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!?!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Poetry and survival, parts I & II

(for C.B and A, true soul-mates)

Sustenance, or Poetry & Survival

What a party!

“Fetes and fireworks!”

Younger than Springtime

we must keep marching…

“Yes, indeed. Thanks. You, too!”

What song is next, mommy?

Cup-cakes or cakes-in-cups?

Whitman / Dickinson

As far as the east is from the west…

A Soviet artist’s response to just criticism.

The Figure Five.

Brodsky. And Sontag. In Venice

Poetry and Exile.


“crossing over” vs. “starting over”

Fantasies. Delusions. Attachments.

Justice is in the soul…the grand natural lawyer
I am satisfied…I see, I dance, I laugh, I sing
I am the poet of the body / & I am the poet of the soul.
I am large…I contain multitudes.

(from Walt Whitman, Selected poems 1855-1892,
A New Edition
. Gary Schmigdall, ed. St Martins, 1999).


On Madness. Part 6. (or Poetry & Survival, part II)
for C.B.

Foucault: History of Madness
Folie et Déraison: Histoire de la folie et l’age classique

The importance of distinctions.
The absolute insistence on them, in certain cases.

The importance of reading “other” literature / Outside one's “normal” cultural experience.

The Importance of Being Earnest.
the Picture of Dorian Gray.
De profundis.

The Serbian poet Ivan Lalic (1931-1996)
Before the earth’s double breast stops / Divided by the knife of memory –
like a ripe fruit
(from “the roll call of mirrors”)

Art and madness. In Bosch, for example.
Disturbing. Unsettling. Visionary.

“I am afoot in my vision”
Whitman’s mad, ecstatic manifestos.

Opera’s greatest mad scene?
1. Lucia
2. Ophelie
3. (Does Salomé count?!)
And for a male character:
1. Peter Grimes
1B. Boris Godunov
3. Tom Rakewell
3B. Nabucco

Attila’s nightmare scene in Verdi’s early masterpiece of historic fantasy cum verisimilitude.

The Madwoman in the Attic.

Dickinson & Whitman as contemporaries.

Shostakovich’s sardonic, demonic, wickedly-delightful scherzos!

Dances of Death.
Poetry / Duende

Open this evening like a letter
I’m hidden in the handwriting
Like a shadow in the still leaves of a cherry tree,
Or like noon in our blood.

(from The Horse Has Six Legs, An anthology of Serbian Poetry. C. Simic, ed. 2010).

Lorca would affirm that Lalic is possessed of the duende.

Great is justice; Justice is not settled by legislators and laws…it is in the soul.

Can I get a Dead Poets Society “Yawp!” for Uncle Walt!?!

The mad ecstasy of “Calamus 5”:
States! / Were you looking to be held together by the lawyers?
By an agreement on paper? Or by arms? / Away!

Shostakovich’s thumbing his nose (wordlessly) in his mercurial & witty, if not crazed 9th. And Bernstein’s inspired & manic conducting of it.

The Enchanted Isle, the MET’s premiere Baroque pasticcio.

Pastiche. The art of which is central to creative choral music programming.
A distinction underappreciated in the wider musical world
(Like the art of professional choral music in general).

the naivety of our positivism believed that it could recognize the nature of all madness (Foucault).

Like wild animals. Beasts. Berserkers.

Frenzied. Ecstatic. Possessed. Inspired. Proleptic. Peripatetic. Crazed.
(Analogs to / for madness, obviously).

I can only take Foucault’s Madness in small doses, man.

Like Proust. James (Henry, that is). Thoreau, even.

Yeats was crazy. Like psychic occult new-age weird

Camille Paglia considers his “Leda and the Swann” the “greatest poem of the twentieth century” (in Break, Blow Burn. Vintage, 2006).

Of "The Second Coming" she is laudatory & penetrating. Hence the poem, with its horror movie finale, is as hybrid as the sphinx, who represents our buried impulses, vestiges of a past that keeps turning into the future. Prophetic. As the poem itself has proven to be.

We who are poets & artists…live but for the moment when vision comes to our weariness like terrible lightning, in the humility of the brutes
Yeats himself said.

Illumination is sporadic, partial, and costly. Paglia again, incisively so.

Sheer folly. Madness!