do you realize that you have the most beautiful face? do you realize we're floating in space?

August 26, 2009

bonjour!

Hello! I thought I’d write about a few songs that I’ve been listening to on repeat lately. This is a little collection of delightful, pretty songs that have been making me happy:

♥ Weezer’s “Say it Ain’t So” reminds me of being sixteen, staying up late to watch 120 Minutes on MTV, VHS tape labeled “Miranda’s videos! Do not tape over!” (heh!) in the VCR, my finger poised over the “Record” button, ready to hit it whenever anything I liked came on.

This song recently came up when I had iTunes on shuffle, and, although I’m not generally a nostalgic person, especially not for my not-terribly-pleasant teenage years, as I listened to it I was suddenly flooded with happy memories and vague, fuzzy, dreamy recollections of the blissful parts of adolescence, which were (to say the least) few and far between, to be sure, but which were so wonderfully, intensely thrilling on the rare occasions I was lucky enough to experience them.

It’s a great song, sweet, melancholy, and haunting all at once (plus, it rocks), and the video is adorable and charming (and is surely present somewhere on one of those “Miranda’s videos! Do not tape over!” VHS tapes.) The video looks and feels and sounds like 1995 to me, almost tangibly so, and although I wouldn’t go back to being sixteen for a million billion dollars, there are some aspects of it that I miss, and hearing, reading, or seeing certain things can make me feel little twinges of nostalgia for the time, and this is one of the videos that does that for me:

Weezer – Say It Ain’t So – Watch more Music Videos at Vodpod.

Dean and Britta’s “The Sun is Still Sunny” is such a delicious song. It’s perhaps my favorite song at the moment. I’m fond of their work in general (they’re both formerly of Luna), but this song has a wistful prettiness to it that I find especially charming and sweet. It flirts with melancholy, but is better described as poignantly, evocatively beautiful.

Many musical duos do vocal interplay very well with very lovely results. Frequently, this loveliness results from the marked contrast between the male voice and the female voice (Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan come to mind.) Dean and Britta have the most beautiful vocal interplay that I’ve heard in a long time, characterized by a gorgeous, delicate interweaving and exchange, but, unlike many other boy/girl duos, the beauty doesn’t arise from the contrast of their voices; instead, it derives from how their voices complement each other, sweetly and delicately intermingling in the most delectable of ways.

This video is a lovely live acoustic performance of the song (in a stairwell!), with some very Godard-esque opening and closing titles:

♥ The Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize?” is one of those songs that, at first listen, can seem heartwrenchingly sad. And it is heartwrenching, touching, and achingly beautiful, but it’s not sad. Instead, it’s quite wonderfully uplifting in that it echoes and emphasizes what may perhaps be the single most important yet least understood truth about human existence: that this is it, this is the only life any of us will get, so stop wasting it, stop treating it like a dress-rehearsal for a non-existent afterlife, take as much delight in it as possible, and enjoy the deliciousness of being alive. It’s such a vitally important thing to understand, but so many people don’t, instead choosing to spend their lives looking for something “more,” whether that’s something spiritual, or supernatural, or transcendental, or any other such nonsense. Such pursuits waste precious time and also beg the question: what more could you possibly want than the wonder and the beauty of reality?

I love lead-singer Wayne Coyne’s comment about the song:

“Whenever I analyze the scientific realities of what it means to be living here on Earth – in this galaxy – spinning around the sun – flying through space – a terror shock seizes me!!! I’m reminded once again of how precarious our whole existence is…”

Exactly. These sentiments also bring to mind the superbly wonderful “Galaxy Song” from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

Here’s a wonderful live performance of “Do You Realize?” from 2002:

It’s definitely one of those songs that makes me a little teary every time I hear it. In a lovely, grateful way.

The Verlaines are one of my favorite bands ever, and one of their most wonderful songs is “Death and the Maiden”. It’s a catchy, wonderfully fun, pretty song, with fabulously smart and literate lyrics (references include Paul Verlaine (also the band’s namesake), Arthur Rimbaud, and Edvard Munch’s achingly lovely and spooky Death and the Maiden.)

I was so very excited to find a video of this song! Before today, I didn’t know that one existed. It’s super-cute, charmingly and refreshingly unpolished, adorably fun and boisterous, and has cute bunnies, too!:

That was fun! Perhaps I’ll do it again sometime.

(Also, I’m now the national Church & State Examiner over at Examiner.com, so, if that topic interests you, please do check it out. I may occasionally cross-post some of my articles here, too. Thanks!) ♥


the books poured forth

August 10, 2009

I love the idea of poets writing about other poets, especially when one poet writes an elegy for another. I find that these poems often offer beautifully written insights about emotions, relationships, connections, estrangement, the complicated nature of human interaction, love, etc. And elegies written by one skilled poet to another offer some of the most powerful, most complex, and most beautiful expressions in all of literature of love, loss, grief, loneliness, confusion, and the will (or lack thereof) to survive, either physically or emotionally or both.

I’m fond of doing and reading explications and/or close readings of poems, and would like to do a couple of them in this post. I think that, if done well, the process can provide much insight into the meanings of the poem, and can clarify the themes and central ideas expressed therein. Close readings are capable of making the implicit explicit in ways that looser/more general interpretations of the text are not. I would never advocate it as the only method by which one should analyze a text, but it’s certainly more valuable and provides more insight than ideologically-based forms of criticism, for example, wherein the critic is primarily looking for a justification of their beliefs and/or pre-conceived notions about the author and/or the text. This type of criticism is frequently done at the expense of an actual analysis of the text and an interpretation of what it contains. Critics of this sort often ignore the text itself in pursuit of an ideological goal. I don’t think that’s useful, and I think that it makes the text into a mere tool/conduit through which the writer can explain their opinions and ideological stance. Looking at a text from a specific ideological perspective (and solely from that perspective) strips the text of most of its intrinsic value. This type of critic, then, often sees only what they’re looking for and willfully ignores everything else. This does a disservice to both the text itself and to the power of literature as a whole to provide us with beauty, knowledge, and meaning.

I’d like to look at two elegies that I find to be interesting, thought-provoking, beautiful, and moving, each in their own ways.

(Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of Berryman, sort of fond of Williams and of Auden, and absolutely love Yeats. Unlike Yeats, I haven’t any interest in spirituality, magic, fairies, the transcendental, etc., and in fact find anyone who does hold those interests to be rather confusing and frustrating (in that I wonder why/how they could want or need more than what exists here, in the wonderful, amazing here and now), but that doesn’t stop me from loving the beauty of Yeats’s poems with a lovely, swoon-y devotion.)


(John Berryman, 1967)

The first is John Berryman’s elegy for his friend, William Carlos Williams. (“Henry” is Berryman’s narrator/speaker/protagonist in The Dream Songs, but this is complicated by the fact that the narrator also discusses “Henry” at some points. It seems fair to assume that “Henry” is, at least at some points, a manifestation of the author’s voice.)

“Dream Song 324: An Elegy for W.C.W., the lovely man”

Henry in Ireland to Bill underground:
Rest well, who worked so hard, who made a good sound
constantly, for so many years:
your high-jinks delighted the continents & our ears:
you had so many girls your life was a triumph
and you loved your one wife.

At dawn you rose & wrote—the books poured forth—
you delivered infinite babies, in one great birth—
and your generosity
to juniors made you deeply loved, deeply:
if envy was a Henry trademark, he would envy you,
especially the being through.

Too many journeys lie for him ahead,
too many galleys & page-proofs to be read,
he would like to lie down
in your sweet silence, to whom was not denied
the mysterious late excellence which is the crown
of our trials & our last bride.

Such a lovely tribute to a friend. I’m fond of how Berryman expresses such a complex set of emotions and of his stubborn refusal to oversimplify his intertwining, often-contradictory feelings. It’s clear that he admires WCW’s productivity, generosity, stability, and consistency, but that he is also envious of these qualities.

The speaker makes a comparison between the output of both of WCW’s careers, physician and poet:

—the books poured forth—
you delivered infinite babies, in one great birth—

This is an apt and beautiful description of what the speaker sees as WCW’s constant productivity. His creative output and his work as a physician (delivering babies) are, in a way, one and the same, “one great birth.” Berryman dealt with alcoholism and depression, and ultimately took his own life. WCW, too, dealt with depression, but he lived a much calmer and more stable life than Berryman, a fact that Berryman seemed to envy.

if envy was a Henry trademark, he would envy you,
especially the being through.

This is a place where Berryman’s use of “Henry” provides distance from the emotion he’s expressing while still allowing him to divulge it. Perhaps this authorial distance is especially important here because the narrator is yearning not only for WCW’s life but also for the fact that he is “through,”/dead.

The poem’s final stanza elaborates on this particular form of envy, emphasizing how the speaker dreads and resents all of the tasks that a living person must perform.

The poem finishes with:

he would like to lie down
in your sweet silence, to whom was not denied
the mysterious late excellence which is the crown
of our trials & our last bride.

“Your sweet silence” is a beautifully-phrased expression of jealousy at the fact that WCW is now, in death, able to live in silence, in quiet, and in calm, things which Berryman clearly craves. It also seems to be an expression of love from the speaker to this “lovely man,” a tender memorial from one who valued the “sweet silence” of both WCW’s life and of his death. Here, and throughout the poem, envy intermingles with love to the point where they become one powerful, intense emotion, and one beautifully moving expression of a complex, truly human friendship.

He indicates that the last part of WCW’s life was full of “mysterious late excellence” and argues that this was a well-deserved reward for having survived the difficulties of life. It is, as the speaker says, “the crown of our trials” and it is also our final opportunity to intermingle with greatness, with beauty, and with love before death.

Emotions are terribly complex things and I doubt (although there’s no real way to know for certain) that anyone ever feels just one thing/one way at a time; instead, although we can indeed categorize “these” kind of feelings as “love,” or “those” kind of feelings as “sadness,” etc., the specific emotions we feel and how we feel them depends on the situation we’re in and depends upon who we feel them for/about. They’re contextual and complicated and beautifully, wonderfully messy. They’re human. And this poem, this expression of grief, love, and envy, is an excellent example of the true complexity of human emotion. In this poem, the author expresses with honesty his confused and messy feelings regarding the death of his friend. That honesty makes the poem unique. It feels alive. It feels true.

To finish, from Paul Mariani’s Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman:

He envied Williams his zest for life, the good sounds he’d made over a lifetime, the “girls” he’d had, and the wife he’d loved through half a century. What he envied him most, however, was his being finished with his labor, having earned the right at last “to lie down/ in your sweet silence, to whom was not denied/ the mysterious late excellence which is the crown/ of our trials & our last bride.”

I have yet to read that book, but would really like to.


(W.H. Auden, 1969)

Another one I love: W.H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats“

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

II

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

III

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

This is an emotional poem that is discursive yet unambiguous. Auden’s speaker begins and ends the poem’s first section by comparing the internal to the external, emphasizing the miserable coldness and bleakness of the day of Yeats’s death.

The first part of the second stanza describes both Yeats himself and the major themes/feelings of much of his work. Then, the speaker says:

By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

beginning a discussion of the eternal nature of Yeats’s artistic output, as compared to the temporality and ephemerality of Yeats himself (or, if we wish to, we can think of Yeats as representative of “the poet” in general.) Although the man is gone, his poetry is immortal, and, as the speaker indicates, the poems themselves don’t “know” that their creator is gone. The poetry survives unchanged.

The way in which the speaker contrasts the permanence of the poetry with the fleeting nature of human life perhaps also speaks to Yeats’s youthful fascination with myth, legend, and mysticism, and his lifelong yearning for something spiritual and transcendent. Here, perhaps the speaker provides a subtle counterpoint and questions why anyone (specifically a poet) would fruitlessly search for the mythical, the spiritual, and the transcendent when they’re already living in a magnificent world in which their work will outlive them and will provide them with a form of immortality. Auden’s focus is on the everlasting nature of the poetry, not the poet, and indeed provides both a eulogy for a man and a celebration of what remains.

Ending the third stanza, the speaker says:

The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

No longer exists Yeats the man, the poet; instead, it is his work that survives. It endures among his audience and within his admirers.

The fourth stanza ends with:

To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

discussing the last day of Yeats’s life. The speaker here reemphasizes that the poetry is all that remains. However, the speaker has mixed feelings regarding the survival of the poetry. The issue is complicated, and this poem (and this section in particular) is not an unambiguous celebration of the immortality of art.

Yeats’s poetry now contains all that is left of the man. His life and his identity, then, are now being metaphorically spread throughout the world, to his audiences. As the speaker knows, this will bring both “happiness” and “punish[ment].” The punishment may arise from being exposed to “a foreign code of conscience,” which is the risk that an author, creator, artist, etc. must take when sharing their output with the world. Some people will understand it. Some won’t. Some people will love it. Some will loathe it. But, as the speaker emphasizes, it’s the only way in which the author will live on, so both reactions (and the spectrum of possible reactions in-between the extremes) must be accepted. His “words” will now be “modified in the guts of the living.” He’ll no longer be around to explain them, clarify them, contextualize them, or modify them. But they live and find new life when readers experience them, think of them, are affected by them, or are inspired by them. They feel them in their “guts”; they know the power of Yeats’s words.

The tone changes dramatically in the second section of the poem. It begins with:

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself.

The “you were silly like us” makes it clear that, to the speaker, Yeats was simultaneously a brilliant literary giant and an “average person,” expressing relatable sentiments and emotions. Here, the speaker also expresses admiration for Yeats’s tenacity and strength: “your gift survived it all.” According to the speaker, the biggest obstacle the poet faced was himself.

Section two ends with:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper

it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

which speaks to one of the central paradoxes of poetry: it indeed doesn’t directly make anything happen. It doesn’t cause immediate, perceptible, large-scale change. But, as the speaker says, it does survive. Oh, how it survives. It lives on “in the [metaphorical] valley of its making,” because people who want it and need it will find it there when they search for it. In that sense, its survival does profoundly affect people and may also perhaps even become an indirect agent of large-scale change.

Poetry survives when people read it, share it, delight in it, incorporate it into their lives, see themselves reflected in it, and let it inspire them to both introspection and to action, “a way of happening.”

The final section again switches tone (and rhyme scheme), starting with:

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

This is a succinct synopsis of what the speaker has said so far. He reminds us that, although the man himself is going to “earth” (indicating the finality of death), and although his vessel has been “emptied of its poetry,” the poetry itself remains.

After providing a wider context for Yeats’s death (the beginning of WWII and the fear and pessimism that accompanied it), the speaker extols him to:

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

Here, he portrays Yeats and his work as an antidote to the pessimistic attitudes of the time. Sure, “poetry makes nothing happen,” but it does deeply affect people, and the speaker asserts that Yeats’s rejoicing, inspiring voice may offer an important alternative to the prevailing Zeitgeist.

The poem concludes with this:

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

a summation of the way in which Yeats will live on, and why it is important that he does. To the speaker, Yeats’s words have the potential to create and encourage optimism even for someone who must exist in “the prison of his days.” This is an ode to both Yeats specifically and to the power of poetry in general.

What’s confusing about this poem is how it seems to contrast with Auden’s expressed opinions of Yeats. As discussed in this 2007 article from The Guardian, Auden clearly had very mixed feelings about the man:

Auden, when asked for his opinion of Yeats, said: “Yeats spent the first part of his life as a minor poet, and the second part writing major poems about what it had been like to be a minor poet.”

On another occasion Auden said that he had only once encountered pure evil in a person, and that was when he met Yeats.

In 1939 (the same year in which the elegy was written), according to the article, Auden:

set out in the Partisan Review a marvellously trenchant pair of speeches for and against him, called “The Public v the Late Mr William Butler Yeats”.

offering a literal and explicit back-and-forth and pro-and-con discussion of Yeats and his work. Auden is extremely critical in it, but ultimately ends up deciding that:

there was one area in which the poet was indeed a man of action, and that was language. However false or undemocratic Yeats’s ideas had been, his diction saved him in the defence’s eyes: “The diction of ‘The Winding Stair’ is the diction of a just man, and it is for this reason that just men will always recognise the author as a master.”

The complexity and the often contradictory nature of Auden’s perception of Yeats is not reflected in the elegy. But Auden does ultimately focus on Yeats’s poetry (rather than his character) both in the elegy and in “real life.” This is an extreme example of a love/hate relationship, a more intense variety of the ambiguous relationships that often exist between artists, or between an artist and their audience. Auden managed to write a genuine, powerful, and well-crafted eulogy full of pathos and admiration. It is one that centers on the poetry that survives the poet and on the potential effects of that poetry. Auden sees value in both Yeats and his work, but can find more value in the work when he detaches it from the man.

The biographical information presented in the article shows that Auden’s feelings towards the subject of his elegy were ambiguous, complex, confusing, and contradictory. From the start, it’s pretty clear that, unlike Berryman’s eulogy for WCW, this is not an expression of love for a man, for a poet, or for a friend. Instead, it’s an expression of love for what poetry is and for what it can do. It’s a true paean to the subtle yet devastatingly important power of poetry.

Both elegies remind us that art outlives the artist, and that, through the act of creation, one may perhaps achieve a type of immortality. Each also underscores the often-invisible but nonetheless powerful impact that poetry can have on individuals, and how it can be a spark and a candle in the dark, one that may provide illumination and inspiration, and that may help us to begin the difficult but beautiful process of attempting to understand both ourselves and each other.

(All images are from The Life photo archive)

More soon! Thank you so much for reading.


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