Sunday, April 22, 2012

A midnight poetry reading

I have tried to love T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. I have read it several times over the past 13 years. I have listened to university lectures on Eliot, on his contemporaries, on The Waste Land itself. I have read articles, study guides, reviews by readers who know what they're talking about, and some by those who don't. I picked it up again, thinking that perhaps it's an acquired taste. If so, I still haven't acquired it.

As I drove through town last week I consoled myself against my Waste Land failure with the fact that I've always liked poetry; I'm just having a hard time with this particular poem. Yes, I told myself, I've always liked poetry, ever since...since when? What was my first experience of real poetry (Itsy Bitsy Spider doesn't count)? And as I waited at a red light, that memory came back to me in its entirety, and it was a moment of history being reinterpreted in light of later events. Of course, at the time I had no idea a formative event was taking place. Looking back, I now see that I've summoned that night repeatedly over the years as I rifled through long library shelves and used book bins, searching for a book, a page, a line that would bring back that rhythm, that feeling, that night. Now you're wondering... was it a poetry reading? Perhaps a schoolwide literature event? Maybe a tv special in which an actor recited a poem with perfect diction and feeling? Nope.

The evening began with me spending a 2 hour car ride with my grandparents. They brought along a bag of popcorn for us to share as a snack. This story taking place in 1980s rural Alaska (which was noticeably microwave-free), the bag of popcorn was a large paper grocery sack, filled with air-popped, buttered, and salted popcorn. I'm very sure I ate more than my fair share, because I then spent most of the night vomiting into a garbage can in my aunt's bedroom. My aunt was 15, and already resigned to her fate of enduring a population boom of nieces and nephews.  She sat up with  me and read aloud Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha. Even during my stomach's most prolonged episodes of rejecting the popcorn, she continued to read without pausing midline. Only in retrospect, as the poem kept returning to me, did I come to appreciate its enduring quality. If one of your best memories involves throwing up into a bucket all night, you know the soundtrack must have been pretty good.

By the shores of Gitche Gumee, by the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, daughter of the moon, Nokomis

Later I learned that for this epic narrative poem Longfellow used the meter of Elias Lonrott's Kalevala. Those Who Want To Get Technical call this trochaic tetrameter, but it's sometimes called Kalevala meter or Kalevala verse, after its most famous example. You can feel the similarity even in the English translation:

Westward, westward sailed the hero
O'er the blue-back of the waters,
Singing as he left Wainola,
This his plaintive song and echo:
Suns may rise and set in Suomi,
Rise and set for generations,
When the North will learn my teachings,
Will recall my wisdom-sayings,
Hungry for true understanding.
Then will Suomi need my coming,
Watch for me at dawn of morning,
That I may bring back the Sampo,
Peace and plenty to the Northland.

This is straight up oral narrative verse, recorded by Lonrott from interviews with Finnish folk singers and poetry reciters and plain old village people, and then arranged into one long work. Longfellow wanted to replicate this idea of a heroic narrative, but using traditional stories from the New World. I think the meter complements the substance of these narrative poems well. It gives an expansive, striding feel to the story, as though the listener is following the hero down a long and winding path. I am ever grateful that my introduction to this genre was through hearing it, not through reading it. These poems were meant to be read aloud, not unlike Homer's Odyssey (which is my main event this month; The Waste Land was supposed to be a supplement).

Maybe I should stop reading The Waste Land and try reciting it.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

In Which I Emerge Victorious

Since we last met, I continued working through my stack of short stories for the month of March. Next up were: 
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Body Snatchers and Markheim by R.L. Stevenson
I liked all of these.
The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura
Not short stories, not even fiction, but languishing on my beside table. This one was interesting and will be reread in the future.
Shipley's Dictionary of Word Origins
Don't ask. I probably spend a couple hours a month in this book. I have a strong desire to find out where words and phrases come from. This book has some interesting answers.
The Smith of Wooton Major by J.R.R. Tolkien
I read this one aloud to some family members while on a road trip. Kids and adults both liked it. You don't have to be familiar with Tolkien's longer works to enjoy this.
Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad
YES! I met my past, made it my present, and allowed it to affect me and thus my future. Heart of Darkness was perfect in its structure and provocation of thought. I really should give it a separate blog entry so I won't go into it much now. It seems a shame that high schoolers are forced to endure it though; the issues that Conrad explores would have been vastly under-appreciated by my 17 yr old self (and I was no flighty teen).

In celebration of this mental milestone, I went to the library and hauled home a bag of graphic novels. I think I read them all in 3 days. Unfortunately it was sort of like eating a case of Doritos in 3 days. I couldn't stop myself, but I felt a little woozy afterwards. Here's the list:

Ultimate Iron Man by Orson Scott Card
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
Formic Wars: Burning Earth by Orson Scott Card
The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger
The Tales of Alvin Maker: The Red Prophet volume 1 by Orson Scott CardFeynman by Ottaviani & Myrick

The last one in that list was a biography of physicist Richard Feynman. It was so fascinating that I got distracted from my short stories plan and spent all my free time for the next 3 days or so watching quantum physics talks online. Physics is a recurring amateur obsession that I return to every couple of years, spending a couple weeks compulsively watching college lectures and pop science vids online before moving on to something else.

After the physics mental download I moved on to my volume of Edgar Allan Poe and read:
The Fall of the House of Usher (my favorite)
The Tell-Tale Heart (I had read this one and the next one previously. Still good though)
The Masque of the Red Death
The Balloon-Hoax (Sort of Jules Verne-esque. May have inspired Verne's 80 Days)
The Spectacles  (really funny)
The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether
The Murders in the Rue Morgue  (a little sinister, a little Holmes-ish. The first detective story!)

Poe was a great way to end the month, and he is the author who wins a spot on my bookshelf. The other volumes were released into the wild (aka Goodwill) to be discovered anew by other readers. And if we're going to continue with the Hunger Games/gladiator metaphor, it seems fitting that Poe's book killed off the others. Though I didn't know it when I began reading Poe this month, I was about to have the opportunity to visit his home in Philadelphia. I was there a few days ago and had the privilege of gently rapping, rapping at his chamber door. It was a perfect ending to a perfectly dark and disjointed month.

After all this Stevenson, Conrad, Poe and sci fi, I am feeling a little morbid. I'm not sure if April's selection will lift the doldrums or compound them. April will be spent reading Homer's Odyssey and, if I have time, a few other works inspired by The OdysseyThe Wizard of Oz, Watership Down, "Ulysses" by Alfred Lord Tennyson, and "The Waste Land" by T.S. Eliot. I'm also going to watch two Odyssey inspired films, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Ones That Got Away

*cue melancholy violin solo*
On those dark, winter evenings, when I sit alone in the twilight, memories come flooding back of books I once held fondly in my hand: books I intended to read, but which slipped from my grasp before I had the chance to waltz my fingers through their pages. Fate was against me and these books, the ones that got away.

What, that never happened to you? Well what if it were even worse, and these books were literal baggage, being carted with you from attic to basement, state to state, country to country, every time you moved? These words on the screen cannot express the the nightmare of my experience when I tell you that I have been haunted by Joseph Conrad. For thirteen years.

Yes, it's true. Like a carefree lass in a cautionary tale, I thoughtlessly picked up a paperback of Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer at a book sale, planning to read it "sometime soon", little knowing how this devil's deal would alter my future...  You think I'm being melodramatic? I've been staring at a bad 1960's cover illustration of Charles Marlow FOR THIRTEEN YEARS. It's bad, people. Very bad. And it ends now.

March's theme is modern short stories and novellas. This is a mixed bag of books that need to leave my home (did I mention that I'm downsizing my books? Fully 25% of them are on their way to new homes. Except for Heart of Darkness, that one can rot in book hell. Which would be what, an accordion store? A hot tub showroom? Spring break in Miami Beach?)

Anyway. I've been at this for 8 days now, with a 3 day digression to read The Hunger Games series, because I wasn't disturbed enough already. Of course, I didn't start with Heart of Darkness. I'm working up to it with a bunch of other short stories/novellas that I don't have room for either. I'm going to read them all, and the best volume wins a spot on my shelf. The others are off to the accordion store, just in time for Polka Demo Tuesday.  So I guess this is a Hunger Games for books, except they don't even have the decency to kill each other off. I always have to do everything myself around here.

So far I've read the following:

-Jonathan Livingston Seagull: It was alright. Not mindblowing for me, like the cover quotes would have you believe, but if you haven't thought about human potential before, then it could be revelatory.

-"The Kreutzer Sonata" and "The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Tolstoy. I preferred "The Kreutzer Sonata", but I probably would have appreciated them both more if a) I had waited until I was in the mood to read Russian lit, but alas, time waits for no book and b) if my copy didn't smell so strongly like the basement of a thrift store. Next time I'll remember to pick up a linen copy hand-lettered by Milla Jovovich. (I know, she's Ukrainian.)

-"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Devil and Tom Walker" by Washington Irving. I actually liked these a lot more than I thought I would, especially the last two. They had a dreamlike quality to them, and they were definitely early American, which stood out strongly in contrast to all the Brothers Grimm material I read last month.

-"The Bottle Imp" by Robert Louis Stevenson. I liked it. A little bit suspenseful, definite folk-tale feel, surprise ending!

Still on tap for this month are:

"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", by Robert Louis Stevenson
Tortilla Flats, a novella by John Steinbeck
a volume of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe
and of course, my nemesis, 3 ounces of yellowed paperback:

Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer 
by Joseph Conrad

Okay, maybe a little melodramatic.

Wait, that was February?

Yes, I am still alive, but fresh out of snappy intros. For some reason, all that comes to mind is, "Once upon a time..."

I finished volume 1 of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales. That was 100 stories: some well-known, some weird, some sinister, some trippy, some repetitive. I also finished the 2 volumes of fairy tale criticism I was working on, Jack Zipes' Fairy Tale as Myth and Myth as Fairy Tale and Maria von Franz's The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. The former author approached the genre from a Marxist/feminist socio-historical perspective, while the latter was working from the discipline of psychology.  I swear, people who buy trippy herbs are wasting their money, because a similar psychedelic effect can be had by reading works of jarringly different perspectives one after another. Or, better yet, alternating chapters between the books late at night (lava lamp optional).

Besides these books, which fit my theme of the month, I also read a couple others that had been languishing on my list forever:
Winter: A spiritual autobiography (a collection of winter-themed poetry, essays and short stories. meh)
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: text and criticism (I read the text in December. I read the criticism in February. Basically a collection of reviews and critical essays. Pretty interesting, and offered a variety of perspectives)

Was that really it? Five books? What did I do for the rest of the month? Oh, that's right, instead of spending my evenings parked on the couch with 200 pages of literary luxury, I spent half of them digging through boxes in the office, and the other half finishing projects unearthed from said office. But that's from the non-superhero part of my double life and, thus, not fodder for this blog. Well, except for the previous 2 sentences. And that last one. Okay, I'm stopping now.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Labyrinth of the Film INCEPTION

Besides reading books, I do watch films from time to time. Maybe it's a little unorthodox to write about one on a book blog, but there is a literary tie in, as you will see. If you haven't seen the film, I highly recommend watching it, and you should not read this post until you do so. You might want to watch it twice, because it's a little confusing at first. Let this serve as my SPOILER ALERT!

Inception retells the myth of the minotaur in the labyrinth, and discusses other themes as well. Here's a brief recap of the original legend:

The labyrinth on Crete was built to house the Minotaur, a half-bull, half-man monster which was born as a result of King Minos's greed, greed which prevented him from sacrificing a particular white bull to Poseidon, as he had originally promised. From this bull and a woman was born the Minotaur, (Mino from Minos + taur from taurus, the Greek word for bull) a half-human monster that, as a living reminder of King Minos' greed, devoured human sacrifices. The hero Theseus comes from across the sea to enter the labyrinth and slay the Minotaur, but he faces the problem of being able to find his way back out of the labyrinth. The king's daughter, Ariadne, gives Theseus a ball of thread that he unravels on his way to the center of the labyrinth; after slaying the Minotaur he follows the string to find his way back out.

In the film Inception, the protagonist, Cobb, is  unable to come to terms with his wife's death and let her go. This results in the birth of a shadow figure of his dead wife, Mallorie, in his subconscious. The Jungian idea of a person's shadow, those aspects of the subconscious which haven't been integrated, is a nice parallel to the Minotaur, as a person's shadow can be seen as part human and part inner beast, untamed by the civilizing aspect of personal consciousness. Each time Cobb attempts to enter his subconscious, his plans are thwarted and his companions are attacked by this violent shadow, born of his inability to sacrifice/let go. In the film Cobb must go deeper, deeper into the layers of dream mazes in order to confront and slay the monster, his own inner demon which his desire-to-hold-onto (greed) has created. Or, in Jungian terms, he must descend into the depths of his subconscious in order to integrate his shadow, which he has personified as Mallorie. This is especially difficult for him because the shadow appears to him as his deceased wife. (One's shadow may be composed of sacrosanct symbols that the individual is loathe to disturb.) As Cobb sleeps and descends to the realm of pure subconscious, he washes up from the ocean onto the shore of the dream world his subconscious has constructed, like Theseus sailing across the sea and landing on the shores of Crete, ready to brave the labyrinth and slay the Minotaur. The character Ariadne, like the Ariadne in the myth, helps the hero navigate the labyrinth and emerge victorious.  The totem which Cobb uses to ascertain whether he is awake or dreaming and to find his way out of a dream corresponds to the ball of thread, and slightly resembles a ball of thread as well. The fact that the top spins and the ball of string was spun from fiber is also a fun piece of wordplay.

The film questions whether our motives are composed of the pure cause and effect that we ascribe to them, or whether they stem from a deeper will in the subconscious, perhaps one that another person or being has placed there. From whence come the ideas that take hold within us? We, our left brains, our Interpreters, invent causes that may or may not have brought about the effects. Tesla believed that humans are meat machines, mere stimulus and response, and if all possible factors could be known, all outcomes could be accurately predicted. Like him, Kant saw the cause and effect, the phenomenality of time and space. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, saw the will in nature, the one consciousness that wills all things. Einstein says it another way, "A human can very well do what he wants, but cannot will what he wants." Ambiguity results when these two are integrated, as in Nietzsche's writings . For Nietzsche, the Apollonian individuating principle and the Dionysian energy of the will are balanced. Life eats life,and when ego dissolves and the dynamism of the will is experienced, rapture results. For Nietzsche, amor fati (the love of fate) is the goal. In other words, if you criticize one detail of your life, you've unraveled the whole thing (Joseph Campbell). This is depicted at the end of the film: from the time that Cobb and Saito awake on the plane, it is impossible to tell whether they are dreaming or not. At the end, when Cobb spins his totem but then walks away, the viewer sees that he has stopped analyzing and questioning his reality, and  has instead chosen to live it. This is the equivalent of Theseus setting down the ball of yarn and walking away. The reality Cobb chooses to live is that which he desires most: life with his children. Cobb has accepted and internalized his fate, but interestingly, he may have chosen that very fate as well by choosing not to recognize and leave a dream world.
     The film's end is ambiguous. So... has he embraced his fate, a reality that he could not control, or has he willed his own reality? How do you perceive the ending? Which idea has taken root in your own mind? I think that question, the question of our own perception and not that of Cobb's, is one of the most interesting aspects of the film.
     The other point of interest for me is the concept of shared dreaming. Is it possible for a group of people enter into another's dream? Can we gather in darkness and watch the images and narratives that another has constructed? Surely film is this shared dream-state.

p.s. Sometimes I, like Saito and Cobb, become lost in the labyrinth of my own thought world. Someday, you might have to send someone to bring me back. Or maybe I should just carry a ball of thread.