Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Finals Week - can't write anything til Monday

I'll get back to the blog next week. Look for my review of The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems of the San Francisco Bay Watershed.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dappled Things is back... for the moment

The newest issue is finally online. You can read one of Steven Milne's poems here (I gushed about him back in November, remember?). His other poems are also wonderful, although you can only read them in the print magazine. I was also impressed by "Poem with a line from the Desert Fathers" (Sabrina Vourvoulias), which is a sinewy, courageous meditation on this astonishing little story. The way she puts the key line is, "Why not become fire?" There is also a nicely-done critical essay on the novelist J.F. Powers, and some book reviews that may interest you.

We are currently putting the finishing touches on the Christmas issue, which will be a celebration of DT's fifth birthday, and hopefully the new website will be ready by then. Despite this good news, though, Dappled Things has been suffering in this economy (as have we all), and donations have slowed down so much that the journal is in danger of folding in the next year. If you feel so moved, please send DT a Christmas present via PayPal, or send a check here:

Dappled Things Magazine
2876 S. Abingdon Street, C-2
Arlington, VA 22206

Dappled Things is the only Catholic litmag in English today. We fill a niche, we meet a need... but there's more to it that: Dappled Things has drawn on some of the liveliest circles of young Catholic writers and given them a forum for their most purely imaginative efforts. Paper architecture, dystopian fiction, holy/unholy sonnets - all of this is leading somewhere, and I want Dappled Things to keep taking me there.

I have copied Bernie's message for anyone who didn't get it through email:

Dear Friends of Dappled Things,

As many of you will have noticed, there has been a long delay in releasing the Mary, Queen of Angels 2010 edition online. The reason is that we have a brand new website in the works and were aiming at releasing that edition once the site was ready. So the good news is that the issue is now online. The bad news (no, not the news mentioned in the subject line, read further for that) is that the new website has given us more trouble than we expected, so we are publishing this issue still under the old format, hoping to have the Christmas edition up in just a few weeks to inaugurate the new design.

Let me add that the Mary, Queen of Angels edition is truly an exceptional one. Here's what one reader wrote to us after receiving the print edition of it: "I have to say this issue is really something else . . . . 'After' is . . . one of the best [poems] (DT or otherwise) that I've ever read . . . . If DT isn't on everyone's radar, the world is blind." Click here to read the poem online.

In this issue you will also find:

* The dramatic, haunting photographs of Rick Westcott;
* A wonderful reconsideration of the unjustly forgotten Catholic novelist J.F. Powers;
* "I've, like, got to get there, like, now" a delightful rant by the inimitable Eleanor Bourg Donlon on language, unintelligibility, and irreverence;
* Reviews of award-winning graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang's new book of stories, The Eternal Smile; and of House of Words by Jonathan Potter, a beautiful book of poems which is the first title from Korrektiv Press, a promising new venture by the writers of Korrektiv.org;
* "Achilleus Now," an insightful feature essay by Robert T. Miller on his experience teaching great books and how old books still matter to young students;
* Great new stories and poems that you can only enjoy as a subscriber to our marvelous print edition.

Please stop by the site to enjoy all of this wonderful new work. And if you like what you see, please consider making a donation to Dappled Things. Despite the enthusiastic messages that we regularly receive about the magazine, the response to our just-launched annual fundraising appeal has been dismayingly slow. Unless this picks up soon, Dappled Things will have to close down shop in the new year (this is the bad news from the subject line). As the only Catholic literary magazine in English that is currently in print, we think this would be a loss to our culture and the Church. If you agree, please don't let this happen. Stop by the website today and make your secure donation by credit card via PayPal. Or you can send a check, payable to Dappled Things Magazine, to the following address:

2876 S. Abingdon Street, C-2
Arlington, VA 22206

Don't assume that someone else will do it. Please contribute today as you are able.

Wishing you a lovely Gaudete Sunday,

Bernardo Aparicio Garcia
President, Dappled Things

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sundry Sunday Links

Bob the Ape has made a poem out of one of my posts! After six years of scribbling for St. Blog's, I've finally arrived. Thanks a million, Bob!

Dylan has joie de vivre.

"If you're close enough to read this, you must be a New Critic." Poetry bumperstickers! For AWP! Most of them are obnoxious (really obnoxious) in-jokes, but I can't help but laugh at some of them. Oh, and I'D RATHER BE SCANNING QUANTITATIVE METERS, kthanxbye.

I want this book for Christmas. I'm such a sucker for chiming Anglo-Welsh chamber music.

An article on the wild, untameable holiness of prosody. I don't agree that meter is never imitative (I've certainly speeded up verses to express quick motion), but I think Rothman makes a good point: "...prosody has nothing to do with the referential functions of language. Rather, verse draws its power from an utterly different faculty, the number sense, which orders experience not by construing it into propositions but instead by categorizing and counting, an activity that does not require linguistic syntax." In other words, more poetry critics ought to know music theory.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Wind and Window Flower

Photo credit

I've never lived anywhere cold enough for frost crystals to grow on my windows, and lacy window-frost has always seemed like a trope to me. Sort of like nightingales. But this is why Google Image search was invented! Ecce pruina.

Suddenly obsessed, I went to this page which is maintained by a physics professor from Caltech. As I suspected: "Window frost was more common in the past, when houses still had single-pane windows." I'm crazy about this site. It seems that frost, hoarfrost and rime all denote specific ice formations... I'm especially awed by the "frost flower," which appears to be made of cotton candy. Had no idea that water could do that. Apparently it results from water slowly freezing out of wood...

True to the Caltech spirit, there is also a page devoted to the art of growing one's own snowflakes in a vapor diffusion chamber.

And yes, this is a poem about frost by Robert Frost. Happy Advent!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

C.S. Lewis and the perils of poetry

All C.S. Lewis ever wanted to be was a great poet, and when he realized that he never would be, he resigned himself to producing marvelous prose. As a hopeful young poet myself, I find his longing poignant and frightening. How he must has slaved at that unreadable epic of his... but all the industry in the world won't get you the muse or the duende.

Is it too psychologizing and unfair to assume that his poetic failures had something to do with his hatred of Eliot? For years, the two men nursed a dark dislike for each other; only gradually did they lower their defenses and discover how much they had in common. It is clear to me, though, that Lewis's total scorn for modern poetry didn't do his own poetry any favors. Beyond even that, he was apparently impatient with even the most traditional sorts of poetic apprenticeship. In other words, he just didn't think like a poet; in some ways, he was too intelligent. There's a certain amount of stupidity that goes into good poetry.

The following "confession" was meant to be satirical, but as you will see, it is Dame Irony's revenge:

A Confession

I am so coarse, the things the poets see
Are obstinately invisible to me.
For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening -- any evening -- would suggest
A patient etherized upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.
To me each evening looked far more
Like the departure from a silent, yet a crowded, shore
Of a ship whose freight was everything, leaving behind
Gracefully, finally, without farewells, marooned mankind.

Red dawn behind a hedgerow in the east
Never, for me, resembled in the least
A chilblain on a cocktail-shaker’s nose;
Waterfalls don’t remind me of torn underclothes,
Nor glaciers of tin-cans. I’ve never known
The moon look like a hump-backed crone–
Rather, a prodigy, even now
Not naturalized, a riddle glaring from the Cyclops’ brow
Of the cold world, reminding me on what a place
I crawl and cling, a planet with no bulwarks, out in space.

Never the white sun of the wintriest day
Struck me as un crachat d’estaminet.
I’m like that odd man Wordsworth knew, to whom
A primrose was a yellow primrose, one whose doom
Keeps him forever in the list of dunces,
Compelled to live on stock responses,
Making the poor best that I can
Of dull things… peacocks, honey, the Great Wall, Aldebaran
Silver weirs, new-cut grass, wave on the beach, hard gem,
The shapes of horse and woman, Athens, Troy, Jerusalem.

I think most people who like this poem like it for the catalog at the end, with its nouns as bright as enameled roundels on a medieval chalice. But sadly, Lewis spends the preceding stanzas playing laborious Salieri to modernism's scabrous Mozarts. He was normally a perceptive critic, and it shouldn't have taken him twenty years to admit that the sun could rest on the horizon like a sick man after the doctor has "put him in the dark of ether." Couldn't he translate the Latin occidens? Eliot was certainly subject to the "stock response" of west-evening-death; he just expressed it in it a fresh way. To which Lewis seems to reply: "Don't get fresh with me, kid. I know what a sunset looks like." How he could bear to re-read that laboured, dissipated simile of the ship "whose freight was everything" leaving mankind forever? Forever? Everything? Three modifiers for "leaving behind"? Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus.

The chilblain on the cocktail shaker's nose is at least funny as parody, and the rhythm of "Waterfalls don’t remind me of torn underclothes" is jolly; but in this stanza he falls victim to the main hazard of trying to parody surrealism: he dredges up images that are actually rather apt and satisfying. Waterfalls will now remind me of torn underclothes because of you, my dear Lewis. If the hokiest poetaster can say "scarf of mist" or "bridal-veil falls," surely a comparison to ragged cloth shouldn't stump even poetic beginners. As for the moon as a "hump-backed crone," one wonders again where Professor Lewis's Latin was when he was writing this, as gibbus (a "gibbous moon") is Latin for "hump." (I would be shocked if he slammed Virgil for personifying Mount Atlas as an old grey-bearded giant.) The metaphor he offers instead, the eye of the Cyclops, seems much more shocking. And again, the whole counter-image is a depressing, long-winded retreat from the pungent images that we are meant to laugh at. The moon is a "prodigy," which isn't an image at all. A prodigy is merely something extraordinary or ominous, and it summons no clear visual image whatsoever. Not content with this vagueness, Lewis changes "prodigy" to "riddle." Then comes the Cyclops' eye, "glaring from the Cyclops’ brow / Of the cold world," and I want to break something because HOW can the cold world be the brow of the Cyclops? If the cold world is earth, there is no freaking way that our round planet can be the moon's eye-socket. If the cold world is the moon, there's no way it can be both eye and brow. If the cold world is Space...

All right, I feel better now that I've taken a box-cutter to the sofa.

The impression you get from this poem is that C.S. Lewis could not deal with metaphors or similes, which would be a grave defect in an admirer of Homer, or of pretty much any poet, ancient or modern. That would be a false impression. It is lovely to turn to his prose and breathe in the subtle wood notes of a description like this one from That Hideous Strength:

Perhaps the winter morning sunlight affected him all the more because he had never been taught to regard it as specially beautiful and it therefore worked on his senses without interference. The earth and sky had the look of things recently washed. The brown fields looked as if they would be good to eat, and those in grass set off the curves of the little hills as close clipped hair sets of the body of a horse. The sky looked further away than usual, but also clearer, so that the long slender streaks of cloud (dark slate colour against the pale blue) had edges as clear as if they were cut out of cardboard. Every little copse was black and bristling as a hairbrush, and when the car stopped in Cure Hardy itself the silence that followed the turning off of the engine was filled with the noise of rooks that seemed to be calling "Wake! Wake!"

When I first read that perfect, homely simile, "every little copse was black and bristling as a hairbrush," and almost tripped over the numinous cry of the rooks, which whisks you up to the sublimity that a lesser writer would have labored in magenta and cerulean to induce, I was thrilled and shivery. Notice that he doesn't say that the trees were like virgin pillars in the green halls of Diana. He says they resemble a hairbrush. He also says that the clouds are like cardboard, which doesn't seem so distant from those tin-can glaciers. I want to revise my earlier assessment of the poem: it's not that he thinks the modernist images are weird, it's that he thinks they're ignoble. His prose, however, seems to quietly resolve this anxiety.

What gets to me the most about Lewis's poetry, and most suggests that his efforts in verse were more careless than he knew, is the sheer sloppiness of the prosody. A.N. Wilson mentions the terrible enjambments and unscannable lines that mar Dymer, that still-born epic; and "A Confession" launches itself in iambic pentameter, absorbs Eliot own pentameter line, and then collapses into tetrameter: "In VAIN. I SIMply WASn't ABle." Or maybe there is a rest after "vain"? But the next line is definitely tetrameter: "To me each evening looked far more." The stanza concludes with a baggy alexandrine that looks like "The Wreck of the Deutschland" in cargo pants. But wait... was this supposed to be a return to iambic pentameter?

LIKE the dePARTure from a SIlent, yet a CROWded, SHORE

Or maybe another tetrameter?

Like the dePARTure from a SIlent, yet a CROWded, SHORE

I would be very surprised if any two people scanned this poem in the same way. It's obvious to me that Lewis's mind got way ahead of his iambs, and you can see him powering through their little hurtles with more haste than grace. I've seen this tendency in every poem of his I've read. (Count the stresses in that last sentence: Lewis would have had no qualms about sticking it willy-nilly into a poem!) If he had something to say, he was usually better off working it into a book or article; but he craved the megaphone of verse. The poems betray their prose fervors:

On a Vulgar Error

No. It's an impudent falsehood. Men did not
Invariably think the newer way Prosaic
mad, inelegant, or what not.

Was the first pointed arch esteemed a blot
Upon the church? Did anybody say How
modern and how ugly? They did not.

Plate-armour, or windows glazed, or verse fire-hot
With rhymes from France, or spices from Cathay,
Were these at first a horror? They were not.

If, then, our present arts, laws, houses, food
All set us hankering after yesterday,
Need this be only an archaising mood?

Why, any man whose purse has been let blood
By sharpers, when he finds all drained away
Must compare how he stands with how he stood.

If a quack doctor's breezy ineptitude
Has cost me a leg, must I forget straightway
All that I can't do now, all that I could?

So, when our guides unanimously decry
The backward glance, I think we can guess why.

This seems a mere appendix to some essay on modernity. There is not much here that would not be more convincing in prose.

Now, you should never turn your back on Lewis. Like the sea, he is capable of lifting a freak wave and knocking you out. I would be grateful ever to write something so good as this:

The True Nature of Gnomes

Paracelsus somewhere in his writings tells us
A gnome moves through earth like an arrow in the air,
At home like a fish within the seamless, foamless
Liberty of the water that yields to it everywhere.

Beguiled with pictures, I fancied in my childhood
Subterranean rivers beside glimmering wharfs,
Hammers upon anvils, pattering and yammering,
Torches and tunnels, the cities of the dwarfs;

But in perfect blackness underneath the surface,
In a silence unbroken till the planet cracks,
Their sinewy bodies through the dense continuum
Move without resistance and leave no tracks.

Gravel, marl, blue clay--all's one to travel in;
Only one obstacle can impede a gnome--
A cave or a mine-shaft. Not their very bravest
Would venture across it for a short cut home.

There is the unbridgeable. To a gnome the air is
utter vacuity. If he thrust out his face
Into a cavern, his face would break in splinters,
Bursting as a man would burst in interstellar space.

With toiling lungs a gnome can breath the soil in,
Rocks are like a headwind, stiff against his chest,
Chief 'midst his pleasures is the quiet leaf mould,
Like air in meadowy valleys when the wind's at rest.

Like silvan freshness are the lodes of silver,
Cold, clammy, fog-like are the leaden veins
Those of gold are prodigally sweet like roses,
Gems stab coolly like the small spring rains.

(first published in Punch, October 14, 1946)