Previous month:
June 2018
Next month:
August 2018

July 2018

Sunday Night Journal, July 29, 2018

I once had the ambition of being well-read. I mean really well-read--having read all the major books of the Western tradition, and the more important ones more than once, and being fairly intimate with the most important. Even after I got too far along in a life occupied with other things to have any hope of achieving that state of well-read-ness, I still had this idea that if or when I ever had significant leisure I would take up the effort again and perhaps even achieve what, if I remember correctly, Lewis called the state of being half-educated: having read the great books once. But now I've given up even on that. I have more free time than I've ever had, but it still doesn't seem enough, and I'm going to turn 70 this fall.

I decided to give up not only that plan but any plan at all in my reading, and just follow my nose: to read what I want to read, with the proviso that I limit the amount of relatively lightweight fiction (murder mysteries and such) in my diet. That's how I came to be reading Moby Dick. For several months I had had an odd yen to read it--to read it again, actually, as I had read it in high school or maybe college, but didn't remember it very well. Also when I was ten or twelve I had seen the John Huston movie, with Gregory Peck as Ahab, which I think at least gets the basic plot right (and which I'd like to see again), and it had made a big impression on me. So one day a few weeks ago I picked it up. 

Well. This is a great book, by which I mean a Great Book. It's so great that I'm almost at a loss for words, and I certainly can't expect to do it any sort of justice in a blog post, so I'll try not to try, and just mention a few of the things that most struck me about it.

First of all is the prose. It's wonderful. It's majestic, sardonic, somber, thunderous, learned,'s everything. The best prose ever written by an American? Can't think of a rival, offhand. The comparison that comes to mind is not any other novelist but Shakespeare. 

It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that I enjoyed every word of this book--only a pedantic hesitation about the word "every" stops me. I admit I did expect that there would be at least a bit of a sense of performing a chore in reading it, but I didn't find that to be true at all. I was captivated and if I'd been free to do nothing but read would probably have finished it in a few days.

That's not because it's such a gripping narrative. It starts out that way, and it ends that way, but for a couple of hundred pages (at least) the narrative more or less pauses and we get a series of meditations prompted by this or that feature of whales and whaling. I think many or most people who read it don't like this, and see the whaling lore as an interruption or digression, and moreover as somewhat tedious. Or, for some, very tedious.

But I didn't find it so, and I think that to consider these as distractions misses a major part of the book's greatness. It's not just a novel. In fact maybe it should not be described as a novel at all, but as a meditative poem. Yes, it's prose, and it does include a powerful story. And yes those digressions, which comprise more of the book than the story proper, are really not digressions at all, if you stop thinking of the book as a novel in the usual sense. They do go into a lot of detail that one might reasonably find uninteresting--I did not, but I can understand that some might. But they don't stop there. Almost every one of these little chapters dealing with some specific detail such as the whale's tail is in the end a little homily. Melville jumps off from the matter at hand to draw some lesson of psychology or ethics or metaphysics. That one in particular is typical: it ends with Ishmael admitting that he does not really know the tail very well:

But if I know not even the tail of this whale, how understand his head? much more, how comprehend his face, when face he has none? Thou shalt see my back parts, my tail, he seems to say, but my face shall not be seen. But I cannot completely make out his back parts, and hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face.

See Exodus 33:19-23, in case your memory needs jogging. It's that constant widening of scope from the mundane to the cosmic that makes Moby Dick more than a great novel. I think Clifton Fadiman is right in the introduction to the edition I read: it's one of the world's great books. It's in the class with Shakespeare, with Dante, with Sophocles--even with the Bible considered as a penetrating look into the depths of the human condition. 

Eliot says in some critical essay or other that the mythic character of Huckleberry Finn is all the more powerful for being unstated and possibly unconscious. That's true, but Melville proves that there's more than one way to construct a potent symbol. The story of Ahab and the white whale could be written in a Hemingway-ish sort of way, all show and no tell, and it would be very powerful. But Melville doesn't hesitate to pour on the explicit philosophizing, and that works, too. 

The matter of that philosophizing is decidedly post-Christian. Maybe it's existential, I don't know enough philosophy to say. But the whale embodies all the incomprehensible and indifferent forces of the cosmos against which man contends and rages hopelessly, in the person of Captain Ahab. The book is soaked in the Christian tradition, and specifically in the King James Bible. It feels like the Protestant tradition, even apart from the KJV influence, though I don't know anything about what Melville himself believed. It seems the voice of someone who knows the faith but can no longer believe. I'm sure scholars have cataloged all the many biblical allusions in the book. In a sly sort of way they are often brought in to suggest questions: "is this really the work of an omnipotent and benevolent God?" But it seems to me that there's more of awe than bitterness in it. The summoning of that awe is also part of the reason for the "digressions": many or most of them are devoted to illuminating the size and power of the whale. 

Well, I have to stop. Maybe I'll write a full-blown essay about Moby Dick. Though I suppose I should first read what others have said.

Oh, one more thing: Moby Dick is generally credited with having one of the great opening sentences. You probably know it: "Call me Ishmael." But it also has one of the great closing sentences. Those who have read the book probably know what I mean. Those who haven't I'll leave to discover it for themselves.


A few nights ago I dreamed that the end of the world was imminent. The setting of the dream seemed to have been borrowed from my visit to Belfast Castle, which is not really a castle but a 19th century estate with beautiful grounds. There were a great many people there, and I seemed to know a lot of them. We sat or walked among the gardens and patios waiting for the end. We all seemed to be Christians and although it was not said that this was the Second Coming that seemed to be the expectation. There was some anxiety but no panic. 

There was a major annoyance, though, for me. There was a guy who was determined to have a theological argument. I kept trying to deflect it but he was persistent. I don't remember what it was about. I'm not even sure that was clear in the dream. I just remember that it seemed ridiculous to be talking about it under those circumstances. I was saying something like "Come on, man, just let it go. We're about to encounter the reality. Those questions won't matter anymore." It was a wonderful feeling.


Speaking of dreams: Is it an omen if a Nash Metropolitan appears in your dream? Actually two Nash Metropolitans? If so, what does it mean?


Neither waving nor drowning.


52 Poems, Week 30: The Horses (Edwin Muir)


Barely a twelvemonth after
The seven days war that put the world to sleep,
Late in the evening the strange horses came.
By then we had made our covenant with silence,
But in the first few days it was so still
We listened to our breathing and were afraid.
On the second day
The radios failed; we turned the knobs, no answer.
On the third day a warship passed us, headed north,
Dead bodies piled on the deck. On the sixth day
A plane plunged over us into the sea. Thereafter
Nothing. The radios dumb;
And still they stand in corners of our kitchens,
And stand, perhaps, turned on, in a million rooms
All over the world. But now if they should speak,
If on a sudden they should speak again,
If on the stroke of noon a voice should speak,
We would not listen, we would not let it bring
That old bad world that swallowed its children quick
At one great gulp. We would not have it again.
Sometimes we think of the nations lying asleep,
Curled blindly in impenetrable sorrow,
And then the thought confounds us with its strangeness.

The tractors lie about our fields; at evening
They look like dank sea-monsters crouched and waiting.
We leave them where they are and let them rust:
"They'll molder away and be like other loam."
We make our oxen drag our rusty plows,
Long laid aside. We have gone back
Far past our fathers' land.
And then, that evening
Late in the summer the strange horses came.
We heard a distant tapping on the road,
A deepening drumming; it stopped, went on again
And at the corner changed to hollow thunder.
We saw the heads
Like a wild wave charging and were afraid.
We had sold our horses in our fathers' time
To buy new tractors. Now they were strange to us
As fabulous steeds set on an ancient shield
Or illustrations in a book of knights.
We did not dare go near them. Yet they waited,
Stubborn and shy, as if they had been sent
By an old command to find our whereabouts
And that long-lost archaic companionship.
In the first moment we had never a thought
That they were creatures to be owned and used.
Among them were some half a dozen colts
Dropped in some wilderness of the broken world,
Yet new as if they had come from their own Eden.
Since then they have pulled our plows and borne our loads,
But that free servitude still can pierce our hearts.
Our life is changed; their coming our beginning.


Leafing through Sound and Sense I've come across several poems that I had read back in freshman English, fifty years ago, and since forgotten. And I was very happy to rediscover them. This is not one of them; this is one I never forgot.

Edwin Muir is not a widely known poet, and I've never read much of his work. In fact two or three poems in another anthology are the whole of it. Several times over the years, thinking of this poem, I've looked for a collection, but anything I found was out of print and quite expensive. Looking for the text online, to save myself the trouble of typing it in, I found it posted at Slate and read by Robert Pinsky, who describes Muir as "a mysteriously neglected, gorgeous, and emotionally penetrating poet." I think I'll check again to see if there's a book available...yes, there are used copies of Selected Poems (edited by T.S. Eliot!) available for less than $5 at ABE Books.

Anyway, I think this is a terrific poem in every way. Stylistically it makes me think of some of Frost's blank verse narrative poems. It does more with the theme of nuclear apocalypse than any number of movies and novels. 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Sunday Night Journal, July 22, 2018

There's a remark from Chesterton that I see quoted from time to time, something to the effect that the doctrine of original sin, i.e. the intrinsically defective nature of man, is the only one of the Church's teachings that is provable by observation...I think that's the idea. I've been thinking of a sort of converse: that one notion widely held in the modern world is disproven by the same observation. I mean the idea that people are born innocent and good, then corrupted and damaged by "society," and the "conditioning" which it imposes. I started to call this a dogma or doctrine, but it's not really that explicit or, well, dogmatic--it's more just a vague presupposition. 

At any rate, it's hard to see how anyone can be around children very much at all and still hold that idea. I remember my daughter, mother of two young sons, laughing about a woman watching some small children who happened to be playing nicely at the moment, cooing that "It would be so wonderful if we could always be so sweet and innocent." My daughter certainly has cause to laugh. Those two grandsons, ages now six and eight, stay with us a lot in the summer when school's out, and they provide frequent illustrations of the point. They are delightful: full of wonder and curiosity, beautiful, bright, clever, funny, energetic to say the least--all the things that are so appealing to us in children--and I love them massively. But they can also be quite appallingly selfish, dishonest, and abruptly violent when one of them torments the other past a certain point of endurance. Often these episodes of badness are funny, but that's only because they're so small, transparent, usually more or less harmless, and quickly over.

The boys are also, like most children, very quick to grasp the concept of legalism and see its uses:

I told you not to push his head under water!

I didn't, I pulled him.

Nobody had to teach him that stuff. And no theological or scientific framework is needed to prove the fact.


A few weeks ago I mentioned John Courtney Murray's We Hold These Truths, saying that what I (not having read the book) take to be Murray's contention, that the American ideal of religious pluralism and Catholic faith are not fundamentally incompatible and are able to co-exist, is no longer viable. Maybe it's not just Catholicism but serious Protestantism as well. (Oh wait--it was not a few weeks ago, it was two months ago.) Anyway, as it happens, the book was on the list of those that Janet is reading at her Reading My Library blog, and she has now read and reviewed it. Here's a direct link to the post, in case you're reading this after it's no longer the first one. I am going to resist snagging one passage that she quotes from the book and that seems to me an excellent description of the situation we're in now, which Murray at the time (1960) seems to have thought we were luckily not in. I'm resisting it because it's better for you to read the whole review. Maybe it's better to read the whole book, I don't know--I probably won't, for sheer lack of time. 

But I will repeat what I keep saying, feeling very Cassandra-like: our political factions are playing with fire in their desire to crush each other. 


Another LP from the closet: Joni Mitchell's The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Joni Mitchell has been for me one of those artists whom I admire more than like. I had a discussion with someone on Facebook a while back about Steely Dan, of whom I could say the same thing. The other person argued that SD's work is of extremely high quality, and he was right, it is. But for whatever reason of personal taste I've never really liked them all that much. The same is true of some (much?) of Joni Mitchell's work.

I wrote about her album Blue in the very early days of this blog, when it was still on Blogger. I was going to link to it, but it doesn't seem to be here. I've suspected before that some of those posts didn't make it through the Blogger-to-Typepad migration. Fortunately I have a backup of the old site. The review is short, so I'll just paste it in here:

This is a great album. So why don't I like it better?

Let's get that question out of the way first. The fundamental problem is that the personality that emerges from Joni Mitchell's recordings is somewhat off-putting to me. She comes across as the sort of sensitive romantic who's very conscious of her own sensitivity and romanticism and wants you to be as taken with it as she is. And then, on the immediate sensory level, there's her voice, which is very versatile and sensitive but just isn't to my taste--it doesn't touch me emotionally, and there's nothing I can do about that.

Nevertheless, setting those personal quirks of taste to one side as far as possible, I very much see why critics use terms like "landmark" and "watershed" to describe Blue. It's just plain brilliant. The flow of inventive melody never stops, and Mitchell's perfectly controlled voice negotiates their range and complexity effortlessly. And while the lyrics are of a confessional nature that's not to my taste (and they lapse into occasional hippie-isms that now sound dated), they're coherent, articulate, and elegantly and seamlessly wedded to the tunes. The spare acoustic arrangements are beautiful, the touches of backup singing always perfectly placed. To reverse Dorothy Parker's famous remark, for those who don't like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like anyway. I have to call it a classic in spite of myself, some kind of Platonic ideal of the female singer-songwriter genre.

The Hissing of Summer Lawns, on the other hand, is also a great album. And I really like it. I remember hearing it a few times when it came out (1976) and thinking that it seemed interesting. But I didn't buy it--the copy I have is a used one and a fairly recent acquisition--and I don't think I'd ever given it a close listen till now. I'm not sure why I like it better than Blue. If I attempt to be somewhat objective, I can't say one is of higher musical and lyrical quality than the other. 

Part of my preference is for the general musical style of Lawns. She has a backing band here, and they're mostly jazz musicians. They're really good technically, of course, and that's not necessarily a good thing in pop music--that is, it may just mean that the result is too slick for a genre where directness of expression is very important. But that's not the case here; the unconventional and complex nature of her compositions is well-suited to jazz players. This was apparently the beginning of Joni Mitchell's foray into jazz or jazz-like music, and I think it really works. There aren't that many catchy tunes here, but there's a lot of substance, a lot of interesting detail.  

I also find it more interesting lyrically than Blue. There's less of a focus on her and her personal relationships, and more of a look at the broader world. Several of the songs, including the title song, examine the situation of women who have bargained for security and maybe wealth at the expense of some degree of self-respect and independence. That sort of thing can be (often is) treated in a dull ideological sort of way, but these portraits are specific, sympathetic without being sentimental, and very skilfully drawn. The lyrics are so good that one critic at the time of the album's release, not caring much for the music, said that it made for better reading than listening. 

It was somewhere toward the end of the second side, even as I was thinking how much I liked it, that I realized that it reminded me of...Steely Dan. There's no accounting for tastes, even one's own.

Here is a strange and atypical track called "The Jungle Line." It's only Mitchell on synthesizer, with a recording of African drums as the rhythm track. It's Henri Rousseau meets urban America, the persistence of the primitive under the machinery of modern life. The picture on the album (also Mitchell's work) captures the feel and idea of it perfectly.  


The Babylon Bee, as you probably know, is a Christian satire site which is often quite funny. I liked this piece: "Senator Ben Sasse Offered One Last Chance To Bow To Towering Trump Statue Before Being Thrown Into Fiery Furnace".  


Two more Belfast pictures. These two girls were busking in a shopping area in the city center. (Unlike most American cities of its size, Belfast seemed, from my brief impression, not to follow the decaying center + suburbs pattern.) They were playing rock-and-roll, with guitar, bass, and a drum machine, and they both sang. I heard them before I saw them. I couldn't place the song. I kept thinking "what is that?'s so familiar...what is it?" And finally realized it was Black Sabbath's "Paranoid". They were quite good, and I have to say the harmonized female vocals were actually an improvement on Ozzy's squawk. I didn't manage to get a picture without pedestrians in the way. I would have given them something but I didn't have any of that foreign money on me.

ParanoidA fairly ordinary-looking building, right?


But when you look closely at the triangle at the top:

TruthWellToldIn case you can't read it, that says "Truth Well Told." I'm making that my motto. 

52 Poems, Week 29: Naming of Parts (Henry Reed)


Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all the neighboring gardens,
    And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
    Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
    Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
    They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
    For today we have naming of parts.


Henry Reed could perhaps also be described, like Stevie Smith, as a one-hit wonder as far as his general reputation is concerned. In addition, his name is similar to that of the better-known Sir Herbert Read, who sometimes gets credit for this poem. In fact it was the latter name I had in mind when I went looking for information on the poem and the poet, which caused me a couple of minutes' confusion. 

I probably wouldn't know of the existence of this poem if it wasn't in the Sound and Sense anthology/textbook which I used in freshman English fifty years ago and which is still in print, I hope not too much deformed by recent academic fashion. "Naming of Parts" is one of a set of poems about Reed's experience as a British Army recruit in World War II. I am a little embarrassed and a lot surprised to find that I had completely forgotten about another poem from the set which is also in Sound and Sense and which is just as good: "Judging Distances." 

...the point of balance
Which in our case we have not got.


—Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Sunday Night Journal, July 15, 2018

(This post is mostly photos and may be slow to load. I hope it's worth it.)

I mentioned last week that I was traveling. Where I was traveling to was Belfast. Why I was there is a longish story. It was a family get-together, and I have this odd reticence about saying anything very specific on the public web about my children and their children, so never mind the details. Suffice to say that my wife and I were hosted by a native couple, were treated royally, and had a great time. The weather was beautiful, and apparently atypical: it was either sunny or partly cloudy, and I heard people use the term "heat wave," which meant temperatures that almost touched 80F. Really.

And I took some pictures. It's an idiosyncratic travelogue, featuring not necessarily what was best or most important, but what I happened to have the inclination and opportunity to take a snapshot of.

This is a view from the front porch (I think--and I doubt that's the right word) of Castle Ward. I'm not sure how far the domain extends--at minimum to the water's edge, behind and below the trees. I think that promontory in the left middle distance is also part of it. 

CastleWardViewWe got there too late to tour the house itself. I would not have called it a castle, at least not the main house, which was built in the 18th century, and looks it. But the estate as a whole includes structures, too many and too large to be adequately described as outbuildings, which look medieval. Some of these are used as sets for Game of Thrones (which I have not seen). Surely the Clock Tower is one of them.


If you deduce that I did not take this picture, you're correct.

Walking down to the water from the house I saw this very impressive and perhaps just a bit creepy old tree. Does anybody know what kind it is? I don't recognize the leaves at all, and have never seen such a gnarled trunk. I think it was a good four feet in diameter.

CastleWardGnarledTreeWhite Park Bay is on the northern coast, maybe 40 miles or so north of Belfast. It's at the foot of a hill which I'm going to guess is 150 feet high. That is just a guess, though. This is a view from the top of the path leading down to the beach.

WhiteParkBayNot too far away is the famous Giant's Causeway, with its strange basalt columns.

GiantsCausewayWaves GiantsCausewayCloseup

You can walk out on a sort of promontory comprised of these columns. (Actually I think the formation goes on for a mile or more along the shoreline--we only saw one part of it.) This is a view from the tip of that promontory looking back toward the mainland. There's something kind of intriguingly ominous about this image.

GiantsCausewayPilgrimsI suppose it happens at least once a week or so on a certain Belfast street  that a car stops abruptly and a tourist jumps out to take a picture like this. I am leaving the finger in as indicative of the excitement of the moment. 


For many years when I listened to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks I thought he was singing about "Cypress Avenue," and never noticed that the title of the song is actually "Cyprus Avenue." It was fairly recently that I discovered this ("fairly recently" for me meaning "in the last ten or fifteen years"), and I was disappointed. Cypress Avenue sounds like a beautiful place; Cyprus Avenue does not. But actually it looks like a lovely place.

CyprusAvenueAnd I'm caught one more time

And speaking of Van, I spotted this mural on the side of a building:

BelfastMuralThat's him in the upper left, of course. Below him is Garry Moore, who is not all that well known in the U.S. I'm guessing that the soccer ("football") player in the upper right is George Best, for whom the airport is named. I don't recognize anyone else, though no doubt I would recognize the name of the guitarist at the bottom.

One day we drove south from Belfast along Strangford Lough ("Loch"), crossed its southern end at Portaferry, and drove back up the northeastern coast. Those little coastal farms and towns are about as close to an idyllic and ideal landscape as I can imagine. Unfortunately I didn't take any good photos on that drive. What I found especially captivating (and my wife felt the same) was the way the farmlands run right down almost to the water's edge. 

And yet: no place on earth is idyllic, really. The shadow of the Troubles still falls on Belfast and the little towns round about. One of the beautiful little towns we drove through on our northward outing was Ballymoney. Leafing through a newspaper on Sunday morning, I read a story about the current doings of a man who had been involved in the incendiary bombing of a home there which took the lives of three little boys. You don't have to look very hard for signs that tensions still simmer, in spite of the peace agreement of 1998. We left on the morning of July 12, not realizing when we planned the trip that "The Twelfth" is a very significant day and a frequent occasion of violence. That night there was some--burning of cars and the like--though happily it was relatively minor.

Being the alarmist and pessimist that I am, I couldn't help thinking about the relevance of Northern Ireland's conflict to the current one in the U.S. I hear more and more talk about the possibility of civil war here, of the culture war turning into actual war, or of an attempt to divide the country, which could certainly lead to violence. It's not serious, in that no one except for perhaps a very very few fanatics is really preparing for violence. And our antagonisms don't have the historical causes and intensity of Ireland's. But it would be foolish to deny that it's possible. After all, as some '60s radical said, violence is as American as apple pie. It's not as if we haven't already demonstrated that we're capable of civil war. 

The possibility is sometimes dismissed because the opposing sides in our culture war are not clearly separable by geography, as in the War Between the States, or easily identifiable by ethnicity. But the Troubles demonstrate that those are not necessary. All you need is a pair of enemies and the belief on each side that the other is a serious threat to its welfare and perhaps to its existence. There are still "peace walls" separating Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in parts of Belfast. (It's always seemed to me that it's misleading to think of this as a religious conflict: religion serves as a differentiating mark, certainly, but it's not about religion; they aren't fighting about doctrine.) We ought to be uneasy when we hear our fellow citizens declare that they don't want their political opponents as neighbors. We ought to be downright frightened at the level of political and cultural hate that is so frequently on display. If you think this kind of fury can go on indefinitely without expressing itself in deeds you don't know much about mankind.

Ok, enough of that. There is a place on the northern coast called Corrymeela which is an ecumenical Christian community devoted to peace and reconciliation. These peaceful waters are seen from there. 


52 Poems, Week 28: Not Waving but Drowning (Stevie Smith)


Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.


If Stevie Smith were a band, she would be considered a one-hit wonder, and this poem the one hit. Anyone who's read much 20th century poetry has probably encountered it. It makes a good many appearances in anthologies. But as with many bands known to the public for only one hit song, there is a great deal more to her work. I haven't read much more of it than this, but from what little I have read I'd say it's not unusual: sharp, dispassionate, dark, somewhat or more than somewhat bitter. As it happens I recently read several others in an anthology I re-discovered (of which more in another post). There's one relatively long one which is sort of a mock letter which seems to contain nothing but very mundane sentences from a letter, but which somehow ends up having an odd and powerful punch. I'm thinking I may order her Selected Poems.

She seems to have had her career mostly outside of the literary-academic world. You can read more about her here, at the Poetry Foundation (which is a great site), and at her Wikipedia page. I note with interest that there is a film based on her life in which Glenda Jackson plays her. That seems just about perfect. You can read several more of her poems at the Poetry Foundation page. 

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Sunday Night Journal, July 8, 2018

I'm going to be traveling this weekend, so am scheduling this post ahead of time. I don't have time to write anything much so have invited Dorothy L. Sayers to provide a guest post. This is from her little book Creed or Chaos? It's a collection of essays on faith-related topics, mostly or maybe all written during World War II, some given as talks. It's very C.S.-Lewis-ish and is not diminished by the comparison. I've had it sitting around for years and read it in short bits over the past several weeks. This is from "Why Work?" 

The popular catch-phrase of today is that it is everybody's duty to serve the community. It is a well-sounding phrase, but there is a catch in it. It is the old catch about the two great commandments. "Love God--and your neighbor; on those two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets."

The catch in it, which nowadays the world has largely forgotten, is that the second commandment depends upon the first, and that without the first, it is a delusion and a snare. Much of our present trouble and disillusionment have come from putting the second commandment before the first.

If we put our neighbor first, we are putting man above God, and that is what we have been doing ever since we began to worship humanity and make man the measure of all things. Whenever man is made the center of things, he becomes the storm center of trouble--and that is precisely the catch about serving the community. It ought perhaps to make us suspicious of the phrase when we consider that it is the slogan of every commercial scoundrel and swindler who wants to make sharp business practice pass muster as social improvement.

"Service" is the motto of the advertiser, of big business, and of fraudulent finance.

Not to mention politicians. "I have dedicated my life to public service." Desire for power, prestige, money, and the general extension of my ego into the world had nothing to do with it. 

Sayers is talking about the world at large, not the Church, but she's describing the basic error of the attempt to reduce Christianity to humanitarianism, or to justify its existence primarily because of its good works. 

52 Poems, Week 27: Musée des Beaux Arts (W.H. Auden)


About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster: the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.


Auden is a poet whom I don't think I've ever gotten to know as well as I should. That's partly a result of having kept a little Modern Library Selected Poetry of W.H. Auden on my bedside table for a long time, thus reading it only when I was sleepy, thus neglecting or not grasping the longer or difficult poems. The selection was made by Auden himself in the late '50s, and includes 100 poems. His Collected runs over 900 pages and I don't know how much good work may be missing from the Selected. I've sometimes wondered why one of his most famous poems, "September 1, 1939", is not included in the latter, and found to my surprise that Auden had disavowed it and mostly refused to allow it to be reprinted. (See Wikipedia.)

Anyway, this is another of the Poems That Often Come To My Mind. Especially those last two lines. This is the picture that Auden is referring to.

1200px-Pieter_Bruegel_de_Oude_-_De_val_van_IcarusWeb Gallery of Art, The Bridgeman Art Library, Object 3675, Public Domain

The poem's Wikipedia page has information on two other paintings that may have suggested the images in the first part of the poem, which clearly don't refer to the Icarus painting.

 --Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Sunday Night Journal, July 1, 2018

My LPs are in a closet with two sets of shelves, each six feet or so tall.. The closet has folding doors in a frame about four feet wide, and one set of shelves is against the back wall there. When you open the doors, you're looking at those shelves, and can easily reach them. All the classical LPs are in it. In other words, the classical LPs are readily accessible.

The other shelves are to the right of the doors, against the side wall and set back a foot or so. All the non-classical LPs are on them. Between those shelves and the others are a lot of hanging clothes, mostly coats and sweaters. You have to move the clothes out of the way to see the shelves, and maybe take some of the clothes out to actually reach the albums. In other words, the non-classical LPs are not readily accessible. 

Several months ago I took all the clothes out of that side of the closet and picked out several dozen LPs from the non-classical shelf and put them on a bookshelf out in the room. Some of them were familiar ones that I haven't heard for thirty years or more and wanted to hear again. Some, I'm embarrassed to say, I've never heard--I picked them up for fifty cents or a dollar at Goodwill or somewhere over the past twenty years or so, between the time people started discarding their LPs in favor of CDs and the time vinyl started coming back into fashion. I only stopped doing that when I ran out of shelf space and promised my wife I wouldn't expand any further. I'm now working my way through this group I've extracted from the closet. When I'm done with them I'll swap them for another bunch.

It may very well have been more than forty-five years since I last heard The Mothers of Invention's Absolutely Free. I can't recall having listened to it any time after 1970 or so. Back then I thought of Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention as basically a comedy outfit, and thought they were very funny. A bit later when people had begun to make much of Zappa's music as music and the Mothers had officially broken up, I lost interest, a condition in which I remained for many years. In the late 1980s I let a co-worker who liked that sort of thing borrow my copy of the first MoI album, Freak Out (1966), and never got it back. I regret that. Apart from the fact that there are several interesting tracks on the album, the physical object was a sort of curio.

At the age of roughly twenty I thought their second album, Absolutely Free (1967) was very funny. The album cover includes an address to which you can send $1.00 for a copy of the the "libretto," i.e. the lyrics and spoken bits, which Verve records refused to include with the album. I never did that, apparently, which is just a bit surprising. Not surprisingly, it can now be found online, and you can view the whole thing in what I take to be something close to a facsimile here

FRANK: (I hear the sound of marching feet...down SUNSET
       BLVD. to CRESCENT HEIGHTS, and there, at PAN-
       DORA'S BOX, we are confronted with...a vast quan-
       tity of PLASTIC PEOPLE.)
       TAKE A DAY         THEN GO HOME
                          'BOUT SOMEONE ELSE
                            ...but you're

Oh, those innocent days, when cultural decay could be symbolized by "plastic people"--and it was, by the way, a somewhat valid and accurate complaint, especially for the way women dressed and wore their hair (all that hairspray!). But as humor this has not aged well, and that's true of most of the album. The absurdist bits are not as funny as they seemed at the time. The once-biting social commentary no longer has many teeth. Zappa used to apply the word "lame" to people he disliked, and it's just the word for much of the lyrical content here ("NAZIS "...yeah, right). The skit describing a middle-aged man's sexual fantasy about a thirteen-year-old girl is just disgusting, nauseating when it turns toward incest. The final track, "America Drinks And Goes Home," with its smarmy cocktail-lounge singer, still works for me.

But all in all my reaction is more or less the opposite of that of my twenty-year-old self: the comedy is no longer very interesting, but the music is. Behind a lot of the silly gabbling there's some complex musical stuff going on. And I like the one long purely musical piece, "Invocation and Ritual Dance of the Young Pumpkin." I think the title is a nod to "The Rite of Spring." I'm pretty sure there are some quotations from classical works, possibly Stravinsky's, in other places on the album, though I can't quite place them.

When this album goes back into the closet it will probably stay there. 


Oddly, one little mental cockleburr from the collage on the back cover of Absolutely Free has stayed with me for many years. There's an image of a leafless tree with the words "This tree is ugly and it wants to die." Here's a twelve-year-old post where I refer to it. A variation of it had presented itself to my mind; "This culture is ugly and it wants to die." And I've been thinking about it lately whenever I read about the manifest cultural death wish on the part of a large and influential segment of our society. Rod Dreher has a rather long but mostly interesting and accurate post on that subject, emphasizing the role it has played in producing the Trumpian reaction. I still find it hard to understand that so many otherwise intelligent people don't see that vilifying "white people," especially white men, essentially demanding that they commit ethnic and cultural suicide, is inevitably going to produce a bad, possibly very very bad, reaction. 

I don't have a very high opinion of white people who use "white people" as a pejorative, not in a good-humored way (as in "White men can't jump"--good-natured ethnic humor is actually healthy, I think), but venomously, with real malice and contempt. I hear a lot of that these days. It's one thing, a good thing, to face the evils of your own culture, another to see nothing else in it. And this is made more distasteful by the seeming belief of those who do it that they are somehow exempting themselves from the condemnation, or purchasing some sort of deliverance from it. Or something--I really can't claim to understand it. 


War Beetle! Unfortunately I couldn't get my phone camera to focus on this little bug, but you get the main idea: the bright blue and orange. Very handsome little bug it was.WarBeetle

These are called Stargazer lilies.


* Auburn University's colors are orange and blue, its mascot is an eagle, and its battle cry is "War Eagle!"