Summer of ‘82: Pietro, Sandro, Lynne, Sink, Esser, Brenda, me. The phone in the bathtub, Brenda smashing her hand through glass; the punk band at the garage, and we drinking vodka out of her purse. At night, after dinner, we put on Lou Reed and my father sang along with us. My mother didn’t like Brenda. We sang, “Just want to play football for the coach.” And then The Motels, “And I would sell my soul . . .,” Astral Weeks. During the day, I landscaped, Brenda waited tables. Oh, how we fit together! The following December, she turned her back to me in bed, and that was that. We’ve been friends ever since.

Robert Browning’s syntax is elliptical, parenthetical, additive, interruptive—four adjectives for the same complex effect—like a stream coiling back on itself. The voice that runs the syntax is full, passionate, balanced, complete, anxious. It’s also God-like, impersonal—as if earth could talk, or heaven tell. It orders, is imperative; it sings, is lyrical. The voice is martial, in short, like a general’s before battle. The poetry Browning writes is companion of the camps, the barracks. He argues, is logical, philosophical, rhetorical (that is, playful). But let an American soldier in Iraq pick up Browning and read him today: only one in ten could, and ten in ten probably wouldn’t. Is there any Browning in Iraq? Any Frost in all that heat? What help for the soldier who picks up a book of poems? A poem always has an implied audience, a pretend audience—the reader holding the book. So there’s a conversation between the voice of the poem and the ear of the reader. There’s also a conversation between the poet, the voice of the poem, and the reader: three voices, three listeners, not one. And the truth of the poem, if one will pardon the expression, grows up inside of those three voices, three ears: yours, the poet’s, and the poet’s character. And comes out of them.

“You play with fire, you gonna get burned.” All of reggae is in that line.

Diana Dodge, Linda Preshaw, Joni Mitchell, Faye Dunaway: two from home, two from, what, the ether? Longing spreads itself out equally among them nevertheless.

Some scholars in the Elizabethan period (roughly 1564 to 1604) believed that reading bettered experience by a ratio of 1 to 20. That is, one year of reading was worth twenty years of experience. Popular belief today would say the reverse.

For C.S. Lewis, Edward Bolton’s line, “The dalliance of the undiscerned winde” was “the most beautiful of Golden [Elizabethan] phrases.”

Oh, to be poor and bare and beggarly! But not where life is expensive, and not where life is cheap. Nowhere, then, to be poor and bare and beggarly, which most of the people in the world are.

Humanism’s form is teaching (Pico, Bacon), its method rhetorical (William James), and its philosophy skeptical (Ecclesiastes, Cicero, Gellius). No wonder it’s having such a hard time. Critics like Frank Kermode and others can speak of “imaginative coherence,” “limbs” of a plot, a play’s having a “center,” and Shakespeare’s “imaginative unity,” but these are fictions; they have no a-temporal or everlasting thing-ness. About 5,000 people in any given decade since 1600 know without elaboration what these terms mean or refer to, and yet they’re the only ones arguing about the terms. The rest may indeed feel the things meant, if they see or read a Shakespeare play, but they won’t discuss them or make cases about their existence. As Theseus says in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse, if imagination mend them.” That can be said for the best and the worst in any kind of anything.

There’s a great future behind us, and it isn’t what it used to be.

“He thought he kept the universe alone”: this line of Frost’s isn’t only a man’s mood.

Associationism may be old hat in psychology and philosophy, but it’s the way of most people in the world: that similar ideas and ideas that occur simultaneously or in rapid succession tend to evoke one another. Hollywood depends on this; basic daily conversation does too, as when you know what your friend is going to say, or what the commercial’s going to say, or how the story will end, before it does. Further, those things we used to associate with on-ness or about-ness are now part of the in-ness or are-ness of things. So, for example: Sophocles wrote plays; Aristotle wrote about those plays—plot, design, character, discovery, etc. The things are now the essence of dramatic stories rather than of dramatic criticism. People plot, have designs on things and people, make up stuff about themselves and others, discover things and use them, etc.

Lawrence Sterne to David Garrick: “I laugh till I cry, and in the same tender moment cry till I laugh . . . Everything in this world, said my father, is big with jest—and has wit in it, and instruction too—if we can but find it out.”

I’ve heard that someone has died and wanted to be the first to tell someone else the news. I’ve wanted to witness catastrophe. I’ve wanted to save someone’s life in an extraordinary moment. Why wish to witness tragedy? Some have said, it’s nice to be above the trouble, looking down on it; we want to be moved, to have life; we want to be released from self-love to altruism, from self-consciousness to pity. Some have said we enjoy seeing tragedy because we enjoy feeling intensity. I like how Edward Young put it: “We love to be at once, miserable, and unhurt.” Hobbes said that in tragedy we have the “novelty and remembrance of our own security present”; by which I think he means, the tragedy we see makes our own safety from the tragedy and its consequences more alive to us, more present and available to us. Tragedy offers “nothing of the kind when it presses too close upon our senses,” as Addison wrote. Or Mel Brooks: “Tragedy is when I have a hangnail. Comedy is when you fall in a manhole and die.” There’s no pleasure in tragedy unless we’re conscious of its being a fiction—which is why it’s annoying to hear people say they won’t see a movie or read a book because “it’s depressing.”

Our little sleep is rounded with a life.

A Frenchman of the late 19th century said that criticism is the “erecting into laws of one’s personal impressions.” T.S. Eliot was very successful in doing this, as was William James, as was Robert Frost. Why fear criticism? Why berate reviewers of movies and books for getting it wrong (or getting it right)? Most of us are successful at legislating our personal impressions, but not often, and without much effect.

We’re all unfortunate travelers in realms of gold.

Simone Weil said, “We know by means of our intelligence that what the intelligence does not comprehend is more real that what it does comprehend.” Not so fast! What is meant here by “comprehend,” by “intelligence”? Weil is here being a mystic, erecting into laws her personal impressions—and reiterating what mystics and part-time mystics before her said and wrote, Pascal chief among them, with his “the heart has its reasons.” There’s a difference between not being able to comprehend and not being able to give an account. Radio waves exist, apparently, though most people can’t comprehend them or give an account of them. But can the same be said of God? Is God more comprehensible than radio waves and more accounted for? Like philosophy, theology is “the finding of bad reasons for what we believe on instinct” (Bradley).

William James observed that the records of mystics are “absolutely sensational” in their epistemological quality. They’re face-to-face representations of what seems to the senses to exist immediately. Hence the paradox that mystics in their accounts of their experience frequently speak of hands, of touch—and carefully emphasize the non-corporal nature of their experience, of God’s existence.

Clare Booth Luce was, to all appearances, a success. “I don’t really understand the word ‘success,’” she said in an interview for the book, When Smart People Fail. “I know people who use it about me, but I don’t understand it.” Had she written an autobiography, she said she would have called it, The Autobiography of a Failure. She considered herself a failure because she turned away from writing, where her vocation lay, and thus misused or left unused the “talents and opportunities” she was given. She died in 1987.

George Chapman, in his “Defense of Homer: To the Understander”: “For the darknes there is nothing good or bad, hard or softe, darke or perspicuous but in respect, and in respect of mens light, sleight, or envious perusalles.” The idea here is that nothing is obscure, dark, un-understandable; or, rather, that everything is clear, if you read it hard, deep, and lovingly. Short of that ideal, Chapman acknowledges that the meaning of any text is informed or shaped by the reader of it.

In Shakespeare, with the exception of Hamlet, the low characters utter the low thoughts; the servants only say that “thought is free,” that it doesn’t matter what you do, in a world where power, influence, and money rule. Emilia in Othello, for example: “Who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch? I should venture purgatory for’t.” Or, again: “Why, the wrong is but a wrong in the world; and having the world for your labor, ‘tis a wrong in your own world, and you might quickly make it right” (4.3.74–76, 79–81). That sounds just like us today—like high-school kids on cheating, CFOs and COOs and CEOs on cooking the books. Iago doesn’t argue that nothing makes a difference: he knows that everything makes a difference. But Emilia bravely opens up the game, as do Caliban, Stefano, Barnardine, and other servants and low-lifes in Shakespeare.

Matthew Arnold wrote to Arthur Hugh Clough in 1852 of “ . . . the modern situation in its true blankness and barrenness, and unpoetrylessness.” That last word is interesting: what’s the difference between “unpoetrylessness” and “poetrylessness”?




Paperback: 86 pages
Publisher: Lumen Books
(June 1, 2007)
ISBN: 0930829646


Paperback: 86 pages
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