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February 27, 2010

Old Friends - Taran, Eilonwy, Vesper, The Arkadians and The Beggar Queen

Before J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman, before Tannith Lee and Rick Riordan, before Garth Nix and Christopher Paolini, before Cornelia Funke (but after C.S. Lewis) there was Lloyd Alexander.

I spent Thursday evening at a local book store, filming students from our Orchestra performing at a fund-raising event. While I was there, I had a good coversation with a young author /artist friend and fellow tribal member. She enjoys writing, but is not so keen at performing (the other event going on was
a poetry slam of sorts). That's OK. Being creative is largely its own reward. Monetary rewards (except perhaps in Paolini's case) can sometimes take a while. Such was the case with Lloyd
Alexander (1924-2007), who vowed, at age 15, that he was going to be a writer, and went on to become an award-winning American author. He certainly found his niche in life - a very important niche - explaining important things about life in ways that a child could understand (my apologies to Ron Nyswaner).

After military service in Europe at the end of World War II, Lloyd studied in Paris, married his wife Janine, and returned to the U.S. to write. And he wrote, and he wrote, and he wrote, and he submitted manuscripts to publishers and was rejected time and again. It was ten years before one of his books was published (obviously he did other things to make a living) and seventeen years before he found out that his true skill was in targeting a younger audience. His first success, as Anne Lamott or Stephen King would would predict, came when he began to 'write what you know' - he wrote about his job and his relationship with his wife.
Alexander really found his voice, however when he shifted from writing about the here and now, to writing in fantasy worlds of his own creation, and when he began writing for a younger audience.

Alexander wrote his fantasy novels using simple but striking images and well developed characters to tell entertaining and captivating stories whose subtext included lessons on the value of loyalty, patience, diligence, bravery, curiosity, and tolerance. Alexander's adolescent novels often used simplified or re-interpreted versions of familiar story lines from history, mythology and folklore as the context for these lessons, and did so in ways that rang true to the original in a manner that present-day authors often seem unable to grasp. He was an awesome storyteller. If I remember correctly, in The Arkadians his Odysseus character re-tells the trojan war in perhaps three pages without seeming rushed.

His best-known books are a story that is very similar, in many respects, to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, but aimed at a younger audence. The Prydain Chronicles, which won two Newberry Awards, have many plot and character parallels with Middle Earth, but call heavily upon Welsh and Greek mythology. The three Fates play a significant role, for example, as does the Book of Three, in which the characters' lives and fates are, in a sense already written. The Welsh background, by the way, comes from the time
Alexander spent in Wales during his military training.

As I mentioned,
Alexander decided to become a writer at age 15 after reading Dickens and Shakespeare. Not an obvious choice for the son of a stockbroker whose parents did not like to read even though, according to an interview cited in his obituary in the Washington Post, "...they had lots of books. They bought them at the Salvation Army to fill up empty shelves."

Like his characters Taran and Eilonwy, he and Janine had a long and happy life together, living in suburban Philadelphia, and both passing away within a few weeks of each other in 2007. He received two National Book Awards and authored some 40 books, the last published after his death at 83.

Continue reading "Old Friends - Taran, Eilonwy, Vesper, The Arkadians and The Beggar Queen" »

February 07, 2010

Escher's Tesselations

I spent and enjoyable afternoon Saturday at a local art fair and museum with two of my children, an outing that included the museum's featured exhibit of works by M.C. Escher. The exhibit was extensive, encompassing over 300 of Escher's 445 known finished works, and included the furnishings of his workroom along with some of his drafting tools and "cancelled" stone blocks of some of his better known lithographs.

Maurits Cornelis Escher (1878-1972) was a Dutch graphic artist whose drawings, woodcut prints, and lithographs are amazing for their textures, patterns, and exploration of 2-d and 3-d geometry. The exhibit also included both his preliminary pencil and ink sketches for some notable works, and in one case, his mathematical calculations for projecting one of his "impossible" geometries onto a flat piece of paper.

Nearly all art is the expression of some type of pattern or other. The rhyme scheme or rhythm of a poem, the repeating melody and beat of a piece of music, the patterns of color or contrast that make a painting memorable, the storyline of boy finds girl / boy loses girl / boy finds girl again, gospel's call and response / call and response / call and response, an author's use of asonance and disonance. Some of the best art is that which blends together the patterns and contrasts in the world around us to create something new and different.

Escher was a master of this synthesis. He could look at a flat plane in space and imagine tesselations - breaking the smooth featureless surface into intricate patterns of repeating interwoven shapes - which might subside back into smoothness or might suddenly evolve into the infinitely large or infinitely small. Escher also liked visual paradoxes - impossible arrangements in space where the question of "which way is up" is meaningless. He liked the ideas of cycles with infinite repetition or recursion - like mobius strips inflated into fully three-dimensional geometries.

Among his most famous designs are an image of a hand drawing a second hand, which is in turn drawing the first hand. Another is a room filled with stairways, doors and windows with figures posed on impossible surfaces as if gravity was pulling in all directions at once. Another is a pair of identical landscapes - "Day and Night" overlaid with interwoven flocks of tesselated birds, half white, half black.

Escher's images tell their stories with a clarity and simplicity that seriously belies the effort he must have put into them. Even his straightforward graphics of city scenes and landscapes from his travels in Spain and Italy have an otherworldly quality, every shadow etched with crisp precision.

While I have always been a fan of his art, the most fascinating exhibit item for me was actually the door of Escher's studio cabinet in which his wooden squares, rules, and triangles were kept. Taped to the door were photographs that he had chosen to have in his studio, to look at day in and day out over the years. There were photos of his childhood, of him as a young man, photos of his son, and two photos of him with his wife Jetta.

Those two photos caught my eye - one I think was of the two of them at the reception after their their wedding, raising champaigne glasses towards each other in a toast. The two figures, in their formal dress and the high contrast of a very old photo, poised with their glasses raised in perfect symmetry. The other appears to be taken outdoors a few years later, Jetta sitting at an angle across Mauritis lap, the vertical corner of a rural building behind them splitting the scene into two nearly matching portraits, hands at their sides, faces each at a quarter-turn. I think these were special for Escher becaue they captured his life in a way that mirrored so appropriately his life's work - turning patterns into life, and then back into patterns again.

October 23, 2009

The end of the world (again?)

Rebecca Powell: "2012 It's not a doomsday, it's not the end, it is the beginning. what are your thoughts on the Mayan Prophecy? Has anyone read..Thiaoouba Prophecy by Michael Desmarquet and /or You're not who you think you are By Alfred Gaulden ?"

Rebecca makes a good point - there have been quite a few movies and books with apocolyptic themes lately. Whether the cause is astronomical ( Knowing) or of our own making ( Wall-e, would you believe?) The evangelical sandwichboardman proclaiming the end of the world has been a character spoofed in literature and film for most of the last century. End-of-the-world stories (like baseball stories) are often good material for books and film.

My personal favorite in the film category would be Crack in the World (1965) where arrogance and bad science are the culprits.My favorite story on this theme was written by Arthur C. Clarke, and titled "The Nine Billion Names of God." It is a VERY short story written in 1954 - maybe the shortest ever to win a Hugo award. It's from a period when Clarke was writing lots of creative short stories. A clandestine copy or two are available on the web if you look around. Classify it as a non-violent end -of-the-universe story.

Among the more famous end-of the-world quotes is from T.S. Eliot's The Hollow Men:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

There is also Robert Frost's Fire and Ice:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Before you get too worried over the significance of any particular date, realize this - the actual correlation between most ancient calendars and the current Gregorian calendar is a matter of convention - not a matter of precision. We say it is Friday the 23rd of October A.D. or C.E., and calendars have been kept regularly for hundreds of years. But it has not always been so. Read the first few paragraphs of this Wikipedia summary:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calendar_reform and you'll get an idea of why obsessing over a particular date is pointless.

And if anyone feeds you a line about the ancient Mayan calendar and how it 'runs out' at some conveniently symmetrical data and time, note that said calendar:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayan_calendar is no bargain either. Nor are there any Mayans around to tell us if anyone understands it correctly.

Rest easy, class of 2013.

--Steve
ki/Mayan_calendar is no bargain either. Nor are there any Mayans around to tell us if anyone understands it correctly. Rest easy, class of 2013.--Steveki/Calendar_reform and you'll get an idea of why obsessing over a particular date is pointless. And if anyone feeds you a line about the ancient Mayan calendar and how it 'runs out' at some conveniently symmetrical data and time, note that said calendar: ki/Mayan_calendar is no bargain either. Nor are there any Mayans around to tell us if anyone understands it correctly. Rest easy, class of 2013.--Steve

October 09, 2009

The Poppy Paradox


A verbose political literary editorial. Be forewarned and forearmed with caffeine and an aspirin or two . . .

Time travel stories aside, paradox is counterintuitivity. It is two things that can’t mutually be true, but appear to be, based on our presumptions or our mind’s inability to understand or describe the world around us, or realize the difference between generalization and specificity.

Life is like that. We see things one way, and can’t imagine another viewpoint, until something changes in us - an experience, a relationship, the passage of time – and what could not be true or important or desired suddenly is true, is important, is what you desire. “That can never happen to me” becomes “it already has”. Youth cannot conceive of its own mortality until it has tasted fear and pain and loss in a very personal way. Throughout the ages, governments have taken advantage of the simple fact that youth cannot even imagine its own ignorance, let alone its mortality. This is what makes War possible in the first place – the perception of invincibility, when in fact we are very fragile creatures. A paradox.

Tragedy, by its nature is paradoxical. It is about transformation between opposing situations – life and death, fame and infamy, happiness and grief, having the luck of the Irish and being on the receiving end of a gypsy curse. Sometimes what befalls us is a creature of our own making - and sometimes it is ‘fate’ – in the Greek sense – your thread has reached its end. And, as Mark Twain might have said, sometimes it is just the pure cussed randomness of life.

In literature, tragedies are stories in which the great are humbled – because of their prideful arrogance (hubris) or ignorance, or simply because the Fates decided that it would be so – choose your preferred side of the nature/nurture argument. (By the way, literature dislikes the concept of randomness, despite empirical evidence of the Gaussian nature of life).

Tragedy in modern times has a far more journalistic tinge. Every newscaster thinks they’re Aeschylus. We have a more generalized view of our heroes (small ‘h’) and tragedy has a broader use in the language. Things are tragic because of their suddenness, their irony, or their impact. We collectively mourn the loss of a potential hero - a parent, a spouse, a leader, or simply someone who loved and was loved and depended upon by others. Tragedy makes you look, makes you listen. It’s the hook that will make you stick around and watch the evening news to see the who /what /where /when /why that make the How tragic.

This idea of lost potential, of a life unfinished is one that is emotionally gripping for many people. We abhor an unfinished story, a task left undone – a hope unfulfilled – a wrong un-righted. This emotion is, in fact, a dangerous vulnerability, and throughout history it has been used - with considerable effectiveness - by people in positions of influence as leverage to achieve some very self-serving goals. It is a string (a thread?) to be pulled, a tool to be used, to manipulate people.

Before you begin to write me off as a conspiracy theorist, consider what I refer to as the Poppy Paradox, after a very well-known piece by Canadian army officer, doctor, and War Poet, John McCrae, who wrote this memorial upon the death of his friend Lieutenant Alexis Helmer in May, 1915, during the early part of the Great War:

In Flanders Fields

IN FLANDERS fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

McCrae wrote this as a personal piece – he did not originally mean for it to be published, yet it became an anthem for those remembering the thousands of soldiers who died in the trench warfare of World War I. Like many military memorials, it was also an effective propaganda and recruiting piece. McCrae says, in the last stanza, that the torch has been passed to you and that you must take up the fight, because if you don’t, you “break faith” with the dead – and they will haunt you (“We shall not sleep”). He also uses the image of poppy flowers (usually a vibrant blood-red) amongst the white crosses – blood on the cross – as a Biblical allusion - to reinforce the sacrifices of the dead and add another layer of meaning to “breaking faith”.

So what is the Poppy Paradox? Simply that the dead are not speaking – they can’t – they’re dead. It’s only a poetic device. People are always putting words into their mouths as a way to manipulate the living. . McCrae’s writing was probably cathartic – a way for him to give his friend’s death some meaning. Historically, however, many who use this technique (the invocation of what the dead would say if they were able to speak) do it to suit their own ends – whether those ends are to get elected, to sell more newspapers, to extract revenge, or simply gain more wealth and power.

If the dead could talk, they would probably be saying that they didn’t expect to end up dead at age 18 or 19; they thought they were immortal until reality came crashing down upon them in the form of a bullet, a bomb, a cloud of poison gas, or an unseen microbe. If they knew before death what they ‘know‘ post-mortem, they wouldn’t be encouraging others to join them in fertilizing the (blood-red) Flanders poppies. McCrae actually threw away the paper this poem was written on – perhaps he realized that he had written something both powerful and dangerous – it was retrieved by a fellow soldier.

McCrae’s poem was published in Punch in 1915. He lived to see about three more years of the war before dying of pneumonia, perhaps one more victim of the flu pandemic that swept through Europe and elsewhere. He was buried in Wimereux, France, not far from Flanders, where he, too, became food for poppies.

If you have a particularly strong stomach, you might consider reading a piece by Wilfred Owen, another War poet from World War I. His Poem, Dulce et Decorum Est, http://theotherpages.org/poems/books/owen/owen.html#sweetoems/books/owen/owen.html#sweet , gives a far more graphic and harrowing view of the war and its dead, and a much different opinion on the message their death should give.

So the lesson here is to honor the dead (soldiers and non-combatants), but don’t let anyone get away with claiming that ‘the dead’ want you to take care of some unfinished business on their behalf – that you dishonor their memory by not becoming another casualty yourself. The dead can not talk anymore than they can vote (thanks to Thurgood Marshall for that one). Remember too that art can be a powerful form of expression, and that any art form (poetry, music, sculpture) can be designed (or co-opted) to influence you. So, to paraphrase a recent anti-drug campaign, endeavor to “live above the influence.”

I have had this editorial post in the works for a while, so it is just coincidental that our American president was unexpectedly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday morning – and like Mikhail Gorbachev – received it more for what he is expected to do than what he has already done. We’ll have to see if he, too, can find a way to “live above the influence”, and to live up to the high standard of accomplishment set by some of the past recipients.

September 25, 2009

The Footballer's Wife and the Astronaut

A while back I mentioned that the Poetry Subject Index for Carpe Diem had been updated. Carpe Diem is a Latin idiom that translates into English as "seize the day." It’s an exhortation to live life to the fullest. In life and in literature we often admire people who lived large and made a lasting impression. We may idolize them and celebrate their accomplishments and the lasting impact they have had on the world around us. From this, perhaps, we get the term celebrity.

A celebrity is someone who has gained fame - become widely known. Here in the 21st century, the standard for fame falls a little short of Homeric. In fact, the standard seems to sink lower on a daily basis as the media search moves from A-list to B-list to Z-list personalities in an effort to keep our multitudinous communications channels filled with something. In fact, most of them have notoriety rather than celebrity - fame for behaving badly (infamy, in fact).

There is another Latin idiom, Ubi Sunt, or "where are they" - where have the great ones gone, those men and women who seized the day, lived in the moment and did great things. We see this concept used in life and literature too - nostalgia for our heroes and icons of days gone by. This is a very bittersweet concept, especially in the case of those whose lives were short. This is also a very ancient concept - the Greeks celebrated the memory of their short-lived heroes with 'heroic' epithets (from the Greek epitheton) or iconic descriptions. If you have read any of Homer's epic poems  - the Iliad and the Odyssey, or even the later Aeneid by Virgil - you know of the swift-footed Achilles, clever Odysseus, Ajax the great, bold Diomedes, Hector tamer of horses, and of course Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world.

So what put me on this tack today? The Footballer's (soccer player's) Wife - a well-structured ubi sunt song by Amy MacDonald. My son Nick gave this music to me over the summer. The wistful tone in MacDonald's voice is very well suited to the lyrics, which say, in part,

Oh Mr James Dean, he don't belong to anything
Oh he left before they could get him
With their ways, their wicked ways

Oh Marilyn Monroe, where did you go?
I didn't hear all your stories
I didn't see all your glory
 

But the footballer's wife tells her troubles and strife
I just don't care in the end
Who is she to pretend
That she's one of them?
I don't think so
And the girl from that show
Yes the one we all know
She thinks she's some kinda star
Yes you know who you are
I don't think so, I don't think so

Oh Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire
Won't you dance for me cos I just don't care
What's going on today
I think there's something more, something more

She rails effectively against today's pretenders to celebrity, 

Oh I don't believe in the selling of your glories
Before you leave this life, there's so much more to see
I don't believe this is how the world should be

As counterpoint - I listened to a talk this week by poet, photographer, mechanic, surgeon, farmer, entrepreneur, parent, astronaut and former fellow Lexington, Kentucky native Story Musgrave - a man with six children, seven graduate degrees, and a very compelling biography. He also has a story that still has "more to see" at age 74. His very appropriate first name is shared by his youngest child, daughter Story, age 3. There's a poem in there, somewhere.

May 20, 2009

Too Many Topics

When I have gone for a long period without writing, I tend to get over-ambitious and choose a rather complex topic to start up again. This spring has been particularly busy with happenings - both in terms of items in the news and in terms of anniversaries of past events. In keeping with this awkward tradition, this post covers sonnets, detective stories, and the entire English language.

One recent study in the news commented that while English is only the 3rd most commonly spoken language (after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish), it is still by far the most common language on-line. The widespread use of English around the globe contributes to its continuing evolution as a language – particularly in terms of vocabulary. Sometime this spring the 1,000,000 word was recognized. When does something earn the status of being an official word in the language?

The gold standard used to be inclusion in the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) – which has a staff devoted to assessing usage an judging when common usage reaches a level to be recognized. The OED remains the gold standard for dictionaries (http://www.oed.com/ ) but its editors admit that since we have a living language, no one book (regardless of how many volumes it contains) captures the language in its entirety. Web-based search engines now scout for words on-line, and count frequency of use for ‘new’ words – this is where the estimate of one million English words comes from.

One of the most prolific, and the most recognized writer in the English language was English playwright and poet William Shakespeare. Today marks the 400th anniversary of the publishing of Shakespeare’s sonnets. While he is most known for his plays, his 154 sonnets (http://theotherpages.org/poems/sonnet01.htmloems/sonnet01.html)  show how wonderfully concise he could be in shaping the language to make a point. Shakespeare is credited with adding (or at least being the first to use in print) over 16,000 words to the language.

His sonnets also showcase his technique of ‘playing’ on words – using a well chosen word that carries two meanings – both of which make sense in the context of the work, though the meanings may be very different. Most of the sonnets take an individual metaphor, and carry it through in great detail, with a twist or a turn toward the end to grab attention or make a point. Sonnet 143 is a good example:

CXLIII.

Lo! as a careful housewife runs to catch
One of her feather'd creatures broke away,
Sets down her babe and makes an swift dispatch
In pursuit of the thing she would have stay,
Whilst her neglected child holds her in chase,
Cries to catch her whose busy care is bent
To follow that which flies before her face,
Not prizing her poor infant's discontent;
So runn'st thou after that which flies from thee,
Whilst I thy babe chase thee afar behind;
But if thou catch thy hope, turn back to me,
And play the mother's part, kiss me, be kind:
    So will I pray that thou mayst have thy 'Will,'
     If thou turn back, and my loud crying still.


There are many mysteries associated with Shakespeare’s sonnets, including who the major characters were in real life (the Fair Youth, the Dark Lady, the Rival Poet), whether Shakespeare actually wrote all of them, how they came to be published, and who the inscription to the book refers to.

This should be no surprise to anyone who has read or seen Shakespeare’s plays performed. His comedies (the ones in which everyone gets married at the end) all depend on misdirection and, of course, mistaken identity – with the truth not revealed until the end.

If you’ll excuse a rather strained topical and temporal segue -- modern readers, moviegoers, TV watchers, etc. have become addicted to a similar concept or literary conceit in the form of the ‘mystery’, or more specifically, the ‘detective story’ – where we follow the logic of the search until the truth is revealed at the end.

An American author and poet, Edgar Allen Poe, is credited with writing the first ‘Modern’ detective stories, featuring C. Auguste Dupin. We know Poe mostly for his darkly themed poetry and short stories, but “The Murders in the Rue Morgue (in the street of the dead)”, published in 1841, established the key elements for a seemingly infinite procession of detective stories and police procedural dramas to come. In keeping with Poe’s predominantly dark themes it starts off with a particularly horrific and graphic crime to grip the reader’s attention.

The story is also a ‘locked room’ puzzle -- the kind especially well suited to a master of deductive reasoning ….. like Sherlock Holmes. Holmes was the creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and this week marks the sesquicentennial (150 year anniversary) of Doyle’s birth in Edinburgh, Scotland. Doyle wrote 56 stories around the characters of Sherlock Holmes and his friend/biographer Dr. Watson. Watson, who, like Doyle himself was a medical doctor, provided an effective foil for Holmes, making the obvious assumptions and errors that made Holmes’ leaps of deduction all the more dramatic.
Actor Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

Doyle was not much for writing verse. There are only two poems in the collection (http://theotherpages.org/poems/poem-cd.html#doyle2oems/poem-cd.html#doyle2 ) by him, and they lack the excitement of his prose. His famous detective and his descriptions of London crowded out his other characters and settings, except one. Doyle’s Professor Challenger – whose Lost World was an archetype for many more stories, and perhaps deserves an article of his own.

February 26, 2009

Rats and The Wall

While browsing through the 1920 edition of the "Granite Monthly", I ran across some poems by Albert Annett, a historian and sometimes poet. One of them, Anarchism (http://theotherpages.org/poems/part2/annett01.html) struck me as dramatic, pointed, and undeniably relevant, nearly 90 years later.

In particular, the last four lines seemed to sum up the current worldwide financial crisis and all of its collateral damage more succinctly than anything I've seen in today's mass media or among all the ranting talking heads of our day:

RATS undermined the wall,
And while men slept
The floods that basined in the hills, smiled at the day,
Crept in by stealth and tore their bounds away:
And onward swept
Where busy towns in tranquil beauty kept
The peace; and with the power of many waters pent
Homes were engulfed and hills in twain were rent.
Steeple and tower
Fell toppling down, and in a breath
When happiness had dwelt, were devastation, woe and death,
And these few words were written of the fall:
While watchman slept
Rats undermined the wall.

Annett's metaphor is a simple and powerful, and could apply to several different worries of our day or of his. Annett wrote in a post-war era where physical acts of anarchism (terrorism in today's lexicon) were widely reported in the papers, and where the rich and powerful of Europe and America looked on the recent Russian Revolution with fear and apprehension. I haven't read enough by Annett to know his 'politics' well enough to infer which 'flood' Annett intended as the primary target for his metaphor. There were waves of immigration, of socialist and communist politics, loosening of moral stigmas as the U.S. moved from the war era into the 'Roaring 20's", and of course the same kinds of corruption and profiteering that come to light in every era.

Who knows? Annett may have simply been a baeball fan upset about the 'Black Sox' scandal.

Regardless of Annett's target, the poem is still highly charged and highly effective in our day. Feel free to forward this to the local bank regulator, sports commissioner, or government watchdog agency of your choice.....

--Steve

December 16, 2008

Bierce, Technology, Satire and Sarcasm

Ambrose Bierce had a difficult life in many respects, which may have been what gave his written works such a darkly satirical outlook. Best known for his highly sardonic 'The Devil's Dictionary", he was also known for his writings about the U.S. Civil war - both fiction and non-fiction based on his experiences and observations. Thes stories and accounts are singularly graphic in describing the human carnage, desctruction, and senselessness of war.

Bierce also wrote a fair number of horror stories - not much of a stretch considering his war stories. What fewer people know is that he was a persistent poet, writing short verses and epigrams regularly to capture his opinions - and frequently skewering his contemporary poets, authors, politicians, and other public figures.

I've just added 30 selections from one of Bierce's collections, Shapes of Clay, http://theotherpages.org/poems/bierce02.html   which contains a wide range of works, All written with his distictive outlook and "wait for punchline" style. Technology, http://theotherpages.org/poems/bierce02.html#technology  whose title refers to the terminology used in a particular profession, is a good example.

Whle they were written over a century ago while Bierce was living mainly in San Francisco, much of the pieces are highly relevant today amidst our widely opposing political opinions, financial shnanigans, and societal issues. I think Bierce would hold his own against any smug talking head of the present day. The short epigrams in particular are very potent in their critique. The Builder is typical:

A Builder

I SAW the devil--he was working free:
A customs-house he builded by the sea.
"Why do you this?" The devil raised his head;
"Churches and courts I've built enough," he said.

One of Bierce's most characteristic works is Freedom from The Cynic's Work Book, published three years later in 1906 which was one of the earliest poems included in our collection:

Freedom

FREEDOM, as every schoolboy knows,
Once shrieked as Kosciusko fell;
On every wind, indeed, that blows
I hear her yell.

She screams whenever monarchs meet,
And parliaments as well,
To bind the chains about her feet
And toll her knell.

And when the sovereign people cast
The votes they cannot spell,
Upon the lung-impested blast
Her clamors swell.

For all to whom the power's given
To sway or to compel,
Among themselves apportion heaven
And give her hell.

Kosciusko (Tadeusz Kościuszko), by the way, a Polish military strategist and general who was instrumental in the American Revolutionary War, 'fell' while battling for Polish independence two decades later. What I did not know unitl recently, was that he survived and battled on through diplomatic means for Polish identity and soverignty. He died in 1817 in Switzerland.

--Steve

I SAW the devil--he was working free:A customs-house he builded by the sea. "Why do you this?" The devil raised his head; "Churches and courts I've built enough," he said. One of Bierce's most characteristic works is Freedom from , published three years later in 1906 which was one of the earliest poems included in our collection:FREEDOM, as every schoolboy knows, Once shrieked as Kosciusko fell; On every wind, indeed, that blows I hear her yell.She screams whenever monarchs meet, And parliaments as well, To bind the chains about her feet And toll her knell.And when the sovereign people cast The votes they cannot spell, Upon the lung-impested blast Her clamors swell.For all to whom the power's given To sway or to compel, Among themselves apportion heaven And give her hell. Kosciusko (Tadeusz Kościuszko), by the way, a Polish military strategist and general who was instrumental in the American Revolutionary War, 'fell' while battling for Polish independence two decades later. What I did not know unitl recently, was that he survived and battled on through diplomatic means for Polish identity and soverignty. He died in 1817 in Switzerland.--Steve

 

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February 02, 2008

Archy the Cockroach

Archy the Cockroach

Archy Who?  Archie was a famous cockroach-poet, the invention of Don Marquis. Don was mentioned in passing in one of last year’s columns – as a friend of Christopher Morley.

Archy, who inhabited Marquis’ office, along with his cohort Mehitabel the cat, amused himself by composing humorous free verse. Archy typed by hopping on the keys -  he couldn’t hit the shift key so everything he composed was written lower case without punctuation. Perhaps Archy’s poetic stylings – which began in 1916 and became widely syndicated  thereafter – were an influence on another lower-case writer of novel free verse – e.e. cummings. Archy claimed to be the reincarnation of a human poet, and, as his first published work explains, so was Freddy the Rat – who kept criticizing (and eating) his poems:

The Coming of Archy (1916)

expression is the need of my soul

i was once a vers libre bard

but i died and my soul went

into the body of a cockroach

it has given me a new outlook on life

 

i see things from the under side now

thank you for the apple peelings in the wastepaper basket

but your paste is getting so stale i can't eat it

there is a cat here called mehitabel i wish you would have

removed she nearly ate me the other night why don't she

catch rats that is what she is supposed to be for

there is a rat here she should get without delay

 

most of these rats here are just rats

but this rat is like me he has a human soul in him

he used to be a poet himself

night after night i have written poetry for you

on your typewriter

and this big brute of a rat who used to be a poet

comes out of his hole when it is done

and reads it and sniffs at it

he is jealous of my poetry

he used to make fun of it when we were both human

he was a punk poet himself

and after he has read it he sneers

and then he eats it

 

i wish you would have mehitabel kill that rat

or get a cat that is onto her job

and i will write you a series of poems

showing how things look

to a cockroach

that rats name is freddy

the next time freddy dies i hope he won't be a rat

but something smaller i hope i will be a rat

in the next transmigration and freddy a cockroach

i will teach him to sneer at my poetry then

 

don't you ever eat any sandwiches in your office

i havent had a crumb of bread

for i dont know how long

or a piece of ham or anything but apple parings

and paste leave a piece of paper in your machine

every night you can call me archy

Don Marquis, born in Walnut, Illinois in 1878, was a newspaper columnist, poet, playwright and humorist, whose editorials, poems, and cartoons appeared in the Evening Sun, the New York Herald Tribune, the New Yorker, and the Saturday Evening post from 1912 into the 1930’s. Marquis was good at inventing characters, including several animal friends for Archy and Mehitabel, and a character called The Old Soak, known for his satires against prohibition.

While known for his humor, Marquis had a difficult life in many respects. Both his first wife, Reina and his second wife, Marjorie died suddenly, and his son and daughter both died in childhood. Marquis himself suffered a series of strokes, dying from the third one in 1937 at 59. With this in mind, there is an extra poignancy to his poem, A Plan, in which he walks us through his take on the ‘ages of man’, and what he planned to do when he reached 80. More at 1poet.com

A Plan

YOUTH is the season of revolt; at twenty-five
We curse the reigning politicians,
Wondering that any man alive
Stands for such damnable conditions.
Whatever is, to us, is wrong,
In economics, life, religion, art;
The crowned old laureates of song
Are pikers, and accepted sages
Appear devoid of intellect and heart;
Continually, the ego in us rages;
Our sense of universal, rank injustice
Swells till it's like to bust us;
We love to see ourselves as outcast goats
Browsing at basement tobbledotes,
The while we forge the mordant bolt
That is to give society its jolt;
And any man who wears two eyes upon his face
Contentedly and unashamed,
And glories in the pose
And makes a virtue of his having just one nose,
We curse as dull, conventional, and tamed
And commonplace.
Thirty finds us a trifle sobered, with a doubt
Whether we'll turn the cosmos inside-out,
Reform the earth, re-gild the moon
And make the Pleiades sing a modern tune;
Some of the classics are not bores, we think,
And barbers have their uses;
We grow more choice in what we eat and drink,
Less angry at abuses;
We work a little harder, want more pay,
Grab on to better jobs,
And learn to make excuses
For certain individuals erstwhile condemned as snobs;
We do not worry nine hours every day
Because the world in its traditional, crool way     [sic]
Continues to roll calmly on and crush
The worthier myriads into bloody mush;
And yet, at thirty, on the whole,
If analyzed we still would show a trace of soul.
At forty--well, you know:
Chins, bank accounts, and stomachs start to grow;
The world's still wrong in spite of all we've tried
To do for it, and we're no longer broken hearted--
We sit on it and ride,
We're willing, now, to let the darned thing slide
Along in just about the way it stated.
Of course, we're anxious for reforms,
And all that sort of stuff,
Unless they cause too many economic storms--
But really, on the whole it's well enough:
We hold by standards, rules and norms.
But when I'm eighty I intend
To turn a fool again for twenty years or so;
Go back to being twenty-five,
Drop cautions and conventions, join some little group
Fantastically rebel and alive,
And resolute, from soup
To nuts; I'll reimburse myself
For all the freak stuff that I've had to keep upon the shelf;
Indulge my crochets, be the friend of man,
And pull the thoughts I've always had to can--
I'm looking forward to a rough, rebellious, unrespectable old age,
Kicking the world uphill
With laughter shrill
And squeals of high-pitched, throaty rage.

     Don Marquis

January 18, 2008

The Hollow Earth

The Hollow Earth

Our understanding of the world around us, and of the Universe itself, has been transformed Planetary Courtrepeatedly throughout history, and continues to change as new theories are proposed and new data is sent back to Earth from observatories and robot explorers sent into outer space.

Once upon a time theories of cosmology prompted heated debate (and stern religious decrees) over some very basic geometry – what is the true shape of the world, and of the universe, and what is our place in it? Are we Very Important Creatures at the center of our universe, with all things revolving around us, or are we just ordinary residents of an average planet revolving around one of innumerable stars in infinite space?

Founder's House - PorchYou might expect, after such an introduction, that this article would be about Galileo or Hubble, Hawking or Ptolemy , Kepler or Copernicus. It’s not. It isn’t even about an astronomer. It’s about a doctor, about the Koreshan Unity Settlement, and about why you shouldn’t play with electricity. And it’s about some photos that I took this past December, while my father and I were passing through Estero in southwest Florida.

Dr. Cyrus Teed was one of many 19th century physicians horrified by the carnage of the American Civil War, and by Medicine’s inability to deal with its human aftermath. Teed explored alternative medicine after the War, turning to Alchemy, and turning to experiments with electricity.  After one of those experiments – which may have nearly killed him, he experienced a ‘vision’ that would eventually lead to concepts for a Utopian society, plans for the construction of ‘New Jerusalem’, and the basis for Koreshian Cosmology (i.e. the Universe according to Cyrus).

On the banks of the Estero River lie the remains of  Teed’s dream – a cluster of buildings that include rooming houses, workshops, a store, a bakery, machine shops, gardens, the Founder’s House, and the grandly titled Planetary Court. Teed died in 1908, and his utopian society went into decline. In 1961 the surviving members donated the land to the State of Florida, which has restored and maintains what is left of Teed’s New Jerusalem. The city planned for ten million followers never housed more than three hundred.

Some of the Koreshian artifacts remain. Included are bits of furniture and household effects, a variety of tools, and something else -  a scale model, and the sole surviving segment of the “rectilineator” – which leads us to Ulysses Grant Morrow, and the Koreshians attempts to prove Teed’s theories of “Cellular Cosmology”.

One of Teed’s revelations was that humans are unable to comprehend the idea of an ‘infinitie’ universe, so we must exist in one of finite dimensions. The universe was, in fact, a sphere, 8000 miles in diameter – and we live not on the outside – but on the inside. So in the universe according to Teed, the World is the Universe, turned inside-out. The sun, half light, half dark, rotates in the center. Light curves, gravity ‘waves’ hold us in place, and the moon, planets, stars and nebulae are illusions or reflections.

So what is a ‘rectilineator’? Morrow was asked by Teed to prove that we live in a convex world – one where the horizon actually curves upwards instead of downwards. And how do you make such a measurement if light itself is not to be trusted? His answer was to do it mechanically – by building perfectly squared frames and placing them one-next-to-the-other – stepping his way for miles down nearby Naples and Fort Myers beaches. The results were open to several interpretations – one being that Morrow’s experiments proved the Earth was concave (round), and that the circumference was around 25,000 miles.

There aren’t many Hollow Earth advocates around anymore, though we have no shortage of theories that contentiously attack the prevailing wisdom. Intelligent design advocates would do well to research Teed’s Cellular Cosmology (published in 1898)  and marvel at the level of detail. By the way, before you get too smug in the accuracy of your own concept of the Universe, remember that Morrow did, by one interpretation, get the Earth’s diameter right. And current theories do predict that light can bend, and gravity can have waves…..

--Steve

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August 30, 2007

Morley's Domestic Poetry

Recently I mentioned Christopher Morley. His name may remind you a little of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (Jacob Marley) or of a Conan Doyle adventure (Holmes’ nemesis James Moriarty). On that second count, you might not be too far off. Morley was a BIG Sherlock Holmes fan.

Morley was many things, chief among them, like Adams, he was a columnist, writing The Bowling Green for many years with humor, insight, and everyman-ish viewpoint that makes pleasant reading 80 years later. Though I doubt many employers, then or now, would appreciate his version of the Algonquin round table, the self-titled “Three Hours for Lunch Club”.

He was a prolific writer, putting out over 50 books of humor, fiction, essays and poetry. Several of his books, including Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Library are available on Project Guttenburg. 

Another of his projects was editing not one, but two editions of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Morley himself, like his very good friend Don Marquis (another humorist, columnist, and frequent poet), is himself quite quotable for his wit and opinions on a wide variety of issues. Here's a sampling from The Quotations Home Page and other sources:

“Humor is perhaps a sense of intellectual perspective: an awareness that some things are really important, others not; and that the two kinds are most oddly jumbled in everyday affairs.”

 “A man who has never made a woman angry is a failure in life.”

“When you sell a man a book you don't sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue - you sell him a whole new life.”  -- from Parnassus on Wheels, (1917)

 “Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to be always part of unanimity. “ 

“No one appreciates the very special genius of your conversations as a dog does. “ 

“People like to imagine that because all our mechanical equipment moves so much faster, that we are thinking faster, too.”

"It's a good thing to turn your mind upside down now and then, like an hour-glass, to let the particles run the other way."   --from The Haunted Bookshop (1919)

“Only the sinner has a right to preach”

“My theology, briefly, is that the universe was dictated, but not signed. “ 

“Life is a foreign language; all men mispronounce it.”

“No man is lonely eating spaghetti; it requires so much attention.” 

“We call a child's mind "small" simply by habit; perhaps it is larger than ours is, for it can take in almost anything without effort”


“We've had bad luck with children; they've all grown up”


“From now until the end of time no one else will ever see life with my eyes, and I mean to make the best of my chance.”

 Cherish all your happy moments; they make a fine cushion for your old age.

While Morley was a Rhodes Scholar who studied History at Oxford, he was also an everyday pedestrian, working in New York and commuting by train to his suburban home on Long Island. He was happily married, and like Adams, could write easily about everything from the milkman to the high price of coal, from washing the dishes to making the last payment on his mortgage.

These pieces on early marriage, parenthood, and domestic life were collected in thee volumes, then anthologized in a volume called Chimneysmoke, published in 1921.  When one of those volumes was published, a critic complained the content "was very domestic" (i.e. too much about 'household' rather than 'important' things). Had the critic been married a few years, he may have made the same comment, but meant something else entirely. Here are some excerpts of Chimneysmoke from Poets’ Corner.

 

Dedication for a Fireplace

THIS hearth was built for thy delight,

For thee the logs were sawn,

For thee the largest chair, at night,

Is to the chimney drawn.

For thee, dear lass, the match was lit

To yield the ruddy blaze--

May Jack Frost give us joy of it

For many, many days.

Christopher Morley

 

To A Child

THE greatest poem ever known

Is one all poets have outgrown:

The poetry, innate, untold,

Of being only four years old.

Still young enough to be a part

Of Nature's great impulsive heart,

Born comrade of bird, beast, and tree

And unselfconscious as the bee--

And yet with lovely reason skilled

Each day new paradise to build;

Elate explorer of each sense,

Without dismay, without pretense!

In your unstained transparent eyes

There is no conscience, no surprise:

Life's queer conundrums you accept,

Your strange divinity still kept.

Being, that now absorbs you, all

Harmonious, unit, integral,

Will shred into perplexing bits,--

Oh, contradictions of the wits!

And Life, that sets all things in rhyme,

may make you poet, too, in time--

But there were days, O tender elf,

When you were Poetry itself!

Christopher Morley

 

Burning Leaves, November

THESE are the folios of April,

All the library of spring,

Missals gilt and rubricated

With the frost's illumining.

Ruthless, we destroy these treasures,

Set the torch with hand profane--

Gone, like Alexandrian vellums,

Like the books of burnt Louvain!

Yet these classics are immortal:

O collectors, have no fear,

For the publisher will issue

New editions every year.

Christopher Morley

 

The Music Box

AT six--long ere the wintry dawn--

There sounded through the silent hall

To where I lay, with blankets drawn

Above my ears, a plaintive call.

The Urchin, in the eagerness

Of three years old, could not refrain;

Awake, he straightway yearned to dress

And frolic with his clockwork train.

I heard him with a sullen shock.

His sister, by her usual plan,

Had piped us aft at 3 o'clock--

I vowed to quench the little man.

I leaned above him, somewhat stern,

And spoke, I fear, with emphasis--

Ah, how much better, parents learn,

To seal one's sensure with a kiss!

Again the house was dark and still,

Again I lay in slumber's snare,

When down the hall I heard a trill,

A tiny, tinkling, tuneful air--

His music-box! His best-loved toy,

His crib companion every night;

And now he turned to it for joy

While waiting for the lagging light.

How clear, and how absurdly sad

Those tingling pricks of sound unrolled;

They chirped and quavered, as the lad

His lonely little heart consoled.

Columbia, the Ocean's Gem--

(Its only tune) shrilled sweet and faint.

He cranked the chimes, admiring them,

In vigil gay, without complaint.

            The treble music piped and stirred,

The leaping air that was his bliss;

And, as I most contritely heard,

I thanked the all-unconscious Swiss!

The needled jets of melody

Rang slowlier and died away--

The Urchin slept; and it was I

Who lay and waited for the day.

Christopher Morley

 

All for now,

 

--Steve

 

August 27, 2007

Tobogganing in August

Last time, we remembered John Kieran. One of John Kieran's contemporaries was Franklin P(Pierce) Adams -  Columnist, Satirist, and Poet -  who served along with Kieran on a popular radio quiz show called Information Please! I've never heard recordings of the show, but always assumed that Peter Sagal's NPR News show, Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me was at least partly modeled after it, with a combination of regulars and guest panelists, and sharply barbed humor.

Adams was a columnist for several New York newspapers, most notably the World and the Tribune. His column "The Conning Tower" ran for nearly 30 years. He was a member of the Algonquin Round Table - a circle of playwrights, actors, critics and humorists that met and traded quips over lunch daily for ten years at the Algonquin Hotel.

Today he is perhaps best remembered for two things - helping start the careers of Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, and Edna St. Vincent Millay (among others), and for a concise little poem about baseball, written after the NY Giants loss in the baseball World Series to the Chicago Cubs, titled Baseball's Sad Lexicon ("Tinker to Evers to Chance") about a double-play that ended the Giants hopes of winning.

Baseball's Sad Lexicon

THESE are the saddest of possible words:
Tinker to Evers to Chance.
Trio of Bear-cubs, fleeter than birds,
Tinker to Evers to Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double --
Words that are weighty with nothing but trouble:
Tinker to Evers to Chance.

-- Franklin P. Adams

Poems and other satirical pieces from Adams' columns were put together and published in several collections. One of them, Something Else Again appears here in The Poets' Corner collection in its entirety, including several pseudo newspaper articles that are parodies of well-known poems.

Adams enjoyed writing everthing from parodies of Latin poets Horace and Catullus to poems about his barber, waiter, landlord and grocery delivery boy. He even wrote an ode to his thesaurus. In Tobogganing on Parnassus he included this poem - which just may have been inspired by his friend Kieran, the naturalist.

The Amateur Botanist

A primrose by a river's brim
Primula vulgaris was to him,
  And it was nothing more;
A pansy, delicately reared,
Viola tricolor appeared
  In true botanic lore.

That which a pink the layman deems
Dianthus caryophyllus seems
  To any flower-fan; or
A sunflower, in that talk of his,
Annuus helianthus is,
  And it is nothing more.

By the way, while it is meant metaphorically (Tobogganing on Parnassus = a rough treatment of Classical Literature) you actually can go skiing on Mout Parnassus, so I suppose you could toboggan. I have only been there once, to visit Delphi, during a very hot August. As you might guess, there was no snow in sight.

Christopher Morley also used Parnassus as a physical metaphor in his short novel, Parnassus on Wheels (the text is readily available on the Web now). More about Morley, and his 'Domestic Poetry' later.

--Steve

August 22, 2007

Kieran and Rudkin


"I am a part of all I have read."
--John Kieran (1892-1981) American Journalist, Radio and Television Personality

To start of the school year my son's AP English teacher gave his students the assignment of compiling a list of all of the books, plays, and poems they have ever read. I am curious to see what the purpose of the assignment is. Perhaps he is trying to find out whether they read at all, considering today's media distractions, or whether, by the age of 17 or 18 they are reading any material that worthy of consideration for the AP reading list.

I was also reminded of a news blurb I read last year that announced several midwestern libraries, needing more floor space for DVD's and Computers, had gone through their circulation records and were beginning to discard any books which had not been checked out in at least two years. This included, sadly, many works by the like of Hemingway and Steinbeck. There was some outrage at the time, and a campaign to check out Great Books to save them from oblivion, but the indignation seems to have died down. You can not force people to read what you think is good for them (unless they are your students), any more than you can get them to trade reality TV shows for CSPAN. We should probably all thank J.K. Rowling and The Discovery Channel for their efforts to help our children maintain a reasonably long attention span.

All of which leads me in a round-about way to today's subject, and John Kieran's quote. Kieran led a long, varied, and busy life, much of it in the public eye (or ear, at least), yet the line he is perhaps most remembered for is this one on reading. There was probably a time when most of America new who he was - between his sportswriting, appearances on quiz shows (Information Please), radio and TV documentaries, and other interests. Now he is a footnote in Wikipedia.

This in turn leads to the desire for people, events, lessions, etc. to be remembered and not forgotten. Whether it is a poet whose works are no longer on the AP reading lists, or an author whose books are no longer in the library because they have been forgotten beneath layer after layer of the latest pointless media obsessions.

Fortunately, while the busy world has a short attention span, people, individual people, have long memories. It is suprising what can be remembered if only you can find the right person to listen to, and take the time to listen. Such memories might form the basis for Kenneth Ashley's Brief first-person recall of a man named Rudkin. A short poem with a simple rhyme scheme but a lurching, almost stumbling meter (perhaps a little like Rudkin himself). The conceit of the poem is that evidence of Rudkin is still everywhere, surrounding the people of "Threckington", and the narrator's own household - but only the narrator remembers. A good poem for reading aloud, once you get accustomed to the uneven rhythm.

Rudkin

RUDKIN was one who cattle sold,
Laughed loud, talked bold;
Children got, drank at inns,
Nor thought much of his sins.
Stout his legs, broad his back;
To live and thrive he had the knack.
All who went out, all who came in,
By Threckington, knew stout Rudkin.
Long he's been dead; his name has gone
Clean out of mind at Threckington;
If one should ask for Rudkin there
The village folk would stare and stare.
Rudkin is dead; dead as Queen Anne:
Hangs on my wall his warming-pan;
In hall hard by, solemn and clear,
Ticks the tall clock he used to hear;
Little Miss Wright, all unaware,
Reads her paper in his chair.
Down by the bridge the parapet
Is still chipped where his wain upset;
By the old barn there's an old pear
When he was wed he planted there.
His drover's dog was very like
Our butcher's cur: a mongrel tyke;
He had a bull with a crooked horn,
A heifer like it I saw this morn.
Down at "The George" in market-place
There's a bold wench wears his bold face.

Kenneth H. Ashley

I guess what Ashley was trying to say is that Rudkin left his mark - literally - on the people, places, and things around him - whether they knew it or not. Perhaps Kieran did as well - as evidenced by present-day game shows such as Wait Wait Don't Tell Me  or in Discovery Channel / Animal planet features that patiently try to get us to understand the world around us and the creatures in it. Perhaps Kieran also left his mark on friends who became part of the Algonquin Round Table. More about them at a later date.

 P.S. - If I had to compile a list of all I have read, I wonder if I'd ever finish. --Steve

April 07, 2007

Campus Sonnets

Campus Visits  / Campus Sonnets

April 7th, 2007
 

It is interesting to travel, but it is always good to be back home again.  I spent the last week visiting college campuses in the Midwestern U.S. with my oldest son, trying to help him gain some insight on where he might be spending the next stage of his life.
 

It was also a chance for me to see universities I had known in the past, and see how they have changed, as well as how I have changed in the twenty-odd years since I was a student. Certainly I felt (and must have looked) much older than the students we saw. The locations still felt familiar but the context seemed to have changed. 
 

This juxtaposition of strong memories of the college environment combined with a sudden feeling of detachment reminded me of the Campus Sonnets by Stephen Vincent Benét, published in Young Adventure in 1918.


It is a quartet of scenes, written in the first person. The first three scenes serve to connect you with the narrator, and with student life – studying late at night, arguing happily with friends, dozing off while studying in a sun-washed window seat. In scene four, the Great War intervenes, disconnecting him suddenly and violently, and he imagines himself back in daily campus life as he lays dying.  His real world experience with war was much different from the ‘clashing of silver helms’ he read about in school.

In the world and times of this century, we find little poetic about war. The conflicts that exist around the globe are not part of a Great War or a Great Cause, unless it is a war against chaos and entropy. We find ourselves almost in a war of definitions - of what constitutes terrorism, or civil war, or genocide, or what exactly it means to ‘win’ a war of attrition. There is always, however, great poetry in the struggles and suffering of the individuals –the soldiers and the survivors who can be equally described as heroes and victims.

We can only hope that some of this conflict is captured, as the War Poets of the early 20th century captured it, in words that break our detachment from what goes on in war a way that slickly edited pictures and prose on the evening news can not. While it may not be trench warfare, the constant news and casualty lists have had the same numbing effect.

As my son and I strolled through university campuses spread across three states, we saw no signs that a war was in-progress elsewhere – neither protests nor recruiting posters. Students went to class, argued, lounged on the lawn in the warming April sun, seemingly stuck in scene three of Benét's poem - oblivious to the past and to the moment. Then one day the wind and snow suddenly returned, and students changed from flip-flops back to to snow boots, from sleeveless shirts to parkas, struggling to make headway against the freezing wind.

--Steve


 

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