Saturday, November 29, 2008

Readings: Connecting Some Dots

In an afterword to Jane Kenyon’s posthumously published book of poems, Otherwise, her husband, poet Donald Hall, wrote of her poetic development:

During junior high school she began to write poems. Witter Bynner’s translations from the Chinese were an early model.

A bit further on, Hall writes:

Her poetry gathered resonance and beauty as she studied the art of the luminous particular. “The natural object”—she liked to quote Pound—“is always the adequate symbol.”

It is no coincidence that Ezra Pound, like Witter Bynner, did translations of Chinese poetry. It is the craft of the gifted, but hard-working, poet that adds to the natural object that “luminous” quality, transforming it into a universally received symbol. This is analogous to T.S. Eliot’s concept of the objective correlative. It is also that which is the Zen essence of the art of Japanese haiku, of which I have written previously. And this is precisely the quality that has inspired my new-found love of the poetry of Jane Kenyon.

In contemplating these ideas, I was reminded of Walter Pater’s ideal of the “hard, gem like flame,” which has been characterized as “his pursuit of the "highest quality" in "moments as they pass." This state of mind, born of attention, is simultaneously a mode of existence and a mode of expression. Pater, like Donald Hall, was known as an indefatiguable revisionist. The apparent stark simplicity of Jane Kenyon’s poetry is likewise the result of many drafts and revisions. While the idea may come out of nowhere—facilitated by what Kenyon favorite, John Keats, called “negative capability”—in a flash of inspiration, the poem that is finally constructed as a vehicle for that gift of the muse (or Holy Ghost) is the result of hard-earned craft.

Once the mind begins to contemplate such things as “the luminous particular” and the “objective correlative,” examples begin to pop up like mushrooms. Yesterday, for instance, I read Paul Auster’s short novel, Man In the Dark. In this novel there is a character who is (as was often the case with Jane Kenyon) trapped in deep psychological depression. As a coping mechanism she has begun watching movies for hours at a time on DVD. While it is noted by her grandfather that she is using film to self-medicate, he also realizes that she has made a valid observation concerning cinema as an art form when she says:

Inanimate objects as a means of expressing human emotions. That’s the language of film. Only good directors understand how to do it, but Renoir, De Sica, and Ray are three of the best, aren’t they?

There we have “it” as related to film.

Just this morning I drove to the public library to return a book. While there, I was able to borrow Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Home, which I had been waiting for the opportunity to read. On only the second page of the narrative [p.4], I found this excellent example of the natural object as luminous particular:

And there was an oak tree in front of the house, much older than the neighborhood or the town, which made rubble of the pavement at its foot and flung it imponderable branches out over the raod and across the yard, branches whose girths were greater than the trunk of any ordinary tree. There was a torsion in its body that made it look like a giant dervish to them. Their father said if they could see as God can, in geological time, they would see it leap out of the ground and turn in the sun and spread its arms and bask in the joys of being an oak tree in Iowa.

Beautiful. Such writing kinda puts Marilynne Robinson in the same league with Keats, Pound, Eliot, De Sica—and Jane Kenyon—doesn’t it?
NOTE: In googling “luminous particular” among the first hits were this and this.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Readings: Blessings Counted

From a short, informal, prose piece entitled "The Shadows" collected in the volume A Hundred White Daffodils by Jane Kenyon:

The luckiest, sunniest life invariably includes tragedy, if I do not overstate these matters by calling them tragic. To lose your health, your strength, your ability to work, and to take pleasure in life--that is tragedy. It's no less tragic because it happens to everybody.


Tonight before the storm I went out with the kitchen shears and a basket. I cut every full-open peony in sight, quantities that I would never permit myself under other circumstances. I knew the rain would shatter the flowers, break their stems so that their luxurious forms and perfumes would be lost for the year. Pick them, something told me, pick them and fill the house, and we'll put our faces into them and inhale, and see the ants crawl on them, and leave the ants alone because life is precious and ought not to be crushed.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Reflections: The Name of THE GAME

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXThings fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXMere anarchy is loosed upon the world...

Today is the day of THE GAME, the annual Big Ten football season-ending contest between my alma mater, The University of Michigan (Go, Blue!) and the hated Buckeyes of An Ohio State University. To sum up the significance of the rivalry, for those of you who have lived in blissful ignorance to-date, the Wolverines strive for God’s approval, while the Ohio State coaches and players are juiced by demonic powers. It is Black vs. White, Good vs. Evil, plain and simple.

However, as a microcosmic metaphor for God’s Team in the world-at-large, the Michigan football program is, most unfortunately, in a state of sad decline. To extend the spiritual metaphor, Michigan has become the Western Europe of big time college football. This season, more than in any previous season in the 109-year history of the Michigan football program, the outcome of THE GAME is not in question: the Bad Guys will kick ass, big time.

Michigan, my birthplace, the state in which I spent my childhood and early youth, has been troubling my mind lately. The death throes of the automobile industry and the agonizing in Washington over the choice between attempting a heroic intervention or allowing these hamstrung beasts to die a natural death, is much in the news. As symbolic of THE GAME and the difference in stature between Michigan and Ohio, one could point out that in Michigan they design and build the cars; in Ohio they only make the tires. When Michigan goes over the cliff, therefore, can Ohio be far behind? I find myself crushed between the Scylla of sic transit gloria mundi and the Charybdis of reality bites. (For you OSU grads: “between a rock and a hard place.” )

I also remain deep into my study of the poet, Jane Kenyon, who was born and raised in Ann Arbor, and who—although she was my classmate both in high school and at the University—I never knew. The more I read of Kenyon’s poetry, the more I retroactively suffer this loss of opportunity. I particularly recommend her collection Let Evening Come, the title poem of which I judge to be perfect. In reading both her poetry and her biography, Ann Arbor and Michigan are brought repeatedly to mind. Jane Kenyon’s early death—and the leukemia that killed her—seem ominously symbolic of the decline of the state of Michigan and of Michigan’s team.

Which brings us back to THE GAME. In this week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review, there is a review by Jonathan Chait entitled Turf Wars, of War As They Knew It, which is a history of the Michigan-Ohio State football rivalry during the Vietnam years. It looks to be an interesting read. The review itself includes a paragraph describing the legendary OSU football coach and arch fiend, Woody Hayes (Wuck Foody!) that is the first thing I ever read about the man that, part of which, I have to grudgingly admire:

Hayes was less a conventional right-winger than a fanatical proponent of social order. He inspired his players to pursue their education and even lectured them on military history, of which he was an autodidact. He had no interest in money, regularly declining raises and leaving some paychecks uncashed. News of gasoline shortages prompted him to walk almost three miles to work daily.

Far from that Homeric era when legendary Michigan coach, Bo Schembechler, led the Maize and Blue onto the field, Michigan is coached this year by a micro-cephalic hillbilly mouth-breather imported from some infernal West Virginia slag heap by a Michigan A.D. who must be on crack. This Appalachian moron is well summed up in this article, thoughtfully emailed to me this week by an already gloating dickhead who was born and raised in—you guessed it—the state that dare not speak its name. Aw, fuck it—


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Reflections: Endless Sleep

Today’s New York Times features a couple of obituaries that echoed of the past for me. The first was notice of the passing of dance and theater critic, Clive Barnes. Back in the day when I was living in the City, married to a professional modern dancer, and then to an actress; when I was hanging out in the Village and on the Upper West Side with theater types and artists, Clive Barnes was an omnipresent figure whose Word hung over that world like rolling thunder. Rest in Peace.

But that was in the 1970s and 1980s. Long prior to those days, during the Boomer generation’s formative years—the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties—pop music was notable for its obsession with the prospect of dying tragically young. Perhaps it was the threat of nuclear annihilation that had always been there, just over the horizon. Or perhaps it was that they made us read Romeo and Juliet in 8th grade English class. Whatever the source of our hunger for lugubrious thrills, the music we listened to—from Mark Dinning’s overly cutesy “Teen Angel” to Jan and Dean’s overly contrived “Dead Man’s Curve” to Bob Dylan’s overly journalistic “Percy’s Song”—was always spiked with similar examples of the popular macabre. Of all the tunes in that genre, however, the most deliciously haunting was Jody Reynold’s ballad, “Endless Sleep”. Rest in peace.

Monday, November 17, 2008

WWWtW-Watch #21: All of Me

Dedicated to the proposition that it can happen here.
While undertaking this little foray behind fascist lines, I also reconnoitered a post over there with the catchy title of “The Mass Marketing of Hell”. Seduced into taking a closer look, I learned that this post had been occasioned by the response of readers to a previous post, entitled “The Measure of Sincerity”.

Apparently, it was the measured “sincerity” of the message delivered by this paragraph that prompted the second post:

Any Catholic Obama supporters who did not vote for him on this basis [i.e. the principle of “double-effect”] were formally cooperating with Obama's wicked and vicious policies, committed a grave sin, and will go to Hell for it if they do not repent, confess, and do penance. I'm not really addressing those Catholics in my posts, but I do pray for their damned souls, that they may repent before it is too late.

The second post sounds a claxon resonant to that of the first:

A number of people reacted rather strongly to this post, as if I had said something shocking. The part that got the strongest reaction is where I re-state the Catholic doctrine that formal cooperation with grave evil is mortal sin, and that when we commit mortal sin that means we will go to Hell for eternal damnation unless we repent, confess, and do penance.

The whole shebang is reiterated at Zippy Catholic, for the benefit and edification of the orthodox.
As I contemplated all of the above, bemused, and not a little alarmed, I was reminded of the following excerpt that I had included in a post concerned with my reading of Erik H. Erikson’s book, Young Man Luther:

The Roman Church, more than any other church or political organization, succeeded in making an ideological dogma—formulated, defended, and imposed by a central governing body—the exclusive condition for any identity on earth. It made this total claim totalitarian by using terror. In this case (as in others) the terror was not always directly applied to quivering bodies; it was predicted for a future world, typically in such a way that nobody could quite know whom it would hit, or when.
Right. Why not take all of me?

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. It wouldn’t be too much to say that the Zipster has gone all friggin’ medieval on ‘em! But all kidding aside, when fear and zealotry combine, the all-too-common result is war-most-unholy. That is so Old Testament.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Readings: A Warning

The Pear

There is a moment in middle age
when you grow bored, angered
by your middling mind,

That day the sun
burns hot and bright,
making you more desolate.

It happens subtly, as when a pear
spoils from the inside out,
and you may not be aware
until things have gone too far.

~ Jane Kenyon, Let Evening Come

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Quote du Jour: Of Jane Kenyon

The excerpt to follow is taken from an essay entitled "Our Lady of Sorrows" by Greogry Orr. The essay is included in "Bright Unequivocal Eye": Poems, Papers, and Remembrances from the First Jane Kenyon Conference:

I'd like to shift now to what I think Jane Kenyon writes, the personal lyric, which takes the story of the "I," the individual self. I think culture invented lyric poetry along with religion and philosophy to help people understand the world, and to discover ordering powers. But religion and philosophy are different in that they propose external ordering powers that exist outside the self, and which the self must align with. What's amazing about the personal lyric is that culture gives the individual self the tools to order and the self has to do the ordering itself. It's a personal struggle, a struggle to create what Frost calls "a momentary stay against confusion." This is what the lyric poem is: a gift from culture to the self to deal with existential crises. What do I mean by existential crises? I mean all kinds of disorder, but especially the buried self, the world of feeling and subjectivity, what it means to be a self in the world.

To compose one's own scripture. To interpret one's own dreams...

Friday, November 14, 2008

Reflections: Doubting Rodak

Tom, the power-that-is at Disputations, yesterday posted the miraculous tale of a Serbian abortionist who has been converted to a pro-life orientation by the agency of

a recurring dream he had in which he saw a field filled with the children he had aborted. St. Thomas Aquinas was also there, although [the abortionist] a lapsed Orthodox raised under Communism, had never heard the name before he heard it in his dream.

Tom muses:

A medieval Doctor of the Latin Church appearing in a dream to a non-practicing Serb?

Well, yeah... I guess I’ll believe that when I see a depiction of the event celestially branded on the face of a toasted muffin.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Readings: Of Donald Hall, Poet


I’m currently reading with pleasure Unpacking the Boxes, the memoire of Donald Hall, the 14th American Poet Laureate. I met Donald Hall when I was an undergraduate English major at the University of Michigan and he was on the faculty. In the past year I stumbled across the knowledge that Hall’s wife, Jane Kenyon, also a successful poet, was my classmate both at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor and at the University. Yet I did not know her. This is, to me, a mystery. Tragically, Jane Kenyon died very young, in 1995. I will perhaps write more on this at a later time.

The excerpt below is taken from the first chapter of Unpacking the Boxes, which is entitled “Domains”:

In general the arts – theater and music and painting and sculpture and poetry – carry with them an aura of sexual freedom and license, some arts and artists more than others: jazz and rock musicians, dancers, actresses. Typically, readers have felt something erotic in poetry, something adventurous, wayward, sensuous, and forbidden. Late romanticism created the poète maudit: outlaw, madman, bohemian, overthrower of social convention – ...But even before artist decadents drank absinthe in dark cafés, poetry was sensual by its nature – in its internal structure, in its bodiliness, especially in its carnality of sound. Poetry is more erotic than fiction, which is why female poets were so rare until the mid-twentieth century. Jane Austen and George Eliot were permitted to write great novels, but the only great nineteenth-century woman poet was the eccentric eremite Emily Dickinson. In the first half of the twentieth-century, Marianne Moore was equally exceptional. The vast increase in the number of good women poets has coincided with sexual liberation.

There is much packed into that little paragraph which strikes a sympathetic chord in me.
Update: Here is a link to Donald Hall's page on the Poets. org site


Monday, November 10, 2008

WWWtW-Watch #20: Eating (Jim) Crow

Dedicated to the proposition that it can happen here.

I haven't done any What's Wrong With the World-Watch features for quite some time. Frankly, I just haven't had the interest in wading through the redundant, repetitive, repugnant screed the authors at that site keep posting. That said, this morning I thought I'd take a peek to see how the soi-disant saviors of Western Civilization were taking the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. It did not surprise me to find that they have descended into outright racism. Don't think that the reference to "McDonald's" isn't code, for it surely is.

Onward, "Christian" soldiers.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Reflections: A Basis for Hope

America is never going to be ruled by philosopher kings. The closer any Chief Executive has come to being thus categorized, the less successful has been his political career. The anti-war candidate of 1968, Eugene McCarthy, a good man and a poet, comes to mind here. As does, to a certain extent, Jimmy Carter.

That said, one of the of the things that makes me most optimistic about the chances for success of the coming Obama administration is that, presumably, the executive branch of the government will be pretty much purged of businessmen and staffed with lawyers. Businessmen tend to think in terms of fiscal quarters--in three-month chunks of time; i.e. they are short-sighted. For maximum profit-taking this may be a good trait; but for the plotting of history, it sucks.

This was demonstrated to horrible effect with the invasion of Iraq, when they didn't look past "Shock and Awe" to see the inevitability of an insurgency. In contrast to businessmen, lawyers also tend to look at people and see their rights, rather than their "worth." We saw the horrible effects of the latter perspective with Katrina. People who were perceived not to be "worth" much were simply left to die.

Lawyers tend to be more intelligent than businessmen. It takes more brains to craft a letter-perfect brief than it does to add a column of figures. That is why businessmen need to hire lawyers. Hopefully the people have again--as they did in the Clinton Administration--wisely eliminated the middleman. Leave the governing to the guys with the smarts, and let the businessmen do what they are good at--generating wealth.

No more square pegs in round holes.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Readings: Final Irony

I concluded my post of November 3, 2008 by stating:

In my next post, I will discuss briefly how Erikson demonstrates this paradoxical effect on both organized religion and society-at-large to be mirrored, or foreshadowed in the personality of Luther himself, in so much as he represents a type which Erikson calls the “homo religiosus.”

Well, this has turned out not to be “my next post.” That said, I no longer feel the inspiration to go into another lengthy exposition on the topic of Luther. This is, it seems, a different, perhaps “Post-Obama” world, in which such considerations no longer matter. (I’m kidding.)

What I think I will do, instead of scrapping the two excerpts about the homo religiosus upon which I was planning to build this post, is just let it be a kind of extended Quote du Jour. Anybody who read the November 3rd post can make the connections to the following for himself:

[A homo religiosus] is always older, or in early years suddenly becomes older, than his playmates or even his parents and teachers… Because he experiences a breakthrough to the last problems so early in his life maybe such a man had better become a martyr and seal his message with an early death; or else become a hermit in a solitude which anticipates the Beyond. We know little of Jesus of Nazareth as a young man, but we certainly cannot even begin to imagine him as middle-aged.

This brings to mind the following lines from the early Bob Dylan lyric, “My Back Pages”:

In a soldier's stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I'd become my enemy
In the instant that I preach

Erikson also wrote:

No wonder that [the homo religiosus] is something of an old man (a philosophus, and a sad one) when his age-mates are young, or that he remains something of a child when they age with finality. The name Lao-Tse, I understand, means just that.

And Dylan’s refrain in “My Back Pages” is, of course:

Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now.

Feel free to contemplate Dylan as a modern-day homo religiosus cast from the same mold as Luther. Or not.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Riffs: Happy Birthday, Joni Mitchell

Cyber-buddy, Brandon S. Field, remembering that I am a big fan, sent me an email on Wednesday as a heads-up that today is Joni Mitchell’s 65th birthday. In my estimation, Joni Mitchell has been a giant in the field of popular music; and not a half-bad painter, as the self-portrait above attests. As is the case with Bob Dylan, her only close competitor for the title of greatest songwriter of a generation, it takes head as well as heart to fully appreciate Joni Mitchell’s music.
Ms. Mitchell, you have given me much. Thank you. I love you. Many happy returns.

Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in
something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who I am
But life is for learning
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden

“The more decadent a culture gets, the more they have a need for what they don't have at all, which is innocence, so you end up with kiddie porn and a perverse obsession with youth.”
~ Joni Mitchell

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Monday, November 3, 2008

Readings: Fatal Irony

I have finished reading Erik H. Erikson’s excellent study, Young Man Luther, of which I wrote previously here.

As a developmental psychologist, Erikson’s primary interest in researching and writing this book was to explore the influence of Luther’s formative years in shaping his personality and lending energy and direction to the development of his innate genius. Erikson’s primary focus is on the apparent conflation in Luther’s emotional universe of his strict and ambitious biological father with God the Father, and Luther’s perceived inability to find justification in the eyes of either. This conflict led, according to Erikson’s Freudian interpretation, to Luther’s subsequent disobedience and rebellion against both his father’s society and his God’s Church.

In considering Luther the son, Luther the Monk, Luther the Professor, and Luther the Priestly Prophet and Protestant progenitor, Erikson does an outstanding job of placing each of these Luthers within his proper historical, societal, ecclesiastical and ideological context. There is not a boring paragraph in the entire text.

But, in these ideologically charged times, the thing which particularly held my attention in reading Young Man Luther was Erikson’s consideration of Christian doctrine and dogma as political ideology. What interested me in this regard was not any critique of Catholic or later Protestant doctrine, per se, but rather the inevitable “bureaucratization” of the institutions embodying these doctrines, which may be a fatal flaw inherent to all organized religion.

Erikson writes that:

Christianity…had started as a spiritual revolution with the idea of freeing an earthly proletariat for victory in another world after the impending withering of this one. But as always, the withering comes to be postponed; and in the meantime, bureaucracies must keep the world in a state of preparedness.

He later notes that:

The Roman Church, more than any other church or political organization, succeeded in making an ideological dogma—formulated, defended, and imposed by a central governing body—the exclusive condition for any identity on earth. It made this total claim totalitarian by using terror. In this case (as in others) the terror was not always directly applied to quivering bodies; it was predicted for a future world, typically in such a way that nobody could quite know whom it would hit, or when.

As I have written previously on Luther’s Theology of the Cross here, I will not recapitulate such theological considerations in the current post. In Young Man Luther, Erikson writes of Luther that once he found that he could not come to terms with the Pope and his Church and had become a rebel, he eventually came up against the following paradox:

In his own support [Luther] quoted Galatians 1:8: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” …The justified thus becomes judge: whatever the theological rationale, it is obvious that the positive conscience, the good conscience of true indignation, without which there can be no true leadership or effective education, becomes the negative conscience for others, and in its self-increasing wrath must again become a bad, an “unjustified” conscience.

Later, Erikson notes that:

Luther, at the beginning of ruthless mercantilism in Church and commerce, counterpoised praying man to the philosophy and practice of meritorious works. Subsequently, his justification by faith was absorbed into the patterns of mercantilism, and eventually turned into a justification of commercialism by faith.

Once this has occurred, the very elements of society that have been formed and empowered within the crucible of the Reformation become themselves the forces of Reaction:

The trouble comes, first, from the mortal fear that instinctual forces would run wild if they were not dominated by a negative conscience; and second, from trying to formulate man’s optimum as negative morality, to be reinforced by rigid institutions.

Thus we see Luther finally condemning the revolt, and calling for the extermination of the peasants whose demands for freedom and equality had been engendered in them by Luther’s own preaching that:

... [O]ur knowledge of God [is limited] to our individual experience of temptation and our identification in prayer with the passion of God’s son. In this, all men are free and equal.


In Christendom...all things are in common and each man’s goods are the other’s, and nothing is simply a man’s own.

If you want to understand the mechanism by which Marxism has failed wherever it has been tried, or why ideological Conservatism is in the terminal stages of a morbid decadence in American society today, look no further.

In my next post, I will discuss briefly how Erikson demonstrates this paradoxical effect on both organized religion and society at large to be mirrored, or foreshadowed in the personality of Luther himself, in so much as he represents a type which Erikson calls the “homo religiosus.”