November 2007

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Rosanna Warren was the featured poet on Thursday night at the Luce Program in Scripture and Literary Arts at Boston University. Well known as a much-loved teacher and award-winning writer and translator (and the daughter of Robert Penn Warren), Rosanna cast a spell on me. Her work is carefully incised, with richly drawn streaks of imaginal flight.

She cycles in and out of many of the same themes that attract me as well. I wasn’t surprised to learn that she began her early adulthood as a painter rather than a poet. Her proclivities draw her to transcendence, to the earth, to the power of art and language to alter everything.

I was particularly moved by some of her most recent pieces. Three poems from a series called “Mistral” felt like a significant departure from her previous work and abandon the armature of a classical, more structured poetic approach. These poems have a mysterious and unnamed force coursing through a haunted hallowing of the past, so they are well named.

She also read several poems that were written about the recent death of her dear friend Deborah Tall, author of From Where We Stand and A Family of Strangers. This poem, dedicated to her friend, appeared in The New Yorker earlier this month.

A Kosmos

You lay in your last sleep, not-sleep,
head tilted stiffly to the right on the pillow
at a sharper angle than when you bent over poems,
year after year, and we plucked at each other’s lines,

as if now you considered some even starker question.
Your I.V. tubes were gone. Your arms were bruised.
A blue cloth cap enfolded your pale, bald head.
It was too late to give you the lavender shawl I’d imagined

more for my sake than for yours.
Your mouth was suddenly tender, the mouth of a girl.
You had come very far, to come here.
Never one not to look at things squarely,

now you looked inward. Who knows what you saw.
And when, weeks later, we gathered
again at the house to say those formal farewells,
I went up to your study looking for “Leaves of Grass”

and found, instead, your orderly desk, unused,
your manuscripts neatly stacked, the framed
photographs of your girls, and, like a private message
from Whitman, who saw things whole, the small

dried body of a mouse. A kosmos, he, too. He, too, luckier.

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Publications by Rosanna Warren: Verse translation, Euripides, Suppliant Women (with Stephen Scully) (1995); poetry: Departure (2003), Stained Glass (1993), Each Leaf Shines Separate (1984), Snow Day (1981); ed., The Art of Translation: Voices from the Field (1989); “Sappho: Translation as Elegy,” in The Art of Translation; “La fontana e la pietra: Petrarca contemporaneo,” Studi e problemi di critica testuale (2006); “The Contradictory Classicist: the Poetry of Frank Bidart,” The Threepenny Review (2002); “Orpheus the Painter: Apollinaire and Robert Delaunay,” Criticism (1988); “Selected Prose of Gérard de Nerval” (Transl. with commentary), Georgia Review (1983).

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The interface between the self and the Web has been a topic that I think about a lot. I’ve written previously about Sherry Turkle’s work and her new book, Evocative Objects, and some of the ways the porous membrane between a cyber persona and a physical self can almost disappear.

The generational implications of the last ten years of technological development are also provocative. Who knows what will shift and change for my children and their deviced and gadgeted cohorts?

The following excerpt is from an article by Clive Thompson in Wired and suggests some interesting twists on these themes.

This summer, neuroscientist Ian Robertson polled 3,000 people and found that the younger ones were less able than their elders to recall standard personal info. When Robertson asked his subjects to tell them a relative’s birth date, 87 percent of respondents over age 50 could recite it, while less than 40 percent of those under 30 could do so. And when he asked them their own phone number, fully one-third of the youngsters drew a blank. They had to whip out their handsets to look it up.

That reflexive gesture — reaching into your pocket for the answer — tells the story in a nutshell. Mobile phones can store 500 numbers in their memory, so why would you bother trying to cram the same info into your own memory? Younger Americans today are the first generation to grow up with go-everywhere gadgets and services that exist specifically to remember things so that we don’t have to: BlackBerrys, phones, thumb drives, Gmail.

I’ve long noticed this phenomenon in my own life. I can’t remember a single friend’s email address. Hell, sometimes I have to search my inbox to remember an associate’s last name. Friends of mine space out on lunch dates unless Outlook pings them. And when it comes to cultural trivia — celebrity names, song lyrics — I’ve almost given up making an effort to remember anything, because I can instantly retrieve the information online.

In fact, the line between where my memory leaves off and Google picks up is getting blurrier by the second. Often when I’m talking on the phone, I hit Wikipedia and search engines to explore the subject at hand, harnessing the results to buttress my arguments.

My point is that the cyborg future is here. Almost without noticing it, we’ve outsourced important peripheral brain functions to the silicon around us.

And frankly, I kind of like it. I feel much smarter when I’m using the Internet as a mental plug-in during my daily chitchat. Say you mention the movie Once: I’ve never seen it, but in 10 seconds I’ll have reviewed a summary of the plot, the actors, and its cultural impact. Machine memory even changes the way I communicate, because I continually stud my IMs with links, essentially impregnating my very words with extra intelligence.

You could argue that by offloading data onto silicon, we free our own gray matter for more germanely “human” tasks like brainstorming and daydreaming. What’s more, the perfect recall of silicon memory can be an enormous boon to thinking. For example, I’ve been blogging for four years, which means I’ve poured out about a million words’ worth of my thoughts online. This regularly produces the surreal and delightful experience of Googling a topic only to unearth an old post that I don’t even remember writing. The machine helps me rediscover things I’d forgotten I knew — it’s what author Cory Doctorow refers to as an “outboard brain.”

Still, I have nagging worries. Sure, I’m a veritable genius when I’m on the grid, but am I mentally crippled when I’m not? Does an overreliance on machine memory shut down other important ways of understanding the world?

There’s another type of intelligence that comes not from rapid-fire pattern recognition but from slowly ingesting and retaining a lifetime’s worth of facts. You read about the discoveries of Madame Curie and the history of the countries bordering Iraq. You read War and Peace. Then you let it all ferment in the back of your mind for decades, until, bang, it suddenly coalesces into a brilliant insight. (If Afghanistan had stores of uranium, the Russians would’ve discovered nuclear energy before 1917!)

We’ve come to think of human intelligence as being like an Intel processor, able to quickly analyze data and spot patterns. Maybe there’s just as much value in the ability to marinate in the seemingly trivial.

Of course, it’s probably not an either/or proposition. I want both: I want my organic brain to contain vast stores of knowledge and my silicon overmind to contain a stupidly huge amount more.

At the very least, I’d like to be able to remember my own phone number.

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I think that art should be allowed to go private. It should be a matter of one-on-one. In the last few years, the public has only heard of art when it makes record prices at auction, or is stolen, or allegedly withheld from its rightful owners. We need to concentrate more on art that sits still some place and minds its own business. We all hope for a strong response from art, but the kind of buzz that we have to live with nowadays is the enemy of art. Quietness and slow time are its friends. Let’s hope that their turn will come.

–John Russell, in conversation with Jason Edward Kaufman

This quote captures the essence of the idea behind Slow Art and the reason I started blogging over a year ago. Russell’s advocacy for a more personal one-on-one art experience–an art that has gone “private”–runs against all the tendencies of our culture.

The sentiments Russell expresses remind me of one of my culture heroes, Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist.org. Even as his social networking site is valued in the billions of dollars, he is not interested in selling out. When asked why, this was his answer:

“Who needs the money? If you’re living comfortably, what’s the point of having more?”

He has talked about starting the site in his spare time as a service to the community, and it just kept expanding. “I believe people are overwhelmingly trustworthy and good.” By taking that approach, the site has become a massive force of its own.

When something authentic and powerful goes against the drag-it-down current of conventional wisdom, who knows what will open up? I long for these new points of view, new ways of thinking, a shift in the consciousness.

Thank you Elatia Harris for finding the quote by Russell and sending it my way.

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A few words on solitude, discipline and the nature of being interrupted, by Mary Oliver:

It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone
rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits.
Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought
which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone.

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without
interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until
it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily
have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart–to pace, to chew pencils, to
scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from
another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that
whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing into
the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone
the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday
is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only
to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.

It is this internal force–this intimate interrupter–whose tracks I would
follow. The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place,
its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that?
But that the self can interrupt the self–and does–is a dark and more
curious matter.

–From Blue Pastures

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Mary Oliver, poet

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I’m off to New York for a few days. Before I go, I will share some thoughts about simplicity and transcendence. I am probably being drawn to this viewpoint as a way to counteract the commencement of a holiday season that often feels more garish and overstated than heartwarming.

“Translation,” wrote Kakuzo Okakura…”can at best be only the reverse side of the brocade–all the threads are there, but not the subtlety of color or design.” Few examples illustrate this better than the Japanese concept of wabi sabi. Westerners tend to associate wabi sabi with physical characteristics imperfection, crudescence, an aged and weathered look. Although wabi sabi may embody these qualities, these characteristic are neither sufficient nor adequate to convey the essence of the concept. Wabi sabi is not rigidly attached to a list of physical traits. Rather, it is a profound aesthetic consciousness that transcends appearance. It can be felt but rarely verbalized, much less defined. Defining wabi sabi in physical terms is like explaining the taste of a piece of chocolate by its shape and color to someone who has never tasted it. As long as one focuses on the physical, one is doomed to see only the back side of the brocade, while its real beauty remains hidden. In order to see its true essence, one must look beyond the apparent, one must look within.

The term wabi sabi is derived from two characters shared by Japanese and Chinese. Wabi originally means “despondence” and sabi means “loneliness.” These are words for feelings, not for the physical appearance of objects. The term embodies a refined aesthetic sensibility…

[Consider] the haiku by the eighteenth-century Japanese poet Yasano Buson:

From a mountain temple
the sound of a bell struck fumblingly
vanishes in the mist

This poem conveys a deep personal aesthetic consciousness, a bittersweet mix of loneliness and serenity, a sense of dejection buoyed by freedom from material hindrance. This is what wabi sabi feels like. And one can only experience it by turning the focus from outer appearance to look within. No wonder the Japanese struggle to explain wabi sabi; they try to tell how it feels, not just how it looks…

One only needs to look at Walker Evans’ photographs of the interior of an Alabama farmhouse, or Andre Kertesz’s images of shadows cast by empty chairs, or the central courtyard in Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu to recognize a similar aesthetic awareness. These artist speak to the audience through mutual understanding of their private emotions. Such a connection cannot be faked. A common fallacy is to believe an artist can artificially create a resonance with the audience with certain visual cues. Unless the work is a genuine expression of the artist’s feeling, the effect will appear hollow to the perceptive eye.

Wabi sabi is not a style defined by superficial appearance. It is an aesthetic ideal, a quiet and sensitive state of mind, attainable by learning to see the invisible, paring away what is unnecessary, and knowing where to stop.

Tim Wong and Akiko Hirano

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Mexico, 2007

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Georgia O’Keefe’s version

The Red Poppy

The great thing
is not having
a mind. Feelings:
oh, I have those; they
govern me. I have
a lord in heaven
called the sun, and open
for him, showing him
the first of my own heart, fire
like his presence.
What could such glory be
if not a heart? Oh my brothers and sisters,
were you like me once, long ago,
before you were human? Did you
permit yourselves
to open once, who would never
open again? Because in truth
I am speaking now
the way you do. I speak
because I am shattered.

Louise Gluck

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There’s a perennially prickly relationship that persists between the artist who has an audience and the one who does not. In The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross returns to this theme many times as it played out between the giants of 20th century composing. Schoenberg “warned his colleagues against a futile chase after popularity,” and ended up devising a “new way of working—a ‘method of composing with twelve notes’ –that would protect the serious composer from vulgarity.” His long standing dispute with Kurt Weill hinged on this same issue, purportedly resulting from an article in which Weill contrasted composers who “filled with disdain for the public, work towards the solution of aesthetic problems as if behind closed doors” and those who “open up a connection with any kind of public.”

When Schoenberg protégé Alban Berg premiered his opera Wozzeck and was greeted by a standing ovation, he was upset by the response. According to Berg’s friend Theodor Adorno, “That a work…satisfying Berg’s own standards could please a first-night audience, was incomprehensible to him and struck him as an argument against the opera.” Adorno went on to say, “Schoenberg envied Berg his successes while Berg envied Schoenberg his failures.”

I found something of that dichotomy in an article about Julian Schnabel in the Sunday Times. Schnabel made a name for himself in the burgeoning art scene in Soho in the 1970s. He was a natural self promoter and played the high visibility game to perfection. I was never a fan of his work, but give him credit for having played his hand well at the fame game.

Later he refocused his ambitious energies into film, directing Basquiat and Before Night Falls, both worthy ventures that received a fair amount of critical acclaim. His latest film—and a bit of an unlikely choice–is based on the memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

So for all of Schnabel’s wealth and success, the following quote by him in Randy Kennedy’s article was noteworthy:

I’m a painter; that’s what I do,” he said in his Brooklyn studio, adding that a failure to acknowledge this properly was ultimately the result of ignorance.

I don’t think that people know too much about painting,” he said. “I don’t think that they really understand what it is. I mean, I don’t want to put anybody down. I just think more people understand the language of movies than of paintings.

The piece is wryly titled, Don’t Call Him a Filmmaker, at Least Not First.

This response could just be a case of ego, unchecked, seeking domination in every endeavor. Or perhaps this is Schnabel envying his own successes as well as his own (perceived or otherwise) failures.

As for the optimal artist/audience relationship, I’m going with e) all of the above.

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I love this guy.

Alex Ross writes about music for The New Yorker. He is so reliably brilliant, and my musician sister Rebecca and I both turn to his articles first when the magazine arrives at our respective homes. Then we call and talk about the nuance he captured or yet another poignant insight. His writing is fluid, seductive and informed. After a long year of waiting, his new book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, is finally out and worthy of a hard cover purchase.

Under Ross’ expert hand, the extraordinary evolution of music over the last 100 years is delivered up as comprehensible, a kind of ordered chaos. There’s nothing canonical about his approach, but the journey from the fin de siecle in Vienna to Stalin’s Russia to modern minimalism is engaging, lively, highly textured.

Here’s an excerpt from his introduction:

Berg was right: music unfolds along an unbroken continuum, however dissimilar the sounds on the surface. Music is always migrating from its point of origin to its destiny in someone’s fleeting moment of experience–last night’s concert, tomorrow’s solitary jog.

The “Rest is Noise” is written not just for those well versed in classical music but also–especially–for those who feel passing curiosity about this obscure pandemonium on the outskirts of culture. I approach the subject from multiple angles: biography, musical description, cultural and social history, evocations of place, raw politics, firsthand accounts by the participants themselves.

Many of his descriptions of music during this period apply to the visual arts as well. For example:

In the twentieth century…musical life disintegrated into a teeming mass of cultures and subcultures, each with its own canon and jargon. Some genres have attained more popularity that others; none has true mass appeal…beauty may catch us in unexpected places.

And this great passage, quoted at the beginning of the book:

It seems to me…that despite the logical, moral rigor music may appear to display, it belongs to a world of spirits, for whose absolute reliability in matters of human reason and dignity I would not exactly want to put my hand in the fire. That I am nevertheless devoted to it with all my heart is one of those contradictions which, whether a cause for joy or regret, are inseparable from human nature.

–Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus

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Osvaldo Golijov’s music speaks to me. Ever since the performance in Boston of his glorious La Pasión según San Marcos in 2000, I have followed his eclectic, unexpected and, for me, ever redemptive work. Recent favorites include his opera about Federico García Lorca, Ainadamar, and Ayre, his hauntingly beautiful work featuring his personal muse, the singer Dawn Upshaw.

This July he released a recording of a piece that premiered over ten years ago. Oceana is based on an excerpt from Pablo Neruda’s Cantos Ceremoniales. Here is Golijob’s statement about the work, from his website:

My aim in Oceana was the transmutation of passion into geometry. This is, in my mind, the clue to both Bach’s and Neruda’s work. …[One hopes that the emotion evoked by the work] is the emotion of hearing order, inevitable and full of light: every note in its place, as in Bach, every word in its place, as in Neruda.

Giants such as Bach are fated to be used as mirrors by composers and performers of every era, who will see their own image reflected there. …In their own ways they were all correct in their fruitful misreadings of Bach’s music, and I feel that Oceana is my own misreading.

Neruda is our Latin American Bach. Like Bach, he is Midas, able as if by magic to transform everything on this Earth into poetry. …I think I have discovered the clue [to setting his poems to music]: Neruda’s voice is a chorus, too powerful for a single voice to handle…

I do hope that water and longing, light and hope, the immensity of South America’s nature and pain, are here transmuted into pure musical symbols, which nevertheless should be more liquid than the sea and deeper than the yearning that they represent. And if I have misunderstood Bach, then so be it.

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I have been thinking a lot about transgressive women. There are so many ways to be transgressive, and I have my personal stylistic favorites. Much of my thinking has been triggered by reading a friend’s new book, Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History, by Laurel Ulrich. She has highlighted the lives of three women who did not buy the company line—Christine de Pizan (15th century), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (19th century) and Virginia Woolf (20th century.) But her introduction also chronicles many women–and groups of women–who have made her now famous line a slogan (originally taken from one of her scholarly articles and popularized through ad hoc brandishings on T-shirts, bumper stickers and bags.) Some of these groups, like the Sweet Potato Queens of Jackson, Mississippi, approach being outrageous and out of control as a hobby, all the while living lives that look, on the surface, to be quite conventional.

Laurel points out that, for some women, there is something very seductive about transgressive behavior. That was me, even as a small child. But my predilection is for a more understated subversiveness rather than the excessive, high drama, in your face version. So Madonna’s high visibility transgressiveness is less compelling to me than the simmering iconoclasm of Sinead O’Connor. (When I heard Sinead perform a few weeks ago, it was clear that her fierce “I’ll do it my way, take it or leave it” energy is still very strong.)

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Installation by Ana Mendieta

Or the likes of artists like Ana Mendieta and Lee Lozano. Mendieta’s untimely death stopped her extraordinary work in its prime, but Lozano was fierce all the way to the end. She undertook a boycott of the officiously superficial art world by refusing to speak to other women for one month in a conceptual piece that was intended as a way to improve communication with women. It lasted for thirty years.

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Untitled, by Lee Lozano

And then of course there is the wonderful quote from poet Alice Notley, originally posted here on October 17th:

I’ve been trying to train myself for 30 or 40 years not to believe anything anyone tells me…To write vital poems, it’s necessary to maintain a state of disobedience against…everything.

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