Saturday, January 2, 2016

poetry and meaning

My enjoyment of Yeats has an odd relationship with understanding what his poems mean. What I mean by this is: sometimes I enjoy his poems less when I am aware of what it is that the poem means.

But there are also many of his poems that I love that I probably wouldn't enjoy as much if I didn't know what almost everything is intended to mean and how they connect with his life. For example, I would have been baffled by the middle portion of "Circus Animals' Desertion" if I didn't know they referred to his plays (which I haven't read), or that the Leda in "Among School Children" referred to Maud Gonne.

But an example of a poem in which the meaning really has nothing to do with my enjoyment is the strange "On a Picture of a Black Centaur by Edmund Dulac:"

YOUR hooves have stamped at the black margin of the wood,
Even where horrible green parrots call and swing.
My works are all stamped down into the sultry mud.
I knew that horse-play, knew it for a murderous thing.
What wholesome sun has ripened is wholesome food to eat,
And that alone; yet I, being driven half insane
Because of some green wing, gathered old mummy wheat
In the mad abstract dark and ground it grain by grain
And after baked it slowly in an oven; but now
I bring full-flavoured wine out of a barrel found
Where seven Ephesian topers slept and never knew
When Alexander's empire passed, they slept so sound.
Stretch out your limbs and sleep a long Saturnian sleep;
I have loved you better than my soul for all my words,
And there is none so fit to keep a watch and keep
Unwearied eyes upon those horrible green birds.

There is some pretty intense music going on here. For example, the nearly double beat of "black margin" echoes the open 'a' sound of "stamped," surrounded by the double 'oo' sound of "hooves" and "wood." In the next line, the simplicity of saying "call and swing" after having to say "horrible green parrots" is fantastic. It's a poem I've loved to read because of the music, and how the words feel in my mouth, but I really have no idea what it's about. I mean, each line is intelligible, and presumably Yeats is writing this after having seen a painting by Dulac, and if he says he's been grinding "old mummy wheat," I'm fine with that.

Recently, though, curiosity got the better of me, and I read up on what this poem is supposed to actually mean. None of it was terribly interesting, although apparently the scene Yeats describes was an amalgamation of two different paintings, and there's a lot of connection to some occult friends of his. All very boring and almost disappointing that the fantastic imagery here could be dismembered as belonging to occult friends, paintings A and B, etc.

It's strange how meaning works in relation to music. It's even the case in opera -- there's a nonobvious connection between meaning of the music, and the literal meaning. I suppose that is how Callas could deliver fantastic performances even when she fudged up some of the words!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"When blood is nipped and ways be foul..."

It's winter, and what better way to exult than with Shakespeare?
When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail
And Tom bears logs into the hall
And milk comes frozen home in pail,
When blood is nipped and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl:
"Tu-whit, tu-whoo."
A merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

When all aloud the wind doth blow
And coughing drowns the parson's saw
And birds sit brooding in the snow
And Marian's nose looks red and raw,
When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
Then nightly sings the staring owl:
"Tu-whit, tu-whoo."
A merry note,
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.
It's a simple poem, but there's more here than meets the eye. The poem seems simple because of anaphora - the structural repetition of "When ... / And ... / And ..." - and the presence of a refrain, allying it with ballads and folk song. But it is vivid and memorable because it implicitly describes two "plots" - one, the progression of a winter's day; and two, the degeneration of the senses. I'll explain: let's track what happens in the poem. Tom brings logs into the hall to warm it up, and someone milks the cows - all early morning stuff. Halfway through the first stanza, we note that "blood is nipped and ways be foul" - it's cold, and the roads are in awful condition. Roads to where? Church, because in the second stanza, we're in the pews, where "coughing drowns the parson's saw" and "all aloud the wind doth blow" outside. On the way back, we see "birds sit brooding in the snow," and, once warmed, "Marian's nose looks red and raw." Finally, we get to eat: "roasted crabs hiss in the bowl," which apparently refer to roasted apples hissing in ale.

So we've got an entire day delineated with implicit but bold strokes: bringing in the logs, milk, iced roads, hacking coughs at church, birds in snow, apples hissing. There's an interesting correlative with the progression of sense data, which is the second "plot" I mentioned. We start with visual observations: of Dick trying to warm up his fingers, of Tom bearing logs, of frozen milk in a pail. Then we hear things: "coughing" and "the parson's saw." Next, we progress implicitly to smell - with Marian's nose. Finally, we get to the grossest sense, that of taste, with the merrily hissing crabs, waiting to be consumed. Things have finally warmed up. There's a totem pole of the senses in Renaissance and Elizabethan theory of purest to the most base: sight, hearing, smell, and taste. Taste was at the bottom because it required ingestion; sight was its opposite because it required no physical contact.

What does that mean? One possible meaning, in the progression from austere to the grossly human, is a defiance of winter's austerity. Another meaning has to do with adultery. (What?!) This poem is from the play Love's Labor Lost, and is preceded by another song, called "Spring," which has cuckoos in its refrain. Cuckoos and hooting owls are stand-ins for adultery, i.e. men being cuckolded. More, "greasy Joan" is apparently a slang for prostitute; this makes the idea of "[cooling] the pot" very suggestive - as is the moral descent of the senses, especially after a visit to church!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Moore's paper nautilus

I read this fascinating poem more carefully today (Marianne Moore's "The Paper Nautilus"). It was written for her student Elizabeth Bishop after Bishop gave Moore an actual nautilus shell (we'd assume: paper nautilus shell, the real nautilus if a very different animal).

I wasn't entirely satisfied with the analyses of the poem presented here: It seems to me that many of the analyses focus on the maternal relationship between Moore and Bishop. That's certainly one powerful dimension to the poem, but I think the deeper one is the relationship between poet and poem. The crucial moment, identified by many of the readers, is the bolded line:
...Buried eight-fold in her eight
arms, for she is in
a sense a devil-
fish, her glass ram’shorn-cradled freight
is hid but is not crushed;
as Hercules, bitten
by a crab loyal to the hydra,
was hindered to succeed,
the intensively
watched eggs coming from
the shell free it when they are freed,–
leaving its wasp-nest flaws
of white on white, and close-
laid Ionic chiton-folds
like the lines in the mane of
a Parthenon horse...
The doubling of the word "free" is impossible to ignore. What's deceptive is what "it" refers to. There are, I think, actually two candidates: the parent nautilus, or her shell. Grammatically, there should be one referent, but I think both interpretations are too fascinating not to be simultaneously accounted for. Possibly, the parent nautilus (Moore) is free only when the eggs, as indomitable as Hercules, free themselves from the parent's efforts to "[hide]" it. Or, the lifeless shell itself - the "[the shell's] wasp-nest flaws / of white on white" - becomes free once the life force has left it. It's the poem allowed, despite its flaws and lack of vitality, finally to be free. The two could be one, as well.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

reflections on The Journey to the West

Some intrepid Chinese theater folk have mounted a production of The Journey to the West at the Lincoln center, of which a review in the New York Times appears here. It's chock full of "visual flourishes," apparently, but "didn't supply the food for thought or emotional engagement," leaving the poor reader to ponder the bits of token Buddhism. "What to make of the notion like 'the bodiless body is the true body, and real form has no form'?"

Of the four classical novels, The Journey to the West is the lightest fare. There's no tragedy, no sex, and an uncomplicated cast of five main characters. (By contrast, Outlaws of the Marsh, which traditionally aimed at teenagers, has more than a hundred.) But all four of these Ming classical novels -- Journey included -- are about an abeyance in the social order. As the famous first line of Romance of the Three Kingdoms goes, "A dynasty long united must divide; the land divided must unite." Romance chronicles the interregnum, beginning with the fall of the Han dynasty and ending with the beginning of the Jin. Similarly, the story of Outlaws is metaphysically framed by the spirits of the heavenly constellations come to earth. They form an outlaw band outside of and temporarily outshining the normative imperial heirarchy, before returning, one by one, to heaven (read: dying in battle on earth).

(Golden Lotus, the erotic fourth, is also an abeyance: a rupture in the social fabric caused by adultery and uncontrollable sexual desire. It starts with transgression and ends with punitive deaths of its main characters.)

Journey has its own abeyance, thanks to the Monkey King. Born from a primordium outside of the axes of Buddhist, Taoist, or Confucian divinities (specifically, he popped out of a rock nurtured by the sun and stars), Monkey doesn't see why he should give an inch to the heavenly heirarchy. He proclaims himself "Great Sage Equaling Heaven," and, at one point, literally smashes a hole in the roof of the heavenly palace. Only the boundless powers of the Buddha manage to suppress him, and the journey he undertakes "to the west" -- as the disciple of the mortal Tang priest -- is his journey of redemption, to the restoration of divine order.

Romance and Outlaw -- and, to an extent, Lotus -- are fatalistic chronicles of history. The main character of Romance is history itself, and its players, even the most famous and fabled, such as the genius Zhuge Liang, are enmeshed in that fabric. Though the Outlaws' brotherhood at one point defeats the Imperial court's army, the leader of the Outlaws, Song Jiang, sees himself as a resolutely loyal subject. He justifies his antagonism as towards the corrupt elements of the court, rather than to the court itself; when an imperial pardon comes, the Outlaws accept it gladly. This pardon is their downfall: sent on suicidal missions against powerful foes, the Outlaws fall, one by one.

Monkey is unfettered by history. He is confident, brash, talented, and wild, barging in on a heavenly banquet and pissing on the Buddha's hand. His nature is neither purely good nor purely bad; he is sometimes selfish and mischievous, sometimes generous. Reversing the refraction into multiple characters of Outlaws and Romance, he is a multitude in an individual. Born without a name, he accrues multiple: "Handsome Monkey King," "Sun Wukong," "Great Sage Equaling Heaven," "Keeper of Horses" (his first employment in Heaven), "Sun the Novice," and eventually "Victorious Fighting Buddha." The first name that he gets -- "Wukong" -- means "Emptiness." For a time, his potential and spirit are as unlimited as emptiness itself.

A watershed moment in Journey is Monkey's defeat by the Buddha. After having whipped Heaven, Monkey goes to challenge Buddha. (Why not?) What he doesn't expect is being easily defeated -- literally, by a sleight of Buddha's hand. As punishment for his disregard of the divine order of things, Monkey is sentenced to imprisonment under a mountain for five hundred years. In his rocky cell, Monkey shouts accusingly to the powers that be: "You tricked me! You tricked me!" He's tricked by the disillusionment of his boundless potential, by the his sense of the world. After all, he had defeated the forces of heaven; why shouldn't he have taken the heavenly throne?

There is some history in Journey. Under the aegis of Tang Taizong, a monk (known as the Tang Priest) undertakes a journey to fetch the scriptures from India. There is actually a dual purpose in this journey: besides enlightening the masses, the journey is one of redemption for the Tang Priest, who was one of Buddha's strayed disciples in a past life. (His sins were wasting a few grains of rice and falling asleep during a sermon.) Only by undertaking the arduous journey can he retake his proper place at the Buddha's side. To protect him -- and to kill several birds with one stone -- Monkey is recruited, with the promise of legitimate titles and power if they succeed.

This is Monkey's submission to the "proper way," a channeling of his powers towards legitimate means. But even then, Monkey remains a subversive element in the story. Notably, he is taken as the Tang Priest's disciple; in Confucian terms, disciples must honor and pay strict obedience to their teachers/masters. And yet Monkey is far more intelligent and powerful than the Tang Priest, who is often fooled by strangers and demons on the road. Although the Tang Priest is Monkey's master and superior, this relationship is nominal; even in matters of Buddhism and divinity, Monkey often surpasses his master, recognizing disguised Buddhist deities well before the Tang Priest and demonstrating a deep understanding of the Buddhist scriptures.

If there is a second emotional crux in Journey after Monkey's imprisonment, it is Monkey's dismissal by the Tang Priest. This episode occurs early in the journey: a demon disguises herself as a human tries to capture the Tang Priest. Monkey sees through her disguise and kills her, but the Tang Priest is convinced that Monkey had murdered an innocent. As a result, the Tang Priest severs their master-disciple relationship, and forces Monkey to leave. (Of course, without Monkey, the Tang Priest walks right into disaster, and Monkey quickly returns to save the day.)

The traumatic confinement of an individual into a seemingly arbitrary power and social order, and the fantasized reenactment of parent-child conflicts, are emotional dramas pulled from the Confucian playbook. Indeed, its pantheon is an incoherent syncretism of Buddhism and Daoist and Chinese mysticism. (Interestingly, Buddhism is nominally the most "powerful" force in this universe -- and has foreign roots.) Lao Zi occasionally dines with the Bodhisattva Guanyin, and even takes bets with her. One of the delights in the story is the extent of its name dropping. The demons encountered often turn out to be the wayward steeds of divinities come to earth to wreak havoc; finding out that the monster was actually Manjushri's lion is like having a mysterious knight in King Arthur turn out to be Siegfried.

(Another pleasure to the story is the sit-com-like interactions among the Tang Priest's other disciples. Besides Monkey, the Tang Priest picks up Pig, a gluttonous and lustful ex-divinity born, fittingly, with porcine features; and Friar Sands, a hardworking voice of reason.)

Alone among the classics, Journey has a happy ending. But after the driving subversiveness of the story, the ending is bittersweet, too. After reaching Vulture Peak and shuffling off their mortal coils, the journeyers become perfected: Pig, elevated to Arhat, gains temperance; the Tang Priest attains the wisdom that eluded him the entire journey. Their sins are removed. And Monkey? From the interactions they have had with other heavenly deities, it is safe to say that his personality will remain, to some degree, intact. But like Ulysses returned, but without as gleaming a goal as Penelope, one wonders how he'd handle his Buddhahood, the sloughing off of all his names except for one.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Prometheus film thoughts

I watched Ridley Scott's Prometheus on the airplane over someone else's shoulder and without sound, so I'm not sure if I'm qualified to comment on it. But I was struck by the slippery overtones of erotic horror and sexual anxiety. These are meaningless phrases, so I'll be more specific.

First, the film centers on a quest to discover the origins of a literally superhuman race, the Engineers. They look like this:

They're tall, muscular, masculine, deep-voiced, as pale as Greek statues (which, when they were made, were probably painted). The different members of the crew all have different motives for seeking out these muscle hunks, ranging from a lofty pursuit of knowledge to the secrets of immortality for personal use. The images of these aliens -- called Engineers -- form the most memorable and anchoring motif of the film.

On a different level is David, the android aboard the ship:
He's all chiseled features and perfectly coiffed hair. His first appearance in the film shows him obsessing with his own appearance. As an android, he's not capable of reproduction. This -- together with the hair, the self-obsession, the carriage, especially in the context of a much rowdier crew -- makes him seem a bit dandy, a bit queer.

Then there's the monsters.

There are two related infections that occur in the film. One of them is violent.
You can see the alien slithering into this poor astronaut's mouth. What's interesting about this sequence, and which this image fails to convey, is that this guy's face goes lax at the moment of penetration. You would expect the poor man to convulse even harder once the thing goes down his throat. But he doesn't. It's as though the astronaut has been conquered, not only physically, but mentally by the penetration of this alien appendage; he's tamed; maybe he even wants it.

The other infection is more insidious. David, certainly against protocol, brings a bit of alien goo on board. He then puts some of that into the drink of the husband of a husband-and-wife team on board. He has sex with her that night. The next day, he dies, and she becomes pregnant with an alien. It's a nightmare, and given how homosexual David seems, it has echoes of the AIDS epidemic. It's too bad Scott doesn't push these themes further -- male rape and the quieter viral infection -- but they were quite interesting to see. They seem a bit odd spelled out, but I imagine that's the advantage of art: to put the unspeakable into spoken terms.

Monday, June 10, 2013

MDNA review

MDNA is Madonna's twelfth studio album. It helped her break records for solo artist with the most number one albums; it also set a record for the steepest decrease in sales in its second week on the market. I'm generally a Madonna fan, and this record puzzled me. I was honestly a bit embarrassed by its lead single, "Give Me All Your Luvin'", although I wasn't sure why, other than that it sounded weak. I didn't dislike it, and a few other tracks caught my ear, especially the last two -- "Masterpiece" and "Falling Free."

So my understanding of the album as a whole worked somehow in reverse, starting with those two tracks that I knew I liked. "Masterpiece," written for Madonna's film W./E., doesn't fit in the album per se, but it's a solid three minutes of rhythmic melancholy. "I can't tell you why / It hurts so much / To be in love with your masterpiece." It's simple and vulnerable. "Falling Free" is different. It's slow, complex, glorious. Musically it doesn't hold together the way "Masterpiece" does, but it's a crux for the album:

When I move a certain way
I feel an ache I've kept at bay
A hairline break that's taking hold
A metal that I thought was gold
The face of God that stands above
Pouring over hope and love
That all of might and life and limb
Could turn around a love again
When I let loose the need to know
Then we're both free, we're free to go

It's an unusual song for her -- it favors beautiful images and somewhat higher diction. Her voice is recorded at its most unadorned here as well. It's a moving bit of music. And suddenly the rest of the album can be seen in contrary terms -- as what happened before having gained the ability to be "falling free," to be "free;" what comes from a temperament that hasn't found the abstraction of art or the independence of an unadorned voice.

The first 10 songs of MDNA can be appropriately classified as electropop. "Girl Gone Wild," the first, is a made-for-radio, flat but catchy piece. "I'm a girl gone wild / A girl gone wild," she sings, but it's not exactly convincing. She's had a career being transgressive and intelligent, but not "wild." "Gang Bang" is the next song -- a half-whispered piece that contains such lines as "If you're going to act like a bitch, you're going to die like a bitch!" Clearly, Madonna's grinding an ax there. The song is pumping, angular, un-melodic, and a standout.

I think these two lay the template for the rest of the first 10 songs. They're split between vengeful and pop. In "I Don't Give A", a song underscored by a relentless chant of male voices, Madonna sings, "I tried to be a good girl / Tried to be your wife / Diminished myself / And swallowed my light;" and in "Love Spent," "You had all of me you wanted more / Would you have married me if I were poor?" These songs aren't better produced or melodically more interesting than the others, but they're more pungent, somehow. Besides those, there are a handful of love songs -- "Superstar" (the addressee is the superstar, not the singer), "I'm Addicted" -- and light pop -- "Turn Up the Radio." These are lovely songs, but feel like baubles.

"Give Me All Your Luvin'", the lead single, and "Some Girls" are, like "Girl Gone Wild," songs of self-definition. "Give me all your love / I'm a different kind of girl" in the former and "Some girls only like to tease ... / I'm not like some girls." My initial reaction wasn't favorable, and I was going to consign them to the mindless pop category -- at least "Girl Gone Wild" was catchy -- but I feel differently now. There is a curious melancholy strain in "Give Me All Your Luvin'"; the chorus floats through a minor sequence like a come-hither. (But the guest artists on the track ruin the vibe.) "Some Girls" may be the most heavily produced track on the album, with most of its vocals either distant or modified into machinery. It's a fascinating track. It's as though Madonna were cloaking herself in an armor of electropop, distant, aggressive, almost surreal. (I must share this music video someone made to that particular song; it helped my reevaluation and is simply a brilliant 4 minutes:

Like its title, MDNA is puzzle-box of an album. It feels coded and mechanical, but on further inspection it's also fascinatingly human. There's a woman who doesn't know exactly what things mean anymore. That's not to mean she's not confident in herself, but there's something always slightly in-between: the haze of electropop, the lyrical overreach. And at the end, that's let go and washed away.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

summer reading (richard hugo)

Richard Hugo is most famous for this devastating little villanelle, called The Freaks at Spurgin Field Road. I just finished his first book, A Run of Jacks. I'd no idea it was his first book. I'll excerpt two stanzas from a poem called "Northwest Retrospective: Mark Tobey." Apparently Mark Tobey was a painter -- I'm learning something new with every other sentence.

Beyond Van Allen rings, the stars
don't glitter, arrogant as moons.
When did we start? Light-years ago.
Why did we come? No matter. We
are not returning to that world
of ditch and strain, the research terms:
cryogenic fuels, free radicals,
plasma jets, coordinated fusion.
Only the last, in all this void, applies.
A universe is fusing in our eyes.

Why return to air and land, when
free from weight and the weight
of hope, we float toward that blue
that kisses man forever out of form.
Forget the earth, those images and lies.
They said there'd be no wind out here,
but something blows from star to star
to clean our eyes and touch our hair.

Reaching the silence after the last word was like hearing the end of a piece of music that I didn't know was playing until it was over. There's no rhyme scheme, although plenty of soft reverberations ("air" and "hair" in the last stanza). Partly it must be that the meter is fundamentally iambic, and much of it is in pentameter -- although the shortening of the last two lines to tetrameter is quite an effect. And the words are so simple. I love a poet that turns a list of nouns into verse, as in the "cryogenic fuels, free radicals," a la Yeats's litany in "Easter, 1916."

Hugo was born in Washington state and is considered a regionalist, which sounds provincial. But there's something in the temperament and the language, especially the concentration of "simple" words. From Shakespeare on, poets of the English language have been gifted with Anglo-Saxon and Latin diction to pit off of one another. In Hugo, I think the language is predominantly Anglo, with flourishes of Latin (here in the scientific jargon) that intrude, often in adjectives, like flashes of an alien sensibility applied to the American landscape.

He has great one-liners too. There's one in a poem towards the beginning, called "West Marginal Way":

Some places are forever afternoon.