Sunday, September 30, 2007

Art Institute Poems--Alexa A.

Head of Guardian King
Originally uploaded by Daniel Lestarjette

Head of Guardian King--Alexa A.

Once Buddha’s mountain soldier,
A guardian against evil spirits,
Speaking the first word of the universe.
Now the unblinking eyes stare into
Undulating museum lights
With unwavering ferocity
While an eight year old boy
Snaps and flicks a wall switch
Bringing the guardian king to life
Under the blare. He speaks words
Of doom and damnation
Into the gaping, gummy mouth
Of the once king, threatening to
Kill me with one toothless,
Rubber band bite.

The boy skips past Joan of Arc
And busts of Italian women,
To shove his fingers
Up the nose of the king
With his storm cloud eyebrows
And bulgy, colorless eyes—taunting
All the monsters in his closet
That have fought back until now.
Mom reminds him, “just don’t put anything
In your mouth.” But he tastes with
Eight year old hands and bony fingers
Tickling the tongue of the touch
Gallery king and allowing the guardian
To taste the salty fingers lingering with
Happy meal grease, frantic to swallow
The temperature and texture

Of the head of the guardian king.

Another Conference Ekphrastic

The artists painting Cuba from memory
or from photographs, from family stories
of the exodus, from dreams, know
their bloodlines are not clear. The work
is mongrel, neither Cuban nor American.

--the first lines of Uprooted from Finding Cuba, Jill Baumgaetner's collection of poems. The piece is what Hollander would call "notional ekphrasis."

Friday, September 28, 2007

A Redundant Riff on Tension in Poetry

Originally posted at The Gazebo, an online poetry workshop.

1) The tension between sentence and line is, for me, what makes poetry poetic. The play between these two basic units of meaning not only tugs between one meaning and another, but also can stretch out sound, rhythm and meter. Enjambment, obviously, is a key way to make this tension work. In A Poet’�s Guide to Poetry, Mary Kinzie talks about it this way: �”When the line ends before the sentence does, we can say that the threshold of the line is in tension with that of the sentence. In cases of such tension, the line can provide a partial or temporary meaning or suggestion that is at odds with the meaning of the completed sentence. I call these provisional meanings before moving off the line half-meanings. The half meanings of the lines that run on would be in tension with the whole meaning that emerges when the sentence has come to its end”� (49).

One of the best examples of this that I know is in Scott Cairns'� poem �The Spiteful Jesus.� Cairns writes about the particularly American version of a savior who was:

borne to us in the little boat
that first cracked rock at Plymouth
petty, plainly man-inflected
demi-god established as a club
with which our paling
generations might be beaten
to a bland consistency.

The play on the half-meaning of the word �club� is absolutely dependent on the sentence-line tension, as a reader’�s temporal experience of the poem changes, completely, how you read the word after finishing the whole sentence.

2) The second kind of tension I think about is also in the above section by Cairns, and that�s the pull between several connotations or allusions attached to a single term or image. "�Borne to us"� does this, as does "�club"� and "�paling."� It'�s more than just punning, I think. It�’s the simultaneous opening up and shutting down of possible meanings that creates a tension for the reader, a mostly good tension, though too much of it can wear me down when I read.

3) The last kind of tension, and one I�’m less good at using in my own writing, is to play with and against a reader�'s metrical expectations. Obviously a caesura does this. So can a slight change in the accentual quality of a particular metrical pattern. Robert Frost’�s �Home Burial� uses these kinds of tensions to heighten the narrative tension that already exists between the spouses. The poem has what one critic calls a �subverbal menace which gets it about right in my book. To accomplish that, Frost fiddles with the elements of blank verse, inserting daunting pauses that emphasize the gap between the man and woman and also using colloquial speech in ways that break up the natural iambic pentameter. This little bit comes from the beginning of the poem:

She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again. He spoke
Advancing toward her: 'What is it you see
From up there always -- for I want to know.'
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time: 'What is it you see?'

In the second, third and last lines here, the caesuras really stop the movement of the line and sharpen the narrative tension. And the same can be said for his repeated phrase, which doesn�’t precisely scan.

A Primer on the Poetic LIne

Why lines matter in poetry

The line is, for most readers, what makes a poem something other than what we read and speak in the rest of our lives. Like prose or conversation, poems are made of discrete terms, sentences and phrases (and fragments, and noises). What seems to distinguish the poem from these other instantiations of language is lineation and its effects on meaning, sound, and movement. Of course this is simplistic—heightened attention to diction, to “formed” language, to figures of speech, to image, to sensory encounters with both idea and emotion—these also comprise the territory of a poem. But they do not do so as exclusively as the line. Line breaks, line lengths, lines arranged in stanzas, and “memorable lines” collect to give us visual, auditory, and meaningful encounters with poetry. What follows is a primer on the poetic line, a stripped down but useful list of some of the factors and choices that contribute to poetic lineation as it has developed and is practiced by contemporary poets writing in English. (Please see the bibliography below and interlaced links, both indicating my sources for these notes).

Two (usually supplemental not contradictory) ways to view a poetic line

1) As a metrical or sonic measure of language—as primarily a device that controls and moves a reader’s experience across and through the auditory landscape of a poem. In metrical verse (verse that measures and repeats), patterns of emphasis on stressed and unstressed syllables create the movement or stopping of a poem. In rhymed verse, the ends of lines coincide with particular word sounds. In free verse, line breaks and enjambment alternate between movement and rest, giving emphasis and attention to particular words or combination of sounds. In Whitman’s poems, echoing the parallelism of the Psalms and prophets, repeated beginnings and structures of sentences--anaphora--produces a definitive cadence. In some free verse, poets consider the line to be a unit of breath. See Levertov on this.

2) As a unit of meaning that works in distinction from or cooperation with a poem’s other grammatical elements, primarily the sentence. Lines that enjamb, for instance, can create half-meanings that are extended or challenged by the subsequent line. Mary Kinzie argues that it is “partial meaning and dissatisfaction” the compel us to keep reading in a poem, that propel us forward. Champions of the organic line insist that a poem’s lines should mimic the subjects they represent, or the experience of those subjects (think of Whitman’s or Ginsberg’s long lines). Others will suggest that each line of a poem should have a kind of independence and weight that merits being set off as a line. Kinzie, again, suggests that the very act of creating lines indicates the substance of each line is equal to that of another—this is a measure of meaning rather than merely of sound.

Ten reasons to end a poetic line

1) Formal/Metrical reasons often determine where to stop. Whether writing iambic pentameter, common meter hymns or pop tunes, a line often needs to end once a certain collection of stresses and syllables has been collected.

2) Lines often close at the ends of phrases or sentences. In Hebrew poetry, for instance, the opening or closing tags determine a line’s shape (see Ps. 70:2-4, for instance). Other parallelisms—antithetical ones, for example—can also make this determination.

3) Free verse tends to offer two kinds of lineation—broken phrases (anti-grammatical) and more complete units of phrase (grammatical). These can both be end-stopped or enjambed to varying effect.

4) Many poets enjoy employing violent or dramatic line-breaks that draw attention to themselves, to particular terms, sounds or meanings. See G. Brooks’ We real cool. Other line breaks are more subtle, drawing less attention to themselves. Both sorts seem necessary for one another.

5) Lines end when they carry a certain weight of image or meaning, when that vision or sense matches the weight and shape of other lines. This goes to Kinzie’s idea about lineation itself suggesting a measure of equality between lines.

6) Lines work to create provisional meanings, to foreshadow a sentence’s conclusion or to set up a tension between the line’s meaning and that of the sentence or phrase once it is complete. See Scott Cairns’ The Spiteful Jesus. A warning here—the continuous use of tension can lead in time to no tension at all.

7) Repetition (and variation) of a phrase, set of sounds, or metical unit can determine line length or ending. Anaphora is one example of this sort of lineation.

8) Rhymes and slant rhymes can be reasons for ending a line. Rhyme often affects enjambment by couching or curbing it—giving range to the movement of a sentence. However, enjambment tugs against rhyme because line tugs against sentence. End stopped rhyme offers a formal set of sonic stop to the poem while enjambment moves the poem forward, the rhyme being a kind of passing connectivity but not a stoppage.

9) Grammatical or syntactic inversion can also be reasons to shape and end a particular line. The variance on the Subject-Verb-Object construction creates its own set of contingent meanings and connotations (mention parataxis v. hypotaxis, or Cairns’ appositives in a poem like Possible Answers to Prayer).

10) The imagistic, sonic, symbolic or cognitive stress of ending and beginning words also matter in breaking a line. For this reason, many poets take care that the ending word of a line is significant in one or more of these ways. An opening up of connotation (or a more denotative shutting down) might be especially important to consider at the end of a line. Some poets think of a strong word (strong in any on of several senses—meaning, sound, image--being the landing point, or turning point, for a line’s ending.

What some poets say about the line, the sentence, and the poem

Jorie Graham on long lines:
When you’re using many sentence-length lines, what becomes useful is parsing out key stresses at turning points—where the line breaks, and where it resumes. Deciding which terms are going to be in stressed positions, how each one is going to “back up,” as it were, all preceding stress points, makes for a very relativistic prosody, but one that can be precise in spite of the length of the phrasings. . . the trick is to get the right words stressed of necessity by a reader in order to key the emotion down the page.

Graham on the shorter line:
Once you being talking from the position of being a social creature, you go back to the line in which social discourse takes place, the pentameter. It’s a more exterior line, which, since Shakespeare, we associate with people speaking to one another. On either side of it stand more unspeakable lines—longer lines for the visionary; shorter and more symmetrical ones for song, spell, hymn; and shorter yet for the barely utterable, the shriek, the epitaph.

Graham, again, on the indented line:
The indented line became a very useful place to negotiate and control the music of the poem. I was . . . very interested in the sentence, in the kinds of energies the sentence awakens—desire for closure, desire for suspension of closure, desire for simultaneity in a stream of temporal action that defies simultaneity. . . . what happens along the way of the sentence that you’re in the process of undertaking, the think you can’t put alongside but that has to actually happen in the sentence as a “dependent” phrase?

The indented line allows you to modulate the sentence and keep it capable of carrying so much without collapsing. It’s all a matter of freight carried to speed of carriage, to mangle Frost’s quote. It gave me a kind of lift—and three musical units: the full line, the shorter fragmentary line that condenses stresses on very few words—often words that could never carry a stress—prepositions, articles, conjunction—words which, if stressed, truly alter the nature of actual inquiry of the poem is; and the “landing”—the often-times single word on the left margin which takes the strongest stress of all. Those “landing words” gave me a king of propulsion that made a rather long poem feel like a containable lyric utterance.

Charles Wright on the work of a line, short or long
“Each line should be a station of the cross."

Mark Doty from Souls on Ice (describing the writing process of the poem “A Display of Mackerel”).

I did feel early on that the poem seemed to want to be a short-lined one, I liked breaking the movement of these extended sentences over the clipped line, and the spotlight-bright focus the short line puts on individual terms felt right. "Iridescent, watery," for instance, pleased me as a line-unit, as did this stanza:

prismatics: think abalone,
the wildly rainbowed
mirror of a soapbubble sphere,

Short lines underline sonic textures, heightening tension. The short a's of prismatics and abalone ring more firmly, as do the o's of abalone, rainbowed and soapbubble. The rhyme of mirror and sphere at beginning and end of line engages me, and I'm also pleased by the way in which these short lines slow the poem down, parceling it out as it were to the reader, with the frequent pauses introduced by the stanza breaks between tercets adding lots of white space, a meditative pacing.

Michael Ryan, from Grammar for Poets
One could also graph the sentences in poems across the same stylistic range, according to how they fulfill-frustrate-play with-or-against our S-V-O expectation. Poems no less than prose are made of sentences, and expectations of sentences (by the reader), and avoidances of sentences (by the writer). But they are also made of lines that alter our experience of sentences, by foregrounding the sounds of the words, phrases, and pauses which make up sentences but which we don't attend to until these sounds are highly organized and orchestrated. The primary instrument of this orchestration is the lines, and lines can also be arranged in stanzas, which may further foreground the lines by signifying their own organization independent of the sentences. The difference between metered and unmetered lines, in the strictest stanza forms to the free-est verse, is no more than the difference between the degree of foregrounding of the lines against the sentences, and therefore the degree to which our attention to those sentences is complicated.

Martin Heidegger, “Poetically, Man Dwells” from (Poetry, Language, Thought 221)
"Poetry is a measuring."

Adrian Blevins from In Praise of the Sentence
The sound of actual speech broken up into lines is not the same thing as poetry, for all good poetry must be contained or shaped in such a way as to alarm us into apprehending more than one meaning at a time. If Coleridge is right and “poetry reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities,” conversational tones alone in a poem will sound too mundane or boring—too much like unformed Laundromat chatter—to move us. For this reason, speech effects are often countered and even contradicted by language used in more overly poetic ways. . . . Since linguists say that almost all sentences, both written and spoken, have never existed before, the way we put them together might be one of the only ways we have of distinguishing ourselves from others. The ways in which a poet sounds like nobody but himself is, again, in essence, what we call his voice. So perhaps it is possible to measure a poet’s worth by measuring his willingness to spend his fearlessness, which is just another way of saying all his energy, on the verbal manifestation of his peculiarity. Ironically, hearing the sound of peculiarity—of what many poets and critics call “the genuine” or “authentic”—might be the only way we have of really knowing that we are not alone. For to hear what sounds like a real person in the world speaking to you from the page (and even more startlingly, from beyond the grave) is to diminish the lonesomeness that we are born, witless and garbled and slippery and ignorant, to somehow bear.

Scott Cairns on the line, complexity and provisional meanings.
The line in poetry is one way that a poem opens up to complexity, one way it resists being simply a document of record, or a simple reference to a prior event. I usually talk about this strategy in terms of “parallel codes”: the syntactic and the stichic, respectively. Most English poems avail themselves of a fairly recognizable English syntax, even if they may not employ standard mechanical conventions. And the meaning generated by this recognizable syntax might be correctly apprehended as the primary sense of the utterance. All I’m saying for now is that . . . an English poem can generate an initial, a primary sense, an appreciable meaning. Even so, in a poem that employs the line—that is, in a verse poem—this overall sense delivered by syntax is intermittently interrupted by its being broken into stichs . . . broken into lines. Most devoted readers learn to be very attentive to these units, and are therefore about to witness, line by line (and at a finer level, word by word), a provisional sense which the line itself articulates, a momentary syntax that operates relatively independently of the larger syntax of the entire sentence. Very often, individual lines and/or variously apprehended groupings of lines can serve to suggest provisional meanings which can complicate, or even contradict, the sense delivered by the overall syntax.

Some things worth reading (some of which are the sources for these notes)
Addonizio, Kim and Dorianne Laux. The Poet's Companion. New York: Norton, 1997.
Dunne, Gregory. “A Conversation with Scott Cairns.” Prairie Schooner 79.1 (Spring 2005): 44-52.
Graham, Jorie. “The Art of Poetry,” The Paris Review 165 (Spring 2003): 52-97.
Kinzie. Mary. A Poet’s Guide to Poetry. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.
Levertov, Denise. "On the Function of the Line." New and Selected Essays. New York: New Directions, 1992.
Oliver, Mary. Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse. Boston: Houghton, 1998

The Line: Excerpts from Claims to Poetry

A Poetic Glossary and a Dictionary of Poetic Forms and Techniques from the Academy of American Poets.

Vince Gotera has a useful, more succinct discussionof line.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

More from Christian Wiman

Over at sweatervestboy, I link to a handful of essays from Christian Wiman's new book, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Conference Ekphrasis 2

II. Our Lady of Tenderness

Christ Child with your arms around your mother
what have you done for us

to take in our hands bona fide conception with flesh?
Saint Catherine of Siena said

You drew us out of your holy mind
like a flower

and she was illiterate most of her life, her prayers written down
for her, and it is in prayer we have

two hands up, like your mother’s, every finger the final petal,
not touching you but meaning to touch,

either buttressing or balancing stacks of tokens, glasses dark with wine,
our limitations and that hot need

to love. Did you think I wouldn’t see it is you holding her,
not her holding you? For

she has already the unfortunate-that-which-is-to-come in her eyes,
drooped with sorrow, our careful human sap.

You, as though you will breath into her—if only to adumbrate
a Russian artist’s rendering of hope—

you, a child who couldn’t have been only a child, your thick neck
twists to kiss her, and she looks

vigilantly at us. Ocher walls, chipped and ancient,
they are not your home. She knows

this, she tells me, obstinate as I am, slowly broken down
in the bones with a weight

known only by leaping belief, she asks with eyes like grapes
not what has he done

but what hasn’t he? O Little Panacea, suffering up under
your mother’s brow, keep your hand

cupped close, bless her name when years later the crowd
will beg for your breath, hallowed and terrible.

Susanna Childress, a section from her longer poem "After the Virgin from Vladimir" from Jagged with Love (U of Wisconsin P, 2005)

How not to enjoy the Art Institute

A comic from John Campbell, who makes Pictures for Sad Children.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Art Institute

For a preview of our journey down to the Art Institute tomorrow.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Ekphrasis from the conference

The first of several ekphrastic poems read at this past week's conference:

View of Delft

By: Carl Dennis

In the view of Delft that Vermeer presents us
The brick facades of the unremarkable buildings
Lined up at the river’s edge manage to lift the spirits
Though the sky is cloudy. A splash of sun
That yellows some gables in the middle distance
May be enough to explain it, or the loving detail
Vermeer has given the texture of brick and stone
As if he leveled each course with his own trowel.
Doubtless stones in Cleveland or Buffalo
May look like this on a day when the news arrives
That a friend is coming to visit, but the stones in the painting
Also put one in mind of the New Jerusalem,
A city we’ve never seen and don’t believe in.
Why eternal Jerusalem when the people of Delft
Grow old and die as they do in other cities,
In high-ceilinged airy rooms and in low-beamed
Smoky basements, quickly, or after a stubborn illness,
Alone, or surrounded by friends who will soon feel Delft
To be a place of abandonment, not completion?
Maybe to someone returning on a cloudy day
After twenty years of banishment the everyday buildings
Can look this way or to someone about to leave
On a journey he isn’t ready to take. But these moods
Won’t last long while the mood in the painting
Seems undying, though the handful of citizens
Strolling the other side of the river are too preoccupied
To look across and admire their home.
Vermeer has to know that the deathless city
Isn’t the Delft where he’ll be walking to dinner
In an hour or two. As for your dinner, isn’t it time
To close the art book you’ve been caught up in,
Fetch a bottle of wine from the basement, and stroll
Three blocks to the house where your friend is waiting?
Don’t be surprised if the painting lingers awhile in memory
And the trees set back on a lawn you’re passing
Seem to say that to master their language of gestures
Is to learn all you need to know to enter your life
And embrace it tightly, with a species of joy
You’ve yet to imagine. But this joy, disguised,
The painting declares, is yours already.
You’ve been longing again for what you have.

from New and Selected Poems 1974-2004 (Penguin Books, 2004).

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Wheaton Writing and Lit Fest

I'm taking part the next two days in Wheaton College's Writing and Literature Festival. The line-up includes Pulitzer Prize winning poet Carl Dennis along with Robert Siegel, Susanna Childress, Jill Peláez Baumgaertner, Brett Foster, and Mary Brown from Indiana Wesleyan University.

I'll be riffing on "Poetry and Song" at 2:00 p.m. today, singing a hymn or two, reading one or two older poems, and then finishing up with my odd, poetic Bach obsession. Hope to see some of you there.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Music as physical engagement with the world

Music making and music hearing are ways we engage the physical world. Even in the case of electronically generated music, the body is often involved through, say, a keyboard, and patterns of vibrating air are mediated through physical speakers. The physical things we involve ourselves with in music have ultimately arisen through the free initiative of God's love—they are part of the ordo amoris. To treat them as given in this full sense has a series of radical implications for understanding music. The most basic response of the Christian toward music will be gratitude. This does not mean giving unqualified thanks for every bit of music we hear, but it will mean being thankful for the very possibility of music. It will mean regularly allowing a piece of music to stop us in our tracks and make us grateful that there is a world where music can occur, that there is a reality we call "matter" that oscillates and resonates, that there is sound, that there is rhythm built into the fabric of reality, that there is the miracle of the human body, which can receive and process sequences of tones. For from all this and through all this, the marvel of music is born. None of it had to come into being. But it has, for the glory of God and for our flourishing. Gaining a Christian mind on music means learning the glad habit of thanksgiving.

--Jeremy Begbie, from Music in God's World

Saturday, September 15, 2007

And another memorial music poem

Naomi Shihab Nye's Hugging the Jukebox.

Puce Exit

First Performance of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Band Puce Exit

by Kevin Stein

If puce were sound not color, 
it would be us: Deep Purple,
though more confused and discordant,

our guitars tuned in electric ignorance
of tone, key, each other—the word
puce derived from the Latin for “flea,”

as appropriate for pests in the hides
of neighbors—our raucous weekend practice,
pubescent groupies lingering on basement steps,

first on the block to show hearing loss,
first to wear paisley with polka dots.
And exit, of course, because music is

our ticket out. It’s Peggy Wasylenski’s
fourteenth birthday party, a real gig,
her parents too cool, or simply so new

to America they’re expecting something
with accordion or banjo, not the freight
we unload from my father’s blue Chevy:

amps, mikes, drums, Christmas color wheels
for visual effect. We set up in the dirt
floor garage, our amps a wall of sound

maybe knee high across the left bay.
Everything’s plugged into a quad outlet
above the single ceiling bulb. Orange wires

cascade around us like a waterfall
of blown fuses. We start, start over,
and start again, until we get right

the three drumstick beat and launch into
an 18 minute version of “Satisfaction.”
I’m howling “I can’t get no!” even though,

in eighth grade, I’m not sure what it is
I can’t get any of, but it’s something,
I am sure, I need as badly as any guy

every needed anything, like “voice lessons,”
the drummer screams. On break, we play
spin the bottle, Peggy flicking her tongue

and me choking with surprise, with glee,
with adolescent resolve to improve
on the next round, which never comes.

Police arrive to pull the knotted plug
and send us scurrying for the bushes,
guitars around our necks, though no one

is drunk or stoned on anything other than
the rush of innocence soon to take a turn,
accelerating around the corner like Peggy,

three years later, first night with license
and the family station wagon, her eyes
on the lit radio dial and not on the barber,

my barber, trudging home in rain, the scissors
in his breast pocket soon to puncture
his heart beneath her tire’s worn tread.

Song as more and/or less than what you hear?

from Whitman's Song for Occupations

All music is what awakes from you when you are reminded by the 
It is not the violins and the cornets, it is not the oboe nor the
beating drums, nor the score of the baritone singer singing
his sweet romanza, nor that of the men's chorus, nor that
of the women's chorus,
It is nearer and farther than they.

Seems that only a non-musician can write this one. How is the song NOT the instruments and the hearing of them? Yet, it's Whitman, right?


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ekphrastic fiction(s): Falling Man

Though our course studies ekphrastic poetry, there's a growing attention out there to ekphrasis in fiction. I recently finished reading Don DeLillo's Falling Man, a post 9-11 novel. An excerpt from that novel was published in The New Yorker earlier this year.

Key in the narrative are several ekphrastic moments, including an important look at two paintings in the apartment of an art historian, the mother-in-law of the 9-11 survivor at the center of the story.

The first time they are mentioned, DeLillo describes them this way, through the eyes of the protagonist's estranged wife:

What she loved most was the two still-lifes on the north wall, by Giorgio Morandi, a painter her mother had studied and written about. They were groupings of bottles, jugs, biscuit tins, that was all, but there was something in the brushstrokes that held a mystery for her, or in the irregular edges of the vases and jars, some reconnoiter inward, human and obscure, away from the very light and color of the paintings. Natura morta. The Italian term for still-life seemed stronger than it had to be, ominous, even, but these were matters she hadn’t talked about with her mother. Let the latent meanings turn and bend in the wind, free from authoritative comment.

Later, as Lianne looks at the paintings, she sees them differently. While observing the paintings with her mother's lover, an art dealer with a sketchy past (that may have included some Italian terrorist connections back in the 1960s), she recognizes how even familiar shapes can, when pulled from their usual context, transform to something more sinister:

They looked together.

Two of the taller items were dark and somber, with smoky marks and smudges, and one of them was partly concealed by a long-necked bottle. The bottle was a bottle, white. The two dark objects, too obscure to name, were the things that Martin was referring to.

"What do you see?" he said.

She saw what he saw. She saw the towers.

Of course the towers are what she and her husband, and most of the nation, see continually in the immediate days and months after the attacks. The television images themselves became part of our "social imaginary" (to quote Charles Taylor). We play and replay them, perhaps wondering, perhaps hoping the images will resolve differently the next time.

All of this bears on the novel's main image, the horrifying, suspended figure of a single falling man against the backdrop of the towers, a photo that appeared briefly in the New York Times and around the country, then disappeared from view. This "still life" or "natura morta" inspires a performance artist in the novel who imitates the "falling man" at locations throught New York City. And he becomes the icon through which DeLillo examines the worlds of his characters, stilled and frozen, somehow, in time by their experience of the terrorist attacks. Ekphrasis opens a way into and through what overwhelms us.

As critics have noted, this is not DeLillo's best novel by a long shot. Still, it's a compelling book. As DeLillo put it in an essay shortly after the event, to respond to such loss and fear is nearly impossible for a writer. There is "something empty in the sky,” he says. “The writer tries to give memory, tenderness and meaning to all that howling space.” And to fill that space, or hold it open for a bit longer, DeLillo turns to ekphrasis, giving us an entire novel animated and venerating that single photograph and all it contains (and necessarily fails to hold).

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

On-line visual literacy project

In class on Tues., I mentioned the On-Line Visual Literacy Project as a good place to get a working vocabulary for responding to visual artistic stimuli. Since then, I've also found this collection of links at Trinity Univ. in Washington. I've not yet investigated all of them. Let me know if you spot an especially good one.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Anon 4 and Sacred Harp Singing

For those who would like to know a bit more about Sacred Harp Singing, as well as Anonymous 4. Plus, the rest of the lyrics to the Af-Am Spiritual, "Over My Head." We'll sing the rest of it on Tues.


Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue

How do we steward the gift of music? And whose gift is it?

Consider this quotation from the conclusion of Bruce Ellis Benson’s dense and brilliant phenomenological look at how we make music. After positing improvisation as a better,more accurate way of thinking about the dialogue between composer, performer, audience, and tradition, he writes:

"While the fact that performance is essentially improvisatory . . . might seem to free the performer from restrictions, it actually does precisely the opposite. For it means that the performer has a tremendous responsibility, one that is far greater and more complex than one conceived in terms of simple transmission or reproduction or “fidelity.” The performer, just like the translator, is essentially the inheritor of a gift—something bequeathed, unearned, and unowned. As gift it is something over which the performer does not have mastery or control. Moreover, it is no merely the piece of music that is bequeathed but, rather, the whole tradition to which that piece belongs and in which the performer and listener merely take part. Of course the same is true for the composer: if composition can be described as a kind of improvisation on the work of other composers—indeed the entire tradition—then composers are likewise inheritors of a gift (and that in addition to the gift we would see as the ability to compose). Thus, we have a responsibility to this gift that has been given to us. It is not ours in the sense of belonging to us or having been founded by us or being something that we can treat as we please. Rather, we are stewards of that with which we have been entrusted." (187)

Jorie Graham's "San Sepolcro" and Lisel Mueller on Bach

In this blue light / I can take you there

And to keep things balanced, here's a musical ekphrasis

Bach Transcribing Vivaldi—Lisel Mueller

One remembered the sunrise, how clearly it gave
substance and praise to the mountains of the world;
the other imagined twilight, the setting in blood,
and a valley of fallen leaves where a stranger might rest.

One avoided the forest and made his way through fields
where the sky was constant and clouds rang in his ears;
the other cut through the thicket, the thorns and vines
and was not touched, except by the dying of men.

One asked the road to the land of the golden lion
whose eyes never weep, whose lifted hand scepters
the seasons of stars and the grafting of generations;
the other searched from the kingdom of the lamb
with the trembling fleece, whose live unreasoning heart
consumes the mortal treasures of his loves.

Still, at one point of the journey one must have seen
the afternoon dip and drop away into shade
and the other come to a place where the forest cleared
into white and violet patches of stars.

Friday, September 7, 2007

On Beauty and Being Just

Here's a version of the quotation from Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just that I read to start off our first class session:

At the moment we see something beautiful, we undergo a radical decentering. Beauty, according to [Simone] Weil, requires us “to give up our imaginary position at the center. . . . A transformation then takes place at the very roots of our sensibility, in our immediate reception of sense impressions and psychological impressions.” . . . Her account is always deeply somatic: what happens, happens to our bodies. When we come upon beautiful things . . . they act like small tears in the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster space; or they form “ladders reaching toward the beauty of the world,” or they lift us (as though by the air currents of someone else’s sweeping), letting the ground rotate beneath us several inches, so that when we land, we find we are standing in a different relation to the world than we were a moment before. It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world. We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us.

An interview with Elaine Scarry from Salon adds to the discussion.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

If you are free on SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 11:00AM, , head down to this presentation, co-sponsored by the Poetry Foundation:

American Perspectives: Edward Hirsch
"American Views: How to Read Poetry and Encounter Art"

Hirsch spoke last spring at Wheaton.


Archibald Motley, Jr's "Nightlife"

From our first class session, here's a re-visit to the painting about which you wrote. If you would like to revise your poem as an exercise, you might consider what you can learn about the painting from the Art Institute of Chicago's page on Motley. Or you might compare this work to other paintings from the artist or to work of other Harlem Renaissance artists. If you are happy with a draft from this exercise, send it to me and I'll post some selections here on the course blog.