Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Fool in his fish-skin cloak


Today is a rainy ferrywoman day, so I leave you with a snip from The Book of the Red King, as I will be working on it when I return, and also a bit of the pleasantly obsessed fairy painter, John Anster Fitzgerald (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons), in honor of the brave snowdrops and crocuses in the yard. Perhaps it would be sweet to be so obsessed with fairies as John Anster Fitzgerald was, to flit to another realm where things like the Brussels attacks and the Lahore Easter bombings do not happen. But then, even in Faerie, the Queen must pay a tithe to hell, and she prefers her tithe to be human...

So here's a poem with a bit of fairy glamour, the subject being the Fool's beloved, Precious Wentletrap. This one was originally in Yew Journal, and was picked up by Shirl Sazynski for her future anthology, Persephone's Kiss.


THE WENTLETRAP MYSTERY


Who is the Princess Wentletrap? 

Is she a gleaming heaven-fish,
All splotched and straked with milky stars,
A trout that shatters pools with light?

Or is she only a spiral shell? 

Listen. Closer. Glass bells shiver.
The sea is captured in a whorl.
The thimbled music of the spheres.

Is she a castle’s winding stair? 

But can you follow, gyring up
To an observatory height?
Dance high-wire on the horns of moon?

Or is she threshed from lunar fields? 

Is she the bounty of the dark?
See, stepping from the ruffled waves
Onto a strand of quartz and gold!

How the Fool dreams Precious Wentletrap . . . 

Thinned-out aspen leaves and mica:
Nothing can be so lovely-frail
As her white hands, held up to light.

Why manifest to the King’s Fool? 

He has the gift of fetching her.
He sings, wearing the fish-skin cloak
Under a crown of sparkling dust.

* * *

If you are interested in literature and criticism, read and enjoy or tussle with Joseph Epstein's new review, Where Have All the Critics Gone? Clip: Today the standard of highbrow culture has been worn away, almost to the point of threadbareness. For political reasons, universities no longer feel obligated to spread its gospel. Western culture—dead white males and all that—with its imperialist history has long been increasingly non grata in humanities departments. Everywhere pride of place has been given to the merely interesting—the study of gay and lesbian culture, of graphic novels and comic books, and more—over the deeply significant. Culture, as it is now understood in the university and elsewhere, is largely popular culture. That battle has, at least for now, been lost.

***

"Heaven have mercy on us all--Presbyterians and Pagans alike--for we are all somehow dreadful cracked about the head, and sadly need mending." --Melville, Moby Dick

23 comments:

  1. Beyond the sparkling silk of your woven web, which will seduce and entangle so many readers, I am left with wondering: why do we imagine such fancies when rational sensibility argues against fairies, sprites, trolls, et al?

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    1. All fantastic things tell us that there is more to this world (and universe) than we know. And that's a rational thought about the irrational.

      Also, all good enchantment of tales tends to make us discern the beauty and truth of our world more vividly. I suppose that is strange. But many find it true.

      And now, I'm off! Talk later.

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  2. nice poem; sort of george macdonaldish. and interesting article: "contemporary glibness" haha. rather points out i think(the piece as a whole, that is) the fear implicit in modern culture; scholars recoil from what's happening and are afraid to say anything other than what will seem "in". having to do with competition and earning money, also, i suspect... true criticism one would think, might have to do with the whole history of art, culture, war, and all the other nefarious activities of the most objectionable species on the planet. are we, now, past the era of being able to couch universal observations in one sentence...? or two?

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    1. When I was a young, I liked MacDonald very much, and recently listened to one of his novels that I liked when I was a little girl. There are a lot of poems in that manuscript, and they partake of a lot of modes and moods before the thing is done.

      Epstein is always worth a read. Yes, there's a terrible peril for academics in not being properly p. c. and cool. Students these days will report their profs for improper beliefs and statements... I think we are very low on scholars who know the whole history of anything, if what I read is to be believed--they are more interested in the now, in the ephemeral.

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  3. And it's not just at universities. I spent two years attending major conferences in the museum world, and everyone was fretting about how to meet the demands of young people, with almost nobody willing to claim that their field should be promoting slow-paced contemplation and beauty as an alternative to the culture. I've seen museums use their exhibition spaces as dance clubs, and some symphonies now make a big deal out of programs devoted to movie soundtracks or video-game music.

    I don't necessarily object to any of those things, but you can smell the nervous sweat of arts professionals desperate to be liked by the culture at large, even though the culture has overwhelmingly opted to embrace corporate entertainment instead. Museums, art centers, indy publishers, orchestras--they should all be starting with the premise that for at least some people out there, alternatives exist to a $410 million piece of crap like "Batman vs. Superman," and I don't mean "Batman vs. Superman II."

    What can we do? I, for one, am trying to promote and spend more money on art and entertainment that's weird, independent, unaffiliated--but I think it would help if we had stronger rebuttals to cries of "elitism!" and "snobbery!," the most common smears against fine-art and high-arts advocates. People who like crap aren't open to hearing someone scold them to like better things--but how to persuade them is something I've been thinking a great deal about lately.

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    1. Can't remember if I suggested Mako Fujimura's book, "Culture Care," to you or not. If you haven't seen it, you just might like it, as it deals with these sorts of issues.

      And yes, I hate to see high culture tugged around like a pig with a ring in its nose, following the lead mass culture. I think you could widen the scope even beyond educational and museum institutions--every aspect of our lives is tagging after the demands of mass culture.

      I try to do the same, especially supporting people I know who are doing interesting work. But it does often feel like spitting in the wind.

      Social media is supposed to be so helpful to artists and writers, but sometimes it reveals something depressing--how people run after the trivial, the cute, the jokey. I note that I have better luck sharing visual arts by friends than anything else that is serious...

      It's a huge dilemma. Solve it if you can! And then tell me.

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    2. Yes! I bought and began reading the Fujimura book last summer, and then I got caught up in packing to move. I should find it again and continue reading it.

      What we need are good arguments—not lofty statements that we ourselves already believe, but claims that persuade. To my mind, one of the best is an honest expansion of the argument used when music and theater programs in schools are threatened: that these things are lifesavers for kids who desperately need outlets. There's no reason that thinking should apply only to kids or only to school programs; I've seen middle-aged people find new purpose in their lives by learning oil painting or becoming mosaicists, and I once saw a 60-year-old student, a construction foreman, discover that he loved opera (to the bemusement of his patient wife). We should greatly expand the thinking behind the cry that sensitive kids need the drama club; all kinds of people need this stuff in all phases of their lives.

      Lately I've been thinking that another viable argument involves a bit of gentle shame aimed at the more liberal-minded: if you so distrust and dislike corporations, why do you give them 100 percent of your art and entertainment budget? Diversify!

      I should note that I write this as someone who used to be a popular-culture junkie. I still like a good superhero movie, danceable music, ambitious comics...but I'm grateful to have had bigger things to grow into. I foolishly assumed that this more high-minded culture would always be there; I never imagined that popular culture would so overwhelm it.

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    3. I suspected that we had talked about the book earlier...

      Yes, you are certainly right; I think about the literary and philosophical workmen's clubs and women's clubs of the nineteenth century.

      So how do you promulgate those arguments? How do you use that shame?

      In the past, we knew that entertainment could sometimes rise to something permanently meaningful. I don't think people opposed it, but they certainly listened to the critics of the past, people like Trilling and Greenberg and Wilson and Jarrell. But now we have no people who are listened-to in such a way, and there is an awful lot of noise.

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    4. I'm still thinking about how to promulgate the arguments and use not only the shame but also the hope and the curiosity and even the fear of people who opt for corporate entertainment by default. I don't expect to start a cultural revolution, but every person who takes a little more non-corporate art and entertainment into their lives is a victory as far as I'm concerned. I want to come up with arguments that are as scrupulously honest as they are persuasive, but to be persuasive, those arguments can't be disdainful or insulting. It's an interesting rhetorical challenge. (One of the strongest tactics may be to appeal to an ongoing countercultural impulse. Is there anything more establishment, more pro-corporation, more consumerist than marching off to the latest superhero movie?)

      I also think it has to be a face-to-face process: getting people into artists' studios, art centers, theaters, literary events, and so forth. I'll go so far as to say that even video-game night or sci-fi theme-song night at the orchestra could be good starts, as "pops concerts" once were, if these events were presented not apologetically, but as the first promising glimpse of a much larger creative world.

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    5. Perhaps you need to write a practical how-to handbook for us! I have thought at various times of writing a little book about the state of things and what to do, but I never do it, just go on and write what I want to write. But you already have topics for some chapters! Then we could all march off, according to your clear directions. Wouldn't that be sweet?

      And yes, the tone for such things has to be right. Tact is needed.

      It is an interesting question, whether such hybrid high/low events do lead people into a "much larger creative world." I've been rather distressed at the way book choice in schools has bee-lined to younger grade level writing and less important work, and wonder if those people will ever choose to pick up better books.

      No doubt events are helpful. And the open studio movement has been of great assistance to some painters I know--one friend makes much of the year's income in that way.

      Well, I shall think about it some more, I am sure. But now my brain is asking for dream time. Good night!

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    6. Oh, a handbook would imply that I know what I'm doing! But I do intend to try out a few things as I get more involved with my local art center, and we'll see what happens. My hunch is that a fair number of people out there are craving alternatives but don't even realize it.

      But to return to the subject of this post: I'm now intrigued by this new book of yours. When do you think we'll see it in print?

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    7. Well, I am almost done with it. One more read and off it goes. So... If all goes well, it'll be less than two years. Cross your fingers.

      Please write about your forays into arts-experiments!

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  4. some of my wife's pictures were rejected at a local art display but they accepted a picture of a guy slaughtering a pig; so Jeff's comments, in my opinion are right on the money. a commenter a few weeks ago said she tried to hold a candle against the coming darkness; if enough persons did that maybe things would change, whatdoyouthink...

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    1. Oh, I am not a bit surprised by a story like that one--and hope your wife did not feel discouraged. It's certainly hard in a time with the transcendentals are regarded as without meaning. Beauty and goodness are out of favor, and truth is relative.

      It's very, very difficult for individual people to make a difference without some power to be heard. Perhaps more connections between those isolated people would help. How to make those connections...

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    2. you're an exception to that rule; your blog, poetry and writings do much to "bring a candle to the dark", in my opinion anyway...

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    3. "a time WHEN," that should have been! I dislike both autocorrect and typos but don't know which to blame.

      Thank you so much, Mudpuddle; that is such a very kind thing to say. I hope it is so.

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    4. in reference to something jeff said: i LOVE opera, especially rossini; it's, i sometimes think, the ultimate art... and i used to be a mechanic before retirement...

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    5. well, i have a degree in geology which qualified me for a job as a mechanic, if that computes...

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    6. and a musician before that...

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    7. Hah, that's an interesting bundle of Mudpuddle facts! I like interesting bundles.

      We have Glimmerglass Opera here, and I do get to go at times. I have a good friend who often sings in the chorus. Went to three last summer--"The Magic Flute," Verdi's "Macbeth," and Vivaldi's "Cato in Utica." I think there's a post here somewhere called "Strange seas" that might have a little bit about the Cato opera, which I loved. Loved the singing, the drama, the sets, the costumes. And I tend to be disappointed in sets fairly often--all this focus on bringing things up to date which introduces absurdity too often. These felt influenced by de Chirico so seemed both ancient and modern, and they were beautiful and strange.

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    8. All the same, I am an opera ignoramus.

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    9. i like vivaldi almost as much as rossini, but i've only viewed one of his operas which i don't remember the name of. but if one likes vivaldi, anything by him is good...

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    10. Well, this opera-ignoramus liked it. It managed to be austere (Cato, after all) and lush (glorious costumes) and strange (magical sets.)

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.