Because it is Halloween, and because I love all that is dark sparkle and lore, I settled in last night and read one of the Grimm Brothers' bleaker fairy tales - Hansel and Gretel. It's the last chapter of a collection I've kept since I was a child and I don't think I've opened the book since then either. I recalled a sketch of the story - a brother and sister lost in the woods, trying to find their way home, and a witch who traps them because they are hungry and her house is made of gingerbread and cake.
Well. There's that, but there's also the whole other part I forgot about, such as that the reason they are lost to begin with is because their father and stepmother have deliberately left them to die in the forest. Twice.
The first time, the resourceful Hansel finds the path back because he marks the way with pebbles that shine in the moonlight. The second time he uses bread crumbs to track his trail, but they disappear into the mouths of grackles and rabbits and the like. The witch cages Hansel and fattens him to eat; Gretel is made into her kitchen slave. Eventually the clever girl shoves their captor into an oven, and the two return to their father without grudge. As if it was that easy to forgive betrayal.
I once loved the macabre theatre of these tales. It seemed to me, in my little girlness, that while the world was dangerous, at least it was interesting, a place where spells might explode at any moment or where children could rescue themselves. Last night I thought of H&G, now grown, perhaps choosing to forget the crone with the red eyes and the keen animal nose, the father who abandoned them. Perhaps not.
Here is their future, as seen by Louise Gluck, who authored the line I pinched for the title of this post.
Gretel in Darkness
This is the world we wanted.
All who would have seen us dead
are dead. I hear the witch's cry
break in the moonlight through a sheet
of sugar: God rewards.
Her tongue shrivels into gas...
Now, far from women's arms
and memory of women, in our father's hut
we sleep, are never hungry.
Why do I not forget?
My father bars the door, bars harm
from this house, and it is years.
No one remembers. Even you, my brother,
summer afternoons you look at me as though
you meant to leave,
as though it never happened.
But I killed for you. I see armed firs,
the spires of the gleaming kiln--
Nights I turn to you to hold me
but you are not there.
Am I alone? Spies
hiss in the stillness, Hansel,
we are there still and it is real, real
that black forest and the fire in earnest.
Poor Keats. A Scorpio with Virgo rising and, just to clinch the deal, his moon in Gemini. This is the equivalent of being dealt the Fool, the Lovers (inverted), and the Tower as the three culminating cards in an eleven-card Tarot reading. There is sadness in his life, illness, a consumptive cough. But he has a generous soul, he meets afflictions with renewed resolve, he is capable of great feats of self-discipline. Willing to work hours on meters and rhymes he is a born dreamer, who can shut his eyes and transport himself in a second to fairy lands forlorn, an enchantment of mist, an early Autumn of heirloom tomatoes and three varieties of peaches. Life is a struggle, but he prevails, and then dies young.
The fact that Keats's moon is in Gemini, that the nocturnal northeastern quadrant is predominant in his natal chart, and above all that Mercury is his ruling planet, supports the view of this poet as a divinely-ordained messenger of the gods trapped in the frail body of an undernourished London lad with his face pressed against the sweet shop window, as Yeats wrote. [Note: If you mix up the names Keats and Yeats, or pronounce one as if it were the other, the chances of your appreciating either are diminished by a seventh but not eliminated. The two names are separated by nearly five decades but linked by lyrical genius, with the prophetic mode ascendant in Yeats, while Keats -- brainy, anxious, and quick as befits a son of Mercury -- wins the laurels for sensuality and freshness: the palpable bubbles in the wine glass, the burst of a grape in the satyr's mouth, the humming of flies on the porch screen in August, keen fitful gusts of wind.]
Keats's Venus is, like his sun, in Scorpio. This is crucial. It means he is as passionate as he is sensitive and a gambler not by instinct or by social association but by his intransigent attachment to his ideals. Among Sinatra songs "All or Nothing At All" comes closest to expressing Keats's point of view. He is one who can be loved by many but who reserves his own love for one. Auden's poem "The More Loving One" depicts a conflict that Keats resolved each time he picked up his pen to write. He knew he was destined to be the more loving one in any partnership, and he would not have had it any other way.
Keats loved the four elements and presented their interaction with the cool exactness that Vermeer brought to the study of light. Not surprisingly, the two share a birthday: the 31st of October. Neither of them enjoyed trick or treating, though Keats did have an impish nature as a youth, and he loved his junkets.
The position of Mercury in the third house has caused the greatest amount of comment among professional astrologists. The consensus view is that Keats resembled certain musical geniuses in his extraordinary talent, his humble origins, and his early death. Though he was less dashing than the noble Byron and less angelic of aspect than Shelley, all the women polled said they would welcome a relationship with Keats, especially if she is in England while he is in Italy writing long gorgeous letters to her about Shakespeare plays, the nature of inspiration, the smell of mortality, and what Adam felt like waking up in Eden. Emily Dickinson, tipsy on lovemaking with Byron, said she nevertheless preferred to spend the night with Keats, despite his well-known proclivity for premature ejaculation. In his poems (ED wrote) Keats proved that greatness descends on the novice only after he has opened himself up to the risk of failure or embarrassment.
If Shelley is the poet of the autumn wind, the wind that destroys and preserves, animating the leaves and the waves and the clouds in a fury of activity, Keats is the poet of autumnal ripeness. Consider his great ode to the "season of mist and mellow fruitfulness." The final stanza of "To Autumn" is as sensual in its handling of language and rhyme as in its vision of the fullness of the harvest-time:
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barrèd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
The closing music shows that Keats took his own advice to Shelley ("load every rift with ore") to heart. A comparison of the two poets -- the one prospective, anticipatory, the other all righteous fire and visionary fury but also retrospective and melancholy -- is a fascinating study in comparative astrology. It has been said that the single most revealing piece of information you may have about a potential dating partner is whether he identifies himself more with Keats or with Shelley.
The muse visited Keats often in the spring of 1819. First came "The Eve of St. Agnes," the lovers rushing away into the night; then "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," the lover seduced and abandoned. And then came the odes, the greatest odes that English has to offer: to Psyche, to a Nightingale, on a Grecian Urn, on Melancholy, to Indolence. No poet ever packed as much magnificence in a line or wrote stanzas of such melodious charm that a simple, naive statement of Platonic optimism, which in lesser hands would be anticlimactic or worse, should seem to penetrate the heart of the mystery: "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty."
Ed note: Here's the letter Matt Burriesci, Acting Executive Director of The Association of Wrtiers & Writing Programs sent to Poets and Writers objecting to the recent MFA rankings. If you agree with Matt, why not send a letter highlighting the same points (firstname.lastname@example.org):
Poets & Writers
90 Broad St, Suite 2100
New York, NY 10004
cc: Elliot Figman, Executive Director
October 26, 2009
Dear Ms. Gannon:
I have the greatest respect for Poets & Writers, which is why I was so disappointed to see Seth Abramson’s opinion survey of MFA programs in your November/December issue. The tutelage of an artist is a complex and serious business, and it cannot be reduced to a single spreadsheet column sorted in descending order. Abramson himself seems to concede this point before proceeding. But even if one could squeeze this universe into one question, from a statistical standpoint, Abramson’s methodology would still be flawed.
The cover headline referring to the article proclaims, “The Top 50 MFA Programs,” which itself is incorrect. Abramson’s piece is not a ranking or comparison of all MFA programs, but of residential programs, and only those residential programs in the United States. Missing in this analysis altogether are the dozens of low-residency and international programs.
The sample audience Abramson used in his survey consists of 500 self-identified applicants to MFA programs. Applicants to MFA programs are only one of the key stakeholders in the success of MFA programs. Other stakeholders include faculty, administrators, current students, the professional association that represents them (AWP), and alumni. Abramson is correct to point out the problems with previous ranking efforts, but he falls victim to the same sins of omission and reduction committed in those attempts. This particular sampled audience, while interesting, does have its own set of biases in assessing MFA programs. Some may prefer to be admitted to a high-profile program, while others may be unaware of their full range of options.
It’s also an unrepresentative sample. There are more than 13,000 applicants to MFA programs each year. If we ask less than 4% of them to tell us their opinions about MFA programs, we will arrive at what Abramson produces: the opinion of this 4% of applicants of 75% of MFA programs. If you drill down, more questions are raised about the data. No demographic information appears to have been collected. We don’t know, for example, if there’s an appropriate geographical, gender, ethnic, and age variety in the sample. These factors do make a significant difference in the preference of applicants.
read the complete letter here.
Beginning Monday, mtvU will broadcast 19 short films featuring Behbahani's poems, translated by Farzaneh Milani and Kaveh Safa, and produced by Sophia Cranshaw.
On August 1, 1914 hostilities broke out
time for one last painting
before clearing out of Munich
and heading back to Moscow
That's my Kandinsky
riding blue on a blue horse
on a blue mountain the shapes shift
but the motion is constant
and the people are split
between destruction (red)
and sunrise (yellow)
If the mountain is blue
it's a triangle on graph paper
the signature on music paper
a wrecked composition
The archer is there shooting
the arrows of symbolic logic
the sky a white trapezoid
with ribbons rods billiard balls
rubber balls eyeballs keyboard
checkerboard planets snakes and canoes
they do mean something but you can't tell
what where each of thirty squares
has its sign Im schwarzen Viereck
so he leaves Germany a second time
in 1933 a dominant curve
in the soft Paris light he signs his name
with a slightly tilted K
in a right angle in the lower left corner
and the moon is in F sharp minor
can you hear it?
and that's what yellow means
and why it's my favorite color.
On May 14, 1959, at the groundbreaking for what would become Lincoln Center, President Dwight D. Eisenhower hailed the event as "a great cultural adventure." A half-century later, it's easy to forget that Lincoln Center was considered a radical idea. The marble grandeur, the imposing edifices, the central plaza that has become a great populist agora are now so deeply embedded in the consciousness of New Yorkers and tourists alike that the buildings seem to have been there forever.
Times have changed. A massive arts complex would strike us as unthinkable as well as authoritarian. Variety, not uniformity, speaks to our national commitment to diversity and spice of all sorts. And everything takes longer and costs more to construct. In the face of a national recession it is amazing that any building can go up.
Except in Dallas, that is, where the skyline made famous by the J.R. Ewing clan on television 30 years ago has undergone multiple transformations. None is more exciting than what opened here earlier this month, the new AT&T Performing Arts Center, a $354 million, 10-acre assemblage aligned on one central axis beside a bustling freeway at the edge of downtown. It constitutes the latest addition to what Dallas refers to as its Arts District (68 acres in toto), which began with the Edward Larrabee Barnes Dallas Museum of Art (1984) and includes buildings by four winners of the Pritzker Prize for architecture, none of which remotely resembles the others. These are the Meyerson Symphony Center (1989, I.M. Pei), the Nasher Sculpture Center (2003, Renzo Piano), and the two new kids on the block: the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House (Norman Foster) and the Dee and Charles Wyly Theater (Rem Koolhaas). Not only Foster and Koolhaas, but also their associates—Spencer de Grey in Foster's office, and Joshua Prince-Ramus (who later split from Koolhaas to open his own office)—share responsibility for the two projects. Still, Dallas likes to claim bragging rights for the Pritzker Prize-winners themselves, even though both buildings represent collaborative efforts.
-- Willard Spiegelman (in the Wall Street Journal online, 10/28/09)
For more of Mr Spiegelman's take on the new Dallas art complex, click here
Nature and the logic of fate have brought us to this rain-soaked afternoon and while we may not grin, speaking generally, we will bear it.
Given the bright drear outside I thought I'd splash some color inside and present to you this sketch of the mind.
Did I ever mention to you that everything is difficult? I like coffee and not having to go anyplace for hours, but I can't think of much else that passes the mustard at the great picnic table of existence. Yes, yes, love, but I don't want to talk about that right now. Of course soon I have to go to the pediatrician and arm young arms with shots in the dim, but still, there is coffee.
Tonight in class we'll talk about Yeats, especially "Vacillation" (to which this weekly blog owes its name) and "The Desertion of the Circus Animals." In the latter, Yeats talks about wanting to write but finding no story within him to tell. Rather, finding a nothing that asks something: What was I ever saying? The next stanzas talk about a play he wrote back in the day (On Baile's Strand), and a poem, on this mythical beautiful brute king named Cuchulain who ended up killing his son, unawares (Oedipus reverse) though his son knew just who he was and was swording towards him on orders from the queen. And Yeats also mentions Countess Colleen about whom he also wrote poem and play. Her people starving, she sells her soul to satisfy them, just like the present always sells the past, for the sake of the future. Anyway, despite all these densities of meaning, the poet says it was all just words and pageantry to him, he never felt the deep mind behind.
So what's left when life no longer announces itself to you? The same thing from when you had it all, just with a lot less theater. Where did he get all those angry wasted straining failures in the first place? Someplace grubby where he doesn't know anything but the archives of his scars. Is it disgusting, yes, it is disgusting, and no, it is no Coney Island of the Mind, but it is actual, and matter of factual, and when there is nothing left but uncertainty and struggle, hey, at least you have those. Here's the last stanza:
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
Nice huh? I love it with all I've got.
I had a good trip in East Kentucky, met interesting people, saw bluegrass (green) and horses (galore) and drank beer aged in barrels that late had cradled Kentucky bourbon (tasty, with a kick), and hawked my dove, dovey message of unbelieving love. This week there is an article in Newsweek that mentions my work in a lovely way.
It is very tricky getting things just right, impossible actually, but the muses in their army books insist on urging further trials, though hope is plucked and baking, slathered in rosemary and olive oil.
See you next week, perhaps under bluer skies.
Posted by Jennifer Michael Hecht on October 28, 2009 at 01:22 PM in Jennifer Michael Hecht, The Lion and the Honeycomb | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
The writer Frank McCourt wrote of his favorite graduate professor, Morton Irving Seiden, “He insisted we should know the literature the way a doctor knows the body.” Andrews seems expert on the combination of literature and the body. She explained the origin of her collection The Book of Orgasms by recalling another professor who told her not to write about sex. As if spurred by the prohibition, Andrews began writing poems such as “Defining the Orgasm” and “The Quest,” which exemplify the repressive society in which her curiosity blossomed: “We must live godly lives. God never had orgasms. Neither should I. I did my best to remain orgasmless, but curiosity got the better of me.” In her poem after Henri Michaux, entitled “The Portable Pussy,” Andrews brazenly asks, “If I have to pick between a pussy and a brain, which will it be? After all, who can choose between the player and his flute?” Andrews weaves humor into the questions she raises whether about sex or politics, the atter of which she examines in Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane.
recently published chapbook, Dear
Professor Do You Live in a Vacuum? contains humorous questions and answers composed
by college students: “Dear Professor,/ You gave us that problem/ about driving
down the freeway at 60 MPH/ in a VW bug and hitting a truck/ that was driving
at 75 MPH,/ and you wanted to know what happened next…/ I figured the answer
was simple./ Drive a truck from now on.”
When asked whether people can develop or acquire a comic gift, Andrews
suggested that humor can be learned and that reading absurd work may be a good
first step. Humor can coexist with suffering. Part of you, Andrews said, may watch
yourself suffer, and that part can see the humor in suffering.
Today would have been Sylvia Plath's 77th birthday. She left an astonishing number of good-to-excellent poems for someone who died at 30, a testament not only to her talent but to her dedication to her craft and iron Yankee work-ethic. Easily, so easily, she could have been writing still - imagine that raw voice honed by five more decades of experience and maturity.
Arguably, she is the single most influential poet of the mid-20th century. Not just her poems, written at the very edge of daring (how many of us are that psychically brave or foolhardy?), but her endlessly re-hashed and microscopically-examined life. Part of this the result of her own myth-making - at its best, her writing is so powerful, so compelling, that it creates its own epic biography. Part of this comes from the mythologizing by her own mother (her sanitized Letters Home, edited by Aurelia Plath, was a best-seller and obligatory reading by young female poets when it came out in 1978), and by the endless books and articles written about her. Anyone who knows anything about Plath knows all the details of her life: her suicide attempts, her marriage, her children, her death - and everyone has an opinion. The story continues into the present - it was just this year that her son, Nick Hughes, a biologist and expert on fishes, the baby of whom she wrote, "Love set you going like a fat gold watch," hanged himself in Alaska. Tragic, yes - but how oddly personally tragic this death felt to so many! We feel proprietary over her, as if somehow her story is part of our own.
But how can we really know someone we didn't know? The answer is, we can't . We can know the facts of Sylvia Plath's life, and we can know her work. The rest is filling in our own blanks, making Plath into something we each want her to be, something that fits our own mythology. We didn't (most of us, anyway) know her personally, and we don't, we can't, know her now, 46 years after her death. The details of a life aren't a life. And this detritus of detail and what we project onto Plath can obscure the poetry. When she writes, in the first line of "The Jailer," My night sweats grease his breakfast plate, we are pleased because we get exactly to whom she is referring and why; like teenagers whispering at a lunch table, we are in on the secret. But maybe we are so invested in the backstory, the poem itself is compromised - Yeah, you tell him, Sylvia. Kick his poetic ass.
Sylvia Plath wasn't a symbol, and she wasn't ours. She was a gifted, difficult, dedicated, passionate, troubled, and brilliant woman. Other than that, we cannot presume to say what went on in her heart. (After all, are we just what we write?) But what we can know is the work, because what we have is the work. Look, I like gossip as much as the next person. I've read the biographies and I've read her journals and letters and I know all the juicy bits. But today, on her birthday, I'd like to try to honor her poetry by untethering it from all this - to read it the way poems should be read, on their own merit, good or bad. And when Plath is good, she is transcendent. Today, I grieve in the only way I have any right to - for the poems that did not get written, for the work we will never have.
Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts.
Nor the woman in the ambulance
Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly --
A gift, a love gift
Utterly unasked for
By a sky
Palely and flamily
Igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes
Dulled to a halt under bowlers.
O my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.
Written October 27, 1962
The KGB Monday Night Poetry Reading Series
Hosted by Laura Cronk, Megin Jimenez & Michael Quattrone Presents . . .
Charles North & John Koethe
Monday, October 26 @ 7:30 PM
Admission is FREE
SEOUL, Korea -- October 22 & 23
As breath of Autumn's being bathes Seoul in hectic red, young men's fancies turn to... Costco!
Colleague Kelly Walsh and I discuss the possibility of a Costco run several days in advance. After a lunch meeting on entrance admissions and interview procedures Thursday afternoon, we tentatively agree to embark on a shopping adventure the following day. Upon answering his call Friday morning, we again discuss the benefits and detriments of a Coscto shopping spree. After a brief silence, my ear meets with a statement of indubitable gravity: "I'm running low on cheese." All doubt eliminated, I set out to Jongo to meet Kelly in his taxi bound for Sangbong, the location of the nearest Costco (there are at least three in Seoul).
This is where I wait for Kelly's taxi. As I wait, I see the following sign:
Pondering the moment of my chance encounter with this quaint shop, its window display seems a portent: is not every moment of our lives consumed with time?
I try to discern Kelly's form in the many taxis that pass. Little do I know, at this time he is approaching the Han River, far in the opposite direction. With little knowledge of the city and even less command of the language, after two years I still find it difficult to get around; Kelly has been here less than two months.
Once there, it is as if the entire staff recognizes the ardors of our journey, and welcomes us accordingly. While Kelly gets his papers in order, I take the opportunity to sanitize my cart handle.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.