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Literature

I read a blog just now, and something the author said struck me:

I have this thing for endings in a series…There is something about them that just give me a feeling like no other book can. In some respects, it’s the idea of catharsis, closure.

Funnily enough, for me it’s always been the opposite. I love beginnings. I love meeting characters for the first time, seeing them meet each other for the first time. Seeing their first impressions, and knowing how far they were from the truth. I love the scene in Lord of the Rings when the hobbits meet Strider for the first time, I love knowing why Strider tries to seem so threatening and how great a man he is, unbeknownst to his pint-sized companions. I love the moment in P & P when Elizabeth meets Mr. Darcy for the first time and hates him. I love the feeling of possibility you get at beginnings, and I love knowing which possibility turns out to be the reality.

This is also what makes me, unlike the blogger I mentioned earlier, a compulsive re-reader. When I finish a book I can’t resist going back and reading the beginning again in light of my newfound knowledge. Of course, once I do that, I can’t resist watching the end unfold.

Endings, on the other hand, are infinitely frustrating. Stoppard’s Actor was right when he said that every exit is an entrance somewhere else; the problem is, book endings don’t let you see what lies behind the curtain. They hint at a whole new realm of eventualities, but refuse to tell you what they are.

Then again, when I’m the one writing I hate both beginnings and endings. Middles I can handle, if somewhat grudgingly. Beginnings and endings are only conquered through tons of coffee, the fear of impending deadlines, and sheer exhaustion. If only Frost’s words of wisdom applied to writing: “Ends, and beginnings – there are no such things. There are only middles”

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Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
– W.H. Auden, “Lullaby”

I don’t particularly love this poem, but this stanza, especially the first two lines tend to drift into my head now and then. They have a tenderness that is unique to Auden. “Time and fevers burn away/individual beauty from/Thoughtful children, and the grave/Proves the child ephemeral” makes me think of Becket’s “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more,” as does this quote from Macbeth:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
– William Shakespeare, Macbeth

I don’t really agree with this, but the language and imagery is stunning. The last three lines remind me of a few lines of a Russian bard song, called “зеленое небо,” (“Green Sky”). The chorus is, loosely translated, Read More

-…dessine-moi un mouton.
Comme je n’avais jamais dessiné un mouton je refis, pour lui, l’un des deux seuls dessins dont j’étais capable. Celui de boa fermé. Et je fus stupéfait d’entendre le petit bonhomme me répondre:
– Non! Non! Je ne veux pas d’un éléphant dans un boa. Un boa c’est très dangereux, et un éléphant c’est très encombrant. Chez moi c’est tout petit. J’ai besoin d’un mouton. Dessine-moi un mouton.
Alors j’ai dessiné.
Il regarda attentivement, puis:
-Non! Celui-là est déjà très malade. Fais-en un autre.
Je dessinai.
mon ami sourit gentiment, avec indulgence :
– Tu vois bien…ce n’est pas un mouton, c’est un bélier. il a des cornes…
Je refis donc encore mon dessin.
Mais il fut refusé, comme les précédents. Celui-là est trop vieux. Je veux un mouton qui vive longtemps.

(L’astronome turc) avait fait alors une grande démonstration de sa découverte à un congrès international d’astronomie. Mais personne ne l’avait cru à cause de son costume. Les grandes personnes sont comme ça.
Heureusement pour la réputation de l’astéroide B 612, un dictateur turc imposa à son peuple, sous peine de mort, de s’habiller à l’européenne. L’astronome refit sa démonstration en 1920, dans un habit très élégant. Et cette fois-ci tout le monde fut de son avis.

-Bien sur, dit le renard. Tu n’es encore pour moi qu’un petit garçon tout semblable à cent mille petits garçons. Et je n’ai pas besoin de toi. Et tu n’as pas besoin de moi non plus. Je ne suis pour toi qu’un renard semblable à cent mille renards. Mais, si tu màpprivoises, nous aurons besoin l’un de l’autre. Tu seras pour moi unique au monde. je serai pour toi unique au monde…
-Je commence à comprendre, dit le petit prince. Il y a une fleur… je crois qu’elle m’a apprivoisé….

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(come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.- The Burial of the Dead

Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence. – The Burial of the Dead

The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms. -What the Thunder Said

I’m not entirely sure why, but these are the three passages in The Waste Land that keep sticking with me. The most surprising is the first one, since I don’t actually know what it means. I kind of do – I can sort of fit it into the poem, but I’m not sure what it means to me. And although the last line of that quote – “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” – is one of the most staggering that Eliot’s ever written, the shadow lines are the ones I keep hearing in my head. There’s something about that image that’s incredibly unsettling.

I love the last quote because it goes against most of the rest of The Wasteland. For once, he’s hinting that surrender could be a good thing – at the very least, he’s framing it in a far more positive light.

Anyway, I just wanted to post these. I was thinking of tweeting them, but somehow that wouldn’t have done them justice. Not to mention that 140 characters aren’t enough for any of them. I think I’ll do another post for Stevens, but his poetry needs a completely different mood – he and Eliot don’t mix so well.

So, I’ve finally had the privilege to read some of the Cantos. I’ve always had the feeling that if I had a chance to just sit down with them and their sources, and slowly go through each, an incredible world of poetic brilliance would open up. As it turns out, they are sheer, thick, inescapable, pain. And lots of it. They’re a jumble of names and references that you have no hope of understanding (at least not entirely), as my prof points out, unless your name is Ezra Pound. Comparing them to the sources gives you a strong appreciation for Pound’s genius, but it is essentially an intellectual exercise. Read More

John Gould Fletcher’s Blue Symphony is a strange little poem, in that no one seems to have read it. It was on the syllabus for my Modern Poetry class, but we never discussed it. When I was researching it for my exam, ScholarsPortal turned up not a single article. Google came up with a handful, but nowhere near as many as usual. Which is strange, seeing as the poem was part of a larger collection of “colour symphonies,”  in the Symphonies section of his Selected Poems, and since Fletcher was one of the original six imagistes, and intimately (in Amy Lowell’s case, very intimately) connected with the other five.

The poem deals with beauty, imagination, and the subconscious, and the poet plays with ideas of reason and desire, with known, unknown, and that which is just out of reach. These are interesting on an intellectual level, but the most spectacular part of his poetry is the imagiste bit: the fantastically vivid dreamscapes he paints from his words. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a clearer image than the clouds rolling up to reveal the sunken landscape, or the dream-palace, replete with travellers and outspread silks that the narrator dreams up for himself. Eliot’s “yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window panes,” or Pound’s “Station of the Metro” come close, but don’t quite hit the mark. Read More

I’m reading Salman Rushdie’s Ground Beneath her Feet right now. I’m not very far in, so don’t ask me. What I do find interesting is that he chose a photographer as his narrator. I’m sure the reason for it will become clear if I get more than, you know, 15 pages in, but it got me thinking. On the one hand, photographers are, by definition, nothing more than observers. Light goes into the camera, and they capture it. That’s all. Passive.

But on the other hand, they create the world they capture on a far more fundamental level than any other medium. Poets create their own world (and the sea, whatever self it had, became the self that was her song, for she was the maker), but we expect that. We don’t expect to see the world in a poem. We excpect to see Wallace Stevens’ world. In a photograph though, we expect to see the world as it is, the thing-in-itself. But that’s not really what it is, is it? A photographer doesn’t just capture light, he chooses which light to capture; he chooses angles and colours and focus and arrangement. So they impose their own minds on their work and their audience in a far more powerful way than any other artist, because their audience is less prepared.

That’s all pretty cliche, but what makes it interesting for me right now (and, keep in mind, it IS 2 in the morning), is what happens when you combine that with Frost’s idea that through the imagination, you can actually reshape the world around you for your own benefit. Frost always leaves the implicit caveat that this reshaping is purely imaginary: you’re not actually making the moon a companion (Old Man’s Winter Night), you’re just calling her one to make yourself feel better. Photography, however, gives us a way to reshape the world, but then capture that reshaping in a concrete way, and even share it with others; even, sometimes, convince others that your reshaping is reality.

Then again, it IS 2 in the morning. I don’t know if that actually made any sense. I may delete this post tomorrow. But g’night for now everyone.