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October 2003
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December 2003

10 Brief Lines for Thanksgiving Weekend

Hark! The festive season calls
Both faint of heart and bold to malls
To seek -- en pilgrimage, en masse --
To find the Very Thing. Alas!
This world's no place to seek perfection,
No matter what one's predilection
For the quest. Still, hope or stronger
Urges drive us to search longer:
Striving, struggling, plunging on --
With what success? We'll know anon.

Wichita Ozymandian

Les affaires Ozymandesque continue . . .

Mika Cooper has responded at length (interspersed with -- parents be warned -- a virtuoso display of old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon expletives) to Aaron Haspel's response to her take on Shelley's Ozymandias.  She has also kindly linked back to my own frivolous paraphrase of the work in question, which she trumps with a rather more serious paraphrase (also rife with those Anglo-Saxonisms of which I spoke earlier) by Howard Nemerov (whose position as elder brother to photographer Diane Arbus will be of interest to at least one of my more loyal readers).

In her reply, Mika has offered links to a number of photos to assist those still wrestling with the phenomenon of Stone Heads That Frown While Sneering.  In a fit of synchronicity, today's celebrity news provides a further example of such a face, in the unexpected form of singer Glen Campbell's DUI mugshot:


A "wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command" indeed.

A Low Culture Moment

I know, this item really doesn't fit into the high moral tenor we try to maintain around here, but the following is hard to believe: Can it be that it has taken Hugh Hefner and Playboy magazine nearly five decades to present the first Jewish Playmate? Surely it can't have been for lack of qualified candidates.

[Link via L.A. Observed.]

Of course, one must always be aware that associating with Hugh Hefner can be dangerous to your status in the community. Take all appropriate precautions.

Epater Les Bourgeois Avec Moi Ce Soir?

A cogent observation from Brian Micklethwaite:

As for the endlessly repeated claim that art is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable, I don't buy that. And I don't believe the people who say that they do buy it are being honest. I think that a picture which they have no problem with, but which they believe makes other people whom they disapprove of uncomfortable, makes them very comfortable indeed, and that that is the kind of discomfort (i.e. not discomfort at all, for them) which they like, and are referring to with all this discomfort propaganda. They no more like being genuinely discomforted by art than I do.
[This post has been edited to correct the link and to insert the italics I had inadvertently omitted from the original.]

Update 11/25/03: Megan McArdle and Stuart Buck endorse Brian Micklethwaite's assessment.

Stupid Poetry Tricks

This is what comes of driving for hours to and from San Diego while thinking about the numerous comments (numbering at least 30 as this is typed) to Aaron Haspel's critique of the weaknesses disclosed upon examining P.B. Shelley's Ozymandias.  Somehow those thoughts resulted in the following, a patently frivolous paraphrase of the poem that emerged in a style reminiscent of rap and Dr. Seuss, with a dash of folk ballad for flavor, and incorporates some of the commenters' principal themes:

Trunkless But Not Funkless

Before you get huffy or puffed up and pious,
Let me tell you a story ‘bout Ozymandias
That I heard from a fellow just passing though
From a land that’s distant and far from new.
He says: “Out on the dunes where the vipers lay their eggs
There’s an Olmec-size head and two smokestack legs
Been standing there alone for thousands of years
And the face on that head both frowns and sneers
-- not easy to do, but the sculptor was keen
To capture with his hands what his heart had seen --
And underneath his sandals on the plinth’s displayed
This motto: ‘Be afraid, be very afraid,
For I’m Ozymandias and I’ll take no guff
From you other despots who think you’re tough;
Just look at me, fools, you’ll never live up
To my power or achievements, so just give up.’
Now he lays in the dust in the dunes and the heat,
Just a cracked up head and two blasted feet.
I can’t say if it’s Shelleyan or faintly Byronic,
But the moral of my story is: ‘Ain’t that ironic?’”

Who You Callin' Slithy?

The singular hallmark of all artifacts of high culture is their aspiration to transcendence; transcendence of the quotidian world of experience, of the culture which produced them, and even of their very selves as works of Art. And that singular hallmark is what's singularly lacking in all the artifacts of contemporary popular culture, their singular hallmark being an aspiration to the here-and-now popularly entertaining.
If you flee reflexively from anyone who holds forth in that vein, then you will not find much to like in the writing of A C Douglas.  His views on matters cultural -- and most especially on the subject of classical music in general and the mature works of Richard Wagner in particular -- are firmly held to put it mildly.  Personally, I find his certitude bracing, hence his presence on the links list to your left.

Mr. Douglas is in the habit of topping his page with a republication of an older post, and at the moment he is ostensibly on about the pitfalls of color photography. Photography's not my field at all, so I'll leave comment on that aspect of the piece to those more in the know, but photography is not the real subject of Douglas' post in any case.  No, photography is merely the excuse to open up a test for determining a work's status as genuine Capital "A" Art, The Jabberwocky Test:

'Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas -- only I don't exactly know what they are!' exclaimed Alice after reading Jabberwocky for the first time. The capacity of a work to provoke that feeling in an informed and experienced receiver is almost a very definition of genuine art, and regardless of its medium, any work absent that quality is most assuredly non-art.

The Jabberwocky Test in no way depends on the tester finding the work under test to be personally appealing. What it does depend on is the depth of the tester's knowledge of the domain to which the work belongs, and his ability to put aside his personal likes and dislikes, and make his judgment based on the qualities of the work itself.

For instance, I've a marked antipathy toward 19th- and 20th-century French music, but that doesn't in the least prevent me from at once recognizing that the works of, say, Debussy (whose works I particularly loathe) most decidedly pass Jabberwocky muster. My knowledge of music permits me to make that determination with some measure of confidence. Similarly, but on the flip side, I positively adore the Sherlock Holmes stories of Conan Doyle, but my personal love of that classic and enduring canon does not in any way prevent me seeing clearly that as literature it most decidedly fails Jabberwocky as enduring as that canon has been for the past 100 years or so (its endurance beyond its time of novelty due a certain nostalgia peculiar to the last half of the last century in particular which is fast losing its power). Again, my knowledge of literature permits me that judgment with some measure of confidence.

You can pack that in your quiver alongside the A. E. Houseman skin-bristling test, and much good may they both do you.

A question remains: Does Jabberwocky itself pass the Jabberwocky Test?  Alice's reaction suggests that it does, except that we have no basis on which to conclude that Alice possesses the requisite "knowledge of the domain to which the work belongs."  Her recollection and understanding of poetry is suspect at least, as witness her regular misquotes whenever she was called upon to recite while visiting Wonderland.  Moreover, the "domain" of Jabberwocky is not merely poetry, but specifically looking glass poetry: Alice is only able to read it by holding it up to the mirror through which she has just entered the looking glass world, and her familiarity with that world is limited indeed.  Jabberwocky, then, provides an inadequate tool for its own self-analysis and necessarily remains impenetrable.  As Tweedledum and Tweedledee would propose: that's logic.

Update: A C Douglas is an active participant in the comments accompanying Aaron Haspel's response to Michaela Cooper's Ozymandias post (to which I linked in the two posts preceding this one). It's all very civil and erudite, but it's hardly the love feast of "self-congratulation and mutual admiration" complained of in Jennifer Howard's much-linked commentary in the Washington Post. (Drat! I'd promised myself I wouldn't link that piece. Curse you, Old Media!)

Further Update, 11/23/03: Congratulations to A C Douglas on the occasion of his becoming one of the Elect, having been added to the link list at Arts & Letters Daily. And my thanks to him for linking, through Aaron Haspel's comments, to my Ozymandias paraphrase, supra. Thanks as well to Aaron himself, of course.

The Sorrows of the Poets

Just below her Ozymandias post [see below], Michaela Cooper links to this entry (from mid-2002) on the Suddenly Very Popular Cup of Chicha:

Those who suffer from mental illness tend to like the madness-art association.  I'm one of those people.  Here's why:

1. Depression creates the type of interiority that modernism worshipped and literature continues to value.  Depression might not have created the language of interiority, but depressives, borrowing from that language to explain their illness, learn that language well.

Which triggered the urge to write something down on a topic that's been on my mind recently: the seeming disappearance, from contemporary literary and poetic circles, of The Elaborately Troubled Poet.

For a time, in the wake of the Second World War and through the 1950’s and 1960’s, Elaborately Troubled Poets [ETPs] were all the rage: Lowell, Sexton, Plath, Berryman and more raised their status as walking wounded to high art.  Dylan Thomas flamed out spectacularly, drowning in his own handcrafted butt of malmsey.  Hemingway and Fitzgerald occupied a similar niche among the novelists.  There seem to be no comparable figures now -- creative artists admired for their artistry but at the same time watched by the public at large in much the way one would watch a particularly picturesque train wreck -- at least not in the literary realm.  The nearest contemporary equivalent that comes to mind is from the realm of pop music: Kurt Cobain.  It is too soon to tell whether Cobain will have the sort of staying power in the cultural imagination that the ETPs have shown; he has the advantage of having worked in a medium that commands a wider audience than poetry.

The ETPs have maintained public attention to varying degrees.  Robert Lowell, with the publication at last of the Collected Poems, is enjoying a (brief?) vogue of renewed attention, and appears in danger of being declared overrated.  (I've never warmed to Lowell myself, so I'll leave that judgment to those more knowledgeable than I.)  Sylvia Plath seems never to have fallen out of style, and is getting a renewed push from yet another round of biographies (with and without Ted Hughes, not I think an ETP himself) and from being portrayed on film by, of all people, Gwyneth Paltrow.  Anne Sexton seems not to draw as much attention currently, but at least managed to become the backhanded subject of a fairly good song ("Mercy Street") by Peter Gabriel.  But what of John Berryman, my personal favorite of the sad sorry bunch?  He seems not to have nearly the profile he once did.  The principal poetry-bloggers make little or no mention of him -- although Henry Gould at HG Poetics mentioned him this past June whilst scorning one of Ron Silliman's recurring jabs at "the School of Quietude," Henry referring to "the bizarre 'quietude' of scholar-poet John Berryman (have you read his essays - or his poems - or is he just another running dog of the quiet establishment?), which made it to the cover of Time."

I cannot get enough of Berryman's Dream Songs, which I find myself pulling down from the shelf several times in any given year.  While all 300+ Songs are written in roughly the same stanza, syntax is stretched and bent and meters are picked up and dropped on an ongoing basis such that monotony never sets in.  (This despite the fact that large stretches of the poem grow out of Berryman's battles, in and out of hospitals and traveling around the world, with alcoholism and the depression that ultimately sent him leaping from a bridge over the Mississippi.  His insistence that the poems were about ". . . an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry . . ." was never taken entirely seriously, nor should it be.)  As good an example as any -- and a vivid portrayal of what the Puritan sermonizers would call "raging fleshly lust" -- is Dream Song 69:

Love her he doesn’t but the thought he puts
into that young woman
would launch a national product
complete with TV spots & skywriting
outlets in Bonn & Tokyo
I mean it

Let it be known that nine words have not passed
between herself and Henry;
looks, smiles.
God help Henry, who deserves it all
every least part of that infernal & unconscious
woman, and the pain.

I feel as if, unique, she . . . Biddable?
Fates, conspire.
--Mr Bones, please.
--Vouchsafe me, Sleepless One,
a personal experience of the body of Mrs Boogry
before I pass from lust!

Many poetical clubs being kept in the air there, metrically and syntactically.  The first line of the final stanza, for example, odd as it is is nonetheless a nice bit of iambic pentameter.  The inverted, near-Elizabethan diction of the opening stanza contributes to the cynical humor of its metaphor (the international advertising campaign).  In fact, bleak humor is one of the hallmarks of the Songs, as when we are assured in Song 29 that Henry is not -- no, really, he isn't -- an axe murderer:
There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.

And there is one thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.

The Songs also serve to chronicle the passing of several poetic generations, with extended elegies on Yeats and Frost (also Faulkner and Hemingway), and even a somewhat grudging farewell to Wallace Stevens (Dream Song 219: "He lifted up, among the actuaries,/a grandee crow. Ah ha & he crowed good./That funny money-man.")  The deaths, often by their own hand, of Berryman's fellow ETPs are a running theme throughout, as in Song 153:
I’m cross with god who has wrecked this generation.
First he seized Ted, then Richard, Randall, and now Delmore.
In between he feasted on Sylvia Plath.
That was a first rate haul. He left alive
fools I could number like a kitchen knife
but Lowell he did not touch.
(Berryman's advice to Plath in Song 187: "Them lady poets must not marry, pal.")

Somewhere -- I couldn't find the reference when I went searching for it -- Nietszche repeats the story of a Greek tyrant who constructed a brazen bull in which he roasted his victims; the opening at the bull's mouth was so formed that the victims' cries of anguish emerged as sweet music.  That, he tells us, is where poetry comes from.  For the ETPs' generation, at least, there seems to have been some truth to the theory.

Procrastination Rewarded

Those of you playing along at home will be pleased to learn that Michaela Cooper has finally gotten 'round to posting her long-promised thoughts on Shelley's Ozymandias.  It was worth the wait, especially for the choice invocations of Poe and Wallace Stevens.  As an added bonus, she links back to a prior attempt at the project, in which she never got to Shelley but managed some kind words for this site.


The usual list of links in the left column is currently missing, as I discovered this morning that the entire list had somehow been hijacked: every one of the links that used to be there had been replaced by a link to the mysterious "Laura's Blog." I've discovered a similar problem on other sites whose lists are managed through Blogrolling, and I've added my own inquiry to the presumed flood of e-mails seeking an answer to the problem. Assuming the original list has not been lost, the roll should reappear soon. Otherwise, there will be as vacancy until I can sit down and recreate/recode the list.

Pretty darned annoying, what?

Update: Whatever the cause, it seems to have righted itself now. A strange and hallucinatory way to start a Monday morning.