Sunday, May 31, 2009

Reflections: More Ted and Red

With age, the pleasures of looking become more intense.
~ Theodore Roethke, Straw for the Fire

As did Theodore Roethke, I live and work on a college campus. Spring has sprung and the young women—those who in Roethke’s and in my day were known as “coeds”—are out and about in their warm weather threads. Many of them are more out than about. Décolleté, sunkist navels and well-tanned coin slots—once exhibited only by fat plumbers wearing tool belts—all bloomed with the forsythia, appearing now in contexts that might well have led to arrests back when I was an undergrad. First they were called “short-shorts”—Who wears short-shorts? Da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da—and then they were known as “hot pants.” I don’t know what they call them now, and I’m afraid to ask.

And there are many more strikingly beautiful young women now than there were in my day, too. Today’s girls have all had their bites corrected. They all have contact lenses. Their clothing is more flattering to the female form and their sense of style with regard to hair and make-up has evolved since the 1960s to breath-taking effect. Girls today run; they work-out; they play sports—their limbs are trim and shapely and fit to be exposed in their full length to the appreciative eye.

But, zut alors!, these paragons of female beauty—this parading gender-bait—these nonchalantly sexual bambini—are my daughters' peers. Had I started my family at a younger age, they’d be the peers of my frigging grand-daughters. My temples are white, my eyes are red; my drooling heart trembles with that of Han Shan, as translated with commentary by Red Pine:

65. A group of girls play in fading light
wind fills the road with perfume
their skirts are embroidered with butterflies of gold
their hair is adorned with ducks of jade
their maids are dressed in red chiffon
their eunuchs in purple brocade
watching is someone who has lost his way
white temples and a trembling heart

65. At the sight of the emperor’s harem my heart would tremble too. The use of red and purple was reserved for the imperial household, as was the use of castrated male servants in the women’s quarters.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Quote du Jour: Having a Bad Day?

Earthling, the dark is true; the sun’s an accident.
xxxxx~ Theodore Roethke, Straw for the Firex

Reflections: O'Connor on Weil - Part IV

Covering the period 1952-1963, there are sixteen separate references to Simone Weil noted in the index of The Habit of Being, the selected letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald. In my effort here to convince admirers of O’Connor that they should look into the writings of Simone Weil on O’Connor’s recommendation, I will not quote all sixteen. But I do have a few more to cite.

O’Connor’s interest in Weil was primarily as a Catholic:

30 October 55 to “A.”:

I think Mlle. Weil was a far piece from the Church too but considering where she started from, the distance she came toward it seems remarkable.

In a letter sent by O’Connor to “A.” fourteen months after the one quoted above, we see that O’Connor has not only maintained her interest in Weil, but, having been gifted with a set of Weil’s incredible Notebooks, her admiration has continued to grow:

28 December 56 to “A.”:

The Lord knows I never expected to own the Notebooks of Simone Weil. This is almost something to live up to; anyway, reading them is one way to try to understand the age. I intend to find that Time with her picture (some weeks ago) and cut out the picture and stick it in the front. That face gives a kind of reality to the notes. I am more than obliged to you. These are books that I can’t begin to exhaust, and Simone Weil is a mystery that should keep us all humble, and I need it more than most. Also she’s the example of the religious consciousness without a religion which maybe sooner or later I will be able to write about. [emphasis added]

On a personal note, I too was gifted by a life-long friend with a set of the Notebooks, and my reaction both to the extraordinary generosity of the gift and to the extraordinary gifts enjoyed in the reading of them matches O’Connor’s, word for word.

Simone Weil had a brother who was a world-class mathematician. She, too, placed great importance in math—and especially in geometry—in her understanding of the nature of Existence as passed down from the Greeks. I, like O’Connor, in my profound impotence before things mathematical, had to skim over some of these parts, fearing as I did so that I was missing out on the revelation of profound mysteries, but realizing at the same time that an inexhaustible fund of wisdom with which I am somewhat equipped to grapple was opening itself to me:

12 January 57 to “A.”:

Don’t worry about my spending any time computing the little figures in the Simone notebooks. I just go on to the next page. There are remarkable things there and if I really own the complete Simone Weil I feel very rich.

Very rich. Absolutely.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Readings: Time Travel

Below is a fragment of a poem entitled, "Autumn Gold: New England Fall" from one of the books that I'm currently reading, The Fall of America by Allen Ginsberg. The book was recipient of the National Book Award for Poetry in 1973. These poems chronicle that frenetic travels of Allen Ginsberg around America, from coast to coast and from north to south, during roughly the period that I was in college until the time that I moved to New York City (1965-1971).

President Johnson in a plane toward Hawaii,
xxxxxFighter Escort above & below
xxxxxxxxair roaring –
Radiostatic electric crackle from the
xxxxxcenter of communications:
I broadcast thru Time,
xxxxxHe, with all his wires & wireless,
xxxxxxxonly an Instant –


I chose this particular fragment of poetry because it seems to me to be so very prophetic.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Readings: On Memorial Day

In dreams begin responsibilities? The hell. In dreams the death-wish renews itself.
XX~ Theodore Roethke, Straw for the Fire

I am humbled before the prodigious realization that I know, without a footnote, that Roethke's words are a response to Delmore Schwartz. I am humbled that I know who Delmore Schwartz was; that I know Lou Reed to have cited the book here alluded to by Roethke as seminal to his own urge to create. Since VU days, Lou Reed’s music has humbled me. I am humbled by my own knowledge; humbled that I can drive a truck and earn my bread, never sending my knowledge out to whore in the marketplace, where a rose is not a rose, but a bar-coded commodity.

Today is Memorial Day. So, who’s dead? Show of hands, please.

Reflections: O'Connor on Weil - Part III

Back to business, then. We left off with Flannery O'Connor having been exposed to her first Simone Weil through the reading of books mailed to her by her penpal, "A." She has written to "A." on September 24, that she (O'Connor) finds Weil to be "tragic" and "comic."

Though we have only O'Connor's side of the correspondence, it is evident from the next selection (below) that "A." has written back to ask, "What the hell do you mean by dissing my Simone in this ignominious fashion!?!"

O'Connor immediately whips off this self-effacing clarification of what was meant by those two apparently negatively-weighted terms:

30 September 55 to “A.”:

By saying Simone Weil’s life was both comic and terrible, I am not trying to reduce it, but mean to be paying her the highest tribute I can, short of calling her a saint, which I don’t believe she was. Possibly I have a higher opinion of the comic and terrible than you do. To my way of thinking it includes her great courage and to call her anything less would be to see her as merely ordinary. She was certainly not ordinary. Of course, I can only say, as you point out, this is what I see, not this is what she is—which only God knows. But I didn’t mean that my heroine would be a hypothetical Miss Weil. My heroine already is, and is Hulga. Miss Weil’s existence only parallels what I have in mind, and it strikes me especially hard because I had it in mind before I knew as much as I do now about Simone Weil. …You have to be able to dominate the existence that you characterize. That is why I write about people who are more or less primitive. I couldn’t dominate a Miss Weil because she is more intelligent and better than I am but I can project a Hulga.

There you have it, dear readers--"the highest tribute": "She was certainly not ordinary" and "...she is more intelligent and better than I am...."

True dat. And this is why she should be read. And reread. And read again.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Readings: Han Shan by Red Pine

I will now take a break from flacking the writings of Simone Weil via Flannery O’Connor’s proxy, in order to promote on my own account another truly fine book that I’ve picked up. The book is The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, translated by Red Pine.

Both “Cold Mountain” and “Red Pine" have other names. “Cold Mountain” is the Chinese Taoist/Buddhist poet and mountain hermit, Han Shan (circa 730-850). And “Red Pine” is American translator and sinologist, Bill Porter.

I first encountered Cold Mountain through some translations by Gary Snyder. These few poems, or songs, led me to purchase the volume presently under consideration, some years ago. It was a mail-order purchase, and by the time it arrived, I had been distracted by other readings and never did more than just leaf through it a bit. My recent infatuation with the poetry of my erstwhile classmate, Jane Kenyon, and the concomitant discovery that she had been inspired early-on by the translations from the Chinese of Witter Bynner, led me to pull this book off the shelf and add it to my “on-deck” stack. I’ve now gotten around to it.

The book features an informative and engrossing Translator’s Preface, followed by the Introduction of Chinese Taoism and Buddhism expert, John Blofeld, which alone is worth the price of the book, imho.

Red Pine’s translations are particularly valuable in that he provides richly concise notes on each of the songs for which such notes are conducive to an enhanced understanding and appreciation of the songs. For example:


Since I came to Cold Mountain
how many thousand years have passed
accepting my fate I fled to the woods
to dwell and gaze in freedom
no one visits the cliffs
forever hidden by clouds
soft grass serves as a mattress
my quilt is the dark blue sky
a boulder makes a fine pillow
Heaven and Earth can crumble and change

26. Line three suggests Cold Mountain may have been a refugee or a wanted man. I see the An Lu-shan Rebellion in the background. Kuan-tzu-tzai (gaze in freedom) is also the name of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattava whose unhindered view is the point of departure of the Heart Sutra. Heaven also refers to the emperor and Earth to the empire. Thus the last line also implies unconcern with the fate of the dynasty.

If this book doesn’t take your mind far beyond the televised ravings of Dick Cheney, nothing will.


Friday, May 22, 2009

Quote du Jour: Ranking the Oligarchs

The following observation was entered into the notebooks of poet and teacher, Theodore Roethke, sometime during the period, 1948-1953:

We have come to expect the public man, at best, to be third-rate; most of the time. A considerable section of influential American public men are simply hillbillies who have learned to count. ~ Straw for the Fire

Amen. Timeless...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Reflections: O'Connor on Weil - Part II

Less than a month later, Flannery O’Connor has received some of the writings of Simone Weil from “A.” and has begun to read them:

24 September 55 to “A.”:

I am reading the Weil books now, having finished the Letters to a Priest and I am very much obliged to you and will keep these books until you want them. I am struck by the coincidence (?) of title of Waiting for God, and Waiting for Godot—have you read that play, by an Irishman named Beckett? The life of this remarkable woman still intrigues me while much of what she writes, naturally, is ridiculous to me. Her life is almost a perfect blending of the Comic and the Terrible, which two things may be opposite sides of the same coin. In my own experience, everything funny I have written is more terrible than it is funny, or only funny because it is terrible, or only terrible because it is funny. Well Simone Weil’s life is the most comical life I have ever read about and the most truly tragic and terrible. If I were to live long enough and develop as an artist to the proper extent, I would like to write a comic novel about a woman—and what is more comic and terrible than the angular intellectual proud woman approaching God inch by inch with ground teeth?

It seems to me that her reaction to Weil’s writings is both strong and paradoxical (Comic/Terrible). The phrase “approaching God inch by inch with ground teeth” puts me in mind of a title by another powerful woman writer whom I admire—the poet, Anne Sexton—The Awful Rowing Toward God.

That said, the observations above hardly seems to amount to a ringing endorsement.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Reflections: O'Connor on Weil - Part I

[The conceptual impetus for this series may be found here.]

Our source of insight into Flannery O’Connor’s interest in Simone Weil will be The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, edited by Sally Fitzgerald. We will note, as we read what O’Connor had to say about Weil over the years, that Weil interested her. It was never that Flannery O’Connor felt compelled to define Simone Weil as right or wrong, as Christian or non-Christian, as sinner or saint, as spiritual exemplar or Gnostic heretic; rather it was that Simone Weil fascinated O’Connor, holding her attention for at least a decade, as her letters reveal.

The first reference we have is in a letter to Sally Fitzgerald and her husband, Robert, written (as noted by Fitzgerald) in the summer of 1952:

I’ve never read Simone Weil but a good bit about her & you sound right to me on the subject.

In The Habit of Being we have only O’Connor’s letters, not those of her correspondents. This first reference is clearly made in answer to a query as to whether she is familiar with Simone Weil. Her answer tells us that she has read about Weil, but has not yet read any of Weil’s published writings.

From this point on, all of O’Connor’s references to Simone Weil will be in letters written to “A.” a pen-pal described by Sally Fitzgerald in her notes as “a young woman, unknown to [O’Connor], whose comments so interested her that she asked her to write again. It was the beginning of a nine-year friendship and correspondence.”

Approximately three years after the reference to Weil in the letter to Sally Fitzgerald, we see in this excerpt from a letter to “A.” that Flannery O’Connor has still not read any of Simone Weil’s writings, but that her curiosity remains unabated:

2 August 55 to “A.”:

I am wondering if you have read Simone Weil. I never have and doubt if I would understand her if I did; but from what I have read about her, I think she must have been a very great person. She and Edith Stein are the two 20th-century women who interest me most.

A week later, O’Connor pursues the topic:

9 August 55 to “A.”:

I have thought of Simone Weil in connection with you almost from the first and I got out this piece I enclose and reread it and the impression was not lessened. In the face of anyone’s experience, someone like me who has had almost no experience, must be humble.

Finally, as the month is about to end, O’Connor asks “A.” for a loan of some of Simone Weil’s books:

28 August 55 to “A.”:

The magazine that had the piece on Simone Weil is called “The Third Hour” and is put out spasmodically… …I would very much like you to lend me the books of Simone Weil’s when you get through with them…

It can be seen, both from references to various articles about Simone Weil made by O’Connor in what will follow, as well as in several incidental mentions of Weil in the letters that I do not plan to use for this series of posts, that Simone Weil was a person of interest to many intellectuals writing in the mid-20th-century; O’Connor was by no means unique in her interest. O’Connor was, however, a writer of fiction whose unusual characters and themes render her opinion of an exceptional person like Simone Weil uniquely insightful. She was also a devout Catholic whose religious sensibility qualifies her to comment intelligently on Weil’s radical approach to Christianity.

We will pause here and give O’Connor a chance to read some Weil.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Reflections: Howling On

The blogospheric tremors of which I wrote in my May 9th post have continued to mount to an ominous rumble as two more bloggers with whom I had maintained long-term relationships have ceased operations in the interim. In addition, I have voluntarily exiled myself from a third blog for reason of irreconcilable differences; and this blog had the most seniority on my Favorites menu. A fourth hasn’t put up a new in nearly a month. C’est la guerre. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold...

As one of my local good ol' boy neighbors might opine while watching the tractor pull event, “We got mere anarchy loosed on the world rye cheer.”

Fug it, then: I can’t go on, I’ll go on:

Honestly, I consider this, my blog, to be a stupendous failure. It was my intent, when I launched it going on two years ago, to write a blog primarily about good books and about some of the fundamental ideas that made those good books (in my opinion) good. It was my hope that in so doing, I would both introduce unknown others to books and authors with whom they might not have been familiar, and by so doing to stimulate discussion of those books and ideas.
You can just about guess how that went. Yeah...

The one writer/thinker whom I have most wanted to promote is Simone Weil. I feel that I have really tried. An interested party could review my many efforts in the Rodak Riffs archives. Well, maybe it’s me. Maybe if I were to throw up a few posts demonstrating an interest in Simone Weil of long-standing with a person widely respected across the spectrum, from religious Catholics, to the literary intelligentsia, my enthusiasm over Weil would thereby be vindicated?

How about Flannery O'Connor? Would she fit the ticket?

Stayed tuned—(Ha-ha! LoL!)—and we’ll all find out together...

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Rants: So It's Come to This...


I told you conservative a-ho's not to worry--he's just another politician.

Sometimes I hate it when I'm right.


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Reflections: Some Uncomfortable Truths

I continue to pick up, from time to time, Straw for the Fire, editor David Wagoner’s reassembled gleanings from the notebooks of teacher and poet, Theodore Roethke. I have quoted from this neat little book twice before, here and here. Interested persons will find the relevant links in the first of these locations.

In sections titled by Wagoner, “The Proverbs of Purgatory” (1948-49) and “I Teach Out of Love” (1949-53), I have found several more pithy quotes that I wish to highlight here.

First are two related thoughts from “Purgatory”:

1) The weapons of the weak are too violent.

We don’t need to think too hard about the geopolitical acting-out which regularly tears painful wounds in the security-hungry world we inhabit to see the truth of that statement. But the following, which I feel to be prerequisite to many instances of the emotional violence that we experience in our personal relationships with others, may be less obviously true:

2) The passive are first bewildered, then malicious.

Think only of some of the compliant, non-analytical, hyper-receptive people whom you have known over long periods of time; of how they were routinely probed, mauled, manipulated, and taken advantage of by more aggressive persons; and think of the spiteful, passive-aggressive behaviors which now manifest as delayed reactions to such shoddy treatment, once they have curled up into the spiky defensive postures from which they cannot straighten out to display the true beauty of their rightful forms. The harm we do to others!

And then there is this one:

The Devil today takes the form of noise.

Along with excessively humid heat, one of the aspects of a Midwestern summer that I find most aggravating is the constant roar of mowers, blowers, trimmers, and saws. At any given time during daylight hours, at least one nearby neighbor is doing his yard work. Then there is the jarring noise of TV commercials; the constant, arrhythmic distraction of jangling telephones; the annoyance of seemingly endless, empty collegial talk about irrelevant topics; and worse, those noisy songbirds raucously bragging about their sexual prowess at the first light of an insomniac’s desperate dawn. Satan sent those fucking birds.

Finally, from the “I Teach…” section, there is this:

That’s the horrible thing about being a genius. Everything’s so obvious.

One can only imagine.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Rants: Howling in the Desert

The cyber-sphere has struck me as sort of low-energy lately. The blogs I have frequented in recent years have been either sluggishly active, or have seemed thematically repetitive and unoriginal. Or both. Several have simply become defunct.

Looking for an antidote, I have in recent days experimented with both Facebook and Twitter. For Twitter, I’ve found no use at all; it seems largely to be a net for spam. Visiting Facebook, on the other hand, amounts to self-imposed cruel and inhuman punishment. Imagine entering a room to find dozens tone-deaf individuals, all singing Cielito Lindo off-key, but not in unison: I-I-I-I, mira me, amigo. Got the tune in your head, you gringo putz?

Maybe it’s me.

Along the same lines, as I write, I’m listening to the new Dylan CD, Together Through Life--a string of ten tunes almost all of which are about going alone through life. Go figure. These new tunes sound pretty much like the old tunes on his last CD, though not as good.

But, maybe it’s me.

I recently pulled off the shelf my dusty paperback copy of The Portable Beat Reader, edited by Ann Charters. In her introduction, Charters writes of the seminal launching—the money shot—of “the Beat Generation” that was Allen Ginsberg’s reading of his poem “Howl” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco:

The “Six Poets at the Six Gallery” reading was the catalyst… Michael McClure later described the atmosphere he felt the night of the reading in 1955:

We were locked in the Cold War and the first Asian debacle—the Korean War… We hated the war and the inhumanity and the coldness. The country had the feeling of martial law. An undeclared military state had leapt out of Daddy Warbucks’ tanks and sprawled over the landscape. As artists we were oppressed and indeed the people of the nation were oppressed.
…We knew we were poets and we had to speak out as poets. We saw that the art of poetry was essentially dead—killed by war, by academies, by neglect, by lack of love, and by disinterest. …We wanted voice and we wanted vision…

Ginsberg’s “Howl” delivered the necessary “voice” and “vision” on October 7, 1955, with the now famous opening words, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix…”

It seems to me this morning that America in the mid-1950s, as described by Michael McClure, is not that different from the America that I’m walking around in today. But where the fuck is our Allen Ginsberg? When is he coming?

I was just a bit too young, in 1955, to be aware of the cultural ripple-effect caused by “Howl” and augmented by the publication of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road two years later. But by the year Nineteen Fifty-Nine, when I was a kid attending middle-school in Middletown, U.S.A., I had become aware of the “beatniks.” Maynard G. Krebs had become my favorite TV character. I was a beatnik before I was ever a long-haired counter-cultural freak.

The questing elements of my father’s generation had their cultural-spiritual-artistic renaissance in the Beats; mine had its own high-energy reawakening in the ‘Sixties phenomena of political activism, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, LSD, the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, et al. If anybody sees anything comparable happening now, please turn me on to it.

The avant-garde artiste of today seems to be a bionic man; a hybrid of man and machine—his output computer-generated. What this means, if you boil it down to the stark essentials, is that the artist is the captive and the frigging tool of the (shudder!) corporation. I don’t see any good coming of that Faustian deal.

So, to sum up: the perpetual war rages on (this time in the Middle-East); we still have the political oppression, enduring which we sit hunkered-down on the hot sands of a spiritual desert, imperfectly shaded from its blazing sterility by an umbrella of compulsive consumerism, enhanced by an addictive dependence on “entertainments.”

And now I ask: how can an "artist" who is tethered to a corporate machine by a digital chain advance the cause of human freedom?
Note: All of that said, in the background, from the soundtrack of my life, I can hear the Shirelles singing: Sha-la-la-la-la-la-la-la, Baby, it's you...


Monday, May 4, 2009

Happy Birthday, Lefty

Through cyber-buddy, Madscribe, I was reminded that yesterday was this progressive gent's 90th birthday. Many happy returns!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Riffs: The Blacker the Berry...

Some months ago my wife somehow, accidentally, subscribed to Rolling Stone. Nobody knows how, or why, but it started coming, and it’s still coming. Issue 1078 arrived yesterday with the rain, and with Bob Dylan on the cover. After years of struggle, he’s finally made the Big Time.

Now, centaurs, unicorns and other mythical beasts such as persons who have been following Rodak Riffs since the early days, will be aware of my devotion to Dylan’s career, and that my devotion is of very long standing. (see here and here)

So, even though the last time I picked up a Rolling Stone, Kurt Cobain was still alive and rockin’ ‘em out like Johnny B. Goode, I found myself reading the article “Bob Dylan’s America” by Douglas Brinkley. I haven’t finished it yet, but I thought I’d share the arresting passage at which my reading was paused:

In the pecking order of rock & roll survivors, Dylan sees himself as number two, behind only Chuck Berry. …A friendship has developed between Dylan and Berry over the years. “Chuck said to me, ‘By God, I hope you live to be 100, and I hope I live forever,’” Dylan says with a laugh. “He said that to me a couple of years ago. In my universe, Chuck is irreplaceable….All that brilliance is still there, and he’s still a force of nature. As long as Chuck Berry’s around, everything’s as it should be. This a man who has been through it all. The world treated him so nasty. But in the end, it was the world that got beat.”

…the sweeter the tunes.