O Heart, O Troubled Heart

Marius van Dokkum "Doe Het Zelver"

Marius van Dokkum
“Doe Het Zelver”

 

. . . Decrepit age that has been tied to me

                                    As to a dog’s tail . . .

 

What was I saying? Something about graying,

Growing old, fading away, tattered memories,

Subtraction, recession, autumnal leaves,

Withering, unraveling, fraying?

The Art of Not Thinking

tree painting
The sages tell us that the knack of not thinking is the pathway to serenity, that we should focus on the here and now because the past and future are abstractions existing only in the present. Rather than obsessing about your worsening health, your culture’s decline, or the peril the planet faces as oceans rise and deserts expand, you should play it cool, like the lilies of the field.

Don’t fritter away your time worrying – they say — taste the sweetness of the apple upon your palette, appreciate the miracle of the buzzing fly battering against the brilliance of the windowpane.

Be present.

However, to riff on/off Elizabeth Bishop, “The art of not thinking is difficult to master,” especially if you’re staring down the barrels of big time problems like bankruptcy, prison, or debilitating disease. Obviously, if creditors are leaving angry messages on your phone or your joints throb or you’re packing a suitcase for the Big House, it’s extremely difficult not to dwell on these much-more-than-inconveniences.

Yet, the sages are right: worry and fret don’t do a bit of good. They short-circuit your taste buds, blind you to the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals. Unrelenting worry can turn your life into a Gerard Manley Hopkins dark night of the soul:

Pitched past pitch of grief,

More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.

Hence, philosophies like stoicism, religions with afterlives, spiritual exercises like Zen meditation, and of course, drugs.

The problem with drugs, even though they offer the quickest respite, is that they wear off, leaving you possibly worse off than before, so you tend to turn to them more and more often, and the more and more you rely on them, the less and less effective they become. Eventually, if you manage to stay alive and out of jail, they stunt the amygdala, the pleasure center of the brain, and joy becomes increasingly difficult to experience.

But it’s not like you can become a stoic in a day or a Zen master with a week’s worth of sitting. Religions with afterlives can offer speedier relief, but generally, non-believers don’t opt for them until they hit the bottom of the abyss.

If you’re lucky enough to be reading this unsolicited advice in relative happiness, I suggest you get into the habit of reading great literature (if you don’t already) as means to acquiring stoicism, because, essentially, what you’re going to discover in Thebes and Elsinore and Yoknapatawpha is that suffering is universal. To quote Rick from Casablanca, “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”   In other words, suffering doesn’t make you special; it makes you human.

Augment that reading with some sort of spiritual practice — meditation, religion, or both.

And, yes, in moderation, alcohol and drugs can help as well, help you relax after a hard day or get your serotonin levels back to normal so you don’t wake up at 3 a.m. and feel the fell of dark, not day.

Ultimately, treasure right now what one day will be gone without thinking of the fact that one day it will be gone.

That’s knack of not thinking.

* * *

The saddest noise, the sweetest noise,

The maddest noise that grows, –

The birds, they make it in the spring,

At night’s delicious close.

 

Between the March and April line –

That magical frontier

Beyond which summer hesitates,

Almost too heavenly near.

 

It makes us think of all the dead

That sauntered with us here,

By separation’s sorcery

Made cruelly more dear.

It makes us think of what we had,

And what we now deplore.

We almost wish those siren throats

Would go and sing no more.

 

An ear can break a human heart

As quickly as a spear,

We wish the ear had not a heart

So dangerously near.

~Emily Dickinson

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Free Verse Fails as Political Satire

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Writing free verse, Robert Frost once noted, is like playing tennis without a net, and although I disagree with that overly simplistic characterization, I do think when it comes to political verse satire, you’re better off possessing the talents of Ogden Nash over those of William Carlos Williams. In other words, you want the inherent attraction of traditional verse — standard meter, rhyme, alliteration, etc. In the realm of satire, sing-song trumps subtle sonic stitching; Muhammad Ali KOs Marianne Moore.

For example, this ain’t gonna hack it:

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Nor will this:

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One obvious problem in the current Presidential campaign is coming up with words that rhyme with the candidates’ names. This difficulty is especially pronounced for surnames with two syllables.

Sanders isn’t too bad – sanders/pander – but John Kasich and Hillary Clinton, ugh.

Kasich/ wasted.

Clinton/sent in.

Of course, with HRC, you can go with her first name, and bam, you get pillory, which offers many illustrative possibilities.

But let’s face it, as far as rhyme goes, the candidate with most promising last name is Trump, which offers a veritable plethora of pejorative rhymes:

bump/clump/dump/frump/grump/hump/ lump/mumps/ rump, sump, etc.

Cruz comes in second with dues/snooze/ flooze/abuse/news/, etc.

But then, even if you can get the rhymes going, you have to worry about meter.

Forget it.

What muse worth her whispering is going to descend and inspire you to write some shit about Carly Florina?

 

No Replicating Prince, the Lord Byron of Pop

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Okay, you’re Dr. Frankenstein, and your mission is to construct not merely a living, breathing hominid, but to piece together Prince.

Let’s start with the brain – to replicate Prince’s virtuosity one puny human brain ain’t gonna hack it.

First, you need to cop James Brown’s primary sensory cortex and those regions called caudate nucleus and thalamus. They control dance gyrations, and when it comes to busting moves, no one compares to the Godfather and Prince, unless you want to throw Michael Jackson into the mix – but let’s face it, both Jackson and Prince owe an unpayable debt to the late great hardest working man in show business. He is the progenitor.  Here’s some low quality video of Brown, Jackson, and Prince on stage together.

In addition, Prince’s exquisite thumping funk originally comes from that same source, James Brown. So that part of the brain that rules the beat, the cerebellum, we need that to come from the Godfather as well.

At one count Prince played 27 musical instruments, but it’s his searing guitar solos that stand out. You’ve probably heard the story of Clapton’s remark, “I dunno, ask Prince” when someone asked him how it felt to be the greatest guitarist in the world.

So we need slices of Hendrix’s brain as well.

Prince’s song writing — where to begin? He could be as melodic as Smokey Robinson, as raucous as Rick James.

And charisma, where in the hell does charisma come from?

It’s time to drop this stupid Frankenstein conceit. There’s no replacing, no replicating Prince, a true virtuoso.

I’m just thankful I got to see him live twice, once with the Musicology tour in Columbia, SC 21 April 2004 and then in North Charleston 30 March 2011.

The Columbia concert was the best concert I’ve ever seen, beating out the time I was on the front row of a Springsteen concert in the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour. The crowd at the Prince concert in Columbia was largely African American, and there was an electricity in the air, something smacking of Beatlemania, for the lack of a better term.

And what a friendly, generous performer. You got the idea he loved the audience as much as we loved him.

But now he’s dead, gone all Lord Byron on us. Poof!

George Gordon, Lord Byron

George Gordon, Lord Byron

The Unhappy, Self-Righteous Warrior

In your spleen, you know he's right

In your spleen, you know he’s right

I’m wondering if the pro-Bernie bombardments on my Facebook feed have diminished because his followers are losing faith in his high-mindedness or because the algorithms dictating what I see there have determined I consider Sanders a tiresome scold, an inflexible ideologue, a magical thinker, a self-righteous prick capable of cruelty.

Let’s take the last charge first. Here’s a piece from the 16 April 2016 New York Times:

In Vermont, however, Mr. Sanders was known for belittling opponents at times, rather than merely challenging their ideas. During one debate in the 1986 governor’s race, Mr. Sanders was asked if he viewed Governor Kunin as “the lesser of two evils,” given his descriptions of the Democratic and Republican parties as “Tweedledum” and “Tweedledee,” and if he thought he might contribute to her political “demise.”

Mr. Sanders chuckled and then looked at Ms. Kunin, seated a few feet away.

“Governor, how does it feel to be the lesser of two evils?” he asked. “I think that really is what this campaign is about.” Ms. Kunin was stone-faced.[1]

Here’s an example of self-righteousness:

Peter Smith, the Republican candidate for governor in 1986 and the congressman Mr. Sanders ousted in 1990, said that Mr. Sanders used passion to create “a contrast between him and his opponent that may not, in fact, exist.” Mr. Sanders’s aides in the 1990 campaign said they would regularly taunt Mr. Smith about his positions on issues like the minimum wage, which the congressman would dispute, and then Mr. Sanders would come forward and accuse Mr. Smith of dishonesty. As a result, a running theme of that campaign was that Mr. Sanders had integrity and Mr. Smith lacked it.

“The tool he uses is his intensity and his belief that, on the major issues he cares about, there is only one right answer,” Mr. Smith said. “And it is his.”

No wonder Sanders wanted to meet the Pope — he could meet a peer in infallibility.

In his current race, of course, he has abandoned the high road he promised to take and has now launched a series of negative ads even though the only way he could possible win the nomination is if Clinton is indicted over her email server. In the 2008 cycle, Clinton found herself in a similar position mathematically, and although she didn’t drop out (as I wished she had), she did start to tone down her attacks on Obama. Although Sanders has backed off from questioning Clinton’s qualifications, you can bet either Cruz or Trump will use Sanders’ quotes in blistering TV ads.

Of course, if in the unlikely event that Sanders were to be the Democratic nominee, it would take an unprecedented landslide in Congressional races to provide him with the pie-in-the-sky Democratic majorities needed to enact legislation so he could break up the banks, provide free tuition, etc. However, Sanders doesn’t bother to raise money for Congressional races. I guess he believes the force of his righteousness is contagious or either he doesn’t want to dirty his hands, like Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, raising tainted money.[2]

I can’t help but wonder if Senator Sanders’ hatred of Wall Street trumps his compassion for people, if he sees them as abstractions, figures on a spreadsheet. Certainly, some of his supporters who don’t bother to vote for down ballot Democrats in primary and caucuses and say they’ll sit out an election between Clinton and Trump or Cruz.

So what if the ACA is overturned, if Trump gets to appoint the next Supreme Court justice, if Medicaid is slashed if it means you have to vote “for the lesser of two evils?”

Of course, none of the above will convince the true believers of the Bernie Cult. As someone on my Twitter feed said, “Admitting you’re for Hillary sort of feels like coming out in the ‘60s.”  Sanders supporters tend to take criticisms of him personally as if he’s a religious figure beyond censure. If Clinton supporters took criticisms of her personally, they’d very well might need hospitalization.

I sort of dread posting these comments, and I certainly expect a tsunami of dyspepsia in response to this post; however, I felt that venting a bit of spleen of my own might be therapeutic this melancholy spring.

[1] Cf “self-righteous prick.”

[2] Cf. “magical thinker”

Shakespeare’s 2016 Election Endorsement

tumblr_nthmbnnhJR1r9xd1wo1_500I remember the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth back in 1964. I was 12 and wouldn’t have made the connection, but someone mentioned the anniversary of the Bard’s birthday on a TV program I was watching.   I can’t swear to it, but I think the show might have been That Was the Week that Was, which was broadcast live on Friday nights and satirized the week’s news, a sort of prototypical cross between The Daily Show and Onion TV, only with lots of musical skits.

Unfortunately, the show has essentially been lost – only the pilot survives along with some amateur audio recordings, one of which you can listen to on YouTube if you’re a nostalgia junkie or history freak.

Interestingly enough, the episode on YouTube from 12 June 1964 mentions a stop-Goldwater movement within the Republican Party and features a skit lampooning unsophisticated Goldwater supporters.

8baae185de80f51c0b9df60316bdc5f8I’d forgotten what cigarette ads sounded like – Raleighs came with coupons —  and also forgotten about Twist-O-Flex watchbands that were so flexible you could tie them in a knot.

Ultimately, for me, though, in 2016 the skits fall flat. Topical humor has a short shelf life, especially if you’re blindly listening to a visual medium — unlike Master Will’s humor, which can still provoke laughs from high school sophomores who don’t need to see it performed to find it funny.

April 23 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and so, obviously, the 52-year span of his life fits within mine. If he had been born in 1964, he would have arrived in an election year when Barry Goldwater, much to the chagrin of the Republican establishment, became the nominee, and if he had died in 2016, he would have survived just long enough to see Trump’s triumph in the New York primary, much to the chagrin of the Republican establishment.

In fact, at least according to the very dated AL Rowse book I just finished, Shakespeare was a very political writer himself, which a quick google search readily reinforces. In fact, the greatthinkers.org website offers UVA professor Paul Cantor’s series of 25 lectures on “Shakespeare and Politics.”

So the question arises – whom would Shakespeare have supported for President this cycle.

Will was, after all, a monarchist, a conservative in the old form of the word – one who valued tradition, order, and obedience, so no way he’s feeling the Bern or could suffer a buffoonish upstart like Trump.  Cruz?  That modern day Malvolio? Forget it.  Hillary?  I doubt it.

I say Jeb!

shakespeare for jeb

 

 

 

 

Keats to the Rescue

Portrait of English Poet John KeatsYears ago, I invited my former student, Paul Edward O’Brien, to introduce a unit on poetry to jaded high school seniors. It was springtime, and they were sick of school — sick of their childhoods. To most of them poetry was the language arts equivalent of a math problem.

Paul, an oncologist by profession and actor by avocation, majored in English at Harvard, taught freshman composition there during a sabbatical from med school, so he is a man of science and of letters. The old-fashioned word “dashing” does him justice, so I thought a swashbuckling evangelist for poetry might at least hold their attention. Maybe even convert one.

He began by quoting “Who Goes with Fergus” and explained how he fell in love with the poem without even having any idea what it meant. He told the students at one point that “Poetry can be your friend, your companion, help you in times of need.”

Indeed.

* * *

Last Monday, with about three-and-a-half hours of sleep and feeling something very close to despair, I stumbled into my first period class of sophomores to discuss John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” The poem had been slated for this day on my syllabus before I had received some very disturbing news, and it’s not necessarily a poem I would choose to teach right now given what is going on in my life.

I started the class by asking students to close their eyes and for three minutes and attempt to remember vividly a time when they’d been blown away by nature – overawed by a breath-taking vista or a ferocious thunderstorm or an encounter with a wild animal. I asked them to try to conjure images – sights, sounds, smells and then to capture those images with words.

Once I saw that all their eyes were shut, I closed mine as well and thought of last summer when my wife Judy and I sat at a picnic table on top of Mount Mansfield in Vermont.

. . . behind us clouds rush over the summit, revealing a patch of blue sky. A waterfall of light pours through the opening and cascades down the side of the summit, progressively devouring shadows. Actually, the light’s more like lava because a waterfall is always pouring forth, but this light is creeping, shimmering its way down, illuminating boulders and green growth . , ,

Instead of reading their responses, they shared them orally. One, nighttime in Oxford, England, green-green-green night grass and a profusion of stars. Another, atop a mountain with fog blanketing below, except for a rectangular opening, like a window, through which he could see the sloping vegetation below. A third, the sound of water rushing over river rocks during a night of utter solitude.

I asked them to articulate their emotional responses. Virtually everyone agreed egos tended to disappear in the face of their experiences. No one thought, “How cool that I’m experiencing these wonders,” but the wonders themselves took precedence over the perceiver.

I tied their experiences to Romanticism and explained in the ode Keats is trying to escape his anguish via nature and imagination.

We then turned to the poem itself, that beautiful meditation on death, suffering, attempted escape, the failure of the imagination, among other things.

I’ve given up having students read poems out loud in class; I read them myself for the sake of fluidity.

So I started the first stanza, and as I did, sunlight flickered across the page underscoring, as it were, the delicacy of the verse, the ephemera of poor Keats’s rapidly disappearing days. I tried to keep my voice steady.

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:

‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,

But being too happy in thine happiness,—

That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees

In some melodious plot

Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,

Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

Keats was suffering from depression. His beloved brother Tom had died of TB the summer before, and TB’s first symptoms were beginning to manifest themselves in him.

I asked the students to identify the tone using the first line: “aches” “numbness,” “pain.”

“What is hemlock? I asked. “Opiate?”   “Lethe?” “Dryad?”

I had trouble with the third stanza in that I feared if I might start to weep.

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget

What thou among the leaves hast never known,

The weariness, the fever, and the fret

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,

Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;

Where but to think is to be full of sorrow

And leaden-eyed despairs,

Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,

Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

The sunlight flickering shadows from the trees outside the window upon the words of the poem was quite beautiful.

John Austen's Hamlet

John Austen’s Hamlet

“Dissolve.” I recited Hamlet’s first soliloquy. “O would this too too solid flesh melt/And dissolve itself into a dew. . .” I explained Hamlet’s sad situation, his father’s death his mother’s marrying his uncle within a month.

This is true misery, I said; Hamlet and Keats long for vaporization, demolecularization, surcease of sorrow, absolute disappearance.

We discussed the slowness of the lines – the caesuras – how those commas make the reader hesitate, to limp along with “the weariness, the fever, and the fret” . . . where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs.”

The sunlight flickering on the page. The sound of my own voice reading the words.

I was not alone. I had the students, of course, but also Hamlet, Keats, those old immortal friends, to help me get through those miserable moments. No, not alone, and paradoxically, I felt keenly alive, felt something like joy by the time it was time to let them go.

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