30 March 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/13

Epitaph

Here lie John Hughes and Sarah Drew.

Perhaps you'll say, what's that to you?
Believe me, friend, much may be said
On this poor couple that are dead.
On Sunday next they should have married:
But see how oddly things are carried.
On Thursday last it rained and lightened:
These tender lovers, sadly frightened,
Sheltered beneath the cocking hay,
In hopes to pass the storm away.
But the bold thunder found them out
(Commissioned for that end, no doubt)
And, seizing on their trembling breath,
Consigned them to the shades of death.
Who knows if 'twas not kindly done?
For had they seen the next year's sun,
A beaten wife and cuckold swain
Had jointly cursed the marriage chain.
Now they are happy in their doom,
For P[ope] has wrote upon their tomb.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu


Usually I pretty much ignore the lives of the poets and concentrate on the single poem for the week, figuring that it's easy enough for anyone reading this to do a little web research if he or she so wishes, but I would like to encourage you to look up Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: she had a fascinating life and I would willingly read a full-length biography of her and not just a Wikipedia article. Though she wrote poetry she is best remembered for her Turkish Embassy Letters, written while her husband was British ambassador in what is now Istanbul. She knew or was related to many of the major British figures of her time (her time being 1689 to 1762); this particular poem was inspired by her then-friend Alexander Pope, who was seen even then as the major poet of his day (they later had a falling-out and sniped at each other viciously in various poems). So let's look at the epitaph by Pope that she refers to in her final line:

Epitaphs on Two Lovers Struck Dead by Lightning


I
When Eastern lovers feed the Funeral Fire,
On the same pile their faithful Fair expire;
Here pitying Heav'n that Virtue Mutual found,
And blasted both, that it might neither wound.
Hearts so sincere th'Almighty saw well pleas'd,
Sent his own lightning, and the victims seiz'd.

II

Think not by rig'rous judgment seized,
     A pair so faithful could expire;
Victims so pure Heav'n saw well pleas'd,
     And snatch'd them in celestial fire.

III

Live well, and fear no sudden fate:
     When God calls Virtue to the grave,
Alike 't is Justice, soon or late,
     Mercy alike to kill or save.
Virtue unmov'd can hear the call,
     And face the flash that melts the ball.

Alexander Pope


Rather oddly for someone famed for satirical wit, Pope takes an elevated and even heroic stance here, suggesting that the dead pair were such models of loving virtue that they were taken to Heaven together, sparing them separation in this world (and blasted both, that it might neither wound). He begins with a reference to the Hindu practice of suttee, in which a widow joins the funeral pyre of her late husband (his use of lovers to refer to the men and the Fair to refer to the women is typical usage of the period). He is presenting this immolation as a sign of devoted mutual love and the lightning strike as a seal of Heavenly approval. It's interesting that he uses what would have been for the time an exotic reference to "Eastern" practices, rather than to something from more familiar Greek mythology. Perhaps the reference was made with Montagu's Turkish residence in mind, or more generally as a sign of growing British interest in and knowledge of a part of the world they were already starting to move in on, or perhaps it was just an intriguing and unusual bit of color, a variant from the inevitable Greek and Roman classics. In his second stanza the poet assures us that the lightning was a sign of God's approbation, not His anger (Think not by rig'rous judgment seized, / . . . Victims so pure Heav'n saw well pleas'd). In the third stanza, he draws a general moral: a virtuous, well-lived life leaves you ready for the grave at any time. He's advocating a stoic approach: indifferent to life's vagaries, Virtue can hear the call of death without being moved to emotions either sad or joyful. Pope hints at a Christian underpinning to this philosophy: such an exemplar of Virtue can face with equanimity even the Last Judgment (the flash that melts the ball; I take the ball to be our planet).

Montagu responds with an amused, more down-to-earth rival epitaph. She begins by naming the dead lovers, but on their own the names don't mean anything to most of us: we do not know them, and are therefore indifferent to the deaths of these fellow humans (Perhaps you'll say, what's that to you?). She finds the accident that killed them not noble or tragic but odd, an example of the peculiar things that can happen (but see how oddly things are carried). She describes the lovers frightened by the storm (lightened means lightning was striking). The language here feels suggestive to me, as if she's undercutting Pope's assertions of virtue, which in this context implies chastity. Cocking hay refers to hay cocks, which are small heaps of hay piled up temporarily, but it wouldn't surprise me if Montagu were punning on cock meaning penis. The bold (perhaps because intrusive on a tryst?) thunder finds the pair, and with offhand irony (Commissioned for that end, no doubt) the poet undercuts the idea that this death was a deliberate act by Heaven. She then wonders, with compassionate cynicism, if perhaps the death of the engaged couple might actually have been the kindest thing fate could have done to them: married even for only a year, she would have cheated on him, he would have beaten her, and both would have regretted the matrimonial chains. She ends by suggesting that their unusual death should really be seen as a cause of happiness for them, since it has prompted the greatest poet of his time to write some lines about them. Though this sentiment seems to be mostly about Pope's fame (especially given that she's been undercutting his poem all along), it does hearken back to a familiar poetic trope, that someone or something will find lasting fame only in the words of the poet (for an example, see Shakespeare's Sonnet 55, Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes). And indeed she was accurate here; John Hughes and Sarah Drew would be long forgotten if not for Pope – and also for Montagu; though she mentions Pope specifically, her own poem has also preserved the dead lovers for us.

I took the Montagu poem from Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology, edited by Roger Lonsdale. The Pope is not in the copy of his work I have; I found it on the Internet. Presumably as a fairly minor poem by him it would only be in a collection of his complete poems, if you can find one.

29 March 2015

fun stuff I may or may not get to: April 2015

a warning about BART
So once again I have to start off a monthly preview with a long-range warning about BART: on certain weekends starting in April and continuing through August, they will not be running trains between the Fruitvale and Oakland Coliseum stations. They will instead have a "bus bridge" between the two, and are predicting delays of up to an hour – also, they won't be keeping to any schedules or timed transfers. (If past experience is any guideline, the delays will be longer and service even more inefficient than predicted.) The biggest effect will obviously be on those who take the Fremont or the Dublin/Pleasanton lines, but undoubtedly delays will ripple throughout the system and since BART is basically suggesting you just drive on those weekends, traffic will be that much worse (the weekends, by the way, include Easter Sunday and all of Memorial Day weekend – enjoy the holidays, everyone!). And though the buses will be free to BART riders, presumably once you reach Coliseum by bus you then need to re-enter the system and pay an additional fare to get where you're going after that. Oh, BART: your dedication to making every trip as irksome as possible is truly overwhelming. When it comes to letting me down, you never let me down.

Even setting aside the inconvenience and waste of time involved, I can't be the only one who is given pause at the thought of standing out at Fruitvale for up to an hour late at night waiting for a bus. So I now have to figure out what to do about several concerts for which I've already bought tickets, and I guess I'll just have to give up several other performances I was hoping to go to. You may find the list of dates here, and even if you've seen the list somewhere before you may want to check it again, since as I just noticed when I went to get the link the dates have been revised since the original announcement about a week ago, which makes me wonder how thought-through this thing is.

The reason for the shut-down is to replace the track between the two stations. Sure, maintenance is crucial (and clearly they've been neglecting it for years), but even if I take their word for it (because, you know, BART has been so trustworthy!) that they need to stop operations for 11 or 12 weekends to make the fix . . . well, I find it hard to believe that the track between Fruitvale and Oakland Coliseum is the only one that needs replacing. Are we going to have to deal with this sort of thing sneaking up on us randomly for the next decade?

I'm just not willing to cut this incompetently managed system any slack. It's typical of my feelings about them that several years ago, when I was at the Berkeley station waiting for a train late at night after a concert, and I heard the station agent on the loudspeaker saying, "To the young man urinating on the platform: please do not do that" my first thought was not how gross the guy was being but that if BART would re-open its already inadequate bathrooms maybe he wouldn't need to piss on the platform – I mean, I doubt he was doing it for kicks. (After 9/11 the bathrooms were closed in several stations "for security reasons" because the terrorists; those stations all tended to be in areas with a high concentration of homeless people, which I'm sure was a complete coincidence. I should point out that in this case the platform pisser was not a homeless guy but probably a student at Cal, who looked as if he were going to the city with friends to go clubbing.)

Even the way BART slipped this news out shows how inept they are: None of the regular BART riders I have spoken to about this had heard anything about it. I, who ride BART almost every day, have heard no announcements and seen no messages in the stations; nothing has been sent to Clipper Card holders. . . . Who knows when I would have heard about this if I hadn't chanced upon an article on SFGate.com one recent morning – but when I went back an hour later the article was off their main page. There's just a discreet little link off to the side on the BART website to reassure me that I didn't just hallucinate the whole thing. Honestly: you cannot repeat information like this too often, because people just don't pay attention. Case in point: the SFGate article clearly mentioned that the closures were planned around the Oakland A's homestands, yet at least three comments of the maybe two dozen I read complained that this would affect people going to A's games at the Coliseum – even though, you know, it was right there in the article that the dates were picked so that it wouldn't affect those people. Of course, when the A's are away, the Giants usually are playing at home in San Francisco, so I guess if you're a Giants fan who lives in the East Bay, you're boned.

What really breaks what's left of my heart about this is that I truly believe in public transportation. I don't drive and rely on BART, but even more than that, I believe it's necessary for the environment that public transportation be made as desirable and convenient as possible – and even more than that, I believe it's crucial for us as a society to learn how to share public spaces together. Car culture is sick for more than the environmental reasons. I used to vote automatically in favor of any public-transportation measure. Now I automatically vote against anything that will give more money to BART, at least until transit strikes are banned and they get their spending under control (to make it clear: this is not an anti-union dog-whistle; I've discussed my feelings about the BART unions before so I won't repeat them, but I'm also talking about the incompetent management and the general amount they waste on things like, random example, overheating the cars when everyone who's riding is dressed for outdoors anyway). Voting against more funds for BART may seem like shooting myself in the foot, but what am I getting out of my increased fees and taxes? BART has shown itself an incompetent manager of public money; they get more and more and we've been getting less and less. I'll define what I mean by the "improved service" I'd like to see: (1) full-length trains (and I mean ten cars, which I rarely see even at rush hours, and I ride three of the four BART lines regularly) that (2) come more often (it's ridiculous to wait 20 minutes or more for a train). Oh, there are other things that should be dealt with – the poor station design, the inadequate train announcements, and so forth – but really: full-length trains, and more often. But BART can't even get that much right.

Anyway: exercise caution when buying weekend tickets, if you are BART-dependent, and even if you're not make sure you know the dates and leave yourself plenty of driving time.

Theatrical
Shotgun Players presents a reading of Adrienne Kennedy's The Ohio State Murders, 27 - 28 April, starting at 7:00 each night.

This may make it look as if there are slim theatrical pickings for April, but many of the shows listed last month are continuing into this month, so check those out as well.

Operatic
The Lamplighters present an attractive rarity: The Grand Duke, the last collaboration between WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, for four performances only: 25 - 26 April at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco, 30 April in Mountain View, and 2 May in Walnut Creek.

Soloists from San Francisco Opera's Adler program will join Philharmonia Baroque in a production of Rossini's La cambiale di matrimonio (The Marriage Contract), along with some Mozart numbers. That's 15 and 17 - 19 April in their usual various locations.

The San Francisco Symphony presents John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists in Monteverdi's L'Orfeo on 27 April. Sadly it's in Davies Hall, which is about as far as you can get from an intimate Renaissance court theater, but you can't have everything.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music presents Donizetti's L'Elisir d'amore, fully staged (by Jose Maria Condemi) and with a full orchestra (conducted by Scott Sandmeier), on 2 and 4 April.

Strings
San Francisco Performances presents violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Corey Smythe in a program of works by Cage, Lang, Bach, Auerbach, and Schumann on 18 April.

Piano
San Francisco Performances presents Garrick Ohlsson in an all-Scriabin program on 6 April (this concert was rescheduled from 14 March) and Dubravka Tomsic in a program of Haydn, Beethoven, and Chopin on 19 April.

Dance
San Francisco Performances presents the Paul Taylor Dance Company in three different programs, 15 - 18 April at the Yerba Buena Center.

Cal Performances presents the annual visit of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, with three different programs from 21 to 26 April.

The Shostakovich Trilogy, choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, returns to San Francisco Ballet from 8 - 19 April; their other offering this month is a mixed bill of Caprice by Helgi Tomasson, the world premiere of Swimmer by Yuri Possokhov, and Balanchine's Four Temperaments, and that runs 10 - 21 April.

Choral
Cappella SF, led by Ragnar Bohlin, returns on 11 April with a program of "vocal music written in an orchestral style" with composers ranging from Gabrieli and Bach to contemporary composers like David Conte and Elliott Encarnación (who also sings tenor in the group). That's at the Mission Dolores Basilica (right next to Mission Dolores itself, an easy walk from the 16th Street BART station).

Early/Baroque Music
Cal Performances presents the Tallis Scholars on 10 - 11 April, in a different program each night.

Modern/Contemporary Music
The California Institute of Integral Studies presents the complete string quartets of John Zorn, played by the JACK Quartet (with soprano Tony Arnold). That's 30 April at the Palace of Fine Arts (seems like an odd venue to me – not that easy to get to; I've been to the Palace of Fine Arts but never for a concert so I don't know how suitable the hall is there).

Cal Performances presents the eco ensemble, conducted by David Milnes, playing works by Bedrossian, Leroux, and Campion on 25 April.

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music's baroque ensemble ventures into new music with Elinor Armer's Leonardo's Riddle, featuring Adam Cockerham on archlute. That's on 19 April, in the afternoon.

At the Center for New Music, the Plath Project concert I mentioned last month is now scheduled for 26 April.

Old First Concerts presents the Wooden Fish Ensemble in a celebration of the 70th birthday of Belgian composer Boudewijn Buckinx. The works by Buckinx include The Floating World, a large-scale piano piece written for Thomas Schultz, a founding member of Wooden Fish, as well as works by Hyo-shin Na in honor of Buckinx. That's on 12 April. On 24 April, they present the Friction Quartet playing the John Adams String Quartet along with world premieres by Max Stoffregen and Eric Tran.

Vocalists
Cal Performances presents tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Wenwen Du in a program exploring the music and poetry of World War I. That's on 12 April. This looks like a highlight for this month!

Symphonic
Pablo Heras-Casado leads the San Francisco Symphony in a couple of programs: the first features Joshua Bell playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto along with Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No 1 and John Adams's Chamber Symphony, and you can catch that on 9 - 12 April; he's then leading a program of the Haydn 44, the Mozart Piano Concerto 9 with Igor Levit, Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and the Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movement on 18 - 19 April. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, Stravinsky's Firebird, and his own Nyx on 30 April and 1 - 3 May.

Joana Carneiro leads the Berkeley Symphony in a thoughtful coupling of Mozart's Requiem with Choruses from the Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams; that's on 30 April.

27 March 2015

for Tomas Transtromer

Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer died today. Here is a poem from his Selected Poems, edited by Robert Hass.

The Half-Finished Heaven

Despondency breaks off its course.

Anguish breaks off its course.
The vulture breaks off its flight.

The eager light streams out,

even the ghosts take a drink.

And our paintings see daylight,

our red beasts of the ice-age studios.

Everything begins to look around.

We walk in the sun in hundreds.

Each man is a half-open door

leading to a room for everyone.

The endless ground under us.


The water is shining among the trees.


The lake is a window into the earth.


Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton

Friday photo 2015/13

2 Torsos


******************************


The top is a detail of Venus & Cupid, School of Fontainebleu, ca. 1559; and the bottom is a detail of St John the Baptist by El Greco. Both are from the Legion of Honor, San Francisco.

23 March 2015

This Victorian Novelist Knew About Buzzfeed, and It Was Everything

Conclusive evidence that '90s* kids knew all the best journalism hacks:

* 1890s

"Precisely, but the rubbish is capable of being made a very valuable article, if it were only handled properly. [ . . .] In the first place, I should slightly alter the name; only slightly, but that little alteration would in itself have an enormous effect. Instead of Chat, I should call it Chit-Chat!" . . . Chat doesn't attract anyone, but Chit-Chat would sell like hotcakes, as they say in America. I know I am right, laugh as you will." [. . . ]

"Now do let me go on," implored the man of projects, when the noise subsided. "That's only one change, though a most important one. What I next propose is this: – I know you will laugh again, but I will demonstrate to you that I am right. No article in the paper is to measure more than two inches in length, and every inch must be broken into at least two paragraphs. [. . . ] Let me explain my principle. I would have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated; that is to say, the great new generation that is being turned out by the Board schools, the young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention. People of this kind want something to occupy them in trains, and on buses and trams. As a rule they care for no newspapers except the Sunday ones; what they want is the lightest and frothiest of chit-chatty information – bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bits of statistics, bits of foolery. Am I not right? Everything must be very short, two inches at the utmost; their attention can't sustain itself beyond two inches. Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat." [ . . .] 

"It would all depend on the skill of the fellows who put the thing together every week. There ought always to be one strongly sensational item – we won't call it an article. For instance, you might display on a placard: 'What the Queen eats!' or, 'How Gladstone's collars are made!' – things of that kind." [ . . .]

". . . And then, you know . . . when people had been attracted by these devices, they would find a few things that were really profitable. We would give nicely written little accounts of exemplary careers, of heroic deeds, and so on. Of course nothing whatever that could be really demoralising. . . ."

from New Grub Street by George Gissing, pp 446 - 448 (with omissions) in my Modern Library edition.

Previously: Williams Wordsworth has looked into smartphones, and Captain Ahab has pondered the advantages and disadvantages of GPS.

Poem of the Week 2015/12

Doom is the House without the Door –
'Tis entered from the Sun –
And then the Ladder's thrown away,
Because Escape – is done –

'Tis varied by the Dream
Of what they do outside –
Where Squirrels play – and Berries die –
And Hemlocks – bow – to God –

Emily Dickinson

This poem radiates between the mundane and the apocalyptic, the former grounded in concrete details of daily life (a house, the sun, the squirrels, berries, hemlocks) and the latter in abstract terms (Doom, Escape, Dream, even God). Oddly the generalized abstractions seem more real than the weirdly specific details, which is perhaps a source of the poem's uneasy power. The poem opens with Doom – doom in general, doom as fate, not an individual's doom. And yet Dickinson's metaphorical definition of doom conveys a sense of domesticity and even intimacy: doom is a house. It's where you live. And you are trapped in there, because, as in a nightmare, there is no door. So how did you get in there? From the Sun (the source of light and life, and frequently a stand-in for God, as in the opening of Book III of Paradise Lost: "Hail holy light. . . "). But not through the rays of light: from a ladder. This may just be part of the poem's use of very literal processes (you aren't just showing up inside this house, you have to have a way to get into it, and a ladder would make sense) combined with intense, surreal images: the ladder is from the Sun. It may also be a reference to, or a reminiscence of, Jacob's vision of angels ascending and descending a ladder from Heaven (Genesis, chapter 28). But here the angels are unmentioned, and the ladder is thrown away, because there is no escape once you're in there. That's the nature of doom. (Is it perhaps also the nature of the version of Christianity prevalent in the poet's nineteenth-century New England? While fewer and fewer believed in the literal nature of the Bible, they were still very much enmeshed in the social behaviors produced by it. But doom seems too harsh a term in this context. It would be a mistake to limit Dickinson's possible meanings just to one thing.)

Perhaps the house without a door may also be seen as the body that holds an individual's consciousness or soul, which could be seen as entering "through the Sun," that is, via God, or another source of generation. And you can't escape from the body you were born into. What happens outside your individual consciousness – that outside where the unspecified they do things – is, in some ways, a Dream. Again, very precise details are subsumed by an abstract state: just as the house and the ladder and the sun are a metaphor for doom, so the squirrels and berries and hemlocks are seen as ultimately unreal, as a Dream. And some strange things are going on: not so much the squirrels playing, but definitely the berries dying – even if that's just a vivid way of summing up the ripening/rotting world of a berry, it's a strikingly strange way of putting it, and the summation of life processes as death is suitable for a poem examining Doom. And then we have the hemlocks, bowing to God. This is most likely a reference to the hemlock tree that was common in New England, and you could easily describe trees bending in the wind (that unseen force!) as bowing to God. But it's also almost impossible for a literary person (for the sort of person who would read this kind of poetry) to hear hemlock, particularly in conjunction with bowing to God, and not to think of the poisonous herb used to kill Socrates for promoting impiety (it's difficult for me to believe that Dickinson wouldn't have been aware of this resonance in the term hemlock; there are plenty of other terms she could have used). On that level the poem's final line seems to be reinforcing such a punishment for free philosophical inquiry: the hemlocks bow to God. But on another evel, the line is rejecting such a punishment: the reader is mistaken if he or she thinks this is the same plant that was used to kill Socrates. We're wrong if we think there is divine punishment in that dream-world outside. As with the ladder, with its possible cryptic reference to Jacob's dream, so the hemlock suggests an evocative episode in humanity's relationship with heavenly authority. The Doom described remains mysterious, perhaps inexplicable, but powerful and inescapable.

I took this from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson. In the years after her death in 1886 several volumes with selections of her work were published; I'm not going to go into her whole publication history (which is actually quite fascinating and entertaining, what with adulterous affairs and family rivalries and separated stashes of increasingly valuable manuscripts) except to note that all those editions tamed Dickinson's poetry by smoothing it out, reducing perceived irregularities, and imposing standard punctuation. Johnson's edition, published in 1955, was the first to publish her work accurately and completely. There is also a more recent edition edited by R W Franklin, which incorporates more current discoveries and thoughts about what Dickinson intended (again: a complicated publication history, which I am mostly gliding over). I haven't seen the Franklin edition but I came across this blog which has several interesting entries comparing the two editions. Another recent book, which I have not seen but which sounds intriguing, is The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems, which gives you an idea of what some of Dickinson's manuscripts look like.

16 March 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/11

The harp that once through Tara's halls
       The soul of music shed,
Now hangs as mute on Tara's walls
       As if that soul were fled. –
So sleeps the pride of former days,
       So glory's thrill is o'er,
And hearts, that once beat high for praise,
       Now feel that pulse no more.

No more to chiefs and ladies bright
       The harp of Tara swells;
The chord alone, that breaks at night,
       Its tale of ruin tells.
Thus Freedom now so seldom wakes,
       The only throb she gives,
Is when some heart indignant breaks,
       To show that she still lives.

Thomas Moore, from Irish Melodies

Tara is the legendary home of the ancient kings of Ireland, and the harp is the traditional instrument of the Irish bards (hence the use of harps as a slang term for the Irish, though I think no one uses it that way anymore). Once you know that, the mood as well as the direction of the poem are fairly clear: the days of glory have passed; the ancient kings honored their poets, and the poets sang their glorious deeds; and both have sunk into silence, taking the golden times with them – but an implicit hope for the future lies in the indignant, breaking hearts of the people, which show that the old ideals have not completely passed away.

What we have here is a mid-nineteenth century Irish-born poet offering a romanticized view of his nation's past in the hopes of inspiring its political future: the references at the end to Freedom, and to the indignant hearts that break, are clearly aimed at oppressive British control of its neighboring island. And yet Moore uses traditional English verse forms and vocabulary: the revival of the Celtic language would come later. But his series of lyrics on Irish themes made him a hero to the Irish struggling for independence. He was writing in the heady days of the Romantic movement, which rejected the universal and the rational in favor of (among other things) the local and the long-lost, a tendency linked to the growing nationalism of the nineteenth century. Moore was a friend of Byron, who died at a fairly young age when he went to help the Greeks fight for independence – another attempt at restoring self-determination driven by admiration for a country's past. He was close enough to Byron to be a literary executor, and he at least acquiesced in the infamous destruction of the poet's memoirs.

I took this from Moore's Irish Melodies: The Illustrated 1846 Edition, republished by Dover Publications. It's quite elaborately illustrated, with early Victorian vignettes and borders engraved on every page, so if that style appeals to you, you should definitely check it out. It seems not to be available anymore from Dover Publications, but you can still find it on Amazon. I've kept the mid-nineteenth century punctuation, though current style is lighter; I do think that omitting the comma after The chord alone would make the sense more immediately available to a current reader.

09 March 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/10

An Egyptian Pulled Glass Bottle in the Shape of a Fish

Here we have thirst
and patience, from the first.
       And art, as in a wave held up for us to see
       in its essential perpendicularity;

Not brittle but
Intense – the spectrum, that
       Spectacular and nimble animal the fish,
       Whose scales turn aside the sun's sword by their polish.

Marianne Moore

This poem is sort of a modern version of the Keats Ode on a Grecian Urn: both take containers from ancient civilizations and use them for an analysis of Art, Nature, and the human urge towards significant ornament. Pulled glass is a technique in which the glassblower creates patterns on an object by pulling and otherwise manipulating rods of colored glass. This poem is based on an actual glass bottle from ancient Egypt that Moore saw in the British Museum (you may see it here). Long ago, when I was last in London, I bought a postcard of the fish-bottle because I found it endearingly goofy; I was surprised years later when a bit of research connected that object with this poem. The bottle is dated about 1400 BC, so this piece of glass has survived over 3,400 years. Yet Moore does not specifically mention its age; outside of the implication of the glancing reference from the first in the second line, she makes it stand outside of time, as we shall see.

In her first line, Moore declares Here we have thirst: the first thing to realize about this object is that it has a practical purpose; it is a bottle, and it holds liquids – a vital function in a dry hot climate like Egypt's. Yet thirst can refer not only to the physical need for water, but to the desire that led the anonymous artist to take the time and trouble to turn an ordinary useful object into a striking and luxurious one. That's where the patience referred to in the second line comes in: the glassblower could have created many plain bottles in the time it takes to create a fancy fish-bottle. And this is from the first: from the very earliest days of human civilization, we see the imperative urge to take something basic to survival (like a device for storing water) and make it significant through making it beautiful, which is a thirst that is never fully satisfied.

In the first two lines, Moore identifies the deep underlying sources that produced this object: thirst (in both senses, as described above) and patience – taking infinite, time-consuming care. And she closes the lines off with a period. In the third line, indented to signal a shift, she adds almost as an afterthought: And art. You feel that the art (which is not given the significance of an initial cap: art, not Art) is not so much an end in itself as a by-product of the personality that thirsts yet is patient. But art is undeniably present, an end result and culmination – it unites thirst and patience, and also becomes its own thing.

The bottle is a practical object, but it is also an artistic creation, and it is also (remember that it is shaped like a fish) a reference to the natural world. Moore compares it to a wave: that too is something that comes from the natural world (like the fish, and like the human needs that led to the creation of a bottle shaped like a fish). Its watery element also links the wave back to thirst. A wave is one in an endless series; they come and go, but here Moore describes the wave as held up for us to see: the artist is holding up an object for our closer inspection and meditation. Held up can mean not just lifted high but also delayed. The artist is stopping time, freeze-framing this one particular wave at its crest (as in Hokusai's famous print of the Great Wave off Kanagawa, and compare this also with the processional frozen in time and place in the Keats Ode on a Grecian Urn) so that we may examine its prime qualities, that is, its essential perpendicularity.

Essential here implies not just that perpendicularity is of the essence of a wave, but also that it is necessary for us: the wave is not only perpendicular in its nature, but we need it to be so. And why would that be? Waves are constantly in motion, endlessly cresting and then crashing. Why is perpendicularity essential to it, and us? Perhaps it is exactly because when a wave is at its literal height – when it is perpendicular to the sea – it has reached its apex, and if we can hold it there for a second before it rolls down and is replaced by another, we can truly see it captured at the moment in which it fulfills its necessary form. And art is like this: a created thing held fast in its moment, even for what passes in human terms for eternity, capturing something we thirst for in its brief perfection before life moves on. There is no progression in art, but rather an endless series of these moments, each essential.

Moore then clarifies what she's getting at; what she's describing is Not brittle but / Intense: waves and glass both shatter easily, but what she's more concerned with here is not fragility and not the ephemeral nature of things but the intensity that causes certain things to stand outside of time; that is, this object (the fish-bottle, the crested wave), which might seem transient, too delicate to last, is in fact strong and concentrated, enough so to hold out against the constant on-rush of time.

After the dash comes a description of the fish-bottle, but one that blurs to the point of obliteration the distinction between this created object and the natural world it represents. The spectrum – this may refer to the undulating waves of color broken out over the body of the bottle. It may also refer to the way glass – the basic material of the bottle – can, if cut in a certain way, refract light into a rainbow of colors: an infinity coming out of a natural phenomenon (compare this with Elizabeth Bishop's The Fish, in which a very detailed, precise description of the fish she has caught explodes at the end into a vision of rainbows – I wonder if Bishop, to whom Moore was a mentor and a friend, had this poem somewhere in her mind when she wrote that one?). A spectrum can also be used in an attempt to classify something by points on a scale – another version of fixing something in time, perhaps. I suspect spectrum is at least partly there for the musical echo with spectacular in the next line. That's a word that usually applies to something huge, flamboyant, eye-catching. It may seem odd to apply it to a fairly commonplace creature, but Moore's adjective forces us to re-evaluate an everyday animal we may take for granted otherwise. Spectacular derives from spectacle, and she singles out this object as if it were a grand show presented for our admiration. (Throughout this poem we hear the distinctive Moore tone: the erudite language, precise yet suggestive, with hints of scientific scrupulosity; the dazzled love for what might seem small and ordinary animals or objects; the unexpected but considered comparison; the high-minded wit.)

The other quality she specifically cites in the fish is nimbleness. Again, she could be referring to nature or art or both: she admires lightness of touch and sureness of perception, a speed and compression in comprehension. The last line of the poem – Whose scales turn aside the sun's sword by their polish – armor the animal (or is it the bottle? or both?) in the shining perfection of its scales, which can turn aside the destructive sunlight (the sun's sword) by their polish – polish can refer to something smooth and shiny, and also implicitly to the labor that made the object so – to the care in crafting a bottle that looks like a fish, or a poem reflecting on a bottle that looks like a fish. The admirable, natural or created, is all around us. A fish becomes a fish-bottle which in turn becomes a poem; all freeze in time something flashing, bold, and elusive.

The British Museum site gives further information here on the technique used to create the fish-bottle, and on the possible significance of its shape (since Moore omits this information and derives her own meaning from the object, I have omitted it while discussing her poem, but it's interesting so I'm sticking it here).

I took this from The Poems of Marianne Moore, edited by Grace Schulman. I bought the hardback when it was published in 2003 but it seems to be out of print so I am linking to the Penguin paperback, which I'm assuming is mostly the same.

06 March 2015

02 March 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/9

(Titania to Oberon)

These are the forgeries of jealousy;
And never, since the middle summer's spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest, or mead,
By pavèd fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beachèd margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturbed our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have sucked up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which, falling in the land,
Hath every pelting river made so proud,
That they have overborne their continents.
The ox hath therefore stretched his yoke in vain,
The plowman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drownèd field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men's morris is filled up with mud;
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green,
For lack of tread, are undistinguishable.
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest.
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound.
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems' thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set. The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazèd world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.
And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act II, scene 1, ll 81 - 117

. . . because Shakespeare knew about everything, including climate change. When we studied The Tempest in Janet Adelman's Shakespeare class at Cal, she told us, when we came to the scenes of Stephano and Trinculo introducing Caliban to booze, that she found it remarkable that Shakespeare already knew the havoc alcohol would wreak on colonized populations (she had worked on American Indian reservations and seen its effects at first hand). In this excerpt from A Midsummer Night's Dream, harmonious, musical language tells us of a disharmonious world. I'm posting this because – and I realize that anyone outside of California is going to sneer at me for this – I've really missed winter this year, and I have to admit it's skipping us (possibly because it's doubling up on the east coast). I know, I know: I too roll my eyes when Californians complain bitterly when the temperature drops down to the low 60s. But there really is such a thing as winter in California, and I miss the chill, and the darkness, and the early silence, and I miss the rain. This year we never really got the cold weather that triggers dormancy, and this has given us a misshapen spring. I planted tulips, and for the second year in a row only a few came up, and those have full-sized flowers on stubby little stalks, to weird effect. Roses are blooming all over my backyard, but they are strangely lopsided. I think one of my apricot trees is dead; the other is spotted rather than covered with blooms. The lilacs started budding in December and seem stuck there. I've been describing a place with too little water, and Titania's speech covers a world with too much, but the effect is the same: an unhealthy, and even dangerous, confusion of the regular cycle of nature.


I took this photo in my backyard on 20 December 2014, and that is indeed a lilac starting to bud in late December. But it's now over two months later, and it seems stuck at this stage. It doesn't look very healthy.

To go through the speech: Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, meet accidentally in the woods outside Athens. The meeting is accidental because they are quarreling over possession of a little Indian boy, born to one of Titania's mortal companions. So in the first line, these refers to accusations Oberon has just made about various love affairs of hers (which he has made in answer to similar accusations from her). She dismisses his claims as "the forgeries of jealousy" and goes on to recount the problems caused by his anger: whenever she and her band meet, he shows up brawling, and disturbs them. In the second line, she refers to "the middle summer's spring," which means the beginning of midsummer, but the conjunction of summer with spring prepares the way for the confusion of seasons with which the speech ends. She refers to their sport, but clearly there's deeper significance to their dances, which maintain a sort of regularity and amity in the natural order; without them the wind sucks up fogs and vapors from the sea and dumps the excess liquid on the land. The wind is presented as a sort of orchestra for their fêtes; it is the whistling wind, and it's piping in vain. Let's just pause here a moment to bask in the beauty of the line To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind: the line is not really necessary, but it is essential, which might be a useful definition of poetry. Ringlets to me conveys not only the little circles in which they dance (emphasizing once again the tiny, other-worldly quality of the fairy kingdom in this play), but also curling hair tossing and bobbing in the breeze.

Back to the overflowing waters: remember that in Shakespeare's time (as well as before and after his time) there were medical theories about the disease-causing qualities of certain vapors or miasmas; there was also a theory, derived from ancient Greece, of four humors, linked to the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water, the balance among which controlled health and general well-being. So an excess of water indicates a world dangerously out of balance. The food supply is being disrupted; the fields are plowed and grain planted, but it's too wet and the grain rots while still green without reaching the gold of ripeness. The comparison to a youth lacking a beard refers wittily to the tassels of ripe wheat. (Corn refers to grain in general, not to what we think of as corn, which I think had not yet crossed the Atlantic from Mexico.) This was of course written at a time when food storage was in a fairly basic state; failed crops for one year meant hard times, and for two years meant disaster.

The fold – the enclosure for livestock, usually sheep – is empty because the animals have died of the murrain (an infectious disease, referred to here by its older form, murrion) and are benefiting no one but the scavenger crows. Nine men's morris is a board game, but sometimes large equivalents were cut into village greens, and that has been filled with mud, and the quaint (that is, curious, intricate) mazes are sinking back indistinguishable in the grass, since no one is walking through them. The grass itself is wanton (that is, luxuriant and profuse, with an implication of something tending towards the disorderly or promiscuous – what might seem like merely a colorful and appealing adjective is emphasizing the main theme of the speech, a breakdown in what is becoming and orderly). Humanity is being threatened by the squabbling in Fairyland; both work and play are sinking into mud and disease. These are frightful things, but in the Fairy Queen's description they seem so lovely: perhaps this is a sign of her distance from mortal struggles, and of the beauty permeating her existence.

Titania continues that "human mortals want [that is, lack] their winter here" and night is not blest with hymn or carol: both blest and hymn imply a religious significance to this singing; and (remember that the play takes place in ancient Athens) Artemis, the goddess of the moon, responds angrily to the lack of due praise: again, the excess of water caused by the disruption in the regular order of things leads to disease (here, specifically, rheumatic diseases). The result is a topsy-turvy world that intermingle the seasons in a confusing and destructive way. Hiem is the Latin for winter, used here, as it often is in poetry, as a personification of the season. This confused profusion of different seasons appearing simultaneously leaves the world mazèd, that is, amazed, lost as in a maze.

Autumn is described as childing, that is, fruitful, breeding. This reference to childbirth continues in the end of the speech, in the terms progeny, parents, and original (that is, origin) and will echo through the play. Remember that their quarrel is about a child; and the play itself will end with all the sets of quarreling divided lovers joined in amity, and conclude (right before Puck's epilogue, which stands outside the action of the play) with Oberon blessing the newlyweds and wishing them healthy children: "And the blots of Nature's hand / Shall not in their issue stand. / Never mole, harelip, nor scar, / Nor mark prodigious, such as are / Despisèd in nativity, / Shall upon their children be." (Act V, scene 1, ll 411 - 416): nothing prodigious (in its now archaic sense of unnatural or abnormal) shall harm their children. Order is restored.

There are of course dozens of editions of A Midsummer Night's Dream; I use the one from Signet Classic.