McCain and Obama on both sides of the controversy about withdrawing from Iraq. Eli concludes that Niebuhr had an outlook that precedes politics and religion. (This same idea, that our real politics go much deeper and are formed much earlier than our party affiliations and our political programs, is what first drew me to novelist Robert Olen Butler.) That's how Niebuhr could be staunchly interventionist in the 30s when the nation was Isolationist, anti-Communist, a founder of liberal Americans for Democratic Action, doubtful about the efficacy of the Civil Rights movement, and anti-Vietnam War. Thus his outlook resonates on all sides of issues.

That outlook is encapsulated in his "serenity prayer":

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
Amen.

--Reinhold Niebuhr


The word "hubris" doesn't occur in it, but that word and "arrogance" cropped up a lot in the discussion. That brings to mind one of those Puritans whom Niebuhr mentioned in a clip early in the program. He admired them for many qualities, but faulted them for their belief that God rewarded them for virtue. The most powerful Puritan of all was England's self-proclaimed "Lord Protector" Oliver Cromwell, who insisted on his way writing to his opponents, without a trace of irony, “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ- think it possible that you may be mistaken."

Monday, October 22, 2007

Scott Albert Johnson: Umbrella Man

(reflection on a concert by Scott Albert Johnson and his band at 550 Blues in Macon, GA, this past Saturday night, and his CD "Umbrella Man.")

As a young teacher some 25 years ago, I sat in Jackson Mississippi's St. Andrew's Cathedral, across the aisle from young Scott Johnson's parents Albert and Barbara, who stared wide-eyed as their son sang with other sixth-grade boys, head and shoulders above them, intense and on - pitch. Their faces said it all: "Where did he come from? How did we deserve this?"

Thanks to Scott's drummer Kenny Graeber, another alumnus of my classroom at St. Andrew's School in the 1980s, I made my way down to Macon from Atlanta Saturday night, and found myself just as astonished as Albert and Barbara while Scott led his band, singing and playing harmonica.

Actually, he played multiple harmonicas, and he played the mic as an instrument, too. During a song, he'd grab a different harmonica from an array set out in a box before him, and store it under his left arm while he improvised some melody on the other one, his hands cupped around the instrument and the mic. Then, when he wanted to skip an octave, he'd make a quick trade of harmonicas, and change back again for the next phrase.

His concert included some covers, including a "Kansas City Blues," a rousing "When the Saints Go Marching In," and a song by the Police. I know all the songs on the Police album "Synchronicity" solely because Scott wrote an essay about Sting's artistry back in 8th grade, and gave me his worn-out cassette tape of the album.

Other songs are collected on his CD UMBRELLA MAN, its cover art a play on Magritte's invisible man in a bowler hat, and the famous "Ce n'est pas un pipe," only Scott's parody naturally depicts a harmonica.

The song lyrics, even when they deal with different sides of romance, speak to the theme of longing for belonging. "Spaceship" expresses a longing to "jump off this planet." "Magnolia Road's" inner rhymes tell of returning to Jackson, MS from his career in D.C. -- "Tell me that old story of the power and the glory . . . Give me one good reason to make it through one more season" in his prestigious job, when what he really wants are "things that last." That phrase comes from a song "Hollywood," another evocation of the desire to make it, and the more pressing need to rediscover home.

Another angle on "coming home" is a delightful instrumental track, the only one to include piano, composed by Wynton Marsalis to pay tribute to jazz pioneer King Oliver. Scott shows off his harmonica chops.

Scott lists The Police as a musical influence, and we hear that most clearly in the clean, melancholy, rarefied sound of the guitar at the start of "What About Your Man?" which includes a simple and catchy line, addressed to a lover, that encapsulates the story: "Tonight I'm lonely, because you're not alone."

550 Blues was no place for subtleties. The small crowd grew as the evening turned to morning, and the young guitarist who traded solos with Scott got a lot of attention. Kenny, the drummer, looked more delighted to be there than anyone, twirling those sticks and taking charge of the beat like a gung-ho Marine sergeant. Before long, all the females in the house were dancing. Travis, on bass, offered harmony vocals too, and he showed an amiable presence that complemented Scott's intensity.

Their old teacher was feeling very proud, if a little out of place, like a space man just visiting this late night blues planet.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Every Play a Little Death

(reflection on THE YELLOW BOAT by David Saar, and a radio documentary about a production of HAMLET, Act Five, at a penitentiary in Missouri, re-aired on THIS AMERICAN LIFE tonight.)

A cast rehearses for weeks to make an imaginary world come to life for an audience, and then it's over. Video captures the lines and motions and lighting, but never the tension between audience and actors as both sustain this game of pretending that what we see is real. It's a feat of endurance on both sides of the proscenium. Then it's over. In this way, every play is a rehearsal for death.

This was certainly the case when I saw THE YELLOW BOAT directed by my colleague Katie Arjona (nee Watts) at the Walker School this past weekend. We know at the outset that the boy will die. How can we possibly sit through the process of falling in love with the child and watching him die?

The playwright David Saar visited our school and told my class that he wrote this play about his son -- a hemophiliac who contracted AIDs in the mid-1980s from a transfusion -- to be a celebration of a boy's life, not merely a tear-jerker about a boy's death. To this end, the boy appears as a vivacious spirit who speaks to us as he observes his own growth from conception through early childhood before he drops in on his "parents" and grows to the age of seven. This prepares us to accept the boy's continuing to speak to us following the eventual death of his body.

Young actor Steven Touchton was endearing and energetic as the free-spirited son Benjamin, and equally convincing when the boy withdraws in anger and despair, hooked up to machines in the hospital. Abbey Warren as the nurse "Joy" seemed wise and wholly focused on "finding what's well" in "Benjamin." Audrey Worley and Ian Adams portrayed the parents, whose hesitation was heartbreaking when the boy asks them, "Will I die? Will it hurt?" The chorus portrays children in Benjamin's class, and doctors at the hospital, and parents leery of their children being friends to a boy with AIDs. Actors Evan McLean, Ryan Price, Alisha Woodall, and Michelle DeLong shifted from role to role instantly and believably, each with his or her own character. Evan had the special role of "Eddy," the boy's best friend who, in a hospital visit, confesses, "I've never known anyone who was going to --" (and doesn't say "die").

For me, it conjured images of the hospital rooms in the cancer ward of the University Hospital in Jackson, MS, where I watched another vivacious boy named Chris Allenburger grow through a year's fight with leukemia, only to surrender in the end. Anyone in the audience who had felt a loss was touched by this play. It wasn't wallowing in a death, but rehearsing to live and love up to the last moment, as "Benjamin" does.

Tonight, listening again to the second re-broadcast of a documentary about a penitentiary's production of HAMLET, act five, I was again moved to tears when the 44 year old inmate who plays "Ghost" explains that, from the first time he read the ghost's lines, he was hearing the voice of his victim, a man he killed twelve years before. Giving that man his voice was part of this inmate's penance, we feel. We hear Shakespeare's lines performed by men who have been killers, who have seen victims die -- and Shakespeare's words seem far from poetic in the sense of decorous and rarefied. It all seems direct and close to the bone. When that performance was over, the cast had ten minutes to tear down the set and be strip-searched to go back to their cells -- all that imaginary life that came to full bloom in their final performance for dignitaries and reporters, ended. This program, produced by THIS AMERICAN LIFE on PBS is an inspiration on several levels, regarding the power of theatre to draw men out of themselves, and the power of Shakespeare's invention, and the possibility of repentance and forgiveness, even among killers.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

What Is Ours?

The mind, Hindus say, is a restless monkey that swings from branch to branch. So true. I'm amused at my own mind for its scrambling to find connections in a tangle of seemingly unrelated words and images that I encountered this past weekend:
  • the annual blessing of animals, including my happy dogs Bo and Luis, in the parking lot of St. James Episcopal Church, Marietta, on St. Francis' Day
  • rants about immigration, such rants being ubiquitous as humidity in the air of Cobb County
  • hearing a nun on the radio who interrupted her interviewer 's assertion that "the last election was won on values" to correct him: "on some values -- the morality of sexual relationships is important, yes, but Scripture spends much more language discussing the conditions of the unfortunate. . . ."
  • hearing Bush decrying torture at the same time that he refers to the need for "tough" questioning of terrorism suspects
  • hearing one of the church's finance committee members say, "Stewardship isn't about giving money; it's an attitude towards life"
  • a sermon about Luke 17:5-10, which begins with the faith-mustard seed story and is followed by a seeming non-sequitur about the slaves of a Lord doing their jobs without expectation of reward. Priest Joseph Shippen told how he used to see the first part of the passage as a promise of magical powers to the faithful.
  • a sign on the little church I passed on the way home: "Pray for Rain," certainly an expression of the idea that prayer is a kind of magical incantation to get results in the natural world.
These separate items suddenly came together as links in a chain that I recognize now as central to whatever my personal creed must be. It's something like this: The only thing we truly possess is our own action. Everything else is a gift to be cared for, and that's so it can be shared. We are to do what's right in faith that it will turn out the way God would want, but that's not to say "in faith that we'll get what we want."

So, applying the elements of this creed backwards to what I've seen and heard this weekend . . .

. . . blessing the dogs isn't magic to keep them healthy another year, but a statement and personal reminder (and, just fun -- and a good connection to others in the church)

. . . my money isn't mine alone; and, contrary to the conservative writer who mocked the application of the Bill of Rights to non-US citizens, those rights are not ours alone. The universality of those rights is asserted in our founding documents, and those rights should be recognized wherever we have authority over people -- suspected terrorists and illegal immigrants and prisoners in our penitentiaries included.

. . . pray for resolve, for stamina, for insight, for wisdom -- not for rain.

I wonder, if we really trusted to what we know is right (as Bush knows in his heart that torture goes against both our Christian and humanist values), how we might deal differently with those prisoners in Guantanamo? Think how our founders trusted in free speech and the open market of ideas. We trust free markets in economics. Part of my creed is trust in doing the right thing, rather than trusting in power that's guarded by arms and fences and exclusions, all predicated on keeping what's ours to ourselves.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Rat Pack Redux: Grown Ups, ca. 1960

(reflections on the musical revue The Rat Pack Live at the Sands, performed at Atlanta's Fox Theatre, Sept. 30, 2007, and THE DEATH OF THE GROWN UP by Diana West.)

Sinatra, and to a lesser extent Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin, were the model adults whose images on tv and voices on the radio filled the background of my first decade. I can't say I liked them. In fact, they creeped me out. Somehow, though I was something younger than six, I knew that Frank Sinatra was singing about death when he got to the last verse of It Was A Very Good Year, "I'm in the autumn of my days." The lyric, the ominous strings, and his world-weary delivery spooked me. Now it makes me chuckle to think that Sinatra then was years younger than I am now. The whole song is a juvenile view of maturity, each verse remembering a decade in terms of girls' hair and alcoholic beverages. Around the same time I heard Sinatra's buddy Nat King Cole singing Young At Heart with its equally spooky last lines, "If you should survive / to a hundred and five. . .." If? IF? That song sent this morbid little child in a panic to his grandmother for reassurance that, yes, she and I would survive. Ditto, My Way, in which Sinatra describes his entire life in the past tense.

I've since grown to appreciate the craftsmanship of the great American Songbook that Sinatra championed, to admire Sinatra for championing it and for adding his own edge to the songs, and I've grown to love the sound of the fifteen-piece band that Nelson Riddle arranged for. So I attended a traveling revue that ostensibly recreates highlights from a two-week Las Vegas act that Sinatra, Martin, and Davis did.

I hoped that RAT PACK LIVE AT THE SANDS would give me a taste of what it was like to be an adult in 1960, and it did - revealing to me something unexpected: if this was entertainment for adults in 1960, then the great shift decried in Diana West's THE DEATH OF THE GROWN UP was already in full swing (pun intended). The whole Rat Pack shtick was one joke repeated endlessly: "We're grown men, behaving badly. See us indulge ourselves, insult each other with locker-room banter, and try on silly costumes." Not that this production did it badly. The Sinatra imitator's delivery of songs was to my ears indistinguishable from the original's. But in this context, even the best of the romantic songs came off as polished and bloodless, and the shlocky ones as ironic. No wonder the Boomers at first found them to be tired and phony.

In the foreword to a book of Sixties music that was published in 1971, the editor contrasted the "more authentic" Sixties folk-rock style with the artifice of the earlier era. That, too, is silly. The folk-rock style simply substituted a new kind of artifice, one that had been around for decades. I think of that atrocious faux-folk hymn by an Ivy League anthropologist "I Wonder as I Wander" (Christ would die "for you and for I" -- me shudders at the affected grammar). It's just the two hundred year old idea of the "noble savage" updated. Now, the songs in that book by Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell seem like Brahms compared to the audio graffiti they call hip-hop -- all in the name of being "real."

All of this makes me doubtful that Diane West has correctly diagnosed our problem. She acknowledges that the 20s pop culture was also iconoclastic and devoted to self-indulgence in sex and alcohol and making fun of responsible adults, but tries to make the distinction that the youth in 20s pop culture at least wanted to become adults, and the rules of adulthood were still acknowledged. That's a weak argument, as "being adult" in 20s pop culture -- that is, being a sophisticated adult -- meant casualness about sex and drinking. Think of the Algonquin Round Table, Cole Porter's best and worst, and Noel Coward.

I wonder what West would make of this lyric:

What's going to happen to the children when there aren't any more grown-ups?
Thanks to plastic surgery, and grampa's abrupt demise,
Grandma Rose has fixed her nose, but doesn't appear to realize
That pleasures that once were heaven
Look silly at sixty-seven,
And youthful allure you can't procure
In terms of perms and shots . . .

It's by Noel Coward, written in the Thirties, and revised for a 1950s TV special. I like Noel, but his stock in trade was naughtiness and making fun of people who obey rules. His "I Went to a Marvelous Party" is an egregious example of this, as every punch line sneaks up on a suggestion of nudity or sex, as if those were hilarious in themselves - talk about juvenile!

Truly, so long as Ms. West is pinning her observations on show biz personalities, she's missing the bull's eye. Show biz must be novel, must be "cutting edge," must mock status quo, and its performers are always posing and begging to be liked. That's inherently immature.

I think it's less about maturity, and more a version of the classic country-mouse, city-mouse fable - or their cousins the ant and the grasshopper. Today, thanks to education and media and brand name availability, we're all city mice and grasshoppers, oriented towards consumption, novelty, and the expectation of instant gratification, and expectation that someone else will provide - because we city mice have more important things to do. Isn't that the essence of childishness?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Curmudgeon with a Heart of Gold: Philip Larkin

(reflections on Philip Larkin's Collected Poems, Anthony Thwaite, editor, published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2003.)

I didn't think I knew Philip Larkin's poetry until I came to page 57 in his Collected Poems, where I recognized a poem that I read thirty years ago for a high school exam. I didn't have to re-read it; I've remembered it by its outline all these years.

The poem is "Wires," and its eight lines rhyme in this distinctive pattern: A B C D D C B A. The "A" rhyme is "fences." The poem depicts young steers on the "wildest prairies," brushing up against the wires (rhyme D), challenging the limits of their lives only once, and, discouraged by their "muscle-shredding violence," retreating back to the A rhyme -- "Electric limits to their wildest senses." Figuring all this out, and how the poet substitutes cows for those of us who experience a pain of rejection and never try again, and seeing how the rhyme scheme mimics the sense of the poem, I got an "A" on my in-class essay for Dr. Roberts.

Coincidentally, the poem that caused me to buy this collection is on p. 58, "Church Going," a title that suggests both going to a church, and a church going to seed. Discussed elsewhere on this blog, the poem describes a man on a bike stopping to investigate an empty, barely-used antique church, sensing an importance to this "shell" of an almost extinct faith, dedicated to the most important things in life - "marriage, and birth, / and death, and thoughts of these."

Together, these two poems exemplify Larkin in two of his favorite modes. Sometimes, he looks with some regret on a wiser or more beautiful past. Sometimes he looks upon life as a thing of beauty that people like him miss because of their own cussedness, shyness, or distractedness. His earliest published poems in this collection are the least interesting, encapsulated by a bitter little poem about being outside of a dance club, looking in ("Reasons for Attendance," 48).

His mastery of language and form allow him to compress a lifetime of incidental pleasures in single lines of a seemingly bitter reflection on old age ("Sad Steps"144 between toilet and bed in early morning, looking at the cold distant moon, or "The Old Fools" 131) .

He often seems to be a curmudgeon, cynical and dismissive. The truth is, he's grateful for the beauties of life and bitterly regretful for being one of those cows afraid to take what life has to offer.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Third Take on Second Coming by Walker Percy

(reflection on Walker Percy's THE SECOND COMING, New York: Picador, 1999. )
When I graduated from college and started teaching in Mississippi at an Episcopal school, in 1981, it seemed to me that everyone I knew was around 45 years old and much enamored of Walker Percy. His father W. Alexander Percy was a beloved author of Mississippi, and Walker was a celebrity in New Orleans, a city that Mississippians seemed to adopt as their own. On top of all that, he was a convert to Roman Catholicism from atheism and thus very attractive to all my Episcopalian friends. He'd had several bestsellers and prize -winners around that time, such as THE LAST GENTLEMAN, LOVE AMONG THE RUINS, and LANCELOT. I enjoyed THE MOVIEGOER, his first novel, and experienced what he describes in that book -- a kind of alienation from our own lives as we compare actual places with their equivalents in the media -- when I found my first experience of New Orleans being mediated by his descriptions. I read his non-fiction about human language's qualitative difference from any animal communication (MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE).

Percy's best-seller at the time was THE SECOND COMING, and I bought it eagerly. Two or even three times I tried to get through it, but bogged down around the third chapter. Recently, I returned to it, determined to finish it. I've succeeded, and here's my report, 27 years late.

There are two threads to the plot. We see middle aged widower Will Barrett in a crisis. His symptoms include sudden blackouts, emotional detachment, and obsession with the idea that current (1979) trends show Jews heading for the Holy Land: a sign of the End Times. Two memories haunt him: the hunting expedition with his father who botched an attempt to kill his son and then himself, and a teenaged encounter with a beautiful girl. He plays golf and socializes with a pretty unpleasant group of golfing friends.

That beautiful girl is a connection to the other strand of the story, grown up and doing everything that money can buy to keep her deranged daughter safely out of her life. That daughter, Allison, follows a detailed set of instructions written to her by herself, just prior to electroshock therapy, telling her how to escape from the asylum while doctors presume her to be too disoriented to need minding. She finds shelter in an abandoned estate's decrepit greenhouse, close to the the golf course where Will Barrett plays.

Naturally, the two meet, and, not coincidentally, both are heirs to a great deal of money. That's the plot, and things click satisfyingly into place at the end.

Once again, I almost put the book down. The problem is that Barrett is tedious, as his creator (Percy, not God) plays him two ways, both as a deluded man to be mocked for his paranoia, and as a wise fool whose bemusement at the foibles of life in the USA, ca. 1979, echoes Percy's own in his non-fiction. Sometimes, Percy doesn't even seem to be trying to disguise that his character is only a mannequin to dress up, as when he asks, "What to make, reader, of a rich middle-aged American sitting in a German car, holding a German pistol with which he will in all probability blow out his brains, smiling to himself and looking around old Carolina for the Jews whom he imagined had all disappeared? (134)" Barrett is most tedious in a far-fetched scheme to prove once for all if God is real. I could take that, but his rambling letter about it nearly kills the novel. The energy is sucked out of the narrative by something that he identifies early in the novel as "the great suck of self (14)."

The most real and lively parts of the novel are the ones that focus on real and specific details, when Percy lets us follow the thoughts of the main characters as they solve problems. Both Will and Allison are pretty lethargic and detached, but they (and Percy's book) come to life when they have some specific problem to solve, such as how to move a heavy stove or how to engineer an escape from a mental institution. Allison is funny as she applies this same kind of mechanical problem-solving to her growing feelings of love for Barrett (239-240).

At one point, I thought that the gist of the book might be the one expressed, tongue-in-cheek, by Voltaire in CANDIDE: the only real happiness in life is "to make our garden grow."

What ideas does Percy want to convey? He often writes of people living comfortable and evidently good lives who are somehow unhappy. I was reminded of 9/11/2001 in this book from twenty years earlier, when a sniper fires on Barrett and he suddenly springs to life, once aware of the "concealed dread and expectation which, only after the shot is fired, we knew had been there all along" (16). Barrett's father, he realizes, was trying to save his son from a living death, and, by implication, all the other characters in the book (and readers) are living such lives. "Ah," Barrett thinks, "there is a difference between feeling dead and not knowing it, and feeling dead and knowing it. Knowing it means there is a possibility of feeling alive though dead (324).

The medical crew in this book and the lukewarm Episcopal priest, a self-conscious do-gooder, seem to see life as mechanical. Percy, himself a trained doctor, is keen on showing that we are more than mechanisms. (This is his MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE, with language the key.) When Barrett is under psycho-tropic drugs, and feeling fine at last, he wonders, "Does it all come down to chemistry after all" (307)? We are encouraged to see that his contentment is not life, and the seemingly contented characters all around him are similarly drugged by TV, social projects, fitness, and fundamentalist religion.

An incidental pleasure of the book is Allison's peculiar way of speaking, as her repeated electro-shock treatments have made her native language strange to her. For example, she realizes that she loves Will Barrett as she reflects, "With him, silence didn't sprout" (251).

Overall, I'm glad I visited Walker Percy one more time. But, on the whole, I'd rather spend the time with Updike or Buechner, authors with similar concerns and a greater love of the their characters.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Playing's the Thing

(reflections on Stuart Brown's discussion with Krista Tippett on the radio program SPEAKING OF FAITH. See links.)

After retirement, workaholic researcher Stuart Brown started the National Institute of Play to study "play" behavior in humans and other animals. I was struck by a few points that he made.

As an educator, I was interested in an anecdote about a businesses that innovates through play. The boss says to a group, "Here's the general problem, here are the general parameters. Now, create a solution. When they get stuck, it's time to play -- and the solution will emerge."

I was also struck by his emphatic separation of "play" from "competition." In animal play, he notes that the larger and stronger creature handicaps the smaller one to even the game. Competition, by definition, is working to exclude; play is inclusive. I've learned to use the format of competition instead of tests in my history class, but I try to put the emphasis on everyone's learning and everyone's enjoyment. There may be a better way to do it.

Finally, as the radio show focuses on faith, he was asked about religious ramifications of his studies. Having just described lionesses engaged in a spontaneous ballet -- movements imitated for pleasure, for their own sake, with no purpose -- he concluded, "There's more in us and in other animals than ions zipping around a nervous system." The exact same thought brought me to believe in God, listening to Stephen Sondheim's gratuitously layered trio at the start of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC's ("Now," "Soon," "Later") which is intricate far beyond an audience's ability to appreciate it at first hearing.

Visiting the web site, I was treated to a slide show of what happened when a wild polar bear encountered sled dogs on chains. The photographer braced himself for an ugly event - but the creatures cavorted and tumbled. The bear returned the next few nights for more! Here's a direct link to that slide show: Speaking of Faith, polar bear slide show.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

My First Greek Tragedy: Aeschylus' Persians

(response to Aeschlus' play THE PERSIANS (472 BC) , adapted by Ellen McLaughlin, produced by Theatre in the Square of Marietta, GA)

It's hard to know how much of this was Aeschylus, and how much was interpolated by the adapter Ellen McLaughlin, but I was touched by the poetry and by the author's empathy for the losers, his enemies, in war.

The playwright Aeschylus was himself a participant in both the battle of Marathon, when Athens repelled Darius and his Persian army, and an eyewitness to the battle of Salamis, when 300 Athenians defeated the imperial army of Xerxes, amassed to avenge his father Darius's humiliating defeat.

The first lines are for chorus, the old men and advisers of Persia who tell of the glorious day that "thousands on thousands" of men from black Ethiopian horsemen to Egyptians, Indians, and Arabians joined the Persians to sail in their "tall ships" to Athens, the one spot that refused to pay tribute to Xerxes's empire. After the sounds of marching and horses faded, and all they could see was the dust kicked up by the army, they say that silence swept into their capital city like water on the beach.

Before too long, a messenger comes in with news that Xerxes fell for a trap, forming his ships into a tight cordon around Athens's harbors, only to be rammed from behind, ships splintering from direct hits or from accidentally hitting each other in confusion. The elite corps were hacked to pieces, under the watch of Xerxes in his "privileged high position" on a cliff above.

As a drama, there's not much happening here. It's just the slow realization that the mightiest empire on earth has been cut to shreds, and that there's nothing left to do but to mourn the dead.

The production, however, looked wonderful, and kept the unfolding information interesting with visual variations on a theme. What we saw was a town square in Persia, stone walls decorated with a mural of Persian soldiers. Each counsellor had his / her own garb. A well stage right was elevated, and actors frequently dipped hands or cups or cloth into the water there. Stage left, from the Prologue to the end, a stream of red sand fell as in an hour glass to make a mound that, in the course of the action, will be spread by the hand full across the stage. Surrounding all is a curtain tattered at the edge and colored red, like the sand.

Poles spearing spheres, decorated like Faberge eggs, operated as decorations and as ceremonial staffs at different times in the show.

A dead king rises from the well; the actors dipping into the well bring up red sand and pour it on themselves as if it were water -- a shocking change after we've seen water poured from the same well. At the end, last to enter, the boy-king whose rash decisions are responsible for this massive defeat kneels under the falling sand and pleads with his people to join him in mourning the dead for whom he takes responsibility.

I wonder at the Greek playwright and war veteran writing this empathetic portrait of the Queen mother, the humiliated and horrified soldier-messenger, and advisors, in the the extremity of their agony. The last to enter is Xerxes himself, tortured by guilt and shame, longing for death. Would the Athenians have exulted in their enemies' humiliation and pain? Only one small passage of dialogue praises the Athenians, as the Queen of Persia seeks to understand how Athenians can possibly organize themselves into a fighting force without a strong king to enslave and order them.

Naturally, we see this now as a parallel to the mighty USA withdrawing from Iraq. Is Bush Jr. the Xerxes making a misstep to correct his father's missed opportunity? A recent animated movie called 300 played with the same parallel in reverse: the 300 Athenians are the brave free men throwing themselves into battle against a vast Iranian enemy.

That this same ancient battle can be played either way throws us back on the realization that war never changes in its broad outline: it will always be "our bright boys" marching confidently into destruction, whether they win or not.

While I was taken by this production, I have to complain about the acting. While the cast threw themselves into their roles with energy and intensity, the ones who resisted the easy solution of screaming their grief and anger were the ones who came off looking best; others seemed to be indulging in that 70s style of acting with a lot of pained facial expressions, trembling hands, and screamed lines. People around me snickered throughout the show. It didn't help when the dead King emerged from Hades in an impressive breastplate, a flimsy skirt, and skinny legs in tights. He should have stayed in the well!

Summer Poetry : Time to Catch up on Praise

(My monthly review of the periodical POETRY)

The "summer break" issue of POETRY begins with three pieces by poet Tony Hoagland that strike me as more wise than wise-guy, leaving none of the bitter aftertaste left by his collection WHAT NARCISSISM MEANS TO ME. (I bought it for the title!) "Barton Springs" moves past a matter-of-fact acceptance of death ("my allotted case of cancer") to the poet's resolve to quit complaining about life and, "because all things are joyful near water," he hopes there's "time to catch up on praise." Another poem, "The Big Grab," deals with ways that commercialism has "hijacked and twisted" our language: "Nothing means what it says, / and it says it all the time." The third in Hoagland's triptych ends again on a note of praise, including an incidental image that seems just right, of description being the "affectionate cousin" of narrative, "description / which lingers, / and loves for no reason."

This issue features "Q & A" with some of the poets, a feature that I hope will continue. I was relieved to read comments by Joanie Mackowski after enjoying her poem in which a woman painlessly and suddenly dissolves in air and blows away, aware of all the places that her particles go. It was a well-imagined little story, with a peculiar mood, but I was afraid that I had missed in it some kind of metaphorical commentary on women's life today. In fact, Mackowski says, "It's a short comedy: a woman appears, granulates, and then the marries the world. . . And comedy does not mean all funny, of course: tragedy and comedy together make a Mobius strip, each around the edge from the other." She compares it to Ovid's metamorphoses, only without gods to excuse the magic.

Another Q & A with Alice Friman adds to the appreciation of her poem "Art & Science." The poem plays around with puns and whimsies, comparing the behavior of our molecules to the social behavior of ourselves. "Then is it not passing strange," the poem asks, that "this vast multitude [of molecules and cells] jostling" just "wants to be alone?" She comments in the Q & A on her intentions to be "Smarty-ass clever ( I hope) with all those interior rhymes" until the end, when "the wordplay ceases, and all that busyness funnels down to quiet, solidifying into the single image and the single note." She has in mind, she says, the musical model of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major.

A poet named Todd Boss describes a scene in couplets of lines of just two beats, with no end rhymes until the conclusion, but with similar sounds on every accent, as "the nervous birds" or "a school for unruliness." The opening lines are worth remembering for the visual aptness of the image and the way he uses that to introduce his theme of "making":

shifts, mercurial,
like modeling clay,

the million thumbs
of wind at work upon it,

the artist unable to come
to a single conclusion.


Some big name stars, old friends of mine, appear here as well: John Updike, Richard Wilbur, and Billy Collins. These guys have always made it their business to praise and appreciate, and their works consistently illustrate Hoagland's notion that describing life is a way of loving life.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Al Qaeda Alternative

I've listened to Krista Tippett's radio program SPEAKING OF FAITH this morning. The teaser for the show was American Muslim Eboo Patel saying this:

Young people want to impact the world. They want their footprint on Earth, and they're going to do it somehow. So when people say to me, 'Oh, Eboo, you know, you run this sweet little organization called the Interfaith Youth Core and you do such nice things, you bring kids together,' I say, 'Yeah, you know, there's another youth organization out there. It's called al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda's been built over the past 25 years and with lots of ideas of how you recruit young people and get them to think that this is the best way they can impact the world.'
Tippett then said,

So much of the news of recent years has a religious component, for good or ill, and often involving the young. Since I interviewed Eboo Patel, I watch this unfold with a Gwendolyn Brooks poem ringing in my ears — a poem that he has taken as his rallying cry. It is called "Boy Breaking Glass":

"I shall create! If not a note, a hole.
If not an overture, a desecration."


I spoke with Eboo Patel two years ago, just before Muslim youth in suburban Paris began to set their neighborhoods on fire, and weeks after four young Muslim men walked into three subway stations and boarded one bus in London with bombs strapped to their bodies. In light of such events, Eboo Patel is puzzled by people who patronizingly describe his own projects as "sweet." He sees the work of honoring the vast spiritual longings and religious energies of the young of every faith as work of extreme urgency for us all. At 23, he founded the Interfaith Youth Core, now at work across America and in several countries.
He calls Al Qaeda and their ilk "religious totalitarians," a phrase more apt than "conservatives" or "extremists":

Well, for me, it's the best word, and you can also use "extremist" or "radical," but totalitarianism means people who are committed to condemning or converting or killing everybody who does not share their interpretation of their religious tradition. That's what a totalitarian is. And it's dramatically different than an evangelical or than a conservative or than a traditionalist. You can believe that everybody except your tribe is not going to share heaven with you and still live in perfect peace and harmony and be an excellent neighbor.


(from Krista Tippett's journal at the web site of SPEAKING OF FAITH. See my link near the heading of this blog.)

Monday, August 13, 2007

Note to Self: Check into Poetry by Derek Walcott

(After reading a review of SELECTED POEMS by Derek Walcott in WEEKLY STANDARD, August 13, 2007.)

A recent review of Selected Poems by Derek Walcott has brought the Nobel Laureate to my belated attention. In his Nobel lecture (1992), he describes a recent visit to his native Trinidad, which has a sizable East Indian population. He describes the preparations for a traditional Indian play, play as worship, but by people several generations removed from the land of those traditions. He writes:

I, out of the writer's habit, searched for some sense of elegy, of loss, even of degenerative mimicry in the happy faces of the boy-warriors or the heraldic profiles of the village princes. I was polluting the afternoon with doubt and with the patronage of admiration. I misread the event through a visual echo of History - the cane fields, indenture, the evocation of vanished armies, temples, and trumpeting elephants - when all around me there was quite the opposite: elation, delight in the boys' screams, in the sweets-stalls, in more and more costumed characters appearing; a delight of conviction, not loss.


What does all this have to do with poetry? "Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole." (Read his speech at Nobel Prize. org.

The review in WEEKLY STANDARD by writer Patrick J. Walsh praises Walcott for his "passion" and, in a broad sense of the word, his religiousness. Walcott clearly believes in meaning, and poetry as a way to distill it. Maybe that's an old-fashioned notion. Writing of his own students at Boston University, Walcott relays how young students "repeat what other teachers have told them: 'this thing has too much melody...you should not use rhyme.'" This is peculiar to American culture at this time, he says, and concludes, "I think when democracy becomes too assertive it becomes fascist." I'm not sure how to interpret that. The teachers, and probably their teachers, are going to have developed their critical opinions in the era when modernism and Marxism were closely intertwined, and for them, rhyme, universality, and form itself were considered elitist, controlling, and fascist. For those teachers, "God" is an embodiment of all that's wrong with traditional society. Walcott mourns the loss of God in literature and life.

I'm not sure I could enjoy his poetry in the way I've enjoyed Lawrence Raab's, Linda Paston's, or Jane Kenyon's. I read that he has updated Homer and created other epics. I suspect that he sustains a tone of portentousness that would wear on me.

But I do love this excerpt, cited in the review:
Rhyme remains the parenthesis of palms
Shielding a candle's tongue, it is the language's
Desire to enclose the loved one in its arms.

Three lines, three metaphors, and a whole creed's worth of beliefs are there, returning to his theme of "love," and language as a way to "embrace" or "reassemble" on a page what is loved. And, as one who likes to write rhymes, I can attest to taking the kind of loving care he describes here. The second rhyme must be like the second parenthesis, enclosing something meaningful, or it's no good. Bad rhyme, which fills pop music and youthful poetry, is empty parentheses. Good rhyme moves beyond expressing an idea; its rightness and neatness makes it identical with the idea.