Translation is a funky thing. You can try to be literal and lose all the flavor, or you can try to find equivalent idiomatic expressions, or you can recast the whole thing, as if you were writing an original from a similar inspiration — your own words for a similar thought.
And unless you are brought up bilingual so that you are completely comfortable in both languages, you will always be working from a disadvantage. You can work from crib notes, or take a literal translation and recast it. Many writers these days do something of the sort. Ezra Pound did not read Chinese, but that didn’t stop him from translating Chinese poetry. Scholars may quibble with the results (or laugh outright), but the versions Pound printed are good poetry, whether or not they are good translations.
Would I rather read a poet’s regeneration or a scholar’s word-for-word? The answer is both. When it comes to poetry in languages I do not read, I’d rather have multiple versions to absorb and take in all the angles to arrive at something triangulated.
There are languages I have some familiarity with and so, I can usually read Pablo Neruda straight from the trough. And in French or German, I have some dealings with the originals, although I do not speak the languages with anything like fluency. I can read a French newspaper, but cannot always make out the spoken version. (Luckily, when in France, I have learned you don’t really need the fineries of grammar. You can speak French pretty usefully even with no verbs at all. You go to the patisserie and when it is your turn, you just say, “Deux croissants, s’il vous plait,” and you get what you want. No one before you on line has used a verb, either.)
And so, I have come to translate some poetry for myself, from German, from French or Spanish (even an occasional Latin poem), and mostly in self-defense.
I say “self-defense” because most of the translations I’ve been subjected to sound like musty old Victorian twaddle. The translators seem to love archaic word forms and odd word orders — as if written by Yoda they were.
Such things offend my ear.
It’s not that I want them to be prose, but the secret of poetry is in the metaphor and the clever turn of phrase, not in the conventional language of old poetry forms. Take the first two lines of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra’s Rundgesang. In German:
O Mensch! Gib acht! Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht?
Which could be translated, word for word, as:
“O men! Give attention! What says the deep midnight?”
Traditional translations usually go something like:
“O Man! Take heed! What saith deep midnight’s voice indeed?”
“O Man! Attend! What does deep midnight’s voice contend?”
There is the problem with the original. “O Man!” is poetic cliche. It has to go. I suppose you could turn it into idiomatic English as “Hey, y’all, listen up,” but that would be a crime in a different direction.
If I were to translate this bit, I would just leave off the unnecessary parts and rewrite it as: “It calls to us in the dark. It is deep midnight and the hour speaks:” This sets up a light/dark dichotomy that pays off later in the piece.
Too many translations, especially of classic Greek or Latin literature are written in this fusty, worn out poeticized and conventional twaddle. It’s amazing anyone waded through the Iliad in the 19th century. Homer’s actual style was immediate and direct.
Imagine if Robert Frost had written: “Two paths in twain divided were; traverse we may but one.” Who would now bother with it? It is Circe turning men into pigs.
In other words, I have no issue with completely recasting the originals to make modern, idiomatic sense in a language that I hope remains poetic but without the equipage of outworn convention.
A stunning example of this approach is Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid, beautiful translations of several bits from The Metamorphoses. In Hughes’ style the stories move quickly and smartly and you turn the pages as in a best-seller. One only wishes Hughes had completed the whole thing, instead of mere sniglets.
In this way, I have translated (or rewritten, if you hesitate) a good bit of German lieder. So much of it is hyperventilated Romantic sludge, which speaks to the early 19th Century of a generation that was weaned on Young Werther, and undoubtedly expressed the genuine feelings of those who lived through it, but now seem unrealistic and kitschy.
Yet, there are real things being said and expressed in the poetry of Müller, Hölderlein or Eichendorff. It comes through like a buzz saw in the music of Schubert or Schumann, where the music has an authenticity that the verse sometimes lacks.
I have tackled whole swaths of lieder verse, including a translation of all of the Winterreise. I found I could be a bit more faithful near the beginning of the cycle, but the deeper in, the more I had to rethink the verse.
Take the first song, Gute Nacht. The text takes care of itself. A simple translation of the first stanza would be:
But, 24 songs later, the text of Der Leiermann, about a hurdy-gurdy man, is too bland without the devastating music Schubert provides (one of the most desolate and despairing bits of music ever penned), and so I’ve written my variation on it, to stand without the music:
Just this week, I started another project, translating four of the texts that Gustav Mahler set. I have arranged them into a set that belongs together, in four “movements,” rather like a symphony, meant to be taken as a single whole.
I am offering them here as my apology for the type of translation I most appreciate — at least when others my better do it.
The main benefit of doing such work (since I have no plans or hope ever to publish my translations — they are simply for the pleasure and knowledge I get from them — is that they force me to pay attention to the poetry and to the words.
We can read through poetry much as we may distractedly hum a favorite tune. But good poetry offers much more, and forcing yourself to go through it word by word, can help you uncover much more. Translating forces concentration.
And so, I read the German for its sound, parse individual words for their various meanings (for no word in any language has but one simple meaning), read various translations to compare how others have understood the words, reassemble them in my own English and then revise, over and over, until I get something that sounds good to me and — more importantly — makes sense.
I have to admit that I generally like my own translations better than the ones packaged with the CD as the libretti or lyrics. But that is likely because they match my own particular esthetic — they are tailor made for my ear. Your ear may resonate to a different frequency.
And so, the first “movement” of my Mahler word-symphony comes from the second of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, words originally written by the composer himself. The main melody of the song became the first theme of his Symphony No. 1.
The second movement is Mahler’s own crib of Zarathustra’s Rundgesang, or “Zarathustra’s Midnight Song,” as the composer has it. All four of the texts I have translated focus on the twin but opposite facts that life is suffering but also it is joy.
Third, there is heartbreaking and rueful song by Friedrich Rückert, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, set by Mahler first for voice and piano, but later orchestrated and part of his Sieben Lieder aus letzter Zeit (“Seven songs of Latter Days”). It is surely one of his greatest songs, and can hardly be heard or sung without feeling it was written directly with you in mind.
Finally, there is Der Abschied (“The Farewell”), the final movement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (“Songs of the Earth”). In it, Mahler has pieced together two Chinese poems of dubious provenance (themselves translated or rewritten, or perhaps invented in French and German) purportedly by Tang Dynasty poets Meng Haoran and Wang Wei, with three lines added at the end, written by Mahler himself. Der Abschied is Mahler’s summa, and at 30 minutes, is as long as the previous five movements combined. And it ends with the quiet reiteration, over and over, in dying voice, “Ewig… ewig…” (“forever… forever…”) finally so in performance you can never quite tell when it ends, the final “Ewig” as quiet as the silence that follows.
In the end, I recommend to everyone that they attempt to translate a poem from a different language. Take a Baudelaire, for instance, or a Neruda (avoid Rilke like the plague, unless you wish to end in an asylum), and parse it through, word by word. Read it out loud in the original language to hear the music of it (yes, your French may not be as liquid as the original) and read various translations to see how differently the words are construed. Then arrange a version of your own.
In the end, you will have internalized the poetry and it will never again be a stranger to you.
It’s completely meaningless to rate art. Is Picasso greater than Rembrandt? Beethoven than Mozart? Is Beethoven’s Fifth better than Beethoven’s Eroica? Pointless.
But there is a different question: faves. It’s possible to have favorites without making claims to supremacy. We all have them. Yes, they shift over the years: The older me appreciates different art and appreciates it in different ways than the young me did. But even day-to-day the favorites may change. Often my favorite symphony is the one I’m listening to at the moment.
Still, Top Ten lists will be made. Or Top Five, or Top 100. There’s no hope for it. It’s instinctive, built into our DNA. And so, I’ve put together my list of my Top Dozen favorite works of art — a baker’s dozen. Your mileage may vary. (For the ultimate list of lists, link here).
And so, here are my favorites, listed by genre. I’ve tried to narrow my choices to art I have experienced in person — paintings I have actually seen, dances I have attended, books I have read. Book reproductions or sound recordings don’t count. I have a lifetime of art-going and concert-attending, and so I may have access to more than the average bear. But I am well aware that there’s a whole lot more that I haven’t seen.
And by favorite, I don’t just mean something I like, but rather, something that has wormed into my very being and become a part of who I am, so that encountering it can explain to others a bit of who I am. It has been grafted into my personality.
This list is entirely personal, flexible and apologetically incomplete. Ask me again tomorrow and this could be a very different list.
Painting: None of these choices changes more often than painting. today’s favorite fades with tomorrow’s. I’ve simply come to love too many paintings to have a single choice. But today, I will go with Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. It was a painting I had wanted to see for years, and then got my chance when the Museum of Modern Art held a Pollock retrospective in 1998 and the elusive work was borrowed back from Australia, where it had sat for decades, out of the reach of us Northern Hemisphere shut-ins. Its appeal came from its elusiveness, for sure, but also for its unique place in Pollock’s catalog — more than just paint squiggles, it had the structure of the bars across its surface. I loved it in reproduction, but it bowled me over in person.
Alternate takes: Picasso’s Guernica; John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark
Sculpture: I grew up visiting the American Museum of Natural History in New York City as often as I could. I loved the place — and I mean loved. And deep in its bowels resided the giant Olmec head, chiseled from basalt (actually, the one in New York is a plaster copy, but I didn’t know that when I was 10 years old and rapt in wonder). In the darkened hall of the museum, the head seemed immense and the original weighs 20 tons. It impressed me no end and to this day, it is my favorite sculpture. No doubt there is other, more important sculpture elsewhere, but I have not been to Rome or Egypt to see them. I have spent considerable time in the Louvre in Paris and have several faves there, such as the Three Graces or the Winged Victory, but none has stuck in my psyche with quite the force of the Olmec head.
Alternate takes: Rodin’s Burghers of Calais; Louvre’s Three Graces
Architecture: As architecture critic for The Arizona Republic, I got to visit a lot of buildings, including most of the Frank Lloyd Wright sites in the U.S. (Wright was a longtime resident of Scottsdale, Ariz.) I was blown away by Taliesin in Wisconsin and his studio in Oak Park, Ill. But the building that struck me as most beautiful was Falling Water in Pennsylvania. Everything you have ever heard about it is true — about its siting in the woods over the waterfall; about how its interior is micromanaged by Wright’s designs; and (I’m one of the few who have been given access to this) the pathetic orphan of a bathroom hidden in the basement. Wright really didn’t like having to deal with kitchens or bathrooms.
Alternate takes: Chartres cathedral; George Washington Bridge
Orchestral music: this is the hardest category for me because I have so much music bottled up in the ol’ storage batteries, and faves change not only day to day, but hour to hour. But I studied Mozart’s Symphony in G-minor, K. 550, score in hand, for most of an entire semester in college and it is drilled into my memory so that I can hear the whole thing in my head, from beginning to end, even without the score. If ever a piece of music felt like home to me, it is Mozart’s 40th Symphony. Dissecting it has given me an approach to all other classical music.
Alternate takes: Mahler’s Symphony No. 3; Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring
Choral music: I’m not a religious man, and neither was Johannes Brahms, so his German Requiem can console my most grief-stricken moments in a way more devout music cannot. More than any other music, I go to the Deutsches Requiem for consolation and peace. Each year, on the anniversary of the death of my wife, I drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway, find a quiet forest road and park and listen to my Brahms and weep for my loss and for the loss all humankind must suffer.
Chamber music: I want so much to claim Schubert’s C-major String Quintet, for it is the deepest, most emotionally moving piece of chamber music in the repertoire. Yet, I cannot, as long as there is Schubert’s competing “Trout” Quintet, which must be the most ebullient, life-affirming piece of music ever written. One cannot come away from it not feeling — despite all the sorrows of the world — that life is pure joy. It is no end of astonishment for me that Schubert wrote both.
Alternate takes: Brahms Clarinet Quintet; Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2
Opera: Mozart’s most subversive opera wasn’t The Marriage of Figaro, which was often banned for making fun of the aristocracy, but rather Don Giovanni, with its lusty chorus of “Viva la libertad” and its turning topsy-turvy the villain-hero model. The Don is the life force embodied, for good and bad, and when he is threatened with hell, he laughs and refuses to recant, choosing damnation over hypocrisy. Its first act is the most completely flawless in all of opera history and despite the phony ending usually tacked-on to the second act, a model of moral complexity.
Alternate takes: Alban Berg’s Wozzeck; Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier
Dance: Of all the artforms, dance moves me the most. And I was extremely lucky, because when I became dance critic, Ballet Arizona was taken over by Ib Andersen, former star dancer for George Balanchine and brilliant choreographer himself. He staged many Balanchine ballets and I was hooked. I have now seen Balanchine’s Apollo four times, once by the New York City Ballet in Paris, and I cannot watch it now without welling up with emotion. I love dance and Apollo stands in for all of it.
Alternate takes: Ib Andersen’s choreography for Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet; Frances Smith Cohen’s choreography for Center Dance Ensemble’s Rite of Spring
Theater: Bad theater, or worse, mediocre theater can give the impression that live drama is hopelessly, well, theatrical. You know: dinner theater. But when it is done well, there is nothing that can match it, a lesson I learned by seeing the original Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. I’ve now seen it — both parts together — four times and it destroys me every time. In great theater, you soon forget all the artifice and everything becomes immediate and real. Movies are great, but they can’t match the breathing now-ness of live theater.
Alternate takes: Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night; Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus
Film: There are films that are exciting, films that are visually beautiful, that are clever, that are cultural barometers, and there are films that are wise. Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu has informed my own life more than any other film I’ve seen. How can you beat Octave’s observation: “The terrible thing about life is that everybody has their reasons.” I will watch Rules of the Game over and over for the rest of my life. It is cinematic comfort food.
Alternative takes: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev; Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal
Novel: Most books, you read once. If it’s a mystery, you have the killer caught; if it’s a Victorian saga, you get the heroine married. But some books you can read over and over and get intense pleasure from the language used and the perspective offered. For me, that book is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I don’t always read the whole thing from beginning to end, but I bet I’ve read the first chapter, at least, a hundred times. Melville’s language has seeped into my own writing more than any other (for good or ill).
Alternative takes: James Joyce’s Ulysses; Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy
Poetry: I read a lot of poetry, mostly modern and contemporary, but the poem I go back to over and over, read out loud for the sound the words make in my mouth, proselytize to others and keep in my heart is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Trouthe. The antique language isn’t so hard, once you get used to it — sort of like listening to a working class Mancunian accent, or a Yorkshireman gabble — and once you’ve caught the knack of it, it’s like any other English. God, I love that poem. “The wrastling for the worlde axeth a fal.”
Alternative takes: Eliot’s Four Quartets; Pablo Neruda’s Odas Elementales
And the Number One, hors compétition and sans genre, is:
The north rose window, Chartres cathedral. As I have written many times, the north rose window is the single most beautiful human-made object I have ever seen. I am in awe of it. Reproduction cannot give you a sense of its glowing color and implied motion — it virtually spins (and I mean virtually literally). I can sit in its presence for an hour at a time.
Again, I am not making the claim that these are all the greatest works, although they may be, but that they, more than their compeers, have buried their way into my innermost being, where they reside as a permanent part of my unconscious. They are who I am.
I started to write about philosophy, but realized I really wanted to talk about pears. Crisp, delicious succulent pears, the kind with small brown spots on the skin and a roly-poly bottom. Given a choice between reading Hegel (insert dry cough here) and slicing wedges off a Bartlett pear, the fruit wins hands down every time.
I have been thinking about this because of philosophy. The intellectual world seems divided irrevocably between art and philosophy — image and word. One side deals with categories of thought, the other side deals with hubcaps, clouds, tight shoes and the sound of twigs snapping underfoot, to say nothing of pastrami sandwiches and corduroy trousers.
I’m sorry if I value the one vastly over the other. I am a Dichter not a Denker. I have — this is my ideological burden — a congenital mistrust of language, particularly abstract language and language of categories. The world is too multifarious, indeed, infinite, and language by nature and requirement, simplifies and schematizes, ultimately to the point that language and reality split paths and go in separate directions. When one relies too much on language, one misses the reality.
The tragedy is, that language is all we have. We are stuck with it. We can try to write better, more clearly, use evocative metaphor when declarative words fail, use imagery rather than abstractions, and do our best — our absolute best — to avoid thinking categorically, and attempt to see freshly, with eye and mind unsullied by the words that have preceded us. It’s hard, but it is essential. To begin with the categories, and to attempt to wedge our experience into them, is to mangle and to mutilate the reality.
The matter is only made worse by the impenetrable fustian written by so many philosophers — and especially the recent crop of Postmodern and Poststructuralist explainers.
Take Hegel — please. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1839) is just the kind of philosopher who thinks thoughtful thoughts and writes incomprehensible prose.
“Knowledge of the Idea of the absolute ethical order depends entirely on the establishment of perfect adequacy between intuition and concept, because the Idea itself is nothing other than the identity of the two. But if this identity is to be actually known, it must be thought as a made adequacy.”
“A made adequacy?” That’s from his System of Ethical Life (1803-4). I’m sure if you spent an hour or two going over it again and again, you might be able to parse something out of it. But, jeez. It’s the kind of prose you get from academia all over the place:
“As histories of excluded bodies, the bodies that made national Englishness possible, this counterpastoral challenged the politics of visibility that made the very modern English models of nature, society, and the individual visible through the invisibility of bodies that did not matter.”
That’s from Kathleen Biddick’s The Shock of Medievalism (1998). She is also the author of The Typological Imaginary: Circumcision, Technology, History.
In such writing, individual abstract words are made to stand in as shorthand for long complex ideas, not always adequately explained. And the words are then categories, and the categories allow blanket statements that cover the world like Sherwin-Williams paint.
The basic problem is that words are always about words. When Plato talks about “the Good,” he is talking about how we define the word, “good.” Plato is about language. The linguistic grammar and language has its own rules, its own logic, and they soon supersede what the philosophers call “the case.”
There is a book out there now titled Why Fish Don’t Exist, by Lulu Miller. And taxonomists now largely agree that what we used to call the class of animals Pisces (fish), are really a bunch of increasingly unrelated classes or clades, in fact at least 12 of them, not counting subclasses. For example, a salmon is more closely related to a camel than to a hagfish.
But, back in the 18th century, both whales and sea urchins were also classified as “fish.” That we distinguish them separately now has made no difference to either whales or urchins, but only to dictionaries. That a whale is not a fish but a mammal is a shift in language, not biology. Fish still swim in the sea, even if we hesitate to call them fish.
And in the same way, the parsing of philosophers is mostly a shift of wordplay. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made this the central issue of his later work.
Meanwhile, as the philosophers mince language in their mental blenders, Gloucester fishermen keep pulling fish out of the oceans. When it comes to trust, I take the fishermen over the philosophers. The world is filled with sensible, seeable, feelable, hearable things. Things that give us pleasure and made the world we find ourselves cast into, like poached salmon.
Our lives are filled with the things of this world and their shapes, colors, sounds, textures, smells and tastes. And so is our art, which makes images, poems, dances, music and theater from those shapes, colors, sounds, etc., is a direct connection with the things of this world — the “case” as it were.
And I think of pears in art — those buttery layers of paint by Paul Cezanne — and the other still life art that singles out this bit or that of the physical presences of the world and shows them to us so we may notice them and appreciate them.
Most of our art tends to be divided between people and things — “things” being mostly landscapes and still life. In our art, we privilege people over things and that is only fitting. I’m sure squirrels are most interested in other squirrels, too.
But the non-human and non-living things things are so much a part of our lives, and a certain percentage of our art has been made about things. Like pears.
I step outside into the sun and I hear distant traffic, the breeze hissing in the tree leaves, and, from several blocks away, the intermittent rattle of a chainsaw. In the morning, there are birds — mockingbirds and chickadees. There is the feel of the air and the sun on my skin. There is the smell of the grass, new mown, or maybe the oily resonance of diesel fumes. I stand and feel the temperature. I live in the welter of the world.
And so, I am in love with the things of this world. I am mad for them to be in contact with me, to absorb them, to notice and appreciate them. To pay attention. To be alive.
And I slice a pear. The insides are both pulpy and wet; the skin keeps the flesh from drying out. The stem at the top curves off. The nub at the bottom shows where the white flower had been.
I take pears instead of apples here, because apples have too many words stuck to them, making them gummy with ideas, from Eve’s fruit of temptation to the computer on which I am writing these words.
But a pear can be seen with less baggage. It bruises more easily than an apple, yet its pulp is firmer, stiffer, unless overripe, when it can go mushy. Nor is it as sweet as an apple, although we must point out that there are hundreds of different varieties of apple and that a red delicious is sweeter than a granny smith. (Yet the granny smith makes a better pie).
There are varieties of pear, also, and they are perhaps more distinct than the apples. The lanky brown Bosc, the squat green Anjou, the nearly round Le Conte, the very sweet Seckel. In Japan, there is the ruddy, round Kosui, or russet apple pear. The Comice is great with ripe cheese. Yellow Huffcap for making perry — a cider made from pears.
I believe the central fact of existence is variety, in infinite forms, which in contrast makes the categories of philosophers seem puerile and simplistic. And dry. Pears have juice. Derrida, none.
These are smart people. I don’t begrudge them that. And perhaps we need people thinking such thoughts. But if we leave these words to the philosophers, I will have more time for myself with all the plants, rocks, fruit, animals, clouds, stars, cheeses and oceans.
Ultimately, to experience things is more important — more rewarding — than explaining them.
When it comes time to leave this planet and join oblivion, in those last moments left to my life, mostly, I will be thinking about the people I have loved and who have loved me. But beyond that, will I be thinking about Hegel or will I be remembering pears? My money is on the palpable. There is love there, too.
From the last half of the Eighteenth Century through the last quarter of the Nineteenth, an idea permeated popular and intellectual culture and showed itself in literature, art and music, although no one could quite agree on its definition. Like wit in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, which also defied simple definition, the sublime was something no one couldn’t quite pin down, but like Justice Potter Stewart said, you knew it when you saw it.
The Sublime features representations of vast spaces, horrifying disasters and universal chaos. Anything dark, scary, awe inspiring or supernatural.
“Alpine Avalanche,” Philip James de Loutherbourg, 1803
Of course, the idea isn’t limited to the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. It has been around as long as there has been art and literature. There is The Sublime in the epic of Gilgamesh and it is all over the Bible.
There had always been a subspecies of The Sublime in art. It is in Shakespeare, in Titian, in Rubens. It runs throughout John Milton’s Paradise Lost, especially in those parts describing Satan and his acts.
But The Sublime steps into the spotlight with the advent of Romanticism. It is in the poetry of Byron, the novels of Victor Hugo, the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. It is behind the fad for Gothic novels and the nature poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge.
The first clear enunciation of The Sublime in literature was set down in the First Century by an anonymous author, usually called Longinus. His treatise, usually called On the Sublime, is primarily a guidebook to rhetoric, with all the usual tropes, but he also discusses how great writing — as opposed to the merely good — overwhelms us, and it is great subjects that lend themselves to great writing.
In the climactic 35th chapter, he writes: “What was it they saw, those godlike writers who in their work aim at what is greatest and overlook precision in every detail? … (W)e are by nature led to marvel, not, indeed, at little streams, clear and useful though they be, but at the Nile, the Danube, or the Rhine, and still more at the Ocean. … nor do we consider out little hearthfire more worthy of admiration than the craters of Etna whose eruptions throw up rocks and boulders or at times pour forth rivers of lava from that single fire within the earth.
“Vesuvius Erupting,” Pierre-Jacques Volaire, 1877
“We might say of all such matters that man can easily understand what is useful or necessary, but he admires what passes his understanding.”
What happened between the century of Voltaire and that of Shelley is the cultural shift from Neo-classicism to Romanticism. It is a shift from a concern for society and relations of humans to humans to a different frame of reference — to the relation of the individual to the cosmos.
Relations between people are between roughly equal, similar size entities; relations with the cosmos pit the infinitesimal human being against the infinite. There is no satisfactory reaction but awe, terror, and admiration: That is The Sublime.
“The Deluge” William Westall, 1848
Coleridge describes a Sublime experience in his 1818 lecture on “European Literature” by recalling: “My whole being expands into the infinite; earth and air, nature and art, all swell up into eternity, and the only sensible expression left is, ‘that I am nothing!’ which concludes that his ultimate realization of The Sublime was of his own human insignificance.”
In 1757, a young Edmund Burke wrote an influential treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. He wrote: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”
He sorted The Sublime into seven constituents: darkness; obscurity; deprivation; vastness; magnificence; loudness; and suddenness. When used in art or literature, The Sublime reminds us of things we find frightening in the world, but by being framed in art, lets us contemplate it in safety, and thus we find pleasure in it.
“Chamounix, Mont Blanc and the Arve Valley” JMW Turner 1803
The next generation sought out The Sublime in reality as well as in literature. When Mary and Percy Shelley visited the valley of the Arve River in the Alps, they noted in their History of a Six Weeks Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland: “Mont Blanc was before us, but it was covered with cloud; its base, furrowed with dreadful gaps, was seen above. Pinnacles of snow intolerably bright, part of the chain connected with Mont Blanc, shone through the clouds at intervals on high. I never knew — I never imagined what mountains were before. The immensity of these aerial summits excited, when they suddenly burst upon the sight, a sentiment of ecstatic wonder, not unallied to madness.”
Shelley transformed this into his poem, Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni:
In her 1794 gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe has her heroine face the Alps:
“They quitted their carriages and began to ascend the Alps. And here such scenes of Sublimity opened upon them as no colors of language must dare to paint … Emily seemed to have arisen in another world, and to have left every trifling thought, every trifling sentiment, in that below: those only of grandeur and sublimity now dilated her mind and elevated the affections of her heart.”
“Hannibal Crossing the Alps in Snowstorm” JMW Turner 1812
And Byron is nothing without The Sublime. He takes his doomed hero to the Jungfrau in Manfred and used it in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage over and over, as in the lines, “Roll on thou deep and dark blue Ocean — roll!”
In Canto 3 of Childe Harold, he takes his hero to the Alps:
Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancyent Marinere (1798) is all about The Sublime and its terror — and ultimately, its beauty.
Its hero, aboard a death ship is surrounded by a sea of monsters: “The very deep did rot: O Christ!/ That ever this should be!/ Yea slimy things did crawl with legs/ Upon a slimy sea.” But our mariner has a transformation of heart:
Certain artists and painters became transfixed by The Sublime. First comes Joseph Wright of Derby (he is always referred to this way, apparently to distinguish him from other Joseph Wrights, including an American artist of the same time, who designed the Liberty Hat penny).
In many of the English Wright’s paintings, a bright light glows in the darkness. He painted multiple canvasses of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the 1770s.
“Vesuvius in Eruption, With a View of the Bay of Naples,” Joseph Wright of Derby, 1776
Although he didn’t have to travel that far. Many of his landscapes feature brooding moonlight scenes, or images of fire in the darkness, such as
“Cottage on Fire,” Joseph Wright of Derby 1786
This fascination with The Sublime is primarily a northern European thing. You find it in British art, in German art and Scandinavian art, but less so in Italian or Spanish (Goya excepted).
Germany produced Caspar David Friedrich, who specialized in images of the contemplation of vast nature.
The arctic inspired a good deal of Sublime art, as in Friederich’s Sea of Ice, with its barely noticeable shipwreck.
“Das Eismeer” Caspar David Friedrich, 1823
The ice of the arctic is where Mary Shelley had her Frankenstein creature float away on an ice raft to his death.
“We are still surrounded by mountains of ice, still in imminent danger of being crushed in their conflict. The cold is excessive, and many of my unfortunate comrades have already found a grave amidst this scene of desolation.”
And the final words of the novel:
“He sprang from the cabin-window as he said this, upon the ice raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.”
Later in the century, American painter Frederick Edwin Church painted a dozen or so studies of icebergs.
“Floating Iceberg,” Frederick Edwin Church 1859
Church also painted volcanoes, such as Cotopaxi in Ecuador.
“Cotopaxi,” Frederick Edwin Church 1862
Church’s most famous painting, now at the National Gallery in Washington DC, is his Niagara, a nearly 8-foot across panorama of the falls. It was shown in New York in 1857, where visitors could pay 25 cents to view the painting in a darkened art gallery (for best effect). The painting went on a cross-Atlantic tour, shown the same way.
“Niagara,” Frederick Edwin Church 1857
Its effect was stunning for the time. Even a century later, writer David Harrington could say “Niagara is the American’s mythical Deluge which washes away the memory of an Old World so that man may live at home in a New World. The painting is an icon of psychic natural purgation and rebirth. Poetically a New World emerges as the waters of a flood subside. The rainbow, sign of the ‘God of Nature’s’ covenant with man, transfixes the beholder. … Niagara is a revelation of the cosmos to each and every man.”
The biblical reference is apposite. Much of the imagery of The Sublime in the 19th Century comes from the Bible. Painters loved to depict certain scenes from the Old Testament: the Deluge; the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; Balshazzar’s Feast; Samson destroying the temple of the Philistines; the Plagues of Egypt — anything that would have delighted Cecil B. Demille.
In such paintings, you can see the difference between earlier ages and the rise of The Sublime. In Renaissance and Baroque paintings, the action centers on the people involved. Landscape is mere backdrop. But in the century and a half I’m writing about, the people shrink to insignificance and the landscape takes over, full of rocky climes, lightning bolts, hurtling boulders, spewing volcanoes and roiling stormclouds. You can almost make a stop-action movie, like watching a flower unfold in a nature film, showing the people getting smaller and smaller and the landscape becoming ever more menacing.
“Gordale Scar, Yorkshire,” James Ward 1812
It is clear that as you go later into the 19th Century, The Sublime verges all too often at the edge of kitsch. The sense of cosmic overload funnels into a kind of religious sentimentality. Where you draw the line, personally, depends very much on your willingness to accept the underlying metaphor of the vastness and impenetrability of the universe.
There are two British artists who straddle that line. John Martin and Joseph Mallord William Turner. Martin was very popular in the early years of the century, but is largely forgotten now. Turner was popular then and even more so today. Still, I have to admit a soft spot in my head for John Martin and his extravagance.
“Pandemonium,” John Martin 1841
I first learned of him and his large painting (now in the St. Louis Art Museum) called Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion. First painted in 1812, it exists in several forms, both in paint and as print. In it, the Persian prince, Sadak, must fulfill a quest for the legendary Waters of Oblivion, in order to save his kidnapped wife. It is based on one of the Tales of the Genii, by English author James Ridley and was a huge success when first exhibited.
Martin turned to printmaking to make his work available to a wider audience and published, in 1824, an enormously popular series of illustrations to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. (These were, in part, the inspiration for the later Gustave Dore to make his own series for the epic poem).
“The Bridge Over Chaos” from “Paradise Lost,” John Martin 1826
Biblical subjects became Martin’s bread and butter. The more grandiose the image, the more popular became his prints. They include The Fall of Babylon:
The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:
The Seventh Plague of Egypt:
And Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still Upon Gideon:
And my favorite — The Great Day of His Wrath:
He ventured out of his biblical Fach for the historical:
“The Destruction of Pompeii,” John Martin 1822
And even the prehistorical — on of my favorite for its goofiness. It was the frontispiece illustration for Gideon Mantell’s book, The Wonders of Geology:
“The Country of the Iguanodon,” John Martin 1837
Martin’s appeal was to vastness and number. His Balshazzar’s Feast prompted Charles Lamb to deem it “vulgar and bombastic.”
“Balshazzar’s Feast,” John Martin 1821
In contrast, JMW Turner also painted one of the plagues of Egypt, and it has its share of grandiosity, but Turner’s shtick was mist and fog, indistinct outlines — and uncertain scholarship (It is titled the Fifth Plague, but actually illustrates the biblical Seventh Plague).
“The Fifth Plague of Egypt,” JMW Turner 1800
In 1840, Turner exhibited a painting called Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhoon Coming On. It depicts an event from 1781 when the captain of the slave ship Zong threw overboard 132 of his captives when drinking water was running low. Since insurance would not cover the cost of slaves dying of natural causes, he drowned them instead, so he could collect. Turner seems to have added the typhoon for effect.
“Slave Ship,” JMW Turner 1840
The storm, the swirling air and sea, the lurid color and the loose brushwork all contribute to the sense of disaster. While the painting had an abolitionist intent, it is its forward-looking esthetics that appealed to critic John Ruskin. Turner is often seen as a precursor to the Impressionists. But while they tended to paint everyday scenes, Turner favored turmoil and disaster.
“Disaster at Sea,” JMW Turner 1835
The circular swirl was a trademark of the later Turner. In 1842, he had himself lashed to the mast of a ship in a snowstorm in order to paint Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the Night the “Ariel” left Harwich. Yes, that was its full title when first exhibited.
“Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth,” JMW Turner 1842
He also did a snow storm in the Alps.
“Valley of Aosta: Snowstorm, Avalanche and Thunderstorm,” JMW Turner 1836
In the United States, The Sublime was a natural. The American West lent itself to large paintings of vast landscape, often in mist or early sunrise. An entire school of artists, usually called the Hudson River School, latched onto The Sublime, beginning with Thomas Cole.
“The Expulsion from Eden,” Thomas Cole 1828
Cole’s most famous protege was Frederic Edwin Church, whose paintings of South America brought the exotic landscape to the U.S.
“Rainy Season in the Tropics,” Frederic Edwin Church 1866
And Martin Johnson Heade verged on the surreal in many of his paintings.
“Approaching Storm — Beach Near Newport,” Martin Johnson Heade 1859
But it was the West that threw open the gates of heaven, with any number of painters, first among them, German-born Albert Bierstadt.
“Among the Sierra Nevada, California,” Albert Bierstadt 1858
Latterly among them was Thomas Moran, whose huge and colorful canvases persuaded Congress to create our first national parks.
“Shoshone Falls,” Thomas Moran 1900
These painters are the clear progenitors of the landscape photographs of Ansel Adams.
“Clearing Storm, Yosemite,” Ansel Adams 1944
But The Sublime had pretty well worked itself out by the end of the 19th Century. It was harder to believe in the awesome beauty of Providence after the First World War, to say nothing of the horrors that followed. Post-Traumatic Stress wasn’t quite the same thing. Still, The Sublime hung on in the paintings of Jackson Pollock, and especially Mark Rothko, whose mysterious canvases of hovering colors evoke the same sort of awe among those willing to be seduced by them.
“Black on Maroon,” Mark Rothko 1958
I’ve covered literature and painting, but The Sublime appears in music, also. The first sound depiction of it occurred when Franz Joseph Haydn depicted biblical Chaosas the prelude to his oratorio The Creation, which premiered in 1803.
Hector Berlioz assayed The Sublime in several of his works, but none more grippingly than in the Tuba Mirum section of the Dies Irae of his Requiem Mass of 1837, which requires, in addition to a huge orchestra and chorus, four extra brass bands, set into the four corners of the concert hall, and 20 tympani, which roll doom out in the Dies Irae.
Another Dies Irae with the power to blow you away is Giuseppe Verdi’s, from his Requiem Mass, which whacks the bass drum in alternation of staccato blasts from the strings and brass.
Perhaps the cake is taken by Gustav Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand — his Symphony No. 8, which in an ideal performance has an orchestra of about 200 and a chorus of 800. It is gargantuan, and the opening Veni Creator Spiritus is as close to manic insanity as music can probably sustain.
There are moments in Wagner, in Liszt, Bruckner and many in Mahler’s other symphonies.
Then, there’s The Ninth. I don’t need to mention whose. The Sublime makes itself present in each of the four movements, but rises to a climax in the choral finale, where voices and instruments poise at the limits of their abilities and hold those notes as they sing, “Seid umschlungen, Millionen!” — “Be embraced, you millions” and then “Ahnest du den Schopfer… — hold it, and then belt out — “Welt?” There follows a coda of ecstasy bringing home the central message of the symphony: “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” — “Joy, beautiful spark of divinity.”
But perhaps the greatest moment of The Sublime, as terror and grandeur, comes with the recapitulation section of the first movement. The theme that began the symphony in uncertainty and mist — we don’t even know originally what key it is in — comes back forte underlined by two solid minutes of rolling tympani thunder. Some conductors downplay this moment, letting the tympani merely enforce the bass line, but done right, the drums are an earthquake of apocalyptic rumble.
Perhaps I have been fascinated by The Sublime in art and poetry so much because I have experienced in life — probably a dozen times or so, maybe a score if I catalogued them — a moment when you don’t merely feel the joy of beauty found in nature, but experience a cosmic tingle, a sense of life magnified, intensified, made mythic. A body-sense of the vastness of existence and my minuscule place in it.
It tends to come, as it does in art, in mountains or deserts or at sea. I recall the sense while crossing the Atlantic on a ship and walking the deck after midnight and seeing in the vast emptiness of the ocean a twinkle of a light on a ship many miles off, heading in the opposite direction. The sea swells were rocking the boat and I could make out the shifting facets of waves in the dark, where some starlight was caught in the reflection of the water.
Or the Grand Canyon at five in the morning just before the sun broke the horizon.
Once, driving east in North Carolina on my way to Cape Hatteras, it was near sunset and in front of me in the windshield was a sooty-dark thunderhead and rain on the road perhaps a mile in front of me, obscuring the road and any horizon. It was a canyon of charcoal cloud climbing up to the stratosphere, with spikes of lightning, while in the rear window, the sun was brilliant and red in a clear sky. It was the definition of The Sublime.
Gustav Flaubert was said to have expressed “contempt for the bourgeoisie.” It is a sentiment I shared when growing up, as a bookish kid in a bookless family. Flaubert was himself a member of the middle class, and, alas, so am I. As much as I despised the suburban, middle-class New Jersey milieu in which I grew up, as I have aged, I have come to realize that it is this same middle class that allowed me to pursue my own interests. There was a bland tolerance inherent in mid-century suburbia that, while it watched Donna Reed and Bonanza, thought that college might be a good idea for its offspring — not knowing just what a subversive venture that education would turn out to be.
As for me, even when I was in seven years old, I couldn’t wait to leave New Jersey and head off to college. As I entered second grade, I am famously (in the family) reputed to have asked, “does that mean I can go to college next year?”
My brother and I often ponder where we came from. Craig is an artist and I am a writer. Nobody else in our extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, in-laws or anyone else, had the slightest interest in art, literature of other intellectual things. The closest my mother came was daubing a few paint-by-numbers canvases. The primary reading matter in the house was the Reader’s Digest nested on top of the toilet tank. When I mentioned classical music, my uncle asked if I meant, “like Montovani?” When my high-school buddies were listening to Chubby Checker and Bobby Vinton, I was listening to Stravinsky and Bach. Where this taste for the high-brow came from remains a mystery, but it is deeply buried.
There was early on a hunger for things that seemed deeper, truer, more complex than what I saw on TV or heard on AM radio. And I found that hunger fed by art and literature. In eighth grade, we had been required to read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and to memorize a few lines (“you blocks, you stone, you worse than senseless things. Knew ye not Pompey? Many a time and oft…” etc.) But the mere reading seemed archaic and incomprehensible. But late in the year, 1962, we took a class trip to Princeton, N.J. to the McCarter Theatre, where we watched a performance of the play, and it all then made sense. I loved it.
But Julius Caesar is, after all, a fairly easy play to get through. Even the less inclined in class found it entertaining.
The next season, though, on another class trip to the McCarter, we watched Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a rather tougher nut to crack. And I felt I had found a home. Eugene O’Neill was the kind of thing that spoke to me: To a green teen, it felt grown up, like the real thing I longed for.
Looking back, I can see I was just a kid and had a somewhat limited understanding of what it actually meant to be grown up. By high school, I had subscriptions to the Evergreen Review and Paul Krassner’s The Realist. I read Kerouac and Ginsberg, and was a member of the Literary Guild — an off-brand Book of the Month Club — where I bought and read things like Jean-Paul Sartre’s autobiography, The Words.
I look back now and remember Last Exit to Brooklyn and The Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding, and boy oh boy, what I misunderstood as a pimply-faced adolescent. I reread Saul Bellow’s Herzog again last year and was surprised to discover how funny the book is. When I read it in high school, I only knew it was a book that adults read, and so I dove in. That it was a comedy complete passed me by.
Art, music and literature: I knew — or felt in my bones — that this was the real stuff. All the quotidian was mere distraction. I was truly lucky: I lived only a short bus ride from Manhattan and could easily get into the city to visit museums, bookstores and concert halls. New York was real; New Jersey was boring. And what I found in the city turned my life.
In 1966, I heard Russian pianist Emil Gilels at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He played, among other things, the Liszt B-minor sonata. It is the first of many concerts and recitals that made in imprint on my life. I was there with my high-school girlfriend, who later became a professional bassoonist (played with both Philip Glass and PDQ Bach). We went to dozens of concerts, mostly in New York, and in Carnegie Hall.
Speaking of Peter Schickele, my girlfriend and I were at the first PDQ Bach concert in Carnegie Hall, and after that, I was practically a PDQ groupie and managed to get to one of his concerts annually for at least 25 years, either in New York or when he took his circus on the road.
I also had the Museum of Modern Art to go to, and the Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, the Whitney, the Frick Collection, and what was then the Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art on Columbus Circle.
The permanent collections in all these institutions became my dear friends. But there were changing exhibitions, too. The first serious art show I went to that altered the course of my life was also in 1966, at MoMA.
It was a curated show, intended to make a case. It wasn’t just a collection of paintings, but a curatorial argument, intended to persuade and make us think of something in a new way. It attempted to prove that English painter Joseph Mallord William Turner was a precursor to the French Impressionists and Modernism, that his soft-focus paintings and, especially, his washy watercolor sketches, were somehow a step forward in the history of art, and led to the breakthrough we all know and love with Monet, Renoir and Pissarro. (It was an age that still believed in art history as a grand and natural procession from then to us, the enlightened).
It was called “Turner: Imagination and Reality” and ran from March through May of that year. It made the claim that “During the last 20 years of his life, Turner developed a style of extraordinary originality. He evolved a new order of art, which was virtually unparalleled until the 20th century.” According to the curators, Turner was a harbinger of American Abstract Expressionists. Several of the images on view were so inchoate as to be purely abstract, like his Pink Sky, which might well be an early experiment by Mark Rothko, nothing more than strata of color spilled across the paper.
In the catalog to the show, art historian and curator Lawrence Gowing wrote, “These pictures from the last 20 years of Turner’s life, reveal potentialities in painting that did not reappear until our time. They tell us something about the inner nature of a whole pictorial tradition, of which recent American painting is an integral part. Turner not only saw the world as light and color; he isolated an intrinsic quality of painting and revealed that it could be self-sufficient, an independent imaginative function.”
I was transfixed and went back to the exhibit a second time, convinced I was privy to a secret about art that few others knew; only those who had seen this show really understood what a revolutionary Turner had been. Please remember, again, I was a teenager at the time.
In tandem with the Turner show was a smaller exhibit of Robert Rauschenberg’s “Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno,” a set of 34 drawings and ink transfers, one drawing per canto in Dante’s poem. It is difficult to recover the sense of elation and immersion a teenager in love with art could feel in the presence of something so new and so exciting.
When I did get to leave New Jersey and go to Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., I was in a candy shop: I signed up for Greek, Shakespeare, esthetics, astronomy — I wanted it all.
There was also a film series, carefully programmed to expose us to the best in cinema. We saw La Strada, Seven Samurai, Seventh Seal, Jules and Jim, Last Year at Marienbad, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Andalusian Dog, and even Birth of a Nation, although the student projectionist ran it without the sound on, calculating that it was a “silent film,” and not considering their was a musical soundtrack to accompany it. The racism was hard to swallow, but it was even worse — with no music, it seemed to last forever.
With my new college girlfriend, we went to the downtown theater to see Antonioni’s Blow Up. That sense of being on the edge of art made being young
All those films, added on to the reading material, and the concerts we had in the college auditorium, felt like what I had waited my whole life to gain access to. I fell in love with Chaucer; I read tons of Shelley — even stuff no one but a doctoral candidate bothers with. There was Classical literature in translation. There were three semesters of Comparative Arts. I minored in music composition (although, our stodgy professor der musik, Carl Baumbach, really only taught us figured bass and to harmonize chorales — and avoid parallel fifths. He could barely get himself to listen to anything as modern as Debussy.)
I was a well, down which you could toss everything and never fill it up.
After graduation, I continued with it all, without the need to worry about grades or term papers. Every summer, there was the Eastern Music Festival, for which I acted as unofficial photographer. I sat in on master classes, went to concerts. A few were so memorable, I still keep them in my psychic storehouse: Walter Trampler giving a master class; Miklos Szenthelyi playing the Bartok First Violin Concerto — which seemed at the time the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. Szenthelyi was a young Hungarian, virtually the same age as me, and his posture on stage was almost Prussian, his tone penetrating and perfect. (I still own several of his recordings. He is now a white-haired Old Master in Budapest. A half century has intervened.)
I also first heard Yo-Yo Ma. He must still have been a teenager. He performed both Haydn cello concertos in High Point, N.C., one before intermission and one just after. Yo-Yo has been as much a constant in my life as Peter Schickele. What a pair.
I also photographed the Greensboro Civic Ballet. I wish I had paid more attention to the dance in the 1970s, but my plate was otherwise full. Many years later, I came to love dance more than any other artform. (After my late wife and I traveled to Alaska, she asked if I might want to live there. Without trying to be funny, I said reflexively, “No. Not enough dance.” It was the natural answer.)
There have been hundreds of concerts and recitals, scores of theater and dance performances, bookshelves still filled with thousands of books and CDs, and more museum and gallery shows than I can count.
I was an English major, and how anyone can survive that is a miracle. It is only through love that I have survived: love of the language I speak and write, a love that was nearly extirpated by those who explain literature and write the prefaces to anthologies. The experts, that is.
It was nurtured, however, by many a teacher and professor, who also love the language and its productions. I don’t remember ever having an English teacher who propounded such gobbledygook as the professional explainer class regularly emits. (This, by disclaimer, is a class of which I was once a member, having made my living as a critic.)
I tried my best to write clear prose with understandable ideas, but my fellow guild members too often do the opposite. They can take something so simple and direct, so unimpeachably beautiful and clear, and turn it into a tangled knot of impenetrable theory, catching the flying sparrow in the fine mesh net of academic verbiage. I was, more particularly, an art critic, and I always said that I couldn’t read art criticism, that doing so was like eating an old mattress.
It is the same for much buncombe written about literature and poetry. Something that should be read for pleasure, understanding or solace turns into a midterm exam, the kind that you have in your recurring dreams when you discover you aren’t wearing any pants.
I am pretty sure such explainers are cases of arrested development, stuck in the sorrowful stage of the sophomore. The memory of having been once a sophomore myself gives me pause. There was a time when I, like so many other young minds, sought to “decode” a poem, finding the hidden meaning in the symbols therein. As if a poem required an enigma machine to untangle its “true”meaning, found in footnotes at the bottom of the page.
Is Billy Budd a Christ figure? A victim of patriarchy or capitalist oppression. Perhaps he is a Marxist hero. Maybe, he is just a handsome sailor, like Melville tells us. What we are meant to glean from the story’s reading is inherent in the story itself.
As Archibald McLeish put it: “A poem must not mean but be.”
Any good work of literature explains itself, if we are willing to listen, to pay attention and to stay within the work and not require a university seminar to unpack. All this comes to mind because of a short discussion recently about an eight-line poem by William Carlos Williams. And a comment by critic Dave Wolverton who wrote: “The poem was meant to be appreciated only by a chosen literary elite, only by those who were educated, those who had learned the back story…”
Such ideas raise the hackles.
The poem in question couldn’t be simpler, more complete, more self-explanatory, but no, Mr. Wolverton tells us we need to take a secret decoder ring to it, to find out what it is “really” about.
The back story he refers to is of the poet-physician, who was attending the hospital bedside of a dying young girl and happened to look out the window to see a red wheelbarrow and some chickens. First problem: Williams was a doctor in Rutherford, New Jersey, where it is quite unlikely to find chickens outside a hospital window. More likely a traffic jam.
Second problem is that despite the widespread retelling of this dying-girl tale, Williams himself tells us the genesis of the poem. It “sprang from affection for an old Negro named Marshall. He had been a fisherman, caught porgies off Gloucester. He used to tell me how he had to work in the cold in freezing weather, standing ankle deep in cracked ice packing down the fish. He said he didn’t feel cold. He never felt cold in his life until just recently. I liked that man, and his son Milton almost as much. In his back yard I saw the red wheelbarrow surrounded by the white chickens. I suppose my affection for the old man somehow got into the writing.”
It was first published in 1923, and one head-scratching comment I found suggested the poem was a comment on women getting the vote. How the critic got there from the contents of the poem, I leave to you and perhaps your bong.
Another sees it as a celebration of the proletariat. This is the kind of stuff that turns high-school students away from poetry and literature and toward auto repair.
To wit: “The wheelbarrow is an enduring and universal tool, used by people for thousands of years. It is most commonly associated with farming and construction—arguably, the foundation upon which civilization is built. In the poem, the wheelbarrow and its surrounding environment could also nod specifically towards agricultural workers and rural communities. As such, the poem’s contemplation of the wheelbarrow can be read as a meditation on the link between humanity and the natural world—as well as an assertion of the importance of respecting the latter.”
Where is that assertion? Show me the line.
Elsewhere: “By extension, the wheelbarrow here might be taken to represent the value of the working class. This class — the people actually performing said manual labor, such as farmers, miners, construction workers, etc. — is often stereotyped as being unskilled and unintelligent. Physical work, in general, is often misclassified as ‘lowly’ or ‘simple,’ which ignores the complexity that goes into planting, pollinating, etc. Seeing as this work is often undervalued despite its importance to human survival, the attention given to the wheelbarrow (and, through it, the people who use wheelbarrows) could act as a subtle acknowledgement and celebration of the working class.”
Where do manual laborers spend their time “pollinating?” Et cetera.
It might be noted that none of any of that shows up in the 16 plain words that comprise the poem. What there is, is a red wheelbarrow and some chickens. They are not symbols, they do not require a gloss. They are, in fact, a wheelbarrow and chickens. It is the ability to see them as just that that is the gift of the poem. They have been separated out of the rest of existence and shown to us as something worthy to be noticed.
My acquaintance was remembering a common friend who had recently died, who had introduced him to the poem.
“With my spotty poetry background, I’d never read this gemlike summing up of the power of first impressions. We were probably talking about things that seized our imaginations when we were very young.”
I always took it not as about first impressions, but about the importance of noticing, i.e., paying attention, even to the things you ignore in quotidian life. Paying attention is, for me, tantamount to being alive — I mean really alive, as opposed to merely existing. That is what so much depends on.
It is also the importance of the senses, as opposed to rationality. So much of what we think is merely done in linguistic categories. House, bird, horse. We tend to value logic and think it is what we hold in opposition to irrationality. But logic has its own pitfalls: It is also thinking in linguistic categories, and so much of what is “logical” is only so in words. Zeno’s paradox never actually prevents Achilles from overtaking the tortoise in a single step.
As Stephen Fry says over and over, the counter position to superstition and irrationality is not logic, but empiricism. Empiricism is paying attention. In that sense, so much depends on that red wheelbarrow. Without it, Galileo is put under house arrest. In this sense, paying attention and sense data are a bundle, inseparable.
Paying attention to our senses — looking carefully, hearing intently, touching, tasting, smelling — is also the key factor in squeezing the most enjoyment out of this brief moment we spend on the planet (seeming briefer with each birthday). In Keat’s words: “seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue/ can burst joy’s grape against his palate fine.”
I’ve spent my whole life soaking up Western culture, with a good dose from the East as well, and now that I am 72, I am wondering if it was all worth it.
To what end all this reading, all this music and art, all this delving into history, psychology, science — this collection I have amassed of Ovid, Livy, Homer, Hesiod and the rest, the reading of modern novels I began in high school, the vast commonplace book of my brain, the syncretization of all national arts and philosophies? I have only a decreasing fraction of my time on the planet remaining to me, and when it is reduced to zero, all this accumulation of cultural clutter will evaporate. Poof. Gone.
I see my granddaughters at the beginning of their accumulations, making all the same mistakes I made (well, not all of them, and some that are entirely original to them), and I know that if I have acquired any knowledge — I hesitate to call it wisdom, for really, it is only the giant ball of string I have collected through living — it can not save them an ounce or tittle of the troubles they will have to pass through.
There are people who I admire with infinite appreciation who have avoided all this “high culture” and have contributed meaningfully to our lives. The teachers, nurses, chaplains — to say nothing of the mothers and the uncles and aunts — who have, through compassion and the service they have given to the benefit of others, are so much more directly worthy of praise. Even so simple a job as waiter seems to me now a more meaningful metier than my own life of page-turning and thought-gathering.
William Yeats, in his A Vision, postulates two conflicting sensibilities for humans, which he names the “primary” and “antithetical.” All of us, he says, are composed of bits of each, in different ratios. The Primary sensibility understands the here and now, the useful, the social; the Antithetical comprehends the mythic, poetic, the psychological, the parts of our psyche that might be called the “hard wiring.” The ur-profession of the Primary is nurse; that of the Antithetical is the poet.
Yeats measures the ratios of these two urges in the symbol of the phases of the moon and counts 28 tinctures — and that’s the word he uses — with a growing proportion of Antithetical as the moon waxes, and a decreasing proportion with the waning. No one, he says, is either all Antithetical or all Primary, but always an intermixture.
He goes on to apply this metaphor not only to psychology, but to history and I’m afraid he has lost me there. Yeats can get a little wacky at times. But I am looking for a purpose to my own Antithetical inclinations. Can this lifetime of lucubration have any wider value? Can I justify the ways of me to humankind?
I am reading George Orwell’s “Inside the Whale,” in which he very thoughtfully takes to task Henry Miller, not for his obscenity or for his ability as a writer, which he admires, but for his quietism, Miller’s refusal to consider the political consequences of the times. Orwell, of course, was famously committed, having gone so far as to fight in the front lines of the Spanish civil war, and been shot in the throat for his efforts.
Miller, on the other hand, is, in Orwell’s words, “a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive accepter of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.” He is, in another passage, a Nero fiddling while Rome burns, although unlike other such fiddlers, Miller does so while facing the flames, not denying them. Miller’s ultimate stance is “a sort of mystical acceptance of the thing-as-it-is.”
Orwell was writing in 1940, when “To say ‘I accept’ in an age like our own is to say that you accept concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs, aeroplanes, tinned food, machine guns, putches, purges, slogans, Badaux belts, gas masks, submarines, spies, provocateurs, press-censorship, secret prisons, aspirins, Hollywood films and political murders. Not only those things of course, but those things among others.”
Miller, he says, would hardly disagree with him.
And, while I do not share Miller’s anarchism, I, too, have come to feel the individual has almost no effect on the historical machinations of his age, and that the recognition that little can be done means that the best approach is to let the universe move on its way and to accept whatever is dished out, including the annihilation of the self, which is death. Not so much that whatever is is good, but rather, that whatever is, is. What Joseph Campbell calls “the willing participation in the sorrows of the world.”
It is what Krishna counsels Arjuna to do in the Bhagavad Gita section of the Mahabharata, before the battle of Kurukshetra. Arjuna is to signal the beginning of the fighting, but stops short, considering the bloodshed and the misery that will ensue, including the slaughter of his own relatives. Krishna, disguised as his charioteer then more or less stops time, like Joshua halting the sun, in order to give the warrior a lesson in Dharma. You must do what you must do, he says in essence; the world will continue anyway.
And so, I value those who with practical efficiency ameliorate the suffering. Surely, they are willingly participating in the sorrows of the world, and doing their best to lessen that suffering.
But there are those of us who have other functions in the world. Scientists, for instance, aim to understand the world. Their work may be useful latterly, but their primary aim is understanding what is not known. Pure science precedes applied science. We value the work of pure science for what it tells us about the universe; the knowledge gained may — or may not — lead to practical application.
There are, however, other paths of study that further the human endeavor, and these, too, may or may not ultimately be helpful.
Science is the test we give to the objective world; art is the test we give to everything else. If we want to understand what happens inside another’s brain, we look to a neuroscientist; if we want to understand what happens in another’s mind, we read a novel.
Each of us has a world inside us, TARDIS-like, bigger inside than outside, and that teeming interior world governs what we feel about the outer world, how we act in it, what we believe is true. It is in the arts, literary, visual, musical, physical such as dance, that we explore that interior and attempt to plumb its depths.
And, as a pure scientist’s work can lead to an applied use, so the work of an artist, philosopher, historian, can lead not only to a better understanding of our humanity, it can have practical effects in the world. One has only to think of Harriet Beecher Stowe or so simple or ephemeral thing as the way Jean-Claude Belmondo hangs a cigarette off his lip in Breathless.
The effects are normally less world-shaking than the shift in attitude toward race-slavery, but those effects are measured in each individual life, and how much a psyche is opened and bloomed in the world.
Delving into that interior, one finds its mirror in the books one reads. One studies them to study the self. Such is a lifelong process of discovery and whether it has real-world uses or not, must be attempted, just as pure science must be continued.
I began my adult career as a teacher, and after that, as a writer; but in either job, the goal was the same, to spread knowledge. I fervently hope that my efforts have been, in at least some tiny smidgeon of a way, a benefit to humanity.
As I write this, I am conscious that all this may very well be pure rationalization, making for myself an excuse for my life. But I will offer this apologia. When I was young, I was so much more self-absorbed — as young people tend to be — but a life of reading, listening, and looking have opened my emotions to much that was little more than words, words, words when I was beginning. I have been cracked open. I have become infinitely more compassionate and more sympathetic to others than I was. I see peoples’ emotions on their faces in ways that were invisible before. The pains and joys of others have become my own. Perhaps not to any great extent, but enough to make me aware of how others must navigate their lives.
And when my wife became ill, I became her caregiver until the end, and doing so was, with not a shred of doubt, the most meaningful thing I have done in my life. I believe I would not have been capable of such empathy, such caring and devotion, if it had not been for a life opened to all that was outside of myself, and opened by art, literature, music, dance, reading of history, philosophy, biology, physics, chemistry, and all else that would otherwise have been blank to me.
As I watched her decline, I saw all of suffering humankind in her, and all of aspirational humankind in myself, and they were the same thing. And so, when she died, I did, too, with the exception that I am still here. But then, so is she.
There is the echo of this in all of the books that I have ingested, all the music, with its sonic analog of emotion, all of the perennial philosophy. “Alle menschen werden brüder.”
For most scholars, as with most scientists, a career is built specializing, knowing more and more about a smaller and smaller angle of the whole. They become tenured professors and further the knowledge of the world in meaningful particulars. I have, in contrast, attempted to know more about a wider range of things, in effect seeking a unified field theory of the humanities. The endeavor has been so far as fruitless as that of physicists, but it has been why I read Dante and Saul Bellow, study Raphael and Francis Bacon, listen to Bach and Glass, feel in my own muscles Petipa and Pina Bausch.
Someone has to put it all together. Our outer lives are vital; we need to aid the suffering, feed the hungry, still the wars, cool the fevers. But we also have inner lives, and they need attending, also. Human beings “shall not live by bread alone.”
If all I have said here is nothing but rationalization, a kind of weaseling out of my responsibilities in the practical world, that does negate the truth. Motives are one thing; truth is another.
And finally, if none of this counts, if none of this weighs on the good side of the scales, I can only say: It is my nature. Learning ever more is the satisfaction of an insatiable hunger. May those I love and those who love me forgive what I have made of it.
How did I ever become such a sobersides? An old fogey? So donnish?
My late wife used to call me “the man who can’t have fun.” But I do have fun. I have lots of it; it’s just that I get pleasure out of things most people find impenetrably dull. I find them incredibly fascinating. I watch C-Span Book TV on weekends, for instance. I read Homer and Dante, and listen to Paul Hindemith. I pine for ballet. And little makes me happier than digging into some arcane research.
It goes way back to when I’m this kid, see. When my classmates were listening to Cousin Brucie on the AM radio and loving the Drifters or “Splish-splash, I was takin’ a bath,” I was spinning Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on the Sears Silvertone.
In third grade, I enjoyed diagramming sentences. Why?
These things come to mind because I recently came across an essay written by Artsy editor Casey Lesser about how seeing Guernica when she was 15 years old changed her life and set it on its course. I had an instant reaction to her piece because when I was about the same age, I also came across the painting.
It was in the early 1960s and I was a high-school student in New Jersey. I took the bus to Manhattan as often as I could and practically lived in the city’s museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, where I became lifelong friends with Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Jackson Pollock’s Number 1A and, of course, the wall-spanning expanse of Picasso’s Guernica.
Back then, when I would exit the elevator on the third floor of MoMA, the painting — more than 11 feet high and 25 feet wide — dominated the view to the right, on the far wall through two other galleries. It was on “permanent exhibition,” and I was confident it would always be there for me to see. Nothing is permanent in this life, and in 1981, the painting absconded to Spain.
With its powerful and painful imagery, the painting was proof to my adolescent mind that there was a world more real and more meaningful than the suburban life I was stuck in. And like countless young “sensitive souls,” from Wilhelm Meister to Holden Caulfield, I urgently and earnestly yearned for something that cast a larger shadow on the screen. I was a little too conscious of being the hero of my own Bildungsroman.
That early exposure to the art at MoMA, and especially Guernica, aimed me at my eventual career as an art critic. Parvis e glandibus quercus. Or, as Pope had it, “As the twig is bent, so the tree inclines.”
But this recognition also set me off to consider what other early exposures bent that twig. Of course, some of the most transformative influences were people: teachers, friends, and eventually, wives. But I am concerned here primarily with arts and books that yanked the steering wheel from my hand and sent me in new directions.
I was in high school and my new exposure to history, poetry, foreign languages, both Latin and Spanish, all kindled a growing sense that there was more to life than sitting in the living room watching Bonanza and eating Oreos.
Many of us rebel as adolescents against the banality of our lives, and that of our parents’. Most of that rebellion is inchoate and poorly aimed, leading to teen drinking, minor car theft or simple sullenness. But in some few cases, such as mine, there was a clear alternative: For me, the life of the mind.
Art and literature spoke of an existence that was not banal, but intense and meaningful. I began eating it up.
For instance, theater. I had little experience of live theater until my freshman year in high school, when the class was bussed down to Princeton, N.J., to see Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the McCarter Theatre. It was the perfect introduction to the Bard; the story was clear and simple, so, while the language was baroque, we could still follow the play easily enough.
McCarter Theatre Center
Then, the following fall, we went back to the McCarter to see O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. What crazed educator thought that a three-and-a-half hour play about a screwed up family in 1912 was a good one for high school sophomores, I don’t know. But it struck just the right note of high seriousness for my nascent psyche. I loved it. I wanted more.
I’ve already written about my high school girlfriend, who became a professional musician, and how we used to make out on her couch while listening to Stravinsky on the phonograph. We went to countless concerts and recitals in New York and I came to love classical music. I bypassed the doo-wop: My Four Seasons were Vivaldi’s, not Frankie Valli’s.
I took up reading contemporary literary fiction: Updike, Bellow, Pynchon. Two books especially hit the mark. I was bowled over by Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I sought epiphanies. It’s a book I still read again every few years.
Then, I discovered Kazantzakis after watching the movie of Zorba the Greek, where I read the book and found in the novel a deeper level of Buddhist thinking, which sent me on to discover Zen via Alan Watts and poetry via Matsuo Basho.
Each taste made me seek out more. Haiku eventually expanded into Paradise Lost — an inflation equivalent to the early seconds of the universe after the Big Bang.
All this was heady stuff for a pimply-faced teenager, but even if only dimly understood at the time what I was reading and experiencing, I knew it was bigger and more important than my paper route or the Reader’s Digest. The desire for a richer, deeper, more profound life has been the driving force behind my inclination toward what used to be called high-brow culture.
There has been an ersatz distinction between high-brow and low-brow. But that distinction is characteristically middle-brow. There is a snobbery of the middle classes that seeks to distinguish itself from the uneducated tastes, and an aspirational striving for the status (and wealth) that seem to mark the upper classes. In this dynamic, there is an inherent self-loathing to the middle class, at least when it is self-aware.
And no doubt my allegiance to fine art was originally spawned by this loathing of what seemed a mundane and insipid upbringing. Art told me there were more serious concerns in life, and bigger adventures. If I didn’t want to be squelched by the 9-to-5 life, hanged by the necktie and imprisoned by my own front lawn, then I would have to take on Bach, Joyce, Hokusai, Zora Neale Hurston, Laurence Sterne, Miles Davis, Correggio, Xenophon, and Philip Glass. Gobble them all up and look for even more with an incessant appetite.
That was all a half-century ago. I have sucked up every bit of knowledge and wisdom I could find, only to discover that I knew less and less, and was more foolish than I ever knew possible. Now at 72, I no longer feel intolerant of the middle class that gave birth to me, but find it is the foundation of a society that allows me space to be an outlier. Only with the solid support of a functioning culture could I have found a means to leave it behind. Its tolerance allows me my eccentricity. I know I would have found none in Stalin’s Moscow nor Pol Pot’s Phnom Penh.
So, I have been allowed to read what I want, see and hear what I want, and if that has led me away from the class that a-borned me, it has led me to a place where I find it hard to judge anyone. Not impossible, but difficult, knowing how little all my education and cultural exposure has taught me. Much information; little wisdom.
But it has informed my life, made it richer, provided endless pleasure, occupied a mind that hated inactivity, and, as all great art and literature does, nurtured compassion and forgiveness, an awareness of others both locally and globally. It has been the key to let me step out of the prison of myself.
I once wanted to change the world. Most of us did in the 1960s. We knew we could make it a better place. That has all collapsed. Now, my idealism is drained from me, my expectation for the future and future generations is quelled. I expect no better than life can serve up. There is no end, only perpetual churn and change. I cannot fix the world; it needs no fixing, it only needs accepting, faults and all. And my need for improvement turns in on myself.
Someone once said in defense of our youthful enthusiasms that what is called maturity is made up of equal parts of cowardice and exhaustion. I once would have agreed. Exhaustion, maybe, but cowardice, no. Maturity is acceptance. “The wrastling for the world axeth a fal.”
I still find myself bored by the simple and simple-minded, and find myself excited by the complex and the beautiful. And so, I read Tolstoy, listen to Bartok, examine the canvases of Titian and Francis Bacon, weep over the dance of Pina Bausch, and soak in the films of Tarkovsky. These may not be plebeian tastes, but they are my tastes. They satisfy.
It is is not just the life of the mind, it is life to the mind.
“Do not move. Let the wind speak.”
May those I love try to forgive what I have made of it.
Poetry is as much about not saying something as it is about having something to say. There are words that come too easily to us, words that, once we have uttered them, we realize are either meaningless cliche, or simply do not say what we mean with any exactitude. They are commonplaces, or shorthands meant to avoid the truly difficult.
Reams of bad poetry rhyme the thoughts we believe we share, or worse, believe we ought to share: emotions that are expected rather than actually experienced; ideas that were once current that have outworn their truths; expressions we overheard rather than discovered.
And so, we struggle to find the real, the exact, the fresh, and instead, out on paper appears the tired, the familiar, the trite, and we scratch out the lines and try again. It is what we don’t want to write that drives us.
As T.S. Eliot write it in “Burnt Norton,” “Because one has only learnt to get the better of words/ For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which/ One is no longer disposed to say it.”
Each attempt at a poem is, in Eliot’s words, “a raid on the inarticulate.”
You can see it in a page of his draft for “The Wasteland:” Lines penciled through, sharp comments scribbled in the margins, even a heckling at himself — “Perhaps be damned.”
Allen Ginsberg liked to preach the wisdom of the first draft. “First thought, best thought,” he repeated, like a mantra. Yet the published draft of his best poem, “Howl” is a mass of rewriting and crossing-outs. One tries very hard not to waste our time by saying something that is boilerplate, that is obvious, that is inelegant or imprecise.
Which makes a successful poem all the more powerful.
There are two ways in which poems can be essential. The first and easiest is that it delights us. These are poems we carry with us for life the way we remember a lovely tune. They are fun to recite and we very likely have memorized at least a few lines.
“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” by Wallace Stevens. “Kublai Khan” by Coleridge. “This Be the Verse,” by Philip Larkin. A whole Palgrave’s Treasury of poetry that over and over, we come back to.
They can be light, but they can be serious also, take us along with them past everyday concerns. Some are longer, some are just ditties. Robert Herrick’s “Whenas in silks my Julia goes,/ Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows/ That liquefaction of her clothes.”
The bulk of poems that give us pleasure fit into this category.
But there are other lines that more than delight, hit deep into the most central part of our selves and smack us with a kind of revelation. The first group — that delight us — are poems that we date, but these others are the poems we are married to. They speak to us with the clarity of a gong and hammer our nerves flat, and leave us moved and our our bodies full with emotion, ready to burst like an overfull water balloon.
You will have your own candidates, poems that whisper in your ear something that can make you weep. They are poems that feel not simply true, but personal. Those that crash into me won’t likely be the same ones that hit you. But if you love poetry you must certainly have your own list of “holy of holies.” Here are a few of mine:
There is no poem I reread more than William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” I know; I know. Wordsworth can be tedious. One thinks of Rossini’s smackdown of Richard Wagner: “He has beautiful moments, but godawful quarter-hours.” But those bits. It is like taking the red-eye to New York and you are bored and sleepy most of the way, but just as the sun rises over the eastern horizon, the plane banks and the blast of light through the window blinds you with brilliance.
There is a reason he has the fourth most quotes in Bartletts after Shakespeare, the King James Bible and John Milton.
The “Intimations Ode,” as it is usually known, is his poem that speaks to me most heartbreakingly. I don’t share his strained Platonism about life before birth, but the central description of how childhood comes “trailing clouds of glory.” The world is lit from within when we are young. Now that I am 71, that transparency of light is clouded over as by emotional cataracts. But I can clearly remember the brilliance. And Wordsworth’s poem is not only about the “splendor in the grass,” but also about the comfort of that remembering.
No poem speaks to me more personally, more directly, more heartbreakingly. Unless that poem is…
Three things are central to human life: Love, loss and death. One poem has them all and tears me to shreds each time I read it. Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.”
Yes, we need food, shelter and air to live, but life gives back always those three pillars: love, loss and death. In Whitman’s poem, the speaker remembers childhood when he came to know two sea birds, a mating pair. They came back to Long Island each spring from migration, until one year, only one came back. The sense of loss is palpable, and painfully familiar. The recognition of the loss, and of the death that caused the loss, drives the speaker to poetry.
This poem has always moved me deeply, but now that my wife of 35 years has died and left me alone, the poem is nearly unbearable. This is what I mean about a poem speaking personally. It is no theory I feel on rereading it, but the recognition of truth.
Then, there is Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” It is perhaps the most pessimistic poem in the canon. It recognizes the abject aloneness of life, and the slim but necessary comfort of sharing that aloneness.
The speaker calls to his share-mate to look out the window at the English Channel and consider the “eternal note of sadness,” and the “ebb and flow of human misery.” He muses on the loss of any sense of divine order or providence and posits the only help is that they “be true to one another.” For the world offers nothing permanent or positive beyond that.
It is such a beautifully written thing, that the misery in it almost comes across as transcendent. The receding waves of the Channel on the beach shingle makes a hissing sound that makes the whole thing utterly palpable.
Conrad Aiken is usually thought of as a minor poet, and most of his work is known only to scholars nowadays. But one of his poems speaks to me as much alive as Wordsworth or Whitman, and that is his poem about death, “Tetelestai.”
The title is the Greek word that the Christ spoke as his last on the cross: “It is finished.” In Aiken’s poem, he parodies the grand trumpets that blast at the death of heroes and the triumphal cortege that celebrates the heroic life, but then pleads that even a profoundly ordinary man — meaning himself — deserves the same ceremony, the same sense of importance.
Say, he says, “two great gods, in a vault of starlight/ Play ponderingly at chess, and at the game’s end/ One of the pieces, shaken, falls to the floor/ And runs to the darkest corner; and that piece/ Forgotten there, left motionless, is I.”
Yet, he pleads, he has had the same emotions, the same drives, the same failures, as the trumpet-hailed hero. Does he not deserve to be remembered for these things? Of course he is being ironic on one level, but underneath, he is certainly sincere — Each of us, after all, is the hero of his or her own life, the center of the subjective universe.
It is a poem of sadness, of frustration, of recollection of a life too insignificant to be grieved, yet, deserving of grief.
The last poem I will mention here in detail was written in German by Joseph von Eichendorff in 1841. It is a poem I would not have come across in my normal reading, but it is the text set by composer Richard Strauss as the finale of his “Four Last Songs,” one of the most intensely beautiful and heart-piercing cycles of music ever written, lush, shadowed, personal. Strauss wrote it at the very end of his own life and his text choices — the Eichendorff and three poems by Herman Hesse — are each as full as a cupbrimming over.
There are many translations — at least as many as there are recordings of the Strauss songs and printed on the CD insert — but for me, most fail be either being too literal or too conventionally “poetical.” So, I made my own translation, which for me carries the weight of the poem as I feel it in the music. I give it here:
There are other poems I could mention that move me as these five do. I love the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales; Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden;” Auden’s “September 1, 1939;” Yeats’ “Lapis Lazuli;” “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. There are others. And I continually find new ones to add to the list.
Poetry can say with precision what we mean to say but our words fail us. Yes, it can also camouflage our fuzzy thought with pretty words, but those are the words I said a good poet fights to shake loose from. Poetry is not vague clouds of unclarified smoosh. The best is made by intense thought and concentration, and a fear of uttering cant, the commonplace, the banal.
When the useless marble is chiseled away, the David is left for us to marvel at, and recognize as ourselves.
Some years ago, when we were looking for a new cello for our daughter, we visited a luthier who took the time to answer our questions about the differences among all the instruments he had.
What exactly is the advantage of the $40,000 violoncello over the $1500 student piece? The luthier picked up a beginner model and played a few notes. It sounded good; clear pitch and nice tone.
“But notice this,” he said, drawing the bow back over the C-string. The tone began, clear but muted. In a moment, the instrument seemed to wake up and the tone became richer, louder and more resonant.
He then picked up a better instrument. The bow drew over the same string and immediately, the tone popped.
A third cello was the high-end he had on hand, a French instrument from the mid-19th century. One touch of the bow and the thing sang like a Pavarotti, clear, bright, loud, rich as foie gras. It almost seemed to vibrate before he moved the bow. It was electric, alive. It was as if the cello was paying as close attention to him as he was to the cello.
The difference is resonance. Resonance is when one vibrating body causes another, usually larger body, to vibrate sympathetically, which often amplifies the effect — in this case, sound.
Resonance may be vibrating air, or, as in the cello, the interior and back panel of the instrument. If you bow a naked string, you get a puny sound that cannot project. But let that string’s vibration be carried down through a bridge into the body of the cello through soundposts and it causes the back of the cello to vibrate sympathetically and become, essentially, a speaker, to let the music fill a concert hall. The French cello we heard had a more subtly planed and constructed back panel, of graded thickness, which allowed it to resonate throughout the range of pitches playable on the cello.
Resonance isn’t just for music, though. It is one of the means by which art and literature amplify their meanings. The words say one thing, but behind them, larger and peeking through, are the ghosts of all literary history.
One of the most famous example is the opening of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. “April is the cruelest month … stirring dull roots with spring rain.” The poem ironically borrows its resonance from Chaucer: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, the droghte of March hath perced to the roote …”
When I was a sophomore — like most sophomores — I believed that the “trick” was to spot the allusions intellectually, as if they were footnotes (Eliot did not help by including footnotes with the poem). As if being clever were the point of poetry.
But that is not it at all, that is not what is meant at all.
Poetry such as Eliot’s assumes a familiarity with a wide variety of literature of the past, but not as a sort of Jeopardy quiz — rather, if you have a chest stuffed with the rags and bones of your culture, the meaning rather vibrates sympathetically. You feel it rather than think it, more like weather than like a weather report.
Consider, say, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. “Fourscore and seven years ago…” He could have said, simply, “Eighty-seven years ago…” But his audience was a Bible-familiar one, who would have heard in that cadence an echo of the King James version of Psalm 90: “The days of our years are threescore and ten.” Listeners to the speech would not have smiled and told themselves, “How clever, he’s referencing the Bible,” but rather, the organ-tones of the Authorized Version would have resonated in their limbic system, adding heft to the president’s words.
Lincoln also frequently couched his rhetoric in the words of birth and death, which would resonate deeply with his audience at the dedication of a cemetery, when death had undone so many. Few Americans, North or South, escaped losing family members in that conflagration.
So, when he continues: “brought forth,” “conceived,” “created,” “conceived” again, “endure,” “gave their lives,” “that the nation might live,” “new birth of freedom,” and “shall not perish,” that personally shared sense of accouchement and mortality pushes up from underneath the words, giving the republic blood and veins, nerves and bones.
This is not a policy speech, filled with abstractions and empty words, but rather, a text resonant with the power of birth and death. That and the biblical tone give it its solemnity and power.
In English, how much more resonant is the title of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past — an echo of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 — than a simple English translation of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (“in search of lost time” — which sounds more like someone trying to catch a missed train).
In the English-speaking world, the sounding board of so much resonance comes from Shakespeare (Brave New World; Band of Brothers; Pomp and Circumstance; The Winter of our Discontent; Slings and Arrows), the King James Bible (Absalom, Absalom!; The Children of Men; Clouds of Witness; East of Eden), and the Book of Common Prayer (The World, the Flesh and the Devil; Ashes to Ashes; Till Death Us Do Part; Peace in Our Time.)
Resonance overflows in culture, usually passing unremarked, but obvious — at least to those who have absorbed their history, their literature and art, even popular art.
Consider King Kong, captured and shackled with “chains of chrome steel” in New York. The curtain rises and there is our ape, crucified. Kong is not simply a nightmare monster ravaging a city, but a sympathetic sufferer.
Or take Jeff Koons porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp, Bubbles. Behind that monument to banality is the historical power of the Elgin Marbles and the East Pediment of the Parthenon.
The resonance can also work in reverse, as a pop culture image can enlarge a high culture image: That wide-shoulder, spindly-leg Richard III of Olivier was built from the image of Disney’s Big Bad Wolf. Olivier has remarked on this several times.
In music, there are quotes from previous music, such as Rachmaninoff’s constant use of the Dies Irae of plainchant. But such a quote is meant to be recognized immediately for what it is.
More to the point of resonance is the half-hour finale to Gustav Mahler’s enormous Third Symphony, a deeply moving adagio that can bring a sergeant-major to weeping. Hidden in its main theme is the slow movement of Beethoven’s final string quartet — the one with the epigraph: “Muss es sein? Es muss sein!” (Must it be? It must be!) When Mahler says his symphony must contain the whole world, this is the resonance behind it. We might not recognize the tune until it is pointed out — when it becomes obvious — but it works its weight upon us in the audience anyway: a faint remembrance of things past that makes the present music glow from inside.
The problem with all this is that it posits a cultured audience, one reasonably familiar with the art, poetry, literature, music and theater of at least 2,500 years of European culture, something increasingly rare. In the past, those who read poetry or collected art had also read the Bible and Homer. Now it is rare to find even a professed Christian who has actually read the whole Bible, or remembers stories from it that a hundred years ago were common heritage: David and Jonathan; Ruth and Naomi; Balshazzar’s feast; Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; Balaam’s ass. So now, when reading Melville, the name Ahab or Ishmael require footnotes when, in the past, they carried a rich resonance on first reading.
Of course, no one can have such a complete familiarity of English and European literature and art to catch all of the baited hooks that authors and artists drop down. And some writers (I’m talking about you, Ezra Pound) are so obscure that you would have to be Ezra himself to understand all the buried treasure he has left in his Cantos. This is overkill. Hang it all, Ezra, there can be but one Cantos, and thank god for that.
But, in the past, even a reasonably well-read audience felt the presence of the pulse underneath the skin of what they were reading. So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to what we read and see.