Pouring Out of Various Devices

Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1914; photograph by Arnold Genthe
Edna St. Vincent Millay, 1914; photograph by Arnold Genthe
After reading pages 40, 43 and 44 of the 9/25/14 New York Review of Books.

1. p 40: a review essay by Robin Lane Fox on several gardening books and an exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden called “Groundbreakers: Great American Gardens and the Women Who Designed Them.” Gardening is for the “birds.” It has a lovely picture of Edna St. Vincent Millay as an illustration (I’ve used it here). She is a fey fairy and oh so delicate. The photo was taken in 1914.

Poetry, above all, enhances our ideas of flowers.

Above all? Does this modify “enhances” or “poetry”?

2. p 43: from Dan Chiasson’s review of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (a universally critically acclaimed masterpiece). “This is a great film, the greatest American movie I have ever seen in a theater. It is great for what we see, but it is even greater for its way of making real what we cannot see, or for suggesting that what we cannot yet see we might one day see.”

If you are sick of living on-screen, the best revenge is to get behind a camera. Boyhood traces the emergence of Mason’s own shaping imagination; the pivotal event in the film (downplayed, like every potential plot point) is Mason’s discovery of photography. When the film opens, we see a view of the clouds, looking up, and then cut to an image of Mason lying on his back. The film will be seen through his eyes, but what the eyes register passively is incomplete until the boy discovers the improvements of a camera lens over ordinary sight.

It strikes me that this is what Thoreau ends up doing as a journal writer (and surveyor)–he publishes and is part of the movie of his life outside of that journal. In the journal, especially those later volumes, he is a recorder–attempting to remove the selecting self. But in Walden, he says, famously, “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.” He says much more in this same paragraph, the second of the book.

I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by my townsmen concerning my mode of life, which some would call impertinent, though they do not appear to me at all impertinent, but, considering the circumstances, very natural and pertinent. Some have asked what I got to eat; if I did not feel lonesome; if I was not afraid; and the like. Others have been curious to learn what portion of my income I devoted to charitable purposes; and some, who have large families, how many poor children I maintained. I will therefore ask those of my readers who feel no particular interest in me to pardon me if I undertake to answer some of these questions in this book. In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me. Perhaps these pages are more particularly addressed to poor students. As for the rest of my readers, they will accept such portions as apply to them. I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits.

I have highlighted in the above what I think is most important here. (Chiasson notes that Linklater is apparently working on a project about the New England Transcendentalists.)

And, further, this puts me in mind of a part of the first of Auden’s “Prologue” essays to his collection The Dyer’s Hand, “Reading.”

Though the pleasure which works of art give us must not be confused with other pleasures that we enjoy, it is related to all of them simply by being our pleasure and not someone else’s. All the judgments, aesthetic or moral, that we pass, however objective we try to make them, are in part rationalization and in part a corrective discipline of our subjective wishes. So long as a man writes poetry or fiction, his dream of Eden is his own business, but the moment he starts writing literary criticism, honesty demands that he describe it to his readers, so that they may be in the position to judge his judgements.

3. p 44: a poem by Adam Kirsch

A Widow with Her Sons, 1921
after a photograph by August Sander

A boy no older than the Armistice
Can’t say for certain if there was a time
When he was not among the fatherless
Who make up half his neighborhood; to him
A mother’s someone always dressed in black,
Whose fierce embrace attempts to camouflage
Him and his brother from the stealth attack
Time won’t call off until they reach the age
For putting on the field-gray uniform
And helmet-spike they grew up worshiping
In photos on the mantelpiece at home,
Or what new uniforms the times will bring
To certify they’ve grown up into men
Whose deeds she won’t believe or understand,
Her destiny to suffer once again
Her usurpation by the motherland.

I think this is terrible, or at best, pedestrian and banal, as a poem. Possibly worse as a moral lesson: The mother usurped by the “motherland.” Will “she” really not understand or believe these “deeds”? I’m all for mothers being far more humane and empathetic than fathers, as a generality, perhaps, but patriotism, especially the rabid kind, seems not specific to gender.

And it seems to me it’s the “fatherland” that tends to usurp, though, the U.S., not alone in this, has made the wonderful choice of calling this a “homeland” which I think deepens the idea of protecting the female space.

But what bugs me most, in my vanity (my feeble and weak “I”), is that Adam Kirsch is allowed space for this. He is jack of all subjects (primarily a “critic”) and deeply involved as one of the chattering class who has been given access to national outlets. You must know the work of Adam Kirsch. His Wikipedia page begins thusly…

Kirsch was born in Los Angeles in 1976.[1] He is the son of lawyer, author, and biblical scholar Jonathan Kirsch. He started writing poetry around the age of 14 after he read the poetry of T.S. Eliot, stating, “Eliot showed me the possibility of finding in poetry a source of complex intellectual and moral interest.”[1] In 1997, he graduated from Harvard University with a B.A. in English.[2][3] After graduation, he worked as the assistant literary editor for The New Republic. Next he worked as the editor for Lipper Publications.[4]

The author(s) of this page leave us wondering if AK is the son of some mother…perhaps he is motherless rather than fatherless like that “soldier boy” in his poem.

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Editorial hands? It’s interesting that the review of Linklater’s movie cites a scene in which the “boy” asks his father if there’s any “real magic” in the world, like fairies.

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For balance and to not let Adam Kirsch represent poetry, here is Muriel Rukeyser, “Poem.”

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

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Of course, Auden also says this in “Reading,”

Attacking bad books is not only a waste of time but also bad for the character. If I find a book really bad, the only interest I can derive from writing about it has to come from myself, from such display of intelligence, wit and malice as I can contrive. One cannot review a bad book without showing off.

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