11/15/14

Poems That Make You Cry


Poems That Make Grown Men CryI cannot read Dylan Thomas’ poem,Do not go gentle into that good night‘ without a lump in my throat. I read it at my father’s funeral, several years ago, so for me it has a personal context that retains its emotional impact. Many poems move me or touch my heartstrings, however, that have no such personal context, although I cannot recall the last time one moved me to tears.

When I got Anthony and Ben Holden’s book, “Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them,” I expected to be deeply and powerfully moved by the poems in it. Yet for the most part, I wasn’t. I read through it, then put the book down. I thought, perhaps it was my mood at the time. This week I re-read it. The result was the same: much of the poetry had little or no emotional effect for me.

Most of it, I thought, was very good poetry: skillfully written, beautifully crafted, stuff that made me pause and think. But not cry. In fact, most of it elicited an intellectual rather than an emotional reaction. That isn’t a bad thing, just not what I expected from a book with that title. I want poetry to slip past my thinking brain and tweak the organs that send a chemical rush of emotions through me. I want to feel a poem raise the hairs on my arm or a lump in my throat before I start to analyse the words.

The Holdens begin each poem with a piece by the man (or in a few cases where more than one chose the same piece, men) who explains why he chose the particular poem. Then the chapter ends with a brief biography of the chooser(s), so the reader can frame his or her appreciation of the poem in some context. This really helps in some cases, but not all. (As for why just men: read their introduction).

For example, the Japanese hokku (a brief poem, later renamed as haiku) by Fukuda Chiyo-Ni and chose for the collection by Boris Akunin:

Dragonfly catcher
Where today
have you gone?

As Akunin writes, it seems either mysterious or banal, but once you learn that the author wrote it after she lost her little son, it becomes deeply poignant. You can read more of her work here.

But as David Orr wrote in his book, Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, poetry – and books about poetry  – has a limited audience today:

…the potential audience for a book about poetry nowadays consists of two mutually uncomprehending factions: the poets, for whom poetry is a matter of casual, day-to-day conversation; and the rest of the world, for whom it’s a subject of at best mild and confused interest.

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11/7/14

The Theology of The Fly


The Fly CollectionWhile watching the 1958 film of The Fly last night, I was struck by its similarities to Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein. And in the similarity of the underpinning morality of both.

I recently picked up the DVD collection with all three movies (The Fly, Return of The Fly and Curse of the Fly, plus a collection of special features).*

I saw the original film back in the late 1950s at the drive-in with my parents, and I’ve seen it on TV since, but not for many years. It’s not quite the “terror topping supershock thrill sensation” promised on the box (a term lifted from ads for The Return of The Fly and similar films).**

Still, it’s a good, classic example of the genre. As I watched it last night, I was struck by several things in the movie I had not considered before.

First is the role of Vincent Price. Known for his serio-comic roles in horror films – mostly B-films – he was usually cast as the villain, often some sort of mad scientist character. In The Fly, he plays a dramatic, sympathetic role, not the sort of person one expects of Price. Not villainous at all; a very understated character. helped no doubt by a literate script written by James Clavell (later novelist of Shogun and Noble House fame).

Second is that the film was shot in colour, which was not common for low-budget films (the sequel was shot in B&W) but the sets and props were minimal (the basement lab is more a metaphor for mad scientist than an actually believable laboratory). It looks more like the set from Father Knows Best than a monster film.

Third is the aforementioned similarities with Shelley’s Frankenstein (the original novel, not the subsequent films, which, with rare exception, veer significantly from the book’s plot – but again to be fair, the film script of The Fly changed the plot of the original short story).

In both, the moral of the story is that messing around with Nature (aka God) is wrong and ends in tragedy. In both, the creatures have a strong sense of morality. In the novel the creature (Shelley never names him) develops his views and behaviour from observing humans; in The Fly is it the essential humanity still maintained within Andre, the human-turned-fly. In both, they make a decision “for the best” or the greater good that involves their own death (suicide, although in Shelley’s story the creature only vows his own death; the act is not described, thus allowing us to wonder if he carried it out).

That ending is quite different from the usual monster film in which the creature is overcome by villagers, loyal friends, the police, a priest, a doctor or some other figure (or group) that represents authority, orthodoxy and the community (you can see in monster films the metaphor of the stranger or outsider a la Camus or Kafka, versus the status quo – The Wild One with a bug’s head).

The Fly also features an assisted suicide, which makes it relevant to the debate going on today about that issue. Plus it has a mercy murder – or is it? Is the fly with the human head a human? – which raises the question or euthanasia in another light. The short story also has a suicide. All big, moral and ethical issues.

Both stories make us question our values. Are the creatures worth our sympathy, or at least empathy? Or simply horror and disgust? Do they have a soul? Are they to be hated (the Frankenstein Complex that despises the artificial results of scientific experiment) or pitied? Helped or destroyed? Do they reason or are they simply animals? And is it right to experiment on animals?

And how does our perspective on the fictional characters relate to our perspective in the real world – towards animals, insects, other humans (especially those with physical or developmental challenges)? Shelley’s creature is a walking, talking human – but is treated like an animal to be hunted and destroyed. The Fly creature is a human-insect meld, unable to speak but capable of writing, that in the end must also be destroyed. Although why either needs to die is never made clear – they certainly don’t pose a threat to humanity, although they may to individuals. There’s no justice for monsters, no due process.

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10/30/14

Words, Your Brain and Sex


Naked readingOne of the reasons I’m a dedicated librocubularist* can be found in a story on IFL Science that is headlined, “Learning New Words Activates The Same Brain Regions As Sex And Drugs.” It opens:

While it doesn’t get much better than sex and drugs for many out there, new research has found that simply learning a new word can spark up the same reward circuits in the brain that are activated during pleasurable activities such as these. No wonder there are so many bookworms and scrabble addicts out there.

So nothing like a good, brisk read through the Compact English to get in the mood, eh? Get all purfled from the effort of learning new words. While you groak your snoutfair mate and suggest she festinate her reading while she tells you to be testudineous while she deliciates her words…

The actual article this story draws from doesn’t exactly say that learning new words is the same as sex or drugs. What it says is that learning them lights up the regions of the brain that kicks into play when it wants to reward you. At least it works on people who were being studied under MRIs, not necessary those in libraries or bookstores. Don’t go ecstasiated over it, yet.

It does the same thing for gambling, although I have to admit for this unrepentant mumpsimus, my own reward-centre connection for learning kicks a much more powerful punch than that for gambling. It’s a burden I bajulate well, though.

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10/29/14

Larry & Jerry’s Inferno


InfernoI had forgotten about this book until recently when I came across a reprint. I read it originally in the late 1970s when I was reading a lot more sci-fi than I do today. (Many years ago, I ran a Toronto computer convention where I invited the authors to be the keynote speakers. I got to spend many hours and a memorable dinner with them.) I finished the reprint only a few days ago and started the sequel, Escape From Hell, shortly after.

I was researching Dante of late for something I’ve been slogging at for the past couple of years, when I came across the novel again. I’m always looking for something to sharpen my understanding of Dante, and sometimes a perspective like this can help.

Dante’s Inferno, the first of the Divine Comedy trilogy, has always fascinated me for its complex subject matter; its politics, theology, human drama and vision. I have numerous translations of it on my bookshelves. Some I keep just for the introduction and notes – the poetry is almost unintelligible without a guide (which is amusing; you need a second Virgil to guide you through Dante’s references and make sense of them in modern terms).

Dante is tough, but not for his words. Those are easy to read, but the poems are full of historical and literary references that make little sense to the average (non-academic) modern reader. Some of those references were contemporary to Dante, others are classical. Archaic politics have little resonance today.

He also had a rather ornate, medieval theology that furnished his view of Hell (apparently influenced by the writings of Thomas Aquinas (who I have not read but may some day tackle the 3,500-page Summa Theologica if i can work up the nerve). Without having some background knowledge or at least an edition with good notes, the words themselves often don’t tell you as much as you need to know.

Pinsky’s version was my favourite, although Kirkpatrick’s translation made it a close second last year. I recently started reading Mary Jo Bang’s colloquial version and it so far intrigues me, although it seems to have annoyed some critics for her modern (and not literate) interpretations. I also have the Ciardi, Wordsworth and Musa translations. Musa’s notes are worth the book alone.

Since its first translation into English, in 1782, the Inferno has been the subject of much literary discussion and the merits of each translation heavily debated. Ciardi’s version seems to have garnered the most accolades before Pinsky. I am somewhat iffy about versions that attempt to replicate Dante’s three-line rhyming scheme – it can seem rather strained – and tend to like blank verse versions better.

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10/24/14

A Modern Take on Gorgias


GorgiasPlato’s dialogue Gorgias is mostly about the difference between content and form. Or rather it’s about how Socrates saw the difference between philosophy – content and truth – and rhetoric – form and words. Both of which are practiced and studied today in much different forms from what they were in ancient Greece. But the essential core of his argument is still there for us.

Socrates felt rhetoric  – oratory – was shallow; merely using words for persuasion, for effect, for emotion: it lacked the validity, the meaning and depth of philosophy. It lacked truth and knowledge.

If you look at the dichotomy in Gorgias as one between science, fact and evidence on one side, and pseudoscience, conspiracy theories and angry bloggers on the other, then it makes sense in a modern way. Instead of the speeches he discusses, imagine them like this: as blog posts. Gorgias argues his speeches are about freedom – angry bloggers often argue their posts are a right, and they have freedom to write whatever they please, to belittle and demean others without punishment. A modern Socrates might label these sophists “A” types.

What kind of change, then, does rhetoric effect in the soul? Socrates infers from Gorgias that it is persuasion. What kind of persuasion? One kind of persuasion “provides belief without knowing,” and another “provides knowledge.” Clearly knowledge is better than true belief, which is better than false belief, and more knowledge is better than less knowledge. But rhetoric merely imparts belief, Gorgias admits, and experience shows that rhetoric produces both true belief and false belief (454e). By this reasoning rhetoric, to the extent that it is a theoretic art, is powerless to effect the best possible change (knowledge) in the soul of the hearer, but it has the power to effect the worst possible change (false belief) in the hearer’s soul.

This may be the main reason that Socrates stops discussing the greatest of goods and begins to discuss the greatest of evils. It is important to protect one’s soul against the worst effects of rhetoric. Socrates refers to the greatest of evils, in slightly different formulations, over a dozen times. The subject matter of the greatest evil takes many forms, most notably that of injustice. Can the state of soul called false belief be reconciled with the state of soul called injustice?

One could easily apply Socrates’ views about content versus empty form to the local political scene: the debate between financial facts, facility facts and council accomplishments versus the fictions, fantasies and outright lies presented in attack ads, on social media and angry blog posts. Wikipedia tells us:

Socrates believes there are two types: “…one part of it would be flattery, I suppose, and shameful public harangue, while the other—that of getting the souls of the citizens to be as good as possible and of striving valiantly to say what is best, whether the audience will find it more pleasant or more unpleasant—is something admirable. But you’ve never seen this type of oratory…” (502e). Although rhetoric has the potential to be used justly, Socrates believes that in practice, rhetoric is flattery; the rhetorician makes the audience feel worthy because they can identify with the rhetorician’s argument.

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10/23/14

Crito: Doing What’s Right


Collected DialoguesIn his dialogue, Crito, Plato has Socrates gently admonish his friend, Crito, for his concern over what the uneducated public might think, or might spread by rumour and gossip, and encourages him instead to focus his attention on those ‘reasonable people’ who know the facts and in doing what is right:

“Why, my dear Crito, should we pay so much attention to what ‘most people’ think? The really reasonable people, who have much more claim to be considered, will believe that the facts are exactly as they are.”
(Trans. Hugh Tedennick, The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Bollingen Series LXXI, Princeton University Press, 14th printing, 1989)*

Had this been written today, Socrates might tell his friend not to be concerned with the chatter on social media; look to informed people rather than simply those posting on Facebook and Twitter.

Crito, however, replies with a caution:

“…one has to think of popular opinion as well. Your present position is quite enough to show that the capacity of ordinary people for causing trouble is not confined to petty annoyances, but has hardly any limits if you get a bad name with them.”

Socrates then says he wishes people had the same capacity for doing good as they do for doing harm, but adds that, although they may put him to death, the masses do not change who you are: “They cannot make a man wise or stupid; they simply act at random.”

He later comments that, “…one should not regard all the opinions that people hold, but only some and not others…” Crito then agrees with his statement on opinions that, “one should regard the good ones and not the bad… the opinions of the wise being good, and the opinions of the foolish, bad…”

“In that case, my dear fellow,” Socrates continues, “what we ought to consider is not so much what people in general will say about us, but how we stand with the expert in right and wrong, the one authority who represents the actual truth.”

Socrates wants to hear from a moral expert; without finding one, he has to make up his own mind on what is right and wrong.

Crito, one of Plato’s shorter ethical works, is ostensibly about the death of Socrates, but it’s really about how to live an ethical life even under dire circumstances: wrongdoing damages the soul and must be avoided.

Socrates awaits his fate in his prison cell and is visited by his friend, Crito, who encourages Socrates to flee into exile. Socrates says no, and accepts his coming death calmly. However, the dialogue has much to say to us today outside of its historical context.

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10/16/14

Cold Mountain Poems


Han Shan and Shih TeI first became aware of the Tang dynasty poet, Han Shan, in the late 1960s, when I was engrossed in reading the poets of the earlier Beat generation. It was at that time that, through them, I started to discover and explore Western Buddhism – as it was adapted and represented through their experiences and words. I eagerly read everything by Alan Watts and Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg and others from the era.

Sometime around then, I discovered a few of Han Shan’s poems. Beat poet Gary Snyder had translated 24 poems for the Evergreen Review in 1958, and later included them with a collection of his own poems in his 1959 book, Rip Rap and Cold Mountain Poems. My copy of that book, in its 1966 reprint, has long since vanished from my shelves. But I remember the effect they had on me: their austere simplicity, their sincerity, their unfeigned naturalness.

I found Snyder through Kerouac’s portrayal of him in his novel, The Dharma Bums (which I also still have on my shelves). Around the same time I discovered haiku, Kenneth Rexroth’s translations, and translations of other T’ang poets: Li Po, Wang Wei and Tu Fu in particular… books which I still have. Snyder’s translations were crisp, clear and poignant.

Han Shan means “Cold Mountain” in Chinese. It’s not simply a place: in the poetry it’s a metaphor for both a state of being and a spiritual destination. The reader is not simply looking at a person: he or she is looking at a mirror: Han Shan is telling us to look within. The poems are important in the literature of Ch’an Buddhism, which later migrated to become Zen in Japan.

Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?
translated by Gary Snyder.*

His original name has been lost in the ages between us. He has been dated to a wide range of years in the T’ang dynasty, between about 577 and 901 CE. He has also been identified as different individuals during that period, as well as a collective of poets. He travelled and wrote with a companion, Shih-te, although some authorities suggest they were the same person. No one knows for sure. All we know is that he wrote his poems on rocks (and maybe on bamboo and the wood or the walls of houses).

His only contemporary biographer, Lu Ch’iu-yin, Governor of T’ai Prefecture, wrote this of Han Shan:

He looked like a tramp. His body and face were old and beat. Yet in every word he breathed was a meaning in line with the subtle principles of things, if only you thought of it deeply. Everything he said had a feeling of Tao in it, profound and arcane secrets. His hat was made of birch bark, his clothes were ragged and worn out, and his shoes were wood. Thus men who have made it hide their tracks: unifying categories and interpenetrating things. On that long veranda calling and singing, in his words of reply Ha Ha! – the three worlds revolve. Sometimes at the villages and farms he laughed and sang with cowherds. Sometimes intractable, sometimes agreeable, his nature was happy of itself. But how could a person without wisdom recognize him?

You can read other biographical accounts online, including this one at Hermitary.

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