Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect

September 4, 2010

I’ve recently gotten into the music of The Decemberists. Genre-wise, Last.Fm classifies them as “indie/indie rock/indie pop/alternative”; my listening to them is thus partially a result of my having picked up Andrew Bird over the last year or so. But in a lot of ways, I think, the Decemberists are closer to the rest of my music library (i.e. various flavors of metal) than they are to Bird. I’ll try to make the argument for why, though again, since I’m not a musician, I don’t feel qualified to talk about musical style; I’ll primarily be looking at lyrics in this post.

While Bird concerns himself with the inherent limitations of science, language, and reason generally, the Decemberists are interested in much the same things as, say, Kamelot; their songs are love songs, for the most part, generally failed loves, and often have a strong historical or literary bent to them. Kamelot’s best work is their two-album-long interpretation of Goethe’s Faust; the Decemberists’s three “The Crane Wife” songs are twenty minutes of music about a traditional Japanese story, and “The Island–Come And See The Landlord’s Daughter–You’ll Not Feel The Drowning,” is from what I can tell about Caliban and Miranda from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

The Decemberists also bear resemblances to Dream Theater, another prog metal band. Both are strangely literary for musicians; they constantly allude to poems and poets, and try to capture the emotional state of characters from stories. Dream Theater quotes Frost and James Joyce in some of the songs off Awake; the Decemberists seem to reference Coleridge in “The Island (&c)”, with lines like “The rivers roll down to a soundless sea,” and the song “The Legionnaire’s Lament” always reminds me of Auden’s “Roman Wall Blues,” though perhaps only because of the word “legion.” Songs like “Yankee Bayonet” and “When the War Came” are historical, not literary, but show a story-teller’s eye for history, just as Dream Theater has songs about AIDS (“Learning to Live”) and 9/11 (“Sacrificed Songs”).

These may seem like facile points, that I’m pointing out similarities of the sort that exist between any two musicians. But I don’t think that’s it. The main point is that the Decemberists, unlike Andrew Bird, are predominantly story-based. They’re not trying to capture a mood that one arrives at upon contemplating the world (which is what Bird does most of the time, I think), but rather to show how emotions work as one acts in the world — primarily in the most emotional of activities, falling in and out of love.

Anyay, this all brings me to the song I started this post wanting to talk about, “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect.” I’ve been listening to this constantly over the last week or so. Though it’s a great song, I’m not here really to talk about how it functions musically; mostly I want to point out the verse in which the title appears.

And I am nothing of a builder
But here I dreamt I was an architect
And I built this balustrade
To keep you home, to keep you safe
From the outside world
But the angles and the corners
Even though my work is unparalleled
They never seemed to meet
This structure fell about our feet
And we were free to go

I find fascinating how similar, and yet different this is to Andrew Bird’s stuff. It’s using so much of the same language, the same ideas. It’s more abstract than most Decemberist songs; the reference to architecture makes it necessarily meta-artistic, and we have to think of language as architecture, as a building, words used to build and to cage. The line “even though my work is unparalleled” is the kind of mathematical pun I think Bird would love. But while Bird would use these words to talk about the failings of science when it tries to understand the world, the Decemberists use them to show a failed romance; even when dealing in abstract ideas, they come back to concrete human interactions — to life, not thought. An interesting juxtaposition.

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Three Items of Note

July 7, 2010

I don’t often post links to articles rather than writing my own essays, but over the last few weeks I haven’t had a chance to write up anything and I’ve ran into two articles I find interesting, so I think I’ll make an exception.

First,  a critique of To Kill a Mockingbird. Apparently the book’s 50th anniversary is July 11th. I’ve never liked the book, and this article does a decent, though incomplete, job of explaining why. I like what Flannery O’Connor has to say about TKAM: “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a children’s book.”

Second, an explanation of the problems with veganism. This article is written, from what I can tell, from a liberal, atheist, perspective – the guy likes Peter Singer – but it still recognizes the inherent problem with believing it morally wrong to use animal products: “Behind their beliefs is the hopeless longing for innocence. Except that there is no innocence. However delicate our moral sensibilities, it still remains that to be alive is to be a murderer.” I don’t mind people being vegans, but I do find it rather silly for them to think I am acting immorally by not adopting their eating habits.

Finally, while on vacation I had a strange dream about the nature of speculative fiction and wrote a poem about it. It’s intended to be humorous, and I certainly don’t pretend it’s great poetry. Enjoy.


    Lowell, Bishop, and Confessional Poetry

    June 4, 2010

    I was going to make posts about each of the rest of the books of poetry we read in my 20thc.  poetry class (Gwendolyn Brooks’ A Street in Bronzeville, Robert Lowell’s For the Union Dead, Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III, Jorie Graham’s Erosion, and Seamus Heaney’s Seeing Things), but then my computer started freaking out and I spent most of my free time the last week trying to figure out what was wrong with it. The class is over now, and I don’t want to go back and talk about each book individually, but I do want to briefly compare two of them.

    Both Lowell and Bishop have been called “confessional poets.” This means, roughly, that their poetry includes details from their personal life and sometimes has a “tell-all” feeing to it that can make it kind of awkward to read. I’m fairly skeptical about the idea of confessional poetry, but neither Lowell nor Bishop can be entirely characterized as confessional, and I find something worthwhile in both of them.

    But strangely, though on the surface Lowell is the more confessional of the two, I prefer him to Bishop. I’ve been thinking about it, and I now have a theory as to why that is. Lowell at his worst makes references to events in his life we have no way of knowing about and no reason to care about, and expects us to find that meaningful in and of itself. But at his best, he ties in personal experience to broader philosophical, ethical, and political questions. Bishop, on the other hand, doesn’t give us as much irrelevant detail from her life, but nevertheless, every poem she writes is about herself, and the reader is supposed to accept her as an everyman.

    The best way to illuminate the contrast is to look at their different uses of location. Lowell will mention place-names and allow the names themselves to carry weight. He’ll set a poem in Washington DC, or Maine, or Boston, or Rome, and in doing so make the poem be about  a wider historical issue. The poems “For the Union Dead” and “July in Washington” are clearly about the idea of America; the poem “The Neo-Classical Urn” is a response to Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and is about nature v. artifice; “Beyond the Alps” is set in Rome and is about Catholicism.

    But Bishop, though her book is called Geography III, doesn’t set poems in places we all know. She has a poem about the objects sitting on her desk; she has a poem about sitting in a dentist’s waiting-room; most indicatively, she has a poem with the complex setting of “on a bus going from Canada to Maine at night when all the passengers are falling asleep and then they stop because there’s a moose in the road.” She doesn’t give us a setting that makes the poem immediately have meaning beyond just the anecdote; she gives a setting with no meaning of its own, and thus the anecdote itself is the only source of meaning.

    I think Bishop does this mostly because she’s actually less interested in what’s in the places she writes about than in how people interact with them. She’s interested in the idea of liminality, but not in what it is that one shares a border with. Lowell, on the other hand, is greatly interested in place, in time, in history, in the world.

    So why do I prefer Lowell? It’s not because I think Bishop’s too abstract. I love abstraction. It’s because neither of them is abstract – both write primarily about themselves – and if you’re not going to be abstract I think it’s better to talk about things everyone can talk about than to talk about things only you know about because only you have experienced them.


    Yeat’s The Tower, Auden’s Another Time

    May 27, 2010

    The next two books we’ve read for my 20th century poetry-by-the-book class are W.B. Yeats’ The Tower and W.H. Auden’s Another Time. These are, to say the least, very different works, but I like both of them.

    Yeats’ main strength is his prosody and use of imagery. He’s one of the few poets for whom metrical variation actually means something most of the time. Just read “Leda and the Swan” out loud to see what I’m talking about. Then there’s his philosophical and spiritual beliefs, which, though bizarre and confusing, are occasionally fascinating. His idea of “gyres” is, as far as I can tell, your standard cyclicism, but cyclicism is a powerful concept; that’s what gives the annunciatory poems in the center of the book (“Two Songs from a Play” through “Among School Children,” roughly) their strength. I don’t agree with his interpretation of Greek or Christian history, but he makes an interesting argument. What I like most about Yeats, though, is just the feel of certain lines; he has a certain enchanting quality. He’s a very mythical poet.

    Auden, on the other hand, is extremely analytical, cerebral, even sarcastic at times. He reminds me in a lot of ways of T.H. White (what’s with all these initials?), who wrote The Once and Future King. Both gay liberal but ethically minded Englishmen who worried about the dangers of tyranny and democracy and thought love was the way to unite… yep, it fits. Unfortunately, a lot of the good qualities of Auden’s poetry make him uninteresting to talk about literarily; conversations about his poetry tend to turn into conversations about the nature of ethics. Which is, of course, kind of the point, but it’s not what I’m trying to do here. Anyway, the most well-known and probably best poem from the book is “Musee de Beaux Arts,” but other good ones are “Law like Love” and “As I walked out one evening.” I personally was interested by “Herman Melville” (for obvious reasons – for the record, I’m not sure I buy Auden’s reading of “Billy Budd,” though I’d like to) and “Roman Wall Blues,” which isn’t a complex poem, but a quite fun one.

    What I find strange about all this is that though Yeats is the imagistic one and Auden the cerebral one, Auden is the one to focus on love and community and Yeats is the more egotistical one focused on his own poetic genius. I guess it isn’t that incongruous, but it seems somehow backwards.

    Next up for the class (actually, started today): T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Of course, I’ve already read them (it? I’m always unsure about how to refer to plural titles like this), and it’s too long to do justice to in a reasonably-sized post, so I’ll just say now: it’s excellent, read it.


    Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium

    May 22, 2010

    After Frost’s North of Boston, my Mayterm poetry class moved on to Wallace Stevens’ Harmonium. If the former was a book for which it was easy to identify the underlying structure and its implications (though the significance of those implications are by no means simplistic; one can have organization without giving up nuance), then for the latter it is almost impossible. For a book called Harmonium, there is little in it that appears harmonious, on the general or specific level. The collection is at first glance a cacophonous jumble of metaphysical ramblings and random sensory impressions, but this is primarily because the individual poems are difficult to understand.

    Many of the poems, like the first one of the book, “Earthy Anecdote,” provoke interesting imagery and aural sensations, but have no deeper meaning. Some longer ones, like “The Comedian as the Letter C,” elaborate Stevens’ poetics and philosophy, and others, like “Six Significant Landscapes” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” offer sketches of his poetics in action, showing us Harmonium in microcosm. Yet, since Stevens’ poems are not typically long narratives, “The Comedian as the Letter C” is not a good exemplar of his poetry, and since it is an outline of a book of poetry, not the book itself, “Thirteen Ways” is better at showing how to fit his poems together than at being a good example of one of them.

    I think “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” a poem of moderate length, comes fairly close to such an exemplar. Like the ephemeral “Earthy Anecdote,” it uses the sound of language and metaphor to convey a simple image, yet here the image fits with Stevens’ metaphysics and poetics and offers a vision of the general, not only the specific. The poem focuses on white as real yet defined by negation. The empty whiteness, akin to the winter of “The Snow Man,” is what man sees when he rationally examines the world and realizes it is unsympathetic to humanity. At the same time as this negative image is built, however, an idea of color is created that takes on a life of its own; the green and purple and yellow and blue merge with the beads and baboons into an idea of something like a rainbow. And “an old sailor,” reminiscent of the comedian Crispin, “Catches tigers / In red weather.” Through the power of the imagination he does not dream of catching them, he does catch them; imagination creates the variegated world anew.

    This understanding partially explains the apparently haphazard ordering of Harmonium; it is intentionally disordered (indeed, originally grouped poems were dispersed throughout the book) because Stevens, who as a poet paints with sound, is interested in color/sound for its own sake, and to order the poems would have been to subordinate those colors/sounds to some other idea. Instead, he gives them no continuity at all in order to emphasize their uniqueness. Stevens searches for as many ways as he can to emphasize the importance of the imagination’s rainbow, and as no color in rainbow has precedent over any other, he can give no individual approach pride of place.

    That’s my understanding of Stevens’ poetic project. And I can respect it, and the fact that he does a good job achieving it. But I still find it difficult to actually like his poetry. It’s not so much that I find his philosophy mildly disturbing (though I do); my reasons are mostly pre-rational. I can only describe them by saying that he writes with a faded pastel palette, full of watermelon green and mango and off-white. I like  some of his darker work, his winter aesthetic, e.g. “The Snow Man” and “Thirteen Ways,” but I find no beauty in his usual tropical aesthetic.


    Robert Frost’s North of Boston

    May 18, 2010

    The first book we read for my 20th century poetry “by the book” class was Robert Frost’s “North of Boston.” I found it surprisingly excellent; Frost is quite a good writer. I do think some clarification is needed, though; in most of the poems in this volume, Frost isn’t writing lyric poetry; he’s more writing short narratives in verse form. This doesn’t mean it’s not poetry, but it’s very different from the lyrics of Shakespeare or Keats or Hopkins or Eliot, to name a few of my favorite lyricists. He’s working more with characters than images. (Note that this applies to varying degrees to the rest of his poetry; A Boy’s Will, for example, contains a great deal of lyric, and “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is a very imagistic poem. Not that they’re distinct categories anyway, more different qualities that can be possessed to greater or lesser degrees.)

    Indeed, the subtitle to North of Boston, “this book of people,” demands we approach it as a dialogue between Frost’s characters not participated in by Frost himself. We must find Frost’s meaning in the complex interplay between different speakers’ perspectives. This dialogic approach (c.f. Bakhtin for a more detailed explanation) is more characteristic of the novel or short story than of lyric poetry. For example, the second poem, “Mending Wall,” repeats twice two aphorisms through the mouths of two distinct characters: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” and yet “Good fences make good neighbors.” The naïve reader reject one of these sayings or the other or both, but Frost rejects such an easy solution; he finds each view valuable but inadequate alone, and his own view must be sought in the sum of all of them.

    This dialogic informs even the arrangement of poems within the book. The last responds to the first, the second-to-last to the second, and so on, in a manner reminiscent of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. If we leave out “The Pasture” and “Good Hours,” in which Frost himself gives the keys to the book as a whole, we find seven pairs of poems and the lone, central, enigmatic “A Servant to Servants.” That poem discusses one who “was crossed in love, / Or so the story goes.” This bizarre juxtaposition of insanity and love forms the theme of the book; from there, it moves out concentrically, taking as its subject at every level the absurd yet lovely nature of our shared human condition. It focuses on original sin (“Blueberries,” “After Apple-picking”); human dignity (“The Black Cottage,” “The Code”); family life (“Home Burial,” “The Generations of Men”); societal perceptions (“A Hundred Collars,” “The Housekeeper”); poetic inspiration (“The Mountain,” “The Fear”); mortality (“The Death of the Hired Man,” “The Self-Seeker”); and humanity in nature (“Mending Wall,” “The Wood-Pile”).

    Consider the use of dialogic in the last of these poems. Its counterpart “Mending Wall” suggests that building walls, though an act of violence against nature, is necessary to establish a community, for men define themselves by division. In “The Wood-Pile,” the speaker recognizes nature, by itself, as generalized and anonymous; it offers only “tall slim trees / Too much alike to mark or name a place by.” These trees remind us of the pine and apple in “Mending Wall,” but are different because homogenous; they represent man by himself in nature, where he is nowhere in particular, “just far from home.” The wood-pile, however, an artifact akin to the mended wall, offers to connect man to nature by distinguishing him from it, through community. On seeing a pile of wood the speaker sees that though the wood-pile was made by man out of nature, it does not sit outside of nature; “what held it though on one side was a tree / Still growing.” The later poem thus recasts imagery of the earlier one to suggest a different position – though not exactly a contradictory one. It is more that they are two halves of an answer.


    Semester Wrap-Up

    May 12, 2010

    I turned in my last paper on Monday, and finished my last final exam today at 1:20 PM; the semester has now come to a close.

    Classes begin again for me on Tuesday, however; I’m  taking a Mayterm class called “20th Century Poetry by the Book,” in which we’ll be reading:

    • Robert Frost, North of Boston
    • Wallace Stevens, Harmonium
    • W.B. Yeats, The Tower
    • W.H. Auden, Another Time
    • T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
    • Gwendolyn Brooks, A Street in Bronzeville
    • Robert Lowell, For The Union Dead
    • Elizabeth Bishop, Geography III
    • Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things

    All that in three weeks. Fun.

    Of these poets, I’m well acquainted with Eliot, and moderately with Yeats, but I’ve only read a handful of poems by Frost, Stevens, Auden, Brooks, Bishop, and Heaney, and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Lowell. But it should be a good class: I love Eliot; really like Yeats, Stevens, and Auden; and I’m sure will come to appreciate Frost, Brooks, Bishop, Lowell, and Heaney. So, expect a lot (or, at least, a little) here about modernist poetry in the next few weeks.

    After that class ends, I’ll be on break for a month and a half – three weeks of which will be spent out of town – during which I’ll be frantically trying to get ready to apply to graduate schools next semester and also reading a bunch of novels to try to get a sense of what I want to do for Senior Novel. My reading list so far is:

    • Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
    • James Joyce, Ulysses
    • William Faulkner, Light in August
    • William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust
    • Jorge Luis Borges, assorted short stories

    And will almost certainly grow.

    And then after that, I’m taking another summer class – American Literature, whose reading list I have not yet acquired. So, yeah. Busy summer.

    I’m also going to be trying to write a 20-page paper about Hopkins and Eliot. And maybe writing a webcomic. Fun.


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