Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Elegies

To start by defining: An elegy is a poem of lament, usually concerning a person who has died but sometimes concerning something else that has disappeared. A eulogy is similar, but it's usually a formal address, not necessarily a poem, and it's often linked directly to a funeral or a similar rite.



If you just stuck to elegies in the poetry of almost any culture, you'd probably get a magnificent cross-section of that culture's poetic heritage. The elegy tends to get the best out of poets who try it. Sometimes, of course, its gets the worst, meaning the most cliche, overwrought, or sentimental. Poet Richard Hugo--I think he wrote this in The Triggering Town--suggested that poets wait a certain set amount of time after a person has died to write an elegy about that person. I think it was either six or ten years.



Two of the most famous elegies in English happen to be poems I don't much like. One is "Lycidas," by John Milton, written about a young friend of his who drowned; and the other is "Adonais," written by Percy Shelley about his friend, the great poet John Keats. It is hard not to recognize the mastery in these poems; they are learned, accomplished, eloquent, and finished. I've always found both to be overwrought, however; they take me away from the persons being elegized. They are like freestanding monuments--magnificent but ultimately unrelated to what they are allegedly about. But of course this is just my opinion, and my opinion is in the minority. Samuel Johnson agreed with me (that is, I agree with him) about "Lycidas," but most people who know Milton's and Johnson's work say that this judgment was one of Johnson's few slips.



My favorite elegies include Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Felix Randle"; W.H. Auden's poem about the death of W.B. Yeats; George Barker's sonnet for his mother, who seems like she was one tough woman; Randall Jarrell's "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," which, technically, is "spoken" by the dead gunner, but is in fact an elegy for soldiers in general--in six superb lines; John Crowe Ransom's "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter"; Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead," which contains the fabulous line, "A savage servility slides by on grease"; Langston Hughes' "Lament for Dark People," which is a daring but successful elegy, spoken by a collective persona, about people of color who have been enslaved and otherwise displaced; Emily Dickinson's poem # 68 (or #89, depending on the numbering system), which is an elegy that resists being an elegy; and Dickinson's #340 (or #280), "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain."



After my father died in 1997, I struggled with how to write about his death. I kept writing, but I didn't finish anything satsifactory. I kept Hugo's advice in mind and didn't rush things. Probably the most satisfying elegy, at least from my perspective, that came out of that writing sprang from a mundane, dutiful task: sorting his tools, something my two brothers and I did. I think the task and the tools themselves were subjects oblique enough to help move my language away from overt sentimentality. I do mention autumn in the poem, but only because we happened to sort the tools in the fall; that is, I wasn't going after the old autumn = death comparison. Anyway, here it is, "Sorting the Tools":





Sorting the Tools


With such fashioned metal and wood,
he didn’t mean to leave his mark, imprint
“I am.” Mostly he was building shelter,
earning wages, securing premises. Also,
he was one to impress his will on
the present, not the future. That
rubbed handle nonetheless bears
an inadvertent mark only his palm

could have left. This other handle’s
darkened by days, by years, of perspiration,
his specific salts. This mechanism here—
he repaired it himself. Note his deliberate,
improvised way, the practical jazz
of rural labor, making things keep
functioning when parts aren’t available
right away. This workshop is cold.

Outside, oaks have dumped all leaves
and acorns, have stripped themselves
down to gray, lithe muscle, ready
for Winter. A bear broke down
the biggest apple tree. This duty
makes us sorters sad when
we’re not smiling. Mostly this
is tedious work. Every now and then
we recognize we’re awed by what
the tools tell us about how difficult,
steady, and determined his work
was all those years.

from The Coast Starlight: Collected Poems 1976-2006.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Paradise Lost, Presumptuousness Feared

John Milton's epic religious poem, Paradise Lost, is, like the Odyssey and Hamlet, one of those great works that seem to insist upon remaining central to the (Western but perhaps even global) culture, although I grant that "the culture" now consists chiefly of video screens--like this one--of one kind or another; corporate franchising; and the fusion of military, industry, media, and capital; and great chasms between poverty and wealth. I am cautiously pessimistic about the centrality of literature, but to the extent canons of literature exist, Paradise Lost remains among them, even as the canons do and should shift over time. Some works are carried downstream or evaporate, sometimes for good reason, but Paradise Lost seems as close to permanent bedrock as you can get.



To continue, ill-advisedly, the geologic comparison, Paradise Lost is a Mt. Rainier or Mt. Everest kind of work. Even if you don't love it, you still have to stand in awe of it. Samuel Johnson said, famously, of this epic poem, "No one wished it longer." (I usually think the same thing about movies by Oliver Stone.) But Johnson still granted its greatness. The complete and consistent mastery of blank verse for over 300 pages; the superb imagery and phrasing; the fusion of Classical and Biblical learning; the fabulous scenes and plotting; the rhetoric (look at the speeches by Satan's cohorts as each one develops a different argument for attacking God); the wonderful combination of structure and decoration: all this comes together to forge a monument of words.



Therefore, when I mention the following quibble with the work, it is as if I'm throwing a pebble at Mt. Rainier: the poem is as astonishingly presumptuous as it is accomplished. That's my quibble. Milton presumes not just to know what God thinks but what exactly God says, and by this I mean not that Milton quotes the Bible but that he makes up speeches by God--and by Christ, and by Satan, and so on. That is, of all the awe-inspiring characteristics of the poem, the greatest one may be the characteristic of, well, pride. Rereading Paradise Lost recently, I admired it as much as if not more than I always admired it, but I also found myself, upon reading a great passage, thinking a) that's a great passage and b) that's a great passage that compeletely fabricates "God's" mind. Of course, Milton might say, "And your point is . . .?"



The pebble I'm throwing is theological, although that term is a bit fancy for the situation. Temperamentally, intutitively, I am simply much more likely than Milton to begin by assuming I know almost nothing about God. No doubt Milton would agree with this assumption--I mean with regard to how little I know. The issue of my learning vs. Milton's learning aside, I'm aligned with St. Denis, to whom is attributed the work, The Cloud of Unknowing, one premise of which is this: If you think you know something about God, you are wrong, no matter who you are, what you've studied, and how much you think you know.



Having read and digested, so to speak, St. Denis's work, I wrote the following poem, which is rather on the opposite end of several spectrae (I hope I have the Latin plural correct) from Paradise Lost, to say the least:



Mortal Devotion


(The Cloud of Unknowing)


Life suggests I
should prepare to die,

implies it would be
glad to help me

get set. Death might occur
before the end of this or

that sentence. St. Denis,
about prayer, says this:

Start by praying you may
live long enough to pray.

I try to get ready,
am no quick study,

think that it is all
done, that I hear a call.

I don’t know, so
help me, God, to go

on.


Copyright 2006, from The Coast Starlight: Collected Poems 1976-2006.

Friday, May 11, 2007

A Visit to a Movie Studio

I heard on the radio today that those who rate movies according to who should see them (children, adolescents, teens, or adults) have decided to take cigarette-smoking into account, as well as representations of sex, violence, and cursing. Apparently they will take the context of smoking into account, so apparently some smoking would be appropriate for all ages. The premises underlying and assumptions connected to this decision by the movie industry are too abundant and contradictory even to begin to discuss. As I understand it, the old Hays Code, which is the ancestor of the present rating system, arose in part because of the scandalous trial of "Fatty" Arbuckle for rape and murder. (I think he was acquitted, but his career was ruined.)

At any rate (or rating), the news-story made me think about the only time I visited a movie studio--Paramount--some years ago. A friend I'd met at a screen-writing workshop (at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference) took me there. We took the workshop from Tom Rickman, who wrote "Coal Miner's Daughter" and received an Oscar nomination. My friend's been in the business a long time, and I admire his resilience in such an unforgiving industry as the movies and in such a tough town, professionally, as Hollywood. He's a writer and a producer, and he's even done some acting and directing. He's talented, versatile, down to earth, and of good cheer.

First we visited the bungalow area, where the Ladd Company (as in Cheryl and Alan and, if I have it right, Alan, Jr.), which was/is housed at Paramount. (The intricate web of production- and distribution-companies and studios is but one element of Hollywood that mystifies me.) The actor William Atherton, who's in the Die Hard movies, was walking around outside. We exchanged hellos, kind of like ordinary human beings.

Then my friend and I walked around the studio. My first impression was how quiet it seemed. Not much going on. Then I seemed to get the idea that a studio is mainly a hive of sound-stages--so of course the studio, per se, would be quiet. (I remember seeing the sound stage for the TV show, "Soul Train.") We also saw an (empty) concrete tank, really just a parking lot with little walls, which, when filled, serves for all manner of lake or ocean scenes. I like that part of Hollywood--making "reality" out of something very simple, so that Griffith Park will do very nicely for the "Africa" of Tarzan movies, thank you very much. Movies are supposed to be "fake"; that's what makes them movies. I think that's why I like BBC productions so much; they do so much with so little, rely a lot on costumes and interiors and not too many fancy camera-shots.

For some reason, the studio, especially the back lot, made me melancholy--something about the sight of those fake "New York City" streets and storefronts, on the backlot. Something about all the unplugged lights, all the grim, basic, hard work that goes into "making pictures." It is an industry, after all, one that has an uneasy relationship with "art." I think I tried to capture the melancholia in the following poem:

Back Lot, Paramount Studios


Like a prostitute’s face, the facades

are blank and professional, ready

to be reeled into routine fantasy.


Objects and people here exist

in quotation marks: Two “police”

cars sit outside a “bank.” A “criminal”


gets made up. The virtual hush is

holy. Then someone drops a portable

light in the “barber shop.” The loud sound


is real. Ghosts of dead stars are paid

scale. Spirits of dead executives scrub

pots in the commissary.

Sunlight has an agent.

Shadows have hired a publicist.



Copyright 2007

Monday, May 7, 2007

Animals and Humans, Part Two

The "Sea Monster" blog referred to old concepts such as personification and anthropomorphism. There is also an ancient form of literature that seems unabashedly to personify, for it uses animals as the characters in stories; this form of literature is the fable. By being so explicit in its use of animals, however, fables actually don't personify. Instead of turning animals into humans, the fable turns humans into animals--sort of in the way actors become characters.

Probably the most satisfying part of ascribing human motives or attributes to animals is that we know we're wrong; the ascribing we're doing isn't literal; that's what makes it, and makes animals, humorous. Mules persist in certain behaviors, but they aren't stubborn, literally, in the way humans are. Foxes may be clever, but they are clever in an entirely foxish way. They're not being clever. They're being foxes. One way for us to appreciate their being foxes is to speak of them in human terms, all the while knowing we're not literally or scientifically speaking of them as humans. The use of figurative language and figurative thinking is simply a process of appreciation, not of scientific description, which can of course co-exist with figurative description. That is, a scientist can enjoy a good fable, especially one in which a scientists is played by--by a lemur, let's say.

Following is a fable-poem, a story that has simple origins: I simply noticed that a raven is mentioned in the story about Noah's ark. The dove from that story is famous, but I wondered about that raven, so I made up a story, which is mostly tongue-in-cheek, so I hope you take it that way:


Fable: Noah and Raven


And he sent forth a raven
Which went forth to and fro
Until the waters were dried up
From off the earth.

Genesis 8:7


Notice: Raven didn’t return and make a report.
Didn’t like the voyage from the first in fact.

Wasn’t surprised when, deep into the cruise,
Noah went sea-mad, tossed birds

Up into the wind. They fluttered back
To deck, bewildered, bruised, and flappable.

Raven thought, This isn’t working.
Then Noah, becalmed, dispatched Dove

And Raven on recon. Dove cooed.
Raven cawed, wondered Why not send

Seagull or Duck? Hence the term “water
birds.” Humans—as thick as two planks!

A portly black kite, Raven rode the breeze,
Alighted on a shred of dry land,

Ate surfaced slimy creatures. Told Dove,
Hey, you’re nuts to complete the mission,

Said, You watch, they’ll make your image
A symbol of something fine, hunt

Your kind, cook tenderness off your hollow
Bones, thank God not you for it, eat.

No big surprise to Raven when
The Noahs finally showed, parked the Ark,

Unloaded, promised God to be good,
Began to subdivide. The grandkids

Laughed like apes, threw rocks at Raven,
Flung filthy anti-avian epithets.

The little bullies wept for days
When Raven hired snakes to put

The fear of God in them. Old
Bird-brained Noah, though, turned out

To be almost all right. His hair went wild
Eider-white. He’d stumble out,

Toss bread-crumbs Raven’s way,
Tell the brood, Stop being s’goddamned

Mean to animals. The Old Man seemed
To have his doubts about Dry Land,

Spent most nights alone in the mildewed
Ark, playing cribbage with God. So

Wonder not, children of the Weather Channel,
Why millennia later ravens are resentful,

Strut snidely, rustle wings,
Curse us in Squawkese—us and our endless

Multiplication. They build nests like
Carpenters, love hard rain, keep their black

Exteriors as sleek as gangster cars,
Dive-bomb languid lovers two-by-two

In the pigeony park, know how
To read the rainbow signs.


Copyright 2007

Sea Monster

One of the first things we learn when we learn to analyze literature is the concept of personification, wherein something non-human is described in human terms: the sun awoke, the tree waved at me, the boulder ignored me, etc. Around the same time, we're likely to get introduced to the broader epistemological concept into which personification fits: anthropomorphism, wherein everything is fitted to a human scale.

It is always tempting, of course, to describe something in human terms; metaphors, similes, and analogies that personify come much too easily to mind, so we're likely not just to personify but to do it in a manner that's cliche: a double error. And if the personifying metaphors are mixed, then (to mix metaphors) we have a hat trick--a triple error.

Even if we don't personify, per se, however, is there any way not to view the world in human terms? True, it's probably better to describe a tree in a way that doesn't compare it to a human body (arms, hands, etc.). In fact, Joyce Kilmer's infamous tree poem gets into trouble because the personification is mixed and the tree-human seems to be doing impossible things, even as we agree to let the tree be human for a moment. But even if we're not explicitly anthropomorphic, aren't we still always implicitly anthropomorphic? . . . . Some colleges have courses with titles like this: "Literature and the Human Experience." As opposed to what? Literature and the dog experience?! All we know is human.

But as poets (not philosophers), we can pretend to emphathize, I suppose. That's what I did in a poem I wrote many, many moons ago. It was the first poem I published in a national journal, as opposed to a school-publication or something local. The basic move I make in the poem is a very old one: writing "as" a creature, so that the creature "speaks." Of course this is not literally possible. It's clumsy poetic ventriloquism. At the same time, the exercise does force a body at least to try to think less self-centeredly; to imagine.

While I was attempting to imagine and empathize, however, I was really mainly just playing with language. The poem is really "about" certain words and sounds I like, and the business about the sea monster is secondary, from my point of view if not the reader's. Also, I think this poem is from a time when I had just begun to study "deep grammar"--the Chomsky idea about the grammar that's allegedly in the bedrock of all our brains. I was learning to diagram sentences using "transformational grammar"; it was great fun, but I have no idea how accurate transformational grammar is with regard to describing what goes on in our brains when we produce language. I see another philosophical problem has reared its head (personification): how well can we know the brain by studying the brain with a brain? Hmmm.

Nonetheless, I did want to demythologize sea monsters--I do remember having that particular goal in mind. Assuming they exist, sea monsters must have a pretty rough time of it. Being a monster in the ocean has to be a tough job. And as if things weren't tough enough, there's always some Ahab out there wanting to turn you into a nemesis or a symbol or both. At any rate, here it is--an old poem about an old sea monster (and thanks to the late Quentin Howard, the editor who took this poem, giving a young writer a boost of confidence):


Sea Monster



I drift beneath a grammar of sharply etched shapes
and clear contrasts. Eddies dance as if to mock
my dumb back as I pass under a cove’s calm surface.
Sometimes a seabird’s shriek thuds through thick
water. I feel forever dark weight of water.
It’s as present to me as my own body as I push
through it with ridiculous flippers. One day I will
just stop and drop to ancient mud;
clouds of mud will mushroom out about me, swirl,
disappear on currents. I’ll roll on one side
with one eye buried in muck and one still staring
at black water mottled with insinuations of light.
A sound will grow in me, rise out of my
mute years, build into a moaning like a sunken
ship’s crushed hull, then race into a scream smothered
by seawater, seaweed. A white bird will cock its head, thinking
it’s heard a fish, dip to the surface, and seeing nothing,
sail back to bright bluffs. I will have become
an inundated continent of grief, overwhelmed.


Copyright 2007

Friday, May 4, 2007

Official Language in Poetry

W.H. Auden was one of the best, in my opinion, at using official language in poetry, partly as a way to mock official language but also as a way to absorb it into poetry and thereby detoxify it, removing the numbing poison that Orwell told us, in the essay, "Politics and the English Language," was there. By "official language," I mean the language of news, politics, advertising, business, and/or bureaucracies--the language forming the nest we lie in, sedated, all day, every day. Even in his grand homage to Yeats, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," Auden includes official language:

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.


One implicit irony here is that if you want to assess the impact of a great poet's death, don't turn to the news or to your "instruments."

Auden's "The Unknown Citizen" fully mocks official language. It begins . . .


He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he
was a saint.


The satire of the state and the parody of the state's language work superbly here, even in just these four lines from the longer poem.


cummings' "next to of course god america" is a wonderful parody of the politician's empty stump-speech, concluding with the politician's gulping water, as if to wash out the nasty taste, or as if to indicate, "Well, that propagandistic chore is done."


I think I may have been going after an Audenesque or cummingsesque (Orwell probably wouldn't approve of the "-esquing" here) blend of satire and parody in the following poem, which may have sprung from my feeling annoyed at being surrounded by nothing but official language:



Official Correspondence



According to our records, three
moons orbit the planet of consciousness
inside your brain.

Also, we do not regret to inform you
that, by privilege of eminent domain,
the City intends to build a boulevard

through an area zoned formerly
for your long-term memory.
You have the right to remain silent.

If you have reason to believe
our records are in error, you shall suffer
the added pain of knowing you are correct.

Copyright 2007

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Rex Stout and Georges Simenon

Like a lot of lifelong readers, I started reading detective-fiction in my early teens, beginning--in my case--with Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes. More people of my generation probably began with the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, but in the house I grew up in, novels featuring them weren't available, and I don't know that I would have liked the books anyway. Even as a kid, I didn't much like kid-detectives.

. . . I've been re-reading Poe, and truly it is amazing how much he anticipated, in the detective-fiction tradition, with his three stories: "Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Mystery of Marie Roget," and "The Purloined Letter." With these three stories, he gave us the genius-detective; the peripheral narrator who plays sidekick to the genius-detective; the locked-room mystery; the invasiveness of "the colonies" (strange people and animals from the far-flung empire come back to haunt the imperial nation and its main city: Paris in Poe's case, London in Conan Doyle's); the conflict between the police and the amateur/private detectives; forensic science (this is explored by Ron Thomas in Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science); crime-and-detection as psychological drama; the rational detective as the torch-bearer of the Enlightenment--or: Descartes solves crimes. With "The Mystery of Marie Roget," Poe also foreshadows the interplay between the popular media and crime. In that story, Dupin shows how journalistic sensationalism not just exploits crime but also how it erodes rational detection. Just as Sterne, with Tristram Shandy, seemed to anticipate by centuries countless elements of the novel, Poe seems to anticipate, in just three stories, massive parts of the detective-fiction tradition. One gdevelopment Poe did not anticipate is the rapid, hard-boiled pace that most detective-fiction readers have come to expect. His stories are long and labored. His prose-style is Victorian, and even Conan Doyle seems quick by comparison. Watson's narrative voice is deliberate and unhurried, but those tales do move along. . . .

There were quite a few paperback detective-novels by Rex Stout and Georges Simenon floating around my house, in part because my aunt and my father used to trade paperbacks. My father, however, went in more for Westerns: Zane Grey, Louis L'Amour, Max Brand, Ernest Haycox. As a teenager, I just couldn't "get into" Stout's Nero Wolfe novels or Simenon's Maigret novels. Too much subtlety for a teen, methinks. But later, when I did discover these two great authors and their fascinating, compulsive detectives, I found the reading irresistible. . . .

Nowadays, we would diagnose Wolfe as an obsessive-compulsive person who also suffers from agoraphobia. And, as readers, we get pulled into his obsessions. We come to depend upon the narrative's dependence on his iron schedule: breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the same time; beer at the desk while opening mail at the same time (and the counting of the caps from the bottles); orchid-care in the greenhouse atop the brownstone, at the same time every day. Because his brownstone and the lifestyle it cages require capital, Wolfe must work, but he hates work and fears leaving the brownstone. Hence the need for Archie, his life-line to the world, to normalcy, to work, which brings capital. Archie goes on dates, goes dancing, drinks milk, buzzes around NYC in a car. . . .

Maigret's Simeneon, the French inspector, is a cop, a man of the people. Like Wolfe, he is a man of routine. The stove in the office must be kept going. He must have his assistants on hand--Luca and Janvier. He smokes the pipe obsessively, and he orders beer and sandwiches from the brasserie. Whereas Wolfe tries to avoid work until the last minute and then solves cases with a bolt of genius-lightning (after Archie has brough back evidence like a birddog), Jules Maigret broods over cases. He attaches his mind, even his body, to them until they crack. Relentlessly but patiently he asks questions. He asks himself questions. But he always goes home to Madame Maigret, who often prepares coq-au-vin or a stew for lunch; good grief, who could go back to work after that?! Answer: a Frenchman.

Stout and Simenon are wonderful inheritors of Poe's treasures, and here is an homage-poem, from an avid reader of detective fiction to two of the splendid greats:


Homage to Stout and Simenon, Wolfe and Maigret

Rex Stout (1886-1975), George Simenon (1903-1989), creators, respectively of Nero Wolfe and Jules Maigret


Crime disrespects. It exploits
routine. It is impolite, time-
consuming, and distracting.
Grudgingly, the good detective
identifies those who
should have known better,
most especially the entitled.

Intelligent cooking; sufficient
rest; optional, moderate
consumption of alcohol and
tobacco; solitude; reflection—
these are worth preserving,
even if it means working
for a living, extracting
folly and vice.

Hence Jules Maigret and Nero Wolfe,
who would rather be left
alone but are drawn into prose
by their creators, into frays by
fate, necessity, and duty. Efficient
plots spring from good manners.

Whatever takes one away from
reading, dining, conversation,
solitude, repose, or—however modest
it may be--one’s enclave must be criminal.
Good manners and good detection
don’t belong to social class but
come from a certain strength of mind.
If only everyone would think things through.

Everyone doesn’t; therefore, detection
is called for, is restoration of balances, is
a bother to be concluded with swift precision,
for the rich life of common routine awaits.


Copyright 2007