When Walt Whitman sauntered through the streets of New York City, enjoying a conversation and drink at Pfaff’s, talking to omnibus drivers on Broadway, or attending an opera at the Park Theater, the sights, sounds, and multitude of experiences found expression in his collection of poems, Leaves of Grass. He published the first edition in 1855 with his own money and set much of the type himself at the print shop of some friends. To order the words of its poems, he chose letters from two wooden cases, one above the other. This process of typesetting gives us the words lowercase and uppercase letters, more formally known as minuscule and majuscule letters.Read More
Filtering by Tag: Jayne English
“I’m gonna tell you plain, you’re doing a mighty foolish thing, a risky thing, that’s what.”
— Rachel Lynde
I deliberated for a few weeks about watching Anne with an E. I’m usually disappointed with the 2-dimensional feel of most adaptations. I enjoyed reading the series so much, I was reluctant to watch something that would spoil the essence of Anne that had me pulling each book off the bookstore shelves as eagerly as any eleven-year old with a story crush. Only, I was in my 30’s when I first read the series. Anne’s enthusiasm was irresistible. Adaptations miss the essence of character that books uniquely develop. What stayed with me, years after I read the books, was Anne’s irrepressible love of life. I wasn’t prepared to have those memories forever ruined. But on the off chance that I’d find something more, I plunged in.Read More
You are frightened
when you first realize something
is gone, when the strings that hold now
to then are snapped, leaving you
somewhere above ground with nowhere to land,
nothing to hold onto.
From my desk in the laundry room, I can watch the sunset as it stretches across the sky toward my north-facing door. Each sunset is the waning of a day, just one of the repeated patterns of loss in our lives. Loss is a near constant companion to us all. Even in a newborn’s first moments he begins to lose time. From then on, loss shadows us. The turtle dies, whose tiny movements we watched from above his plastic island and tap-water bay; the bird we rescued from a parking lot never unfolds his wings again; we lose our first grandparent; and one day we walk out the door of our childhood home into the beckoning world.Read More
One thought can produce millions of vibrations and they all go back to God ... everything does.
Do you remember playing with a gyroscope as a kid? You’d snap the string, lean down eye level with the table, and watch it spin on its axis until the momentum slowed and it wobbled to a stop. The gyroscope’s movements are the same ones that weave through our lives. It appears balanced enough, but the view from the axis can look like a lot of frantic spinning.Read More
“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.”
— John Keats
In a September post, I wrote about how artists like John Muth, John Cage, and Suzanne Cleary open doors for us to explore what inhabits silence: movement in John Muth’s brushstrokes; sounds coming to life in Cage’s silent concert halls; or the feeling of suspended time in Suzanne Cleary’s poem “Elm Street.” Again, silence draws me back, this time, into its depths.Read More
"I come into the peace of wild things." — Wendell Berry
Have you ever listened to an instrumental version of a song that’s familiar to you and realized, while you’re humming along, singing the words in your head, that a younger person, hearing the same version, would have no idea that there are words to it? You would be experiencing the same song, but at different levels.Read More
“A box without hinges, key, or lid, yet golden treasure inside is hid.”
I grew up in the suburbs. Those places where you could only see distance if you looked up, because the houses and yards and hedges of your neighbors and their neighbors became the extent of your horizon. These views were vastly different from the ones that inspired Coleridge and Wordsworth on their walking tour through moorland and woodland, and along the coast of Bristol Channel. They weren’t like Emily Dickinson’s views at the Homestead, where she wandered through orchard and gardens, tending the flowers that thrived in her poetry. And they’re not the English countryside Tolkien knew as a child that charmed his Hobbits’ Shire.Read More
“My fate is to live among varied and confusing storms.” — Petrarch
We all have them, dark times of struggle. Whether they last an intense day or long years, whether they’re about money, health, or relationships, they settle on us like night. They create tunnel vision, and can blind us to what lies beyond their shadows.Read More
I went reluctantly to see Arrival, remembering my disappointment over The Martian—how its great sweeps of desolate landscape seemed squandered on themes of American ingenuity, determination, and victory over galactic odds. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But placing one man alone on a vast planet far, far from home begged for a nuanced treatment of the larger ideas of isolation and longing.Read More
In The Sopranos, Tony Soprano and his wife, Carmela, spar over differences, but they’re largely united in their delusions about Tony’s line of work. Tony believes he is a “soldier” carrying out orders—sordid, illegal, it doesn’t matter—for the good of the mob Family. And he does. Not always unflinchingly, but unfailingly.
Carmela’s delusions center on the home front. She convinces herself that her place is at Tony’s side. Usually Tony’s business rarely troubles the waters of Carmela and their children’s lives (Meadow and A.J.). But when mafia blood seeps under the door, Carmela is reminded of the high stakes she gambles to ignore. She sometimes wrestles about staying with Tony, but in spite of the dubious origins of the guns and piles of money hidden in the ceiling tiles; despite increasing number of Family disappearances, she stays.
In fact, for a while she is church sanctioned to remain in the marriage. When Carmela seeks the counsel of the well-meaning family priest, he encourages her to help Tony be a better person.
Carmela overlooks Tony’s philandering, telling herself the women mean nothing to him. But when one calls their home looking for Tony and A.J. answers the phone, Carmela is incensed. Only as it crosses her threshold does she feel the threat of Tony’s infidelity.
This breaching of her walled fortress spikes internal turmoil, and she seeks out a therapist. He catches on quickly to the delicate way she frames her husband’s work, and knows instantly what it says about her.
Carmela: His crimes … they are … organized crime. Dr. Krakower: The mafia. Carmela: (Gasps) Oh Jesus. Oh, so what. So what. He betrays me, every week with these whores. Dr. Krakower: Probably the least of his misdeeds.
Carmela becomes defensive when the therapist labels her an accomplice to her husband’s crimes, telling him, “All I do is make sure he’s got clean clothes in his closet and dinner on his table.”
Her love of money competes with her love of family. She doesn’t see how being an accomplice to Tony has created blindness in her children. Meadow becomes a high salaried attorney defending white collar criminals. Tony seems set to help A.J. reach his dream of opening his own nightclub, which could easily be the next mob front like Bada Bing.
Carmela’s denial is haunting. Haunting like the crosses that are all around her, on her necklace, on the walls of her home, in the church she frequents. They are everywhere as in Flannery O’Connor’s “Christ haunted South,” where Jesus is invoked but not followed.
She has moments of spiritual clarity, like when Christopher nearly dies and she intercedes for him and her family. “Tonight I ask you take my sins and the sins of my family into your merciful heart. We have chosen this life in full awareness of the consequences of our sins.” But her vision clouds again, and later she asks Tony to put extra pressure on the building inspector so she can move forward on her spec house, knowing full well what that type of pressure implies.
Carmela whitewashes Tony’s career because of what she gains from it. In his poem “Moby Dick,” Dan Beachy-Quick writes:
You beat your head against the jagged rocks. Blind in depths so dark light itself is blind, You knock your head against the rocks to see And scratch the god-itch from your thoughts.
We can hope Tony’s gestures of forgiveness and compassion at the end of the show signal a new direction for the Sopranos. But if they don’t, the last scene, when they gather at their favorite restaurant, is chilling if it marks only the perpetuating of a mafia family status quo.
“Every day is a gift. It's just, does it have to be a pair of socks?” —Anthony Soprano
After nearly dying from a gunshot wound inflicted by his uncle, Tony Soprano discovered a new vibrancy to life. He was deeply moved by his wife, Carmela’s, watchfulness and care through his ordeal, and was overjoyed to have more time to spend with his daughter and son. But as his strength and health returned, Tony morosely quipped the line about socks when explaining to his therapist, Dr. Melfi, how his pursuit of other women was being strangled by his newfound gratefulness for Carmela.
In the first season of The Sopranos, I had hope for this complicated character. Tony was a murderous, blackhearted thug but he was also warmhearted and generous. I could not tell if his love for family would conquer his love for so many other things. But I thought something promising might be stirring when he became captivated by paintings. He assumed the one outside Melfi’s office was a “psychological picture” to trick him. Melfi asks, “What does that picture say to you?” Tony responds, “It says, ‘Hey asshole, we’re from Harvard, and what do you think of this spooky, drepressin’ barn and this rotted out tree we put here?’” Melfi helps Tony see that the painting is reflecting his turmoil over losing his good friend and mob boss, Jackie Aprile, to cancer. We know this by the way Tony shouts his favorite expletive at Melfi and slams her door as he leaves. Another painting that mystified Tony was in his cumare’s apartment. “What’s that paintin’ mean to you?” he asked Irina, scrutinizing it as he dressed. “Nothing,” she says through her Russian accent. “It just reminds me of David Hockey [sic].”
I think if Tony had pursued these shadows of that indefinable something that speaks to us—sometimes shakes us—from paintings and poems and literature, maybe he could have extracted himself from the gangster quagmire. Maybe that’s biting off more sfogliatella than we can chew.
But isn’t it true that art, in all its forms, is sometimes how God, the one who speaks through images and metaphor, draws our attention to him? Isn’t this a bounty that we, blackhearted as we are, really have no claim to? Why is there art in the first place? Why has it been saved throughout history? So much of the art we love would have been lost if not for the sometimes quixotic, sometimes manic rescue by those who felt called to preserve it. Van Gogh’s paintings rose to prominence after his death because his sister-in-law, Johanna Bonger, carefully sold and curated them; more than a thousand works of art that could have been destroyed in WWII were saved because Cornelius Gurlitt hid them and hermited himself with them in his Munich apartment for fifty years; Emily Dickinson’s family saved for us the 1,800 poems found in her room in tidy bundles after her death. Isn’t art a hint of God’s rescue? Just one example of the gracious unfairness he extends to us to point us to what lies beyond us, and within us?
I love how the ending of The Sopranos is left to our imaginations. I like to think that Tony began to accompany Carmella on her trips to museums, and engaged A.J. in the existential questions that were chasing him. I like to think his pursuit of questions and art woke him to this new sense of unfairness. Maybe it would have made a difference. Maybe he would have found that life’s gifts are far grander than socks.
I do not know which to prefer, The beauty of inflections Or the beauty of innuendoes, The blackbird whistling Or just after.
— Wallace Stevens
I hear it first thing in the morning. Though it's not really silence. There's the whir of the fan, the slowly ticking clock. It's not so much the absence of sound that defines silence, but a moment when the second hand slows the spinning Earth and creates an expansiveness of time. Not just on the borderlands of waking and sleeping, we cross the threshold into this broad space more often than we realize. Usually artists take us there.
John Cage ushered us into this expansiveness in a concert hall. With a musician sitting quietly at the piano, we heard for 4’33” sounds that dwelled in the absence of the music; sounds the shifting audience made, sounds the building made as it breathed. Cage believed silence couldn’t be achieved because there are always sounds, even as he discovered two sounds in an anechoic chamber. In his book Silence: Lectures and Writings, he writes: “When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.” Cage was influenced by . Which was simply that, canvases Rauschenberg had painted white (see image above). To Cage they were “not empty but supercharged with a kind of sacred joy.” Cage referred to the paintings as “airports for lights, shadows, and particles.” Silence, like an empty canvas, is a populated world.
Maybe silence was the world that opened to artist John Muth as he speaks about finding in brushstrokes “a quality to the line,” in the work of Japanese painters and calligraphers, that captured his attention as a young child. A quality that he carries into his own work. When he draws with children, he shows them that the “essential nature” of a subject “can be found very quickly in the movements of the lines.”
In her poem “Elm Street,” Suzanne Cleary leads us into this world of slow motion, of silence, by telling us the story of a man sitting on the porch with his guitar, not playing, but getting ready to play. The whole street is in a state of suspended animation before the first strings are strummed. She uses words like listen, pause, lost his place, the line halted, to help us step into the realm of silence. This is where the truck driver rolls down his window, not to call out to his neighbor, or shoo a dog out of the road. He rolls down the window to “stick an elbow out.” She tells us about the Matisse forger who could copy his paintings, “I mastered his line, it was his pause I could not master.” The whole poem is full of these heartbeats, like the music hall with a silent pianist. The poem doesn’t resolve with the man playing his guitar, it leaves us in this momentous expanse of time before he begins.
Clarinetist, Martin Frost describes entering this world when he speaks about his instrument. “‘What makes it special is the moment when silence suddenly starts to vibrate,’ he said. ‘Somewhere in that shadow land between silence and sound is the soul of the clarinet.’” He says “soul of the clarinet,” but you could easily fill in the blank with— the soul of the blackbird, the soul of the line of calligraphy, the soul of the neighborhood pulsing before the guitar strings are strummed.
What’s in the silence? Artists open its door for us, John Cage says, as “simply a way of waking up to the very life we're living.”
Imagination! who can sing thy force? Or who describe the swiftness of thy course? —Phillis Wheatley
Mechanic and machinist Arthur Pirre spent 20 years restoring his 1937 “Baby Duesenberg” Cord. He worked on details with files and wrenches and hex keys. He measured and drilled to make precisely fitting parts. Then he broadened his imagination to more abstract uses: choosing fabric and colors, sanding, painting, polishing, until the sleek curves and inventive features were remastered to their original beauty.
The poet Wallace Stevens employed different tools to craft the details of his poems: punctuation, cadence, syntax, line breaks. Like Pirre, he created with elements of abstract and imaginative thought using not just the words but the space between the words. In “The Snow Man,” he changed the familiar concepts of cold, snow, and ice into something momentous, the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”
As artists, both men saw the interrelationship of details and the big picture. These tangible works of art correspond to our work in the invisible realm of prayer. Just as they labored to transform rust and words into something creatively meaningful, we labor with the Spirit to see the creation of something profound in the lives and the world around us.
Detailed prayer is straight forward. We can pray for a new roof, a humble heart, the ability to comfort a grieving friend. Details seem almost tactile compared to entering the vast, nebulous “God bless the world” prayer of a child. This is abstract prayer. Just like the element we can’t quite put a finger on in Stevens’ poems that shrouds a meaning and delivers its mystery, so the workings of prayer can’t be completely clear to our finite minds. Its abstractness is part of its power. There are no limits to who our prayers can touch because we can invoke our imaginations to include people we don’t know, complex situations beyond our grasp that we are nonetheless moved to pray about.
Jesus set the precedent for this kind of abstract prayer when he taught us to pray. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins both reflect the details of our day, and are easy enough (in a way) to lift up for ourselves, loved ones, and neighbors. But may your kingdom come and may your will be done are weighty and cumbersome. This is where God who gave us abstract thought and imagination invites us to use them in prayer. It’s when we can speak to God in images—picturing in our minds rather than naming with words—those we don’t know personally, extended family members of loved ones, future generations, our neighbors’ families, churches, cities, judges, presidents, countries, 7 billion people and the complex social, economic, political issues that swirl around them like clouds around the globe. The God who knows each star by name doesn’t expect us to know them, or need us to pray with an attention to detail that only his mind can grasp.
Denise Levertov muses about how God speaks to us in images in her poem Immersion:
God is surely patiently trying to immerse us in a different language, events of grace, horrifying scrolls of history and the unearned retrieval of blessings lost for ever, the poor grass returning after drought, timid, persistent. God's abstention is only from human dialects. The holy voice utters its woe and glory in myriad musics, in signs and portents.
We can speak to God in this nonlinguistic language just as the Spirit “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” God invites us to pray like he invites artists to create, sometimes with detail, sometimes with abstract imagination. Pray for what you can name and what you can't. Pray with words and the spaces between words.
It’s summer, the sky’s a hazy blue and the clouds are piling up like ice cream scoops in a bowl. All motion rendered lazy by the humidity allows my mind to wander. I wonder how many poems there are about ice cream. I know one by Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” But I stop my languid search as soon as I find Charles Bukowski’s “The Icecream People.” Thinking about the differences between the lives and writing styles of these two poets is as delicious as sampling dulche de leche ice cream and rocky road.
At first, I didn’t see similarities, except that they cohabited the same blue Earth for about 35 years. Wallace was a Modernist poet, breaking with the pre-modern forms of rhyme and the usual subjects of nature and religion to explore ideas about reality being a confluence of imagination and perception. He writes in elegant language with a well-varied vocabulary. Bukowski is also a modern writer who carved a new niche for himself sometimes called “dirty realism.” His poems, short stories, and novels chase a hard, fast line of drinking and women and running riot.
The two poets’ upbringings were very different. Stevens was from a wealthy family and benefitted from his father’s guidance regarding his education and career. Bukowski, who emigrated as a child from Germany to the U.S., was from a poor family. Bukowski’s father’s guidance came on the end of a leather strap that he used to consistently beat him.
Stevens’ education led through Harvard and then New York Law School. He eventually became an insurance executive with The Hartford, and lived a comfortable lifestyle in Connecticut. Bukowski dropped out of Los Angeles City College after two years, and moved to New York to begin a career as a writer. After receiving more rejections than his psyche could tolerate, Bukowski took off across the country on a ten year bender that nearly killed him. Once back in Los Angeles, he began to write again, and began to be published, at first by small publications.
Their book titles alone are interesting contrasts, and give us a vision of at least some of their personality layers. Stevens used elegant titles: Harmonium; Ideas of Order; The Auroras of Autumn. Bukowski’s titles took a different slant: Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail; Poems Written Before Jumping Out of an 8 Story Window; and Love is a Dog from Hell.
Their language and imagery is wildly different. In the two ice cream poems alone, we come across words and phrases like these in Bukowski: pecker, leper, “nary a potential suicide,” jails, hangovers. In Stevens’ poem we see: concupiscent, “let be be the finale of seem,” “embroidered fantails,” “lamp affix its beam.” Stevens’ thoughts are more abstract, and he dresses them up. As Robert Frost complained, “it purports to make me think.” Bukowski’s ideas are clear, as John William Corrington says, his poetic world is one “in which meditation and analysis have little part.” Bukowski doesn’t dress up his ideas, he strips them naked.
Once his poems are naked, Bukowski speaks of a quasi virility, for example, like this in “The Icecream People”:
the lady has me temporarily off the bottle and now the pecker stands up better.
While Stevens expresses the loss of the same in “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” like this:
We hang like warty squashes, streaked and rayed, The laughing sky will see the two of us Washed into rinds by rotting winter rains.
While their lifestyles and writing styles are polar opposites, the two men have commonalities. One is a vulnerability to pain. We’ve already seen how Bukowski spent formative years beaten by his father. He said this experience benefitted his writing because through it “he came to understand undeserved pain.” Once on his own, Bukowski lived life running across broken glass—chasing women, gambling, and drinking excessively. Stevens had his miseries too. He married his wife, Elsie, against his father’s wishes. When no one in the family attended his wedding, he never saw or spoke with his father again. In later years, Elsie became mentally ill, showing signs of paranoia about neighbors and the couple’s daughter’s childhood friends. In a review, Helen Vendler calls Stevens’ poem “The Snow Man” his saddest poem, “in which a man realizes that he must make something of a permanently wintry world of ice, snow, evergreens and wind, attempting to see ‘nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.’”
Perhaps it was his sorrow over Elsie that led him into confrontations we’d expect more from Bukowski. Stevens argued on two separate occasions in Key West with Robert Frost (they had strong feelings about their own ideas of poetry), and said things he shouldn’t have said about Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway afterwards started a fist fight over it and Stevens returned home to Connecticut with a puffy eye and broken hand.
Stevens and Bukowski, despite their differences, had another important characteristic in common. They had to write. As one Stevens biography puts it, he saw poetry as “the supreme fusion of the creative imagination and objective reality.” His poem “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” puts it this way:
This endlessly elaborating poem Displays the theory of poetry, As the life of poetry. A more severe,
More harassing master would extemporize Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory Of poetry is the theory of life,
As it is, in the intricate evasions of as, In things seen and unseen, created from nothingness, The heavens, the hells, the worlds, the longed-for lands.
Bukowski talked about the need to write poetry this way:
unless it comes out of your soul like a rocket, unless being still would drive you to madness or suicide or murder, don't do it.
Considering the differences and (maybe) surprising similarities between these two poets, which flavor would refresh your summer day?
“Ah, but I was so much older then I’m younger than that now." —Bob Dylan
My brother began listening to Dylan when he was 17. That means I heard iconic lyrics like: “Well, they’ll stone you when you’re tryin’ to be so good/They’ll stone you just like they said they would” and “Once upon a time you dressed so fine/You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?” drift through the house when I was 14. The guitar and harmonica, Dylan’s sometimes smooth, sometimes raspy voice wove their way through my mind and for years resided in the grooves of fond memory. I was immersed in “Blowin’ In the Wind,” “Tamborine Man,” “Lay Lady Lay,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” as they spun their familiar sounds from the turntable. Recently, feeling homesick for those songs, I listened to them again. I was surprised to find that the Dylan I knew opened to new and deeper levels.
It wasn’t just that I was older. During this same time I went back to listen to other music I inhabited as a teenager. Returning to Carole King and Carly Simon, for instance, felt just the same as it did in the past. But Dylan’s music now spoke in ways I never heard before. How is it that even his old songs can still be fresh today? Italian author Italo Calvino offers a simple point about what makes a literary classic: “A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.” Dylan’s work is new over time because it is deeply meaningful.
It continues to have something to say because Dylan has always been open to change, not holding himself to a constraint others wanted to impose. He got a lot of grief for it. He was constantly moving artistically, from writing topical songs like Woody Guthrie’s, to protest songs, to flashing image songs, and he famously switched from acoustic to electric guitar. He probably would never consider himself brilliant, but there is brilliance in his lyrics, music, and knowing not to hold onto categories, but to allow himself the freedom to chase change and ambiguity.
Dylan’s style could change because he is true to his inspirations. Among the many are Herman Melville, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, Arthur Rimbaud (“When I read [Rimbaud’s] words the bells went off.”), and Paul Verlaine.
After passing through the familiarity of nostalgia, I found in Dylan so much of the poetic soul of the Beats. When he was 18, someone gave Dylan a copy of Jack Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues. Dylan said the book blew his mind. When poet and friend Allen Ginsberg asked him why, Dylan told him, "It was the first poetry that spoke to me in my own language." Ginsberg continues to explain Kerouac’s influence on Dylan: “So those chains of flashing images you get in Dylan, like ‘the motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen and her silver studded phantom lover,’ they're influenced by Kerouac's chains of flashing images and spontaneous writing.” In Dylan’s “Desolation Row” (1965) he blends these images and more: beauty parlor, circus, Bette Davis, Romeo, Hunchback of Notre Dame, iron vest, Noah’s rainbow, Einstein, a monk, pennywhistles, and mermaids. The Beatles were taken with Dylan’s lyricism and style. George Harrison says of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album, "We just played it, just wore it out. The content of the song lyrics and just the attitude—it was incredibly original and wonderful."
As his audience attempted to confine him, Dylan resisted with all his creativity. In a 1966 Playboy interview, Dylan is asked, “Mistake or not, what made you decide to go the rock-'n'-roll route?” Dylan responds with an explanation that was more like an improvisational riff. He spun a tale of images that included a card game, crap game, pool hall, Mexican lady, Charles Atlas. It flows in a pastiche of people and plots and scenes. When he’s finished, the interviewer says, “And that's how you became a rock-'n'-roll singer?” Dylan replies, “No, that's how I got tuberculosis.” Dylan talks in imaginative circles and was often considered “contrary” by journalists because he knew that many people were not willing to listen to, and probably would not understand, his views on the artistic process.
In the same 1966 interview, Playboy reminds Dylan that he told someone he had done everything he ever wanted to do. “If that's true,” the interviewer asks, “what do you have to look forward to?” Dylan replied, “Salvation. Just plain salvation.” Dylan’s work, as it continues to speak, does offer a kind of salvation. As one author puts it, “it is in the nature of beauty to suggest the divine and the eternal.” I’m so glad I followed nostalgia’s pull to Dylan and found more of the place where beauty saves the world.
And every one of them words rang true And glowed like burnin’ coal Pourin’ off of every page Like it was written in my soul from me to you — Bob Dylan
You know what it’s like to be a literary voyeur. You see a photo of someone in front of a bookcase, and what’s the first thing you do? Tilt your head and read the titles on the shelf. And if you’re a serious voyeur, you make a list of books to add to your collection. In addition to being a literary voyeur, I’m a musical voyeur. I have always listened, over the shoulder, to other people’s music. Growing up as the youngest of five, there was no way I was going to get to the record player first. This set the pattern for being a passive music collector. Music is like a dandelion that sends its seeds on the breeze; even though I didn’t search it out, music always found me. Because it’s the heartbeat of varied people, my music over time has become a colorful and eclectic collection.
If left to myself, I may still be singing along with this, the first song I picked out myself, and the first 45 I ever remember buying. See how it’s a good thing that I’ve been a musical voyeur?
At first, my voyeurism led me into things like Broadway musicals. I’m pretty sure I can still sing the songs from West Side Story and Funny Girl. I vividly remember tucking away in my room and soothing my moody teen blues with Carole King’s Tapestry, or wearing the grooves down on Jesus Christ Superstar, feeling a little reckless singing with Herod.
Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs still sow seeds through my day, as I continue to discover the sacred – mystery and brokenness, wonder and longing – in a broad scope of music. I return to some of the artists whose music travels on the winds of home. Dylan, for instance, whose simple, expressive metaphor for longing, “tangled up in blue,” still captivates me. Even after time, it’s as resonant as a song should be that took “10 years to live and two to write.” Then there are the Beatles’ hard to surpass imaginative lyrics, like the ones flowing from Lennon yielding to his Alice in Wonderland muse:
Picture yourself in a boat on a river With tangerine trees and marmalade skies Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly A girl with kaleidoscope eyes
There are the “sweet and lovely” intricacies of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk in this. I glean from the harvest of those listening to music around me: Miles Davis, Billie Holliday, David Bowie, Alan Parsons, Neil Young, Beethoven, Debussy, Sufjan Stevens, Aesop Rock. The only genre I haven’t enjoyed too much is rock and roll. Mostly for the reason Dylan notes, “The thing about rock'n'roll is that for me anyway it wasn't enough. . . There were great catch-phrases and driving pulse rhythms... but the songs weren't serious or didn't reflect life in a realistic way. I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.”
Listening to these deeper feelings makes me a better listener as I lean into someone else’s musical perspective. Picking up music from others almost always involves interesting conversations because people love to talk about the music that is “written in their souls.” This connection leads me to identify with the music in a different way than I would on my own. It fills my life with the nuances and layers of new musical languages.
This year I discovered some music on my own and welcomed more that I picked up from others, making it a great musical blend that I love for many reasons: joy and pathos, simplicity and complexity, lyricism and artistic experimentation (someone asks if this might be the first hip hop song). There is also recent music from artists I am privileged to know personally, like these songs as described in one word by the artists themselves: licentious and manic.
And now I wait, for new favorites to drift through an open window. As Donne says,
The heavens rejoice in motion, why should I abjure my so much loved variety?
Read Part I here
“It may be the coldest day of the year, what does he think of that? I mean, what do I? And if I do, perhaps I am myself again.” —Frank O’Hara
What effect are these new gestures having on Don Draper? Does he feel more like himself again? Would that be a good thing? Or are the gestures leading to something better, something blended of the Dick Whitman he was and the Don Draper he had become? On his trip west, after giving his car away to the young man who reminded him a lot of himself, Draper sits alone at a bus stop. He looks like a drifter, except for the bag of money in his lap. He ends up at the Bonneville Salt Flats and puts his money and mechanical talents behind two guys trying to break the land speed record. These last episodes are filled with generous gestures, so different from the selfish gestures that had been the pathway to creating Don Draper. They show him not in command, but helping others take command. He looks up Stephanie, to find a way to help her, because he feels like he has a responsibility toward her, for Anna’s sake.
Stephanie drags Don to a retreat on the coast. She leaves suddenly without him after an emotional confrontation with a woman about the child she gave up. Stranded at the retreat, he feels the full weight of the misery that propelled him on his quest and now includes sorrow over Betty’s pending death. Her words were sounding in his ears, “I want to keep things as normal as possible. And you not being here is part of that.” Don calls Peggy and agonizes, “I messed everything up. I’m not the man you think I am.” When she asks him, “What did you ever do that was so bad?” his answer reveals the depths he’s been searching, “Broke all my vows, scandalized my child, took another man’s name and made nothing of it.”
An attendee comes up to Don as he sits on the ground by the phone. He looks so distraught she thinks he is on a bad trip. She invites him to a session she is late for, on the pretense of not wanting to walk in alone.
During the session, Don listens closely to a man named Leonard who describes how his office job and his family leave him feeling invisible. He tells about a dream he had that describes how even though his family is kind and happy, they don’t seem to include him, they leave him sitting on the refrigerator shelf and close the door, making the light go out. At that point, the man starts to cry. At first, you think maybe he’s laughing over the refrigerator dream. But then you realize he’s weeping. As the man’s easy going facade crumbles, Don gets to his feet and walks over to him. Some have said that Don Draper never changes. But here is a gesture unlike any he has ever made. He gets down on one knee before Leonard, who no doubt would have been his subordinate in an office setting, he wraps his arms around him, but not just to comfort him. Don puts his head on Leonard’s shoulder and sobs with him. It was a gesture another Whitman expressed this way, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.” Don Draper relates to this invisible man because his own identity has been so elusive.
The next morning, Don stands watching the ocean on the edge of a cliff. Did you think for a second he might throw himself off? He breathes the sea air, watches the sun come up. Was he ever so clear eyed and unhungover first thing in the morning? Later, sitting cross-legged in a group meditation, while concentrating on his mantra, the idea for the Coke ad comes to him, he smiles.
Did Don Draper go back east and pick up where he left off, to work his way into a partnership at McCann Erickson? Don Draper changed, that fact is revealed in his expansive gestures. This kind of transformation results in lifestyle changes. Rather than going back east, it’s more likely that he bought a house on the beach and became an advertising consultant. California was always the better coast for Don. It’s where he visited Anna, proposed to Megan, and got away from his New York problems. Like Joan who celebrated the good and bad of her climb to independence by calling her production company Holloway-Harris (“you need two names to make it sound real” she told Peggy), Don might call his company Whitman-Draper, reconciling the two parts of who he has become, and as a nod to this other poet he would relate to. Maybe it was this Whitman Matthew Weiner had in mind all along who said, “A writer can do nothing for men more necessary, satisfying, than just simply to reveal to them the infinite possibilities of their own souls.”
Didn’t we know, out of all the possibilities, that he’d land on his feet? There he was every week at the end of the fall sequence, comfortably settled on the sofa, white collar and cuffs, cigarette in hand.
(Don’t miss Don Draper reading Frank O’Hara’s poem.)
“Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again...” —Frank O’Hara
We wondered if he’d make it, after years of watching the silhouetted man in the title sequence tumble past the images on the skyscraper. It was the confluence of verb and adjective, he was falling and fallen in every episode. We read it in his gestures.
We became familiar with these gestures, lighting a cigarette, pouring a drink, catching a woman. The straight posture, the raised eyebrows, the shrug. Many of his gestures spoke the language of a commanding presence, a successful partner, the iconic possessor of the American Dream.
In a way, the gestures were both the building and the unraveling of the man. He fed off them and they undid him, each in their turn. There were gestures that gave us a view into his murky depths. There was his assault of Bobbie Barrett in the ladies’ room when she attempted to bribe him. There was the moment he returned home with the cake for Sally’s birthday party only to pass the house, drive late into the night to brood. Maybe he was thinking about “having it all” as a party guest gloated, or maybe about Rachel Menken and being trapped in a marriage in the suburbs. There were the gestures inherent in two failed marriages, and many hookups and infidelities—at least 19 women in his life over a 10-year period.
There were some bright gestures blended with the dark. He was devoted to Anna Draper, the real Don Draper’s wife. He promised he would take care of her, gave her money for a porch, painted her living room. He sent her a book of Frank O’Hara’s poems that deeply moved him (the Beatnik at the bar couldn't see past the suit.). Anna once told him, “I know everything about you and I still love you." When he later heard about her death, he sobbed and told Peggy that Anna was “the only person in the world who really knew him.”
Gradually the degrading, selfish, and hurtful gestures transitioned to something more hopeful. What did it mean for him to show his children the brothel where he grew up, after carefully creating a polished father image to impress them? Seeing Don in front of the derelict house appearing a little mystified, and the children looking both stunned and awed, one critic writes, “Sally immediately recognizes the enormity of the gesture.”
After he made his fortune, reclaimed himself from alcoholism, and fell through almost every relationship he had, he began to look both out of place and at home in his new gestures. For once his presence in the room wasn’t commanding. In the McCann Erickson boardroom he seemed bewildered by the box lunch that replaced the full bar, and within minutes of the presentation, his expression seemed almost whimsical as he looked out the window and watched an airplane float past the Empire State Building. Weren’t we waiting for his usual rhythms to kick in? For him to stand up and say something creatively insightful that would put him back in his rightful place at the head of the conference table? Instead, he stood up and wandered out the door.
He went to spend time with his children, but they had become accustomed to his absence. Sally got a ride back to boarding school rather than wait for him to take her, and the boys were doing traditionally father-son activities, scouts and baseball, without him. He finds Betty in the kitchen reading her psychology book. He rubs her shoulders when he sees she is sore and she explains it was from carrying all her textbooks at registration. In a tender moment, she confides that she always wanted to study psychology, and Don smiles and encourages her, “Knock ‘em dead, Birdie.”
He builds bridges to Sally, keeping in touch with her while she’s at school, giving her advice and extra money for things like sport’s equipment. He gave Megan a million dollars because he felt bad about derailing her life. He pursued a waitress, not for his usual reasons, but because “she seemed lost.” It’s as if, seeing the collapse of his life in (and out of) the gray suit, he needed someone to rescue. He heads west, feeling a kinship to Jack Kerouac as he and a daydream Cooper quote from his book, “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?” He helps a kid who tried to swindle him, with the grand gesture of giving him his car, to help him “choose a different route,” as one critic put it. Different from the road that Dick Whitman had so far paved with elaborate lies.
Read Part 2 here
so intimately, out there at the pen’s point or brush’s tip, do world and spirit wed. - Howard Nemerov
When I was young, our family friends had access to a deserted strip of beach. Over the summer, my mom would pile us five kids and two of our friends’ kids into our station wagon and let the waves and sun exhaust our energies. There was a sea wall with a makeshift ladder that we climbed to get from the car to the sand below. I remember going up and down that ladder as a six year old. It was positioned straight up against a wall of creosoted beams. That meant, for a small child, getting up the ladder was a combination of pulling up on one rung while pushing off on another, the simple physics of overcoming gravity by force. The physics was simple, but the effort was not.
Decades later, I realize that as artists – creators – the sea wall is a metaphor for two aspects of our vocation. First, it’s where we put in the effort to call things into being. In “Choruses from The Rock,” T.S. Eliot writes, “After much striving, after many obstacles;/For the work of creation is never without travail.” At the sea wall we prevail over obstacles that come between our attempts to take our vision of waves, sky, and sandwiches on the beach into the every day world of roads, framed views, and meals at the table. Part of the effort comes in working against the paradox of noisy backgrounds – where we live – those places that both hinder our art and are its wellspring. The sea wall is also the meeting point between the finite nature of our abilities and where we are (hopefully) set ablaze by Caedmon’s sudden angel.
Nemerov’s lines show us another aspect of the sea wall in the artist’s life. We begin to shape the language of our vision on the sea side of the wall. It’s where we take in the world by reading fiction and poetry, nonfiction, the lines on people’s faces. Where we listen to the wind, and music, and sounds of longing in the babel. And we watch movies, sun and shadow, postures in conversation. It’s when we attempt to translate the vision with “pen’s point or brush’s tip” that something inexplicable happens, “world and spirit wed.” Because humankind struggles to see by believing, we long to bring something of the invisible world to the visible. Maybe it’s partly through artists’ creations that God answers the prayer, “I believe, help my unbelief.” This is the artists’ call, to carry the stone jars up the ladder, and watch the water turn to wine.
“Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.” ––David Foster Wallace
There was a lot to enjoy in Ridley Scott’s The Martian. Intriguing science fiction, a beautifully austere landscape, an admirable main character––Mark Watney (Matt Damon)––who was innovative, resilient, funny, and humble – all made the film great entertainment. But, for all it was, it could have been much more.
What is the difference between entertaining science fiction and classic science fiction? Isn’t it the human element that makes a story last in the memory of a culture? Scott’s Martian, focused on Watney’s science of survival, left out Watney’s humanity. As one reviewer wrote: “The relentless focus on technical achievement, in the absence of the complexity of the characters—in the absence of cultural identities and emotional connections, backstories and ambitions, the drive of will and ideological commitment, of fantasy and distraction—is the very antithesis of artistic creation.” The Martian would have tipped into the realm of something weightier if it included more of this aspect of Tracy K. Smith’s poem “The Weather in Space”:
When the storm
Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing
After all we’re certain to lose, so alive—
Faces radiant with panic.
For more humanness, there should have been more questions. Bowie knew this when he phrased the title of his song as a question, “Life on Mars?” His title lends ambiguity to the confusion of Earth-bound scenes in the song. Is the song expressing the desire to escape the familiar? Is it the experience of feeling alienated in the familiar? Ambiguity, instead of Watney’s super smart solutions to difficult problems, would have eased the film into the realm of lasting art because it would allow the audience to consider possible interpretations. As Neil McCormick said of Bowie’s song, it is “at once completely impenetrable and yet resonant with personal meaning.” When Watney shaves a wooden cross because it is the only material at his disposal that is not flame-retardant, he says to the cross, “I'm assuming you'll be all right with this considering my situation.” His comment shows deference, but a simple moment of hesitation before he began would have raised more questions in the audience’s mind about the range of emotions––fear, doubt, hope––that Watney must have been experiencing, considering his situation. Wouldn’t it have let the viewer put their own “personal meaning” into that one motion giving it a far greater scope? It’s the murky non answers that lead us to deeper discovery. McCormick continues: “Bowie’s abstract cut-up lyrics force you to invest the song with something of yourself just to make sense of the experience, and then carries you away to a place resonant with intense, individual emotion.” The Martian would have had universal appeal if it moved through the shadows, rather than delivering the up-front explanations of Watney’s self-dialog.
Watney didn’t leave a wife, girlfriend or children behind on Earth. For that reason, the broader scope of longing was absent from his motivation to get home and be reunited with them. He did have parents waiting for him. And the letter he wrote to them in case he did not make it home was – nice. But it wasn’t tense, or fraught, or mirroring any aspect of missing them from millions of miles away. Overlooking the Martian landscape, its desolation, emptiness, barrenness, its loneliness, he was in control and reasoned, "I could die for that, something bigger." Knowing Watney was surrounded by sky and martian dust, silence and lostness, we should have felt desperation in that letter.
The Martian could have shifted into a movie about the human spirit instead of individualism. There was a weak attempt to play up a sense of lost community with banter when Watney (by now we know he’s a brilliant PhD) was again able to communicate with his coworkers. They teased him good-naturedly saying things like, “We have to do your job, but how hard can it be, you're just a botanist.” He told them immediately that his potential (though we could say at that point in the movie, probable) death on Mars was not their fault. A little resentment toward them for leaving him would have gone a long way in connecting to something human in all of us about betrayal and abandonment. Something transcendent would have anchored us in the Mars storm––something to resonate with our own times of alienation and lostness.
The ending invoked MacGyver solutions when Watney aligned his craft to a ship passing overhead with the use of a ball point pen after NASA’s efforts failed. Leaving out this innovative way for Watney to rescue himself single-handedly, would have given us room to wonder about his return, about life and death and sacrifice.
Hollywood will do what Hollywood does, exaggerate a situation to play up a hero’s strengths. But this American spirit movie had all the elements it needed to be something classic. Something human.