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Thursday, November 30, 2017


I've been a mite busy with birthdays, Thanksgiving, and deadlines... Still am tilting crazily against some deadlines. And so this is just to let you know that Maze of Blood is again on sale at Amazon for a mere ten bucks. Don't know if it'll last--it didn't, the prior time.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Clive and Glimmerglass

Hop to the U.K. 
with Clive Hicks-Jenkins
(my jewel-minded Illuminator) 
on Glimmerglass.
Thank you to Clive and A Book a Day in Hay!

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Reads of the moment

Camille Paglia, Glittering Images: A Journey through Art from Egypt to Star Wars. (New York: Pantheon Books.) I read this aloud to my husband on our drive to my mother's house in western North Carolina in October and finished it up on the way back to our home in upstate New York. Some of her speculations are of the very sheerest, but it's a great read-aloud if you love art and don't care for the sterility and jargon of much arts criticism. Enthusiasm and respect for spiritual search inform the book. With the early works, the miracle of survival of ancient art and the admiration for the distinctive styles and crafts of shaping wielded by ancient, anonymous people are on Paglia's mind. And if you feel at all uncertain about the history of Modernism, she'll help you out in understanding how one sub-movement reacted to another. (And I must say that she managed to make me see Mondrian in an surprising new way--I had no real sense of what Mondrian thought that he was doing and found him surprisingly symbolic in his mode of conceiving and carrying out paintings.) I like and agree with her ideas of Warhol (or Mapplethorpe) as the dead-end of the avant garde, and I think those ideas translate well to what happened with poetry in the twentieth century, particularly when you look at how both painters pursuing realism and narrative and poets pursuing formal variety (including some ancient forms) and a widened subject matter are slowly gaining ground. Paglia insists (mightily!) on formulating her own thoughts without a whit of care for the winds and trends of culture in an era when academics tend to march together.

C. Day Lewis. The Poetic Image. 1946 Clark Lectures, Cambridge University. Still pertinent and well worth reading. Essays/lectures from someone who understands literary history and the Modernist place in it for good and for ill. "The Lyric Impulse" is a wonderful introductory piece. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole book, which is governed by the idea that human beings naturally seek to create and find harmony and orderliness in a world that is ever in flux, ever more various than we can compass. Highly recommended for those interested in song, ballad, and shapely poems.

Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim. I read again after many decades and was surprised to find how well I remembered it, particularly the episode of the burned bedclothes and the "Merrie England" talk. The apex of the drunken address still reminded me of Fink-Nottle's, and antihero Jim Dixon of a sharper, much less hapless and sweet Bertie Wooster. After a stint in the British army, Kingsley Amis must have been out to break all the campus rules.... Is Dixon sometimes roiling with class rage, spite, boredom, maliciousness, immaturity, self-contempt, and an Amisian-Larkinesque view of women? Sure. He's an antihero all the way down. Here's Dixon in the morning: "Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.” Now I feel like rereading some Wodehouse and maybe The Loved One.

* * *

Here is the close of this post, written a day after Sayfullo Saipov, the man whose name means "Sword of Allah," mowed down bicyclists in Manhattan: "After hearing another New York round of generic responses and platitudes following the latest terrorist attack, I think we all need to send our politicians a well-written book or two. And maybe that should include a novel or two so they can begin to understand that not every human being thinks alike." But now that closing is already out of date, as we go on to the next massacre, alas.

* * *

I practice imaginative eliminativism about the category of entities known as "politicians." This is always a problem on election day.

* * *

Tonight I voted, and it was all so very Village of Cooperstown. First I walked with my husband to the Vets Club and had the traditional Rotary Club pancake dinner (with sausages from The Otesaga, mind you.) And I saw and chattered with all sorts of people I knew (including the former mayor, Carole) and was served by other people I knew (and the one I didn't know my husband knew and I promptly met.) Then we went a couple of blocks to the polling station, where I also saw lots of people I knew, voted for people I knew, hugged people I knew (especially Janet, whose birthday it was, and MaryAnne, who I hadn't seen in a long time), laughed with people I knew, received invitations from people I knew, and was asked if I was old enough to vote by somebody I knew (the sassy Rick, naturally.) So village-y. So lovely. So astonishingly NORMAN APPLE PIE AMERICA ROCKWELL! Okay, maybe not Norman Rockwell but pretty dear. Sometimes being a Southerner in Yankeedom is sweet. Yep.

And hey--it snowed. First flakes of the season. Pretty late, but I still resent it on principle. Southern principle.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Requiescat in pace, redux

How terrible that there are people who hate their lives so much that they hate existence itself and want to destroy it. Recent events keep telling us this thorny piece of news.

We know that we can do something about tightening up licensing paperwork and getting rid of gun features that simply shouldn't be used by hunters or anyone who is not an active soldier. Discussion about such things is already happening.

In addition, though, I see so much hatred and deep scorn for other people online, in Facebook comments and elsewhere, and I believe that the encouragement of tribal divisions and hysteria about the last election results contributes to a cultural climate of intense feelings and hatred. Can't we each do something about that, little by little?

I spent yesterday afternoon with two friends, helping to clean up an historic chapel, and came home to sad news about a Southern church family, so I think that I'll let Saint Paul have the last word. He was a word-wielder and deeply concerned with the health of church families. And it's a good word, whether you are a religious person or an atheist, whether you claim one thing or another, and no matter what you hold highest. It seems simple but is evidently difficult. "Love your neighbor as yourself."

Friday, November 03, 2017

Hot Buttons in the Arts

Clive Hicks-Jenkins, Christmas at Camelot, study for a screen-print, 2016.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight series.

No undead Nobels!

The lesson of history is that most writers, however celebrated they might have been in their own time, are quickly forgotten. --Samuel Johnson

The latest flap about the Nobel prize in literature is Daphne Williams-Fox's effort to have the Nobel prize awarded to the dead, and specifically to her grandfather, William Carlos Williams. While I give a bow of recognition to a reader-grandaughter's feelings, the current discussion misses something essential. And the argument against dead recipients is not simply because, as biochemist Sir Richard J. Roberts, said, “It could lead to a lot of problems [because] you could imagine the recipients all being dead, which might not be good for the ceremony.” Shades of the Zombie Apocalypse!

Williams-Fox is packed with unimpeachable sentiments. She says, “It’s wrong to also see a hugely influential figure like my grandfather not considered." She stresses that changing the rule would allow books to be awarded on literary merit. And she's right that Williams has been influential. She's right that it's sad to see people overlooked. Absolutely right. We can all come together in sweet, chiming chorus and agree with the general sentiment that unfairness exists in awards (and marketing and public acclaim and many other elements of the publishing-and-rewarding system.) For that matter, aren't we all clear on the idea that life itself tends to be unfair? But think about this: rewarding the long-dead is absolutely the only way books could be reliably awarded on literary merit.

The Nobel prizes, particularly in literature, are a salutary illustration of the fact that we sometimes get it right and sometimes get it wrong. They are a picture of justice side by side with injustice. Societies and writers are familiar companions in the realms of justice and injustice. Did life and readers get it right with Poe, scrabbling for survival? With Melville, who kept writing, decades into obscurity? With Kafka? With Keats? With Dickinson? With Hurston? Did anybody realize exactly how large Shakespeare would loom through time? The Nobel prizes in literature are a reminder that we don't always get it right, that we don't see fully and understand our own times and our wielders of words.

Ashley Norwood Cooper, Sleepless Night, 2017
36" x 30"
We don't need the Nobel prize to decide who is a major writer; that's not its purpose. Why don't we need it to measure greatness? Because we have time, the Mower. Time is wiser than we are. Some books are alive in their own time but suffer a decline among readers as years pass. Perhaps they rode the waves of culture and did not manage to catch and seal the energies of life, so they eventually vanished. The writers and artists of all sorts who are remembered are the ones who remain alive in lengths of time, who influence other writers and artists as time passes. Generative writers. Fertile writers. Writers of books that help their literary descendants to flourish.

To imply that the Nobel committee members have to "get it right" is also wrong. Because they are human beings seated in time and blown by the frisky, sometimes-harsh winds of culture--no way to escape that! Neither the Nobel Prize Committee nor our canon-abolishing universities are able to tell us for certain what current books or plays or poems captured life and will remain. Because these are human structures and institutions, limited in time. There is something much more powerful than English departments and committees that will sound the last word. Instead, we have the Nobel to show us what a society thought at a particular time.

So let the Nobel prize in literature be tossed to the living, sometimes justly, sometimes unjustly. The prize sharply illuminates our inability to roam through time, to see what will live beyond our own day. It shines a light on our successes and our failures at clear sight and understanding, at our limitations as beings caught in the sticky web of time. And those are things we need to recall.

Firing the canon

The central argument against rewarding the dead relates to what's rather pompously called canon formation. It used to be assumed that high aspiration and achievement in writing meant that work might last. Keats, for example, openly aspired to be in the canon of great English poets. In the last century, the canon was essential to the English major. But many (most?) English departments in universities don't teach to or support a canon these days. (As William Giraldi points out, neither do many readers: "The potent brand of immortality that was possible for Wordsworth, Keats, and Austen is no longer possible, and for myriad reasons, chief of which is the basement-level regard we now have for serious writers—the world doesn’t care about literature the way it did when those three were undergoing their immortalization.")

I'm curious about the recent attack on The University of Nebraska - Lincoln that started when a student was allegedly bullied by professors and then administrators. I don't know a lot about it; maybe you do! But I was particularly intrigued by how the event ended up impacting the English Department. In response to events, Nebraska senators have asked whether anyone teaches English anymore at UNL. When legislators start muddling around in the academy and asking such questions, trouble often follows.

I was interested enough to look up the English Department's mission statement, which begins with this mouthful of many marbles: "We, the faculty of the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, believe that one of the greatest strengths of our department is that in all areas of our curriculum—literary and film studies, creative writing, composition and rhetoric, and the digital humanities—we help students develop their capacities in imaginative reasoning so that in their lives as citizens of the world and members of their local communities they can discern connections and synthesize across seemingly incommensurable ideas or beliefs." The mission statement goes on to say that imaginative reasoning feeds into and supports a number of core values our department affirms, including:
  • pursuing social justice
  • affirming diversity
  • engaging with a broad array of real and imagined communities based on empathetic understanding
  • fostering a sense of belonging
  • instilling a desire for civic engagement
It is curious to see how the intentions of a department and its majors have changed over time. There's no mention of literature or the best thoughts and creations of humankind. The language announces itself through a sort of clubby, up-to-date-with-the-culture jargon that is exactly what the writers desire to convey. The major is now a different thing entirely from what it once was, with different aims and different results.

Clearly the English major has come a long way from when I was an undergraduate, back in the winding mists of time, reading Gawain and the Green Knight and Shakespeare and George Eliot and Dickinson and Yeats. My recollection is being full of fire to make the beautiful, the true, the fine, the lasting--all that impossible youthful aspiration! I believed that adding to the sum of such things was a noble goal, one that did a little bit to transform the nature of the world.

Statement art

Last night I had a conversation with a poet friend on Facebook that seems to be related to issues of replacing art (literature, in the Nebraska comments) with some other program. Here's a little excerpt:
M: ...despite my Southern allergy to saying anything the least bit rude, I feel impelled to confess that I dislike this sort of "art" because it has no depth of meaning (the meaning is plumbed and exhausted instantly), no respect for craft, and no beauty--it interests me no more than Tracey Emin's unmade bed or Jeff Koons's balloon animals. The avant garde (and the ability to transgress in art) died about the time of Warhol's soup cans, but an amazing number of art schools haven't figured that out yet and keep producing people who do profoundly boring work. Shoot me now!
L: I can understand where you're coming from. Still, there is truth in the artist's statements about the pain that there is in making these kinds of art. I feel this national malaise in somatic and emotional ways every day-- and as the blows to civility affect us all, it seems harder to even write or make art...
M: I would say she's making a statement, period. I get it; I'm not stupid. I get it instantly. But just as I don't accept Emin's tent or bed as art, and I don't accept this as art. If we're going to talk about politics and the morale of the country, well, that's entirely different--a whole different issue from the debasement of art. Of course, people will have conversations around such objects (just as they might around other objects or around articles in a magazine) and many will find those conversations significant and meaningful. The conversations may advance thought. (But I still feel moved to say that I don't think that makes the objects into art. The visual arts have been suffering a malaise ever since Warhol. It's interesting to see the return of painting with narrative and figurative work...)
L: There are, nevertheless, artists (and art) that also desire to make "statements" - but are infinitely more layered and complex. So I agree with you on that. I think of Kara Walker's work, for instance - and compared to this one - instantly, also, one can see what a far cry it is from "statement, period."
I confess to being quite fascinated with the return of story and figure to painting, and the disparate ways that is being done, just as I'm interested in how form and sound and meter are seeping back into the mainstream of poetry. The aftershocks of Modernism may be dying away. Or not. I'm unsure. Are we heading forward by going back through tradition, and what will that look like? What does it already look like?

The art market looms like a monster, casting long shadows. Almost all art is eventually forgotten, but we are in an odd time when the market has thrown millions at new artworks, elevating their value in the eyes of many. The market does not want art schools to teach skills and craft again, does not want painting (long in abeyance) to return to figure and narrative, does not want already-purchased pieces (investments) to lose value. But a shift is occurring, little by little. What will happen next?