Thursday, December 23, 2004

Brief reviews: Mehldau, McDonald, Eternal Sunshine

Haven't written here in a while perhaps because I've been busy with a Wintermester class and little things like Christmas and birthdays. Seems I have lots to write about, but all I have for you at the moment are fragments.

Listening to: Brad Mehldau's Live in Tokyo. Very enjoyable disc. At the moment I'm hearing "Someone to Watch Over Me," a song I think I've never heard a bad version of. This has a nice "Intro" and then Mehldau has this beautiful bumping improvisation in the middle that never loses sight of the tender melody. Further into the song one hears q section that certainly shows me why some compare Mehldau to Keith Jarrett. Another cover of Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" (his studio version of the song is on Largo) is a particular favorite. Nineteen and a half great minutes, with not a single note wasted.

Most recently read: Walt McDonald's All Occasions. This volume was published in 2000 and while I had read some of the poems before, those poems were well worth re-reading. I allowed myself the luxury of taking my time with this, as one should do when reading good poetry. I never used a bookmark but trusted my failing memory to help me recall where I had last put down the book. Often times I came back to a poem I'd read the previous occasion and re-read it before moving the those new to me. I must say doing this was a very good experience for me.

Walt's poems have brought be great joy since I first encountered his work, even when he is digging in unfamiliar or unpleasant territory. I'm pretty much a city boy, but his description of life in rural areas seems common with my own in the most significant ways. In "Chocolate," the speaker recalls hiding from his father after eating candy that had been meant for his sister. Any adult who does not recognize the fear and thrill and guilt here isn't reading his or her own life well. As a sports fan, I'm particularly fond of pieces that reference baseball and football: "Batting Practice at Sixty," "Instant Replay," and "When Baseball Was A Game." The latter poem includes these marvelous lines: "Before Vietnam and the death of friends/I could chase down a ball off the wall/and turn and hurl a strike three hundred feet//to a teammate blocking home plate,/the capless runner diving but hopelessly out,/the home crowd going wild." The strength of this poem (and of the whole collection) is that one does not need to have been an athlete not only to get the surface level picture, but the larger vision of time's passage and power of memory on the present.

Many of the poems recall Walt's experience as pilot, particularly during the Vietnam War. These, for me, are further evidence of the fact that poetry is stronger than rhetoric. I do not know his political leanings or how he feels about war (either the one he served in or the present one). However, I don't know how to explain why or how I can support soldiers without supporting the war except to point to these poems. They provide the images and the events and the impact of those events on the life of those who lived what I never have. No reader should assume that Mr. McDonald's ideas mirror my own. However, they should likely rank these pieces right up there with another poet who has written powerfully about the Vietnam War, Yusef Komunyakaa.

Movie I recently watched: Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. I just watched this tonight, and I did think it very interesting, but I'm not sure what to say about it. It's story is not told in linear fashion, and that does not bother me. The narrative certainly works here. In fact the story must be told this way for the viewer to really get the experience being dealt with. One thing I liked was that the main characters, after saying and hearing the worst things the other thinks/says, decide to accept these flaws (foibles?) about themselves and each other and enjoy the relationship for what it is. I'm not sure if what I just wrote is very clear, but I'll leave it for now. I do recommend the movie, but don't blink. Definitely don't fall asleep.

There is much more to say, but my hands are tired.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Toward a definition of the American Writer

Recently a former student emailed me about how I might define "the American writer." Since everything I want to blog about is too hot for me to comment, I thought I'd post what I wrote to him. I hope someone find this edifying.

I remember being asked a question similar to this one in graduate school, and though I was concentrating most of my study on American writers, I was at a loss to answer. I still am, to some degree. I suppose citizenship has a little something to do with it, but perhaps so does birth. This might be confusing: Auden became an American citizen; Eliot became a British subject (though I don't think he renounced his American citizenship). I can't say being here, in the U.S., has much to do with it. Some of our finest writers (and most "American") did their work abroad.

Nor can I say an "American Writer" is one that espouses American values, because despite what so many say, there are very few clear cut ones. Some have decided that certain things are or are not "American". Most of those people have a limited vision of America and of values in general.

One way to define a "American writer" — and I stress it is only one way — is to say that the American writer responds, in some way, to the vague concept of the American dream. Noting that the idea is vague, I know, means I may have contradicted myself. So be it. America is full of contradictions and I believe it is the tension between what the concept and the reality that really defines America as a people. Thus the American writer constantly examines the American Dream, not just to see where it is wanting, but to see where one's place is in it. Certainly there are questions, but it is to me not criticism, but the sort of doubt that produces faith.

The example that comes readily to mind is E.E. Cummings. Many of my students see him as particularly un-American. I disagree. Here is a man who made the choice to not fight in World War I for reasons of conscience, but who did serve his country. Because he refused to say "I hate the Germans" (instead proclaiming, "I love the French"), he was imprisoned in a concentration camp. His experience became the basis for his novel The Enormous Room. In one of his poems, he notes the irony of soldiers, presumably fighting for "freedom" who take the freedom away from some one who legally chooses to not fight in war ("i Sing of Olaf glad and big"). In another poem, he questions the image of the American male that is personified in western showman Buffalo Bill.

Okay, I said this was going to be brief, and of course, it isn't. However, I do hope this helps you. Thanks for trusting me with the question, and forgive me for delaying my answer.