MUSINGS ON STYLE AND TRUTH

Does a poem mean?
We studied Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean? in college
I don’t think Ciardi gets it
“Have you ever felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?”
Whitman asks in futility of our post-modern age
I’m tired of Wallace Stevens
THE MAN WITH THE BLUE GUITAR never meant a word to me
I tried and gave up trying and now I don’t care
Precious language, specious language, and that’s about it
I want meaning in a poem more than precious language
And Plato cleaved art from truth and made much of propositions
Though his dialogues read like stories and some have myths
My English professor almost omitted Robert Frost
From his Modern American Poetry course due to Frost having “subjects”
Let alone rhyme and rhythm beats and feet, like Blake’s Tyger
It wasn’t all that long ago that Percy Bysshe Shelley
In EPIPSYCHIDION or MONT BLANC: LINES
Imaged more than meant, or imaged as meaning
And it is late, and I am old, and the time and my age are making me cranky
Maybe it’s too much to say I don’t care about Stevens
I get Jackson Pollock, but own an expensive Andrew Wyeth print
I read Stevens, but I like Robert Frost
Time was, language communicated
Truth was told, wisdom was passed down to generations
Story was religion, and verse, prophesy
And art was more than style and originality,
Poetry more than precious word choice
But it’s late, and I’m getting tired and old
I still care how a poem means
I may be going the way of rhyme and rhythm, beats and feet
But it’s nice and sweet not to have to like Wallace Stevens anymore

SACRIFICES OF A GRAD STUDENT

The others are out partying
Cruising in their urban assault vehicles
One night they shot chicks in the ass with a plastic dart gun
Outside the neighborhood convenience store
And a girl panicked and the police showed up
They told them to put their toys away and go to bed
After the bars closed but the night wasn’t done for them
But I stayed home in my apartment reading
That night I heard about, it was Blake
I was deep in the wailing and groaning mythic Giants
And Sunday afternoon I was explaining
An ethics paper I was working on to a girl I picked up Friday night
About love and state public policy, bussing and race
And she asked me how long it took me to write the poem I gave her
It didn’t last because, she said, I wasn’t in business and it was the ‘80’s
We’ve already made terms with living impoverished
And not being able to afford a lot of beers
But there are still ways to get into trouble

THEODICY

“Hey Laura!  Lookin’ hot!”  Jackie exclaimed at coffee hour after church
Broadcasting her own bisexuality, which struck me as attention-seeking
And I thought about her mother’s own attention-seeking behaviors
Of her childhood abuse she now struggles as an adult to survive
And her several marriages, separations
I wonder how many generations down
The iniquities of the fathers are visited
And I have to survive the iniquities my father visited upon me
Complicit with my mother’s silent abetting

Once riding with a Harvard friend in his boat off the coast of Atlantic Florida,
Which we were able to enjoy through his wife’s wealth,
We glimpsed the mansion visited upon the young Kennedys
—I think I saw a yacht moored in front of the Kennedy mansion—
And try to wrap my mind around why, from one perspective,
Some don’t seem to catch a break
The Aqualung types hanging around the convenience store down the street
Made something by Jethro Tull’s ‘70’s rock album, otherwise despised
And to discourage them from hanging around the convenience store
Scaring people by being who they are or were made to be
By iniquities of vague, distant Fathers
The cashiers won’t let me buy them a sandwich
Won’t let me practice Mi’kmaq Star Teachings
Won’t let me care

From one perspective, the fates spin an unjust thread
What a cheat life would be were that myth exclusive
A shade drawn on the glimpse through ultimate reality’s greater window
Vanishing lines that converge upon the perspective of conviction
That an ultimate equity may yet inhere here, inherited curses be confounded,
Or else redemption were a vacuous term,
Rebirth but a rabbinic dialogue written in a Sacred Text
Close the embossed leather covers and lock the words in silence
Yet were there another perspective, vanishing lines of inquiry pointing to
An unjust inquisition’s verdict denied, then there were another perspective.
Swedenborg said he saw it;–what if temporal goods matter
Only insofar as they remain eternally?  What if matters of soul matter
As much as material goods in this material world
And the Madonna of antiquity means more than a pop star
Even now relegated to antiquity
Then the ode to Jackie, her mother, the Aqualung types, and I is composed
in quite another key.  Overcoming the iniquities of the fathers,
The iniquities of vague, distant Fathers, we see the material of humanity
when our eyes meet, and belie Blake’s HUMAN ABSTRACT
Rise up in new birth, reform into new selves, new souls, Arise all Souls Arise

The vanishing lines of ultimate reality’s perspective converge on
The crucified One
I try to wrap my mind around how He just couldn’t seem to catch a break
And look where He ended up
Have I tried to squeeze the universe into a ball? 
To roll it to an overwhelming question I can scarce conceive:

Really, where did He end up?

STRUGGLING AGAINST MY SWADDLING BANDS

My infant sorrow persists in these, my senior years

And I am not a fiend hid in a cloud

Though persistent, insistent, sinister powers that be

Tell me to be, that I am that fiend

And only my acceptance will disburse the cloud

But I am not helpless, naked; no longer piping loud

Though when I was, I was unable to sulk upon my mother’s breast

I didn’t know how to struggle against my swaddling bands

Nor that I had to, as I have to now, still, yet, in these my senior years

The tragedy written for me to play was not play

For me but was for the supporting cast

And their comedy found me the butt of every asinine joke

No.  Mirth was not mine, is not mine still

My bands swaddle not, did not swaddle, do but stifle, did stifle

Yet the author, the omnipotent author, with every reason to know better, composes

A hackneyed part so derivative that scholars reprise the same,

The tired character in their discipline and the same scholars now think

The schizophrenogenic mother a fiction but I rethink the same

The fictive character of that postulate, that a mother would

Manifest upon this helpless, naked infant—

This child of bipolar, or schizoaffective disorder

Writ deep in Virginia Satir’s suppressed family secret

Satiric family, satire of a family, familiar statistics

A production in a late-night rehearsal

Of a malevolent plot the leading lady’s desperate

Protagonist on strike; the stage lights dim

Darkness disburses out in the theater’s illuminated exit rows

The show is over, makeup sanitized off the face of reason

Outside, in the light of day, naked realization

Identifying a self-defining moment of truth, defying, momentous truth:

I am not that I am,

Not that I am I was made to be

That problem child I am not

I will be what I will to be

What I am, I am me

I am my identity, my me

What I am is what I am

I say loud:

I am I

I say loud:

I am me

My me

Identity

I am

I

A LITANY

The Keepers of intellectual trends hold apparent power

And to make it, some are slaves to the Keepers’ fashion

I am a free man to my own muse

I am a priest who intones the litany:

 

Blake was a free genius, self-published,

And died in literary obscurity

Until T. S. Eliot gave him a name

Shelley knew, “Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure”

Whom all English students now study

Though F. Scott knew fame and wealth,

Gatsby didn’t even sell out its first printing

And F. Scott never knew the book as all high school students do

They suppressed Hemingway’s Pulitzer

They fiercely debated whether Frost were a poet, Wyeth a painter

The Impressionists showed in the Exhibition of Rejects

And Moreau, in the National Paris Salon

Pollock had his 10 years, before his suicide

Mozart died unknown, unsung

 

We can’t give our contentment to the Keepers

It rests in the beauty of our art manifesting,

In the pen of the writer alone with paper or laptop screen,

And a  happy finished project

In the living-room, study, or dorm room

With, or without, the blessing of the Keepers

There’s Nothing Funny about Comedy

I can’t recall a comedy ever winning an Academy Award.  Maybe one did, but I don’t remember it.  There’s a common understanding that comedy is lowbrow.  Not serious stuff.  And, indeed, calling comedy serious is a paradox.  The whole point of comedy is not to take anything seriously.

I used to be publicly funny.  I made jokes in school, made jokes in my professional life, made jokes in my social life–made jokes all the time, everywhere.  And it didn’t serve me well.  I think that people may have thought me unprofessional.  And maybe I was.  I was passed over for professional positions I wanted.  And I now believe that it was my attitude that was responsible for it.

In ancient Greece, where drama originated in the west, there were two masks which captured the essence of drama.  One mask was for tragedy and one mask was for comedy.  One of Aristotle’s works is on theater, called Poetics.  It lays out the principles of tragedy.  But there’s no comedy in it.  Scholars conjecture that the Poetics was meant to cover both aspects of theater: tragedy and comedy.  But the part on comedy was lost.  They even speculate about what Aristotle said in his missing work on comedy.  And Plato himself has Socrates forcing Aristophanes and Agathon to admit that tragedy and comedy both come from the same causes, and that the same author could write both comedy and tragedy.  He does this at a party where everyone else has passed out drunk.  Perhaps this is why Blake writes, “Excessive sorrow laughs.  Excessive joy weeps.”  Robert De Niro has successfully played tragedy and comedy.

In school I took a course in Comedy and the Christian Imagination.  That’s where I learned that there’s nothing funny about comedy.  It is a serious classical category.  Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso is called the Divine Comedy, and there aren’t many funny parts in it.  Shakespeare wrote both comedies and tragedies, and his comedies had funny parts in them.  In fact, even in his darkest tragedy, Hamlet, there a really funny part in a graveyard.  Some people think that I am a serious guy.  My mother doesn’t understand how, after all my many years in graduate school, I can laugh at Super Troopers or Robin Hood: Men in Tights.  I genuinely enjoy stupid comedies.  I want to make the claim for comedy in our lives.  I could produce some serious arguments as to how comedy functions, and what the prupose of comedy is.  But that isn’t the point of this post.  I merely want to say that there’s a place for funny in our lives.  And even serious people can laugh, should laugh, at movies like Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

Fame

Fame and success are not always meted out in a person’s lifetime.  Some great artist were relatively obscure in their own lives, and did not know that they would be important later, after their demise.  All they knew was that their work didn’t catch on.  And they were unknown–and that, for their whole lives.  They didn’t make it.

William Blake was known to some of the Romantic poets, but achieved no real fame.  Shelley wrote these verses about his own life,

Alas! I have nor hope nor health,

Nor peace within nor calm around,

Nor that content surpassing wealth

The sage in meditation found,

And walked with inward glory crowned—

Nor fame, nor power, nor love, nor leisure.

Others I see whom these surround—

Smiling they live, and call life pleasure;

To me that cup has been dealt in another measure.

F. Scott Fitzgerald had fame and money, but failed to find critical acceptance as an artist.  His greatest novel, The Great Gatsby, didn’t sell much and went out of print in a few years.  Fitzgerald died thinking himself a failure.

Now we study Blake, Shelley, and Fitzgerald in literature classes, and all these writers are considered great.  Every high school student in the United States reads The Great Gatsby.

Hemingway and T.S. Eliot had fame all through their lives, and the respect of the artistic community.  Hemingway also had wealth.  Intellectual fashion is now debating whether they are still as great as they used to be, but I suspect the laurel wreath will not be taken away in the end.

But Shelley and Fitzgerald had respect among the community of artists in their day.  Coleridge and Wordsworth knew and respected Shelley.  And Hemingway was Fitzgerald’s close friend.  Even in Hemingway’s scathing stories about Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway praises Fitzgerald as a great artist.

Fame may not be the best measure of a person’s worth.  Respect from one’s peers, self-respect, believing in oneself, and the joy of creation alone are not fame, but are abiding satisfactions in lieu of fame.  While an artist wants recognition, it is satisfying to enjoy one’s own creations privately, while perhaps also enjoying favorable reception from a few who matter.