Friday, January 30, 2009

Casual Friday--Poetry VII

It seems that most of the poems I read and stumble across have no happy medium, not that this will come as a major shock to anyone. Poetry usually conveys one of two states: Optimism and pessimism. Hope and desire. Happiness and sadness. However, depending on how one reads a particular poem, there's a good chance of finding both ends of the emotional spectrum in one piece. A poet can find optimism in even the most dire situations. Sometimes this optimism can be disguised as brutal honesty. With the economy and the job market being worse than most of us can remember, I felt that this poetry installment, given the fears and uncertainty that a lot of us are feeling right now, would benefit from a work by T.S. Eliot. A Cliff Notes-style idea would be to select passages from "The Waste Land," but instead, I feel that there is relevant imagery in "Preludes (originally published in 1915)."

I
"The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o'clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps."

The imagery here is decidedly urban, with the atmosphere of the end of another working day. The lines are compact and brisk, evoking (to me) the emotions of workers marching home in a wintry evening. To relate this to today's world, the line that jumps out the most is line eight: "And newspapers from vacant lots." I think about the decline of the newspaper, with the very real possibility of several major city papers closing down. I buy The Seattle Times every day, and as much as I love the Internet, the idea of reading news solely online just doesn't appeal to me.

II
"The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms."

In this second stanza, I admire how Eliot makes the beginning of a new day more troublesome than the previous evening. Again, referring to The Seattle Times, a recent article noted how, despite the economic woes, local residents are still buying tobacco, alcohol, and (to a lesser extent) sex. The data shows that people turn to vices to escape reality, which might be an obvious statement, but is very relevant today. This stanza shows the area waking up, still smelling the odors of the previous night (presumably, where the first stanza leaves off). "With the other masquerades/That time resumes" could very well refer to thousands of people going into work during the week, attempting to don masks of confidence and leisure, despite deep worries about finances and well-being. The dingy shades could belong to people we relate to, or people who have lives worse than our own, in good economic times or bad.

III
"You tossed a blanket from the bed
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters,
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed's edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands."

Of course, the nighttime is always the best time to reflect on...well, everything, whether they be known issues or deeply personal. This is the second use of the word "thousand" in this poem, and I feel that Eliot uses it as a sort of reverse hyperbole. There are more than a thousand people pulling shades, and at night, it can feel like you're fretting over more than a thousand problems. Eliot brings the reader very close to hope ("And you heard the sparrows in the gutters") before plunging back into tough reality. The final three lines of this stanza need no explanation. The imagery stands alone.

IV
"His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o'clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots."

The final stanza reflects the opening one, although this time, the hope is evident, even while coupled with the despair of the entire work. The newspaper returns, not as a sign of decay, but as a normal part of the evening. "I am moved by fancies that are curled/Around these images, and cling." Even in the hardest times, we still have dreams, ones that we can hopefully realize before too long. "Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh" reminds me of the famous line from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock": "Do I dare to eat a peach?" Both lines evoke an almost childlike relaxation, without fear of offending anyone with a lack of manners. It does not matter if the time is the beginning of World War I or the American economic crisis of 2009. No matter how awful life may seem, it will get better. There's no need for sugarcoating problems. As Eliot shows, with honest imagery, hope is never too far away.

Work Cited:
Eliot, T.S. "Preludes." I and II written at Harvard, October 1910; III in Paris, 1910-11; IV at Harvard, November 1911. Published in Wyndham Lewis's BLAST (second and final issue), July 1915.

Kermode, Frank. Publication/citation notes copyright 1998 by Frank Kermode.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Gods Do Not Answer Letters

I was stunned this morning to learn about the death of John Updike. The news came sort of by accident (although I would have found out sometime later today), as I was flipping through today's newspaper. As varied and respected as his life's bibliography has been, I have not read any of his novels, and therefore cannot claim to be a fan of his, at least not yet. A few of his books have been on my reading list for quite some time, and I can only imagine that his passing will lead to a renewed interest and study of his work. However, I do consider myself an admirer of his writing, simply based on the two brief essays that I'm familiar with at this time.

This admiration stems from Updike's prolific work as not just a novelist, but as an essayist, a specialty that I've been fond of for awhile. The first passage came to me as a teenager, when I read Baseball: An Illustrated History, by Ken Burns and Geoffrey C. Ward. In the book, they reprinted Updike's account of being a spectator for Ted Williams's final home run at Fenway Park in Boston. The passage is beautiful, combining journalistic reporting with an atmosphere of unrepeatable history. The final line is utterly beautiful in describing the refusal by Williams to give a curtain call following the home run, despite the massive, pleading cheers from the Boston fans. Even as a teenager, long before my interest and studies of writing, I felt that the line was evidence of a great talent:

"Gods do not answer letters."

Just last week, I read "Extreme Dinosaurs," a contribution to National Geographic Magazine, reprinted in The Best American Essays 2008. Updike described various species of dinosaur, with intricate phyical descriptions and ruminations on their evolutionary traits and benefits. As with the baseball essay, he combined reporting with another intangible quality. What made "Extreme Dinosaurs" so compelling was his fascination with the subject. It's not often that a man in his seventies can write a provoking, intelligent article with a childlike enthusiasm for dinosaurs. It's also not often that a writer's skill can be evident in only a few pages of reading, but that's my view of John Updike. I can only assume that my future readings of his fiction will assert that notion, as well as adding new facets to my current (albeit minimal) knowledge of his style. Since "Extreme Dinosaurs" is so fresh in my head, the mental image I have is of an established writer who has seen everything and has nothing left to prove. However, even in old age, he has not lost any spirit, freshness, or passion. I cannot think of a better compliment.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Noble Effort



The wave of highly awaited music releases got off to a phenomenal start this past Tuesday, with Merriweather Post Pavilion (Animal Collective), Noble Beast (Andrew Bird), and Get Guilty (A.C. Newman) being the major albums to drop. As has been the case for several weeks (thanks to Internet leaks and over-anticipation) the Animal Collective disc has posted universal praise, so much that it was rumored that Barack Obama was going to wear an Animal Collective pin below his American flag pin during the Inauguration. The latter joke aside, the record is stunning and rivals any major release of the past few years. However, my focus this week has been on Andrew Bird's Noble Beast. I've given it several listens, and I am torn between two reactions.

One, the album is impressive, and given Bird's track record (no pun), I'm fully convinced that he cannot release a bad album. This is not to say that his every output is a modern classic, but given his musical acumen (a history of classical music training; proficiency in multiple instruments; a strong singing voice; brilliant, often surreal lyrics, etc.), his intelligence wouldn't let a sub par record happen. My second reaction, based on what I've written above, is that Noble Beast is slightly disappointing, based on his last two albums.

The first album by Bird that I listened to was 2005's The Mysterious Production of Eggs, which remains one of my favorite albums ever. He combined fantastical, sonic-trippy melodies, his should-be trademarked whistling, and some of the most original lyrics ever:
"She says I like long walks and sci-fi movies/You're six foot tall and East-coast bred/Some lonely night we can get together/and I'm gonna tie your wrists with leather/And drill a tiny hole into your head."
2007's Armchair Apocrypha had more focus on the music, with the lyrics still borderline brilliant (namely "Plasticities"). The music on the album is tight and compact, not as varied as Eggs, but still carrying a kinetic punch.

Noble Beast works on both a lyrical and melodic level, but it still feels like something's missing. The opening track, "Oh No," is vintage Bird, complete with the whistling, a steady, infectious beat, and lyrics that would have fit perfectly on Eggs. The closing track "On Ho" (it's fitting that I quoted the song "Fake Palindromes" before) opens with some achingly beautiful violin work, yet another nod to his talents. While there certainly aren't any bad tracks, the middle of the album goes on auto-pilot for the most part. The music is reminiscent of his past albums, but it's missing 2005's lyrical risk-taking and 2007's focus on compact instrumentals. Overall, it's a recommendable album, and it's rare for a musician's latest work to be labeled as a good introduction to his/her canon. For an Andrew Bird novice, it would be a perfect disc to pick up or download. The music is far better than ninety percent of what's available today, and the new listener will in turn be blown away by his earlier efforts.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Great Music, Greater Cause

2009 is already shaping up to be a year filled with very noteworthy album releases, with Neko Case's Middle Cyclone dropping on March 3rd. In addition to this release, she is teaming up with her label, ANTI- and Best Friends Animal Society to spread the word on the first song off the album to be released, entitled "People Got A Lotta Nerve." The beauty of this is that for every blog that posts the MP3, five dollars will be donated to Best Friends. Click their link for more information, and check out the introductory video. The song is phenomenal, which should only fuel excitement for the rest of the disc.

MP3--"People Got A Lotta Nerve," Neko Case

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Highway Of Ideas

(Note: Now that I'm finally settled in my new apartment, posts and comments on other blogs/sites will be resuming on a regular basis. It has been a hectic few weeks, and I have quite a bit of catching up to do.)

In the interest of getting my first post of the new year completed, I recently checked out The Best American Essays 2008, hoping to find an essay or two to analyze, therefore getting back into a more disciplined posting schedule. There was an ulterior motive at hand as well. For the most part, I classify my posts as "essays," save for the occasional review, link, or announcement. So, what better way to get back on the essay train than by reading a collection of them? Granted, this can seem pretty obvious, perhaps even pointless, to a degree, at least in the sense of being a sort of revelation. There really is no revelation in that statement. It's no different than a painter becoming inspired by an afternoon walk in a gallery, or a woodworker getting ideas from a craft book. While inspiration can seem sweeter when found in unexpected places, sometimes, you have to take what you can get. Luckily, I didn't have very far to go. Adam Gopnik's introduction to the collection was affirming, as well as right, at least in my opinion and situation.

"The ideal essay has facts and feelings, emotions and thoughts, an argument about and an anecdote from, parallel and then crisscrossing, all over it. It is a classical form for short-winded romantics, a way of turning a newborn feeling back into a series of pregnant sentences (Gopnik xv)."

How true this is. My consistency with essays (and this blog, for that matter) sprung from a need to refocus on both kinds of writing, both fictional and non-fictional. Since I was in a fiction-writing dry spell at the time, I felt that essays would jump-start my creative practices, and so far, they have helped immensely. While I do my best to keep memoir essays and anecdotes to a minimum, Gopnik stresses that personal events and emotions are vital to the craft. Journalism (Gonzo aside) requires neutrality, while essay-writing can be more relaxed. As much as I have a tendency to apologize for my own notions of memoir/anecdote additions, I have to realize that their inclusions are not always forbidden. I think this goes back to when I interviewed Chuck Palahniuk while in college. I remember him shaking his head as he commented that "even teenagers are writing memoirs now." As long as my essays stay focused on the main subjects, a dash of personal reflections or asides, appropriately placed, are acceptable.

Gopnik cites three types of essays: review, memoir (already discussed above), and odd-objects. The latter is "perhaps, the, well, oddest of the essay forms, but one that thrives in strange places. This is the kind that takes a small, specific object, a bit of material minutia...and finds in it a path not just to a larger point but also to an entirely different subject (xvii)." Again, these classifications brought me some much-needed solace, since I think that a bulk of my non-fiction is a hybrid of review and odd-object. When I discuss older works, I hesitate to call them "reviews," since the statute of limitations (or, more simply, the "newness") has long passed. For example, writing on Casablanca falls into the essay category. Since the film came out in 1942, and hundreds have already written and discussed it, calling a new look on it a "review" would be greatly outdated. The notion of "odd-object" is one that I feel I've used pretty regularly. While I haven't written about any piece of art strictly as its own metaphor, I enjoy making somewhat odd connections between vastly different works. This may not fit the definition completely, but it's the best of the three categories which Gopnik lists.

With respect to editing and (most importantly) feedback, I'm going to be doing away with an annoying habit that I've developed. Usually, when I post an essay that I'm not particularly proud of, barely a day passes when I add my own comment, either apologizing for or rationalizing the poor effort. While I'm not absolving myself of sometimes subpar writing, I fully believe that "when the essayist goes wrong, it's with too long a trip down the highway of ideas (xxii)." I can think of a few instances in which I either tried to fit too much information into a single, short piece, or I didn't fully express the main theme of the article at hand. From now on, instead of immediately apologizing, I'll let readers take the good with the bad, and to comment favorably as well as negatively if needed. As I mentioned above, more readings and writings are forthcoming. In my haste to get caught up, reading a few pages like Gopnik's introduction has proven very helpful, not to mention affirming. As I'm sure I've mentioned numerous times here, my focus needs to be on quality.

Work Cited:
Gopnik, Adam. The Best American Essays 2008. Introduction copyright 2008 by Adam Gopnik.