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January 2022

Sally Thomas: Motherland

I read this book twice last year--twice because I like it so much--and have been meaning to write about it at least since the last reading, which was probably early last fall sometime, which is to say four or five months ago. But I kept putting it off. I knew that one reason for my procrastination was plain laziness, which is one of my more serious character flaws. Only now, when I have finally forced myself to begin, have I realized that there is another reason: I find it difficult to write about poetry, and I don't like doing it.

It feels superfluous, maybe even pointless. A poem is a thing made of words, so why make another thing of words that is some kind of representation of or reaction to the poem? It makes sense if you have an impulse to make a word-thing of your own that is somehow produced or inspired by the other thing. Or if, which I guess is more likely, you simply have a strong urge to talk about the thing. But if those don't apply, if you just want to direct the attention of other people to the other thing, what is the point of saying much more than "There it is--look"?

There's a place for criticism, and in fact I read eagerly the semi-annual "Verse Chronicle" in The New Criterion, in which William Logan reviews half a dozen or so recent volumes of poetry. I learn from it, though most often what I learn is that I don't want to read the books, and am confirmed in my lack of interest in most contemporary poetry. And I also get useful nuggets of opinion on the nature of poetic virtues and faults, with which I may or may not agree but which provoke thought. Obviously Logan puts a lot of care and work into these essays, and I'm glad he does. But what he does is not something I want to do myself.

So I will just state briefly why I like these poems so much. It's basically quite simple: they give me a lot of pleasure, of a particular kind that's almost unique to poetry, and only the best poetry. I define "best" tautologically as that which gives me this pleasure. Prose can occasionally do it, but that's relatively rare. I don't know of much poetry written since 1970 or so that does it, though I don't know all that much poetry written since 1970, period.

That of course is a comment on me at least as much as on the poetry, but that's a discussion for another day. Suffice to say that I am not in principle hostile to "modern poetry" as a category. And these poems are "modern" in more or less the ways you might expect them to be from that term. They are not, however, as obscure as modern poetry frequently is. And they are not free verse, or mostly not. Some of them are quite definitely and apparently in traditional forms, such as the several sonnets included. Some use traditional techniques so subtly that you might not notice it at first, such as those which use slant or approximate rhyme. And I'll admit that the rationale for the structure of one poem, "New Year's Day," eludes me, though I love the poem. But though the forms tend to be pretty subtle, I think their tautness has a lot to do with the considerable emotional power of many of the poems. 

As the title suggests, it's a very feminine book, by which I don't mean that it's light, but that it exhibits a consciousness which in both its quality and its content strikes me as very much that of a woman. And I'll leave that at that. Here is an excellent review at Dappled Things. I strongly suggest that you read it if you want more than the scant information I'm giving you. It includes the full text of one poem. And I can direct you to another which is in the book and which Sally allowed me to reproduce here a few years ago when we were doing the 52 Poems series. It's called "Bridge Morning," and I think it's brilliant. If you like either or both of the poems, you won't regret buying the book.

A note about the sequence which closes the book, the twenty Richeldis of Walsingham poems: these appeared on their own as a chapbook a few years ago and I was not greatly taken with them at the time. But either further acquaintance or their context within this larger volume changed my mind, though most of my favorite poems appear in the earlier part.


A beautiful cover is always a plus.

P.S. There are some pretty funny moments here, wit of a dry sort--which, again, I think of as feminine. 

P.P.S. In the spirit of full disclosure, I note that I am in a small way personally acquainted with Sally Thomas by means of online discussions of one kind or another. 

My January Post at The Lamp's Blog

Here. It's a complaint about my tinnitus.
They made a few edits with which I didn't necessarily agree. But I didn't strongly object, either. And I've learned, or maybe I should just say decided, to let that stuff go, because: 
  1. They may be right, that their changes are improvements.
  2. "Choose your battles" is always a prudent strategy. In general, I would only argue with an editor if I thought the edit changed the sense of what I had written such that it said something I didn't intend to say.
  3. I'm very grateful to them for publishing me. 
  4. Nobody likes a prima donna. 

Also, I have to give them credit for making more of an effort than I did to track down a quotation. I had written:

Somewhere, I think in C.S. Lewis, there is a description of heaven as a place where "all that is not music is silence."

They changed that to "Somewhere George McDonald....". I will assume that they are correct, though "somewhere" rather than a specific citation suggests that they aren't 100% certain either. 

I never posted the link to my December post, partly because I wasn't real happy with it. It's a sentiment I've expressed here before, a complaint about the replacement of Christmas by the empty Holiday

Here's the link to the blog page. There are a number of other things there that are worth reading.

Jumping Into the Deep End

Jack Butler, submissions editor for National Review Online, is a big fan of pop music but, is to use his own word, "embarrassingly" unacquainted with classical music. Deciding to fix that, he has taken an extremely odd measure:

I have set about remedying this deficiency in classic amateur fashion: i.e., haphazardly, guided by what little knowledge I do have. Which is why, not long into my [New Year's] resolution, I decided to jump into the deep end and listen to all of Richard Wagner’s opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen.

If you asked me how to approach classical music in the way most likely to result in disappointment and dislike, I might come up with this. Sure, listen to the entire Ring, in just a few days, on Spotify, with no libretto. That will surely work. Similarly, someone might introduce himself to the pleasures of bourbon by chugging a coffee mug full of 101 proof Wild Turkey.

At least it can be said of the Wagner cure that the subject would probably not require medical attention. But I can't imagine getting much out of it. Wagner's music is not exactly accessible--you can listen to him for a long time without encountering anything recognizable as a tune. The well-known popular bits, like the Ride of the Valkyries, are few and far between. And, most of all: these are operas which tell a long and complex story. So listening to them with the story unavailable bears some resemblance to listening to a novel read in a language you don't know. But Butler says he did enjoy it, though I think I detect a certain clenching of the jaw in his account

After this, he has recourse to Jay Nordlinger, also of National Review, and a music critic. You can read Nordlinger's recommendations here, and they're fine, but this is the important part:

I suggest that people listen to some things — an assortment of music. Just dip in. If you like something, seek out more from that composer — listen to him, read about him, etc. Feel your way along. Embark on discovery.

If someone asked me for similar advice, I think it would be even simpler: just listen. (I certainly wouldn't decide that my tastes should guide him, and neither does Nordlinger.) That's really all it takes. Sometimes I hear people say, hesitatingly, "I don't know anything about classical music," and seeming hesitant even to approach it without some kind of instruction. That's a mistake, and a bad one if it keeps someone away from the music. When I was a college freshman I took an introductory music course for non-music majors, and it was my first step into the classical music world. So it may sound as if I'm contradicting myself in saying "just listen," but that was precisely the opportunity that the course gave me: to hear a wide range of music and get some sort of sense of what I would like. If I remember correctly, at the end of the course there were two pieces that I especially liked: Smetana's The Moldau and Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. If you know those you can see that my taste was already eclectic to say the least: the former is a very straightforward, pretty and melodic piece, the latter a crazed-sounding quasi-recitation of mysterious German poems and atonal music. And I just kept going from there.

Not to say that there is not a very great deal to know usefully about music, both technically and historically. I know next to nothing technically, and would like to know more. And my ear is not that sensitive. I know that I miss a lot because I usually don't grasp the formal structure of a piece. I most likely miss it when, for instance, a composer uses the inversion of a theme from the first movement of his symphony in the fourth movement. That  kind of thing may limit, but certainly doesn't prevent, my enjoyment and appreciation.

This made me want to revisit The Moldau. I haven't heard it for decades. It's still great. It's meant to paint a tonal picture of the course of a river from mountain brooks to the sea. 

And here's just a taste of Pierrot. Don't be alarmed, it's less than two minutes long. I still love it, too.

Dostoevsky's Demons Revisited

As political frenzy revved up over the last year, I found myself wanting to re-read Dostoevsky's Demons, thinking it would offer some insight and perspective on what's happening. Or rather not so much what is currently happening as what has been happening for the past 150 years or so. I had thought on my first reading that I didn't fully grasp it, and hoped it might be clearer on a second reading. As usual I found that it had been longer than I thought since the previous one. I guessed three years or maybe four; it was actually seven.

But looking back at the post I wrote then, I find that it still stands pretty well as a summary of my opinion. So here's a link to it.

What I said then about a great novel being like a symphony that must be heard more than once was certainly proved. I did enjoy the book more this time around, and felt more sure that I understood it. The feeling I described of seeing the people and events as through some kind of fog or smoke was much less pronounced this time, in fact mostly gone. I did, however, again and again find myself thinking of what I had said then, quoting a friend: that many (most?) of Dostoevsky's characters seem "just barely sane." And the funny parts were funnier, especially the meeting of the would-be revolutionaries, which was more or less recognizable to anyone who's ever been around young people full of big ideas about changing the world. And the long rhapsody delivered at the disastrous fete by a windbag character said to have been modeled on Turgenev is flat hilarious.

I also thought of a remark from W.H. Auden which I encountered many years ago in some magazine and no longer remember the context of: that the Russian and American temperaments are more alike than either is like the English. I think that's true. I can't really imagine anyone in Demons transposed directly into an American, but I can easily imagine ones equally crazy in very similar ways.

I read the translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, which was the same one I read before. I had thought about reading the old and formerly standard Constance Garnett one, but a bit of comparison suggested that the differences were not as great as, for instance, those between the recent Undset translations and the older ones.

The change of the title from The Possessed is interesting. I assume it's justified as a simple matter of translation, but it raises a question. The novel bears as an epigraph the story from the Gospel of Luke of the Gadarene swine, possessed by demons who cause them to run down a hill into the sea. Clearly the deranged ideas of Dostoesky's characters, and especially their nihilistic and amoral revolutionary fervor, are the analog of the demons in the story, and those who are driven by those ideas are the swine. The translation of the title therefore is significant: is it a reference to the demons or to those possessed by them? See this brief discussion at Wikipedia. Either works, of course. But there's a difference of emphasis, and on that basis alone I'm inclined to think that "demons" is more appropriate. Or, as some other translators have said, "devils."

I had not realized how many (English) translations there are. That Wikipedia page lists seven, two of them since Pevear and Volokhonsky's in 1994. 

I Judge This Book By the Cover

I was in my local independent bookstore one day last week. I don't go there very often, even though I am happy they've survived and even prospered (though book sales are not their only revenue), and I want them to continue to do so. There just aren't many current books that I have much interest in, so I don't go unless I have some specific reason. I had been there several weeks earlier for some Christmas shopping (which proved to be futile), and discovered that they had a copy of Alfred Corn's new translation of Rilke's Duino Elegies.

I was surprised to see it, as the store's poetry section is very small and not very interesting. And I've been wanting to read this translation, but was in a hurry and there was a long line at the cash register, so I didn't buy it at the time. Figuring, correctly, that it would probably still be there after Christmas, I went back to get it.

I could not miss the many copies of this book, very prominently displayed:


The idea that these two very successful, very rich, very honored, very influential and in Obama's case directly powerful, men are in any conceivable sense "renegades" is just too much. That the title was chosen, and approved if not proposed by the two, reveals the way left-liberal America still sees itself, in spite of its commanding cultural position, as a band of plucky rebels challenging a repressive establishment. I guess that still generates a lot of energy.

A few years ago there was a TV commercial, for what I don't know, which involved an older white man, a stereotypical old-school corporate executive, bragging about getting some sort of special deal (sorry, I really don't have any idea what it was about). He says to a subordinate "It's my way of sticking it to the man." 

"But sir," says the subordinate. "You are the man." Exactly.

Good Omens (TV series)

For many years I've heard the novels of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett recommended, often very highly and sometimes from people whom I know personally and who generally have pretty good literary judgment. I thought I might check them out sooner or later, but they weren't a high priority and I still haven't read anything by either of them. This 2019 TV series, based on a book which they co-authored, seemed like a chance to see what the praise was all about. Pratchett died in 2015, and the series seems to have been entirely under the control of Gaiman, as both writer and producer. 

The premise is that an angel and a demon who have been on the Earth beat since the Creation (the date of which, we are told, Bishop Usher was actually right about) have become more or less friends and rather comfortable with their 21st century simulated-human existence. The End Times have come, the anti-Christ is to be born. and the final war between heaven and hell is to commence. The pair have important roles to play in all this, but there's a problem: they don't want the world to end. They are pretty content with the way things are. So they set about trying to sabotage the apocalypse, and the whole thing becomes farce in the classic sense: "situations that are highly exaggerated, extravagant, ridiculous, absurd, and improbable." (Wikipedia) Right off the bat, for instance, they lose track of the anti-Christ, and waste a lot of time trying to steer the development of the wrong child. 

The series did not make reading either of its authors seem more urgent to me, and since Gaiman was apparently in control the blame can't be laid on insensitive TV producers. It's clever, but not that clever; funny, but not that funny. It leans too heavily on hackneyed conceptions of angels, demons, heaven, hell, and God. The last of these, for instance, is heard only as a voiceover (by Frances McDormand) and is the sort of limited wisecracking hardly-God-at-all construct which has been around at least since George Burns did the number in Oh, God back in the '70s. The angel (played by Michael Sheen) is an effete and timid fussbudget, apparently homosexual. The demon (David Tennant) is rich, witty, and glamorous, though most of the other demons are a really nasty lot. The angels are different but not really much nicer, slick inhabitants of a sort of empty white and glass space suggestive of a corporate office, behaving accordingly. Gabriel is played by Jon Hamm, who apparently had a key role in Mad Men, which I have not seen, but I suppose the association added flavor to the role for those who have seen it. 

The whole "isn't religion silly" vein of humor is pretty well played out at this point--"religion" here meaning mainly Christianity, or rather a pop-secular parody of it. People have been doing it for quite some time now, and there's no longer much adventure to be had in satirizing something that was already a parody. With "religion" now generally and openly despised by our most dominant and influential cultural forces, this kind of thing begins to seem like a big exercise in missing the point.

All that said, I did enjoy it, and would sort of half-recommend it. It's very elaborately and effectively produced, and there are a good many funny moments. The cast in general seems to be having a lot of fun, especially David Tennant. And I had fun identifying some of the actors playing characters very far removed from their usual roles. My wife heard a lot of "I know that face/voice, I just can't place it" from me. Anna Maxwell Martin is Beelzebub. Nina Sosanya, whose face and voice if not name will be familiar to people like me who watch a lot of British crime dramas, plays a nun (actually a satanic nun, Sister Mary Loquacious of the Chattering Order of St. Beryl). Miranda Richardson is Madame Tracy, a middle-aged (at least) woman who combines the occupations of prostitute and medium-for-hire. Mirielle Enos, the troubled detective (aren't they all?) of the American version of The Killing is War, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The one that took me the longest time to get was an actor whose face I recognized but couldn't place until four episodes or so in: he is Michael McKean, who plays Chuck, the older brother of Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul. He plays one of the last Witchfinders, and gets special credit for being a rare American actor who does a believable British accent. 

Here's the trailer:

Having watched the trailer again, I'll add that there is a definite philosophical or theological kinship here with Wim Winders's Wings of Desire. Worlds apart aesthetically, though. 

Happy New Year

You'll notice that there's no cheery exclamation mark after that title. I bring you this appropriate counsel from St. Ephrem the Syrian (d. 373):

God has determined the measure of man’s life, and the days divide this appointed measure into parts. Each day imperceptibly takes its part away from your life and each hour unrestrainedly runs along its course with its little share. The days destroy your life, the hours subvert its edifice, and you rush to your end, for you are but a vapor.

The days and hours, like thieves and robbers, rob and steal from you. The thread of your life is gradually torn and shortened. The days deliver your life up to burial, the hours lay it in the grave, and together with the days and the hours does your life on earth disappear.

I hope to make good use of some large part of the days and hours that will make up the coming year. That's as far as I'll go toward a New Year's resolution. And I wish you success in the same endeavor.

This and a good deal more from St. Ephrem was quoted in a weekly email from the editor(s) of Touchstone. You can sign up for it here