Doctor Atomic: “Batter My Heart”
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Gerald Finley & Edward Gardner
Rave on John Donne
A Word or Two, Metaphorically Speaking
Anthony Van Dyck
In the Guardian recently were the first two in a series of articles on the poet John Donne, “John Donne, priest and poet, part 1: love, conscience and martyrdom” and “John Donne, priest and poet, part 2: theologian who played with poetic form.” The articles focus on the intensity of his thought and how seriously he pursued life and the choices life placed in his way. The second of the articles addresses Ben Jonson’s criticism of Donne, that “for not keeping of accent, (he) deserved hanging.” Roz Kaveney, the author of the articles, thinks there is a purpose to this failure, that Donne demonstrated the ability to keep accent very well when he wanted to, but that some things were so serious that the subject had to take precedence over the mechanics and that there is a very deliberate message in this. This message may not have been appreciated as much in his own time as it is in ours and in the time immediately preceding ours, the time of Eliot and the moderns. His poetry was largely ignored for a very long time, but fortunately it was not lost. I remembered finding, shortly after finishing graduate school, a copy of the Grierson edition of Donne’s poetry that preserved the spelling and orthography. I had used this edition when writing my masters thesis on Donne, and I loved the blue bindings and the thick pages of the Oxford edition. Packaging is important.
The music suggests that Donne’s influence is still felt. It blends together two songs, one from an Opera, Dr. Atomic, By John Adams and a folk-rock song by Van Morrison. The Morrison song is not just about Donne, but about poetry, poets, and their influence on the world and how the world changes. Still, these songs suggest the depth and breadth of Donne’s influence. The opera is about the making of the atomic bomb and Adam’s puts the words of Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV into the mouth of Oppenheimer, who oversaw the bomb’s creation. It is a kind of plea for forgiveness. The Morrison song connects Donne to the nuclear age as well, suggesting that, even if he did not foresee this awesomely destructive weapon, he understood what it was in the human heart that could imagine its creation and bring it into the world. The Guardian published another article recently about poetry and contemporary music, “I will show you Arcade Fire in a handful of dust: why pop music loves T. S. Eliot.” This article, too, addresses popular culture and the influence of poetry, T. S. Eliot’s poetry specifically, on contemporary music. For all that is said about the waning influences of “high” culture on “popular” culture there is evidence that the two have more than a passing acquaintance.
The painting above was painted by a contemporary of John Donne’s, Anthony Van Dyck. What intrigues me about the painting is that it almost suggests a style that will not come into fashion for a couple of more centuries. This may just be because it is an early painting by a young artist who has not yet found his true “style.” But when I look at it, the painting, for reason that may not be entirely clear, reminds me of Augustus John’s painting below of Dylan Thomas. There is something in the eyes and hair and, perhaps, the look that seem similar to me. But what I like about it is what I like about Augustus John’s painting, it is not entirely realistic, it is an impression. The painters are treating their subjects in much the same way poets treat theirs. They remind me of the lines from Wallace Stevens’ poem “Man with the Blue Guitar:”
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
This suggest to me that artists, poets, painters, or whatever the case may be, use the “tools” of their craft to present “reality” in ways that are unique to their vision. Stevens seems to suggest it is not his fault but the fault of “the blue guitar,” the typewriter, pencil, whatever the implement used to shape the work of art may be. Who knows where inspiration comes from, how the words, or the colors, or the shapes find their way from the artists imagination to the canvas, the page, whatever the medium may be. Stevens seems to suggest that he certainly does not understand where it comes from and that the audience will just have to take it, the poem, the song, the painting, on its own terms.
I think that poets are like painters in that they are not bound to reality, to things as they appear. They both present impressions, abstractions, expressions that capture more than the things themselves. A professor of mine once aid that a lyric poem, unlike a story, does not progress, but circles its object and looks at it from many different angles. Where a story must move on a poem can linger. Often it is with a poem, as with a painting, its ability to capture the common place and imbue with something unusual, something very uncommon, that makes it so appealing. D. H. Lawrence wrote a short poem “The Third Thing:”
Water is H20, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one,
But there is also a third thing, that makes it water
And nobody knows what that is.
The atom locks up two energies
But it is a third thing present which makes it an atom.
There is in most things no matter how common a “third thing” that makes it what it is and that thing is magical, it is mysterious, and it is this third thing that poetry often captures.
There was a talk given by Will Self, “A Point of View: In Defense of Obscure Words,” about how modern culture is being oversimplified, that we, as a culture, pursue what is quick, what is easy, we are “risk averse” whether that risk is a physical or a mental risk. Stories, poems, paintings, music, any of the arts that reward often require time and energy spent learning how to understand them. The painting is called The Gate but it is not a painting of a gate that we are familiar with, though once we see title we sort of understand the picture a little better. But we have to spend time with it. It may reward this investment of time, it may not, part of this depends on taste, but the meaning is not explicit and it must, like a Wallace Stevens poem, be considered and thought about. Self is concerned because he sees a society that thinks that because something is difficult to understand we need not try to understand it. He tells the story of a teacher who gives away the ending to the novel Great Expectations because knowing the summary of the story is enough and there is no need to bother with the whole of this “indigestible” novel. When I look at where I am asked to go, as a teacher of English, in order to comply with new state standards, it seems that this trivialization of literature and of art has now been legislated.
Road with Cypress and Star
Vincent Van Gogh
When I look at a painting like the one above I wonder what people see in it. I see something that is very moving, that touches my emotions in a very real and physical way, it is almost a pain, but a pleasant pain. But is this experience common to all viewers, or many viewers? The colors that are used are “pretty” colors. The people and the landscape have a “cartoonish” quality to them. Is this all that resonates, is this all that people see? I think there is something inherent in the beautiful that is true, that runs deep and that affects people in ways they may not understand. But the truth of the art is real and that even if it is trivialized to sell insurance (I remember an ad put out by Pacific Life where a painted whale morphs through the styles of Van Gogh, Monet, Seurat, Calder, and Picasso, it was an effective ad, but it was selling insurance not art) its truth cannot be suppressed. I think that no matter what is done to marginalize art as long as it is present it will speak to those that experience it. I do not think it is always necessary for my students to enjoy Dickens, Austen, Chaucer, Baldwin, add whatever name works for you, it is only necessary for them to be exposed to these books. The stories will haunt them, they will “not go gentle into that good night” they will “rage, rage, against the dying of the light.” They will live and they will resonate in the unconscious if they are put there. For some the response will be immediate, but for others, the response will come much later. Maybe for some, the art will remain forever silent, but I would like to think that is not so. I do not think it is my job to make others see the light, only to keep the light lit so that when the time comes it can be seen.
St. Mary’s with Houses and Chimney (Bonn)
In this painting we see the modern, chimneys and apartment buildings living side by side with the ancient, the church steeples. The old is forever with us, it does not go away. It is there to remind us that every generation leaves its mark and those that come after have to make their mark in a way that acknowledges what came before. Notice the decorative carving at the top of the chimney that in some ways mirror details in the church spires. Art can remind us that objects can be beautiful and functional at the same time, that there is no reason why the tools we make, the buildings we live in, the cars we drive, cannot do their very necessary jobs and be esthetically pleasing at the same time. If you ever visit Edward Gorey’s house, you will notice he was intrigued with different kinds of pliers and they are sprinkled throughout the house like little alligators watching over things. There was something about their form that was beautiful to Gorey. We are not better people because we develop artistic sensibilities, because we appreciate what is beautiful and desire to fill our world with beauty, but as Kaveney says of Donne, whether we share his beliefs, his faith, it is important to wrestle with the issues he wrestles with, and that something beautiful can come from this engagement. Whatever else may or may not be true, people in ugly surroundings are often depressed and people in beautiful surroundings, though they may not be made happy by these surroundings, find solace in them.
The film clip discusses the importance of metaphor in our lives. At their heart metaphors are basically poetic, they are impressionist paintings that do not show what something is but what something is like. Often a thing’s name does not tell us much. A hammer is a tool that can be useful or cause harm, depending on how it is used. When the hammer is used metaphorically it is used to reveal something that is true about something else that we cannot see when we look at that something else. Romeo calls Juliet “the sun” because, in the words of a popular song she “lights up” Romeo’s life. But one thing that is often true of metaphors is that the object used for comparison has many facets and often they are not always positive or always negative. The same literal sun that lights up Romeo’s life can burn if he stays to long in its presence, it can be dangerous. So also can love and the beloved. In the play it kills him and her. Often when we think metaphorically we focus on a particular connotation. Romeo is oblivious to the dangers of love; he only sees its light, its beauty (even though he has had recent experience with its unpleasant side). But though Romeo is unaware of the dark side of his metaphor, the audience, perhaps is not, and almost certainly Shakespeare was not.
The value of metaphorical, poetic thought is that it is complex, that it does make demands on our emotions, our thoughts, and our imaginations. That is why we develop our metaphor making skills. All allusions have a metaphoric side to them. When Adams places Donne’s sonnet in his opera he is expecting the audience to recognize the source of the aria, and to, perhaps, be reminded of other sonnets in this cycle, like, perhaps, “Death be not proud.” The audience may also be familiar with other things Donne wrote that the quoted passage may evoke, like “No man is an island” and “Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee,” from Donne’s “Meditation 17” which is all about how we are all involved in the lives of our neighbors. To think metaphorically is a skill, a skill that must be trained and developed. It is a skill that enables us to see beneath the surface of things. They require an educated mind; a curious mind. In the jargon of the day, they require “critical thinking skills.” And nothing brings about the death of something important more quickly than by making it into a “catch phrase” used unthoughtfully day by day.
As a literature teacher it is important to me that students experience the exasperation, frustration, and trauma that comes from trying to make sense of complex and layered language; language that does not say explicitly what it has to say, but requires us to explore the caverns that lie beneath its surface. Like many things that are unpleasant, that are frustrating, that are confusing when we first encounter them, literature, poetry, stories, essays, that begin by tormenting us end by healing us, by revealing ourselves to ourselves if we will only mine their depths.
W. B. yeats