Wednesday, June 28, 2017

"For Once, Then, Something" by Robert Frost

First there is this poem by Robert Frost, "For Once, Then, Something":

Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths—and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

And there is this personal postscript:

   In terms of form, consider Frost's choice of eleven syllables per line (a pattern adopted from Catullus, according to what I recall reading someplace long ago). Then consider the theme: searching for Truth. Notice that the persona of the poem nearly manages to see something beyond himself in the reflection, but the fallen drop ripples the water's surface and the picture is blurred and blotted out. Truth, that obscured whiteness, is there but can be too easily obscured or confused. However, what was glimpsed might only be a pebble of quartz. Apparently, though, the search for Truth remains worthwhile. Of course, I might be wrong about my "explication."  So, good friends, I invite your comments and corrections.

   Well, friends, I too am searching for Truth within the waters and among the pebbles. I haven't always been concerned with such realities, especially as I have been distracted for much of my life by other less important matters, but present circumstances and my encroaching sunset have become catalysts for the search.

   The challenge then, as I think Frost suggests in the poem, is to see beyond the self because the Truth is elsewhere. So, I surmise, somewhere within all by which I am surrounded and confused, the Truth might be found. However, into which direction should I gaze? Upon what should I focus? And in the final analysis, does Truth exist?

   Perhaps Frost's poetry will help me. Well, not expecting too much -- certainly not ultimate Truth in the words of one poet -- but nevertheless somewhat hopeful, Frost just might help me see more clearly in my search. Stay tuned because I might be posting more about Frost in the future.

Rousseau has a birthday (and I complain about him)

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

     It's the birthday of the man who wrote, "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains": philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (books by this author), born in Geneva in 1712. He left home at 16 and wandered around Europe for the next 14 years. He moved to Paris when he was 30, and took up with a group of philosophers. He also took up with Thérèse Le Vasseur, a semi-literate laundry maid at his hostel; the two began a lifelong relationship that produced five children, according to Rousseau. He placed all of them into orphanages.
     Rousseau was well versed in music, and wrote ballets and operas; he could easily have been successful as a composer, but the stage made his Swiss Calvinist sensibilities uneasy. One day he was walking to visit his friend and fellow philosopher Denis Diderot, who was in jail, and he had an epiphany: modern progress had corrupted rather than improved mankind. He became famous overnight upon publication of his essay A Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts (1750). The essay informed nearly everything else he wrote, and eventually he would turn away completely from music and the theater to focus on literature.
     In Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755) he continued to explore the theme that civilization had led to most of what was wrong with people: living in a society led to envy and covetousness; owning property led to social inequality; possessions led to poverty. Society exists to provide peace and protect those who owned property, and therefore government is unfairly weighted in favor of the rich. In it, he wrote: 

"The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this imposter; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody." 

     His next two books, a criticism of the educational system (Émile) and a treatise of political philosophy (The Social Contract), both published in 1762, caused such an uproar that he fled France altogether. His work would prove inspirational to the leaders of the French Revolution, and they adopted the slogan from The Social Contract: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.
     He grew increasingly paranoid in his later years, convinced that his friends were plotting against him. He spent some time in England with David Hume, but his persecution complex eventually alienated him from most of his associates, and he found comfort only with Thérèse, whom he finally married in 1768.

And there is this personal postscript:

I am not impressed by Rousseau, and I disagree with his notion about private property as the root of evils in the quoted excerpt (4th paragraph highlighted -- not so coincidentally -- in red). I offer this posting because Rousseau seems to me to have been such an obnoxious fellow, irresponsible father, and dangerous philosopher. Tell me if you think him otherwise.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Liquid Jade: a book review

Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West  
by Beatrice Hohenegger (St. Martin's, 2007)

Many years ago, when the late Johnny Carson was the reigning czar of late night television's The Tonight Show, the affable host and his longtime second-banana Ed McMahon performed an occasional routine with a simple premise: McMahon - if I recall correctly - would make reference to something and say that it contained 'Everything you could possibly want to know' about some subject; Carson would top him with some ostensibly humorous though insulting rejoinder, 'Wrong, you are buffalo breath!' And then Carson would proceed to entertain his audience by offering up a number of humorous tidbits based on whatever significant (or insignificant) premise McMahon had just introduced.

Well, with that having been said by way of circuitous introduction, we now have before us a book that would have been absolutely unusable in the well-received Carson-McMahon shtick: Liquid Jade. Its irrelevance for Carson and McMahon, and therefore its real strength and appeal, you see, lies in its exhaustive and entertaining thoroughness. Yes, 'Everything you could possibly want to know' about tea is, in fact, contained in this interesting book.

Frankly, I have to admit that I had no idea that there was so much to say about tea. In a book that the publisher calls 'the story of western greed and eastern bliss,' we can trace the entire history of one of the world's most ubiquitous beverages. Read Beatrice Hohenegger's anecdotal history of tea and learn - among many other things - about:

China's discovery of tea's invaluable health properties
The Taoist belief that tea was the elixir of immortality
The English introduction of opium to China in exchange for tea
The tea industry's connections in the 18th century with the practice of slavery
Buddhist Japan's spiritual connections to tea

Covering everything from the mythical birth of tea to the tea ceremony to the tea bag, and including everything in between by also focusing on tea's relationship to medicine, politics, culture, and religion, Liquid Jade is 'a lively exploration of the world's most consumed beverage - in all its historical and cultural aspects.' So, do yourself a favor and serve up a steaming cuppa for yourself, relax in a comfortable chair, and spend a few hours with this refreshing narrative history.

Monday, June 26, 2017

"Plenitude" and autobiographical criticism

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

Even near the very end
the frail cat of many years
came to sit with me
among the glitter of bulb and glow
tried to the very last to drink water
and love her small world
would not give up on her curious self.
And though she staggered — shriveled and weak
still she poked her nose through ribbon and wrap
and her peace and her sweetness were of such
that when I held my ear to her heart
I could hear the sea.

"Plentitude" by Ann Iverson from Mouth of Summer. © Kelsay Books, 2017.

* * * * *

But there is this personal postscript:

I have no objective critical reaction to or analysis of this poem -- i.e., I do not know (and I do not care) whether the poem is good, bad, or ugly -- but I do understand this poem in a singular, autobiographical way: I am the cat; however, being somewhat different, I hear (but perhaps not too much longer) all too loudly the sea inside my head. But I might be engaging in hyperbole here. Hmmm.

But this leads me to a question about reading poetry and other literature:

Isn't it true that we all read best when we read not objectively but subjectively and autobiographically? In other words, unless the literature contains mirrors -- both comfortable and uncomfortable reflections of ourselves and our own lives -- we cannot relate to what we read; becoming more responsive and reactive as subjective, autobiographical critics, we respond both emotionally and intellectually to the poems, the stories, and the novels as either relevant or irrelevant reflections of our own experiences and emotions. The more complete and accurate the reflections, the more complete and accurate are our engagements with the texts. 

Perhaps I have insufficiently explained what I mean by autobiographical criticism. Nevertheless, I hope I have opened the door through which you will enter and join the conversation. Tell me what you think of the concept.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

"I felt a Funeral, in my Brain"

First there is this from Emily Dickinson:

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading - treading - till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through -

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum -
Kept beating - beating - till I thought
My mind was going numb -

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space - began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here -

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down -
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing - then -

* * * * *

And there is this personal postscript:

   Have you ever had days or weeks when the clouds of depression will not go away? I'm now living in one of those seemingly endless moments. Coincidentally -- or perhaps not -- I stumbled today upon one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson.

   In the past, I understood the poem as an imagined death. After all, as most readers know, Dickinson seems to have been preoccupied with death.

   However, today I understand the poem as an extended metaphor for depression. But madness might be more accurate because that plank in reason has broken. And the final line, without an ending, convinces me that my current understanding is correct because my cloudy days seem to have no limit.

   So, for whatever it is worth, I share the poem and my understanding with you, and I ask you several questions:

(1) What is your understanding of the poem? (Perhaps you read it differently.)

(2) If you felt a funeral in your brain, as I do, what reading would you turn to in search of relief? 

George Orwell, deceit, truth, and political writing as art

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

     Today is the birthday of the man who wrote, "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." That's George Orwell  (books by this author),  born Eric Blair in Motihari, India (1903). He wrote his first poem - which he dictated to his mother - at the age of four or five. He was 11 when he wrote a patriotic poem after World War I broke out. It was published in the newspaper. He wrote a short story that he described as "a ghastly failure," and a rhyming play, and helped edit the school's newspaper. He was also constantly narrating his own actions in a writerly way, in his head. "I had the lonely child's habit of making up stories and holding conversations with imaginary persons," he later wrote, "and I think from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued." His father was a civil servant, and the family was, in Orwell's words, "lower-upper-middle class." Orwell received a scholarship to Eton, the prestigious boys' school, but he felt alienated from his wealthy classmates. He opted not to go on to Oxford or Cambridge, but served as a military policeman in Burma instead. His essay "A Hanging," which he published in 1931, is about his time there; it describes his role in the execution of a prisoner.
     He believed there were four great motives for writing prose: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. By "political," he meant in the widest sense of the word: "Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples' idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude." His writing was pushed even more toward the political after Hitler's rise to power, and the Spanish civil war. He said, "Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it." In the early 1940s, he began work on a novella about a group of farm animals that decide to stage an uprising against their tyrannical farmer. Orwell called it Animal Farm (1945), and often described it as a satirical tale against Stalin and the Soviet Union.
     "What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art," he wrote in his essay "Why I Write" (1946). "My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, 'I am going to produce a work of art.' I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. [.] Animal Farmwas the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole. I have not written a novel for seven years, but I hope to write another fairly soon. It is bound to be a failure, every book is a failure, but I do know with some clarity what kind of book I want to write." His next - and final - novel was Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), about a future in which England has become a totalitarian state run by an anonymous presence known only as Big Brother. Orwell died of tuberculosis just a few months after it was published. Far from being a failure, Nineteen Eighty-Four has been translated into 62 languages, has sold millions of copies, and just this past January it was No. 1 on's best-seller list.

And there is this personal postscript:

Consider carefully Orwell's statements regarding deceit, truth, and political writing as art. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of another writer whose "political writing" succeeds so well as art. Please tell me your thoughts about Orwell and others who engage in similar writing. By the way, much of Orwell's nonfiction should be read and studied by anyone who wants to become a better writer. 

Saturday, June 24, 2017

George Washington's Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution by Brian Kilmeade & Don Yaeger

Book Review:

Long ago, when I began my studies as a freshman at a northeastern university, not far from the site of George Washington's first military defeat at the outset of the French and Indian War  (Fort Necessity in southwestern Pennsylvania), I was so fascinated by the history of America's formative years - especially the years leading up to the American Revolution and all that followed in the final decades of the 18th century - that I immediately enrolled as a history major. Unfortunately, my undergraduate studies were interrupted (thanks to the draft lottery, the Vietnam conflict, and what turned out to be nearly three decades in the United States military service), but I later completed my education and - going in a different direction - became an adjunct instructor of English composition, literature, and drama. Even though I had not followed through on my earlier goal of becoming a professional historian, I have throughout my life remained an avid student of American history: dozens of books on my Kindle and on my library shelves at home testify to that passion.

So it is with great anticipation that I seized upon the opportunity to read and review what has turned out to be a great book about George Washington and his amazing network of spies. Before I comment more specifically about the highly recommended book by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager, I invite you to consider the next paragraph.

Most people in the United States, when they think about the American Revolution, tend to think only of the most famous places, such as Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and Yorktown, and they also recall a few of the most prominent names, including perhaps only Washington and Cornwallis, but very few Americans know of many others. However, with that limited knowledge, people mistakenly overlook one of the most important places - New York City - and six of the most important people - Austin Roe, Caleb Brewster, Abraham Woodhull, James Rivington, Robert Townsend, and a woman known now (and largely then) only as Agent 355. These six, with Townsend in charge, made up the Culper Ring, a small band of fervent patriots whose contributions to the success of the American war effort cannot be overstated. The simple facts were these: If George Washington and the Continental Army could not seize and maintain control of Manhattan and the immediately adjacent boroughs, the tide of the American Revolution would almost certainly turn irreversibly in favor of the British; and if the Culper Ring had not defied all sorts of dangers in their wide-ranging efforts to spy upon the British forces and apprise Washington of the British plans, then New York would never be controlled by Washington's forces. Then, almost certainly, the American cause would be lost.

Backed up with exhaustive research (some of which has been previously unavailable to readers) and characterized by gripping, page-turning narrative prose - Kilmeade and Yaeger's book is a superb examination of the Culper Ring's contributions on behalf of the Americans' glorious cause. The names of Townsend (reserved), Roe (sacrificial), Brewster (impatient), Woodhull (nervous), Rivington (attentive), and Agent 355 (charming) deserve to be included among the names of the most famous founding fathers and military leaders. Why do the members of the Culper Ring deserve such elevation in the minds and hearts of 21st century Americans who value this nation's heritage of freedom and courage? The persuasive answers to that question can be found in the exciting, informative, and fascinating George Washington's Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution (Penguin, 2013). Finally, I would offer you this recommendation: If you have time to read only read a handful of books about American history, make sure Kilmeade and Yaeger's book is among them. Enjoy!