Yvor Winters, a modernist with a difference (and to some, one belonging to the New Critical movement, but not to others), wrote this short poem, “A Song in Passing,” about death, and dying, and the experience of mortality:
“Where am I now? And what/Am I to say portends?/Death is but death, and not/The most obtuse of ends./No matter how one leans/One yet fears not to know./God knows what all this means!/The mortal mind is slow./Eternity is here./There is no other place./The only thing I fear/Is the Almighty Face.”
According to Wikipedia, Winters felt that even an poem about disintegration should not have a structure which imitates disintegration. He referred to this form of writing, which he eschewed, as the “fallacy of imitative form.” He felt that the Whitmanesque tendency to create sprawling style in order to write about the greatness and spread of the American continent was a mistake. Instead, one’s structure in a poem should contain the meaning without imitating one’s subject.
In the poem quoted above, the frequent modernist tools of an irony of double-edged words and contradictory statements carry the weight of portraying the speaker’s fear of death and the hereafter. For example, to begin with the title, “A Song in Passing” sounds light-hearted and lyrical until one realizes that “passing” has a more ominous meaning than the same sort of lyrical emotion generated by such a song in Robert Browning’s poem sequence, “Pippa Passes,” in which “God’s in his heaven–/All’s right with the world!” In Winters’s short poem, “God knows what all this means!” is at first a casual non-religious expression of ignorance in which “God” signifies only mystery, and then when the capping line of the stanza comes, “The mortal mind is slow,” the notion of God begins to seem more like a real possibility.
This more serious “passing” contradicts the idea of a “song” to the extent that the poem is about death and dying and thus the effort to ”sing” is full of attempts to be conclusive. But then there are those pesky moments of apparent bewilderment, then more definitive statements, and finally (in the last stanza) an outright reversal of rhetorical direction.
The one significant repeated word/concept, “fear,” is at the very heart of the poem. If one were to discuss in Shakepearean terms the proposition contained in the abrupt about-face of the last stanza, “The only thing I fear/Is the Almighty Face,” one would look to Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, in which he speaks of the country of death as “The undiscovered country from whose bourne/No traveler returns,” the country which “…makes us rather bear the ills we have/Than fly to others that we know not of….” Yet note how it’s the back and forth from attitude to attitude, from pose to pose, from concept to concept, which dictates the movement of the poem, and not an emotional outpouring, not even Wordworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility.” This poem smiles wryly and nervously, like someone with a slight facial tic attempting to control his or her movements, and yet we see the cause of the repressed feeling just as clearly as if the poet had wept buckets of verbal tears over his topic, which on the whole would probably have struck us as cloying.
This is a poem whose wit is as evident as its statements are terse, and it seems obvious that Winters’s light touch is meant to convey neither a faith in God nor an atheist’s skepticism, but the average person’s quandary when confronted with the question of final things. Though the situation may be average, however, the poem shows an outstanding and spectacular mastery of form, which helps the ordinary person in real life to cope with such overwhelming questions and the possibility of even more overwhelming answers in the end. How fortunate we are to have a poet whose perspective is not so far from the average, yet whose means of expression is so extraordinarily lithe and graceful!
In 1867 (and 1869), the English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson published a poem attempting to reconcile pantheism with Christianity of the traditional “God the Father” variety. The poem was entitled “The Higher Pantheism,” a title which itself indicates that plain pantheism was to Tennyson a “lower” sort of religious thing. Due to the poem’s being already published elsewhere on the Internet, I am able to give you the whole of this contrarious and sometimes confused-seeming poem, and though it is long for my page, I will do so in order that you can see for yourself the “knots” Tennyson tied up his religious logic in to form a “basket” to hold his beliefs. The Poet Laureate to Queen Victoria obviously had a duty to God and country which came above poetic quality, though his parody writer Swinburne (writing in 1880) had good things to say about the writing while finding the thought muddy (the version of Swinburne’s parody which is published online at the University of Toronto Press T-Space by Professor Ian Lancashire has notes about a letter of Swinburne’s containing some lines of the parody, though in order not to violate Professor Lancashire’s online copyright, I am reprinting Swinburne’s parody from an edition which occurs elsewhere on the Internet on free sites without the letter. Those who are interested in reading the letter and comments can do so at T-Space ). Here is Tennyson at his elevated and obfuscational best in “The Higher Pantheism”:
“The sun, the moon, the stars, the seas, the hills and the plains–/Are not these, O Soul, the Vision of Him who reigns?/Is not the Vision He, though He be not that which he seems?/Dreams are true while they last, and do we not live in dreams?/Earth, these solid stars, this weight of body and limb,/Are they not sign and symbol of thy division from Him?/Dark is the world to thee; thyself art the reason why,/For is He not all but thou, that hast power to feel ‘I am I’?/Glory about thee, without thee; and thou fulfillest thy doom,/Making him broken gleams and a stifled splendor and gloom./Speak to him, Thou, for He hears, and Spirit with Spirit can meet–/Closer is he than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet./God is law, say the wise; O soul, and let us rejoice,/For if He thunder by law the thunder is yet His voice./Law is God, say some; no God at all, says the fool,/For all we have power to see is a straight staff bent in a pool;/And the ear of man cannot hear, and the eye of man cannot see;/But if we could see and hear, this Vision–were it not he?”
Actually, the poem is rather fine in many respects, though its singsong quality can be an annoyance, and the tone is of one trying a bit too hard to make ends meet spiritually. But his poetic successor Swinburne, who was also his occasional imitator (in metrical terms, though not in spirit) made much of Tennyson’s little weaknesses in “proving” God’s existence, and did so partly by tactical repetition of meter and rhyme in the same style of singsong, no mean feat for the average poetaster but probably quite easy for Swinburne, who had a gift of meter, rhyme, alliteration, and assonance on his side anyway, to name a few only of his poetical qualities. Here’s his delightful parody of Tennyson, entitled “The Higher Pantheism in a Nutshell”:
“One, who is not, we see; but one, whom we see not, is;/Surely this is not that; but that is assuredly this./What, and wherefore, and whence? for under is over and under;/If thunder could be without lightning, lightning could be without thunder./Doubt is faith in the main; but faith, on the whole, is doubt;/We cannot believe by proof; but could we believe without?/Why, and whither, and how? for barley and rye are not clover;/Neither are straight lines curves; yet over is under and over./Two and two may be four; but four and four are not eight;/Fate and God may be twain; but God is the same thing as fate./Ask a man what he thinks, and get from a man what he feels;/God, once caught in the fact, shows you a fair pair of heels./Body and spirit are twins; God only knows which is which;/The soul squats down in the flesh, like a tinker drunk in a ditch./More is the whole than a part; but half is more than the whole;/Clearly, the soul is the body; but is not the body the soul?/One and two are not one; but one and nothing is two;/Truth can hardly be false, if falsehood cannot be true./Once the mastadon was; pterodactyls were common as cocks;/Then the mammoth was God; now is He a prize ox./Parallels all things are; yet many of these are askew;/You are certainly I; but certainly I am not you./Springs the rock from the plain, shoots the stream from the rock;/Cocks exist for the hen; but hens exist for the cock./God, whom we see not, is, and God, who is not, we see;/Fiddle, we know, is diddle; and diddle, we take it, is dee.”
Aside from enjoying the beard-tugging going on in the parody, one of the first things one notices is that the parody is about one-fourth again as long as the original poem. Clearly, Swinburne was enjoying himself, and the very forthright and yet absurd ridiculing going on is part and parcel of his own vision. For example, it’s not so much only an exaggeration of Tennyson to say “The soul squats down in the the flesh, like a tinker drunk in a ditch” as it is a combination of the two poets’ attitudes in their poems, Tennyson more or less an apologist for the “higher” view, that the body is a “sign and symbol” of the soul’s division from God, hence a sort of “dirtier” thing which must be excused or apologized for, Swinburne a celebratory poet of things earthly, who yet feels their transitory nature as an impetus to memorialize them in poetry. And this, the exaggeration of what one can take away from another’s poetry added to one’s own ingenious inventions in a similar meter and rhyme, is the very spirit of parody. One could perhaps say that the best way truly to understand a poet or writer is to attempt a substantial and stylistic parody–after all, one must get the gist of the thought and tempo in order to make fun of it: one must know what both oneself and the other are about.
“My trade and my art is living” (Montaigne)–or, Francesco Marciuliano’s “I Could Pee on This (And Other Poems By Cats)”
In my lifetime, though you might not guess it to observe me now, I have had many friends, and many types of friends. And during my life, I have also known and loved many a cat friend, both my own and other people’s. So how does it come about only now that I finally happen across this excellent collection of “poems by cats” (sic), and am able to convey my heartfelt appreciation for such a fine and noble effort of “editing” as Francesco Marciuliano has done with the work of his feline artists? The fact of the matter is, that no one else has thought to seek out the works of cats before now (the small, conveniently gift-packaged size volume only came out in 2012). Up until now, they have been reduced to the meow, the miaow, the mew, the–but complete the list in your own favorite world language: the fact of the matter is that they have been short-changed as to their place in the world’s pantheon of poets. As the flyleaf of the book points out, “All cats are artists, as demonstrated by their abstract hairballs, expertly stripped curtains, and the precise way they arrange themselves on top of your pile of freshly cleaned clothes.” There is a pdf of the book on Scribd, and I understand from at least one link that the book started as an online venture, and then grew to a full-scale published book, and now there is a second volume out, which I have not yet had the chance to peruse.
In this book, you will find the true meaning of many a thing your cat does and says to you, little though you have previously understood it. There are even photographs of cats in the brief volume, just to prove that this effort met with their cautious approval (I say cautious, because caution is evident any time a cat chooses to try to communicate with us; he or she is clearly taking a risk with an obtuse listener, the human, who only thinks of owning him or her and doesn’t properly understand the true ownership equation).
This excerpt from the book (the title poem) is published on the Internet on the advertising site: “Her new sweater doesn’t smell of me/I could pee on that/She’s gone out for the day and left her laptop on the counter/I could pee on that/Her new boyfriend just pushed my head away/I could pee on him/She’s ignoring me ignoring her/ I could pee everywhere/She’s making up for it by putting me on her lap/I could pee on this/I could pee on this”
Or, the more action-packed poem for those who like to hover uncomfortably at the edge of their seats wondering what will happen next: “Nudge/Nudge nudge nudge/Nudge nudge nudge nudge nudge nudge/Nudge/Your glass just shattered on the floor”
Then again, perhaps a “dawn song” (a medieval form of poetry between two intimates) is more to your taste: “I lick your nose/I lick your nose again/I drag my claws down your eyelids/Oh, you’re up? Feed me”
There are other even more ingenious and humorous and heartfelt poems in the volume, but I can’t print them here because they haven’t yet been featured on a totally free site on the Internet, and I not only want to abide by copyright conventions, but also wish to pay proper tribute to this wonderful success at meeting a real need by encouraging you to buy the book, out at Amazon.com and other sites, and in fine bookstores everywhere, for only $12.95 (for all I know, Amazon.com has some used copies for even less, though you would probably not buy those for a gift, but for your own bookshelf). So, what do you say? How about a gift package for the next important occasion in a fellow cat lover’s life? A small basket, a cushion, a few tins of pricey cat food or some expensive cat treats, and this book–even if you yourself are only a cat tolerator, surely you can rise above your odd prejudices and buy this book for a friend. As the book blurb explains, “You’ll discover why cats do things like sit on your face before the sun comes up, help clean your bedside table with their tail, or confirm that there really are one thousand sheets in a toilet paper roll.” And for this voyage of knowledge and discovery, you have only to visit online or in person at a bookseller’s. Can anything be easier or more desirable than that? Look deeply into the next set of bright cat eyes you happen to meet, and realize that they are only waiting for you to meet them halfway–and then the other half. Well, what did you expect? Ancient royalty and modern artistic genius have their privileges.
“Sentimentality is a failure of feeling,” says Wallace Stevens, and Robert Browning speaks of “Lyric Love, half angel and half bird”–the difference between lyricism and sentimentality
As Wallace Stevens, never sentimental and occasionally even one of the most coldly obfuscational of poets, warned us at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the sentimentality of the Victorian Era was on the wane, “Sentimentality is the failure of feeling.” No one could doubt that there was intense truth in his poetry and very little false feeling, though just what the poetry is about has often perplexed and frustrated other poets, literary critics, and scholars alike. And though Robert Browning was a poet of the Victorian Era, and had ups and downs of sentiment himself, that’s not the same as saying that he was sentimental. The two are different things, sentiment and sentimentality. As he apostrophized in “The Ring and the Book,” “O Lyric Love, half angel and half bird,/And all a wonder and a wild desire.” In a sense, the two capitalized words in his long poem are interchangeable, “Lyric Love” and “Love of Lyric.” Even as long ago as the time of Horace (65-8 B.C.E.), Horace was enthusiastic enough to say in one of his odes, “But if you name me among the lyric bards, I shall strike the stars with my exalted head.” That image, though comic perhaps to the ironically inclined, is still not guilty of the bathos–false inflated sentiment, unlike the true feeling of pathos–which I have singled out for part of my post topic today.
All of this background fluster and flurry is part of my setting for a discussion of a poem or two by a woman poet (“female” or “feminine” poet are terms of opprobrium to sexist men and terms of reduction to women themselves, used to ducking the charge of being too “gushy” and “touchy-feely” in their poems). The poet herself is Edna St. Vincent Millay, and she has been charged by some with being a minor poet and participating in the sin (especially to our cynical, hard-minded times) of sentimentality. But I would like to insist instead that her love poetry is both hard-minded, occasionally quite biting and ironic, and full of genuine feeling. Her point of view on the question of the charge is quite clear. As she said in one of her lyrics, entitled “To Those Without Pity,” “Cruel of heart, lay down my song/Your reading eyes have done me wrong./Not for you was the pen bitten,/And the mind wrung, and the song written.” Note that she calls it a “song,” a synonym in a particular context for the word “lyric.” There must be something which sings and moves and encourages rhythm in a poem, whether it rhymes or not, whether or not it has meter, and her poetry has all of this. And often, critics’ objections against what they call “sentimentality” or “bathos” is in actuality an objection to being caused to have feeling themselves, to be drawn to emotion by the skilled words of another. Love poetry is especially susceptible to this charge, because love is the one subject upon which we all are vulnerable, whatever kind of love it is, the one weakness that few of us can defend against at some time or other of our lives, and the particular thing we like being challenged upon the least, whether someone would say we feel too much or not enough. Let’s look at one of her shorter lyrics, called “Never May the Fruit Be Plucked”:
“Never, never may the fruit be plucked from the bough/And gathered into barrels./He that would eat of love must eat it where it hangs./Though the branches bend like reeds,/Though the ripe fruit splash in the grass or wrinkle on the tree,/He that would eat of love may bear away with him/Only what his belly can hold,/Nothing in the apron,/Nothing in the pockets./Never, never may the fruit be gathered from the bough/And harvested in barrels./The winter of love is a cellar of empty bins,/In an orchard soft with rot.”
That poem certainly contains a cynical enough view, and yet it is a love poem, and is full of image and feeling and sense and does not force the reader’s head down with overdone emotion. The feeling communicated is sufficient to the subject itself.
Or this one, a rhyming and more “singing” poem this time, called “The Betrothal”:
“Oh, come, my lad, or go, my lad,/And love me if you like./I shall not hear the door shut/Nor the knocker strike./Oh, bring me gifts or beg me gifts,/And wed me if you will./I’d make a man a good wife,/Sensible and still./And why should I be cold, my lad,/And why should you repine,/Because I love a dark head/That never will be mine?/I might as well be easing you/As lie alone in bed/And waste the night in wanting/A cruel dark head./You might as well be calling yours/What never will be his,/And one of us be happy./There’s few enough as is./”
This poem has an especial effect which I really like, and it’s in the ungrammatical last line. To be grammatically correct, the expression (referring to people in the plural) should read “There’re few enough as are.” But by using a colloquial and idiomatic “sting” of a line as the last, which moreover rhymes, a more folkish wisdom emerges from the final portion, and seals off the entire experience of the foregoing lines with an almost gnomic feel.
Probably the most famous poem Millay ever wrote (which has been recorded musically and is reprinted on several sites) is the longer poem “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” which I don’t have space for here today, but which I strongly recommend as a marvelously lovely picture of mother love, full of emotion and caring and none of it false, of a length of about five printed pages, all of which will repay study and attention for their smooth flow and melodic development of the theme of how a child witnesses a parent’s love and concern without always knowing until it’s too late how much that care costs. The fantasy element that is present from the beginning of the poem makes the life picture broad enough to cover a number of slightly different situations, all of them with the same emotional tenor, proving that certain conditions are worldwide, like impoverishment, generosity, worry, ingenuity, beauty, death, and even magic, of sorts.
Finally, Millay is a veteran composer of the sonnet form, and I would like to add one example of this to my discourse of today. The sonnet is entitled “When I too long have looked upon your face”:
“When I too long have looked upon your face,/Wherein for me a brightness unobscured/Save by the mists of brightness has its place,/And terrible beauty not to be endured,/I turn away reluctant from your light,/And stand irresolute, a mind undone,/A silly, dazzled thing deprived of sight/From having looked too long upon the sun./Then is my daily life a narrow room/In which a little while, uncertainly,/Surrounded by impenetrable gloom,/Among familiar things grown strange to me/Making my way, I pause, and feel, and hark,/Till I become accustomed to the dark.”
Millay is more modern in many ways than Christina Rossetti, but the domestic and natural imagery, the sometimes fantastic elements as in “The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver,” and her book of poetry for children which is equally important to adults (as with Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”) make her Rossetti’s true inheritor poetically speaking. Try this experiment: read a number of Millay’s poems, both the rhyming and the metered and the blank and free verse and then read this famous poem of Rossetti’s, and see, barring a slightly more stiff-upper-lipped emotional resonance in Millay, if you don’t find them very similar in their styles, perhaps their world views, even. This poem of Rossetti’s is called simply, “Song”:
“When I am dead, my dearest,/Sing no sad songs for me;/Plant thou no roses at my head,/Nor shady cypress tree./Be the green grass above me/With showers and dewdrops wet;/And if thou wilt, remember,/And if thou wilt, forget./I shall not see the shadows,/I shall not feel the rain;/I shall not hear the nightingale/Sing on as if in pain./And dreaming through the twilight/That doth not rise nor set,/Haply I may remember,/And haply may forget.”
Points proven if only in brief, I hope. In an era in which we have a proliferation of mass literature with plenty of bathos and sentimentality, and a literary fiction pulling hard in the other direction, even to the point of sometimes seeming too callous and unfeeling, perhaps, as Richard Gilbert has recently posted on his site in reference to Wordsworth, we need to return to the middle ground via reading good lyric poetry which, while enshrining feeling in a key and secure spot at its heart, yet fends off the “bad” sentiment or the weak line (the two are often one) by the depth of its reaching into the human experience.
Three different considerations of the difficulties and goals of one’s life work, one from Browning, two from Yeats….
Having written recently about the intersection of inspiration and technique in one’s art or craft, I come now to three related writings, all poems, about the commingled doings of inspiration, technique, difficulty, success, and of course everyone’s creative bugbear, failure. Let’s begin with a story told in first person, one of Robert Browning’s famous dramatic monologues. It’s called “Andrea del Sarto,” and has the subtitle “(called ‘The Faultless Painter’).” It’s much too long to reproduce here, so I’ll have to content myself with repeating the gist of it and giving you the most important quoted section for my post. It’s basically an imaginary monologue based upon the life of Andrea del Sarto, an actual painter, who was once a court favorite of King Francis I of France, but who was drawn away from court and from support of his aged parents by his infatuation for his wife Lucrezia, who was also his model, and who led him a dance. The poem itself indicates that she grudgingly gave him attention, even to his work, which was supporting them, and instead spent her time with a largely spurious “cousin,” a usage which implies that she was cheating on del Sarto.
Browning’s monologue is one which is filled with certain regrets del Sarto supposedly has about having left court and lost his following to paint pictures of Lucrezia for the odd patron who comes along and falls in love with her beauty. Of course, being in love with her himself to an uxurious degree, del Sarto constantly forgives her and speaks against his own ambitions. Still, they do not go entirely unmentioned. And when he comes to the subject of art, he not only gives himself a harsh consideration, but puts forth a “theory” of art, which shows that his work is also never far from his thoughts and that it is in fact the pull between his love and his art which is making him miserable. This is how that part of the poem goes, with its famous lines about heaven and achievement of the utmost:
“There burns a truer light of God in [my rivals],/In their vexed beating stuff and stopped-up brain,/Heart, or whate’er else, than goes on to prompt/This low-pulsed forthright craftsman’s hand of mine./Their work drops groundward, but themselves, I know,/Reach many a time a heaven that’s shut to me,/Enter and take their place there sure enough,/Though they come back and cannot tell the world./My works are nearer heaven, but I sit here./The sudden blood of these men! at a word–/Praise them, it boils, or blame them, it boils too./I, painting from myself and to myself/Know what I do, am unmoved by men’s blame/Or their praise either. Someone remarks/Morello’s outline there is wrongly traced,/His hue mistaken; what of that? or else,/Rightly traced and well ordered; what of that?/Speak as they please, what does the mountain care?/Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/Or what’s a heaven for? All is silver-gray/Placid and perfect with my art: the worse!”
And so on and so forth, comparisons to both lesser and greater painters of his time continuing. He criticizes his art, and sometimes to a hesitant and slight degree his model, Lucrezia, and says it’s “As if I saw alike my work and self/And all that I was born to be and do,/A twilight-piece.” All of this relates to his own strange pull amongst ambition, and perfection of craft, and love, with his awareness that the nature of aspiration demands one must always have another level to ascend to, another goal, something that possibly cannot be reached. His wife “rewards” his love for her in this manner willy-nilly, and it is as if he is a partially beaten man, wondering if his art will do the same thing.
Yeats, who has written many poems about art and artists and the life of the same has his own moments of expressing either a strange mixture of exhilaration and defeatism, or a calm acceptance of failure–the difference is, of course that the former is about his own work, the latter about that of another. In the first poem, he documents his contrary and mixed emotions of infatuation and personal vexation with his job as director-manager of the Abbey Theatre. It’s called “The Fascination of What’s Difficult”:
“The fascination of what’s difficult/Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent/Spontaneous joy and natural content/Out of my heart. There’s something ails our colt/That must, as if it had not holy blood/Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,/Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt/As though it dragged road-metal. My curse on plays/That have to be set up in fifty ways,/On the day’s war with every knave and dolt,/Theatre business, management of men./I swear before the dawn comes round again/I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt.”
“Our colt” is of course the divine horse Pegasus, emblem of creative inspiration, yet Yeats shows quite clearly in this poem how he reacts to all the stops and starts and quandaries and problems of a practical nature that afflict those working in his theatre, with special reference to his own role and his temptation to “find the stable and pull out the bolt” and let the horse escape, probably more occasional than he lets on, since I suspect just writing this poem relieved some of the tension.
Finally (though of course there are so many aspects of the complicated questions having to do with inspiration and achievement that writers and artists will always have more to say), there is Yeats’s poem entitled “To A Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing.” It is in this poem that I sometimes see the Yeats I like least, the Yeats who is not always at his hard-headed best, but who is a little sentimental, coyly daft, and perhaps a bit glib, with his famous mysticism thrown in and passing for a genuine vision, whereas in other poems it’s quite remarkable and eerily convincing. At the end, I have to suppose that Yeats may have been aware that this poem is one of his own which is an encapsulated experience of what it is itself discussing, i.e., he may have known that this tribute was a partial failure of his own art, yet was perhaps unable to offer better:
“Now all the truth is out,/Be secret and take defeat/From any brazen throat,/For how can you compete,/Being honour bred, with one/Who, were it proved he lies,/Were neither shamed in his own/Nor in his neighbours’ eyes?/Bred to a harder thing/Than Triumph, turn away/And like a laughing string/Whereon mad fingers play/Amid a place of stone,/Be secret and exult,/Because of all things known/That is most difficult.”
On the other hand, if one looks for one of those many connecting highways and by-ways and intersections and coincidences so common in Yeats’s poems, one will notice the coincidence that he uses the work “difficult” in both poems. It seems to suggest that possibly the “Triumph” spoken of is only actually a question of public personal acclaim, and that the work itself, whatever it may be, which his friend accomplished–or himself, Yeats was not above “dividing” himself into two and writing one to the other–was in fact a Triumph of a private sort, not a failure at all. The familiar Yeatsian take on the “mad” person, one who is inspired by something not usual or not usually of this world, is thus included here as another emblem of the divine as it enters the humdrum world of human life, just as the horse Pegasus was seen as a ragged and whipped colt in the world of theatre politics and arrangements. Take it as you will. Yeats’s shoulders are creatively certainly broad enough to bear my previous charge, that he is sometimes a bit too whimsical.
Thus, to take it all in all, neither Andrea del Sarto with his wandering wife, nor the complaining theatre prime functionary, nor the “mad” talent in the third poem who is advised to let harsh words pass are any of them really expected (and perhaps are not inclined) to give up the fight and actually throw in the towel when it comes to artistic goals and aspirations. Their trials are just the bumps one can expect to find along the road to art, should one be so “daft” as to make the artistic and creative one’s perpetual mental habitat. So, if you are a person who for one reason or another likes to make ideas or things, or simply one who likes to mull over and meditate in print or otherwise on others’ creations, perhaps my post today will provide some fodder for your own private “Pegasus,” and keep him from kicking down the walls of his stable the next time you fight through your own creative struggles and torments. Here’s to the high road of creative reward and difficulty alike, for my choice! How about you?
Let’s start with the facetious, progress to the serious, and then wind down (or up?) with the point of my post for today. It’s not a long post, in any case, but I hope to raise a few thoughts and speculations about how we bloggers go about blogging and adhering to a schedule of publication even when it’s a gloomy winter and our fingers are a little bit frozen as they peck the keys, and we really haven’t been reading much lately, so we have nothing much to blog about (or at least not if our posts are usually about literature). What have I been doing instead of blogging and reading good literature, you ask? Well, I’ve been trying to drag and haul and “unpack” (as Shakespeare somewhere or other would have it) words from my “word hoard” (the ancient Anglo-Saxon for “vocabulary”) to fill the pages of my novel. I also took time out to watch an opera production over the computer from Met Opera On Demand, “Madama Butterfly,” to be precise. So it’s not that I’ve been totally unproductive: I’ve just not fulfilled my (self-appointed) duties as a blogger very well. But I promised you something facetious, so let’s begin at the beginning.
For those who like comedy routines and have a memory which reaches back a few years, there’s the comedy team called “Firesign Theater,” a group of several talented no-longer-young comedians who by now have cut a number of records, of which I am the proud possessor of about four. Those who have their spoofy take-down of Shakespeare album (and who still have a turntable to play it on) may well remember, I believe from their jests about weather conditions in “Hamlet” or possibly “Macbeth” on the heath, the immortal lines–delivered in the true ornate Shakespearean manner and accent–”Crack, cheeks; blow, wind,” and other such gems of parodic genius. There’s also the school adventures of Porgie Tirebiter (a spoof of Archie and Jughead-style teenage fables) from “I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus,” their parody of Sherlock Holmes entitled “The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra,” and the topical albums (they were popular in the late ’60′s and early ’70′s) “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers” and “In the Next World, You’re On Your Own,” to name only the albums I’m personally familiar with. There are more, which a search on the Internet will turn up. These four inspired raconteurs of rowdy routines were (and I hope still are) Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, and Philip Proctor. And here’s the nub of it: though they had obviously had to rehearse their routines to get all the remarks and the sound effects filled in in their appropriate spots, they had a way of playing off each other’s jests which struck one as more truly like improvisational theater than planned writing. It is absolutely delightful what they can do with words, concepts, events, and other people’s creations. And the freshness is preserved by the sense of their being especially inspired on the instant to make their jokes. And here (though of course “many a truth is spoken in jest,” as we know) we switch to the serious part of my post. How does one access one’s inspirational genius?
One of the most interesting and vitally creative and worthwhile books I’ve ever read is the famous Russian director and teacher Konstantin S. Stanislavski’s book An Actor Prepares. It’s all about how he went about training his students to act by the manner now know as “method acting,” of which he was the main inventor. Nevertheless, though it is about acting and acting students and the theater and plays and playwrights, it is a work which everyone, painter, actor, literary critic, sculptor, academic, novelist or poet, or anyone in any other creative field should read, for its advice on inspiration. Though there are many scenes and incidents in the book in which Stanislavski spurs his students to new heights of creativity by his advice and teachings, there is one key scene which I will have always in my memory, and which is the gist of my own thoughts on creation to the present day. Stanislavski was reproaching a certain student for his slipshod work in the manner in which he portrayed his character. The student, like many a student everywhere, earnestly (but perhaps a trifle lazily?) responded that he had tried and tried, but he didn’t feel “inspired” that particular day with that particular character. Stanislavski’s response? He lectured the student that it was not his primary job to “be inspired,” rather it was his job to develop his “technique.” He believed that technique was the bread and butter (or the meat and potatoes) of the creative world. Inspiration, by contrast, was something that came along where and where it would, and was more like the icing on the cake. It could not be relied upon, because it was a will-’o-the-wisp, likely to disappear if too heavily relied upon. The best possible creative solution was always to have one’s technique at the ready and in operation, and while maintaining one’s openness to allow inspiration to come along, always be prepared to do a simple workmanlike job in the event that it deserted one.
And where do I come into this post, as I indicated that I would at the beginning? Well, it’s only that I’ve tried day after day (like Stanislavski’s erring and excuse-making student) to come up with an inspiration for a post, and finally today while I was looking for something to post upon, my eyes ran across a book by a theater person named Sonia Moore, written on the Stanislavski method. And a light bulb did indeed go on over my head, so I guess it was really a kind of inspiration, in a way, but before I could just take the improvisational moment and the inspiration and run with it, I felt it only fair to share not only my original reading of the book, but also to connect it up with all the ins and outs of the vexed question of inspiration and improvisation themselves. And so, here it is: a post a bit longer than I thought it would be, but one I hope which will repay your attention and give you too something to think (or read) about the next time your inspiration lags. Toodle-oo! for now–post done!
In this post, I’m going to start with the ending, then do some standard description of the book. There was no standard disclaimer in the book about the fiction having to do only with no actual people, alive or dead, and in fact I didn’t run into the “disclaimer of the disclaimer” until the last page–I had been a good and servile reader and not looked ahead to “spoil” the story or satisfy my impatience. Here’s what I read on the last page:
“Author’s Note: You will find in many novels a fine print disclaimer about the story, about the coincidence of similarity to real people and real events. It is a proclamation that fiction is fiction, regardless of its wellspring. This novel does not carry that disclaimer. It would be a lie. I have taken To Dance With the White Dog from truth–as I realized it–of my parents. There was a grand romance of life between them, and my father’s loneliness following the death of my mother was a terrible experience for him. And there was a White Dog. And my father did believe White Dog was more than a stray. In this novel, I have changed names, numbers of children, and other facts. I did this for two reasons–dramatic intensity and detachment, both necessary in relating a personal memory to an unknown audience. I do not mean to offend the truth. I only wish to celebrate its spirit.”
This book, dealing with at least some actual events and people as it does, is still fictionalized and as such, using the fine imaginative lens of Terry Kay to reach its realization, has a great deal to do skirting the delicate edge between sentimentality and sentiment, the first a definite drawback to experiencing genuine emotions dealing with death and dying, the second, sentiment, being an especial plus where it occurs. The basic story line concerns an elderly man, Sam Peek, who is still robust though on a walker, and whose children cluster around him with their emotions not always under proper control when his wife “of fifty-seven good years” dies and leaves him alone while still surrounded by well-meaning offspring. The sentiment is what the author is striving to picture, the sentimentality is what he is trying to eschew, even while picturing the sometimes overwhelming emotionality of the man and his children towards everyday events which call the mother’s death to mind.
This is a tough job, and yet I believe that by and large Kay manages to bring it off, though a cynic might mock the simplicity of the world view(s) of the characters. Kay leaves his characters alone and doesn’t usually attempt to explain them away, controlling most of what happens from the old man’s viewpoint, whether he is actually “dancing” with the mysterious white dog which appears after his wife’s death or whether he is writing in his journal and enjoying a playful plot to tease his children, particularly his daughters, who worry about him too much and crowd him with their concern while he is trying to maintain control of his own feelings.
The stray dog is the first center of his children’s concern, because their father tells them that it appears to be fed and will let him touch it and comes in his house, but none of them can see it, at least not at first. Realizing that his daughters think he’s barmy and attempting to amuse himself at their expense, he deliberately gets in front of them and pretends to pet an invisible dog, and to dance with its paws on the front of his walker. They can never see it, and furthermore their dogs don’t bark when he says his dog is around, so of course they start to wonder if they should make other plans for their father than allowing him to live alone with themselves checking in on him periodically and sometimes coming to cook for him. Finally, however the blazing white dog is seen at a distance, and Neelie, the old African-American woman who was a special friend of his wife Cora’s, tells them it’s a ghost dog with their father, and they aren’t sure what to believe, not only what they believe but what their father believes. This is perhaps a weakness of the text, that a stereotypically ghost-fearing older black person would have this perspective and voice it for them, but then I can’t apply the same standards to Terry Kay’s book that I might apply to a work of pure fiction, because for all I know Neelie was modeled upon a real person who happened to have these particular traits. That is a matter for Kay’s creative conscience.
One thing I can speak to is that the characters more or less speak and act like real people otherwise, not like cardboard cutouts of people in the Deep South, and they do things that are not stereotypical. For example, one of the sons threatens a father of some ne’er-do-wells whom he thinks may have harmed his father when the old man suddenly disappears for a few days, and there is a later scene when he repents of the threat, not because there was any bad result of it externally, but because he realizes that the father of the miscreants may in fact be as worried about the careers of his own boys as all Sam Peek’s children are about their missing father, who it turns out later has simply taken his white dog and gone off on an adventure of his own, the last big one of his life.
Taking all of these things together, I enjoyed my reading of To Dance With the White Dog, and found that it used simple language and concepts to put forth some very complex ideas about living and dying. It is a quick but by no means negligible read, and has made fans in many places, perhaps one of the most far-flung geographically speaking The Most Reverend Desmond M. Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop of Capetown, who had this to say about the book, my copy of which was dated 1990: To Dance With the White Dog is a hauntingly beautiful story about love, family, and relationships.” This is the essential thing one can say about the book, because it really doesn’t matter whether the dog is real or not, a ghost dog or not: what matters is what the characters do with the circumstances they are given, caring for each other in circumstances of that eternal enemy of humankind, death. In this book, the characters show the way of death’s defeat and the triumph of their own supposedly weaker mortality in the contest between the two. And that’s what “dancing with the white dog” is all about.