Showing posts with label William Blake. Show all posts
Showing posts with label William Blake. Show all posts

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Getting in Touch with Swedenborg

Swedenborg went to Hell
and Heaven and back to Earth
again many times when he was
alive in earthly terms. What a
great idea! "Just visiting."

I've been trying to visit Swedenborg
in Hell or Heaven or even a cafe.
(I think of Heaven and Hell as holding
down the two ends of a sliding scale.
Opinions vary.) I haven't

been able to make it over to Hell
or Heaven, let alone back, and
I don't want to get desperate
and rush the dying thing.

I've invited Swedenborg
to my place to discuss William
Blake, Uppsala University,
theology, pastry, or whatever's
on his spirit's mind. I haven't
heard back. Yet.

hans ostrom 2020

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Sunflowers Are Sad, Experts Claim

Propaganda notwithstanding, sunflowers
are morose. Their puritanical, resolute
stalks lift them up to be sacrificed
to the gods, which employ birds, flied,
and bees as visiting priests. The central

cycloptic seed-cushion--color of tobacco
juice--weighs too much, like depression.
Too, please note the celebrated solar petals

wrinkle like Edwardian handkerchiefs
left in a jungle. Oh, Sunflower, foster
child of Old Bill Blake, 1960s advertising,
and baseball players: I bow my head
to you and yours.  You grow, I garden,
and it's all work, isn't it?

hans ostrom 2017

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Hanging Out with William Blake

It's possible to explain William Blake's writing.
I'm guilty of it myself.  I danced
with Tiriel in an article.  In  a refereed journal,
baby! I also convened with Blakeans
in Santa Cruz: ecstatic dancers, emergent
recluses, titans from research
universities,  Hippie refugees, Santa
Cruzeans, iconographers, and just
plain folks. Nothing against

Blakeans, but it seems more productive
to partake of Blake's texts
as if they formed a surreal festival.
Enjoy the music (I stole this idea
from A.E. Housman.) Put on a
costume yourself. Move into, with,
and against the crowd. In

the parlance of the Beats
(which they ripped off from
African Americans), Blake
is to be dug/not dug. Interpretation
and belief remain secondary.
Call the first if you think you
need it.  Avoid the second.

hans ostrom 2017

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Chessboard

Apologies to Mr. Blake,
For heaven's sake.

Chessboard, chessboard, black and white,
In the subtle cafe light,
What Indian and Persian eyes
Fugued your fearful geometries?

hans ostrom 2015

Monday, November 12, 2012

Today I Am Sure

Today I am sure
most of the poetry
written by William Blake
is unnecessarily complicated
and more or less
a pain in the ass.

Today I am sure
that life is the art
of delaying what is
inevitable and
what is recalcitrant.

Today I am sure
that greed
is a disorder,
an addiction that blinds
the sufferer
and corrodes society.

Copyright 2012 Hans Ostrom

Monday, February 23, 2009

Poets Who Paint, Painters Who Write

(image: painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti)

I've never had an art-lesson, and it shows. But I've been trying to paint and/or draw for decades. A few things have turned out okay, including an acrylic painting of a doe and a fawn, wherein the doe's backside faces the viewer. People seemed amused by that choice. I did some really weird facial caricatures in chalk-on-paper that make me laugh. I show them to almost no one. Then I did this big smear-paint-on-canvas thing, dominated by red, and I didn't think much of it (and still don't) and would have kept it in hiding except people with whom I live liked it enough to hang it--on the wall, I mean. This comes under the category of "go figure." I'm also an inveterate doodler, especially in meetings, and especially if I know where the meeting is heading. While I'm waiting for it to get there, I doodle, mostly faces, not faces I'm looking at, just faces.

Karl Shapiro painted a bit, I think, and so did John Betjeman. Kenneth Patchen actually made drawings to accompany his poems. I don't think they're very good, but what do I know? Blake, I guess, is the all-time champion, creating stupendous illuminations and engravings connected to his work. Dante Gabriel Rossetti painted very well and wrote very well.

So here's a shout-out to three bloggers who are poets who paint and painters who write. In some ways, blogging is a great medium for the writer/painter or painter/writer (and "painter" is kind of a place-holder for all sorts of visual art, including digital collages, photography, videography, etc.). In a weird way, the Internet is helping us loop back to medieval times, when texts were routinely illuminated and the visual & textual got on quite well. The bloggers: and on this one there is a link to another site with images of the blogger's paintings

And here's a link to Deb Richardson's site. She does quilts and visual collages (including the Emily/Elvis one up top):

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Horses in Cinema

Being a citizen of the United States, and of the western United States, and having grown up during an era in which the cinematic Western was quite popular, I watched a lot of Westerns in theaters and on TV. In Sweden, in 1994, I also learned from an Irish scholar (that is, a scholar from Ireland), that many Irish men more or less of our generation were and are awfully fond of Westerns.

The more eccentric the Western, the better, as far as I'm concerned. Therefore, I love the one with Johnny Depp (is it called Dead Man?), directed by Jim Jarmusch and featuring a splendid cast, including Robert Mitchum, who was acting in his last movie. I think Neil Young did the soundtrack.

The plot is witty and surreal, and what poet can resist a Western in which the protagonist is called William Blake? I like the "spaghetti" Westerns very much, partly because of the spare scripts and over-the-top music, but also because of the post-modern combination of Spanish locations, one American star, mostly Italian actors (although Klaus Kinski is in one), and an Italian director. One detail I liked in those movies was the food. It really looked like the kind of slop people had to eat in the West back then.

I'm awfully fond of High Noon, mostly for technical reasons (no fuss, no muss direction), the casting, and the tossing of the badge in the dirt at the end. Arguably, that movie is the grandfather or grandmother of the anti-hero Westerns from later decades, such as the Culpepper Cattle Company and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, although in the latter film, Altman does his dumb thing with dialogue and sound in which people mumble and are not audible on purpose. Just make the damn film.

With the exception of Dead Man and The Unforgiven, I don't like most contemporary Westerns, not Costner's, not the one with Kevin Kline and Danny Glover, not the one with Lou Diamond Philips and the other "rebels" of the moment. There's an abundance of predictability, an excess of costuming and sets, and a ponderousness of direction.

of course, is supposed to be a great film, and it has its moments, but Alan Ladd isn't believable, in my opinion. They couldn't ever really hide the fact that he was a miniature man who wouldn't last 2 seconds in a bar-fight. In that long fist-fight scene, I think they had to use all sorts of ramps and boxes for him to stand on. I thought Ven Heflin was terrific. Monte Walsh is a pretty darned good Western, with Lee Marvin and Jack Palance.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
is good because it has some real political, intellectual, racial, and sexual complexity to it. There's some great lore about Woody Strode and John Wayne on the set of that one, but I'll skip it. John Ford knew how to make movies, but I find most of them kind of boring, except for the use of exteriors, and almost all his movies are unbearably racist.

The greatest comic Western is Blazing Saddles, although Cat Balou is a close second. My favorite musical is a Western: Paint Your Wagon, in which the casting is superbly absurd: neither Marvin nor Eastwood can sing! How lovely. I'm one of the few people, apparently, who liked The Missouri Breaks. I loved Brando's cross-dressing schtick as "the Regulator." The Western Brando directed (I can't think of the name) fell apart, but it also had its moments. Brando didn't know how to direct. He probably wasn't practical enough.

I appreciate what they tried to do with Sharon Stone in that one Western, or maybe I don't; anyway, it was miserable. I can't think of a Western with a genuine female protagonist that really works. There's probably one out there.

On the small screen, I have to go with Deadwood. Before that, I really liked the Virginian--a 90-minute per week series! Seems incredible now. Gunsmoke left me cold.

But anyway, no matter what kind of Western it is, I always watch the horses. They are the movie within the movie. Hence this poem:

Cinematic Horses

In movies with horses, watch the horses,
not the actors. The horses are thinking
all the time. They react to phenomena
while professionally fulfilling the task of giving
a stunt-man a lift or standing still beneath
a vapid star who hates working with animals,
children, and complexity. Horses snort.

They rear their heads, swat at flies with their
tales, sweat. They appear not to understand
the plot. They fear smoke and loud noises,
get wild-eyed with fright for good reason.
Their intuition is as wide as a pasture.

No matter what the movie may be,
the horses tell a horse-story while
the film drains through its reels
into accounting books and profits,
the manure of Hollywood.

Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

For Rose-Gardeners

Is there a flower that humans have been more obsessed by than the rose? Maybe the cherry-blossom; and, indeed, the rose-obsession may be more Western--Greco-Roman/Euro-American--than Eastern. And it's a bit ironic that the rose itself is a bush, a shrub, and of course the cherry is a tree.

Lilies, orchids, daffodils, and poppies have all drawn their share of attention. But especially in Western religious and poetic traditions, the rose seems to have it all going on. Bill the Bard, Robert Burns, Bill Blake, Gertrude Stein, Jean Genet, and even George Eliot (in a wee poem) have famously weighed in on the rose. Rose-poems must number in the millions.

To those who grow roses--or, more accurately, assist roses in their growth--the rose tends to discard its several cultural symbols and starts to represent work, a battleground (chiefly person v. fungus and person v. aphid), a vegetative entity with diva-like whims but also astonishing resilience, and unrequited love. Yes, rose-gardeners fall in love with their roses, in many cases. It's not a pretty sight. That's when the whole thorn v. blossom mythology kicks in.

I had a 20-year fling with roses. Mulching, pruning, spraying (I stuck to organic sprays like neem oil, and a mild, non-detergent soapy spray does just fine with aphids), weeding, staring. A lot of staring. And sighing--in frustration. Fertilizing (I liked organic fertilizers). There is, of course, the illusion that it's all worth it--such as when you pick what really looks like the perfect rose--a blossom, say, from a Mister Lincoln--and the color & perfume really do almost make you swoon, and then you show it to someone else, and they almost swoon. From different objective distances, however, one may raise all sorts of objections to the time and energy spent on roses, to the Rose Industry (floral shops, rose "breeders," garden shops), and to the culture's rose-fetish.

Oddly enough, the most amazing roses I've seen are wild ones growing in a pasture in the Sierra Nevada. They basically turn into huts--an igloo of vines. Once one of our neighbors read about how much Vitamin C was in rose hips--those knots that grow after the petals have fallen--and she began to brew and drink rose-hip tea. Apparently the wild rose-hips had something else in them, however, because she got a little loopy and had to give up the tea. Jonesing for rose-hips. Wow.

Solid tips I picked up over the years: in the Pacific Northwest, prune roses on or near President's day; prune roses into a kind of bowl-shape, and attempt to eliminate the branches on the inside (roses seem to need some space "inside" to ventilate themselves; don't over-fertilize (I know: but what does that mean?) ; checking for aphids is actually more important than waging war on them (when you see them, spray a mild solution of Ivory soap on them; also, ladybugs really do like to dine on aphids).

In the imaginary court of gardening, roses and I reached an amicable rose-divorce. When I stroll past an impressive rose garden, I am most intrigued--and then fatigued, as I imagine all that work, the constant attention.

I did exceptionally well with two kinds of roses, both venerable--Queen Elizabeth and Mister Lincoln, one pink and the other red. I did okay with Peace roses, too, and I had pretty good luck with yellow roses--Sun Sprite was one I liked. A rose called Oklahoma did not do well in the Pacific Northwest, at least for me (and I'm a rank amateur), but that one had my favorite rose-aroma. Roses by other names didn't smell as sweet, nyuk, nyuk.

A poem, then, for rose-gardeners (I think it's in iambic tetrameter):

For Rose-Gardeners

To one who cares for roses, rose
Refers to the whole plant; the flow-
Ers are a kind of coda. To one
Who cares, the tale is in the soil,
Which should be dark and rich and loose.
It should be mulched, and it should breathe,
Perhaps give off a faint bouquet
Of chocolate. The tale proceeds
In pulpy roots of rose, and in
The branches which shoot up so fast
The green-and-purplish growth can seem
A little other-worldly. Leaves
Have much to say as well. They should
Be waxy and deep green but are
Impressionable, go black or brown
Or yellow from the merest wink
Of fungus. Thorns amaze--ornate
Medieval armor for a plant. If
The flowers come and keep coming,
Then one who cares for roses has
Assisted earth and plant to tell
The story well and now may stare,
May bend to sniff perfume or clip
In twilight of a long ritual--
The caring for the whole rose plant.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Housman Defines Poetry and Drinks a Beer

In my opinion, A.E. Housman's The Name and Nature of Poetry (Cambridge U. Press, 1933; also published by Macmillan in the U.S. the same year) ought to be as well regarded as Sir Philip Sidney's A Defence of Poetry, but it is a less well known book.

I just acquired a good used copy of the it; it was purchased in 1933 by its first owner--on September 20 of that year, if a note in pencil on the first page is to be believed. The brief book reprints Housman's Leslie Stephen Lecture at Cambridge on May 9, 1933, about three years before Housman's death. Housman was a professor of Latin at Cambridge for a long time.

Housman did not consider himself to be a literary critic. He writes (that is to say, he said), "In these twenty-two years [since last giving a lecture to a similar assembled body] I have improved in some respect and deteriorated in others; but I have not so much improved as to become a literary critic, nor so much deteriorated as to fancy that I have become one" (2). The well wrought prose and self-deprecation function as excellent rhetoric, establishing Housman's ethos and pretending to lower expectations.

He then states that he had first intended to talk about a subject that he believes can be approached with scientific certainty: "The Artifice of Versification." The topic appealed to him because he could approach it with such certainty, whereas trying to define poetry seemed a hopelessly murky enterprise. He thereby implies what he will later state: poetry is more than merely versifying. He then admits, "When one begins to discuss the nature of poetry, the first impediment in the way is the inherent vagueness of the name, and the number of its legitimate senses" (5). Although he admits what most of us admit when embarking on a definition of poetry--that poetry is almost impossible to define satisfactorily--he quickly gets down to cases, quoting two passages of poetry:

Now Gilpin had a pleasant wit
And loved a timely joke.
And thus unto the Callender
In merry guise he spoke.

I came because your horse would come;
And, if I well forbode,
My hat and wig will soon be here;
They are upon the road.

(This is from a poem by Cowper.)

Come, worthy Greek, Ulysses, come,
Possess these shores with me:
The winds and seas are troublesome,
And here we may be free.
Here may we sit and view their toil
That travail in the deep,
And joy the day in mirth the while,
And spend the night in sleep.

(This is from a poem by Samuel Daniel.)

Housman pronounces the first excerpt "capital"--as verse, but not as poetry. He pronounces the second poetry--and also calls it "perfect," adding, "and nothing more than perfection can be demanded of anything: yet poetry is capable of more than this, and more therefore is expected from it." So he thinks example two is good enough verse--verse with some substance--to be called poetry, and then he suggests that we ought to demand even more than perfection from poetry. No doubt Housman was aware that, by definition, more than perfection cannot be expected, but he was taking and we shall grant him poetic license, so to speak.

Housman thinks this next excerpt is even better (it is from a poem by Michael Bruce):

Sweet bird, thy bower is ever green,
Thy sky is ever clear;
Thou hast no sorrow in thy song,
No winter in thy year.

What Housman detects in this excerpt is the presence of emotion represented.

The excerpts were probably known to Housman's audience but not necessarily famous, and I like the fact that he chose excerpts that are unexpected, that aren't "ringers" of one kind or another. And Housman, is, it would seem, seriously trying to show us the relatively slight differences between and among mere verse, good verse, and verse that qualifies as good poetry.
The lecture then goes on to indict 18th century British poetry for being overwhelmed by the intellect to the exclusion of emotion and intuition. He writes,

"When I hear anyone say, with defiant emphasis, that [Alexander] Pope was a poet, I suspect him of calling in ambiguity of language to promote confusion of thought. That Pope was a poet is true; but it is one of those truths which are beloved of liars, because they serve so well the cause of falsehood. That Pope was not a poet is false; but a righteous man, standing in awe of the last judgment and the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, might well prefer to say it" (30).

One of his points, I think, is that although Pope was a magnificent maker of verse--chiefly verse in heroic couplets--his poetry was too dominated by satiric impulses, dry intellect, and obsession with immediate politics and society to be what Housman might consider "real" poetry. He can't claim Pope was no poet. He can claim that, if I, for example, were forced to say who was the real poet--Alexander Pope or Emily Dickinson or A.E. Housman--I'd probably go with Dickinson and/or Housman every time--especially if the penalty for choosing incorrectly were to be tossed in that burning lake!

Housman then pushes the envelope and objects so strongly to the dominance of intellect in poetry that he claims that, for poetry, he prefers Blake at his best even when Blake is making no sense, simply because his poetry is so splendid. Hmmm. I think this comes close to a contradiction, because the first excerpt from Cowper was certainly pleasant verse--but not "real" poetry, and he just got through suggesting that the great technician Pope was suspect as a real poet. However, I also think Housman is contrasting Blake to Pope to reemphasize that Pope was tuned in chiefly to intellect and the artifice of versification, whereas Blake was tuned in to something more mysterious.

Housman does not go on to embrace 19th century British verse unthinkingly, and he claims that many people in the Victorian and Edwardian periods liked Wordsworth's poetry simply because of the philosophy (regarding nature) they believed it projected.

Then come three astonishing moments. First, on pages 45-46, Housman reports that someone from America wrote to him and asked him to define "poetry." Housman replied that "I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognised the object by symptoms which it provokes in us." So, after the tour of specific excerpts and poets, Housman stands his ground and says that poetry is too hard to define but that he knows it when he sees it (as that Supreme Court justice knew pornography when he saw it even though he couldn't define "pornography" precisely).

Next, he calls poetry a "secretion." Now, Housman possessed a learned, alert, and ironic mind, so he was well aware of most if not all the smart-aleck remarks his serious claim might elicit. He had to have known he was taking a risk in telling the truth as he saw it, adding, "whether a natural secretion, like turpentine in the fir, or a morbid secretion, like the pearl in the oyster." He then says that, in his case, his poetry is more like the pearl than turpentine.

Finally, he describes his writing process (48): "Having drunk a pint of beer at luncheon--beer is a sedative to the brain, and my afternoons are the least intellectual portion of my life--I would go out for a walk of two or three hours. As I went along, thinking of nothing in particular, only looking at things around me and following the progress of the seasons, there would flow into my mind, with sudden and unaccountable emotion, sometimes a line or two of verse, sometimes a whole stanza at once, accompanied, not preceded, by a vague notion of a poem which they were destined to form part of."

A pint of beer, a long walk (away from purely intellectual pursuits), and an openness to or a readiness to listen for some lines and phrases: that was the Housman Way. (If I were to have read this when I was 20, I might have focused on the beer, exclusive of the two- or three-mile walk.) Fascinating.

In the book, Housman may protest too much against "the intellect" and its effect on poetry, for in addition to the strength of the verse itself and the emotion in his poetry, the ideas in his poetry appeal enormously to me and many others, and I suspect he liked ideas in poems as much as the next Latin professor, his claims about liking Blake's poetry (even when Blake made no sense) notwithstanding. Also, we might note that he circumvents any discussion of Whitman, the free-verse giant (he does mention one American--Poe) or of all the Modernist poetry that had arisen--erupted, if you will--in the decades just before 1933. He sticks with what he knows well: verse; "Old School" poetry. Since then, many readers, critics, and anthologists have asserted that free-verse poetry can be as beautiful as well written formal verse. But in this lecture, Housman sticks with poetry produced between the time of Shakespeare and the time of Matthew Arnold. Of Shakespeare, he writes that although (of course) Shakespeare was capable of producing great poetry, the poetry could be "confounded in a great river" (39) of ideas, observations, and conflict, whereas Blake's poetry could "be drunk pure from a slender channel of its own." I prefer almost all of Shakespeare's and Housman's poetry to almost all of Blake's--because I don't see the poetry as being confounded or made impure by other elements. For me, the other elements (ideas, rhetoric, irony) are poetic, when combined a certain way.

That is, I rather like the rhetoric and the argument in Sonnet 18, as well as the superb phrasing and the lovely meter and rhyme. In fact, the unabashed arrogance (although, if you can do it, it "ain't bragging") of Sonnet 18 is what makes it so winning for me--the argument being that the lover to and of whom he writes is destined to be immortal, after a fashion, because his poem will make her (probably "her") so.

Ah, but what a great read this little (50 pages) book is, and how wonderful to observe Housman taking a tour of poems and poets he considers just okay, good, and great. And to hear about how some of his poems first sprang to life (drinking beer, walking, musing) is warmly amusing and instructive.

In the book, Housman states that he is no critic and implies that he is more Latin scholar than poet, but now, of course, we view him as poet first, perhaps as critic second, and then (arguably) Latin scholar third. (Latin scholars may object.) Housman can't be happy about that, nor can he be entirely surprised. Those walks after his having downed a pint were simply too productive! Raise a glass and a poetic pen to A.E. In between the raisings, get some exercise!