Sunday, October 30, 2011

Readings: A Brit with Wit

While processing the collection referred to in this previous post, I made a happy discovery in one of the folders containing the correspondence of the deceased professor of English whose papers they are. The letter was from one of his friends, acquaintances, or colleagues among the literati. (I should have made a note to myself to remember the name. It may have been Harold Nicolson, but I’m not at all certain of that.) At any rate, the letter included high praise for the recently published novel, The Bachelors, by Muriel Spark. Since I have always make it a habit to check out writings praised by persons whose opinions I have reason to respect, I borrowed the novel from the library. I finished it the other day and I'm happy to report that it was a delight. A book jacket blurb from a reviewer at The Atlantic sums it up perfectly: “She probably could not write a dull line if she tried.” I agree. I couldn’t put it down.

Since one could excerpt almost anything in the book in support of this statement, that is precisely what I have done. This is one of the “bachelors” in question, providing another with an anecdote of his misspent youth:

“I got a young woman into trouble at the age of eighteen,” Walter said. “Daughter of one of our footmen. He was an Irish fellow. The butler caught him reading Nietzsche in the pantry. To the detriment of the silver. Of course there was no question of my marrying his daughter. The family made a settlement and I went abroad to paint. My hair turned white at the age of nineteen.”

One certainly does not marry the daughter of a Nietzsche-reading Irishman!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Reflections: The Righteous Rebel

In the course of doing my job in the university archives, I was indexing fifty-eight boxes of personal papers donated to the University back in the 1980s by a professor of English, long since dead. Tucked away in a folder, buried at the heart of one of those many boxes, I found a little pamphlet that was prepared for the memorial service of its author, Dorothy L. Sayers. The pamphlet includes two short essays. For whatever reason, I was moved to pause in my work long enough to read the first of these, “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged”. When I came to the paragraph which I share with you below, I was hit hard by thought--OMG, could we ever use a leader with these characteristics today!

Read it and see what you think:

The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused Him of being a bore—on the contrary; they thought Him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround Him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified Him "meek and mild," and recommended Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. To those who knew Him, however, He in no way suggested a milk-and-water person; they objected to Him as a dangerous firebrand. True, He was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers and humble before Heaven; but He insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites; He referred to King Herod as "that fox"; He went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a "gluttonous man and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners"; He assaulted indignant tradesmen and threw them and their belongings out of the Temple; He drove a coach-and-horses through a number of sacrosanct and hoary regulations; He cured diseases by any means that came handy, with a shocking casualness in the matter of other people's pigs and property; He showed no proper deference for wealth or social position; when confronted with neat dialectical traps, He displayed a paradoxical humour that affronted serious-minded people, and He retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb. He was emphatically not a dull man in His human lifetime, and if He was God, there can be nothing dull about God either. But He had "a daily beauty in His life that made us ugly," and officialdom felt that the established order of things would be more secure without Him. So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness…

…much as they are trying to do away with the protestors filling the streets and public parks of the world’s great cities today. We must not let them succeed again; not one more time.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Readings: A Nobel Fragment

After explaining, in preceding stanzas, how and why “The walls are part of you”, new Nobel Laureate, Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, closes his poem “Vermeer” with this:

The airy sky has taken its place leaning against the wall.
It is like a prayer to what is empty.
And what is empty turns its face to us
And whispers:
“I am not empty, I am open.”

Very nice.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Readings: Brilliant Nuggets

From a piece titled “Fifteen Pebbles” in Jane Hirshfield’s wonderful new poetry collection, Come, Thief, here are my favorite two of the fifteen:


xxxA red horse crops
xxxA black crow
xxxdelves bugs from a dirt pile.
xxxA woman watches in envy what is so simple.


xxxWhat we see is the paint.
xxxYet somehow the mind
xxxknows the wall,
xxxas the living know death.

You should get the book and read the other thirteen.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Readings: A Poem by Tomas Tranströmer

Below is a short poem by the 2011 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Swedish poet, Tomas Tranströmer. The translation is from the book, The Half-Finished Heaven: the Best Poems of Tomas Tranströmer, by American poet, Robert Bly.

December Evening, ‘72

Here I come the invisible man, perhaps in the employ
of some huge Memory that wants to live at this moment.
xxxxAnd I drive by

the white church that’s locked up. A saint made of wood is
smiling helplessly, as if someone had taken his glasses.

He’s alone. Everything else is now, now, now. Gravity
pulling us toward work in the dark and the bed at night. The

*** *** *** *** *** ***

I chose this poem because, although it dates from forty years ago, like all great poetry it is timeless and as relevant today as it was then: “The war.”

Monday, October 10, 2011

Rodak's Writings: A Poem for Columbus Day

Turner's Rhapsody

The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the
advance of American settlement, explain American development.
~ Frederick Jackson Turner

Dig in deep, little Injun,
Here rides Kit Carson
Who counts coup with a boning knife;
Who translates vast tempests
Of thundering bison into one
Proper, prairie-rocking noun;
Who funnels all that rolling force
Through a single humming strand
Of transcontinental copper,
Which carries, encoded, the awesome
Name of shaggy Destiny,
Which grinds out at each end
Pale entrails of tickertape,
To fall from the turreted casements
Of meatpackers and railroad kings;
From the raspy digits of wrinkled domestics;
From the inky thumbs of chirruping clerks;
Down, down, down, descends
This glyphy slough of American laurel,
To wreath the rude brow, anointed
With the unclarified fats of beasts and bipeds,
Where beads of blood like flies in buttermilk
Persist, pronouncing the Passion
Of our Messiah of Manifest;
Now honored in grand procession,
As dime novels generate like maggots
In the sun-soaked meat that glorifies
Every distance from Independence to sunset.
Dig in deep, little Injun;
Here rides Kit Carson,
His saddlebags bursting with letters to Santa Claus.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Readings: Fun Stuff from Kurt Vonnegut

Here is an interesting satire of numerology that Kurt Vonnegut employs in his prophetic novel, Hocus Pocus:

The context is that the novel's protagonist is working as a teacher in a prison. Vonnegut has this character explain his teaching methods at one point in the book. Part of that method is described by the character this way:

"I showed them a chart a fundamentalist preacher from downtown Scipio has passed out... I asked them to examine it for examples of facts tailored to fit a thesis.
xxxx"Across the top the chart named the leaders of warring nations during the Finale Rack, during World War II. Then, under each name was the leader's birthdate and how many years he lived and when he took office and how many years he served, and then the total of all those numbers, which in each case turned out to be 3,888.
xxxx"It looked like this:

Il Duce
Took Office
Years in Office


xxxx"As I say, every column adds up to 3,888.
xxxx"Whoever invented the chart then pointed out that half that number was 1944, the year the war ended, and that the first letters of the names of the war's leaders spelled the name of the Supreme Ruler of the Universe."

Okay. So Vonnegut's character has pointed out that the first letters of the names above = C,H,R,I,S,T

And here’s something Vonnegut's protagonist didn’t point out:

1+9+4+4 adds up to 18, which is three sixes (666) = the number of the Beast.

Isn't that interesting?

Vonnegut's character never tells us if any of the convict students found any "facts tailored to fit a thesis."