Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Let's Go Surfing Now (Everybody's Learning How)

In the introduction to his collection of essays, Learning to Curse, cultural historian Stephen Greenblatt describes the time he spent in graduate school at Yale in the late 1960s under the tutelage of the magisterial William K. Wimsatt, who was at that time the doyen of the New Critics. Wimsatt, along with Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and many others at the time, espoused the theory that poetry was an autonomous realm, to be understood largely on its own terms as an aesthetic act. Greenblatt admits to be only mildly interested in that approach.
[Wimsatt’s] theory of the concrete universal—poetry as “an object which in a mysterious and special way is both highly general and highly particular”—seemed almost irresistibly true, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to enlist myself for life as a celebrant of the mystery. I would go in the late afternoon to the Elizabethan Club—all male, a black servant in a starched white jacket, cucumber sandwiches and tea—and listen to Wimsatt at the great round table hold forth like Doctor Johnson on poetry and aesthetics. Wimsatt seemed to be eight feet tall and to be the possessor of a set of absolute convictions, but I was anything but certain.
Greenblatt had earlier spent two years as a Fulbright Scholar at Cambridge, and he had been struck during his time there by the “intellectual power and moral authority” of the Marxist critic Raymond Williams. The New Critics didn’t think much of Marx. In one then-popular text, Wimstatt and Cleanth Brooks had written that “Marxism and the forms of social criticism more closely related to it, have never had any real concern with literature and literary problems,” and that the Marxist approach fundamentally “destroys the literary viewpoint.”

Greenblatt, on the contrary, had found Williams’ approach to literature fascinating, and also liberating.
In Williams’s lectures all that had been carefully excluded from the literary criticism in which I had been trained—who controlled access to the printing press, who owned the land and the factories, whose voices were being repressed as well as represented in literary texts, what social strategies were being served by the aesthetic values we constructed—came pressing back in upon the act of interpretation.

Greenblatt eventually chose this path, which he describes as “a shift away from a criticism centered on ‘verbal icons toward a criticism centered on cultural artifacts.” He originally described the work he was doing as Marxist aesthetics,  but later began to apply the terms “cultural poetics” and “new historicism” so as not to unduly circumscribe the approach.

I find this personal narrative interesting not only for what it describes, but also for what it leaves out. The path Greenblatt chose became popular, and nowadays I suspect you would be hard-pressed to find anyone at the university level considering poetry or any other art form from a purely aesthetic point of view. That's really a shame. What Greenblatt fails to note, and perhaps doesn’t even recognize, is that the two approaches to poetry have nothing in common except the text they might happen to be scrutinizing. 

Greenblatt recognizes that his focus has changed, but he doesn’t quite see how. It isn’t away from verbal icons toward cultural artifacts. What he meant to say was, “I thought I was interested in poetry. In fact, I was interested in sociology.”

There is nothing terribly wrong with the field of sociology, of course, and using literary texts as indicators of social conditions or historical change might have a certain validity, too. But it’s a mistake to image that such an approach has anything to do with literature itself. The conflation of these two realms has done serious harm to the modern psyche by excluding the possibility that life can be seized and appreciated in its fullness (which is what poetry does) rather than merely picked apart to expose examples of injustice and oppression (which is what both sociology and literary “theory” tend to do.)

Let me give you an example of how far the rot has spread. In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, critic Ben Ratliff takes up the case of the Beach Boys, on the lookout, it would appear, not for beauty but for “relevance.”
Time and social change have been rough on the Beach Boys. Their best-known hits (say, “California Girls,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “I Get Around”) are poems of unenlightened straight-male privilege, white privilege, beach privilege. It is hard to imagine that they helped anyone toward self-determination or achieving their social rights. Brian Wilson’s great integrative achievement as a songwriter and producer was absorbed in bits and pieces by others—Paul McCartney especially—but it mostly worked for him alone. In their rhythm and humor the Beach Boys sound squarer all the time compared to Motown, the Beatles, and the Stones, and a lot of Phil Spector.
It never occurred to me that the Stones or Paul MCCartney might be socially relevant, but be that as it may, is that what art is supposed to do? Help people toward social rights? Influence other artists? I don’t think so. At least not exclusively, or even primarily. I don’t listen to the Beach Boys now, but I did when I was twelve, and I still get a kick out of their vocal harmonies … for about thirty seconds. And having spent quite a bit of time on the California coast, I now see more clearly than I did as a teen how liberating and eternally cool surfing can be. 

The New Critics were right, in other words, when they defended the autonomy and universality  of works of art and the inadequacy of biographical and sociological interpretations to take their full measure. Such things as "beauty" aren’t easy to discuss in class, however, and recourse to phrases such as “concrete universal” soon become tiresome and unilluminating, as Greenblatt points out. A remark by John Crowe Ransom that I came upon decades ago, when I was an undergraduate, has stuck with me, though I might not be remembering it accurately: “A piece of literary criticism is a small work of art that we dedicate to a great work of art.”

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Shaking the Post-Election Blues

I. Outdoor Expo

When November gloom arrives, you could do worse than head down to the Outdoor Expo that Midwest Mountaineering hosts every year on the West Bank. The event consists of films, lectures, booths tended by outdoor organizations, and a store-wide sale on colorful tents, sleeping bags, hi-tech clothes, and assorted camping paraphernalia.

Approaching via Washington Avenue North, I was astounded to see how many glitzy coffee shops have sprung up along that warehouse canyon. And on a Saturday morning they all seemed to be hopping. 

Along the way we passed countless purple-clad football fans who had snagged affordable parking and were heading for their designated tailgate parties (four hours before the game). We parked in the gravel lot behind Caesar's (is Caesar's still there?), then hurried over to Hanson Hall to listen to a 90-minute talk about hiking in the Dolomites. The pictures were stunning and the presenter was personable. It would seem that no one knows more about the trails in that vast region than he does. He has also gotten to know the locals over the years, the best hotels and restaurants, the cable cars, and so on.

It was a pleasant way to spend a part of the morning. However, I doubt if I'll be spending $650 a day to take a guided tour of the region any time soon. Evidently many people have. Part of the guide's philosophy is that it's more fun to take day-hikes using a single village as a base than to do a cross-country trek. After the talk someone asked him where his "base" was. "I can't tell you that," he said. "I've spent too much time, too much time..." 

The second talk we attended was given by a man who'd hiked the Coast-to Coast trail across England with his wife. It took them fourteen days. His photos weren't quite as good. For that matter, the countryside, beautiful though it may be, wasn't quite so stunning as the Dolomites. But the talk was informative, and he offered some very useful information for arranging sherpa services and booking rooms along the way.

Both presentations made it easier for me to imagine visiting such places, and I guess that's the point.

In the nearby canvas tent, we ran into a succession of organizations that brought back memories of adventures I had decades ago. At the Border Trail booth I was reminded that I hiked that route before there was a trail of any kind along the south shore of South Lake, and was lucky to come upon a guy with a boat who ferried me across the neck of Magnetic Lake. In retrospect, the hike seems almost mythic.

At the booth for the Kekekabic Trail Association, I was reminded that I have hiked that 44-mile trail three times, but that was way back when, in the early 1970s.

A young woman in one booth was setting out small portions of tepid freeze-dried beans and rice on little paper plates, without much enthusiasm. They looked GROSS ... but I ate one. It was so-so, though it would probably taste much better after a long day on the trail. (I don't remember the brand. Backcountry Pantry?)

Vistabule Trailers had a booth. Also the Parks and Trails Association, of which we're members. Sierra Club. The Superior Hiking Trail. The two guys in the winter camping booth looked like they'd just climbed out of a tent after a rough night in the wild.

An entire chamber of the huge tent was devoted to cross-country skis. When we finally made it into the store itself, we soon ran into Hilary's cousin, John. He was standing in the clothing department chatting with a salesman and clutching a small hatchet with a fine leather sheath. "I've always wanted one of these," he said, gripping the shaft and suddenly taking on the look of a twelve-year-old boy.

It was the Hultafors Axe, I later learned, which the Swedes have been making since 1697. The store also stocks hand-forged axes from Granfors Bruk and Wetterlings.

I've never heard of any of these manufacturers. Maybe I should do some research. My hatchet is so dull, I think you could pound a nail with the blade. And the rubberized grip is no longer firmly attached to the stainless steel shaft, so you have to be careful when you're splitting wood to avoid sending the business end on a dangerous trajectory across the campsite.

November is when we dream of the adventures that lie ahead. Maybe we're looking less at the maps these days and more at the air mattresses. But that's because we've become more adept at finding our way, and we've also learned that there are plenty of staggering sights to be had just a few miles down the path.

II. Poetry Night

A poetry reading can be fun. When Margaret Hasse gives one, it's often more than that.

In part, this is because Margaret has gotten to know so many interesting people during her years as a poet, teacher, and arts organizer. At her recent reading at the Loft, she called upon a few of them to choose one of the poems from her new book, Between Us, and explain briefly how they came to know Margaret and why they chose that particular poem to read. 

Among those that shared this information with us were a woman from South Dakota—a good friend of Margaret's older sister who, decades after leaving home, ran into Margaret, first in a Nodin Press poetry anthology, and then in person on a bus in South Minneapolis. Another was Clarence White, who first met Margaret while he was a student in St. Cloud; now, decades later, he co-curates the Banfill-Locke poetry series with her.

Another long-time friend, a Jungian psychoanalyst by trade, read a dream poem about a bat; Margaret's son Alex, jazz trumpeter and tennis pro, read a poem about a boy being taught by his father to ride a bike, giving as a reason that "I think it's about me."

In short, the performance, far from being that of hermetic literary associations and references, demonstrated how many ways poetry can reach out beyond purely literary concerns to illuminate relationships and experiences of all kinds.

The poems Margaret read herself amplified the effect. Her poem "Come Home, Our Sons," which touches in a personal way upon the Philando Castile shooting, was a striking example of how poetry can take us beyond politics, without trivializing the political problems we struggle with. Another poem, slightly humorous, was about memory loss. But the image that sticks with me now came at the end of a poem about a young woman who cuts herself, not because she wants to die, but because she wants to draw "deep pain" out of herself and drain it, so she can live. "She will flush the blotting tissue," the poem concludes

in the toilet like red paper roses
some other girl might wear to a prom.

After the reading everyone gathered in the lobby for wine, nuts, chocolate cake, and publisher Norton Stillman's famous spinach dip. A long line curled through the middle of the room of guests eager to buy books signed and personalized by the author--their teacher, neighbor, friend. This is the point at which I usually make myself scarce. I know Margaret and her husband, Dave, fairly well, but did not expect to see too many other familiar faces. I was glad to meet up with a few old friends myself, and even brazenly horse-collared Margaret's sister, Ellen, whom I recognized by sight but had never met before. We were soon exchanging our enthusiasm for public libraries and Louise Penny mysteries. And she convinced me that I ought to pay another visit to her adopted home town of Iowa City.  

"But that's Trump country," I said.

"Oh, no," she replied. "There's a little corridor running from Iowa City north to Cedar Rapids, and on to ..."

III. ¡Sacabuche!

The James Ford Bell Library invited the Renaissance Canadian ensemble ¡Sacabuche! to give a performance as part of its "Celebrating Venice!" series, which also included lectures on subjects such as "Mapping Muslim Jerusalem in Late Medieval German Pilgrimage" and "A Knight of the Italian Renaissance: Pietro Bembo and the Order of Malta." I signed up for the lectures, which were free, but failed on each occasion to drag myself away from the computer, down to the U of M campus, and up to the fourth floor of Wilson Library.

We did attend the concert, and it turned out to be a treat. It was billed as a multimedia presentation, but that was only barely accurate. The major visual element was a large woodcut map of Venice circa 1500 that was projected onto either side of the nave of First Methodist Church on Lowry Hill, where the performance took place. Aside from a dozen or more musicians, both vocal and instrumental, two readers were involved in the show, and as they dramatized a particular text, a circle would appear on the maps indicating the location of the event or institution to which it referred.

The main draw, of course, was the music, and it was very fine indeed. Renaissance music comes in several varieties, of course, but you can be sure that the progressions and cadences will be altogether different, due to their polyphonic construction, from the ones baroque and classical composers liked to work with. Less dramatic, perhaps, more floating, texturally complex, and ethereal, notwithstanding the prominent role played by sackbutts of several sizes. Sacred or secular, these pieces by Monteverdi, Gabrieli, Mainerio, and other masters of the period carried a jewel-like perfection that could easily have been marred by bad entrances or shaky pitch.

The program also contained three new pieces by New Brunswick composer Kevin Morse, which served as refreshing points of contrast without disrupting the mood overmuch. Sephardic, Turkish, and Acadian folksongs were also on the bill. (Venice was the New York of its time, after all, the crossroads of the Western world.)

I even found the audience interesting. Who were these people, many of whom seemed to know one another? Professors, musicians, grad students who had attended the lectures, early music specialists or students of comparative literature? Some showed up in suit and tie (well, it was a Sunday afternoon) while others seemed perfectly comfortable in jeans and t-shirts.  

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The First Snowfall

It does something to the heart—deflates it, I think, and sends it scurrying for shelter. But it isn't an altogether bad feeling. There's an element of relief involved, and also one of surrender. At the same time, one feels a secret and almost conspiratorial joy. Now we can start thinking about "inner" things, sit in front of the fire at 5 p.m. while the cauliflower for the spaghetti sauce  roasts in the oven.

With whom are we conspiring? With the night, of course. And with that inner flame that begins to reassert itself as the abundant heat of summer dwindles.

When the snow started to fall, I was sitting in a cafe with my father-in-law, Gene, who's ninety-two. He said, "When the Armistice Day Blizzard hit, I was in the bar of the Lemington Hotel with two friends. We were trapped there for three days."

I had never heard that story before.

Gene and I had just attended a morning concert together. Three of the four composers involved—Smit, Schulhoff, and Karel—died in concentration camps. The lobby of the church where the performance took place contained an exhibit of brightly color photographs taken recently of men and women, all residents of the Twin Cities, who had survived those camps and are presumably still alive.

The music being performed was full of festive French carnival colors in the manner of Poulenc, 
Milhaud, and Auric, and sprightly Czech folk dance tunes, somewhat rearranged and homogenized for the concert stage—though they kept the 5/4 time. I liked them all.

At the end of World War II, Gene was among the GIs who came upon and liberated the concentration camps. No one told them what to expect. No one told them the camps were there.

I have heard that story before. Gene didn't feel the need to bring it up again. 

No, we talked about the son-in-law of a family friend, a seasoned chef who had catered the Ryder's Cup and was then invited to do the same for Prince's funeral. We talked about the historian Joseph Ellis and the travel writer Norman Lewis. We talked about nieces and nephews, jazz singers and retirement homes.

The concert hall had been filled with elderly women and men who sometimes had trouble making their way across the lobby, but who were nevertheless continuing to find ways to enjoy life. And here we were, as the snow flashed by the window in violent streaks and began to obscure the still-green grass, chowing down as if there were no tomorrow.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Joy of Compost

Perhaps "joy" is too strong a word to describe the quiet pleasure one derives from a low mound of rotting leaves and vegetable scraps. Then again, must all our joys be feverish and exhausting?

The beauty of compost lies in the connections between the carrot peels we stuff into a clear plastic container by the sink, the leaves that enjoy a brief moment of glory before dropping every fall, and the rich dark organic matter that develops over time in the wire-enclosed bin in the far corner of the back yard. We live in the midst of these connections, which operate on several levels of time. The vegetable scraps get carried out maybe three times a week. The leaves fall once a year. (You knew that.) I dig deep into the pile perhaps once every three years.

We water the pile occasionally in dry weather, but almost never climb inside the wire enclosure, which might be six feet in diameter, to "turn" the leaves and scraps. Mostly the pile takes care of itself, overfull by the time the snow falls, but sunken again soon enough after warm days return. 

The lovely weather this fall made it easy to delay raking the leaves, and that presented an opportunity to extract the mature compost over several days, a few wheel barrel's full at a time. I dumped some on the tomato patch in the front yard by the driveway, and another good pile on the wedge-shaped plot of annuals near the front door.
A few days later I brought some compost over to the terraced beds under the bedroom window, and I also spread some out around the turtleheads and the black-eyes susans.

None of this could really be called work.  I spent a lot of time pondering garden strategy—far longer than I needed to. 

One of the pleasures of the composting  process is that it gets you out into the further reaches of the yard, places you wouldn't otherwise visit so often, thus giving you a fresh perspective on things 
you've looked at many times before. These are the moments when you begin to dimly comprehend how beautiful and precious life is, or can be, when things are going well and the weather's nice and you've got the time to zone out, attentive to the moss and the clouds and other things that mean nothing to you or anyone else--things quietly proceeding on their own path.

Is compost really worth anything to the plants? Evidently it can improve soil structure, add nutrients, attract earthworms, and reduce problems with pests.

I simply like the look of it. At this stage it's almost fluffy, but by next spring it will have flattened out and basically disappeared. Perhaps I'll even have forgotten I ever messed with it, as the violets and bleeding-heart emerge and a new pile of leaves, compressed by the snow, sinks down ever further in its wire bin.