Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Six Poets: Wallace Stevens

Since the 19th century, has anyone made a good living writing poetry? Thomas Hardy, who was one of the most prolific poets of his time, had to make a living writing novels. Robert Graves once told an interviewer that he only earned enough money from his poetry to "keep me in cigarettes."

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) lived a double life. How does one reconcile the fact that, while he quietly created a growing body of some of the most critically acclaimed poetry of his time, his day job was a lawyer for the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company? Frank Kermode found "vulgarity" in this question, but I find it fascinating. "Stevens did not find that he must choose between the careers of insurance lawyer and poet. The fork in the road where he took the wrong turning is a critic's invention, and there is no point in dawdling there." But even Kermode recognized that Stevens erected a very high and impregnable wall between the two pursuits. It was as if he took up his career as insurance lawyer to satisfy someone else's requirements of him and of his life, but he saved his true self for his poetry. But we have no way of knowing this. Who knows but that Wallace Stevens was at his best behind his insurance desk. We are too used to the Marxist alienated worker who is truly alive only in his off hours. It's tempting to think of Stevens as the one true alienated man, whose life was divided perfectly into two compartments, neither of which had any effect on nor ever touched the other. But we should resist such a temptation, since only one part of Stevens's life matters to us. His poetry has lasted until now, continues to surprise us and delight us.

But Stevens is spread a little thinly, I think, over more than four decades as a dedicated poet. There are differences in temperament, in intensity, and in focus. Consequently, most of his work contributes to the greater body of work rather than standing out as exemplars. As formidable as that body of work is, it is difficult to locate a single poem, or even a handful of poems, that define Stevens. Some of them are beautifully expressed ideas. "Sunday Morning," an early poem, is his most famous, but it can hardly be said to be representative of his poetry. As much as I admire his last poems, including those in The Rock, they lack some of the qualities and the ambitions found in his earlier poems. For instance, concerning his atheism, I find "Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit" more beautiful and more moving than "Sunday Morning." I find in its insistence that, if we must, we should afford god a separateness from us, like light, that has no kinship with us, something like Cézanne's modest approaches to the seen world - not to supplant it with his love but to respect it so deeply and completely that all that remains of our work is a clear and honest image of the world and not what is imposed on it by our love or our intelligence.

If there must be a god in the house, must be,
Saying things in the rooms and on the stair,

Let him move as the sunlight moves on the floor,
Or moonlight, silently, as Plato's ghost

Or Aristotle's skeleton. Let him hang out
His stars on the wall. He must dwell quietly.

He must be incapable of speaking, closed,
As those are: as light, for all its motion, is;

As color, even the closest to us, is;
As shapes, though they portend us, are.

It is the human that is the alien,
The human that has no cousin in the moon.

It is the human that demands his speech
From beasts or from the incommunicable mass.

If there must be a god in the house, let him be one
That will not hear us when we speak: a coolness,

A vermilioned nothingness, any stick of the mass
Of which we are too distantly a part.

Unfortunately, as fine as he occasionally is, Stevens is the victim of some intense overpraise, and what is best characterized as critical logorrhea: 'It’s hard to think of a more vivid illustration of T. S. Eliot’s principle of the separation between “the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” [For the life of me, I can't think of a more inapposite description of Stevens. The man who suffers, after all, lived a luxe life in Hartford.] For most of his life, Stevens was an elaborately defended introvert in a three-piece suit, working as a Hartford insurance executive. He came slowly to a mastery of language, form, and style that revealed a mind like a solar system, with abstract ideas orbiting a radiant lyricism.'(1) Harold Bloom, who is given to gushing over writers he likes, has had his gush on Stevens.

Like all great poets, Stevens wrote a high number of mightily banal poems. Like most modernist poets, calling him a "stylist" is treacherous at the very least. His best poems cohere under the intense strain of a centrifugal formlessness. It's difficult to explain precisely how, but they cohere. His best poems succeed at being poetry through the cumulative effect of metaphoric invention, not through individual lines or words. In 1951 he was awarded the Robert Frost Medal for The Auroras of Autumn. But there are no two American poets, Stevens and Frost, who are more dissimilar. According to legend, during one of their arguments, Stevens told Frost, "The trouble with you Robert, is that you write about subjects." And Frost responded, "The trouble with you, Wallace, is that you write about bric-a-brac." It's obvious why there is so much more academic writing about Stevens than about Frost. On the Poetry Foundation website's introduction to Stevens, the last paragraph concludes that "In the years since his death Stevens's reputation has remained formidable. The obscurity and abstraction of his poetry has proven particularly appealing among students and academicians and has consequently generated extensive criticism." Clearly, something has gone wrong with a poem that requires the intervention of interpreters (like Helen Vendler) between the poet and the reader. An industry has sprung up that tries to convince squeamish readers that George Herbert, for example, is "obscure" and requires extensive interpretation. It is bullshit. It is one of the reasons why readers have turned away from poetry. Any reasonably intelligent reader should have no great trouble finding his own way to the heart of George Herbert and even of Wallace Stevens. If he cannot, it's the poet's, not the reader's, fault.

Stevens has written many memorable poems that are hard to quote from memory. But, like almost every other great poet, he is marvelously, succinctly  clear. I have quoted some of his poems before, like "The World As Meditation," and "Seventy Years Later." They are both from his last, astonishing collection, The Rock. The truth is that after page upon page of pure rhetoric, the reader of Stevens's poetry longs for - and eventually finds - something of substance. When he was a student at Harvard in 1897-1900, Stevens was introduced to the American philosopher George Santayana, with whom he exchanged poems and corresponded throughout their lives. When he learned in 1950-51 that Santayana had taken up his final residence in a charitable institution for the aged in Rome, he was moved to write "To an Old Philosopher in Rome."

On the threshold of heaven, the figures in the street
Become the figures of heaven, the majestic movement
Of men growing small in the distances of space,
Singing, with smaller and still smaller sound,
Unintelligible absolution and an end --

The threshold, Rome, and that more merciful Rome
Beyond, the two alike in the make of the mind.
It is as if in a human dignity
Two parallels become one, a perspective, of which
Men are part both in the inch and in the mile.

How easily the blown banners change to wings . . .
Things dark on the horizons of perception,
Become accompaniments of fortune, but
Of the fortune of the spirit, beyond the eye,
Not of its sphere, and yet not far beyond,

The human end in the spirit's greatest reach,
The extreme of the known in the presence of the extreme
Of the unknown. The newsboys' muttering
Becomes another murmuring; the smell
Of medicine, a fragrantness not to be spoiled . . .

The bed, the books, the chair, the moving nuns,
The candle as it evades the sight, these are
The sources of happiness in the shape of Rome,
A shape within the ancient circles of shapes,
And these beneath the shadow of a shape

In a confusion on bed and books, a portent
On the chair, a moving transparence on the nuns,
A light on the candle tearing against the wick
To join a hovering excellence, to escape
From fire and be part only of that of which

Fire is the symbol: the celestial possible.
Speak to your pillow as if it was yourself.
Be orator but with an accurate tongue
And without eloquence, O, half-asleep,
Of the pity that is the memorial of this room,

So that we feel, in this illumined large,
The veritable small, so that each of us
Beholds himself in you, and hears his voice
In yours, master and commiserable man,
Intent on your particles of nether-do,

Your dozing in the depths of wakefulness,
In the warmth of your bed, at the edge of your chair, alive
Yet living in two worlds, impenitent
As to one, and, as to one, most penitent,
Impatient for the grandeur that you need

In so much misery; and yet finding it
Only in misery, the afflatus of ruin,
Profound poetry of the poor and of the dead,
As in the last drop of the deepest blood,
As it falls from the heart and lies there to be seen,

Even as the blood of an empire, it might be,
For a citizen of heaven though still of Rome.
It is poverty's speech that seeks us out the most.
It is older than the oldest speech of Rome.
This is the tragic accent of the scene.

And you - it is you that speak it, without speech,
The loftiest syllables among loftiest things,
The one invulnerable man among
Crude captains, the naked majesty, if you like,
Of bird-nest arches and of rain-stained-vaults.

The sounds drift in. The buildings are remembered.
The life of the city never lets go, nor do you
Ever want it to. It is part of the life in your room.
Its domes are the architecture of your bed.
The bells keep on repeating solemn names

In choruses and choirs of choruses,
Unwilling that mercy should be a mystery
Of silence, that any solitude of sense
Should give you more than their peculiar chords
And reverberations clinging to whisper still.

It is a kind of total grandeur at the end,
With every visible thing enlarged and yet
No more than a bed, a chair and moving nuns,
The immensest theatre, the pillared porch,
The book and candle in your ambered room,

Total grandeur of a total edifice,
Chosen by an inquisitor of structures
For himself. He stops upon this threshold,
As if the design of all his words takes form
And frame from thinking and is realized.

Isn't it extraordinary that, in this poem written past his 70th year, Stevens, who was for so long such a personal - i.e., self-referential - poet, was moved to write in tribute of an old friend?

(1) Peter Schjeldahl, "Insurance Man: The Life and Art of Wallace Stevens," The New Yorker, May 2, 2016.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Six Poets: Robert Graves

Some time around my third year of college I fell under the spell (which is the most accurate way of putting it) of Robert Graves (1895-1985). Poet, essayist, novelist, biographer, mythologist, and creator of his own unique poetical theology based on ancient references to a central, all-encompassing female deity whom he called the White Goddess, his accomplishments, I think, will be chiefly credited to a formidable body of lyric poetry (some if the finest in English) and a rehabilitation of the Feminine in his thoroughly revised versions of familiar mythology.

Some of what he presented in his outline of poetic theory makes sound sense, like the development of writing from the poetical to the factual - from the irrational to the rational. He also presented a theory of the history of human sexual understanding, that the reason why priestesses and goddesses preponderate in the most ancient mythologies (something that even James Frazer was forced to address - even though he denied the existence of what he called a "gynocracy") is due to the simple fact that primitive man failed to connect the sex act with procreation. Women were believed to be the sole creators of life. The proof of this idea is the fact that human beings still have to be taught about sex - the connections have to be explained.

He wrote one of the greatest memoirs, Goodbye To All That, based on his experiences in the Great War in which he was wounded and presumed dead. He had the unique privilege of reading his own obituary in the London Times. But the trauma of trench warfare affected him deeply for several years, and probably had a great influence on his psychic development, of which the White Goddess was a large part. He perhaps only attained sanity through the otherwise inexplicable detours on which his thought were taken. As Randall Jarrell put it, we have reason to be thankful for the White Goddess if it inspired Graves to write such things as "To Juan at the Winter Solstice." "All that is finally important to Graves," Jarrell wrote, "is condensed in the one figure of the Mother-Mistress-Muse, she who creates, nourishes, seduces, destroys; she who saves us—or, as good as saving, destroys us—as long as we love her, write poems to her, submit to her without question, use all our professional, Regimental, masculine qualities in her service. Death is swallowed up in victory, said St. Paul; for Graves Life, Death, everything that exists is swallowed up in the White Goddess."

An extraordinary poem, "The Pier Glass," captures the qualities of his nightmarish life during his recovery. They called it shell shock; we now call it PTSD:

Lost manor where I walk continually
A ghost, while yet in woman's flesh and blood.
Up your broad stairs mounting with outspread fingers
And gliding steadfast down your corridors
I come by nightly custom to this room,
And even on sultry afternoons I come
Drawn by a thread of time-sunk memory.
Empty, unless for a huge bed of state
Shrouded with rusty curtains drooped awry
(A puppet theatre where malignant fancy
Peoples the wings with fear). At my right hand
A ravelled bell-pull hangs in readiness
To summon me from attic glooms above
Service of elder ghosts; here at my left
A sullen pier-glass cracked from side to side
Scorns to present the face as do new mirrors
With a lying flush, but shows it melancholy
And pale, as faces grow that look in mirrors.
Is here no life, nothing but the thin shadow
And blank foreboding, never a wainscote rat
Rasping a crust? Or at the window pane
No fly, no bluebottle, no starveling spider?
The windows frame a prospect of cold skies
Half-merged with sea, as at the first creation,
Abstract, confusing welter. Face about,
Peer rather in the glass once more, take note
Of self, the grey lips and long hair dishevelled,
Sleep-staring eyes. Ah, mirror, for Christ's love
Give me one token that there still abides
Remote, beyond this island mystery
So be it only this side Hope, somewhere,
In streams, on sun-warm mountain pasturage,
True life, natural breath; not this phantasma.
A rumour, scarcely yet to be reckoned sound,
But a pulse quicker or slower, then I know
My plea is granted; death prevails not yet.
For bees have swarmed behind in a close place
Pent up between this glass and the outer wall.
The combs are founded, the queen rules her court,
Bee-serjeants posted at the entrance chink
Are sampling each returning honey-cargo
With scrutinizing mouth and commentary,
Slow approbation, quick dissatisfaction.
Disquieting rhythm, that leads me home at last
From labyrinthine wandering. This new mood
Of judgment orders me my present duty,
To face again a problem strongly solved
In life gone by, but now again proposed
Out of due time for fresh deliberation.
Did not my answer please the Master's ear?
Yet, I'll stay obstinate. How went the question,
A paltry question set on the elements
Of love and the wronged lover's obligation?
Kill or forgive? Still does the bed ooze blood?
Let it drip down till every floor-plank rot!
Yet shall I answer, challenging the judgment:—
"Kill, strike the blow again, spite what shall come."
Kill, strike, again, again," the bees in chorus hum.

Subjected to near-constant stress from shelling, soldiers in the trenches often suffered an overtaxing of their adrenal glands, which sometimes led to catatonic states. Graves claimed that it took him several years after the war to catch up on all the sleep he had lost.

His emotional state led him into a labyrinth from which, perhaps, only his personal discovery of the White Goddess could secure his release. Following his Muse led to conflict and unhappiness in Graves's long life, as his long-suffering wives could attest. The ridiculous antics of Laura Riding, a pseudo-poet with whom Graves absconded to Majorca in the late 1920s, established an unfortunate pattern in his life. While Riding abused his devotion imperiously to establish her own credentials as a poet and a scholar, Graves remained productive as both a poet and an historical novelist until their breakup in 1940. His novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God were so popular that an expensive attempt was made to turn the former into a film starring Charles Laughton and directed by Josef von Sternberg. The injury if the leading lady Merle Oberon (who was married to the producer) in a road accident ended the production, the tantalizing promise of which was preserved in the documentary The Epic That Never Was.

Graves continued to write poetry well into his eighties when dementia ended his writing career. He wrote about jealousy and how it is so often misunderstood. The word is derived from "zealous," as in "the Lord God is a jealous God." In the most powerful poem to jealousy ever written, Shakespeare's Othello, Iago warns Othello:

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on: that cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;
But, O, what damned minutes tells he o'er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!

The play abounds in the greatest insights into jealousy, as when Othello, on the verge of murdering the sleeping Desdemona, admits that "this sorrow's heavenly;/It strikes where it doth love."

A poem from one of Graves's later collections, "Prometheus," approaches the subject from an original angle. The modern interpretation of jealousy is entirely negative, a symptom of the fear of being replaced. But more experienced cultures see it as a gauge of one's passion. If there is no jealousy, then the love simply isn't true. In his unique style, Graves enlists the Greek myth of Prometheus in his definition of jealousy. Condemned by the gods to be chained to a rock for eternity while a vulture feasts on his liver, Prometheus asks of the beast just one thing:


Close bound in a familiar bed
All night I tossed, rolling my head;
Now dawn returns in vain, for still
The vulture squats on her warm hill.

I am in love as giants are
That dote upon the evening star,
And this lank bird is come to prove
The intractability of love.

Yet still, with greedy eye half shut,
Rend the raw liver from its gut:
Feed, jealousy, do not fly away--
If she who fetched you also stay.

Anyone who has felt such love - and such jealousy - knows the truth of those last two lines.

The problem with Graves's definition of true poetry was its narrowness - he dismissed Eliot, Auden, and Stevens as non-poets, and worked backwards in the history of English poetry, eliminating Milton, Wordsworth, and Tennyson and favored other, minor poets like Christopher Smart and John Clare. He would've disapproved of three of the poets I included on my list of favorites. Fortunately, I managed to get out from under the spell that Graves cast over me and embraced differing poetic practices. Graves still looms as an imposing poet, but despite his strict self-imposed codes of conduct. He remains one if the finest lyric poets of the 20th century.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Conjecture of a Time

I have in mind a day from twenty-eight summers ago. I was living in a trailer on the edge of a small town called Fallon, Nevada. I was there because the U.S. Navy saw fit to send me to the Naval Air Station to the east of the town. 

One weekend afternoon I was watching a video of Laurence Olivier's 1944 film of Shakespeare's Henry V with a friend. He was 20 and I was 32. We watched Olivier's clever and colorful (filmed in Technicolor) film, which was deliberately meant to arouse English patriotism just before the Normandy Invasion, all the way to the scene in which Olivier delivers his "St. Crispin's Day" speech.

He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Henry is giving words of encouragement to his weary soldiers on the eve of the decisive battle of Agincourt. By now, it's a familiar speech, and Olivier delivers it honorably, in keeping with the style of acting that his film memoralizes. But his delivery seems unbearably declamatory today. Olivier was a master technician, and the next time you look at the scene, pay special attention to his hands. Olivier's Henry is a stalwart warrior, completely lacking anything so modernistic (and natural) as self-doubt or irresolution. 

But far from being impressed by the scene, my friend told me about one that he had seen that put Olivier in the shade. I doubted there could be such a performance, but my friend told me of Kenneth Branagh's film of Henry V, and how, on hearing Branagh speak so convincingly the same lines that Olivier had spoken forty-five years before, I would be inspired to join him at Agincourt myself. 

I stopped the Olivier video, and together my friend and I drove to a video store in town to look for Branagh's film. We found it and rented it and brought it back to my trailer to watch. When it was over, I had to admit to my friend that, while I regarded - and still regard - Olivier's film to be one of the finest examples of Shakespeare on film, Branagh's film was far more effective, and quite thrilling to watch - something I, honestly, never expected of a film adaptation of Shakespeare.

I have seen them all over the years: Olivier's Hamlet, Richard III and Othello, Orson Welles's Macbeth, Othello, and Falstaff (aka Chimes at Midnight), Julius Caesar with Marlon Brando as Marc Antony, The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino, and even Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, and Hamlet (with Mel Gibson). And I have also seen the Shakespeare films that Branagh directed since Henry V, including his four hour Hamlet.

The most striking difference between Olivier's and Branagh's films is the treatment of the play's so-called comic characters - Falstaff, Bardolph, Nym, Mistress Quickly, and especially Pistol. Branagh has his actors (Robbie Coltrane, Richard Briers, Geoffrey Hutchings, Judi Dench, Robert Stephens) play their roles "straight," or as close to straight as possible.

What is most important about Olivier's film is that it was made at a time of national peril. Winston Churchill personally authorized the expense of the production in wartime ($2 million - an enormous sum for a movie in 1944), convinced that it would boost sagging morale in England as the war entered its fifth year. 

The place at which both films fail, though for different reasons, is the Big Battle, Agincourt, itself. Olivier shot his battle in neutral Ireland, with hundreds of locals recruited as extras. The tracking cameras and cutting show how much Olivier learned from battle scenes in other films - particularly from Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938). But this is precisely where Olivier succumbs to a common temptation among filmmakers. Writing about Tony Richardson's excellent The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), Stanley Kauffmann commented that

"large-scale battle scenes are doomed to remoteness. Whether it's Borodino in War and Peace or Balaklava here, they always seem to reduce to the same shots in differing uniforms: the Alexander Nevsky shot, in which the camera rolls along looking down a line of advancing riders; the cannon exploding in our faces; the quick glimpses of men with lances through their guts; the riderless horses; the ground-level shots of the dead. The big film battle has become a ritual, rather than an experience, often confusing and usually too long. (Having gone to all that expense, they're not going to use only a couple of minutes' footage out of it.) About all that ever really works is the long, wide horizon shot, which conveys only size, not heat."(1)

Kenneth Branagh wanted his Agincourt to look more like real combat (with which most of us are blissfully unacquainted): blood and mud and pain. Instead of the cast of hundreds afforded Olivier, Branagh used perhaps dozens, sticking mostly to close-in shots. Alas, he shifts unnecessarily in and out of slow motion, which ruins the realism. His battle lasts ten minutes, but it could've been as effective in less time.

In France, the "comic" characters Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph are nothing but cowardly thieves. Bardolph is hanged, while Pistol and Nym live up to their job titles as "cutpurses" in the very midst of the battle, stealing everything they can from freshly slain French. Finding Nym has been killed, Pistol speaks his last line in bitter despair, "To England will I steal, and there I'll steal."

In Olivier's film, Robert Newton played a quite traditionally conceived Pistol, about as over-the-top as Newton could reach. But we are supposed to laugh at him. Robert Stephens, in stark contrast, plays Pistol in Branagh's film as a near-tragic bungler. It is a fascinating performance to watch. 

That leaves us the two Henrys. Olivier is resolute and noble throughout his film, whereas Branagh is, in his soliloquies, far less sure of himself and much more of a mensch. There is certainly room for either interpretation in Shakespeare's role. Olivier's Henry served its purpose in 1944 as an English zealot, but Branagh's Henry is the more real. And to his credit, Branagh stuck more closely to the play. In the small role of Katharine, Branagh's former wife, Emma Thompson, an invaluable actress and scriptwriter, adds her brilliant presence to her scenes.

Including a scene from Henry IV, Part II in which Hal promises Falstaff that he will abandon him once he is crowned king, Falstaff (Robbie Coltrane) delivers his great line, "We have heard the chimes at midnight. Jesus, the days that we have seen!" But he delivers it to Prince Hal, when it is actually part of a conversation between Falstaff and Justice Shallow:

Ha, cousin Silence, that thou hadst seen that that
this knight and I have seen!—Ha, Sir John, said
I well?
We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master
That we have, that we have, that we have. In
faith, Sir John, we have. Our watchword was 'Hem,
boys.' Come, let's to dinner, come, let's to dinner.
Jesus, the days that we have seen! Come, come. 
(Henry IV, Part II, Act 3 Scene 2)

In 1600, when there was no public lighting and the only things that prowled the night were werewolves and men up to no good, it was impressive to be out of doors to hear the chimes at midnight. But my Navy friend and I, having scoured the high Nevada desert of its scant attractions, had heard the midnight chimes and seen the dawn with sleepless eyes and knew the camraderie of fellow sufferers so far from home but even farther from our destinations. He is in St. Petersburg, Russia just now, and I am in the Philippines. Jesus, the days that we have yet to see!

(1) Stanley Kauffmann, Figures of Light: Film Criticism and Comment, Harper Collins, 1971.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Structure of Crystal

"In crystallography, crystal structure is a description of the ordered arrangement of atoms, ions or molecules in a crystalline material." (Wikipedia)

Poland, 1969. It is the tenth year of Władysław Gomułka's term as Communist Party chief. Poland, like other countries on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, has attracted international attention for its films, most of them reexamining the tragic/heroic past (Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds). In the Sixties, a new trend in Polish cinema of films set in the present (Knife in the Water, Night Train) emerged, and by 1969, when Krzsysztof Zanussi made his feature film debut, there had been demonstrations by university students in Warsaw. 

Structure of Crystal (Struktura kryształu), written and directed by Zanussi, student of physics and philosophy, is quiet, contemplative, and sagaciously cool. On a cold afternoon, Janek and his wife Anna are waiting by the road, which can't be distinguished from the rest of the snow-covered landscape. It's getting late and Anna wonders if there was some miscommunication. A large sledge loaded with hay passes them. Two young children, students of Anna's (she is their teacher) pass by on their way home from school. Past 3 o'clock, they hear an engine and see Marek's car, a VW beetle, rapidly approaching. Marek sees them, stops and reverses, jumps out of the car and embraces Janek.

They are friends and former colleagues. Marek is a highly-accredited university professor, author of studies on crystal structure, recently returned from visits to Harvard University. Janek gave up his career to live with Anna in a state-owned dacha, spends his days providing the local airport with meterological observations while Anna teaches grade school. Though they are old friends and Janek is happy to see Marek after so many years, he knows why he has come.

Janek and Anna's lives, as Marek slowly learns, are contented, even fulfilled. And it puzzles him how a man he once knew, who was at the head of his scientific field, could be satisfied with such a quiet life. In one scene, we see them sitting together, Janek, Marek and Anna, and Marek says, "Like in a Chekhov play. We're only missing a samovar. Silence and nothing happens." But Anna insists, "Actually, there is a lot happening in Chekhov's plays." Janek asks Marek if he knows how Chekhov died, and explains:

"He suffered from TB. In his day it was a fatal disease. Doctors sent him away to Crimea. He had many friends there. He was visited by actors of the Moscow Art Theatre. When he felt he was going to die, he invited guests. They stayed up till late and Chekhov entertained them with funny anecdotes. He was on his sofa. He didn't feel well. He asked for a glass of champagne, took a sip and spoke in a very low voice: 'Ich sterbe' ... And he turned towards the wall ..." 

But Anna stops him before he can finish his slightly garbled version of the story.(1)

Marek learns that Janek was in a mountain climbing accident and had been bedridden for six months. He gave up mountain climbing, but not because of the accident, he tells Marek, but because he no longer has the time to devote to it.

The two most important exchanges between the two men revolve around Janek's abandoning his research and going into, essentially, internal exile.

MAREK: Listen, I see that one can take a holiday for a few months, a year. To catch your breath. But you've been here for...
JANEK: Almost five years. Has it ever occurred to you that "catching your breath" may be the right way to live?
MAREK: Come on, man, one has to do something. These are the best years of our lives. You'll have time to meditate when you retire.
JANEK: Are you sure?
MAREK: Of what?
JANEK: That you'll live long enough to retire?
MAREK: Stop fooling around.
JANEK: I meant it.

And later:

MAREK: Excuse me. I don't want to be indiscreet but I don't get it, what a man like you is doing here. What do you fill your days with?

A short montage follows showing us how Janek fills his days - with fetching water from the well, baking bread, making home-brewed beer, tending his honey bees.

MAREK: How old are you?
JANEK: I'll be 36 in March. No, 37. Right, I was born in 1931, so it's 37.
MAREK: Dear God, man. You're almost forty. Three-quarters of your life have already passed and you busy yourself with bullshit. How can you waste your potential this way?
JANEK: Waste what?
MAREK: Gifts, talent, yourself.
JANEK: How do you know I waste my life?
MAREK: It is so banal but life, you have to make some decisions. One must ... find some goal in life. And I am looking at you and, by God, I don't get it. Where are you going?
JANEK: Maybe I'm just trying to answer this question. I guess it'll take me the remaining quarter of my life or more. We're quite long-lived in our family.

Zanussi dramatizes the choices presented to the intellectual in times of conflict: to remain engaged, no matter how disappointing the results, or to disengage from society and withdraw, if not exactly to an ivory tower, to a cabin in the woods and take no part in the events of his age.

It is easy to see the attractions of Marek's life: financial reward, prestige, accolades from his peers. But Janek's life is alluring enough for Marek to notice: his intimacy with Anna, a life among the elements and all the time in the world on his hands in which to discover where he is going. Marek finds himself attracted to Anna enough to flirt with her. Anna, in her turn, is attracted to Marek's celebrity. But she is a country girl, after all, who knows her own limitations. After an excursion to a nearby town (in which we sight "the artist Lomnicki" getting in a car with two attractive girls - it's actually the actor Daniel Olbrychski), and taking in a Swedish nudie flick at the local cinema, Marek asks her on the drive home how she liked the movie. (Zanussi even includes a brief clip replete with Swedish nudity.) "I hate it when they show such filth," Anna replies. "After all, I'm a teacher." 

Marek interrupts Janek and Anna's quiet life sufficiently for them to reaffirm their commitment to it. Janek figures out that Marek was sent on a mission to convince him to return to Warsaw and his life at the university. Marek's mission a complete failure, he answers the call to return to Warsaw. In the last shots, Marek, behind the wheel of his VW, drops the sun visor to shade his eyes from the sun's glare, just as Janek is gazing through his telescope directly into the sun. 

Zanussi's sympathies seem to me somewhat split 49 years after the film's release. Evidently he sided with the more engaged, if cynical, Marek, who returns from years in the US with images of promise and prosperity. Janek has turned his back on his responsibilities as an intellectual in the challenging times facing Poland under Moscow's thumb. By now, however, I think Janek is the more sympathetic of the two.

For a first film, Structure of Crystal is remarkably accomplished and assured. Zanussi's handling of his actors (Barbara Wrzesińska, Jan Mysłowicz, and Andrzej Żarnecki) is subtle. Wojciech Kilar, who subsequently worked closely with Zanussi for decades to come, supplies the film with a spare and often lovely musical accompaniment. And Stefan Matyjaszkiewicz creates black and white images (2) so striking that he makes the winter setting as alluring as Janek's placid life. Still, as Marek insists to Janek, "Without a risk, without a fight, you'll never learn the truth." Marek's choice is the right one.

(1) Chekhov actually died in Badenweiler. His wife Olga is the originator of the story of his deathbed scene. Although he spoke almost no German, "Ich sterbe" ("I am dying") were his last words.
(2) Looking through a glossy American magazine, Janek asks Marek if he has seen color tv. "I prefer black and white," he answers.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Anthony Bourdain

I was lying in bed when my girlfriend, who was watching the Filipino network news in the sala, came to me and told me that an American, "Antony Buran," was dead. I rolled the name through the rolodex in my head and came up with nothing. She has a hard time pronouncing my last name, too, even after being with me for a decade. So when I got up late in the night and turned on CNN and saw that she was referring to Anthony Bourdain, I, like everyone else in the world hearing the news, was stunned.

Where are you going now? I was only one of Anthony Bourdain's ever-expanding audience. And like a lot of them, I felt like I knew him. He proved to us that he was so much more than a celebrity chef. I found him to be the perfect antidote to Gordon Ramsey, who seems to be on a one-man crusade to destroy the reputations of cooks and of cooking. For Bourdain, food was his foot in the door, his passport into the lives of people everywhere in the world he traveled to. He knew haute cuisine, the food served in high-end Michelin star restaurants. But he clearly preferred real food eaten by real people - street food in exotic places.

On a blog post from 2014, I called him The Detrimental Tourist, because his acerbic wit and cynical, snide asides weren't likely to attract tourists to the strange places he sometimes visited. It seemed to me that he was driven by something very dark, that attracted him to the wrong side of the tracks, the dangerous parts of the world. When he visited places like Paris, he expressed contempt for their biggest tourist attractions where people stand in line for hours to catch a glimpse of "the real Paris" - whatever that is.

I didn't share his literary tastes - William S. Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, and Hunter S. Thompson. Like them, many of his stories began with a hangover. His favorite novel was Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and his trip to the Congo was his retracing of the steps of Mistah Kurtz down the River Congo. I saw every episode of No Reservations and The Layover - his two series prior to Parts Unknown. For some mysterious reason, probably stemming from his foul language and his fondness for the underbelly of the world, Parts Unknown isn't aired in CNN International. The episodes I have managed to see were broadcast on other cable channels.

He left the world just as mysterious as he found it. And, in his last act, contributed to the greater mystery of the human heart. Paul Bowles, another of his favorite writers, wrote, "Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home." The writer he most reminded me of is Paul Theroux, who once wrote, "Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going." Though he had been practically everywhere in the world, Anthony Bourdain never seemed to know where he was going. Farewell, fellow traveler.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Two Cheers

One of the few advantages that comes from growing old is having some experience of life from which to draw precedents. Remembering the past, whether it is a moment or a whole period of one's life, is the best way one can understand the present, especially when one thinks that the present offers what we feel are unprecedented problems and difficulties to us. Having a clear picture of what happened in the past can dispel most of our concerns with the present.

Throughout the eight years of Barack Obama's presidency, there were some rather shrill voices in America (one of which belonged to our current president) that insisted that Obama's presidency was, for various reasons, illegitimate. For eight years some of these voices never went away. As a supporter of Obama (by which I mean an opponent of the alternatives to Obama: anti-liberal, authoritarian, hysterical populism represented by talk radio and its audience), I felt personally affronted by some of anti-Obama rhetoric, though not nearly as personally as black people, who saw attacks on Obama's legitimacy as racially motivated. I felt that an attack on a sitting president, or a sitting congressperson or governor or mayor, as not just an attack on an individual, but an attack on all of the people whose votes got them into office. 

The United States is a representational democracy. Since all the decisions that shape our society and its laws simply cannot be decided by plebiscite, by a preponderance of votes by every eligible voting citizen, a government elected by a majority vote makes all such decisions for us. When Ted Kennedy died in 2009, I expressed the reasonable view that the only people who had a right to pass judgement on his fifty years in office were his constituents in the state of Massachusetts, whom he served as senator from 1960, when Ted's brother John vacated the seat to run for president, until he left office - as it were, feet first.

If one of us votes in an election and his or her candidate is defeated, he or she can have plenty with which to take issue in the ensuing term of the candidate who won. But what he or she is taking exception to is not the government. It seems to me that the problem they have is with democracy, since the candidate they didn't vote for didn't steal the office (even when they suggest that the election was rigged), but was put there by a preponderance of votes in a democratic election. 

I have taken extreme exception with Donald Trump, with practically everything he stands for and every pronouncement that comes out of his mouth. He is a thoroughly deplorable man and a disaster as a president. But I make these denunciations mindful of all the American voters who put Trump in the White House, some of whom are related to me. My problem really isn't with Trump. I have a problem, thanks to the popular election of this disgraceful clown (despite Hillary winning the popular vote by almost three million), with democracy. 

E. M. Forster published a book of essays in 1951 called Two Cheers for Democracy, a title that pretty much sums up my feelings about democracy. Forster wrote in a prefatory note, "These essays, articles, broadcasts, etc., were nearly all of them composed after the publication of Abinger Harvest, that is to say after 1936. A title for the collection has been difficult to find. One of my younger friends suggested Two Cheers for Democracy as a joke, and I have decided to adopt it seriously ... Until livelier counsels prevailed "The Last of Abinger" was to have been the book's general title. But I do not really want to record the last of anything and am glad to change. Human life is still active, still carrying about with it unexplored riches and unused methods of release. The darkness that troubles us and tries to degrade us may thin out. We may still contrive to raise three cheers for democracy, although at present she only deserves two."

Democracy is an imperfect system, but it's the best one we have come up with so far. I am a socialist, committed to a radical reconfiguration of society, which in its current condition resembles more than anything an incredibly elaborate swindle - a free-for-all in which the worst man wins. I am a socialist, but a democratic socialist. I don't want to overthrow the government, even if it were possible. As we have learned - in the hardest way -, all revolutions are failures, but they are not all the same failure. I am committed to the radical restructuring of society through democratic means. And - yes - Bernie Sanders is a kind of hero of mine. Socialism means the people shall rule. It is all about human brotherhood. If this surprises you, you should know that I became a socialist when I found out that everything I had been told all my life about socialism was a lie.

No matter. The best way - the only way - to oppose Trump is with democracy, which is clearly what he fears most (other than the rule of law). If it is disclosed that he used unfair means to win the 2016 election - which seems to me obvious by now - he will still have to be turned out of office with democracy, with the free and open exercise of our democratic right to defeat him if he is crazy enough to run for re-election. 

I think we need to stop being government-haters when it is really democracy that gets us into these messes. Stop hating the government and change it.

Get out and vote.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Six Poets: Robert Frost

Robert Lee Frost (March 26, 1874 – January 29, 1963)

Poor Robert Frost has been pulled in so many directions in the fifty years since his death that it looks more like he's been drawn and quartered. He is a victim of an excess of familiarity. Too many people who should know better think they know who he is. Biographies and critical works have tried to add greater detail to the popular image of the rustic New Englander with his farmer's almanac aphorisms, either to demonstrate how much more profound a poet he was or to expose him as some kind of egotistical fraud. Some critics have apparently made up their minds that Frost was anachronistically anti-modernist, going in the opposite direction of Eliot and Stevens, too dependent on the integrity rather than the ambiguity of words.

Meanwhile, his poetry remains stubbornly real and alive and, at its best, frighteningly modernist in its understanding of life in the universe. There appears to be an innate mistrust among critics of writing that is clear, that doesn't try to be difficult, that presents no great challenges to our interpretation. There is a serene openness and clarity to Frost's poetry that one isn't used to encountering in great poetry. This doesn't mean that there is nothing to explore and celebrate. The precision of Frost's poetry makes every word crucial to each poem's cumulative effect. There are some Frost poems that don't measure up to the greatness of others because their effect is marred by a single word.

In many of Frost's poems the voices of nature can be heard addressing him directly, but the things they tell him aren't at all what one might expect.  Like the thrush calling him to "come in" to the woods at dusk.  Or the beguiling beauty of a snowy woods that he stops to admire,  until his horse pulls at his harness to remind him of his promises. When I think of Frost I have an overpowering feeling of solitude. Not loneliness, since that implies a want of company. Frost is so often encountered in his poems walking alone. It seemed to be his natural habitat. His voice is unmistakable and one of the most intimate. He seems to be addressing me personally. The only other poet who has this effect on me is Philip Larkin.

He wrote a great deal - he was writing from about 1890 and he had enough material to fill two books (A Boy's Will and North of Boston) and part of a third (Mountain Interval) when he was in England in 1912-1915 and managed to get them published. Ezra Pound befriended him and wrote a favorable review of North of Boston that was published in Chicago. Frost's friend Edward Thomas wrote an ecstatic review for a British magazine.  Poetry was his vocation and his avocation. But he wrote substantial, powerful poems well into his Seventies. "Desert Places" and "Provide, Provide" are there in A Further Range (1937).

Randall Jarrell celebrated his long poems, like "Home Burial" for their dramatic use of vernacular speech. I would normally defer to Jarrell, but he loves too much of Frost's work, I think, to bear to let some of it go: "The Witch of Coös," "Home Burial," "A Servant to Servants," "Directive," "Neither Out Too Far Nor In Too Deep," "Provide, Provide," "Acquainted with the Night ," "After Apple Picking," "Mending Wall," "The Most of It," "An Old Man's Winter Night," "To Earthward," " Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," "Spring Pools," "The Lovely Shall Be Choosers," "Design," and "Desert Places." While I would eliminate a few of Jarrell's choices, I am surprised that he neglected to include one of Frost's more perfect poems, "Meeting and Passing."

Irving Howe is no less enthusiastic than Jarrell about Frost's poetry, and his own list of his "superior lyrics" includes several of Jarrell's choices, along with "Storm Fear," "The Oven Bird," "Dust of Snow," "Happiness Makes Up in Height for What It Lacks in Length," and "Never Again Would Bird's Song Be the Same" - though Howe, too, omits "Meeting and Passing" from his list.

I wanted to choose just one poem that would stand for him, for his strengths but also his weaknesses (since I have a weakness for him, an indulgence that comes from years of familiarity with him). It is a late poem, from Steeple Bush (1947), his last great poem, and just the poem to bewilder a reader - like me - who thought they knew him, who thought he had no more surprises for him.


Back out of all this now too much for us
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
There is a house that is no more a house
Upon a farm that is no more a farm
And in a town that is no more a town
The road there, if you'll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost
May seem as if it should have been a quarry --
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there's a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods' excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone's road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two villages cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you're lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left's no bigger than a harness gall.
First there's the children's house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny's
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can't find it,
So can't get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn't.
(I stole the goblet from the children's playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

There is so much here that is familiar but made strange, so much like a dream, the dream of an old man now lost in a world grown old like him. In his New York Times review of Steeple Bush, Randall Jarrell found in "Directive," "so much longing, tenderness and passive sadness, Frost's understanding that each life is tragic because it wears away into the death that it at last half-welcomes -- that even its salvation, far back at the cold root of things, is make-believe, drunk from a child's broken and stolen goblet hidden among the ruins of the lost cultures."

If "Directive" were anthologized more and became better known than such comparably harmless poems as "Birches," perhaps Frost's reputation even among more cynical and susceptible critics would be unassailable.