Saturday, November 29, 2008

Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" — Never Let the Facts Get in the Way of a Good Poem?

Saint Mark Freeing a Christian Slave

The Spoliation
El Greco

John the Baptist

The Third of May

The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus

About suffering, they were frequently wrong,
The Old Masters: if they understood
Its human position, how it takes place
While someone is eating, opening a window, or just walking along,
That understanding is rarely in evidence
In their paintings, which more typically depict
The agonies of martyrdom, the brutalities of the state
As the central focus of the work—as though
Outside of the radiant anguish,
Little else exists or is worthy of attention.
And not simply for the viewer, we posterity whose eyes
Are directed via light effects and shadow
Toward the tear-stained face of Mary or
The tortured veins on the throat of a slave, but
For the other inhabitants of the painting, who usually
Are turned toward the central scene of pain, and not—
Like the ploughman, the expensive delicate ship
In Brueghel's atypical "Icarus"—gesturing away.
The central argument of Auden's poem seems to be
About human suffering itself, which inarguably does
Happen while others are not paying attention.
It is undebatably true we are all cocooned
Within the opaque veils that comprise
Our own fields of concern; that we fail
Again and again to attend to the suffering of others,
And that this has elements of both tragedy
(Our blindness, our inefficacy in the face of horror)
And solace: that all of this shall pass. But this much loved
(By me as well) poem argues its case
With evidence circumstantial at best, using
A painting that in no way typifies
The Old Masters approach to suffering. In their work,
One could more rightly argue
That suffering is the center of the world, and that every eye
Moves toward it as a needle points to north
To be, by its dark light, inexorably changed.

How did Auden pull this off? Is there any chance that his great poem should be read not as a statement on the nature of suffering, but about the critic's ability to force misinterpretation by misdirecting the viewer's gaze (and perhaps the poet's ability to do the same?) I'm just spitballing here ... because I don't think this poem would have survived this long if it were read as a statement about how criticism/interpretation is a tricky process in which "experts" misguide us.

Poetry often seems to be what sounds like truth—the Muses said as much to Hesiod. Yet I am not entirely comfortable with "truths" that try to claim our minds without the needed facts, which gesture toward the thinking behind edifices such as Kentucky's Creation Museum.

I have started to collect these factual issues in other poems I like: In B. H. Fairchild's "Weather Report," for instance, how everything builds nicely into his thesis: a wry acknowledgment that both grand scale injustice and quotidian dolor are perpetual—a fairly convincing argument, largely supported by his facts (and ours). Yet, stanza four is this nice little mousetrap:

Eichmann lies in bed and reads a novel;
A Holocaust survivor sets himself on fire.
The thief's in church, the priest is in the brothel;
the sky is clear, the weatherman's a liar.

Sounds great, but this is from his 2003 collection, Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, and unless Fairchild wrote this particular poem back in '62, Eichmann had been dead—captured in Buenos Aires, taken to Israel, tried, and hanged—for 40 years. You can argue that the poem is outside of time in some way; that it speaks a truth beyond the factual about victims and victimizers, that it captures certain eternal realities without capturing temporal facts. But for some reason, I feel that it matters that no, Eichmann is not lying in bed and reading a novel; he is not lying anywhere because his ashes were scattered in international waters so no one could visit his grave or memorialize him. Whatever you think about state-sanctioned execution, Eichmann's fate certainly bespeaks a kind of moral justice that the poem seems to argue is absent from the world.

A good poem, even if it's not making any kind of philosophical argument as these two are, must be persuasive about its vision. And yet, I think both Auden and Fairchild's poems do persuade, even without having all the facts in order. So where is the border between fact and truth? Would these poems be improved by use of facts more supportive of their arguments, even if the names were more obscure? (There are certainly some Nazi war criminals who escaped the noose, but few would have the resonance of Eichmann.) Is all that separates great poetry from great propaganda a poet's good intentions?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

My Little Sister is 30 and I Have One Foot in the Grave

Spent the weekend in NYC with beloved sister, celebrating her momentous arrival on the planet, which occurred 30 years ago yesterday. We saw two plays, walked hundreds of blocks, hit two great museums (the Met and the MoMA), wandered through Chinatown and Little Italy, and had two less-than-great meals. As usual, I got back completely exhausted but sorry to leave.

Question: How many "chocolate bars" can one city support, especially in a recession? Everywhere we walked, it seemed, we passed some little exclusive chocolate shop with a menu of gold-leaf truffles and $8 hot cocoas and chocolate with bacon in it. I couldn't help but wonder what will happen to these places over the next few years, as our need for the chocolate endorphins rises and our ability to pay for anything more than a square of Hershey bar sinks.

Moment with the most "poetry": Eavesdropping on a class of public school 2nd graders at the MoMA as their tour guide sat them down in front of the cluster of Brancusis shown above and had the kids talk about what they saw in them. The kids were amazing: alternately squirmy, entranced, and disgusted by the naked breasts on a Klimt in the room. I couldn't wait to write about them. The kids, not the breasts.

Best New York moment: Eating a bagel in a small diner near the museum and watching our Indian waitress enchange flirtatious banter with the Ukrainian line cook and the Latin American manager. Oddest NY moment: Walking south on Madison Avenue just after the Met closed on Saturday, freezing our asses off in the dark, and crossing an intersection only to realize that the entire area was clogged with cop cars, marked and unmarked, and that every nearby doorway had an officer in SWAT gear lurking in it.

These contest results went live this weekend while I was away ... a nice surprise. The $2000 first prize would have been nicer, but $100 will help me pay for the time in New York!

Friday, November 14, 2008

New work in Blackbird today ...

Check it out here.

I was happy to get work accepted, but I'm happier still seeing the company ... The issue is a veritable roll call of Hollinsites, with fiction by Lee Smith (Hollins class of '67), a memoir by Constance Adler (who was in my '99 M.A. program and who I haven't seen in years! So happy to see she's still writing!) and poetry by Jeanne Larsen (Hollins class of '72, and one of my favorite professors ever ... not just a wonderful poet and novelist, but one of the world's genuinely kind and generous people). It's enough to bring out my school spirit.

Also: Bruce Weigl. No Hollins connection I know of, though the Hollins Critic included a good essay about his work way back in '94. But Weigl is one of the poets I discovered in grad school, and much of his work just stuns me. Go find and read "What Saves Us" and see what you think.

And Angela, thanks for the picture!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Obama Needs to Watch His Line Breaks

I mean, breaking on "the" in the 9th line is a little weak.

Otherwise, really, this ain't bad for a collegiate poem, even if it does sound like Obama might have been tripping—or feeling negative about a recent spelunking experience—when he wrote it.

(Underground apes eating figs?)


Under water grottos, caverns
Filled with apes
That eat figs.
Stepping on the figs
That the apes
Eat, they crunch.
The apes howl, bare
Their fangs, dance,
Tumble in the
Rushing water,
Musty, wet pelts
Glistening in the blue.

Another, perhaps more personally revealing, poem by the President-elect here.

Our new president wrote poetry! It's a good thing this didn't come out before the election. it could have scared off middle America—even though Lincoln himself was known to scribble an iamb or two.

Still giddy ...

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


For the first time in 8 years, I'm finding myself shedding tears of joy over the news, rather than ones of disgust or impotent rage.

I'm sure emotional equilibrium will return in a few days.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Well, let me amend that: If you've read a paper or follow the news or are reasonably informed, vote. Otherwise, just pretend this is a regular old day. Go to work. Watch your stock portfolios plummet. See who's died in Iraq today.

I don't care if people vote for McCain -- I just hope they don't vote due to Barack's middle name. Anyone's who's harbored the thought that he might be Muslim (and that might be bad), who thinks he's a commie, who thinks he's related to Saddam, please, just stay home and leave this to people who are voting on policy issues.

Washington City Paper staff are following the nitty gritty of the local polling stations via Twitter here. Lines around the blocks. People jubilant. Several unicorns spotted.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

In the Immortal Words of Joey Tempest ...

It's the final countdown.

But in the meantime, this weekend my friend Lou created—using saws, kerosene, and several enormous pumpkins—a scene in his front yard that must have thrilled every kid in the neighborhood, and probably many adults as well (the ones who weren’t freaked out by the potential for neighborhood-wide conflagration).

Am I overstating things to say this diorama of carnage is a quintessential American art installation? It’s over-the-top, absurd, funny. It simultaneously represents and parodies our obsession with violence and spectacle. It honors the value of work—this took hours and hours to create. And most of all, it values the audience: Why spend the time to do this thing at all, if not to create a reaction of horror, amusement, and, dare I say, delight?

Maybe I’m overstating things. Still: awesome.

On to Americana of a larger scale: This weekend, the book review sections of both the Washington Post and the New York Times carried articles about presidential reading habits. (They also both carried reviews of a novel called The Flying Troutmans, and in an all-too-common scenario, the Post’s critic loved it—“Toews has created such an engaging cast for this 2,000-mile trek that you'll never be tempted to ask, ‘Are we there yet?’—and the Times critic panned it—“a journey of a few thousand miles that ends up seeming like several million. I blame the disagreeable company and the vapid conversation.” But I digress.)

The Post piece is a review of a recent book by Fred Kaplan on the literary works that shaped Lincoln, Jon Meacham’s a general round-up of reading executive habits that comes around to focus on McCain’s for Hemingway’s hero in For Whom the Bell Tolls and the fact that both candidates share a tragic sensibility; Meacham covered much the same ground in two NPR pieces this week, though the NPR pieces delved more deeply into the Obama and McCain autobiographies.

Both articles are worth a read, but the few extracts Jonathan Yardley quoted from the Lincoln book seemed particularly germane at this moment. First, Lincoln himself, writing in 1855:

“Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ' all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except Negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equals, except Negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.”

Then Kaplan himself, writing about Lincoln’s preparation through books:

"If intellectual readiness is everything, he was ready, as he well knew when he said goodbye to his Springfield world, having prepared himself over a lifetime to become a well-read master of the human narrative. If that narrative was to have its tragic dimension in Lincoln's failure, despite his talents, to prevent the South's secession, shorten the inevitable war, or alleviate Northern racism, it was to be an object lesson in the limitations of language rather than a failure in preparation. At the same time, the unfortunate givens of the narrative provided the context for his two greatest achievements, the Gettysburg Address and the second inaugural address, in which he did what great writers do: create useful texts from which readers can derive inspiration, literary pleasure, and universalizing direction."

Nice. In my moments of fear that the polls are wrong or that the Karl Rovian plotters are about to launch some massive smear campaign (“Obama Found Sharing Cup of Borscht in Gay Love Nest With Reverend Wright”) in these last hours, I console myself with this: Even if Obama doesn’t win, isn’t it nice that, either way, we’ll again have a president who reads?

I don’t know why, exactly, but this Donald Justice piece from his 2004 Collected Poems struck me as relevant, right now. It’s the last stanza in particular that seems, to me, to sum up this moment of great hope.

“There is a gold light in certain old paintings”


There is a gold light in certain old paintings
That represents a diffusion of sunlight.
It is like happiness, when we are happy.
It comes from everywhere and from nowhere at once, this light,
++++And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross
++++Share in its charity equally with the cross.


Orpheus hesitated beside the black river.
With so much to look forward to he looked back.
We think he sang then, but the song is lost.
At least he had seen once more the beloved back.
++++I say the song went this way: O prolong
++++Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong.


The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.
The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.
Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.
++++And all that we suffered through having existed
++++Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.