Archive for January, 2010

Webinar Vignettes – Part 7

Friday, January 29th, 2010

E. E. Cummings (1894-1962)

A painter, e. e. cummings was the first American poet to recognize that poetry had become primarily a visual, not an oral, art; his poems used much unusual spacing and indentation, as well as dropping all use of capital letters.

Like Williams, Cummings also used colloquial language, sharp imagery, and words from popular culture. Like Williams, he took creative liberties with layout. His poem “in Just ” (1920) invites the reader to fill in the missing ideas:

in Just —
Spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman
whistles far and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s

Webinar Vignettes – Part 6

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

William Carlos Williams was a practicing pediatrician throughout his life; he delivered more than 2,000 babies and wrote poems on his prescription pads. His sympathy for ordinary working people, children, and everyday events in modern urban settings make his poetry attractive and accessible. “The Red Wheelbarrow” (1923), like a Dutch still life, finds interest and beauty in everyday objects.

Williams cultivated a relaxed, natural poetry. In his hands, the poem was not to become a perfect object of art as in Stevens, or the carefully re-created nature scene as in Frost. Instead, the poem was to capture an instant of time like an unposed snapshot — a concept he derived from photographers and artists he met at galleries in New York City.

His epic, Paterson (five vols., 1946-58), celebrates his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, as seen by an autobiographical “Dr. Paterson.” Williams wrote this very unpretentious narrative poem to celebrate the ordinary. Like Whitman’s persona in Leaves of Grass, Dr. Paterson moves freely among the working people.

-late spring,
a Sunday afternoon!
– and goes by the footpath to the cliff (counting:
the proof)
himself among others
– treads there the same stones
on which their feet slip as they climb,
paced by their dogs!
laughing, calling to each other –
Wait for me!
(II, i, 14-23)

Webinar Vignettes – Part 5

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

Born in Pennsylvania, Wallace Stevens was educated at Harvard College and New York University Law School. He practiced law in New York City from 1904 to 1916, a time of great artistic and poetic activity there. On moving to Hartford, Connecticut, to become an insurance executive in 1916, he continued writing poetry.

Stevens’s poetry dwells upon themes of the imagination, the necessity for aesthetic form, and the belief that the order of art corresponds with an order in nature. His vocabulary is rich and various: He paints lush tropical scenes but also manages dry, humorous, and ironic vignettes.

Some of Stevens’s poems draw upon popular culture, while others poke fun at sophisticated society or soar into an intellectual heaven. He is known for his exuberant word play: “Soon, with a noise like tambourines / Came her attendant Byzantines.”

Stevens’s work is full of surprising insights. Sometimes he plays tricks on the reader, as in “Disillusionment of Ten O’clock” (1931):

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.

This poem seems to complain about unimaginative lives (plain white nightgowns), but actually conjures up vivid images in the reader’s mind. Stevens is not easy but well worth the effort.

Webinar Vignettes – Part 4

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Robert Lee Frost was born in California but raised on a farm in New England United States until the age of 10. The New England countryside became Frost’s favorite setting. A charismatic public reader, he was renowned for his tours. He read an original work at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961 that helped spark a national interest in poetry. His popularity is easy to explain: He wrote of traditional farm life, appealing to a nostalgia for the old ways. His themes were universal and immutable– apple picking, stone walls, fences, country roads. His subjects were ordinary people. He was one of the few modern poets who uses rhyme. This endeared him to American readers.

Frost’s work is often deceptively simple. Many poems suggest a deeper meaning. For example, a quiet snowy evening by an almost hypnotic rhyme scheme may suggest the not entirely unwelcome approach of death. Beneath the falling snow and gentle raindrops are pain and unhappiness. Some critics blame Frost’s bitterness on the early years of his marriage when he tried to make a living on an inhospitable New England farm. From: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (1923):

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweepOf easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Webinar Vignettes – Part 3

Monday, January 25th, 2010

T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)

T. S. Eliot was both an American and a British writer of unprecedented stature. He was the best! He lived on two continents but he belonged only to God . . .Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to a well- to-do family with roots in the northeastern United States. He received the best education of any major American writer of his generation at Harvard College, the Sorbonne, and Merton College of Oxford University. He studied Sanskrit and Oriental philosophy, which influenced his early poetry. Later, he became a born again Christian. Like his friend Pound, he went to England early and became a towering figure in the literary world there. One of the most respected poets of his day, his modernist, seemingly illogical or abstract iconoclastic poetry had revolutionary impact. He also wrote influential essays and dramas, and championed the importance of literary and social traditions for the modern poet.

The famous beginning of Eliot’s “Prufrock” invites the reader into tawdry alleys that, like modern life, offer no answers to the questions of life:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

Similar imagery pervades The Waste Land (1922), which echoes Dante’s Inferno to evoke London’s thronged streets around the time of World War I:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many
I had not thought death had undone so many… (I, 60-63)

The Waste Land’s vision is ultimately apocalyptic (i.e., end times) and worldwide:

Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria
Vienna London
Unreal (V, 373-377)

Webinar Vignettes – Part 2

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

The U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) between the industrial North and the agricultural, slave-owning South was a turning point in American history. The innocent optimism of the young nation gave way, after the war, to a period of exhaustion. Reconstruction grew out of this fatigue–it was as if the American political system was not going to try to solve its problems. Before the war, Idealists and Romantics championed human rights, especially the abolition of slavery; after the war, Americans increasingly idealized progress and the self-made man. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau remained as icons of inevitable American progress. However, many philosophical changes were in the air. This was the era of the millionaire manufacturer and the speculator, robber barons and trust busters, when Darwinian evolution and the “survival of the fittest” seemed to sanction the sometimes unethical methods of the successful business tycoon. Naturalism grew naturally out of the fertile ground of social Darwinism. This so-called “Gilded Age,” a term coined by Mark Twain, was an age of thoughtless excess.

Business boomed after the war. The new intercontinental rail system, inaugurated in 1869, and the transcontinental telegraph, which began operating in 1861, gave industry access to materials, markets, and communications. The constant influx of immigrants provided a seemingly endless supply of inexpensive labor as well. More than 23 million foreigners — German, Scandinavian, and Irish in the early years, and increasingly Central and Southern Europeans thereafter — flowed into the United States between 1860 and 1910. American business interests imported Asian contract laborers on the West Coast. This created tensions that remain in America even today. In 1860, most Americans lived on farms or in small villages, but by 1919 half the population was concentrated in about twelve cities. Problems of urbanization and industrialization appeared. From 1860 to 1914, the United States changed from a small, young, agricultural country to a huge, modern, industrial nation.

America, however, was full of problems. The differences among people groups were immense and growing larger. It was to this world that men like Stephen Crane wrote. He attacked social problems. American literature openly discussed significant social problems. Previously American fiction was entertaining and didactic, but not evaluative. Characteristic American novels of the period Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Jack London’s Martin Eden, and later Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy depict the damage of economic forces and alienation of the vulnerable individual. Survivors, like Twain’s Huck Finn, Humphrey Vanderveyden in London’s The Sea-Wolf, Hemingway’s Frederick Henry in A Farewell to Arms, and Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, endure through inner strength and, above all, individuality. No longer is there a hint in American literature that there is a loving, caring God. The world that Anne Bradstreet knew is dead . . . Research the Gilded Age and write a three page explanatory essay on this important era.

A particularly popular writer of the Gilded Age social history was Sinclair Lewis. Lewis brought late 19th Century Americans into the small towns and bedrooms of American homes all over the land. Why not read one of his books?

Webinar Vignettes

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Peter will return soon with the end of his marriage saga–It promises to be interesting.

Meanwhile, I want to offer a few vignettes from my webinars. The first is re: The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane.

This impressive novel is one of the few unchallenged classics of modern American literature. Stephen Crane’s immense talent is everywhere evident in his great work. This is not to say, though, that Crane’s vision is correct. No, Crane’s novel is full of Naturalism–a germinating and menacing world view still spreading across America. The Naturalistic stories and novels of Stephen Crane truly mark the maturation of modernity. Major revealing features of modernity are an unrestrained, individual freedom–the goal of which is to liberate one from all restrictions, constraints, traditions, and all social patterning–all of which are ipso facto presumed to be dehumanizing. Modernity has a contempt for other viewpoints. Ironically in its nihilistic pursuit of tolerance it becomes intolerant! Modernity is reductionist Naturalism. What does the word “reductionist” mean? Yes, Crane’s works are wholly modern in both philosophy and technique. While remnants of Romanticism may be found in the poems of Dickinson and Whitman, and some in Melville, none remains in Crane. At one point Henry faces death and “he had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.” The man Crane and his contemporaries create is not the man created in the image of God, the man who is precious and vital, but a man in a mob, a man who has no future. Crane offers his reader no salvation, no hope. Crane only validates the now, the sensory touch, the empirical.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, by the way, Many historians argue that we are in a post-modern era. Now, many Americans are suspicious of science and any authority. This viewpoint has as a central credo: “Anything goes if I believe it sincerely.” Stephen Crane brought us well along on this slippery trail.

In the scheme of things The Red Badge of Courage and Naturalism ushered in a new philosophical era. It was one of the genuinely new cultural events in American history. It was not to be the last.

Rutherford, Wilson & Peter continued

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

After thanksgiving Rutherford, Wilson, and I decided to share a press of coffee in quaint Davis Square, Cambridge, MA. Listening to my two friends’ places in life, how different their situations are, but based on the same problem: they don’t know what they want, and they are not alone.

What I’ve discovered is there is an alarming number of people who are getting divorced from their straight-out-of-college spouses, are unable to commit to someone special, or are getting engaged to someone whom loves them but they don’t love. The decision of marriage is a symptom from the font line of the wasteland, America.

Rutherford has fabricated an ideal woman, piece-mealed from the movie Princess Bride and artist Bob Dylan, to compare every girl to. This is his standard to compare Tela also. For Rutherford to love Tela for who she is would be a compromise and would mean he was not living life to the fullest. I question him on this, and he says, “Well, I just don’t really know what I want.”

Wilson is caught in a web where he thinks marriage is simply the next step and he has no idea what he is looking for. He can fall in love with a million women and since Esther is here, why not? She is no different than any of the other girls. I question him on this, and like Rutherford, he replies “Well, I just don’t know really know what I want.” I wonder if the reason they don’t know what they are looking for is because there is something missing in their foundational thinking. Which makes me glad I met my future wife . . .


Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Wilson’s girlfriend was Esther. Unlike Wilson’s truthful buildings, Esther was an innocent imp. Have you ever burned the roof of your mouth on scalding pizza? The pain would go away if you could just stop tonguing the wound. Esther is that wound. She walks into the room and people dive for cover. Her idea of conflict resolution with Wilson was a slammed car door, turned off cell phone, and/or slashing comments. But this made no difference to Wilson.

The beast, love, began to tow; and Wilson longed for the jaws of this ride to close around him like a coffin of security. Commitment to him was another building to find himself in. Here, in the present, loving Esther was a brick, another piece as good as the next to mold a truth that his reality can adapt to.

All his life he found solace in the direction his work took him. Design after design he drafted, each, reflected the truth of who he was so intimately. They provided him with tangible evidence of his worth to offer as a sacrifice to up others, to Esther. Upon his shoulders he bore the responsibility to design and erect this institution of matrimony. After all, everything depends on a white wedding dress, glazed with joyful teardrops, inside the stone church.

Wilson’s life was surrendered to constructing wonder out of the ordinary materials within his reach. He had the right tools. No worries. One material was Church. There in the pews, he meditated on the precise elements to his and Esther’s relationship. Slogging through marriage books, he discovered more passageways to his self-consciousness. Peering into his favorite art by Jackson Pollock, he sought justification for rejecting reason. Esther was as random as a thrown paint-soaked brush, dripping, splashing onto to his canvas. He must learn to accept her for who she is, that is love. He would have been better off if he reread the book of Ephesians.

After one particularly violent encounter with Esther, he grinned at me and said, “A gentleman can live through anything.” But in his eyes this was not what he wanted. In his shoulder’s you could make out the tense unspoken words buried deep in his sinews.

His truth came from his constructions; he could always form his reality around an edifice. The driving force behind all his work was a clear sense of knowing what he wanted. Standing at the base of the Cathedral of Learning, Wilson began to fall apart. Peering up, he knew what he wanted from this building, it was simple: the answers came from within him.

Thinking of Esther, he searched inside himself and was left wanting for answers. Marriage, this institution, was a structure whose roof was mortality. The consequences of committing were too great for him to sustain alone. His work had never asked him to look beyond the tip of a steeple for meaning. Now, he strained to see where the steeple was pointing and saw nothing.

Directionless. Pointless. Unsure of what he wanted from marriage, Wilson surrendered to the beast. He left the cathedral mumbling, “There will be time, to prepare a face to meet the faces that I’ll meet.”

Ring shopping, not out of aspiration, but an apathetic stride. Consequences, commitment, had smudged his view of the world with a yellow fog. A cruel woman intruded into his neat spatial drama, coming and going, jawing of Michelangelo, and pinning him wriggling to the wall.

Just before he proposed, he texted me, saying:

“Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”-T. S. Eliot

Rutherford, Wilson, & Peter

Monday, January 11th, 2010

My next friend, Wilson, is quite the polar opposite of Rutherford. An ambitious architect for a well-respected firm in D.C. Wilson quietly dedicates himself to his work, church, and friends with a dutiful reverence. Growing up alongside him was at times exhausting. Though he accomplished his work to perfection at a fervid pace, his “to do” list never seemed to conclude. Keeping up at this pace would have buried me long ago.

“The only thing a man can do for eight hours is work.”- William Faulkner

Rutherford, Wilson, and I used to sneak into the Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh to talk about life. Rutherford would blather about a Bennie Maupin’s role as an influential jazz mutireedist. I would be staring out over the city, watching the sun’s rays play among the tall buildings. Wilson, he would be staring down at the structure of the building, muttering what he would change about its design. His eyes revealed the intensity he felt when surveying the minute details of the painstaking work it took to erect such a majestic object.

Looking back, it was days like sitting in the cathedral that he knew he wanted to become an architect. With a jolt, he would come alive with his own ideas, scratching diagrams and images. Utilizing an arsenal of modern techniques and materials, he would demolish purposeless fluff, added to buildings for popular style’s sake, to pragmatically create a new beauty that worshiped avant-garde efficiency.

Being encased in stone and metal, organized and purposefully place, gave him the sense of right. Buildings to him were like a perfect finger pointing to God in a magnificent display of disciplined work. While most people loved reading in parks, Wilson preferred to read in breathtaking buildings. He always felt more alive, more real, more good, sitting in buildings reading or doing his work. He said once to me, with a wink, “Peter, read Hemingway in a well planned building and truth will fall from its rafters.” Thoughts, for Wilson, were only as clear the spatial drama in his sketches of floor plans.