Working hard

4 06 2009

I unexpectedly had a moment before I left for the bus this morning.

I stopped to watch a robin working his way through the uncut part of the lawn. The tops of the unopened dandelion buds are just over his head. He moves with an eye cocked, rushing forward from time to time to snatch at something I cannot see. The sun is already pretty high when I’m heading out. (It was pretty far up when I woke up – the days are long!) He works all day long – sometimes I resent having to work, as though leisure was the natural state. I’m looking forward to a couple of weeks off soon, but when does he get time off? Sometimes animals do get leisure – often from human’s labor. Birds and baboons freed from having to work focus on social status (and, for baboons, grooming, which is all tied up with social status). Hmmm.

Written while taking a moment before giving a talk to a room full of strangers.

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the link-boys slouching and the rainy wind

10 02 2008

The trigger for this particular missive was this article in the New York Times — http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/books/review/Logan-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2&8bu&emc=bu — about the book of poems A TREATISE OF CIVIL POWER, by Geoffrey Hill. [this blog entry is excerpted/edited from a letter written on the same day that I started this blog — Jan 23, 2008] The review made me think about art, and changed some of my attitudes toward poetry — and also changed the way I read it. Here’s a bit from the beginning of the article (written by a poet as well, I discover at the end of the review)

 

Living With Ghosts

By WILLIAM LOGAN

Published: January 20, 2008

Gloomy poets are rarely very good, and good poets rarely very gloomy. There was Edgar Allan Poe, of course, and Thomas Lovell Beddoes, denizens of that funereal, willow-shadowed decade of the 1840s, a decade half in love with Keats and half in love with easeful death. Thomas Hardy had his black moods, but also his moments of sour levity. For more than 50 years, however, Geoffrey Hill has written a pinch-mouthed, grave-digger’s poetry so rich and allusive his books are normally greeted by gouts of praise from critics and the bewilderment of readers who might have been happier with a tract on the mating rituals of the earwig.

 

Hill has made brutally plain that the common reader is of no interest to him. Indeed, he believes that sinking to common ground betrays the high purpose of verse; with a withering pride he has refused, time and again, to stoop to such betrayals. This has made him a poet more despised than admired, and more admired than loved. His poetry has been composed of harsh musics, the alarums of battle and the death struggles under the reading lamp — it takes to contemplation the way some men take to religion (Hill’s relation to Christianity has been famously cryptic).

 

Evidently Hill’s poetry is dense with allusion, and all but requires a library and an internet connection to begin to tease the meaning apart. Generally, I have a great disdain for art that disdains the untutored consumer. Art, I think, is a means to communicate — if it is opaque and requiring of special training, then it fails, somehow. But this article gives me a different perspective (although, not, perhaps, exactly what the reviewer intended). If Hill’s poetry is a deliberate tangle of allusion, but one that can be detangled,  then perhaps that is part of the fun, part of the contract. Rather than an unwarranted and arrogant assumption by the author, it could be an assumption of research. Judging from the review, this may not be the case — it may be that these poems are just a form of intellectual strutting, only intended for the informed. But that doesn’t mean that some poems could be approached this way. Near the end of the review (which is worth reading), comes this poem.

 

There are passages of stunning beauty, however, like views through the lens of a Leica, for which a reader will forgive many a sin.

I see Inigo Jones’s great arches

in my mind’s eye, his water-inky clouds,

the paraphernalia of a royal masque;

dung and detritus in the crazy streets,

the big coaches bellying in their skirts

pothole to pothole, and the men of fire,

the link-boys slouching and the rainy wind.

 

Pasted from <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/books/review/Logan-t.html?pagewanted=2&_r=2&8bu&emc=bu>

 

So, I take the opportunity of reading this poem to read about Inigo Jones (I can’t help but think of another Inigo — of The Princess Bride — “My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die…” — hopefully everyone in the world will have the chance to see that movie!). In any case, Inigo Jones, although Spanish in forename, is firmly English in surname and turns out to be “the first significant English architect.” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inigo_Jones

He also designed sets for the theatre — “credited with introducing movable scenery and the proscenium arch to English theatre. ” Then I get to read about the proscenium arch — a lot I didn’t know here. This leads me (right now, as I write this), in a digression, to the alley theater — one with the audience on two sides. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alley_Theater

 

I hadn’t known that this was a type of theater — I grew up in Houston where I saw Huck Finn at the Alley Theatre — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alley_Theatre — although I can’t tell if this theater is actually an “alley theater,” I do remember that the audience at least partially surrounded Huck Finn when our school went there on an excursion. (My most vivid memory is of my soda — a rare treat growing up with a “health food” mom — with the can stretched out of shape from having spent the night in the freezer.)

 

I also get to look up link-boy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Link-boy — they seem to be a kind of human flashlight, carrying torches through the streets of London for pedestrians and those riding on litters. Funny that — writing this e-mail is likely preventing me from finishing that so-Victorian novel Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, wherein one old pernicious character is borne about on a litter, or carried by on or another character. (This book wins the prize for having been on my “list to read” the longest — probably 20 years ago that I first started it, and I think I’ve started it 7 or 10 more times since then. It’s good that I like the first chapter…)

 

Anyway, you can see what I mean — rather than seeing this as a impenetrable mass, I suck it dry as an index to interesting lore. I can’t say that I really like the poem that much, even now that I understand it. But it has, at least for the moment, meant that I read even poems that are accessible (and I still think an artists job is to communicate through his or her medium of choice)… I see even these poems with a difference. So, when The Writer’s Almanac arrives (This week I’ve started a system so I won’t miss listening to it.), when it arrives with a Poe poem that is so much Poe as to be recognizable without need for the author to be listed, and that poem has this stanza:

 

Wanderers in that happy valley

      Through two luminous windows, saw

Spirits moving musically

      To a lute’s well-tuned law;

Round about a throne where, sitting

      (Porphyrogene!)

In state his glory well befitting,

      The ruler of the realm was seen.

 

I don’t skip over the word Porphyrogene as a toddlers do, in their intelligent way — ignoring what they don’t understand, rather than puzzling over things that are likely beyond them. No frustration for them — they just move on. And so do I, I realize, trusting to the future to reinforce the tiny bits of meaning that accrue to words through long familiarity. But now I am grown, and perhaps it is worth focusing on those remaining places where I am ignorant. My vocabulary has stalled, and I will not likely run into Porphyrogene again before the traces of this encounter have been erased by the paths of so many other words streaming through my brain. And, besides, it turns out to be interesting to read about Porphyrogenita — “born in the purple” — a true child of a reigning Byzantine Emperor.

 

Porphyrogenita is a medieval Greek word which was used in the Byzantine Empire, meaning “born in the purple”.

The female form is Porphyrogeniti (Πορφυρογέννητη) and Latinized to Porphyrogenita. The male form is Porphyrogenitos.

Being born in the purple means that one was born as the child of a reigning Byzantine Emperor. Being Porphyrogenita added much status to a person. For males it meant they were the legitimate successors of the last emperor, and had a real claim to the throne against rebellious generals. For females it meant they had higher status as a princess and had more value if they were used in diplomatic marriages.

Examples of Porphyrogenita:

Pasted from <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porphyrogenita>

 

So there, a new accretion of knowledge, knowledge without apparent purpose, my favorite kind. And from there I can slip into reading, should I wish, about Byzantine Emperors, the rulers of the Eastern Roman Empire, although I don’t, since it is late.

 





the utterly unrequired nature of the task

6 02 2008

Handle 

On Sunday I got out into the yard to scope out my newest project. My 5 acres is backed by 100+ acres of former clear cut, and I’m planning to blaze a trail so that I don’t have to go through my neighbor’s property to get to the logging road that leads up to the view. On a clear day you get a fantastic good view of Seattle and the full sweep of mountains to the North and West, not the merely very good view of the Cascades you can see directly from my property. I wasn’t sure if it was feasible, but it really looks like it will be — and without going onto my neighbors property at all. Making it bikeable will be a bit more of an effort, but I think it will be worth it — it will be a whole different thing if walking to the logging road is as easy as walking down the driveway. Although Brodie, don’t worry, we’ll still go down there and feed you apples! (Although, if you are reading this, then you, sir, are a most talented pony!)

 

Robin is worried that, like so many home projects, this will come to naught, but I am determined (in my flush of good health) and am confident of progress, even eventual success. It’s not clear how long it will take to  cut my way through all of the debris left by the loggers a decade ago. I am sure I am as much driven by the utterly unrequired nature of the task as I am by the brilliance of the idea

 

But on Sunday, I was clearing away the undergrowth to make a path from the driveway to the beginning of the clearcut. Per Robin’s suggestion, I used my Dad’s old machete, newly sharpened by my samurai-sword wielding yard man who helped out last year. Actually, it’s my grandfather’s machete, made of some pretty high quality steel. My father wrote on a napkin that it was made in the early 1940’s in Canada, where his family lived at the time. You can see from this picture of the handle that it has seen some wear before today…

 





always engaged in revision

29 01 2008

[HIS LIFE WAS THE PRACTICE]

 

His   life   was    the    practice   of   forming   a   single

sentence  which,  as   he  grew    older,  he   tried   to

simplify,   reduce  its  compound-complex  structure

into one statement ruled by the  separate, inviolate

pronoun within which he attempted  to live,  always

engaged in revision and the act of becoming;  as the

distilled   statement   gradually   became  a   fleeting

inquiry, a mild interrogative, which he repeated and

refined,   making  it  increasingly  concise, almost, at

his  conclusion,  producing no  more  than  a  distinct

sound,  not  quite a word, less than a  cry,  which his

death  erased  leaving  the question mark hanging in

the   air,   like  a  broken  halo,  emblem  of  his  birth,

evolution and release: a full life.

STEPHEN DOBYNS

 

You can read another of Stephen Dobyns’ poems, Yellow Beak, here (recommended!): http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16845

 

He is a poet and an author, including the detective stories featuring Charlie Bradshaw, each title of which has Saratoga as the first word.

 

Here’s 2 somethings from The Porcupine’s Kisses:

 

Look at this dark night: no stars, no moon. Look at this crowd of

people. Do you know one better than the other?

 

It isn’t yours until you can stand to see it break.

 

The Porcupine’s Kisses (Poets, Penguin)

 

His book of essays on poetry, Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry, looks like a good way to pull myself further into this new world of the poem that I have started to enter. Here’s a bit more about Dobyns, from the Amazon.com review:

 

Dobyns, the author of eight volumes of poetry (and 17 novels), believes, like Baudelaire, that “each poem … has an optimum number of words [and] an optimum number of pieces of information … and to go over or under even by one word weakens the whole.” Poetry, he says, belongs to the reader, not the writer, and as readers, “at the close of the poem, we must not only feel that our expectations have been met but that our lives have been increased, if only to a small degree.” And, if that’s not challenge enough for the writer, add to it “that the conclusion of a given piece must appear both inevitable and surprising.”

Best Words, Best Order, 2nd Edition: Essays on Poetry

 

I’d add that a good story always seems that way — inevitable and surprising, just like a good life. Surprising at the time, but in hindsight, how could it have gone any other way?





talk with crowds and keep your virtue

25 01 2008

Say what you like about Rudyard Kipling — he doesn’t have the reputation in today’s world that I think he should — but his poems have a certain power. This poem on yellow paper, was framed and sitting on the floor in our hall closet when I was a kid — it defines a kind of manhood that I still aspire to. Occasionally, I almost measure up.

 

IF—

 

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you

But make allowance for their doubting too,

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

 

If you can dream–and not make dreams your master,

If you can think–and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

 

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breath a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

 

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;

If all men count with you, but none too much,

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And–which is more–you’ll be a Man, my son!

–Rudyard Kipling