Musings on Poets and Poetry

Best PoemsFor me, reading the American literary critic, Harold Bloom, is often like wading in molasses. Intellectual molasses, to be sure, but slow going nonetheless. His writing is thick with difficult ideas and difficult words. Bloom’s historical reach, his knowledge and his understanding of the tapestry of literature far outstrip mine, so I find myself scuttling to the Net or other books on my shelf for collateral references, for critical commentary, and often to the dictionary.

Bloom’s commentaries and essays are a challenge to me because his terms of reference are so much greater than my own. Hence my appreciation of them: he makes me work, and work hard to keep apace with his quick mind. Well, perhaps not apace, more like a few kilometers back, but at least following more or less in his tracks.

Shakespeare: The Invention of the HumanI first encountered Bloom’s writing several years ago through his 1995 book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, in which he argues that the Bard “invented human attributes that we think are very much our own inventions” as well as creating our language in which to talk about ourselves. Bloom goes through each of the plays, exploring and explaining them to make his point. It’s a brilliant analysis that ranges through not only Shakespeare’s works, but other parts of the “Western canon” to underscore his ideas. I often turn to Bloom’s essay on a play before I read it to get perspective and milestones to look for within Shakespeare’s words. 

A couple of years ago, I ordered his book, The Best Poems of the English Language, an anthology of poets from Chaucer to Frost. When it came, I stayed up into the wee hours reading it, then looking through my other anthologies to compare their selection of poets and poems. I was looking through it again recently as I was downsizing my library.

I have a lot of books of poetry, and most I intend to keep despite the pressure to relieve the congestion on my bookshelves. Yes, I still read poetry, perhaps not as much as I did in those younger years when I fancied I could write it, too (back in the Paleolithic of my late teens and early 20s). But I am as easily moved by poetry as I ever was, and also find it as baffling, inexplicable, contentious, beautiful, tasteless, passionate, tedious, exciting, and relevant as I ever did. However, I freely admit that what poems moved me in the past may not do so today, or at least not in the same way. I now appreciate poets who in my past I either never knew, or found leaden and incomprehensible, and wonder at my immaturity for liking those I did way back when.*

While the scope of his “Best Poems” covers an enormous, almost unwieldy, number of poets, Bloom decided to stop at those born before 1900 (to his credit, Bloom does not limit his selection to only English poets, but includes several American poets he exalts, too, but, inexcusably, he includes no Canadian poets). Although this still includes many 20th-century poets, it also means some of the century’s greatest modern poets, and some of those I consider among the best poets in the language, are missing from his collection simply for their misfortune of being born after 1899. Yes, that’s right” no Dylan Thomas!

So for me, the term “the best poems” is a marketing term; hyperbolic at best, inaccurate at worst. 

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The Cancer Diaries, Part 26

Scene from New Amsterdam

Cancer changes everything — and nothing at all.
Rabbi Skillman

That’s a profound comment, coming from a TV character. The “rabbi” in question is a fictional patient in hospital, played by George Wyner in the TV series, New Amsterdam (Season 1 Episode 8). He is talking to the hospital’s medical director, Dr. Max Goodwin (played by Ryan Eggold).  Cancer — its diagnosis, treatment, and impact on people — plays a pivotal role in the series, and offers some food for thought for viewers. This episode stayed with me for quite some time.

Skillman suffers from terminal pancreatic cancer. It’s a nasty cancer with a mere 9% five-year survival rate.* Max wants Skillman to undergo a risky surgery. The oncologist, Dr. Sharpe (played by Freema Agyeman), recommends he go home and live the remaining year or so of his life in comfort there, with drugs to ease his deteriorating condition. Either way, Skillman doesn’t want to remain a patient in the hospital to die there.

Helen warns the rabbi, “There’s a 90% chance of dying during surgery.’ Max chimes in, saying, “Or a 10% chance that you’ll live.” Skillman looks bemused and says, “Not good odds.” He chooses to go home. But sometime during the episode, Skillman opts for the surgery. When Max asks him why, Skillman says, with a certain Stoic shrug, “Tomorrow I’ll be better or I’ll be dead, but I won’t be a patient.”

I suspect every patent diagnosed with cancer has to come to terms with similar decisions, whether it be surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or a combination of them. I certainly did. You have to weigh whether the treatment offers a better chance of survival than the discomfort or disability it will cause. But for many cancers, there is no effective treatment, only palliative care. Or dying in hospital.
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The Godzilla Soundtracks

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDeU42u2s2Y

CD CoversAkira Ifukube. If you’re not an aficionado of Japanese film or a follower of Japanese symphonic music, his name won’t be familiar. But for millions of kaiju fans around the world, he is a legend. He composed the music and soundtracks for many of the Godzilla films, as well as many scifi and other films produced by the Toho film corporation. He has been ranked among the world’s great film composers along with people like John Williams, Ennio Morricone, and Nino Rota.*

I spent some time reading about the classically-trained Ifukube this past week after I received two CDs with selections from the Godzilla soundtracks, one from 1954 to 1975 (the Showa era films), the other from 1984 to 1995 (the Heisei era films). Ifukube was not the only composer for many of these films, but he was the most prolific. He is credited as the composer in eight of the Showa films, and four in the Heisei, but other composers often based their work on his themes. Masaru Satoh, Yuji Koseki, Kunio Miyauchi, Riichiroh Manabe, Reijiroh Koroku, Kochi Sugiyama, and Takayuki Hattori are credited on other films.

There are still more composers for the post-Heisei and US-made Godzilla films**, but Ifukube is credited for at least some of the music on four post-1995 Toho films. Although he died in 2006, he has credits in 2016’s Shin Godzilla and Legendary’s 2019 Godzilla King of the monsters.

The thrilling opening title of the very first Godzilla was as important to the franchise as Monty Norman’s catchy James Bond theme was for that franchise. It is the signature for Godzilla as defining as the duh-duh duh-duh theme that John Williams wrote for the shark in Jaws. While other composers created their own themes for Godzilla, few could abandon Ifukube’s masterful work and many incorporated at least part of it into theirs.

But Ifukube was more than just a film composer: he was a prolific,  accomplished, highly creative classical composer of considerable renown and would have been recognized as such even without his film scores. There’s a good, albeit brief biography of him in the chapter on Godzilla’s music in Brian Solomon’s Godzilla FAQ (Applause, 2017).

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Musings of a B-Film Junkie

The Gorilla, 1939
I put a DVD of the 1939 film, The Gorilla, into the player and sat back to watch. Bela Lugosi (above, centre) starred beside the Ritz Brothers (trio above), a popular American comedy trio contemporary with the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and the Marx Brothers. This would be the last year the Ritz Brothers worked for Fox; they stopped making films entirely in 1943. It’s the first full film of theirs I’ve seen, but am not impressed.

Lugosi is best known for his starring role in the 1931 film, Dracula. After which he was typecast as the villain, mostly in horror and monster films. Some of which were great (or at least watchable for those who love the genres), many weren’t. Despite his attempts to get into other genres, most of his roles stayed in that narrow vein, mostly in B-films. His final “A” film was the 1948 Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (which I would personally have rated a B-plus-film), but he continued making B- and C-films until 1955, the year before his death. In the mid-1930s, he played the protagonist in the entertaining fantasy, Chandu the Magician, and later its 12-part sequel, The Return of Chandu.

But sometime in the mid-1930s, Lugosi had become addicted to morphine and later methadone, administered for painful sciatica, and only checked into a clinic for help in 1955. By then it was too late: he died in ’56.

The Ritz Brothers, in this film, look like poor mimics of other comedy groups. And where each character in the Marx Brothers or Three Stooges was unique, with highly differentiated styles, dialogue, and acting, the Ritz Brothers seemed interchangeable clones: indistinguishable from one another. Their work here seems derivative and thin.

The Gorilla was shot in black and white, of course, although colour movies were already being made (Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz being the two most famous). It co-starred Lionel Atwill, a polished English actor with a string of credits to his name; this, however, was not his best work. Nor was it Lugosi’s. Although I’ve enjoyed many of his films, in this one he felt wooden; going through the motions without any real effort. 

The GorillaBilled as a “horror-comedy,” I hoped it would be better — much better — than it was, something more along the Chandu lines. While not the worst B-film I’ve ever seen, it’s a long way from the best. And I’ve seen worse gorilla costumes in movies. Not often, however.

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Point to Point: The Book From the Ground

The Book From the GroundA few years back, during one of our Toronto mini-vacations, I was browsing in the shop of the Art Gallery of Ontario, and I came across a small book that had no words, just pictures. No, it wasn’t a book with pictures of artworks or photographs: it was a story, told entirely through common icons, symbols, and emoticons. Pictograms, looking not unlike a modernized version of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

There wasn’t even a book title on the cover. There were no instructions, no guides, no hints, no translations. The reader had to figure out what the story was about by him- or herself. Translating it is not based on any particular culture or language; the “language” in it is globally understandable. On Xu Bing’s own website, it notes:

The book is written in a way that any reader, regardless of his or her cultural or educational background, can understand. As long as one lives within the contemporary society, he or she will be able to interpret the book.

It was Xu Bing’s Point to Point, part of his Book From the Ground project (created between 2003 and 2012; a project that is much more complex than just a book). As you might expect from an avid reader, I bought a copy. I was intrigued by the premise and took it as a challenge to “read” it myself. But I was also awed by both the audacity of the idea, and, as an aficionado of language, by the brilliance of it.

I was also struck by how ubiquitous were these symbols he uses; so much so that ‘translating’ the lines into prose was not particularly difficult; merely time-consuming. And that was mostly because we are used to seeing these symbols and emoticons as single-function graphics; not in verbal form or in the syntax we expect for sentences. The symbols lend themselves to prosaic, even dull reading, not abstract concepts, so the ‘story’ is rather unexciting by modern novel standards. It’s more like a diary: 24 hours in the life of the generic Mr. Black.

Mr. Black is Dilbert, without the cynical/sarcastic banter, without the jokes on cube life, without the cast of wacky characters, yet trapped within the same day-to-day corporate life.

ArtReview wrote of the book:

From Point to Point, part of Xu Bing’s wider project Book from the Ground, is a 112-page novel depicting 24 hours in the life of an ordinary office worker, Mr Black, from seven one morning to seven the next, as he wakes, eats breakfast, goes to work, meets friends, looks for love online and goes out on a date. The book has punctuation marks, but no text; in place of words there are pictograms, logos, illustrative signs and emoticons, all taken from real symbols in use around the world. The artist has collated these over a period of seven years and used them to devise a universal ideographic language, in theory understandable by anyone engaged with modern life.

Page from The Book From the GroundAt the same time I bought the book, I wanted to learn more about the artist who created it, how he accomplished it, and what he was trying to say about language and symbols. So I bought a second book to help me understand: Mathieu Borysevicz’s The Book about Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground. This explained the project and Xu’s processes, his computer work, and explored responses to his work.

In 2015 and 2016, Xu Bing created separate day and night (respectively) pop-up versions of his book, described on his website as “making this universally readable book more playful and amusing.” I have yet to get either, but I’m tempted.

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Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra


We recently watched the Darmok episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, my third time seeing it, and I was struck again at how brilliant and quirky it was. Possibly the best of all the ST:NG’s 178 episodes. And, apparently, a lot of other fans agree with my assessment. Wikipedia describes it:

The alien species introduced in this episode is noted for speaking in metaphors, such as “Temba, his arms wide”, which are indecipherable to the universal translator normally used in the television series to allow communication across different languages. Captain Picard is abducted by these aliens and marooned with one other of them on the surface of a planet, and must try to communicate.


You can read the episode’s transcript here. Here’s a sample:

TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: Kadir beneath Mo Moteh.
DATHON [on viewscreen]: The river Temarc! In winter.
(that wipes the smiles off their faces)
PICARD: Impressions, Number One?
RIKER: It appears they’re trying their best.
PICARD: As are we. For what it’s worth.
DATHON [on viewscreen]: Shaka, when the walls fell. (to his officer) Darmok.
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: (aghast) Darmok? Rai and Jiri at Lungha!
DATHON [on viewscreen]: Shaka. When the walls fell.
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: Zima at Anzo. Zima and Bakor.
DATHON [on viewscreen]: Darmok at Tanagra.
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: Shaka! Mirab, his sails unfurled.
DATHON [on viewscreen]: Darmok.
TAMARIAN [on viewscreen]: Mirab.
DATHON [on viewscreen]: Temarc! The river Temarc.
(Dathon takes his aides dagger, and his own, and holds them out)
DATHON [on viewscreen]: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

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Still Watching the Three Stooges

The original Three StoogesThere’s a bittersweet pleasure in watching the Three Stooges these days, knowing about them, their careers, their lives. What seems like zany comedy on screen was, like so many celebrity stories, much more complex, contentious, and even tragic at times. But there’s also an insuppressible joy in their work that keeps drawing me back to watch more. Moe, Larry, and Curly (and Shemp) will always bring a smile to my face. The subsequent replacements for Curly sometimes will, too, although not as often.

And with more than 200 film credits to their names, running from 1930 to 1970 in both shorts and feature films, there’s a lot to watch. One hundred and ninety of those short films were for Columbia Pictures alone (1934-59). These can be seen today online or in DVD collections from Sony (released as multi-year sets from 1934 to ’59, and as 17- or 20-disc collections; yes, of course, I have them). There are 51 other films or shorts in which they collectively starred or have a role, 17 of which were newsreels or bio-shorts.

And that doesn’t include all the films several of them made solo (Shemp Howard in particular was prolific) nor their 156-episode cartoon series, The New Three Stooges, that included live-action segments, and ran from 1965-66. And even this doesn’t show off their impressive careers that began in the 1920s in vaudeville. Moe Howard was performing on stage with his friend Ted Healy in 1923, joined by his brother Shemp in 1924. Louis Feinberg — aka Larry Fine — joined them in 1928. The three would appear with Healy in their first film, Soup to Nuts (1930), but parted ways with Healy over a contractual dispute. For a couple of years, the trio performed onstage as “The Three Lost Soles” and “Howard, Fine, and Howard.”

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Remembrance Day thoughts

Poppy salesAn article on the Global News site titled “Fewer Canadians plan to wear poppies this Remembrance Day, poll finds” made me think again about what Remembrance Day is for. The article opens:

Fewer people plan to participate in Remembrance Day ceremonies or wear poppies this year, according to a poll from Historica Canada that also suggests knowledge of Canadian military history is dwindling.

To be fair, I’d suggest knowledge of pretty much everything factual is dwindling. One only need look at social media posts from anti-vaxxers, or anti-maskers to see how much knowledge of science and medicine has been lost in recent years. And, like most followers of pseudoscience and conspiracies, such stupidity is a self-inflicted wound. 

And, too, it is difficult to fault people for not attending group ceremonies during a pandemic when health officials are warning against large gatherings. Non-participation on Remembrance Day in 2020 might have a lot to do with that. This year, like many others in our community, we observed our two minutes of silence at home.

I’ve found it’s a bit difficult to even find poppies this year: I have only seen them for sale in the post office, locally. Of course, this year I have not looked for them in as many places as in previous years, so I might not have visited a location where they were available.

Still, excuses aside, I wonder what other reasons people would have for not participating. Are people just getting jaded? Or simply don’t care about showing respect? Are we losing our collective memories as we lose our veterans?

I recall writing an editorial for the newspaper some decades back, asking where all the municipal employees were, who got a holiday on Remembrance Day but didn’t show up at the cenotaph for the ceremonies. And standing there during the silence, I could always see trucks and cars racing by on First Street, and pedestrians and cyclists going about their business, ignorant of the significance of the events taking place a hundred or so meters away.

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The Long Read Lost

Reading by candlelight
“What we read, how we read, and why we read change how we think, changes that are continuing now at a faster pace,” wrote Maryanne Wolf, a neuroscientist, in her book, Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital World (Harper Paperbacks, 2019). It’s the sequel to her previous book on reading and neuroscience, Proust and the Squid (Harper, 2007). In that latter book, Wolf famously wrote,

We are not only what we read, we are how we read.

Reading — Marcel Proust called it a “fertile miracle of communication effected in solitude” — is a breathtakingly remarkable, and uniquely human talent, yet one that we have no genetic disposition for, like we have for speaking or for social behaviour. No one is born knowing how to read. It must be learned by each of us individually, painstakingly from a young age and practiced through a lifetime. It is the classic case of nurture over nature. Yet there are an estimated 800 million illiterate people in the world today.

Learning to read changes our brains, rewires our neural networks, creates new connections, and helps us think. Not in a metaphorical sense: the changes have been mapped by neuroscientists like Wolf and her colleagues. Yet reading (and its co-host inventions, writing, and the alphabet; itself even younger at a mere 3,800 years old), is a very recent talent, historically speaking. The oldest known record of writing is a mere 5,500 years old; the oldest Sumerian tablets are about 4,400 years old. The first complete alphabet (ancient Greek: with symbols for vowels as well as consonants) is from around 750 BCE. In modern times, the first book was produced on a Western printing press only about 570 years ago. That’s a remarkably short time in the 300,000-400,000-year history of our species.

“In a span of only six millennia reading became the transformative catalyst for intellectual development within individuals and within literate cultures,” Wolf added. Right from the beginning of writing, stories were part of the written record: the imaginations of ancient civilizations were carved on clay and in stone, for us to read even today.

Literate cultures. The term might refer to cultures which have a reasonably high level in the ability to actually read regardless of its content, but could also refer to a civilization that has a culture of deep, passionate, and lengthy reading: one that celebrates in books, poetry, magazines, and other forms of the written word. It’s a civilization that has book clubs, discusses and shares books, has public libraries and bookstores, poetry festivals, and has plays performed and authors celebrated. A literate culture even has cursive writing (somewhat of a canary in the coal mine of literacy).

We are such a culture, even though — at least from my perspective — we continue to move at an accelerating pace to a more visually-oriented, non-reading culture, away from the written form; a short form culture where the tweet, the sound bite, and the YouTube video all have more reach than a long article or story. Our attachment to many of the longer written forms is dissipating. Long reads online are often prefaced by the initialism TL:DR — “Too Long; Didn’t Read” with a tweet-sized precis for those who will not (or cannot) read the longer piece.

The quality of our reading is not only an index of the quality of our thought, it is our best-known path to developing whole new pathways in the cerebral evolution of our species. There is much at stake in the development of the reading brain and in the quickening changes that now characterize its current, evolving iterations. (P. 2)

We live in an astoundingly complex, complicated, demanding, challenging world. To understand it even at a very basic level, we need to be able to read and read deeply; not simply watch videos or read tweets. We need to ignore the noise of social media and open books, newspapers (real newspapers, not merely the local ad-wrappers), and magazines to get a fulsome explanation of what is happening in our lives. No one can understand or learn about politics, economics, or science from tweets.

Not reading deeply is plunging us into an increasingly anti-intellectual age, suspicious of learning and science. We have world leaders who are barely literate or are even functionally illiterate, and yet who take pride in their ignorance. The result is the proliferation of conspiracy cults, pseudoscience, anti-mask and anti-vaccination movements, and both political and religious fundamentalism (most of which claptrap, not surprisingly, originates from the right wing of the political spectrum).

And it’s not just Donald Trump, although he is the epitome of the illiterate, uninformed, conspiracy-addled leader. Look at the leaders of Turkey, Brazil, Hungary, India, the Philippines, and even here in Ontario: populist (rightwing) leaders like these share similar attributes, including a distrust of institutions, science, and experts. I’ve served with members of our local municipal council who never even read agendas or staff reports, let alone books (we now have a council replete with such non-readers). The result at all levels of government is evident in the decay of public debate, the reduction to populist, slogan-based oratory, slovenly and uninformed decision making, and lackluster governance. But I digress.

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