30 August 2013

for Seamus Heaney

The poet Seamus Heaney died today in Dublin, Ireland. My books are in even greater disarray than usual so the only thing by him I could find this evening was his famous translation of Beowulf, the earliest surviving great work of English-language poetry. In the excerpt below, for king, prince, lord, read artist, poet, man.

Then the Geat people began to construct
a mound on a headland, high and imposing,
a marker that sailors could see from far away,
and in ten days they had done the work.
It was their hero's memorial; what remained from the fire
they housed inside it, behind a wall
as worthy of him as their workmanship could make it.
And they buried torques in the barrow, and jewels
and a trove of such things as trespassing men
had once dared to drag from the hoard.
They let the ground keep that ancestral treasure,
gold under gravel, gone to earth,
as useless to men now as it ever was.
Then twelve warriors rode around the tomb,
chieftain's sons, champions in battle,
all of them distraught, chanting in dirges,
mourning his loss as a man and a king.
They extolled his heroic nature and exploits
and gave thanks for his greatness; which was the proper thing,
for a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear
and cherish his memory when that moment comes
when he has to be convoyed from his bodily home.
So the Geat people, his hearth companions,
sorrowed for the lord who had been laid low.
They said that of all the kings upon the earth
he was the man most gracious and fair-minded,
kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.

translated by Seamus Heaney
13 April 1939 - 30 August 2013

27 August 2013

fun stuff I may or may not get to: September 2013

A respectable San Francisco matron heads off to the after-party, having endured the official opening of the opera or, possibly, the symphony, how is she to know which
Off we go into the fall season, though two of the major local presenters, San Francisco Performances and Cal Performances, don't really unleash the awesomeness until October, though Cal does have Placido Domingo & Associates up at the Greek Theater on 7 September, and their annual Fall-Free-for-All performance sampler is 29 September.

At the Ashby Stage, First Person Singular and Shotgun Cabaret present Stealing the Leads: Women Read Glengarry Glen Ross, which sounds potentially awesome (sorry, I have to use a form of that word twice in two paragraphs). Unfortunately it's only for two nights; the 2 September performance is sold out but there are still tickets available for the added performance on 9 September. Both performances start at 8:00, which ironically makes them inconveniently timed for anyone who actually has to work in an office.

Old First Concerts has several evenings of interest to fans of contemporary music: the Aleron Trio premieres Shahab Paranj's Piano Trio No. 1, "A Bitter Letter" along with piano trios by Beethoven and Dvorak, on 13 September; sfSound presents an Elliott Carter memorial concert, with works dating from 1939 to 2011, on 20 September; and contemporary chamber ensemble Wild Rumpus lets the wild rumpus begin on 27 September. It's too bad that Old First Concerts are usually Fridays at 8:00, which I think might be the worst concert time possible for working people, but I may try to ignore reality (my reality, that is) and make it to some of these.

To add to your new music enjoyment this month, head to the Conservatory of Music on 6 September to hear works from six alumni composers: Frank Wallace, Kevin Villalta, Mark Ackerley, Mario Godoy, Joseph Stillwell, and Ian Dicke.

At Berkeley Rep, Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, which won the 2013 Tony for Best Play, opens 20 September and runs until 20 October. As the title might tell you, it is a contemporary twist on some themes from Chekhov. Richard E.T. White is the director.

The New Century Chamber Orchestra opens its season with a concert celebrating this season's featured composer, Michael Daugherty. I don't know a whole lot about his music, but he certainly has a knack for naming; the program includes pieces called Viva, Strut, Viola Zombie, Regrets Only, and Elvis Everywhere. The evening includes one non-Daugherty piece, Josef Suk's Serenade for string orchestra. That's 26 - 29 September in their usual variety of venues, only this year, since Herbst is closed, the San Francisco venue is the Yerba Buena Center.

San Francisco Opera opens its fall season with two interesting works: first is Boito's Mefistofele (which the Opera very helpfully refers to as Mephistopheles, because otherwise you couldn't figure that out, and though of course you'd balk at buying a ticket to something with a weird foreign name like Mefistofele, you're A-OK with Mephistopheles), in the lively production last seen here in 1994, with Nicola Luisotti conducting and Ildar Abdrazakov, Patricia Racette, and Ramon Vargas singing (check here for specific dates, though if you're actually interested in, you know, music and theater, skip opening night, 6 September); and second is the world premiere of Tobias Picker's Dolores Claiborne, which as of yesterday afternoon, when Dolora Zajick officially dropped out for health reasons, stars the Unsinkable Pat Racette (soprano) for the first four performances and the always appealing Catherine Cook (mezzo-soprano) for the remaining two (check here for specific dates). I liked Picker's American Tragedy quite a bit, so there's that going for it, at least in my opinion.

By the way, in case you're already wondering what the Merola folks will be performing in summer 2014, it's Don Giovanni and A Streetcar Named Desire (which of course had its premiere here in 1998). See what you learn from scanning the ads in Opera News?

If you're looking for more opera, West Edge Opera will perform a semi-staged production of Barber's Vanessa. This time they will be at Berkeley Rep's thrust stage instead of up in El Cerritto; 21 - 22 September.

The San Francisco Symphony has a fine assortment of concerts, but nothing really jumps out at me, though I might easily have a different reaction another day, since I always enjoy An American in Paris and Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev and the Mahler 9. There's also the magnificent Audra McDonald, but she's being wasted on the opening night party. Check out the full month here, but keep in mind that often the most interesting items on the symphony's programs are kept out of sight, tucked a mouse-click away under the standards.

26 August 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/35

As the summer ends:

The Oven Bird

There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

Robert Frost

The Oven Bird consists of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter: a sonnet. But though it does rhyme, it doesn't rhyme the way sonnets usually do; there are two main rhyme schemes for sonnets, and one (English or Shakespearean) tends to break into three quatrains and a concluding couplet, and the second (Italian or Petrarchean) tends to break into an octave and a sestet. This poem is all couplets, often broken by intervening lines; it doesn't build the way sonnets usually do. It actually seems to meander a bit, but as the poem sinks in, you can see Frost building his argument.

The oven bird, though undoubtedly attractive enough, is not a particularly special bird; the Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes it as a small, inconspicuous bird with a loud voice. The first line of the poem insists on the bird's ordinariness ("everyone has heard" it) and the poem goes on from there to emphasize that this particular warbler is nothing particularly special: it's a creature of the middle, of mid-summer and mid-wood. The solidity of the tree trunks makes the forest (not just the leaves) seem old and even stodgy, and the bird's loud song echoes repetitiously. It's not a grand, rapturous bird, like Tennyson's Eagle or Keats's Nightingale. It elicits homespun remarks like "mid-summer is to spring as one to ten" (I take the numbers to be moving backwards, as in a countdown; in any case, the lovely flowers are mostly gone by this time).

The mention of flowers brings back the memory of the glorious springtime evanescence of flowering pear and cherry trees, now present only in their absence: they "went down in showers" during the gentle "early petal-fall" that ends their brief existence. and if you've seen these trees then you've seen the petals shower down at the slightest breeze. But Frost's use of "showers" also brings to mind spring rains. Again, everything is sort of fair to middling: the bird is ordinary and loud, the flowers are gone and the leaves have that tired late-August look; even sunny days have their overcast moments, all leading up to the cold months of the year, when the birds have gone away to someplace warmer and the green things give up, temporarily. "That other fall we name the fall": is it just the strong identification of Frost with a certain type of hard-scrabble New England mind that brings to mind the Fall of Man when we hear this doubled emphasis on "fall"? To top it all off, "the highway dust is over all": this isn't even a virgin forest, it's encroached upon by ordinary traffic and human commotion and pollution.

Frost has conjured up a natural world, but contrary to what many poems tell us, there's nothing healing, serene, sublime, or striking about it. It's all ordinary and a bit tattered and rundown in that late summer way. It's not even far away; it's right off the highway. Then Frost makes this very ordinariness into exactly what makes the bird special: it would "be as other birds" if it were singing just a pretty song – it "knows in singing not to sing"; that is, the bird is insistently telling us something too harsh for the normal loveliness of bird song. "Knows" implies that the bird is very consciously telling us something, something difficult and challenging, and everything about the bird ("he frames [it] in all but words") is asking us this one thing: what to make of a diminished thing. We may have our wishes, and our poetic ideals, and our fantasies of what life should be like, but real life and natural cycles and human society impinge on us in different ways each day, even out in the woods with the birds, and each day is one less day we get to try to make it all work, as our future dwindles away and turns into the lost, confused, ultimately forgotten past: a diminished thing.

So we see that all along Frost has been stealthily but steadily moving towards the final line. The first ten lines create the atmosphere of ordinariness around the oven bird and its song (so different from what we might expect from a poem about a bird), then the next three lines step us back and move us towards wondering why this ordinary bird is yet so distinctive, and why it insists on telling us things both depressing and commonplace; and then the fourteenth and final line caps the poem and flashes backwards through the preceding thirteen lines with an illuminating flash of philosophic lightning. I sometimes wonder if the oven bird's song haunted Frost until he figured out what its late-summer cry connoted to him, or if the last line sprang into his head and he had to build a poem backward that would justify it, because it was too good to lose.

I took this from the Library of America edition of Frost's Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays.

23 August 2013

Alice Guy-Blache: finding and funding

To answer the question asked in this kickstarter campaign, yes, I have heard of Alice Guy-Blache, and I have even seen some of her films, in Kino Lorber's second set of Gaumont Treasures. But I can't say I know a whole lot about her, and would really love to see the documentary that Pamela Green and Jarik van Sluijs are trying to make. So if you are so minded and have the cash to spare, you have until midnight (Pacific time) on Monday 26 August (coming right up!) to give way to your Medici impulses and help them out. Here's the link again, now that you're persuaded.

20 August 2013

for John Hollander

The poet John Hollander died last Saturday. In memoriam Knopf Doubleday sent out to its Poetry Month e-mail list the following poem, from Hollander's most recent collection, A Draft of Light, published in 2008. It feels like a poem written with a lifetime's experience, dealing lightly with deep things.

Some Playthings

A trembling brown bird
standing in the high grass turns
out to be a blown

oakleaf after all.
Was the leaf playing bird, or
was it "just" the wind

playing with the leaf?
Was my very noticing
itself at play with

an irregular
frail patch of brown in the cold
April afternoon?

These questions that hang
motionless in the now-stilled
air: what of their

frailty, in the light
of even the most fragile
of problematic

substances like all
these momentary playthings
of recognition?

Questions that are asked
of questions: no less weighty
and lingeringly

dark than the riddles
posed by any apparent
bird or leaf or breath

of wind, instruments
probing what we feel we know
for some kind of truth.

John Hollander
28 October 1929 - 17 August 2013

19 August 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/34

Hail holy light, offspring of Heav'n first-born,
Or of th'eternal Coeternal beam
May I express thee unblam'd? since God is light,
And never but in unapproached light
Dwelt from Eternity, dwelt then in thee,
Bright effluence of bright essence increate.
Or hear'st thou rather pure Ethereal stream,
Whose Fountain who shall tell? before the Sun,
Before the Heavens thou wert, and at the voice
Of God, as with a Mantle didst invest
The rising world of waters dark and deep,
Won from the void and formless infinite.
Thee I re-visit now with bolder wing,
Escap't the Stygian Pool, though long detain'd
In that obscure sojourn, while in my flight
Through utter and through middle darkness borne
With other notes than to th'Orphean Lyre
I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,
Taught by the Heav'nly Muse to venture down
The dark descent, and up to reascend,
Though hard and rare: thee I revisit safe,
And feel thy sovran vital Lamp; but thou
Revisit'st not these eyes, that roll in vain
To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;
So thick a drop serene hath quencht their Orbs,
Or dim suffusion veiled.

John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book III, ll 1-26

In classic epic style, Paradise Lost opens in media res, so that after the general opening (the statement of purpose and the invocation of the muse: again, all in classic style) we find ourselves in Hell with the fallen angels. After two books in which we see Satan gather his forces and plot his revenge, the third book brings us up to Heaven at last (three: a mystic number, the number of the Trinity). The book begins with a rhapsodic invocation of light that immediately turns into a probing series of questions about its essential nature: God's first manifestation ("offspring of Heav'n first-born")? Or actually equivalent to God ("of th'eternal Coeternal beam")? Or possibly, referring back to the division of the waters above and below Heaven on the second day of Creation (Genesis 1, 6-8), light is some sort of ethereal liquid ("pure Ethereal stream"), though again Milton raises the question about the ultimate source and identity of light: "whose Fountain who shall tell?" Just as we consider light both wave and particle, Milton finds this primal substance to be of simultaneous multiple natures (making it an apt symbol for the Trinitarian God). It is typical of Milton that rhapsodic praise is not only not separate from probing intellectual inquiry, they are consubstantial; he has no use for unexamined faith.

There is a constant dialogue in Milton's poem between the great classical epics and myths and what he saw as the manifestation of truth in Christian revelation. Although Orpheus in classical legend descended to the Underworld, Milton cannot copy "th"Orphean Lyre" for his own descent into the grimness (and to some extent the grandeur) of the true Hell, bordered by Chaos, a place of Eternal Night, so he considers and rejects Orpheus as a model. As the poet begins the difficult task of describing the heavenly ineffable to his fallible and fallen readers (how much easier to help us appreciate Hell!), he again invokes the Muse, but the Heavenly Muse of divine (Biblical) inspiration, rather than the classical Muses. This passage ends with a reference to the poet's blindness; he goes on, in the lines after these, to compare his situation to that of the blind poets and seers of ancient Greece.

This reference to his blindness and the suffering it causes him (" . . . but not to me returns / Day, or the sweet approach of Ev'n or Morn, / Or sight of vernal bloom, or Summer's Rose, / Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine; / But cloud instead, and ever-during Dark. . . ") is not only a personal lamentation; it connects to the very basic purpose of his poem, which is to "justify the ways of God to men" (Book I, line 26). Milton's flexible syntax implies both that he will justify to men the ways of God, and also that he will justify the ways of God to men, that is, how God treats us: what did Milton do that warranted the affliction of blindness? Did he not go blind defending liberty (in the shape of Cromwell's Commonwealth) against a suspiciously Catholic-friendly Stuart king? It's also typical of Milton that he feels God not only can but needs to be justified to humanity.

Milton has much that is still of interest to say about theology and politics, but I wonder how many still read him for those reasons? No doubt they are outnumbered by those who read him for the poetry, which is endlessly astonishing and powerful. It's amazing that anyone, much less a blind man of limited means living (after the restoration of the monarchy) under state suspicion as a dangerous subversive, could compose a work of such sustained magnificence, sublime in its intellectual and aesthetic achievement. There was recent talk of a Hollywood 3-D version of Paradise Lost, starring Bradley Cooper as Satan, which is such a deliriously stupid idea I was planning to overcome my aversion to movie theaters and see it on its opening weekend. I assume the film-makers were attracted by the special-effects potential of the battle in Heaven (Book VI), but lines like "in his right hand / grasping ten thousand thunders" depend for their power on the reader's imagination and ear; if you turn that into a cinematic spectacular, all you're really doing is cranking the Dolby up to 11, which is ridiculous. Alas! the project was abandoned for lack of funds. Read over lines like "the rising world of waters dark and deep / Won from the void and formless infinite" and you know how seductive Milton can be, regardless of what you share or don't share of his beliefs. Yet the lines don't just sound good – they convey very specific details connecting the description to the religious and scientific beliefs of his time.

"Increate" in line 6 means uncreated; and in the next line, "Or hear'st thou rather" means "would you rather hear yourself called."

There are many editions of Paradise Lost; the one I usually carry around is the Signet Classic, edited and with notes by Christopher Ricks. I see the edition has changed its cover again. I'm on my third copy.

12 August 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/33

Arachne Gives Thanks to Athena

It is no punishment. They are mistaken –
The brothers, the father. My prayers were answered.
I was all fingertips. Nothing was perfect:
What I had woven, the moths will have eaten;
At the end of my rope was a noose's knot.

Now it's no longer the thing, but the pattern,
And that will endure, even though webs be broken.

I, if not beautiful, am beauty's maker.
Old age cannot rob me, nor cowardly lovers.
The moon once pulled blood from me. Now I pull silver.
Here are the lines I pulled from my own belly –
Hang them with rainbows, ice, dewdrops, darkness.

AE Stallings

In case you've forgotten the myth Stallings is playing off of here: Arachne was a mortal renowned for her weaving, and she wasn't modest about it either – she boasted repeatedly that her art was greater than that of Athena herself. The goddess, angered by this presumption, appeared in the shape of an old woman and cautioned the girl to show proper respect to the gods. Arachne declined to do so. The insulted goddess then assumed her immortal form and the stage was set for a weave-off. Arachne not only used every resource of her considerable art, she provocatively chose to picture in her tapestry various stories in which the gods had wronged innocent people. As both goddess and woman were nearing completion, Athena noticed not only the type of story Arachne had chosen, but the peerless quality of her workmanship. In a rage the goddess tore Arachne's work to pieces and turned the arrogant girl into a shriveled little spider, so she might weave perpetually. It's an interesting myth; Athena is usually wise, good, and just (isn't she everyone's favorite goddess?), but she doesn't come across too well this time.

In this poem Arachne is still arrogant, but it's the calm arrogance, more of an assurance, of an artist; what concerned her before her transformation was not so much showing up a rival as creating something perfect and permanent, both qualities beyond human reach. (Nice wordplay at the end of the first stanza: "at the end of my rope" is literal in her case, but also carries with it the idiomatic meaning of being at the furthest end of frustration; and "knot" carries the pun "not"; the noose's knot bring Death, the big "not.")

The second stanza is just two key lines, balanced between the five lines of both first and final stanzas. Arachne's viewpoint has become that of an immortal: individual webs will break, but the underlying structures – the pattern – will endure.

In the third stanza she continues her statement of her power as an artist; in this case, specifically as a woman artist (I think a male speaker would be more likely to talk about his loss of strength rather than of beauty, and faithless rather than cowardly lovers). She puts aside what most people would conventionally value in her (personal beauty, youth, fertility and marriageability) in favor of the shining beauty she spins from her gut. She was fairly youthful when Athena transformed her (if, as she puts it, the moon was pulling blood from her, then old age is a potential worry, not a current reality), but she is serene about her shriveled ugly immortality – contrast her attitude with the suffering of Tennyson's Tithonus; but then Arachne is an artist and he was only a lover. Referring to the webs as "lines" is both accurate description and a reminder that the poet too is pulling her own lines out in the form of this poem. It all ends in darkness. (The initial d sound in darkness nicely picks up the two ds in dewdrops, the repeated d - d - d closing out the poem with the soft finality of a muffled drum.)

Arachne is sincere in what she says here, but it's impossible not to sense beneath the sincerity the possibility that she's taking one last hubristic fling at Athena: the vengeful goddess inadvertently gave her exactly what she wanted ("my prayers were answered"). Her art, embedded now in Nature itself, will outlive the not so immortal gods; in their ultimate contest, she has defeated Athena.

AE Stallings is a contemporary American poet and classicist (Penguin has published her translation of The Nature of Things by Lucretius). This poem is from her collection Archaic Smile.

05 August 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/32


Quis hic locus, quae regio, quae mundi plaga?

What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
O my daughter.

     Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog, meaning
Those who glitter with the glory of the humming-bird, meaning
Those who sit in the sty of contentment, meaning
Those who suffer the ecstasy of the animals, meaning

     Are become unsubstantial, reduced by a wind,
A breath of pine, and the woodsong fog
By this grace dissolved in place

     What is this face, less clear and clearer
The pulse in the arm, less strong and stronger –
Given or lent? more distant than stars and nearer than the eye

     Whispers and small laughter between leaves and hurrying feet
Under sleep, where all the waters meet.

     Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat.
I made this, I have forgotten
And remember.
The rigging weak and the canvas rotten
Between one June and another September.
Made this unknowing, half conscious, unknown, my own.
The garboard strake leaks, the seams need caulking.

This form, this face, this life
Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me
Resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken,
The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships.

What seas what shores what granite islands towards my timbers
And woodthrush calling through the fog
My daughter.

T S Eliot

The narrator of this poem is usually taken to be Shakespeare's Pericles, slowly coming out of his long stupor of mourning when he realizes his beloved daughter Marina (so named because she was born at sea, during a terrible storm) is not in fact dead; fate and circuitous circumstances have returned her to him, and she stands before him, recalling his life to him.

The Latin tag means "What place is this, what region, what area of the world?" and comes from Seneca's tragedy Hercules Furens (The Mad Hercules); Hercules speaks the line as he comes out of the trance-like madness induced by Hera, during which he has killed his wife and children. Both Pericles and Hercules are emerging from a thick psychological fog towards knowledge of their offspring: Hercules, tragically, that he has killed them; Pericles, happily, that his daughter still lives. The use of apropos Latin tags, particularly from Ovid or Seneca, was frequent among Elizabethan/Jacobean dramatists, so Eliot's use of the device helps connect his poem to its source material.

As the poem opens, the world around the speaker is both specific and disembodied; he sees the waters and land and rocks around him, but doesn't know where exactly they are; it is not pine trees but their scent that comes to him, and not the woodthrush but its song, and even that comes through a fog.

In the second stanza the worldly, courtier-like concerns (glittering like hummingbirds, greedy and vicious like dogs, bestial, smug, and unthinking) emerge in his memory, along with the realization of their sterility and futility (the echoing line-ending refrain of "meaning / Death") are blown away in the third stanza (wind, breath, fog) into a purer realization of what is most important in this man's life; as we move into the fourth stanza, Eliot uses rhyme to link Pericles's growing awareness of his newly blessed consciousness (grace) and his surroundings (place) to something beautifully human and beloved (her face), which moves in and out of focus, both unbearably far and unbearably near – this separate young human he helped create.

Then comes one of those really Eliot-sounding couplets, with ambiguous moments of small daily intimacies recalled from the deepest levels of consciousness – the deepest sleep, where transhuman spirits dwell; the primal waters, the womb-like sea, flow through this whole poem.

The speaker suddenly comes to a vivid awareness of his immediate surroundings: the becalmed ship he built, now badly in need of repair. The "garboard strakes" that are leaking are "the first range of planks adjacent to the keel"; in addition the sails and rigging are rotting. The poem balances the earlier refrain of Death with an appropriately less regular answer of Life: "this life / living to live"; "my life for this life." Although Pericles is re-awakening to life through the return of his lost daughter, he is also aware that his age must inevitably give way to her youth; the ship he built, now holding him as it slowly decays, is like his aging body, the vessel of his spirit. He is reconciling himself to the ultimate loss of his daughter; she will live "in a world of time beyond me" and he resigns his life for her life. There will be new ships, and someone else's hope, directed towards the lasting shores and islands. The poem's closing lines echo and subtly alter the opening, and Pericles's exclamation/question O my daughter gives way to My daughter, which thanks to flexible syntax might be a further, more intimate address to her but could also function as the direct object of "calling" in the second line of that stanza: the seas, the shores, the islands and ships and the woodthrush, could now all be calling the next generation, in the person of Marina, towards their own adventures, until they too give way to the next wave.

I took this poem from The Complete Poems and Plays by TS Eliot.