Sunday, December 11, 2011

Myth Notebooks: Odyssey

On a day when I am catching up with notebooks, a poem by Simon Armitage
appears in my in-box, reminding me of another ongoing musing...

Myth Notebooks: Homer’s Odyssey

Ulysses weeping the stones white on Ogygia -
His “one last night” with Calypso (fit for a Strauss opera – a Letzteliebesnacht!)

The Odyssey as a poem on hospitality, old-school style –
epic sea-faring adventure with gods, mortals & monsters AND a morality play...

Ulysses: prototypical wanderer & exile -
dependent on the kindness of strangers

Kurosawa on Tarkovsky, vis a vis Solaris:
In this world there are (and should still be) many things unknown to mankind.

Ulysses is the first mortal to face so many unknowns & survive.
Enigma personified. The resilient human spirit embodied.

“This is not madness. It has something to do with conscience.” (from Solaris)

Ulysses as Boddhisatva warrior,
tossed to & fro upon the wine-dark seas:

Rest in natural great peace
This exhausted mind
Beaten helpless by karma & neurotic thought,
Like the restless fury of the pounding waves
In the infinite ocean of samsara
(Nyoshal Khenpo)

Ulysses trials & natural disaster, version 2011
(Hurricane Irene, August 27)
The tree lay down
on the garage roof
and stretched, You
have your heaven,
it said, go to it
. (The Hurricane, William Carlos Williams)

From Simon Armitage’s hipster update,
The Odyssey: A Dramatic Retelling of Homer’s Epic

Zeus to Athena on our thickness:
When we send eagles / to signal our thoughts in the sky,
what do they do – stand and point and stare, / like…birdwatchers!

On reading Lombardo’s millennium translation
(Hackett, 2000) of the Odyssey

Homer’s compound adjectives, his colorfully imaginative metaphors
and his wonderful mixture of true-to-life realism and supernatural fantasy –
Shakespearean invention millennia before the Bard, distilled like purified water
by the spare, bone-dry language and the “swift narrative pace” of Lombardo...

the early-born, rose-fingered dawn
spreading its hands across the horizon
like a long-pining lover upon the skin
of his much-missed beloved…
(my Lombardo-inspired quatrain after / to Homer…)

The Odyssey and weeping, or “Real men cry – often!”
Odysseus: shedding salt tears
honing his heart’s sorrow…with hollow, salt-rimmed eyes

His eyes, his cheeks, his face perpetually wet with tears -
what kind of warrior have we here?

He was ashamed / To let the Phaeacians see his tears falling down
Tears / Welled up in his eyes and flowed down his cheeks

Odysseus weeping was contagious and spread to his crew,
group-therapy style:
with twenty-two men / All in tears…

Weeping as a symbol of despair:
This broke my spirit. I sat on the bed / And wept.

Grief in action -
the spontaneous emotional response to seeing the ghosts of loved ones:
I wept when I saw her…[his mother, Anticleia]
I wept when I saw him [his friend, Agamemnon]

The heightened emotion surrounding the reunion of Odysseus & Penelope -
one of the most stirring examples of true love in any genre from any period -

And as she listened, her face melted with tears…

So her lovely cheeks coursed with tears as she wept
For her husband who was sitting before her
[however unbeknownst to her]
…she wept until sweet sleep settled upon her eyelids…

The Odyssey and creatures – A Bestiary…
The touching scene of reunion with Odysseus & his dog Argus –

(again, after Lombardo)

a pitiful sight, the old & neglected,
lice-infested dog by the dung heap,
enough to make his master weep…

The aviary of the Odyssey – from the eagles of Zeus and Athena –
high-flying...of the hooked beak...mountain bred
Owl-eyed Athena
Apollo’s swift arrow Hawk
Ino’s flashing gull

Odysseus himself appearing like a soaring raptor

*Circe and her "manly beasts" of stags, pigs, bears
*The Sun-god Helios / Hyperion and his sacred cattle
*The Giants – from the Laestrygonians to the Cyclopes,
and Polyphemus’ flock of XXL sheep
*Dangerous beauties from the Sirens to Calypso
*Deadly sea creatures like Scylla & Charybdis

Multi-disciplinary mash-up of adventure & epic, history & myth, tragedy & romance, fantasy, extraterrestrial and oh-so-wonderfully human…

More Notes on Film...

Life is torture… / Notes on film / XI.11 / Roanoke

I. Isn’t life torture? (on Mizoguchi)

Without mercy, man is like a beast.
A man is not a human being without mercy.
Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.

Teaches the Father in Mizoguchi’s poignant film, Sansho the Bailiff.

Nakagimi-san’s Song of Lament (after Mizoguchi)

1. Like the howl of a white wolf
“Zushio!” echoes across the fields
of sorrow in Sado province

Like the Madwoman calling the Curlew
across the river of shadows
“Anju!” flies like a heron-cry
through the air, hollow as a drum

2. “Zushio!”
I weep as I speak;
I speak as I weep.
Life is torture
Without you!

II. Melancholy Dogs (on Antonioni)

In science fiction you can never say what’s true to life and what isn’t…
according to Antonioni’s Identification of a Woman

Antonioni’s homage to Vertigo:
agoraphobia as fear of intimacy, fear of falling in love?

It’s the water that’s sad. Listen to it.

Landscape and weather in as visual poetry in cinema,
like the fog scenes in Antonioni…

Now the misery is creeping back, like a melancholy dog
(Monica Vitti in La Notte)

Vitti’s hypnotically attractive eccentricity -
was that what made her Antonioni’s muse?
(Do I pine for her because she reminds me of an old flame? Does she represent an objectified romanticism or just a romantic object? Is all this kitsch, Milan?)

Those almond eyes, upturned and accented with just enough attention to command… The sensuous lips whose smile & frown cohabit with unnerving proximity… The long neck & the lithe limbs in a figure otherwise unremarkable, yet captivating and entrancing…

III. New Waves (across Europe)
1. The sui generis production team behind Visconti’s operatic melodrama, Senso (reenforced by Verdi's Il Trovatore...)

Tennessee Williams’ and Paul Bowles’ English-language dialogue – luxury casting complete with Franco Zeffirelli as Assistant Director…

Visconti’s so-called “betrayal” of Neo-Realism with the lush period drama which is arguably his masterpiece. Each scene a perfectly orchestrated canvas. Sweeping historical panoramas and finely etched miniatures. Romantic emotional excess and exquisite attention to detail. Bravo, Conti!

2. Nouvelle Vague
Godard: the most original / narcissistic / self-conscious?
Truffaut: the most emotionally open / conscientious?
Melville: the coolest, most stylish & entertaining?
Rohmer: the anti-Nouvelle philosopher?
Resnais, Chabrol, Malle: the independent & singular poets?

An assistant to Melville, Schlöndorff ushered in New German Cinema with his adaptation of Robert Musil’s Junge Törless. Philosophical and intellectually probing as Rohmer, literary and poetic as Mizoguchi. And featuring an evocative Henze score.

3. The Man Without Qualities (Robert Musil: 6.XI.1880 - 15.IV.1942) / 6.XI.11
What does one make of Musil, one of modernism’s unsung iconoclastic heroes? Equal to Proust, Mann & Joyce...

The mysterious brain-phosphorus of inward illumination is one choice phrase among many in one of the most ambitious works of European literature. It is trenchant as it is epic (left unfinished at c. 2000 pages) in indicting a world benumbing itself to sleep in the early 20th century, presaging the dawn of the Second World War by evoking the era before the First…

There has obviously been a shift in our priorities. Certain concerns have been taken out of people’s hearts.

Ulrich, the so-called Man Without Qualities, our anti-hero “protagonist” is but one voice in the Dostoyevskian polyphony of perspectives,

revolted by this lethargic acceptance…this helpless contemporaneity, this mindlessly submissive, truly demeaning stringing along with the centuries…

Junge Törless is an early autobiographical portrait of the draconian military academies of the old empire, an expose of human cruelty and indictment of the venality of institutions. A study for his unfinished open-ended epic...

Clarisse is an idealistic naïf, one of the epic’s heroines, and a counterpoint to the philistinism and despair in a testosterone-driven, power-hungry world:

And now here she was, armed for the future with a new slogan: active passivism…a phrase that clearly smacked of a man without qualities.

IV. Saints on film: Rossellini & Tarkovsky (19.XI.11)

I talk and talk, yet accomplish little.

So instructs the eponymous saint in Rossellini’s film
The Flowers of Saint Francis

to a fellow friar from Assisi on how to begin every sermon…

“Oh, rose!”
(Not Rilke’s, but a monk’s succinct example of perfetta letizia – perfect happiness)

Elsewhere, Rosellini’s Francesco defines
perfetta letizia as
…triumphing over ourselves…and bearing every evil deed –
in this alone lies perfect happiness.

Francesco, giullare di Dio
("Francis, God’s Jester" being Rossellini’s original Italian title)

Lest we take it all too seriously...

His principles harm his career. One critic’s observation on the title character of Andrei Rublev, equally applicable to Andrey Tarkovsky, the film’s director.

The sense that the world itself is trying to force its way through the screen.
Wagner’s “total work of art” transferred to Bazin’s “Myth of Total Cinema” according to the same critic’s (J. Hoberman) take on Tarkovsky’s masterpiece.

The Passion According to Andrei, to cite its complete title.

The “total cinema” includes extraordinary natural beauty. The wordless soundtrack of nature as grass billows in the water like a woman’s hair – organic, sensuous, mysterious.

Clumps of paint dispersed underwater become flecks and dots resembling stars in the nighttime sky. Such liquid impressionist imagery casts forth a connecting filament to Tarkovsky’s “sci-fi” film, Solaris…

God will forgive you; don’t forgive yourself.
Live between divine forgiveness and your own torment.
Rebuke the oppressor, defend the fatherless, protect the widow.

So the spirit (or ghost?!) of Theophanes instructs Andrei in the arduous path of sainthood, artistry and authenticity…

The happy accident of inspiration as discovery: Boriska slipping down a slope in the mud and landing in just the right spot to find just the right clay to cast the great bell!

Boriska as Andrei’s successor – a true artist: visionary, solitary, young & brash, fearless and bold, uncompromising and indefatigable. And a bit mad…

“Don’t burden your soul, for it is an awful sin to deny the divine spark.” Kirill’s words to Andrei mirroring Martha Graham’s advice to Agnes De Mille – “if you block it, it will never exist and be lost…”

What a day for the people: you’ve brought them such joy, and you’re crying!

(Andrei’s consoling embrace of Boriska, intended for every self-doubting, tortured artist…)

Notes on Cocteau

Notes on Cocteau (quotes from The Difficulty of Being and Criterion film collection edition of Orpheus)

The muses are like beautiful praying mantises who devour their beloved.

Hence inspiration / artistic creativity always comes at a high price to the artist. Jonathan Harvey’s book Music and Inspiration is a compendium of quotes like Mahler’s

My symphonies exhaust the content of my entire existence.

Cocteau likens the creative process to what Dalì called Phoenixology – the mythical bird arising from the ashes – dying in order to be reborn.

All poets are mediums and laborers, channeling the praying mantis muse, laboring to arise like the phoenix, seeking the myth-key to open for the poet the most locked of human souls…

Wanting to be understood is a particular obsession of mankind.
In particular, it is the eternal why that obsesses thinkers.

Such an obsession motivates fellow initiates Cocteau compliments as blood donors – the only artists I respect – whose long red train fascinates the polymath writer, painter, filmmaker and designer…

We artists are the humble servants of a force that lives inside us…we are taken by a force that is not external to us…

Philistines have always been a sore subject for artists like Cocteau, whose rhetoric must always appear cryptic to the uninitiated:

What do they know of the great river, those who only want to enjoy the ports of call?

The transformation through Phoenixology is the boon for the servant of art, while death changes a member of the academy into a chair. Make yourself comfortable, Professor…

Such grandiloquent righteousness might be mere posturing were it not for the single-minded dedication in which distinctions between life and work (read: life and art) are rendered irrelevant.

Our commitment is a matter for the soul. It consists in not keeping for oneself one iota of comfort.

Tending inspiration is like stoking a fire. Keeping the artistic through-line alive. Inspiration is literally the breath of life…

That is what’s important. The life of the line is always in danger of dying.

When asked what one thing he would take if his house were burning,
Cocteau wryly replied,

I’d take the fire.

Soaring in dance & film

I. The higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly (Nietzsche)

I turned on the TV last month and PBS was airing a fall fund-drive episode of Great Performances with a 10-year old starlet of the moment and my jaw hit the floor in flabbergasted disbelief. This qualifies as a "great performance?!?" As the producer-profiteer waxed on about this new-found “great performer” talent I turned off the TV. The last station of so-called taste in art and culture caved and capitulated to commercialism, ratings-driven sensationalism and the pop-culture spectacle of the latest fad. We have culturally devolved from the discovery of true prodigies (Mozart, Mendelssohn, Picasso, Britten) to the creation of interchangeable products…

In the name of playing up to one’s audience, honoring their intelligence and challenging them to participate in this adventurous – not always smooth and photogenic – journey of art and authenticity, I put in an art-house DVD: Martha Graham / Dance on Film.

This connects to musings on art and music and the "Listening to Paintings" programs I've presented at the Taubman Museum of Art (See my Vissi d'arte posts).

The most modern and severe piece of the set is Night Journey, Graham’s angular take on the Oedipus myth to a taut neo-classical (and haunting) William Schuman score.

Schuman's ballet score reminds me of Elliot Carter's The Minotaur (December 11 is Carter's 103rd birthday. His earliest work dates from the 1930's and his latest work was premiered in NYC earlier this week).

The critic Joan Acocella describes Graham as a “woman called to a high destiny and forced to overcome fear.”

Graham herself labeled the “lonely, terrifying gifts” every true artist confronts, and with whom - like Jacob facing the Angel of God - she must wrestle. I recall her inspiring letter to Agnes De Mille:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a
quickening that is translated through you into action.
And because there is only one of you in all of time,
this expression is unique. And if you block it, it
will never exist through any other medium and be lost.
The world will not have it. It is not your business to
determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it
compares with other expressions. It is your business
to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the
channel open. You have to keep open and aware directly
to the urges that motivate artist is
pleased. there is only a queer divine dissatisfaction,
a blessed unrest that keeps us marching
and makes us more alive than others…

I think of how her protégés - from De Mille to Alvin Ailey to Merce Cunningham – interpreted those directions, forged their own paths and opened new ones for today…

(And I connect again to "Listening to Paintings." The Taubman's exhibit of Nick Cave's remarkable "Soundsuits" reflects their creator's role as an Alvin Ailey dancer. Merce Cunningham was John Cage's partner. Cage worked on some of his watercolors in southwest Virginia; they are among my favorite canvases at the Taubman)

Acocella observes the artist following “a divine command to penetrate into the interior of the human spirit no matter what comfortless truths she might find there.”

Graham sought to portray in her art an aspect of our inherent collective split:
“America, forever torn…between a Puritan heritage and a bold, pioneering spirit…”

II. With a shriek birds fly across the black sky, people are silent,
my blood aches from waiting
(Mesa Selimovic)

That quote from the Bosnian novelist is the epigraph to Milcho Manchevski’s masterpiece film Before the Rain. Ostensibly “about” the Balkan conflict of the ‘90’s seen through three generations around a small Macedonian village, the film is lyrical, poetic and brutally honest.

Dealing with history and myth, the film can be viewed as a triptych of “baroque variations” inside a “circular form” (Ian Christie) indebted to the labyrinthine world of Borges and the new wave inventiveness of cinematic auteurs like Resnais.

The intersection of myth and history is reinforced by realistic modern characters set in the “antique landscape” of the newly independent Macedonia.

The poetic links are classical (Homeric repetition) and connect the settings & characters with details from the elegiac to the banal – from aged cemeteries and freshly dug hillside graves to the recurrence of insipid pop-songs on hand-held radios across Europe.

The interconnectedness is etched & imprinted by the central character (a photographer) and the use of photos in the film – images within images, pictures linking to pictures…

The film critic Ian Christie suggests a strong link to Max Ernst’s desolate surrealist landscape of WWII, Europe After the Rain. A lengthy essay would be required to explore the web-like filaments spun across time from Homer to the present where art and human conflict meet and converse in various media. Ernst’s canvas is but one link in a chain of Borgesian infinitude.

The connection across myth and history of war-torn landscapes with all* their inhabitants is deeply felt, experienced and enacted in works such as Before the Rain.

*Before the Rain features striking images of animals – another strong link to both myth and surrealism. The graphic and touching birth of a pair of sheep contrasts with the senseless, brutal shooting of a cat. The earthy farm animals - from a rooster to a donkey to a herd of cattle - are set against a lone eagle soaring above the mountains. The expressionist painter Franz Marc asked “Is there a more mysterious idea than to imagine how nature is reflected in the eyes of animals?”

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Thomas Bernhard & the cathartic purging of bile…

…incipient thoughts bat around inside my skull…
I think my head will break apart when I move from one subject to another…
there is a continual imaginative assault, which is driving me half crazy…

Reading Thomas Bernhard can be dangerous. One confronts all kinds of sickness – mental and physical, congenital, degenerate, terminal and psychosomatic. And one faces death – sudden or slow-and-painful, accidental or purposeful as suicide (an omnipresent threat). Bernhard’s through-composed stream-of-conscious style is claustrophobic and oppressive, relentless and obsessive. His vitriolic bile spews forth with vehement toxicity. His white-hot rage burns to a crisp and chills to the bone. His poison is intended for the philistines and petit bourgeois of a society corrupt to its core.

His artist-subjects’ self-loathing is everywhere apparent in darkly hilarious rants and tirades against colleagues, civil servants and most of the other members of the food chain. The following quotes are from his first novel Frost, “about” the “so-called” painter Strauch, his madness and obsessions, and the goings-on in a village filled with “morons in short sleeves” (one of his choice phrases for what “country people” represent to this disaffected child of Saturn).

(from Frost, trans. Michael Hoffmann, Vintage, 2008)

Drowning among country people is a miserable way of drowning.

Petit bourgeois businessmen fare no better.

A lawyer is an instrument of the devil…a fiendish idiot.

So-called (Bernhard’s favorite jab) artists suffer the worst fate. There is no kind of hatred quite like self-hatred. Nicht wahr, Herr Bernhard?

You know, the painter said, that art froth, that artist fornication, that general art-and-artist loathsomeness, I always found that repelling; those cloud formations of basest self-preservations topped with envy…Envy is what holds artists together, envy, pure envy, everyone envies everyone else for everything…I talked about it once before, I want to say: artists are the sons and daughters of loathsomeness, of paradisiac shamelessness, the original sons and daughters of lewdness; artists, painters, writers and musicians are the compulsive masturbators on the planet, its disgusting cramps, its peripheral puffings and swellings, its pustular secretions…I want to say: artists are the great emetic agents of the time, they were always the great, the very greatest emetics…Artists, are they not a devastating army of absurdity, of scum? The infernality of unscrupulousness is something I always meet with in the thoughts of artists…Artists are the identical twins of hypocrisy, the identical twins of low-mindedness, the identical twins of licensed exploitation, the greatest licensed exploitation of all time…Artists, as they have shown themselves to be, he said, are all dull and grandiloquent, nothing but dull and grandiloquent, nothing…

Bernhard is the Dionysus of despair whose elixir is the bile of loathing. Whose speech is colorful as peacock feathers – he has absorbed the poison and his tongue spews it forth

like maggots in space…in the shattering fat of history, in the quarterstaves of the insoluble diluvia…

No rest for the wicked made weary (or the weary made wicked) by their unresolved dissonance with the world. The painter Strauch goes to bed
not to sleep but to howl to myself in the silence of horror.

Man is an ideal hell to his fellow men.

And anathema to one so brutally honest is
the nausea of a trial by public opinion.

And sometimes Bernhard is just the ticket. Any artist who has cursed her witless critics, faced the provincialism of “popular taste” or the philistine capitulation to “commercial success” can identify with Bernhard. His inimitable voice resonates in a soulless world, corrupt by ravenous greed and numbed by a self-perpetuating system fueled by the replacing of substantive depth with surface sheen.

Everything is barbarous kitsch…Petit bourgeois sordidness…it’s too revolting.

His is like Kafka’s axe – not picking but pounding – at the frozen regions of the heart. The cacophonous volume of his vitriol threatens to drown out its pathos. The ice is so thick one forgets the affirming presence of deep water stirs underneath.

In winter, pain falls in the form of snow…Songbirds sing pain. The weak man has no law that will protect him.

Bernhard’s ostensible subject is laid bare in his debut novel, Frost. The signifier of winter’s arrival is variously described as this extraordinary frost…an iron frost…numbing frost…the ubiquitous and almost daily advancing frost… Bernhard’s pick-axe pounds relentlessly.

Frost disfigures all men…The frost eats everything up…There are many men who have been marked by frost…Frost may also signify the end of a world empire…

Life is the purest, clearest, darkest, most crystalline form of hopelessness…There is only one way to go, through the snow and ice into despair, past the adultery of reason.

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, eh Thomas? Bernhard is bracing, horrifying, excruciating and essential. One Bernhard is enough to counteract a legion of so-called page-turner fiction, froth & pulp for the market and masses. Lattes for the alleged literate. Bernhard’s dissenting tenor has always been a lonely voice, the irascible minority of a skeptic courageous enough to articulate the grotesque nudity underneath the emperor’s clothes. Such dissonance threatens to assault our senses. And it dares to wake us up.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Travel Journal: Maine

Ode on the trinity of experiences of the noble Bald Eagle
Lake St George, ME / Aug 2011

(to KF & RH & ACW, and for my father)

A lone bald eagle flew directly overhead
as we lounged this afternoon on a float
at the edge of Lake St George –

He returned for another fly-by
and we watched those eagle eyes
scanning the lake –
limning for Loons
or other prey –
beak open,
ajar though hardly slack…

We beckoned the noble bird return,
called upon the talisman of majesty, freedom
and the indomitable spirit
reserved for few such creatures
and for some of the gods

(why else would we be said to have been made in their image
if not for such awe-inspiring moments…?)

The bald eagle returned,
the third pass a totemic omen, the
charmed third-time flight a sure sign of kinship and good fortune, an
ancient sacred tripod of season & order, of lineage, and
if one believes in such things,

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Possession: artists and inspiration

Possession: artists and inspiration
or Dionysus aroused, awakened, ablaze…
(The Romantic / Mythological project, continued...)

A creative person is always most excited when something happens that he cannot explain, something mysterious or miraculous. Then he is very nervous. (Stockhausen)

[from Music and Inspiration, Jonathan Harvey. Faber, 1999]

Having read Whitman for over 20 years (more than half my life), I question if I may be possessed by part of his spirit. Since such saints manifest their spirits in countless ways, unconstrained by time or space, era or locale, it is a literal and figurative possibility.

Meaning is articulated using language. Life is experienced, processed and understood through language. And all language is potentially poetic, by its essence, creative. Ergo, “creative writing” is redundant. It can be a useful distinction for categorizing. But anything we categorize can more easily be dismissed, discarded, or merely ignored. Thus “creative writing” can be filed inferior to “factual” or “scientific” writing, which purports to be intellectually superior because “closer to the truth” of so-called “facts.”

The linguistic or philological discursion is purposeful, as I hope to show. Poetry is an excellent place to start for aspects & approaches towards “truth” in “creative writing.” Poetry can describe actual occurrences (a spider spinning a web) and simultaneously describe the metaphysical processes of the soul. For me, no poet brings together these worlds better than Whitman.

A noiseless, patient spider was perhaps the first poem I memorized. And the man who helped me learn to love poetry was my HS (sophomore year) English teacher, Mr. Vaughan. He was one of the first of many inspiring teachers & mentors I’ve been privileged to have. Do I appreciate him more now because I recognize his affirmation of intelligence, his encouragement of creative expression as being among the virtues I prize the most?

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to
connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

What a great little poem that is! Resonant with truth and open to possibility, the poem flings itself forth with the faith its filaments will “catch somewhere.” With characteristic poetic “musing” Whitman connects “the spheres” of the elusive, enigmatic soul to the natural world of the “noiseless patient spider” (and what a beautiful description, vividly imagining the natural world and awaking our senses to it). Whitman’s spider connects the earth to the “measureless oceans of space” beyond, the “once upon a time” of ancient stories and imagined galaxies of the science fiction future. Some call the beyond “heaven,” others “the heavens” and some just gesture in the direction of “out there.” The poem is always both / and. It always means on multiple levels.

Why don’t we allow the white-bearded bard to possess more of us (more of the time)? One of the all-time great Americans, great patriots, great humanitarians and one of our country’s – and the world’s! – great poets, Whitman is among the most original voices the earth has known…

Does his earthy and profane, excessive and provocative, frankly and boldly sensual, category-defying, universe-embracing, indiscriminately welcoming, positively affirming voice offend us? Scare us away? Scratch too close to the surfaces of the itchy shadows we’d rather not discuss (like faith, sexuality, government & war)?

As a volunteer nurse working for both sides during the Civil War, he attended to over 30,000 injured soldiers. Who can oppose such generous humanity? Is that not the essence, the embodiment of compassionate, agape, “brotherly” love? Who would cast a stone towards Walt Whitman?

He opens up worlds because he contains them in his all-encompassing embrace.

Such openness requires keen intelligence, strong will and patient resolve. Maintaining the tensions inherent in ambivalence, living with the dynamic irony of life’s paradoxes, and balancing the “contraries,” without which there is no progression (as the poet William Blake philosophically mused).

I love quoting Whitman’s response to protestations over his openness (past, present & future), his rebuttal of flimsy accusations of inconsistency, relative-ness & transience:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then … I contradict myself.
I am large… I contain multitudes.

Of course, such large inspiration causes an all-consuming creative impulse to flare. Puccini wrote of the creative process approximating or even inducing illness.

When fever abates, it ends by disappearing, and without fever there is no creation; because emotional art is a kind of malady…an over-excitation of every fibre and every atom of one’s being, and so on, ad aeternum.

As I have been intimating & suggesting in my musings on Romanticism, the “romantic” notion of “emotional” art is a more universal one than our dismissive attitude towards the “romantic” type, label & symbol allows.

Last year I began reading (and naturally, quoting from) The Master and his Emissary, Iain McGilchrist’s new book subtitled “The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World” (Yale, 2010). This neuro-imaging doctor (Johns Hopkins), clinical psychiatrist and Oxford Fellow in Literature casts out wonderful filaments and weaves them compellingly together.

To paraphrase, the left-hemisphere generally refers to the Apollonian, rational, thinking, bourgeois “half” of the brain dialectic. The “right brain” is associated with Dionysus and creativity, the emotions and all those other subjective, affective, soul-full and heart-felt aspects that do make us wonderfully, uniquely human. It is the right brain that connects the non-linear dots to make the “self” and the “world” in which it lives. The left-brain keeps the to-do list, and almost exclusively follows the oversimplified binary “logic” called Cartesian.

One of the tics, or tricks, whereby we nowadays dismiss anything that does not fit with the left-hemisphere view of the world, is to label it ‘Romantic.’ Having done that we feel we have pulled the guts out of it. We have consigned it to a culture-bound view of the world which was relatively short-lived… and long passé, with for good measure, hints of excess, sentimentality and lack of intellectual rigor thrown in…

McGilchrist maintains Romanticism is the historical era in our Euro-American development that most nearly approaches the cultural, scientific and humanist zenith we identify with the Renaissance. I would crown the Romantic era (and the artists in its wake, like Whitman, Rilke, Mahler & Hesse, to name just a few) as our highest achievement. That is a position likely to be criticized as reactionary by the left, and dismissed as quaint or trite by the right. Generally speaking. Or metaphorically. Or both / and…McGilchrist continues

…what we dismiss as Romantic may be less limited in time and space than we imagine. In the Renaissance, the unconscious, involuntary, intuitive and implicit, that which cannot be formalized, or instilled into others by processes governed by rules, and cannot be made to obey the will, was respected and courted. All the qualities that are admired in the artist are those that come from the right hemisphere, including the skill that hides itself. They are all to be found later in Romanticism, it is true: but it will not do to bundle up half of human experience as ‘Romantic’ with an intention to dismiss it.

Aha! Well said, my dear Dr Sir! Do I thus approve because I am possessed of romantic spirits, or am I possessed by romantic spirits because I am “that kind of person” who would grant such preposterousness credence to begin? By my troth, it matters not…

Do I feel like the title character of Hesse’s Steppenwolf because I have reread him and incorporated his philosophy and poetry into my teaching and creative work? Am I “possessed” like a mad “wolf of the steppes” to even ask such questions?

Whitman approaches Steppenwolf’s realm when he writes in the 8th canto (“song,” stanza or verse) of Song of Myself:

What living & buried speech is always vibrating here, what
howls restrain’d by decorum?

In tribute to Cy Twombly (1928- July 5, 2011), mention should be made of his series of bold Bacchus canvases, vermilion red. Fire and blood. Eros and Thanatos (love & death) in one brilliant, potent color. Twombly is one of those artists unrestrained by decorum. “Engorged and overflowing with paint” is how Nicholas Cullinan describes “some of the most liquid” paintings in Twombly’s prolific 60-year career. (Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons. Tate, 2008)

Bacchus (Dionysus) embodies for Twombly the “ecstatic impulse.” An artist possessed by inspiration, in a rare statement about his work, the notoriously elusive and enigmatic Twombly wrote in 1957

To paint involves a certain crisis, or at least a crucial moment of sensation or release; and by crisis it should by no means be limited to a morbid state, but could just as well be one ecstatic impulse.

Harvey’s marvelous book (Music and Inspiration, with which we began) draws on the experience of modern composers as much as it does on the much-celebrated pantheon of great 19th century artists. Beethoven and Berlioz, Heine & Liszt, Whitman and Wagner all speak the “extravagant” tongues of the “Romantic” era. And as McGilchrist reminds us, the consistency of that message is too important to be routinely labeled, filed and forgotten.

The “imperious necessity” which “drives the artist to that fanatical stubbornness” (Wagner) is “not restricted to the Romantic period,” Harvey observes. After quoting from Schoenberg, Webern, Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel, Harvey concludes:

There is a striking consensus among composers that unconscious inspiration – or instinct – is both a necessary part of the creative process and an infallible guide when compositional decisions have to be made. It is exciting, intoxicating, lucid, as seductive and sometimes as fatal as a siren, wayward, elusive, yet essential and infallible to the point of divinity.

Harvey then shares examples of how inspiration “builds itself up,” how the creative process… “ferments…by much preoccupation, engrossment with self, a being-dead to the outer world.” Mahler’s description articulates again another aspect of the Steppenwolf’s dialectic with the bourgeois “outer world” in which the creative artist never completely feels at ease or at home.

Inspiration “would flash into his mind” as the creative “eyes take fire.” Henze writes “he must come out of his shell, express his innermost self and yield up everything…”

The yielding up of everything from within is difficult at best, and as we know from every tradition we have, dangerous. Getting in touch with the “innermost self” is one of the reasons to embark not only on the artistic journey but on the individual one.

The romantic concept of the “inward journey” has been fraught with peril - like Harry Potter facing Valdemort – since it was first introduced within our species a few millennia ago through the world’s religions and foundational stories, also known as myth.

All these traditions – from the Old Testament Psalms across the Babylonian & Mesopotamian tales, from Homer to Plato to St Paul, from Dante to Don Quixote and beyond, the “hero’s journey” into and through darkness to light, life and newness is the way to salvation / enlightenment / nirvana because it is the individual’s path. Moses, Christ, Buddha, Ulysses, Aeneas, Alice, Frodo, Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne and Harry Potter all must face the dark forces, “do the right thing” and return to life in order to “share the boon” (as Joseph Campbell persuasively argues).

I tried to weave this particular strand of artistic inspiration into a little poem yesterday, in honor of the entire generation of young people – and their families – who have had the opportunity to grow up with Harry Potter. Though a late convert to the joys of this strangely familiar universe, Harry, his friends and “the order of the Phoenix” are characters right out of mythology and they are us. So brush up that mythology, mom & dad, in order to answer those questions about strange animals with wonderfully mysterious gifts. Hippogriffs are derived from the Griffins / Gryphons of mythology and reappear down the rabbit hole. Like Unicorns and wise Owls, they are everywhere equally adept at helping your child learn life’s lessons...

It’s not easy being the
chosen one, is it Harry?
Even magic cannot always
overcome the dark forces
stirring like threatening storms
surrounding us in haze
confounding us in fog…
Like Luke using the force
like comic book superheroes
battling their shadows to
earn the letter, cape and
title even though
it means donning yet
another mask. Where is
the professor to remind
us of the thousand faces
our best selves assume
to reveal their true essence
of light, love and god…

How did we get to Harry Potter? The “launched forth” filaments out of ourselves take us everywhere if we let them. Sometimes it feels like we’re possessed by a power, or force or voice or spirit. Sometimes it’s the “still, small voice” and sometimes it’s a werewolf hidden within ourselves we must face.

One of the strands I intend to muse on is the connection between American patriotism, the hero’s journey, the underdog and the superhero. Special effects might come in handy for such an enterprise. All this magic, myth and inspiration can seem a bit surreal at times.

I’ll close with one of the strongest (and strangest) voices of inspired surrealism the world has known. An artist too visionary to be dismissed as “simply” provocative or “positively” decadent. Salvador Dalí, an important anti-fascist artist (and enfant terrible, a notorious provocateur… therefore an artist whose range and depth reminds us of Whitman, Poe, Kafka, Goya, Dostoyevsky and among others, Shakespeare).

Writing in New York at the outset of World War II (like the prophet implied in the moniker “visionary” and with a sage’s wisdom where mythological references are concerned, thus reminding us of our own roots where “the city of brotherly love” and “liberty” are concerned), the “crazy Spaniard” wrote:


(quoted in Salvador Dalí: The Paintings. Descharnes / Néret, Taschen, 1994, 2006).

Philistine civil servants in the Ministry of Magic beware! The order of the Phoenix may again be on the rise joining the mythological realm to the romantic revolution as inspiration possesses more open-minded souls to use their superpowers to ward off evil!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Friedrich and romantic pictures...

Caspar David Friedrich and romantic pictures in painting, poetry & music…
(notes & quotes on 19th century romanticism; see previous post...)

"You paint the way you have to in order to give, that’s life itself"
(Franz Kline, c. 1954)

"What can be learned from pictures, perhaps, is how to bring out the mysterious tale told by interlocking forms"
(James Merrill, c. 1960, in Poets on Painters).

Friedrich’s landscapes do “not so much place you as embrace you…they display you to yourself…the solitude confronts you…confronts your true arrival to the landscape, your embarkation on a Winterreise.” (Koerner: C.D.F. & The Subject of Landscape)

Erlebniskunst. Art from experience. Real-life art.

One of Friedrich’s romantic themes was to “characterize the way meaning per se is or is not present in objects…Friedrich’s landscapes will remain properly open-ended.”

Fir Trees in the Snow, 1828. (Todesjahr Schuberts. As the anniversary of an artist’s death is remembered in the German world…)

Rückenfigur. The “turned figure.” Schubert’s “Rückblick” from Winterreise. Look back.

Mark Strand says spending time with Edward Hopper’s “suburban landscapes” means being amidst “an oddness, a disturbing quiet, a sense of being in a room with a man who insists on being with us, but always with his back turned.”

Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818. The quintessential romantic wanderer – loner – poet – painter – thinker – artist – rebel – outcast – exile – pilgrim – visionary landscape portrait.

Eigentümlichkeit. “Peculiarity,” “characteristic quality” &/or “strangeness.” Literally meaning “one’s own” (eigen), “property” (Eigentum), “actually” (eigentlich) and lastly, literally “strange, eccentric” (eigentümlichkeit).

The sui generis writer Novalis embodies eigentümlichkeit as romantic virtue in his poetic musings.

The world must become romanticized. That way one finds again the original meaning...When I confer upon the commonplace a higher meaning, upon the ordinary an enigmatic experience, I romanticize it. The operation is reversed for the higher, unknown, mystical, infinite.

Do try this at home, dear reader(s). Lavish upon nature’s landscape the aesthete’s lofty praise. Deduce the mysteries of the cosmos from a moonscape and set it down, even a scrap, a fragment even…

Two Men Contemplating the Moon. Moonrise at Sea. Sea of Ice.

Comparing the last sets of songs Schubert wrote to poems by Rellstab and Heine, is like respectively comparing “landscape with moonscape” according to Graham Johnson.

Nocturnal. Mysterious. Mystical. Supernatural. Fantastic. Fear. Shadow. Forbidden. Hidden. Holy. Dark…

Heine’s “misty visions” are poems where “beneath the blurred and atmospheric contours…is a core of German seriousness.” As if in a landscape by Friedrich.

Turning back to the romantic wanderer as loner, outsider, exile, outcast and insane, and remembering the “mad poets” Clare, Smart and Hölderlin, we Rückblich to Friedrich.

Hölderlin is one of the great masters of the poetic fragment as complete-unto-itself. An exemplar of Coleridge’s fragmentary etudes “described and exemplified.” Here is Coleridge’s “The Homeric Hexameter” in its entirety:

Strongly it bears us along in swelling and limitless billows,
Nothing before and nothing behind but the sky and the ocean.

Fragments suggest ruins. Ruins recall antiquity. Antiquity inspires the romantics through unrealized ideals, mythical & magical metamorphoses & transformations. Connecting to mythology becomes a source of not only creative stimulus, but strength and sustenance to the artist. “German seriousness” has always looked south to the Mediterranean world for the inspiration of nature, yet another fabric in this connective tapestry. Since the gods exist only in nature (technology and business rarely intrude on the ancient stages) their stories play out in the natural world and the imagined cosmos beyond it. No wonder the romantics were so in touch with nature.

Here is a typical Hölderlin fragment, called “Once and Now:”

In younger days at dawn I was filled with joy
But wept at sunset; now I am older, now
Each day begins in doubt yet every
Ending of day is calming and holy.

Which Friedrich landscape exemplifies and demonstrates the singular beauties of the fragment? The ruins of the Abby in the Oak Forest, darkly mysterious in crepuscular half-light…or the totemic energy surrounding the Rocky Gorge, the mountainous rocks metamorphosed into leaning towers of ruins…the fragments of The Churchyard landscapes, enigmatic, porous and open-ended…

Monk by the Sea, 1809-1810. Is this landscape, moonscape and seascape,
Camille Paglia reading Wordsworth notes the “romantics put the blame for modern alienation on Cartesian rationalism and Newtonian physics, which sees the world as a machine. ‘We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon’: like Faust, who sought dominance by knowledge, Western culture has sold its soul to the devil – to false idols whose reward (‘boon’) is filthy lucre. For Wordsworth, affluence brings desensitization, a deadening of the heart” (Paglia: Break, Blow, Burn).

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon could be a Friedrich landscape. Paglia cites the image as an example of a poet’s melancholy being lifted by “ecstatic perceptions” as when “we see nature come alive.”

Paglia interweaves colorful threads of myth, psychology & history into her trenchantly provocative criticism. She concludes her discussion of Wordsworth’s sonnet, “The world is too much with us” by commenting on the poet’s romantic and pagan vision. If Wordsworth sees it “too optimistically” he still “glimpses a cosmic unity” using mythology as guide. With help from the shape-shifter Proteus he effects an Ovidian transformation. This “symbolizes nature’s constant metamorphosis” and this is exactly the subject of landscapes. Here is Wordsworth’s beloved poem.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours:
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. – Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Art is possessed of mysterious power. If art were not dangerous, censorship would not exist. Not that there is anything in need of censoring here, surely! Or might there be, after a closer reading…The romantic era, in addition to being one of the most fertile and beloved periods of artistic creativity in human history, was a time of great social and political change, of foment, revolution and upheaval. Such words themselves have power to conjure images, stir the blood and engage the senses.

Paglia ends her discussion of Wordsworth’s brand of romanticism by noting his titans, Proteus and Triton operate with “elemental forces robust with the sexuality erased from the Christian Trinity.” Far from a God-hating atheist, Wordsworth’s dream “heals our estrangement” through “Pagan restoration.”

The estrangement and the burning need for restoration are at the heart of the romantic artist’s quest for unity via synthesis. The Hegelian dialectic. The Janus-faced Hero. The artist as “cosmic dancer” (Nietzsche, Campbell) leaping between worlds like a god or titan of mythology. Bringing to life images of the everyday cosmos…These are but the varied and related subjects of landscape painting, lyric poetry and romantic music…

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Heine and Hesse and the Romantic Dialectic

I picked up Hesse’s Steppenwolf after returning from a visit to the Spoleto Festival USA last month. First read it 15 years ago while a young professional at the Spoleto Festival USA.

Returning to W & L next week as a guest lecturer on 19th century Romanticism. Particularly of the German variety.

Recalling Hegel’s dialectic. Thesis – Antithesis – Synthesis. Synthesis: ay, there’s the rub.

Steppenwolf embodies several manifestations of the dialectic. Apollonian / Dionysian, Bourgeois / Bohemian, Reason / Emotion, Society / Artist, Harry Haller / Steppenwolf.

Artists may be first among those caught between two ages, who are outside of all security and simple acquiescence…those whose fate it is to live the whole riddle of human destiny heightened to the pitch of a personal torture...

That personal torture is cause and effect, symptom and illness, sickness and cure. Hesse carries the Romantic torch, articulating the dialectic between the artist and society. His enterprise is romantic on multiple levels. As the surrounding quotes should show, his mission is the artist’s realization of his many-flowered self. Soul flowers opening to the world new sights and smells via the creative imagination. The artist as the ideal human being; servant to a higher, greater power; bringer of the soul’s boon; bearer of the cups of the fullness of life. Lofty, yes. And a necessary essential to the well-being of the individual and the world.

He reminds us of some hallmarks of true heroes: the engaged will, relentless striving and uncompromising standards… there are always a few such people who demand the utmost of life and yet cannot come to terms with its stupidity and crudeness!

But such aspirations sometimes produce bittersweet fruit. Here is Karl Schumann on Schubert’s & Müller’s Winterreise, one of the seminal works embodying the tortured Romantic soul:

The young man with the incurable wound in his heart, since Lord Byron an altogether commonplace cliché figure of Romanticism, is taken bitterly seriously by Schubert and pushed to the point of no return. It borders on the pathological; the wandering youth of Winterreise, … driven out by overwhelming emotional frustration into the hostile, frostbound winter landscape, … is the magnified symbol of the Romantic man at the mercy of his feelings, the homeless stranger on the cold earth, the fugitive from the world, excluded from human fellowship by the overwhelming, self-destructive strength of his emotions.

Schumann’s essay is entitled “Twenty-Four Stages on a Journey into the Void.” The Romantic Dialectic has so many dimensions. Soul flowers. As Steppenwolf learns…

You have a dimension too many…whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours…

With such Byronic heroic striving comes the tension and ambivalence of contingency, mortality, humanity. Thank the Romantics for the return of humor as antidote to such torture.

The Janus-faced Heroes like Beethoven and Goethe look back to the Classical world of ancient Greece. Beethoven Hero. Goethezeit. For inspiration in the fragments and relics of antiquity. For models and symbols in mythology. For the transformative power of the imagination. The heady & spiritual intoxication of the awakening of the aesthetic impulse. Dionysus (Bacchus), among other things god of the theater, symbolizes the tragicomic dialectic in poetry and drama. Ironic?

One of the highlights of Spoleto USA this year was a chamber music recital of Shostakovich’s great piano quintet. Amazing piece of music. Haunting. Poignant. Droll. Sad. Vivacious. Mordantly witty. Searing.

Shostakovich, taking up the mantle of ironic musical humor from Mahler, Haydn and Mozart, journeys into the modern void (via Stalin’s Russia) and laughs as often as he despairs.

In Steppenwolf, he would be genius enough to attempt the quest…instead of discoursing pitifully…at every difficulty encountered.

(Is the pitiful discourse one of the reasons we mistrust Odysseus / Ulysses as a hero?)

Shostakovich Hero? Steppenwolf Hero? Don Quixote Hero?

And whoever wants more and has got it in him – the heroic and the beautiful and the reverence for the great poets or for the saints – is a fool and a Don Quixote.

Steppenwolf’s elusive muse and oracle and mythic guide, Hermine, as another sign of her eminent qualifications, loves Cervantes. The Artist / Society (or Bohemian / Bourgeois) tension manifests like the “hundred integuments” of the onion that is the human being.

The war against death…is always a beautiful, noble and wonderful and glorious thing, and so, it follows is the war against war. But it is always hopeless and quixotic too.

Quixotic. Adventurous. Idealist. Utopian. Chivalrous. Noble. Courageous. Foolish. Independent. Fearless. Impossible. Poetic. Visionary. Mad.

Hesse links those last two attributes and indentifies one of the risks of the artist’s self-realization. To break through the illusion of the unity of the personality and perceive that the self is made up of a bundle of selves…say so and at once the majority puts them under lock and key…

The visionary &/or mad poet – composer – artist is another Romantic trope that is Janus-faced and ever present. In a world dominated by philistines, Heine is a truly literate and insightful critic. And visionary, mad poet himself. Here he is on Liszt after an 1841 Paris concert:

The electric effect of a demonic nature on a crowd that is all pressed together, the infectious power of ecstasy, and perhaps the magnetism of the music itself, this spiritualistic illness of the age, which vibrates in almost all of us—I have never encountered these phenomena so distinctly and so frighteningly as in the concert by Liszt.

Heine’s wit is of the mordant, ironic variety. I recall advice from the best director I know, Tim Carroll on the seriousness of playing humor with a reminder the word “sarcasm” comes from the Greek sarcasmos, “to tear the flesh off…”

That illuminates a description like “cutting” or “biting” wit. It opens a window into its appearance in art, from the ancient Greek tragedies through Shakespeare and Cervantes to Blake and Coleridge, Goethe and Heine, Mahler and Shostakovich.

Ovid’s Metamorphosis is one of the seminal sources of our mythological heritage. These versions of creation stories and other mythological figures & heroes involve transformation. And like all mythology, mean more figuratively than literally. The literal interpretation is intended to open a window into the imagination. They are artistic creations of immense psychological, emotional and spiritual depth. And the Romantic era awakened a connection to these powerful sources we are in danger of losing.

The opera director Luc Bondy, writing on Handel’s Hercules (itself based partly on Ovid) could be a classics scholar or mythology guru like Joseph Campbell, rather than the avant-garde Regietheater maverick he is considered to be.

There are some versions that are undeniably more interesting than others…fundamentally, we are more sensitive to these more perilous dramas. They represent a real rupture, and to my mind, embody a modernity that has never been surpassed since the ancient Greeks. This is because the Greeks invented a form and for that form they had myths at their disposal. Today we have the forms but we no longer have the myths.

But we have Handel and Heine and Hesse. We have music and poetry and drama. We have mythology at no more than one remove. Heroes and Titans. Prometheus unbound and defiant.

The pianist and art song scholar Graham Johnson describes one aspect of Heine’s persona using Promethean terms in an essay about Schumann’s great song-cycle Dichterliebe.

Heine is the poet of change and insurrection, both personal and political. He appears here to us exactly as he appeared to Schumann…the incarnation of the misunderstood poet, sinned against by the stupidity and insensitivity of others, smiling ironically at his small-minded critics, and suffering betrayal with a stoicism born of a greatness of soul that effortlessly shames the pettiness of everyone around him.

We should all live so large! (As Johnson goes on to illustrate, Heine's life did not equal his artistic achievement). Let us wrap up this romantic and rambling musing with more music. Steppenwolf (in his bourgeois incarnation as Harry Haller) meets a gypsy-like musician who may or may not be an incarnation of Mozart. And in that enigmatic detail is one of many reasons I love Hesse so! This is great advice for any apprentice or artist in any discipline in any era.

Music does not depend on being right, on having good taste and education…[It depends] on making music as well and as much as possible and with all the intensity of which one is capable.

Mozart appears near the close of Hesse’s novel, and using Handel as an example reminds us why music is not a luxury but a necessity.

Let the sense of this ritardando touch you. Do you hear the basses? They stride like gods. And let this inspiration of old Handel penetrate your restless heart and give it peace. Just listen…listen without either pathos or mockery…Listen well. You have need of it.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Eolian Harp...

Coleridge is genius. His poetic describing of the world is so pitch-perfect the leaps of his imagination appear obvious. I love the following self-defense statement about his overzealous loyalty to colleagues known only to him through their work.

"The controversies, occasioned by my unfeigned zeal..." could be applied by the writer of this sentence to any number of occasions, conversations, relationships, et al. Passion hath a habit of spilling over...

Coleridge invented a word, esemplastic, by literally joining two Greek fragments. Some of his epigrammatic poems are subtitled, "Described and Exemplified" and thus the form is content and the title is both. "The Homeric Hexameter" and the "Ovidian Elegaic Metre" are two examples to which we may return. Esemplastic means "to shape into one." We continue thus with another varied and episodic, cryptic and enigmatic, esemplastic musing.

The previous rambling mentioned the association between romantic inspiration (afflatus) and the Aeolian harp. Coleridge's ode to Orpheus, the origins of music and artistic romanticism is entitled "The Eolian Harp," and is full of "honey-dropping flowers" of images like

The stilly murmur of the distant Sea
Tells us of silence

The liquid alliteration of the diction mimics water, but even more striking to me is the odd little adjective "stilly." I take such delightful diminutives to be emblematic of Colerdge's original genius. The eloquent, poetic turn of phrase is another distinction that marks his genius original. Like "the desultory breeze caress'd." Pure music!

As in the witty phrase "occasioned by my unfeigned zeal" above, ignorance of the subject matter does not bar one from admission into this lyrically imaginative world. Another entry point is the vivid fancy of "twilight Elfins" from some accessible (not nearly so "long ago & far away" as we accustom ourselves) "Fairy-land."

The "honey-dropping flowers" that may or may not be Homer's - and Tennyson's - "Lotus-Eaters" are products of one of "many idle flitting phantasies." As if the poet tasted of his own artistic opiate to dull the pain of the cruel, unfeeling, profit-driven world (the Lotus-Eaters are lulled by forgetfulness and numbed to desire by partaking of the Lotus flower). The poem of Sir Alfred the Lord opens with the orphic invocation,

There is sweet music here that softer falls
Than petals from blown roses on the grass

Still the romantic ideal that is idealism itself shines a light through the dreamy balm of unbearable lightness. To return to Coleridge's musician waxing utopian,

Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so fill'd;
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbering on her instrument.

Coleridge's most famous visionary image is the 50-line fragment, "Kubla Khan" The poem's subtitle is "Or, A Vision In A Dream" and in a preface the author describes its origin.

The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than two to three hundred lines; if that indeed could be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of correspondent expressions, without any sensation or conscious effort. On awaking he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole...

And that is one of the most lively descriptions of the creative process vis-a-vis its "flash" or "divine spark" of inspiration, the imagination "set fire" or "ablaze" by inspiration. The creative person "possessed" or "driven" by inspiration. Whether "as if in a dream" or vision literal or figurative.

My imagination has been subject to vision-like experiences as a veil falls between myself and the outer world (to paraphrase Hesse's Steppenwolf, to which we shall return).

I have been inspired by dreams and by the waking hours leading up to sleep, especially the periods from dusk (the gloaming) through night to early morning. A series of "Nocturne" poems are the humble, half-chiseled results.

I. The light keeps changing across this landscape
so the mountains never appear the same twice.
People are happier here, I've heard it said.
With so much beauty always around -
the magic of living in a valley is to always
be surrounded by peaks -
how can at least some peace not be found?

Nowhere near as visionary as Samuel Taylor C, I hope my intention to honor our esteemed saint and patron of the imagination might absolve me of some of my presumption and rudeness. As Uncle Walt reminds us, our "many faults and derelictions" exist inextricably with our virtues, visions and aspirations.

One of my aspirations is bound up in sharing both Whitman's voice with a world in desperate need of such affirming creativity, and pitching my own voice to such unabashed, inclusive and all-embracing joy.

Whitman is our most operatic bard, and not merely because he was an opera-lover himself. I cannot imagine how anyone could spend enough time with Whitman to become acquainted with the original tone of his voice, and not recognize how indiscriminate is his compassion, how unconditional his love. His is a portrait of the artist as a saint.

Another attempt at articulating more of my visions and dreams resulted in approximating a 7th Nocturne:

The birth of 1,000 suns
the opening of one to the many
one opening to the manifestation
of 1,000 flowers of the soul

Entering the place
reserved for madmen
poets and musicians
writers and other bohemians
leaving preconceptions like baggage
selves, practical concerns all left
before the threshold

Entering the world
beyond the world
behind the facade
beneath the ground
already below the surface
above the limits

Such poetic thinking is also indebted to Hesse's Steppenwolf, who observes "man is the narrow and perilous bridge between nature and spirit."

Precarious bridges span many gulfs in our figurative worlds. The linked shores appear as twins or polar opposites. Castor and Pollux. Cain and Abel. Yin and Yang. Scylla and Charybdis. Tweedle-Dee and -Dum. Apollo and Dionysus.

I came to Coleridge yesterday through Wordsworth. Particularly the philosopher Don Cupitt's noticing the "promising lines of thinking being opened up" in / by Wordsworth's romanticism. The opening-up of thinking and the piquing of curiosity. The opening of the senses via the the body's relationship to life and experience. The opening of the heart to the range and depth of human emotion, the authentic experience of being touched, feelings that resonate and reverberate deeper than imagined. And the ultimate opening up of the soul to the "other." To transcendence. Nirvana. Bliss. Salvation.

Or simply, Life.

The romantics were possessed of vision and imagination our contemporary, post-modern world needs in order to correct a long-developing imbalance. One of the correctives is poetry. Its excessiveness. Its inventiveness. Its openness. Its life-affirming embrace.

One of the other delightful benefits of poetry is its regenerative capabilities of surprise. As in the nugget of wisdom registering more deeply for being unexpected. As in Ashbery.

"The Later Me" contains typically opaque bon-bons worthy of the term Ashbery-esque. The delicious non-sequitir, for example:

The China is all converted,
So we can dress together.

Thus the poem's closing couplet is a jarringly direct proverb:

Sitting alone in an open boat tells you a lot
about discipline. Any wrongdoing will be overlooked or punished.

Ha! Subversive. Trenchant. Mysterious. Sagacious. Poetic.

Borrowing an m.o. from John Cage, we connect Ashbery to Rimbaud through the French surrealists, particularly Reverdy. Surrealism plays at least one of Romanticism's roles, namely articulating the visionary. This also connects our esemplastic to Coleridge and Whitman.

Who wrote "a thousand profane phantasmagoria?" And how marvelous is poetry's colorfully inventive utilization of language! Our man, Rimbaud invites us to join him and "dance the witches' sabbath in a red clearing" and he is not referring to some anti-clerical, satanic ritual. We will let Rimbaud have today's last words.

Like many similar artists of the open imagination, his poetry is psychologically penetrating:

I shall never have done seeing myself in that past

The possibilities for exploration in the world of poetry are seemingly limitless:

Geography, cosmography, mechanics, chemistry!

Art is also and ultimately about alchemy. What else is esemplastic? Synthesis. Union. Marriage. In the cosmic and universal sense(s) of the words.

Taking a page from Homer and Ovid through Dante's Inferno to Coleridge, Poe and co., A Season in Hell charts the soul's journey, with poetic afflatus as guide.

We are going toward the Spirit. There's no doubt about it, an oracle, I tell you. I understand, and not knowing how to express myself without pagan words, I'd rather remain silent.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

On Afflatus...

Afflatus=inspiration, particularly of the divine variety, “breath;” symbolized by the romantic image of the Aeolian harp

Byronic inspiration. Whitmanian afflatus. Wordsworthian breath. Tennysonian style?

I am here to fight. Fight hand to hand against a complacent mass, for I am about to give a poetry reading – my flesh, my joy, my feelings – (Federico Garcia Lorca)

Who decades ago lamented Wall Street’s “total absence of the spirit.”

There is a world of broken rivers & distances just beyond our grasp…
What shall I do now? Set the landscapes in order?

What is ever the artist’s task? Whether studying abroad in NYC (as the Spanish poet was in the 1920’s), or toiling in the non-profit sector of corporate America anywhere (!) the charge is the same.

Bring back the gift. The message. Return the boon. Share the treasure.

One of the roles to essay in this operatic adventure called life is the Story-teller. Chronicler. Elder. Scribe.

Like loving guardians to young children, we must re-tell the stories of our peoples. Our trials and fortunes. Our famine & our plenty. Memory. History. Culture. The narrative, connecting, substantive threads of the interconnected web.

Like Whitman’s spider, spun with
…filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

We sometimes tire from telling the stories and simply need a break. Vacation. Sabbatical. Despair may encroach when we weary of explaining why they matter. But studying & practicing them in order to tell / explain / sell / teach & or instill them: joy!

I don the role of the sponge-like student and read. I listen. Part meditation. Part vision- quest. Part homework. Part brainstorming. Part creative-juicing. Whitmanian joy draws closer...

I invoke my ancestors. The great cloud of saints and witnesses always within reach.

Federico, where are you hiding?
what shadowed alleys shield you
from the angry faces, or have
you fled to the green haired
mountain? And white bearded,
love wizened Walt Whitman, please
help me spread the wings of
my soul for at least one positive
appearance! I stammer and stutter
like a diminutive caricature
and require your fire-wielding staff
of poetic speech and operatic utterance.

Would that Wotan might appear
and fell the adversarial pretenders
with the elemental force of a single word.
They cannot look him in the eye
(contempt from shame
being indistinguishable
in the philistine)...

O Soul, no one can silence you! Sing!

Much remembering of late. Naming. Lists. Memory as an affirmation
of life. Naming cultural / artistic (& more!) heroes as a way of honoring them and succoring oneself.

Mozart. Dante. Cervantes. Beowulf. Rumi. Bosch. Britten. Pema. Picasso. Chagall. Ashbery. Rimbaud.

I pray when the next time comes to weigh my life in the balance I will not be found wanting for having tended, at least a little, the torch of cultural light in a few of its many-flickering tongued facets. As Bach is my witness. Sharing such light is blessing enough. May the English Channel of my soul open to conduct more harmonious journeying…

From a venerated Japanese master: if a picture is worth a thousand words, a living being is worth a million…

Idea for a play. A choric poem. A musical?

Prospero’s Lyre
Setting: a desert isle
Time: any

Prospero (a recent immigrant)
Caliban (a native)
Ariel (a spirit from beyond)
Orpheus (a pilgrim)
Eurydice (a spirit from below)
Geryon (a mythological creature)
Chorus of mythological creatures

Chorus of Griffins & Unicorns, led by Geryon:

Blind Tiresias, gifted with Second sight –
Prospero’s magic, to set the world a-right…

The abyss where you thrust me is inside you.
(Says the Sphinx to Oedipus in Pasolini’s film of the great myth / drama)

To resist blind impulse, neither abhor nor fill the vacuum,
But simply (costing not less than everything) be…

It is not enough to desire
One must have the fire, yes
But that is one of five rings
The real king must wear

The Kings of the Icelandic sagas favored the Poets first & foremost…
“Of all his followers, the King held his poets in highest regard” (Egil’s Saga).

The swallowtail butterfly
the hummingbird augur
the spirit world’s portal
through this ever fascinating
regenerative realm

The blue velvet hazed horizon
harmonizes in key with
the music of the spheres
chiming the present moment and eternity
what could be more beautifully real than this

Were it not for the
clarifying pain of suffering
the habitual film might
cloud the vision still

Praise it all! The
buzzing insects and birds
of prey and the compost
stenching the air
enriching the earth
renewing the cycles
we must celebrate
lest memory fade
in the fog of these days

Thursday, June 9, 2011

On Madness, Parts VII-X, or Poetry & Survival, Part III

Magic is the crown or nightmare of the law of cause and effect, not its contradiction. Miracles are no less strange in this universe than that of astronomers.

Magic, in which every lucid and determined detail is a prophecy. In the novel, I think this [is] the only possible integrity
… Borges, in “Narrative Art & Magic”

On Madness, Parts VII-X or Poetry & Survival, Part III


Whitman’s mind-numbing excess. His over-the-top-ness. Big wide-open bear hug embracing the whole world with a wet kiss! Awkward. Unconventional. Precocious. Unpredictable. Spontaneous. Offensive. Bold. Rash. Rude. Surprising. Child-like. Affectionate. Loving. Open. Wide open…

I cannot define my satisfaction… yet it is so,
I cannot define my life… yet it is so.

Quoth the white-bearded bard in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.

In one page of Whitman are (un)contained entire and infinite universes!

Consider: O love and summer! You are in my dreams and in me…
(The ecstatic romantic Walt).

The myth of heaven indicates the soul (the spiritual mystic walt)

The soul is always beautiful…
It comes from its embowered garden…
Perfect and clean the genitals jetting, and perfect and clean the womb cohering…

(the sensual compassionate big-hearted lover of the whole wide world Walt!)

Whitman and Byron. Bernstein. Ginsberg. Mozart, et al.

Lovers of life. Suckers of the marrow out of it.

Walt’s current companions with me are Dante & Borges. But could be Cervantes, Shakespeare, Hölderlin, Smart, Heaney or Hughes, Goethe or Schiller, Beckett, Coleridge, Rilke, Joyce, Campbell, Benjamin and / or Baudelaire…

Censorship would not exist in human history if art were not dangerous.

Fascinating how resistant to a single interpretation, of all the books of the Bible, the book of Job is. Scholars do agree, however, on this mind-enhancing illumination: “the extraordinary beauty of the poetry is part of its meaning.”From The New Oxford Annotated Bible (A true “study” Bible).

Borges trenchant, insightful & engaging, brilliantly discursive essays.

Like “The Art of Verbal Abuse.” A priest’s last words to the Inquisition show defiance, resolve, courage amidst adversity: I will burn, but that is a mere event. We shall continue our discussion in eternity.

Bold speech is itself a courageous act.



The first words of Don Giovanni are not grandiose, foreboding or lascivious. They are the seemingly banal & benign utterances of the lackey, Leporello. “I no longer want to be a servant.” The prologue, the author / composer himself speaking?!?

Mozart, magic mysterious soul he is, expresses the passionate desire for freedom that is the intense and life-long longing for freedom shared by every artist…

Few artists can articulate that desire so clearly. Which is another reason we love opera, its characters expressing themselves so freely, so passionately, the emotions writ large…

The sublime and haunting duet between the dying Commendatore and the murderous Don at the end of the first scene. Such poetry, rich with symbolism and esoteric depth.

His soul departs him / My soul departs me
I see his soul depart / He sees my soul depart (my paraphrase).

There are so many signs, once one starts looking, noticing, listening, opening.

On banality and wit. Poulenc’s great Apollinaire set, Banalités. Rustic Haydn, bohemian impolitic Mahler, sardonic Shostakovich, give us all a wicked scherzo!

(Is the Poulenc set really Eluard poetry? They are virtually interchangeable in Poulenc. So he himself said, wanting his twin poets mentioned on his tombstone).

The proximity of the wickedly banal humor of the scherzo to the wicked duende humor of spirits & demons & souls, oh my!….Mahler & Shostakovich, encore…

John Macurdy’s tales of the Golden Age, at the Met and beyond. The privilege of meeting & working with such colleagues. The bonus of hearing such stories first-hand!

Rudolf Bing. The famous Don Giovanni film by Losey. Raimondi’s Don to John's Commendatore.

The good ol’ days.
The relish of real-life tales of the tape. Or tales from the trenches?

True stories. Adventure stories. Love tales. Tall tales.

To be clear, which were I mimicking Bernhard would be expected, thus predictable, and everyone knows how over Bernhard I am, have been, and by the grave of Mahler’s thrice-exiled tomb, I cannot imagine what multi-synapse brain lapse could have caused such a veritable degrading—a soiling, if you will—of cherished standards. Unforgiveable.



The visual poetry of Chinese film—and Asian cinema in general—in particular Hero of Zhang Yimou.

Whose Met debut came directing Tan Dun’s opera for the new millennium, The First Emperor. With roles created by Placido Domingo, Elizabeth Futral and Paul Groves, among other luminaries.

Stars. Astral fields. Fields of light. Planets. Moons.

What metallic element might a singer’s voice be?
Gold (Price, Freni)
Silver (Pavarotti, Sutherland)
Bronze (Domingo, Kiri)
Brass (Corelli, Horne)

And what material best fits a melody? A filament of silk? A streak of velvet? A smooth patch of cotton? A tune as liquid as pure water…fine & thin as the early summer morning mist?

Rilke’s Book of Images just fell open to “Evening.” As if I needed to read it. Needed to become more accustomed to hearkening to the oracles life offers one at every turn…

You watch: the land divides from you
one going heavenward, one that falls;
and leave you, to neither quite belonging…
and leave you (inexpressibly to untangle)
your life afraid and huge and ripening
so that it, now bound in and now embracing
grows alternately stone in you and star.

Like all genres of art, some poetry gets better with age. As we age. Rilke means more to me as I grow. The paired image of “stone and star” resonates in a new way, carries now a specific weight heavy with life. This is a shift from even a few years ago.

“Was his life really so alien to him? Supposing after all that he did deserve the sort of life he had? Supposing that contrary to the accepted view, men always have the sort of lives they deserve? We must look more closely into the matter,” Sartre says about his subject, Baudelaire.

How sad so many references are lost. Lost and found?

References lost like the false trails in the lyric labyrinthine noir crime dramas of the French Nouvelle Vague maestro, Jean-Pierre Melville.

Who adopted the name of his favorite American author (the poet of Billy Budd, for example).

Le Cercle Rouge. Le Samourai. Army of Shadows.

It is high praise to say Melville elevates style to almost the level of soulful.

Which Bernhard novel now? Old Masters. Wittgenstein’s Nephew. The Loser. The Voice Imitator. Woodcutters. Concrete. Correction. Have I left out more than a few?

Naming. Aides-de-memoire. Cultivating memory. Practice. Discipline.

10,000-hour rule or 100,000 hours? Seven times seven or 70 times 7 or infinity…

I appreciate Anne Carson more with age. Margaret Atwood. Rita Dove. August Wilson. Carl Philips. Tony Kushner. Daniel Mendelsohn, and the list gets queerer…

Men in the Off Hours. Decreation: Poetry, prose, opera. Nox.

Alain Delon’s poised tightrope walk balancing flair and depth. Demeanor is style. Eyes become the clichéd window into the soul…Le Samorai. Melville’s myth inspired noir mystery from 1967.

From the current Paris Review, “Five poems of Kabbalah.”
“To Rise on High” includes these images:

to know the meaning
of the living
and see the vision
of the dead…

to ford rivers of fire
and know lightning.

“Fording rivers of fire” requires expert coordination, mate. Like that of the “cosmic dancer.” Quite specialized. Individual. Eccentric.

Another heat / energy-generating Kabbalah image:

The soul stirs and burns…
To be freed from the wick
or the wood to which it clings.

One never outgrows the precocious need for freedom. Mozart. Picasso. Bernstein. Stoic?

Manguel quoting Seneca: “Is time now present? He makes use of it. Is it still to come? He anticipates it.” Stoic and visionary. Affirmative.

Manguel reminds us “what we know of reality is an imagination made of language.” Yes, what an affirmation of the central role the creative plays in all human existence! A fitting conclusion to an affirming book about the infinite variety, beauty and necessity of the library.

Manguel also channels Penelope Fitzgerald’s brilliant evocation of Novalis and the mad visionary romantic poet in her novel, The Blue Flower.

If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching…


X. …mad pathways to bliss…

“A person who can give to humanity the images to help it live” according to Joseph Campbell (in Pathways to Bliss) is “a poet or an artist.”

Mythology begins where madness starts.

“He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it,” Campbell quotes Christ’s invitation for someone to “give himself entirely to his myth.”

Calling. Vocation. Passion. As opposed to a job. Or career.

The need for repeated experiences of “the awakening to awe.”

“Mythic seizure” is that awakening to awe, “that awakening of zeal” which serves “to activate your imagination.”

Thus one can be struck, like Dante beholding the manifestation of beauty. His idealized, idolized and imagined beauty “struck [Dante] with what James Joyce called esthetic arrest.”

“The job of the contemporary poet and artist” is to recharge and reactivate “the world in which we live.”

To become “transparent to transcendence” by being fulfilled through this strange and unpredictable, endlessly fascinating and wonderful life…

Becoming transparent often means getting unstuck. As out of traffic. Or a sticky relationship. A job. Or a vocation that turned out to be just a career.

Constipation is a physical symptom of this problem. Sometimes, our stuff just gets stuck inside.

Reminder of Twain’s aphorism “there’s nothing overrated as sex, or underrated as a healthy crap.” Taught me, with typical relish, by my father.

An imagined poem from an Icelandic saga might resemble the recently discovered anonymous poem thought to be in that style. Herewith is the first known appearance in modern English of “Egil’s defecation:”

A foul fight it was
through laborious trails
that hardly felt advances
but for the final
strenuous push and heave
and ho forth came
the painful moments of birth!

Behold the spiral,
the snake of poison from the guts,
the throne of labor where kings sit
Behold the fought-for & hard-won giant shit!

Perhaps we can take consolation such-was-thus in so-and-so faraway land, or "as our ancestors once sang of yore..."

Is it madness or genius to follow such bards as guides through the centuries, like Dante’s Virgil, Odysseus’ deities across the wine-dark seas, Beethoven’s angels (surely the deaf must be gifted with the most creative angels of the inner ear)! And what of Borges’ wide-eyed wonder for the world only the blind could so rapturously and originally affirm!

(Why has Borgesian become a more popular word than the words of Borges himself?)

Where is Whitman’s oracular miracle of a voice to lead this chorus!?!