Thursday, April 30, 2015

Poetics of Sunflowers and Sex

++(My coach had told us boys, “Forget girls, go shoot baskets.” Now pointing at me: Start writing)++

What’s the point in me writing about sex, anymore than I’d write about procrastination?
Do you really need to see yet another blog post on procrastination? Well, maybe I do, as I’m a sucker for self-help articles, but—a post on general sexuality? There’s obviously even more feature articles about everybody’s favorite topic than articles on procrastination, right? I mean, society eagerly spends millions of dollars on research, and presumably that means more than enough knowledge and articles. Presumably.

On the other hand, I keep learning stuff on my own, and sometimes I think society is out to lunch… I think what Lao Zu advised thousands of years ago is still true: “Those who know, don’t tell.” There are sound reasons for me to not tell you and our society what I have so painfully learned.

Lao Zu also said, “Those who tell, do not know.”

A serious reason for not knowing, in human affairs, is a simple one: We like to be comfortable.

++(My coach makes a time-out sign. Pointing at me: Be a citizen)

That said, please pardon my discomfort, while I briefly do my informed-citizen–during-wartime thing... Sexual culture is not fixed: It was back in the 1980’s, even before cross-border terror, that a New York Times best seller by Louis L’amour, The Walking Drum, exposed the Arabs as having a saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” I would have comfortably forgotten that an entire nation could believe this, I would have conveniently misremembered the saying as being from a Hollywood Mafia show, were it not for the war to re-take Kuwait from Iraq: Every one was begging the Israelis, “Please don’t shoot back!”… Don’t counter-fire against Saddam Hussein’s missiles, lest Arab nations instantly switch sides and join Saddam. You may recall that despite Iraqi missiles landing in Israel, the Israelis exercised self-control.

As for self-control and sex, L’amour’s book has a scene where a European man and an Arab woman are alone together, crouched alone behind some road brush. When some local Muslim friends ride by, the man starts to go out to hail them. The woman hauls him back to hide, with desperate strength, like Sarah Connor holding back a time-traveler from the police: “They’ll kill you!” Arabs of that time and place will assume a man does not have self-control. For my own comfort, I will assume this concept does not apply to a modern Arab tourist alone with my sister in London Ontario. You will too, right?

(OK, time-in)++

Here at home, while proudly twirling my moustache, I have to admit I’m not a boon to women. That is, I have to if I want to be a writer: Canadian novelist Stephen Visinczey, best known for In Praise of Older Women, wrote, “If you think you’re wise, rational, good, a boon to the opposite sex and a victim of circumstances, then you don’t know yourself well enough to write.”

Visinczey was saying, of course, don’t be vain. But oh, it’s so comforting to be vain and say we are at the pinnacle of all past history, that our latest “new improved generation” is the finest and most sexually liberated of all, even more than the “younger generation” of the sixties. Tell yourself this, Sir, when you’re walking back from the beach flopping cold seaweed against your legs with every step, saying, “Arg! Arg! Arg!” wearing long bathing shorts just like dear old granddad would wear, instead of sensible sixties style jockey shorts.

What of our ancestors before TV, before radio? Think back to when the Tin Lizzie was a marvel, and as you would putt-putt-putt along the road some wit would call, “Get a horse! ...” Did those Victorian folks have a clue about sex? I seem to recall some classic English literature book where a sedate lady in a prim long dress is sitting with her knitting, having her ball of yarn in her lap. A man comes up and kneels to kiss her yarn. Yes, they knew… unless, of course, the readers were all innocent, and it was only the poets who perceived things.

I am old enough to remember the sexual revolution and how writers of the time, if they wished to write nonfiction about sex, had to go through a few contortions in the first few paragraphs saying they were only trying to help people, that sex was something good and clean.

Right. So this week’s poem is from musty old innocent times, and if you are telling me I must have some sort of dirty mind to connect the poem to sex, well, I won’t argue with you, not if I’m bent over busy rummaging in my beach cupboard. I’ll hurriedly agree with you that OK, sure, the human body is nothing to be ashamed of. (Ah, here’s my speedos) What I will say is I saw the poem on the front page to a novel by the Walter Tevis, the same guy who wrote the book they made into a swinging David Bowie movie, The Man Who Fell to Earth.

I appreciate Tevis. He also wrote The Hustler (Now a movie with Jackie Gleason and Paul Newman) and The Color of Money. (Now a movie with Paul Newman and Tom Cruise) If you want to read about a society that does a reverse Helen Keller, through forgetting how to read, try Tevis’es Mockingbird. (Remember how her face grew more intelligent as she gained literacy?)

You ask, “Don’t keep me in suspense, not when I’ve been raised on new technology, not when my attention span has gone the way of the vacuum tube: What book has the poem?” (The innocent poem that’s not about sex) That book is The Steps of the Sun. It’s told in the first person by one of the world’s richest men, a self-made man, an honest man… a man who as a boy once slept with his horse—in a clean way, that is—because he was so dreadfully unloved at home… a man desperately trying to get over his sexual impotence and to stop being not-nice to his girlfriend. I’ve read it more times than I’ve read Mockingbird. (You see, he buys this spaceship and…)

Like last week, today’s poem is by William Blake.
Ah Sun-flower

Ah-sunflower! weary of time,
who countest the steps of the sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveler’s journey is done.

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow:
arise from their grave and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

Sean Crawford

~As I implied in my essay No Links is Good Links, (archived July 2012) one of my top ten posts, I trust you not to get dirty by furtively reading the web with impaired attention on company time; I trust you will cleanly, leisurely, enjoy looking through various search topics as you wish. No need, then, for me to do your search-linking for you.

~Although writer-wise I came up through practical, realistic journalism, with writing as a craft, I am transitioning to being a poet, with writing as an art. An artist grows: By this I don’t mean gets increasingly expert at technical craft. In The Writer magazine for October 1982 Josephine Jacobsen notes that for a writer “…the danger…(is that one will linger) on a poem which breaks no new ground, shows no sign of the discoveries that life forces upon us. Such work, however expert, has about it something sad, and limited.”

If an artist makes life discoveries then it is because artists are “spiritual warriors,” as my mentor Sheri-D Wilson notes, saying this is “very hard.” So if any artists see more than I, are more liberated from social conditioning, or confront more truths, then I won’t get jealous. I know that for their insight they have paid a hard price.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Poetics of Tygers and the Withdrawal of God

I was entranced by the hated movie Tree of Life. I told a few people I liked it, but only folks I knew: It’s an art movie, I’m sure, although it was marketed as a mainstream movie.

By “hated” I mean I read in the newspaper that all over America angry people were walking out of the theatre. Not me. It helped that I was lucky enough, the very night before the movie, to read something by a famous essayist, either Dillard or Didion, (I forget who) about The Book of Job. As you know, Job was tormented by many misfortunes from God. Such as painful boils all over his skin, and Job’s servant reporting, “The roof collapsed and I alone survived to tell you.” The entire Book concerned the issue: Would a man maintain his faith if his God appeared to withdraw from him?

In everyday life, where we don’t have a lot of servants and animals, and where we live in a little nuclear family, never mind skin boils: The most devastating thing? To lose a child—I could never write an essay on what it’s like: It’s just too awful.

When people angrily walked out of the showing, it wasn’t because they were religious, or atheist, and it wasn’t because they couldn’t relate to the 1950’s family of Brad Pitt. It was because they didn’t “get it” that the whole movie thoroughly explored the issue of maintaining faith… backwards and forwards, in time and space.

Question: Does losing a child mean losing faith? As Pitt’s family is shaken, the movie depicts the glories of the solar system implying, maybe, the existence of a Creator; the film shows two dinosaurs, surely to explore whether God’s creatures, and by extension God, can “give a care” about life, and other life forms, such as mere humans. Tree of Life was not intended to be a brief narrative of a 1950’s family, but to explore the questions Pitt’s family in their despair would grapple with, over time, even unto middle age, as does the grown son played by Sean Penn. It is fitting that Brad Pitt is presented so sternly—“It’s your house, sir,” says a boy—just like the Old Testament God.

Even if you are a modern atheist, not living in the 1950’s, you can still empathize with the family’s plight. At least, I would hope so. Too bad some unwilling movie-goers brought their expectations of an economical Hollywood “straight line between two points” story, a story they thought was “supposed to” begin and end in the ’50’s. An art movie, like any art, requires one be willing to sit with the art, to see the art on its own terms. I thought the film was well done.

All religions, I think, see God as ultimately unknowable. The Christian faith, as I understand it, sees God as deliberately not proving his existence. No fiery letters in the sky. No, lest faith be displaced by certainty, thereby destroying free will. (If you know there’s a hell, then where’s your choice?) Of course, in Jewish-Christian theory, God wants humans to have free will. There was an old Star Trek episode that explored the horror of a society without such freedom. (Called Return of the Archons) In that story it was speculated that a totally unfree people would require, in compensation, a “Red Hour” of freedom to sin, venting their base nature. (Captain Kirk discovers God to be a computer that, as Kirk puts it, is without a soul)

In our age, I once read, there is the question: Where was God during the holocaust? Free will then implies the answer: Where was man?

…Here in the west, with our democratic freedom of thought, individuals touched by divine mysticism can freely ask classic questions. I’m thinking of William Blake, the poet, painter and reformist. Here’s his poem:

The Tyger

Tyger, tyger, burning bright,
In the forest of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, and what the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art?
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when that heart began to beat,
What dread hand, and what dread feat?

What the hammer, what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil, what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And watered heaven with their tears
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?

Tyger tiger, burning bright,
in the forest of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Sean Crawford

~I think if you “sit with” the poem you will instinctively slow down for the verse with the stars. I find I start speeding up until that verse.

~I typed “and” in a couple places where Blake used the ampersand, “&,” because some computers will not accept that typewriter key from the Internet. (As I have found out the hard way)

~The movie dialogue line is from memory: Probably wrong, while true to the movie’s spirit, since I haven’t seen the show since it left town after its run.

~The holocaust question and answer is one I read long ago, but I forget where.

~Roger Ebert, up to his usual standard, reviewed The Tree of Life. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Poetics of Airy Sacred Gnomes

Like last week, I will present the poem before the essay.
Like two weeks ago, I will follow the essay with some light fiction from “free fall” (as explained in this month’s Dr. Fell post).

Vocabulary: The word “glen” is from Scots-Irish meaning a narrow valley. At home, where the bow river eases through a spread out flat prairie landscape, I chuckle to refer the area of Glenbow.
The rest of the airy poem is in the footnotes.

The Fairies
By William Allingham

Up the airy mountain
Down the rushy glen
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men

Sacred (essay)
Strange to think of an airy land being sacred, although I did read a story as a child (Perhaps in Alfred Hitchcock Presents) where there was a remote valley sacred to the indigenous God. A rich hunter persists on going into it, following some game. Luckily the white-man God comes into his camp at night and gives him a little totem. I imagined the hunter’s God as wearing a blue plaid jacket like my father wore.

I suppose an atheist might think there is no need for sacred, just as, to him, there’s no need for religion. I answer: Not quite. While I would never advocate religion to an atheist, sacred is something else. I would ask the person: Do you have a study desk that is just for studying? If you are associated with the armed forces, then do you have a parade square that is sacred, a square you would have to go walk all the way around rather than casually amble across? In both cases you beheld an object, or a place, to set your intention to study or train.

Sacred needn’t mean blindly religious. At your study desk you might do arts and crafts on a pre-Christmas weekend; if it’s dark late at night on an army base, then, after boozing in the bar, you might dash across the parade square to get back to barracks. I admitted doing so to a military policeman, while under interrogation, and we both laughed. (The MP was trying to track everyone’s movements on that night)

To me cemeteries are sacred, in a semi-religious way, but if scientists ever had a reason to believe an old graveyard might contain useful information on the origin of the deadly Ebola virus, then I would be first in line with a shovel. “The dead must serve the living,” I say. Again, sacred does not mean rigidly religious.

If my atheist friend confuses sacred and religious, then perhaps it is because the sacred intention being set is so often religious. But not always. I would point this out to my friend by rhetorically asking: Where is the religion in a preserved French battlefield where one is directed to neither laugh nor sing? Where is the religion in bowing as you enter the martial arts dojo? And what of that special area of an awesome intention to reach out, not for the religious but for the spiritual?

Ah, spirituality
In our day and age, “spirituality,” as you know, is freely individual. Scripture-free. It’s not organized, not coercive and certainly not oppressive. How sweet to peer through the veil between this world and the next, or to seek a connection with another realm, or to seek a higher power whom some would call God, or to seek to transcend our common mundane life—Give me airy Gnomes and Fairies!

Perhaps spiritual is what I mean by sacred, and perhaps my meaning differs too much from the mainstream. Then again, our words change as our understanding changes.

I think there are things undreamed of in our everyday philosophy, things that, like a dream, cannot be grasped as solidly as we would grab a shovel handle. I sense this.

In the Pacific Northwest the indigenous elders would wrap away their sacred carved masks until next year, not to preserve their “specialness,” not like a store packs away seasonal decorations, but, rather, to preserve for their people the opportunity to connect with the spiritual. I’m sure the elders were practical hunters, serious and realistic, yet also willing to see something beyond the horizon. 

“If the spiritual did not already exist, we would have to invent it.” (Paraphrasing Voltaire)

Gnome (Fiction)
I’ve mentioned my free fall group before. Our “prompt” one morning was “something heard on a public conveyance (bus or taxi)”

I’ve been a bus driver for a long time—of course I like my job. I always half regret when they change my route after every six months, because by then I’ve gotten to know Margret and Maggie and little Meg.

One day, of average summer weather, after the commuter crowd had dwindled, and I was waiting at my time stop, I heard a voice from the bottom of my stairs, saying “hello.”
I said hello back, guessing that it was a man, not a woman, just don’t ask me what age, a man dressed in a gnome costume, complete with tall hat.

The fellow continued, “Do you gnome the way to San Jose?”
I said, “I’m going right there. I guess you mean the San Jose Jotel, right on top of San Jose Pizza.”
“Yes,” he said, climbing the stairs to sit nearest me. “I’ve got a lot of friends, and there’ll be a place to stay.” He sat down with a lumbering motion of the older, but not the coordination of the oldest, and not the flop of the youngest. Then he leaned forward with the posture of a chatty customer, my favorite type.

I pulled the mighty swivel lever and swooshed the door, asking, “Have you been here before?”

“I’ve been away too long, too long among the mundane world.”

“Oh. Well, where do you hang your hat?”

“This weekend, with my fellows at LepreCON, the convention for the non-mundane at heart.”

“Hold that thought,” I said as I pulled out to the road.

He added, “Normally my hat is in a lot of closets, for I’m such a Gnomeo at heart.”

Peering into mirrors and the distance I said, “I can’t nudge wink to you, I’m driving… Have you a philosophy, oh Gnomeo?”

“Yes, yes I have come to believe that life is a great big freeway, and we are all free to travel the less mundane road, if we like.”
The road rumbled while we pondered this.

I said, “I see you like wearing green.”

“It’s not easy, being a gnome, but with a dream in your heart you’re never alone.”

Sean Crawford
~It was when she played the voice of Juliet in the 2011 animated movie Gnomeo and Juliet I first learned who Emily Blunt was. It’s a fun show. (Emily’s also the heroine in that 2014 Tom Cruise sci-fi movie, Edge of Tomorrow, and she’s in the fairytale musical Into the Woods)

~I can’t resist saying that in Edge Cruise does not just smile pretty but is a good actor, as a reviewer at Roger Ebert’s site notes. Cruise plays a uniformed noncombatant, a jobnik, a public relations flack named Cage (No doubt because he’s caged by the war) Writes Matt Zoller Seitz , “Cage is a complex and demanding role for any actor. It is especially right for Cruise in that Cage starts out as a Jerry Maguire-type who’ll do or say anything to preserve his comfort, and learns… By the end he’s nearly unrecognizable from the man we met in the opening.” Link to the review.

~My poetry policy, for all these past posts, is only to present what I have memorized. For today’s poem, I can only recite the first verse, so that’s what I posted. For the rest of it, here’s the link.

~Sometimes stuff, rather randomly, makes it onto our FreeFall Fridays blog. We post it as it was written that day, not revised. (Except for spelling and punctuation) Here is the link.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Poetics of Turk, Jew and Honesty Too

Poetics of Turks, Jews and Honesty

Today I will present the poem before the essay.

I never knew the title of this poem; I memorized it from the preface page to Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness.
A note on words: E’er is an old poetic word meaning ever; spew is an informal word that today means vomit.

By William Blake

The only man I e’er knew
Who did not make me almost spew
Was Fuseli; and he was both a Turk and a Jew
And so good Christian friends how do you do?

Obviously this poem is about NOT being prejudiced against other people… and I am just too tired to point out the poem’s relevance in our violent century. Too tired.

Instead I will note the problem poets and other artists have —William Blake, by the way, both painted and wrote poems. Their problem is they deny themselves the comfort of dishonesty. William Shakespeare and his pals, when they staged The Merchant of Venice, an anti-anti-Semitic play, wouldn’t pretend the Jews were inferior. Vincent Van Gogh, painting in the Pacific, wouldn’t pretend the natives were beneath him. Folks in Hollywood, at their parties and bar-b-ques, back before Gays were allowed by police to have freedom of assembly, wouldn’t pretend that being homosexual was a choice. (When did you choose to be heterosexual?)

Richard Mason, back when Europeans were justifying having colonies all over the world, wrote a scene where an Englishman in India is lying in bed with a hollow heart. He is depressed, thinking something like, “I can’t even kid myself, “I’m White, so I’m great.”” This while he knew that other Europeans could lie to themselves. The scene is early in the novel The Wind Cannot Read, about a romance in wartime with a dirty little enemy alien. (I exaggerate: She was quite a clean alien—but short…trust an artist to imagine such a scandalous liaison)

An artist’s problem is that her role is to see. No wonder those people who would blindfold, hoodwink, and cover men’s minds have always hated artists. In my youth “those people” were the communists; today they are the Islamics. Truly, dishonesty is associated with shadows and darkness.

In my youth I had a reputation for being a “nice guy” …partly because I was unable to be dishonest. During my schooldays I could never join with one or two others to generate a “reality distortion field” so we could taunt and bully a victim. No, I believed that lying about other kids, just so I could feel important, was too undignified. Maybe as a schoolboy I didn’t exactly have the word “dignity” in my vocabulary, but I knew that when it came to the joy of dishonesty, my choice was to let it go, even if this meant being frozen out of things. I never wanted to be popular anyway.

Leaving the sheltered palace of school, I went away to the icy tower. Away from a busy village of unknowing people, I discovered one of the benefits of higher education is that dishonesty, as in willful reality avoidance, does not stand the light of day. Except, perhaps, for poor blinkered party horses, university can be one long exciting culture shock. Freshmen gape as students organize to Take Back the Night and have Black History Week. Students mingle. Leftist meets Buddhist, native meets foreigner, and trailer park meets terribly posh.  

A year or two ago there was a newspaper report of a male student who wanted to avoid learning about whether women could be equal, so he asked his professor to be excused from any small group projects that included women. As I recall, the student tried to claim a religious exemption, but his timing was off: Never try to be anti-women during a War on Terror. The story went national. Or as the younger generation would say, “it went viral.”

Offline, here in the real world, I know a famous poet, Sheri-D Wilson. She’s awesome. With another poet my age, Mary, I regularly meet in Sheri-D’s living room for her to help us with our poems. It’s scary like learning to ride a bike—white knuckles, don’t dare stop pedaling. I don’t mind at all being edited, as I came up through journalism, but I sure find it hard to dare to see and “go deeper.” How queer to sit on the sofa, with long underwear arms visible in my T-shirt, and silently reflect that I can be an artist too.

Sean Crawford

Afterthought: It’s strange to realize that Robert Heinlein, who wrote about practical, realistic math-loving heroes, was surely an artist himself.

I flashed to a scene in his novel Starman Jones one evening on campus, as I was slowly motoring to an event, in a car driven by a substitute teacher, when a parking control guy waved us away from parking on the grass. Keep going. “They shouldn’t have parking control!” said the teacher.

There’s a scene where young Jones is talking to the old ship’s doctor. Jones has just come clean about a lie. Was it wrong to have lied? “It was undignified!” says the doctor. The doctor reflects: It hasn’t harmed him, and it’s good that he dropped the lie, because getting away with it could have turned him into a permanent adolescent, always wanting his own way. It was when the teacher spoke so petulantly that I flashed on Jones and the doctor.

By the way, on the last page Jones is shown making amends for his lie, like a man.