Still Life with Words

From Under Milkwood

Dylan Thomas


Still Life with Words


Painting of sars and city lights reflected on water

Starry Night over the Rhone

Vincent Van Gogh


There was an article in the Chronicle for Higher Education, “Poetry Makes You Weird,” suggesting that reading poetry affects us in strange ways; it causes us not only to see things in ways we had not considered before, but through these odd ways of looking reveals what is real or some hidden truth about the thing. Poetry opens our eyes to aspects of the world around us that are not easy to see or, perhaps, are just taken for granted and are not consciously seen or heard though they are right in front of us. There is a sense that this is true about all Literature and is part of what makes the study of Literature valuable. 

There were a series of articles recently in The Guardian about “darkness” in literature that illustrates this point. One of these articles, “Darkness in literature: Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas,” looked at the opening lines to Dylan Thomas’ play for voices Under Milk Wood. I have enjoyed this play from the first time I read it (not least because the name of the mythical Welsh town where the play takes place, Llareggub, is “buggerall” spelled backwards, an expression my father was wont to use on comic occasions). The opening lines describe the dark of night in the early hours of the morning.

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.

These lines describe the “blackness” in four different ways, “bible-black,” “sloeblack,” “slow, black,” and “crowblack.” Each of the descriptions evokes a different quality of the darkness or gives it a different connotation. The first, “bible-black,” uses the cover color of most Bibles (this may not be as true today as it was in the 1950’s) to suggest to the reader that there is a holy or sacred quality to the darkness. Thomas’ short story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” concludes, “I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept” that give to the night this same sacred quality. The black leather covers of many family Bibles might also be contained in this image suggesting there is a leathery, dimpled texture to the look and feel of the night and that it has a rough, tactile quality; that the surface of the night is not a smooth surface. 

The second description, “sloeblack,” suggests the darkness of the sea at night has the quality of “sloe” the fruit of the blackthorn bush, a shinny, shimmering blackness, not unlike, perhaps, the color of the water in the painting below. This image also works in conjunction with the third description of darkness, “slow, black.” When spoken from the stage the two sound alike, “sloeblack” and “slow, black” would be almost indistinguishable if it were not for the comma separating “slow” and “black.” So while these descriptions used together suggest on the one hand very different things about the darkness of the sea, the homophonic quality of the sounds of the description lends emphasis to the slowness with which the tides move the water. Of course it is not the water’s blackness that is “slow” but the motion of the water itself, and the slowness of the motion probably contributes to the shimmering quality of the water that is suggested by the color of the fruit. 


Paintnig of a very dark night with the moon behind a cloud, over a river

Moonlit Night on the Dniepr

Arkhip Kuindzhi


The final description, “crowblack,” adds a disturbing quality to the night and to the sea. The crow is probably among the blackest of black birds and so it evokes well the color of the sea in the night. But the crow is also a carrion bird and associated with dead things and evokes death, or more properly in context of the play, foreshadows the role death plays in the play. But there is another quality to the crow, though I do not know if Thomas was aware of this. In many New England folk paintings the crow is a common feature and its connotations in the paintings in which it appears often seem to be positive, though I am at a loss to explain why this is or what the crow represents in these paintings. There are also children’s rhymes in which the crow is good or bad depending on how many crows appear, one for example is bad news, but two mean mirth and five mean riches. 

The “crow” in “crowblack” might also suggest the crowing of the rooster that signifies the break of day, in which case the image might also foreshadow the coming of day. The Encyclopedia of Folk Art mentions the popularity of a crowing rooster as a tattoo among sailors. The Angel Gabriel according to legend heard the cock’s crow as the word of God and the tattoo of the crowing rooster was seen as a way of invoking God’s protection. 

The point of all this, though, is that words are suggestive and poets use words with many of their connotations in mind because they are so suggestive and can take the reader in so many directions at once. As the article referenced above suggests, reading poetry makes us weird because it causes us to see the world in ways that seem strange or even nonsensical to those that do not read poetry or whose eyes are closed to what the poetry suggests. But for those that grasp the insights the world becomes more magical, more mysterious, more wonderful.


Still life painting with a skull on books with watch and quill

Vanitas Still Life

Pieter Claesz


The images in the painting above suggest that this quirky way of looking at life and the way it is lived is not restricted to poetry, but is part of what makes great art great, part of what leads to think and reflect as a result of our encounters with the sublime and the beautiful. In this instance the painting evokes the poetry of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity,” Eurozine published recently a discussion, “Proust Is Important for Everyone,” between Mario Vargas Llosa and Giles Lipovetsky about “High Culture,” the art, literature, and music we learn about in school and pop art, or the “society of the spectacle.” On the one hand high culture is seen as part of what defines a culture and a people, it reveals to us a bit of who we are as members of a certain society or nation. On the other it has often been used by totalitarian regimes as a vehicle to further their attempts at world conquest and the worst kinds of oppression, especially of people who are not a part of the “high culture” in question. But Llosa and Lipovetsky also agree that Literature, books like those that Proust wrote, help define and promulgate democracy, that one reason dictators often begin by burning books is because they want to silence these books and limit their influence. They also agree that the “society of the spectacle” often packages these ideas in ways that are more accessible to the general population. 

So there is a place for enjoying the culture of the day while continuing to be enriched by the culture that has been handed down to us. But with that said, there is a more universal quality to “High Culture” a quality that causes it to outlive its own time and speak through time. That there is value to taking the time to learn how to appreciate and understand this culture because it has proven itself to be durable and that long after the culture of the day has been forgotten this other culture that has followed us through time will continue to wield its influence. Of course it is also difficult to say which aspects of popular culture will be woven into the “High Culture.” Dickens was a popular novelist before he was cultural icon.


Painting of a houses across the street from an open field

Cityscape I

Richard Diebenkorn


Paintings often open up the world in ways similar to poetry. This is often more true of impressionistic and expressionistic paintings in that they often suggest aspects to what is seen that realistic depictions do not, just as the odd and quirky images in poetry open the things they describe in unusual ways. The painting above is of a city; at least that is what the title suggests. But where on one side of the street we see the houses closely packed, as we would expect to see them in the city, on the other we see open fields and suggestions of cultivation and farming. The two sides of the street seem at odds with one another and perhaps they are. Or perhaps something along the lines of Wordsworth’s poem “Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802” is being suggested, where the beauty of a London morning is juxtaposed with an English countryside:

Never did sun more beautifully steep

In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;

Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:

Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;

And all that mighty heart is lying still!

The sleeping city is compared to a serene countryside. Just as in the poem, in the painting the two images are on the one hand a stark contrast, but on the other the image of each cause us to see the other differently. The city, usually associated with noise and hurry, is given the tranquility of a quiet pasture, field, or wood. Of course, in the painting something more sinister may be suggested. The shadows cast by the houses fall upon the open field foreshadowing, perhaps, the coming urban sprawl. Wordsworth’s poem describes the city in the morning, but the shadows in the painting, seeming to spread eastward, would suggest the light is coming from a westward, setting sun, evoking the evening, the ending, perhaps, of an era.


Painintg of a ship sailing down a waterway as the sun rises

Chichester Canal

J. M. W. Turner


Paintings that are more realistic in their representations often offer equally revealing insights. In the painting above we see also town and country juxtaposed, though the town is in the distance far from the quiet of the canal. Though, the large ship in the background also evokes the presence of the city, as ships carry cargo from one major world port city to another and the small boat in the foreground is a more pastoral vessel. The painting may suggest that the product of the work done in the quiet countryside finds its way into the hold of the larger more “urban” vessel and that town and country not only touch each other but depend on each other as well. The purpose of a canal was to provide, before trucks, planes, and railroads, a means for transporting goods from one town to the next. There is also a “ghostly” quality to the ship that is shrouded a bit by mist that may suggest the city “haunts” the countryside. Of course it may not be the purpose of the painting to suggest anything, but only to capture a snapshot of a moment, everything else being just the products of the viewers imagination and far from the painters original intent. 

There was an article in Aeon, “The Great Swindle,” that suggests contemporary artists and their art, as well as the critic that give these artists their audience, have betrayed the arts. Roger Scruton, the author of the article, believes these artists and critics are not frauds, but have deceived themselves as effectively as they are deceiving others. He suggests the critics use language in convoluted ways, using many words to say very little; that the language is unnecessarily opaque and that it depends on this opaqueness to give itself the appearance of intellect and depth. As long as this art and criticism is confined to academic circles, the article contends, it does not do much harm as the real work of culture takes place where it is produced in literature, art, and music. The problem for Scruton is that libraries and museum that should know better are being taken in as well; that these academic critics deceive themselves first and then go on to deceive others. He does not see malice in any of this, just poor judgment and bad art, or kitsch. The artists and critics he identifies make “fakeness” the content of their art, that they are not “kitsch” so much as representations of the “kitschiness” of modern culture. It is difficult to know how far this argument can be taken. I agree with Scruton in that I think much in modern art and literature is shallow and “kitschy.” 

But I also know that when I was younger and was first exposed to the contemporary art of my youth it struck me as ugly or offensive, certainly as inartistic. As I have grown and looked at some of this art from my youth I have discovered more to it than I originally thought; Schoenberg and Klee no longer appear as inelegant and artless as I once thought. Some of what appears to us as shallow or lacking art is just the result of our not having trained ourselves to read and listen and observe according to the demands of the work. Scruton addresses this in his article saying there is a difference between the likes of Arnold Schoenberg and the likes of John Cage. This may be true, but I still wonder if the problem isn’t to some degree with me as well; that I need to learn new ways of hearing, reading, and seeing if I am to appreciate that which I do not appreciate at present. Still, Rebecca West in an article written many years ago for The New Republic, “The Duty of Harsh Criticism,” talks about the importance of making critical judgments about the cultural work a nation’s artists produce. That part of keeping a culture alive is the maintaining of a cultural standard.


Please Don’t Take My Air Jordans

Lemon Anderson

TED Talk


The video clip captures the way in which a young poet matured into a young poet. Whatever one thinks of his poetry (I found it moving and disturbing as good poetry often is), what Lemon Anderson has to say about language and the poet’s ability to make words sing is at the heart of poetry and is its lifeblood. He also captures that aspect of poetry that comes alive in performance. Not all poets are as successful at bringing their poems to life as others, but there is a quality to good poetry that depends upon hearing the words spoken and how the spoken words sound together. M. A. Abrams in a recent book, Fourth Dimension of a Poem, addresses this quality in poetry. He names a number of poets he has heard read their work, from T. S. Eliot to Dylan Thomas, who all read very differently but who all brought to life aspects of their poems that are lost when they are read quietly off the page. Eliot is much more subdued in the reading of his poetry than is Thomas. But even though Eliot’s reading does not have the passionate intensity of Thomas’, hearing the words spoken brings them to life and the life of the words infect the reading and gives it life as well. 

Poetry touches me at an emotional level before I begin to understand what it means intellectually. This to me captures the importance of teaching poetry, and all literature works this way to a certain degree. Literature is inherently reflective, it turns us inward, it makes us consider things, at least it does if we read well. Paul Krugman in an article for The Guardian, “Paul Krugman: Asimov’s Foundation novels grounded my economics,” writes about how he was inspired by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy to study economics. Granted, Asimov is not “High Culture” but it is imaginative literature and it stirred more than the escapist desires that often provoke the consumption of much of popular culture. Neal Stephenson has also written about how the science fiction of the 1930’s to 1950’s inspired many of those that went on to design the rockets and technology that put a man on the moon. Reading literature, even the simplest kinds of stories, teaches the imagination to see what does not yet exist and helps to shape the future.

We use the same skill to read the newspaper that we use to read a poem by Emily Dickinson. We use the same skill to read an instruction manual or a memo at work that we use to read Proust. There is a sense that this is as it should be, because Proust is an instruction manual for life, Proust is a memo to our imagination calling it to wake up and get to work. Dickinson is a newspaper for the soul and spirit; she wakes up what is often dormant inside of us, or affirms it if it is awake. But we only have to learn to read words to read a memo or a manual or a newspaper, we have to learn to read our hearts and spirits and imaginations to read Proust or Dickinson (in addition to growing our vocabularies a bit). 

Reading the newspaper and its cousins makes us knowledgeable, teaches us facts we need to know, so it is important to read such things. But there is more to life than this; there are much more important things in life than this. Knowledge is only as important or as valuable as the work our imaginations give it to do. Both file clerks and poets share a knowledge of the alphabet, but what separates one from the other is what their imaginations can do with what they know.


Man sitting in a boat on the banks of a river contemplating nature

Zhou Maoshu Appreciating Lotuses

Kano Masanobu

If You’re Not Offended, You’re Not Paying Attention

From Four Nights Drunk

Steeleye Span


If You’re Not Offended, You’re Not Paying Attention


A print of a fight breaking out in the balcony of a theater with one man choking another man

Une discussion littéraire à la deuxième Galerie (A Literary Discussion in the Second Gallery)

Honoré Daumier


The illustration above is of a “literary debate.” Most of us try to discuss literature and books in a more subdued manner but there are those that are much more fervent in stating their opinions. When John Millington Synge’s play The Playboy of the Western World first opened it provoked riots, as did Sean O’Casey’s first plays. It is clear from the illustration and from these theater openings that some people take the arts much more seriously than others. There were a couple of articles recently, one on parody, “In Defense of Parody,” and one on its cousin sarcasm, “Who Killed Sarcasm.” The caption to the illustration is laced with sarcasm in one of its most ancient forms (it was very popular with Anglo-Saxon and Viking poets) litotes or understatement. Though not all sarcasm is parody by any means, much that is parody has a sarcastic edge to it. One of the better known parodies is of the poem “The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them” by Robert Southey:

You are old, Father William the young man cried,

The few locks which are left you are grey;

You are hale, Father William, a hearty old man,

Now tell me the reason, I pray.

In the days of my youth, Father William replied,

I remember’d that youth would fly fast,

And abused not my health and my vigour at first,

That I never might need them at last.

You are old, Father William, the young man cried,

And pleasures with youth pass away;

And yet you lament not the days that are gone,

Now tell me the reason, I pray.

In the days of my youth, Father William replied,

I remember’d that youth could not last;

I thought of the future, whatever I did,

That I never might grieve for the past.

You are old, Father William, the young man cried,

And life must be hastening away;

You are cheerful, and love to converse upon death,

Now tell me the reason, I pray.

I am cheerful, young man, Father William replied,

Let the cause thy attention engage;

In the days of my youth I remember’d my God!

And He hath not forgotten my age.

To most modern readers the poem seems a bit pretentious and “preachy.” Lewis Carroll obviously thought so when he wrote the following poem, “You Are Old Father William,” that first appeared in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

“You are old, father William,” the young man said,

“And your hair has become very white;

And yet you incessantly stand on your head —

Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

“In my youth,” father William replied to his son,

“I feared it would injure the brain;

But now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,

Why, I do it again and again.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “as I mentioned before,

And have grown most uncommonly fat;

Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door —

Pray, what is the reason of that?”

“In my youth,” said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,

“I kept all my limbs very supple

By the use of this ointment — one shilling the box —

Allow me to sell you a couple.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “and your jaws are too weak

For anything tougher than suet;

Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak —

Pray, how did you manage to do it?”

“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,

And argued each case with my wife;

And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,

Has lasted the rest of my life.”

“You are old,” said the youth; one would hardly suppose

That your eye was as steady as ever;

Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose —

What made you so awfully clever?”

“I have answered three questions, and that is enough,”

Said his father; “don’t give yourself airs!

Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?

Be off, or I’ll kick you down stairs!”

Most who read the parody today are probably unaware of the poem that it parodies and see it as a satiric take on parental advice in general. It is probably true that most people prefer a joke to a lecture and that of the two the joke is the more likely to be remembered. This is certainly true of these two poems. Southey though was a popular target of parody and ridicule. He was, like William Wordsworth, a radical as a young man and a conservative later in life. As a young man his radical politics made him the object of ridicule as is seen in the cartoon below.


Illustration of a well dressed prosperous man talking to a poor working man

The Friend of Humanity and the Knife-Grinder

James Gillray


The poem that follows the cartoon is also a parody of another of Southey’s poems. Most parodies are not as successful as Lewis Carroll’s because they are often very topical in nature and when the event being ridiculed has faded from memory, the parody often fades with it. This is the case with the cartoon and the poem parody attached to it. In the 1960’s there was a parody of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth that received some acclaim. It was called Macbird and it poked fun at the Johnson administration and suggested that Johnson was involved with the Kennedy assassination, a popular conspiracy theory of the times. But like the cartoon, today the play is not well known, and it is likely that after my generation passes on it will be forgotten and only capture the interest of historians.

Those parodies that do survive often do so because, like Carroll’s poem, they do not depend on their sources for their success. Gulliver’s second voyage in Gulliver’s Travels is in part a parody of books written by retired mariners like Alexander Selkirk (the original “Robinson Crusoe”) and William Dampier (the pirate, or if your sympathies are with the British a privateer, who was responsible for later rescuing Selkirk). Selkirk was put ashore on a desolate island for complaining that the ship he was serving on was not seaworthy. The ship later sank and Selkirk was later rescued so his choice may have been a good one. Selkirk and Dampier because of their connection to the Robinson Crusoe story may continue to capture people’s imagination, but their books are forgotten and Swift’s story endures though most readers (unless they read the endnotes to the Penguin and Oxford World Classics edition of the story) know nothing of the works being parodied.


Illustration of wealthy people making merry, dancing and drinking

Merrymaking on the Regent’s Birtday, 1812

George Cruikshank


As the illustrations above and below suggest parody, especially that which takes the form of cartoons, is often aimed at politicians and their behavior. The cartoons make use of a popular form of parody the caricature. In the cartoon below the caricature of Napoleon is easily recognized because he is an historical figure that is well known to this day. The caricature of the English Prime Minister, William Pitt, joining Napoleon to carve up the globe is probably less well known, even though he lent his name to the village of Pittsburgh. Also the picture of George IV is probably not well known today, though the behavior at the center of the cartoon still makes its appearance among the political leadership of most nations from time to time.


Illustration of a British officer (possibly Wellington) and Napoleon slicing the world into portions for their dessert plates

The Plumb-pudding in danger, or, State epicures taking un petit souper …

James Gillray


There was another article recently about art and politics, “The New Political Art.” The article points out that political art is often remembered for the wrong reasons and that it is often guilty of doing more harm than good. James Panero, the author of the article, points to Jacques-Louis David’s painting The Death of Marat. He argues no matter how well the painting itself was executed it led to the execution of many innocent people during the “Reign of Terror” that followed the Revolution the painting helped to inspire. But Panero goes on to talk about the work of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei whose art has provoked the anger of the Chinese government by drawing attention to his own treatment and that of other dissidents by that government. Because art often makes its first appeal to the emotions of the viewer or reader its effect can be profound because emotions once aroused often influence behavior. The Chinese government may feel that the effect that Weiwei’s art has upon the citizens of China could, allowed to go unchecked, provoke a response not unlike the one provoked by David’s painting, though it is the government of China whose behavior most resembles that provoked by The Death of Marat. The voice of the artist can be a powerful voice and when that voice uses parody and sarcasm as its means of expression that voice can be even more formidable.


Painting of a man lying dead, perhaps in his bath, with pen, ink and parchment paper on which he was writing before him

The Death of Marat

Jacques-Louis David’s


Simon Schama in a recent essay, “Why I Write,” discussed the influence of one of the 20th centuries most revered essayists, who at times employed parody, satire, and sarcasm, George Orwell. Schama ends the essay by listing Orwell’s reasons for writing in the first place:

Orwell’s four motives for writing still seem to me the most honest account of why long-form non-fiction writers do what they do, with “sheer egoism” at the top; next, “aesthetic enthusiasm” – the pleasure principle or sheer relish of sonority (“pleasure in the impact of one sound on another”); third, the “historical impulse” (the “desire to see things as they are”), and, finally, “political purpose”: the urge to persuade, a communiqué from our convictions.

I like that Orwell begins with “sheer egotism.” To write essays on a regular basis one has to believe they have something important to say, even if, as is often the case, they do not. But the second reason, “aesthetic enthusiasm” is what I enjoy most in essays when I read them (in all writing really) the “pleasure in the impact of one sound on another.” As a reader this pleasure is one of the chief pleasures I get from reading. This is not to say I do not enjoy narratives (stories), whether fiction or non-fiction, but that I especially enjoy the orchestration of sound that many of my favorite writers achieve by where they choose to place their words in relationship to one another. This is often missing from satiric writing. Swift for example used a blunt language that was often zany, rude, and cacophonous; it is very funny but not very musical.

Christopher Beha in another article, The Marquise Went out at Five O’clock: On Making Sentences Do Something,” talks about another danger for the writer, the danger of paying too much attention to sentences and their construction. The worst writing is often writing that is musical as it is read, but that has little or nothing to say; writing that reveals a fascination with the sounds of words, but little concern with what they mean. Beha writes about how he wanted to write good sentences that could stand on their own, but sentences in stories and essays are “team players” and must serve the larger purpose of the piece and not their own self-interest. Parody intends to offend, if only the person whose work or character is being parodied. If it can be musical in its use of language, the Lewis Carroll poem uses the sounds and the rhythms of words very effectively, very musically, as does Orwell much of the time, so much the better. But parody is often most at home with an orchestra that resembles that of Spike Jones than that of the New York Philharmonic. Parody is at its core, I suppose, inelegant and wanting grace.


What Is a Snollygoster

Mark Forsyth

TED Talk

The video takes as its point of departure a very musical word, in a Gilbert and Sullivan sort of way, “snollygoster.” It is also a word that is “rudely” musical and suggests the set up to a joke. The sounds of its parts are sonorous, but when put together they create “rude expectations.” I don’t care how melodic the word sounds, I wouldn’t want to see my name used in the same sentence in which it is featured. The video is about political speech, freedom of the press, and the associations that words often have, especially in a political context. I was surprised to learn the title given to the executive in the American system of government, “president,” was resisted and finally only accepted as a temporary compromise that would be revisited and changed later. We are still waiting these many years later for a more impressive and a more permanent title to be conferred on the President of the United States.

I suppose what makes a thing beautiful is its use. If the beauty of the language used to convey a message overshadows that message, than perhaps that beauty is a false beauty and not worthy of notice. The point of parody is to illustrate shortcomings, and unless the shortcoming being illustrated is pomposity, a beauty that overshadows its object, that is too ornate and glamorous for its subject, is beside the point. But when pomposity is its object what better way to underscore it than by gilding in gold a rancid lily. Sometimes the most musical fanfare is a flatulent one.


Painting of people dancing at a 18th century wedding reception

The Dance / The Happy Marriage VI: The Country Dance (Used to illustrate to The Analysis of Beauty)

William Hogarth

A Word or Two, Metaphorically Speaking

Doctor Atomic: “Batter My Heart”

John Adams

London Philharmonic Orchestra, Gerald Finley & Edward Gardner

Rave on John Donne

Van Morrison


A Word or Two, Metaphorically Speaking


Portrait of young man

Self Portrait

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.


Portrait of a young man with a blue scarf

Dylan Thomas

Augustus John


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.


A painting of different colored squares on a field of various shades of green and yellow

The Gate

Hans Hofmann,_1959–60.jpg


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.


Impressionist painting of a road with two people walking with stars and a cypress tree

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.


Paintinf of a town with buildings and a church steeple

St. Mary’s with Houses and Chimney (Bonn)

August Macke


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.


Metaphorically Speaking

James Geary

TED Talk


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.


Portrait of young man wearing a dark coat and light blue shirt

W. B. yeats

Augustus John

Where Meanings Live

I Wonder as I Wander

Anne Sofie von Otter

John Jacob Niles


Where Meanings Live


Painting of a man standing on a sandy beach looking out over the water

Harmony in blue and silver: Trouville

James McNeill Whistler


The song is “I Wonder as I Wander.” It is a Christmas song. I remember listening to this song while in my senior year of college. It was Christmas time and I was, with many other students in my History of the English Language class at our professor’s house preparing for the final exam. She invited us all over and served home made donuts, cider, and, of course, coffee (we had to stay awake after all). In the background Joan Baez’s album Noel was playing, one of the songs of which is “I Wonder as I Wander.” To this day when I hear that album I am transported back to that evening in 1975. I used the Anne Sofie von Otter version here because she has a wonderful voice (though so does Joan Baez), but also because I like the somber sound of the cello in the background. The song asks us to contemplate the journey we are on, the life we are living and where this life is taking us. As a Christmas song it asks us to contemplate both beginnings and endings.

In the same year I took this course on the English Language I also took a course from W. D. Snodgrass on the interpretation of modern poetry. He told in that class a story about John Jacob Niles, the writer of the song. Niles did not like photographers or being photographed. Snodgrass said that he attended a concert given by Niles where a photographer came down the aisle while Niles was in the middle of a song. Niles saw the photographer, stopped singing and put his head down on the lectern or whatever it was that he was standing behind. He would not look up, but asked from time to time “has he gone yet.” And when the answer came back that he was, Niles raised his head and continued the song he was singing. So whenever I hear this song, I think about that evening learning about the history of the English language and a man who lived by his principles.


Photograph of a page from the Guttenberg Bible

The beginning of the Gutenberg Bible: Volume 1, Old Testament, Epistle of St. Jerome. (The Epistle is not a part of the Bible itself, but an introduction by St. Jerome, the translator of the Bible into Latin Vulgate, which the Gutenberg Bible is written in.)


This is the 400th anniversary of the King James Translation of the Bible, the only great work of literature (and it is that in addition to whatever value it has to people as a religious work) that was composed by a committee, it is, I suppose the exception that proves the rule that nothing of value comes out of a committee. Of course it should be acknowledged that large chunks of this translation came from Tyndale and the translators of the Geneva Bible. There was an article recently in the National Geographic magazine about the making of this translation, “The Bible of King James.” One of the things that Adam Nicholson, the author of the article, points out is that the committee was as concerned with how the text sounded when spoken aloud as they were for the quality of the translation. They did not compromise accuracy in favor of a more musical language, but sought the most musical text that was at the same time an accurate translation. They wanted those listening to the words as they were spoken to be as moved by the sound of what they were hearing as they were by the sense.

I think this is the reason the translation has fared so well and become such an important part of the cultural history of the English speaking people. The paper I did for that History of the English Language class looked at different translations of The Book of Common Prayer because I thought that a religious text would strive for the greatest accuracy and speak as clearly as possible to the time that it was written and that as a result the changes in the language used would suggest two things, a change in cultural attitudes and beliefs within that religious community and changes in the language as well. I no longer have a copy of that paper and I am sure I am much more impressed by the memory of it, than I could hope to be by anything I had to say in that paper. But such is memory.

Medieval theologians believed Biblical texts could be understood on four levels, levels of interpretation that increased in difficulty and required greater depths of knowledge and understanding. I think the seriousness with which the medieval theologian approached the Biblical texts, especially the language of the text, is useful to consider when reading and trying to understand, any difficult text, sacred or secular. The four levels of interpretation are:

  1. The Literal Interpretation, that is the words mean what they say and can be understood at this level by anyone capable of reading the words (which may have required more education than most living in the Middle Ages possessed). The medieval theologian would assert that all scripture would have to be understood at this level before the interpreter could move on to the next level. In fact each level presupposes an adequate understanding of the text at the level that precedes it.
  2. The Historical Interpretation, that is the text needs next be understood within an historical, and probably cultural, context. This level of interpretation suggests that an understanding of the time and circumstances that produced the text amplifies our understanding of that text and brings out additional dimensions to our understanding of what we are reading. The medieval theologian would probably assert also that no understanding suggested by the historical or cultural context can contradict or in any way diminish the literal understanding, and this is to be understood as true for each of the levels of interpretation that follows, as the interpreter proceeds from one level of interpretation to the next nothing found in a previous level can be contradicted. Part of what guarantees a proper understanding of the text is that each interpretation has to be, if not supported, not contradicted by any other level of interpretation, it must be true at all levels.
  3. The Allegorical Interpretation, that is characters, events, themes, etc. are all “types”, that is they represent principles, values, and truths, that make them models for daily life, they are guideposts that reveal to the interpreter how life should and should not be lived.
  4. The Eschatological Interpretation, that is the texts point to how all things will end and the knowledge necessary for meeting that ultimate end. This refers to the ending of all things in a final judgment, but it also to each individual’s ending at the time of their death and therefore gives each individual truths that need to be known in order to prepare for that death.

Obviously these levels of interpretation cannot be introduced, at least not in this fashion into an English class, or into any other kind of public school classroom, but there are principles here that are transferable and it is useful to bear in mind that any literary text, that is any text that can withstand multiple readings at different stages in one’s life, operates at many different levels and what a story, poem, essay, or play means at a literal level is probably only a place to begin. Many who read literature, not the stuff read solely for entertainment, though no work of literature would be likely to survive if it did not entertain, but the complicated, multi-layered texts that make a literary work literary, read not only for the story it tells but for all the things going on around the story.


Painting of a tree lined country lane opening out onto an open field

The Cornfield

John Constable


Middlemarch is about people living in a rural English town, it is about the reforms that some try to implement and others try to thwart, it is about relationships and families. But it also raises deep questions that are often made clearer by an understanding of the time and place that produced the story. It also makes suggestions about how life ought to be lived if we are to be happy and are to see that our lives have counted for something when we reach the end of them. Each of the characters at some level fails to live up to the expectations they have set for themselves, some are thwarted by the cruelty or bigotry of other characters, others are thwarted because they did not fully understand themselves or the potential of the gifts they were born with and therefore did not develop those gifts to their fullest or in a timely enough fashion to put them to their best use. Some characters believed much more of themselves and their gifts than their actual abilities would warrant. And almost all at crucial times made foolish choices or were lacking in courage.


Painting of people walking through a wood in the rain

Rain in an Oak Forest

Ivan Shishkin


In reading a story like Middlemarch we can see how Dorothy, Casaubon, the good doctor, and the Pre-Raphaelite painter (I left out the names of the last two characters in part because I forgot them but in part to provoke curiosity, after all with the technology available today it would not be difficult to retrieve the names) can be seen as having allegorical or archetypal qualities; they represent certain kinds of people and certain attitudes towards life and success. The book is a big book and a lot happens. We do not see these people as snapshots but we see their growth over time, so they illustrate not just the consequences of choices made but how those choices came to be made in the first place and how they were lived out in the second. They help us to see what it means to be human and how we might more fully and deeply put our humanity to good use and in a way that brings us greater satisfaction and a greater sense of fulfillment when we each face our own eschatological moment.


Kathryn Schultz

TED Talk


The video is about regret and the importance of being regretful. It begins with a quote from a literary work that encourages us to get on with things, that what is done is done and cannot be undone. You know from the video who it is that said this and what it is she and her husband had done and why it is they needed to spend more time with their regrets learning from them and the consequences of failing to learn from our regrets, for ourselves of course and for those that live around us, some of whom we love quite deeply. Regret ultimately killed the character that exhorted us to get on with things. This too is an important element of the literary text (and even of texts that aren’t so literary) they give us the opportunity of learning from others’ mistakes. The Greek drama existed to remind its audience that actions had consequences that did not go unnoticed. Sometimes the consequences to the performer of those actions were years in coming but they always came and those consequences were always tragic. That was the point. At the end of the tragedy the culture is cleansed and order is reestablished. We weep for the hero, but we leave the theater knowing all is well, or at least becoming well, with the world.


Cave painting of a group of people standing about

This portion of the Great Gallery, found in Horseshoe Canyon, is an example of a Barrier Canyon Style pictograph (painted rock art). The full panel is 200 feet long, 15 feet high and the paintings are life-sized human figures. The largest figure pictured is about 7 feet tall.


As a teacher of English these (Middlemarch, concepts like regret, and the Greek tragedy) capture the importance of story telling, or reading literature; not just to say we read a great book but to grow in wisdom and self understanding. I am not the characters I admire (or those I detest for that matter) in the books I read but I admire the characters in the books I read for qualities which I either lack or do not realize as fully as I would like, so for me they hold up a standard and a challenge, just as those I detest force me to confront in myself qualities I do not wish to acknowledge. But of course it is only in knowing ourselves that we can change ourselves and exercise some control over the direction our lives take. There was an article in The Atlantic about being wrong and admitting it, “I Was Wrong and So Are You”. The writer of the article published another article a year and a half or so earlier which argued that the latest evidence revealed that Conservatives knew their stuff about the economy and that liberals were woefully misinformed. A year later he did some more research and found that in fact the questions in the first survey were slanted in favor of conservative respondents.

This was not done deliberately, it happened by accident, but he was, being a libertarian, overjoyed with the findings. What the later study revealed is that we gravitate towards those statements we already believe and that the conservatives did so well because they were being asked to essentially affirm what they already believed. The new study was more balanced and therefore produced a much different result. But the real conclusion he drew was that we are all victims of “conclusion bias” and that we all need to be open to the fact that the rightness of our views and the wrongness of the views of others may be a form of self-deception. I think stories, to get back to the original point, help us avoid this form of deception. Stories are told from many points of view, informed by many different worldviews, and often require us to get a bit outside ourselves in order to experience the world of the story.

Students often, like the respondents to Daniel B. Klein’s survey, read only the stories, or at least only immerse themselves in the stories, that feed the views, interests, and passions that they bring to the story and avoid those stories that confront those views interests, and passions. It is not necessary to enjoy Henry James to appreciate the world he creates in his fiction and to contemplate the psychology of his characters and how that psychology produces certain behaviors. Even if you fundamentally disagree with the psychology, there is value in considering why you disagree. The problem with James, for many, is that we have to spend a lot of time learning what makes his characters tick. We need not share the interests of James or his characters to learn something about how it is important to be aware of where our mind’s inclinations are leading us. It is important for all of us to recognize that the views of those we do not like or understand have some merit, and that for the people holding those views there is often a rational body of thought that underscores them, and what is worse there may not be an equally rational body of thought underscoring what we believe. It is at least worth thinking about.

When we study a book in my class these things are not always (perhaps it would be more truthful to say they are rarely) what the students want to explore or consider. They are for the most part, like me at their age, captivated by plot. They want fun and excitement and this is not a bad place to begin, the history, the archetypes, and the psychology can come later. With many a good story, a focus on the literal meaning of the work can be a useful place to begin, if, of course, the students can relate to the characters and what they are experiencing. After some success has been achieved at this initial level, I think there is value to spending time considering some of the deeper levels of meaning that are to be found in a story, just as we want students to look for deeper meanings in most things they will experience in life and not live superficially. There was an article on Lionel Trilling in The Daily Beast, “Adam Kirsch’s Why Trilling Matters Reminds Us of Power of Reading”. Trilling also makes this point, that reading is our “best hope for being better” (this is the reviewers summary of Trilling). So there is a place for considering the history that produced the story and the archetypes the story contains, and the suggestions it offers for living a better, richer, fuller life that is not clothed in too much disappointment when time’s winged chariot begins its approach.


Painting of a house on a hill overlooking a river with an island in the distance

Above the Eternal Tranquility

Isaac Levitan

On Writing Things Down

Telling Stories
Greg Brown

On Writing Things Down

Poster for Congress of Industrial Rights
Ben Shahn

The old adage tells us that a picture paints a thousand words. The painting above is mostly a painting of words that is, I suppose, intended to suggest a thousand more words or more. Many things in life begin with writing something down. Revolutions often begin with declarations of one sort or another that have been written down in an attempt to explain what it is that makes revolt necessary. Often many things were written down before the declaration was issued that got things going. Thomas Paine, for example, wrote many things before Thomas Jefferson penned the declaration that initiated revolt.

The song that started things is called Telling Stories and it is often the stories that are told that interpret the events that provoke the anger that precipitate the revolt. After the revolt is finished there may not be agreement as to the veracity of the stories that got things going, but be that as it may, the revolutions themselves certainly speak to the power of telling and interpreting stories. Of course there must be a reality, even if it is a misperceived reality, that gives credibility to the stories that are told or else whatever power the stories have would never live outside the covers that contain them. As the song, and our own experience, suggests stories shape destiny, even those stories that live only inside the covers of the books that contain them.

Michael Chabon in an article written in the New York Review of Books, “‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ and the Wonder of Words”, writes about how his career as an author began with the reading of a book, not just the story the book told, but also the way in which that story used and played with language. Writing things down, at least for those that enjoy writing things down, is about playing with language. Someone, it may have been a student, once asked W. H. Auden what does one have to do to become a poet. Auden responded (and I do not remember the exact quote) that to be a poet you have to enjoy standing around and listening to words talk to each other. Perhaps this is true for anyone who does things with language.

I enjoy the Skaldic poets and one of the features of their poetry that is especially attractive to me (though it drove me nuts when I tried to translate it in college) is the way these poets mix up the words. Old Icelandic is an inflected language, which means the words’ endings reveal the place the words occupy in the sentence, not the order in which the words appear in the sentence as is the case in English. Icelandic prose, like most inflected languages, orders the words in sentences in ways that are easy to follow so that word order is much the same as it is in English prose, but the poets often abandon word order all together and this means that the listener or reader has to pay attention and put the sentences together as the poem unfolds. This is part of the fun and where a measure of the enjoyment lives for this poetry.

Study for Distortions; Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space—Map Projections: The Cube, 1978 Agnes Denes (American, born 1931)
Watercolor on graph paper, pen and ink on clear plastic overlay
17 x 14 in. (43.2 x 35.6 cm)
Gift of Sarah-Ann and Werner H. Kramarsky, 1983 (1983.501.3)
© Agnes Denes
Source: Agnes Denes: Study for Distortions; Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space—Map Projections: The Cube (1983.501.3) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The pictures above and below illustrate another aspect of where the pleasure of using language comes from, from expecting the unexpected. Using language too conventionally and too “properly” rarely provides much pleasure. The pleasure of language, for the reader as well as the writer, comes from living on the fringe of syntax and proper usage, not all the time but at the appropriate times, when doing the unorthodox draws attention to something or invigorates something. The drawing above is titled Cube. Everyone knows immediately what it is they are looking at, they are just surprised to see something so familiar look so unlike itself. This suggests that it is important to find ways to be unconventional without being incomprehensible.

The painting below suggests, perhaps, that while it is important not to be too obscure, there is a value to being not entirely transparent. The painting is calledConcord. It consists of two tan parallel lines on a blue background. There is concord in the colors, they do not clash but are comforting to look at and the lines being parallel also suggests concord. There is a peacefulness to the painting that underscores the message suggested by its title, but there is nothing concrete that speaks concord or peace to us. There is also a pun of sorts in the painting, the second syllable of “concord” is “cord” and the parallel lines suggest two cords side by side. The prefix “con” means “with” and the syllables taken together suggests how the painting is done, “with cords.” There are other games the viewer of this painting might play with the images; stringed instruments and the chords that are played on them come to mind. It is this kind of playfulness with language that might be found in the Skaldic poets and in many other poets and writers that enjoy the multi-dimensionality of words, syntax, and the architecture of meaning.

Concord, 1949
Barnett Newman (American, 1905–1970)
Oil and masking tape on canvas
89 3/4 x 53 5/8 in. (228 x 136.2 cm)
George A. Hearn Fund, 1968 (68.178)
© 2010 The Barnett Newman Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Source: Barnett Newman: Concord (68.178) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

There was a recent article on the discovery of “sacred trash.” The article, “Buried Treasure”, is a review of the book Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole. The book is about the manuscripts that were found in the Cairo Geniza. The review informs us that a geniza is “a traditional storage place for worn or discarded Hebrew texts containing the Divine Name.” These texts included not only old Torah scrolls and prayer books, but also books and documents that were more literary or historical than sacred. Some were just documents that detailed aspects of daily life and recorded the activities of the community. There was also found a manuscript containing poems by a female poet. Hers are the only poems by a woman to be found in the geniza and prior to this discovery her work was completely unknown. It is ironic that she is only identified as “the wife of Dunash ben Labrat” and that though her work now survives her name does not.

One of the people the book focuses on was a scholar at Cambridge University who was visited by some folks asking him if he had an interest in some old documents. They gave him a few samples to look at and he recognized among them a manuscript of the Hebrew original for the Apocryphal book of Ben Sira, or in the Christian Bible, the Book of Ecclesiasticus. Prior to this the only exiting copies of the book were those from the Greek Septuagint translation of the Jewish Bible. It is difficult to imagine how exciting this must have been. For someone who loves language, stories, and history, to say nothing of the religious emotions that must have been felt by a student of rabbinic literature, probably nothing could equal the excitement generated by this unexpected visit.

The Marketplace, Vitebsk, 1917
Marc Chagall (French, born Russia, 1887–1985)
Oil on canvas
26 1/8 x 38 1/4 in. (66.4 x 97.2 cm)
Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982 (1984.433.6)
© 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Source: Marc Chagall: The Marketplace, Vitebsk (1984.433.6) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

When things are written down it is impossible to know when or in what context the words will be rediscovered. There is a science fiction story called A Canticle for Leibowitz. In this story a similar excitement is generated by the discovery of a grocery list. You will have to read the story to find out what could cause something so simple as a grocery list to generate such excitement. The first explorers of the Cairo Geniza were interested in the literary and sacred texts but subsequent explorers brought their enthusiasm to the investigation of bills of lading, wills, and court records. These were exciting not because of the power of their language but because of what they revealed about the way life was lived in the Jewish community of medieval Cairo. The stories these documents tell have to be inferred from what all the bits taken together suggest. They revealed what things cost, identified their trading partners scattered throughout the world, and identified what was to them the known world. For those that are moved by the human experience and how it has changed and stayed the same over time these documents must be very exciting.

Handspring Puppet Theater

TED Talk

Theater is another medium in which what is written down is passed along to others. The written words on the page are often a mystery, how does the speaker feel who is saying the words, what is the environment in which the words are spoken like, what do the characters look like. When we pick up a play script we see only the dialogue, this is especially true of the script as it was first performed, as usually things like set descriptions and character movements and behaviors were added later by the stage manager of the first production of the play. There is little to inform us about what things look and sound like. The imagination must fill the gaps and this is not easy for everyone. The video is about the construction of puppets that were used by a puppet theater and describes how these “creatures” were brought to life. As I watch this video I am amazed at what the puppet masters can do and create and how so much larger than life the puppets become.

It is surprising how much can be done with puppets. I remember reading plays by the Japanese playwright Chikamatsu. Many of his most tragic plays were done originally as puppet theater. It is difficult for me with all the images of puppet theater that I bring from my childhood to imagine how a play as serious as a tragedy could be performed by puppets and not lose some of its seriousness. But puppets were a conventional part of the Japanese theater of Chikamatsu’s day. Of course, when I consider that Greek tragedy was often done with actors in masks and on stilts and the like I start to imagine actors who look almost like puppets and then the leap to the Japanese theater is not so great. Part of this is custom and imagining Chikamatsu’s plays is another way of expecting the unexpected.

Why do we write things down? Why do we tell stories, keep records, and document daily activities? What motivates us to do these things? Often writing things down helps us to understand and make sense of what we see as we watch the world as it is go by. But not all the horizons we overlook or seek are to be found on maps. The horizons of our imaginations can often only be approached through language and what has either been written down by us or by others. For those that enjoy it writing things down is often how the horizons of the imagination are preserved and the words become the maps of our different journeys.

Passenger, 1999
Doug Aitken (American, born 1968)
Chromogenic print mounted on Plexiglas
39 9/16 x 48 1/16 in. (100.5 x 122 cm)
Purchase, Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts, 2004 (2004.223)
© Doug Aitken
Source: Doug Aitken: Passenger (2004.223) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Words in Their Finery

God Bless the Child
Blood, Sweat, and Tears

Words in Their Finery

Page from an illuminated manuscript of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, watercolor, bodycolor and gold leaf. Calligraphy and ornamentation by William Morris, illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones
William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones

The image is from an edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam designed by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. We can see in this image that the beauty of words and of language lies not solely in what the words mean but in their appearance as well. Or at least that words can have a beauty that is independent of the meanings assigned to them by Dr. Johnson or Noah Webster. Morris realized that even if Chaucer had been an inferior poet the Elsmere Manuscript would still be a thing of beauty and worth preserving. The creating of typefaces is an art in itself and the quality of a typeface contributes to the pleasure derived from reading books. The song says, “momma may have, poppa may have, but God bless the child that’s got his own.” In a work of literature the author and the words used by the author may be the momma and the poppa of the story but the typeface has its own something to offer. The texture and quality of the paper and the design of the letters on the page contribute something important to the experience of reading a book.

When students write a paper they often want to use unusual, decorative fonts. This has to be discouraged, of course, because those students that go onto college will have professors who are not likely to appreciate papers that stray too far from the conventional in their use of fonts or typefaces. It is unfortunate that one of the stories we have to tell our children is to be careful of the clothes in which they dress the stories that they tell. Though the decorative fonts used by students in term papers are often garish and inappropriate to the stories that they tell, these fonts are none the less a part of the student’s expression and reveal a bit of her or his imagination at work. If the design of a thing is as important, some say it is more important, than the task the thing has been given to perform than fonts chosen by students reveal something of their imaginative life and they are certainly an important part of the design of the paper in the student’s mind.

“Trolls with an abducted princess, from the annual, and still published, fairy tale collection Bland Tomtar och Troll
John Bauer

There was a recent article in the Boston Globe, “How fairy tales pit adults against kids,” about fairy tales and the stories that they tell. The point of the article is that these stories are often seen by adults as dangerous and that in the stories themselves adults are often portrayed as the enemy or at best more of a hindrance than a help. Because the first audiences for these stories were adults one wonders how the adults that enjoyed them viewed children and childhood. There is a short story by H. G. Wells, “The Magic Shop,” that follows in the vein of some of these stories in that by the end of the story a child’s parents live in terror of their child. Wells’ story actually reverses the roles of adults and children in the traditional stories. In stories like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Hansel and Gretel” it is the children that live in fear of the adults. Wells’ story, though, ends less happily for the adults than the traditional stories do for the children in that in the traditional stories the children overcome the malevolent adult forces, in Wells’ story the malevolent child is still in control when the story ends.

Language is a magical tool. The same words can be employed by different people to convey very different messages. In fact, the same words in a single text can even be interpreted by different people to convey very different messages as well. I introduce my students to literary theory by showing them how The Tale of Peter Rabbit can be interpreted as a story about the importance of listening to your parents when read one way but also about the importance of disobeying your parents when read another way. This suggests perhaps that we take from the stories we read the messages we need to find in them in order to live more effectively. Does the author put meaning into a story or do readers place in them the meanings they need to find. This is perhaps the crux of the postmodern problem, does meaning exist, does meaning matter? And if meanings do exist and meanings do matter, who gets to decide what those meanings are and where and how those meanings are found?

Alice surrounded by the characters of Wonderland
Peter Newell

Perhaps no book has as much fun with the “meaning” of things than Lewis Carrol’s Alice books. Humpty Dumpty tells us words mean whatever we want them to mean. There is truth to this of course, because this is how new meanings to old words evolve and new words are invented. It is also how poets employ words. Anyone who has read a poem by Wallace Stevens or Bob Dylan has encountered this amorphous use of language. I often imagine that “Pale Ramon” struggles as much with meaning as he does with order in Wallace Stevens’ poem.

There were two article recently, one in the Washington Post, “Michael Dirda reviews the biography “The Mystery of Lewis Carroll,” by Jenny Woolf,” and one in the Guardian, “How the devastation caused by war came to inspire an artist’s dark images of Alice,” about the Alice stories and their creator. The Guardian article focuses on the illustrations that Mervyn Peake did for these books. He, a bit like Humpty Dumpty perhaps, in that he brought his experiences as a war correspondent during World War II to his interpretation of Carroll’s text through the illustrations he created. He makes the text mean what he wants it to mean, which in many ways is not unlike Carroll’s meaning. Carroll depicted a world at times in chaos due to the ways in which adults employed power, Peake was placed in a world where this chaos was brought to life.

Dirda’s review discusses a book about Carroll that focuses on Carroll’s conventional and unconventional qualities, part Mad Hatter and, perhaps, part Alice, who seems to me to be the most conventional character in the story; a conventional young lady to whom very unconventional things happen. The story often revolves around a deep desire to find meaning and order in a world in which none appears to exist. Though of course Carroll, a mathematician, has created a world with a chaotic zaniness on its surface that conforms, under the surface, to a fairly precise mathematical structure. Perhaps life, when looked at from within the experience of the person living it, appears random and bewildering, when it is in fact orderly and systematic when looked at from the outside, as from within our experience our planet and solar system is the center of the universe, but when looked at from a different vantage point our planet and solar system are found nearer to the edge of the universe. Our point of view and our understanding of reality are shaped more by our vantage point than by the context of that vantage point in the larger universe. If we do not know where we stand we will not be able to properly interpret what we see.

Alice in Wonderland
Walt Disney Pictures

This is the version of Alice in Wonderland that I grew up with, though how I viewed it as a child was very different from how I viewed it as a young adult. As a child in the 1950’s I saw it as a magical story with odd characters and vivid colors, but as a young adult in the 1960’s it took on shades of psychedelia. Vivid colors and the caterpillar’s hookah took on different connotations. The world of the 1960’s offered a very different vantage point from that of the 1950’s, though the different lenses through which I viewed the film may have had as much to do with my age than with the age in which I lived. I wonder how the counter-culture of the 1950’s viewed the film.

W. H. Auden once said, “There are good books which are only for adults because their comprehension presupposes adult experience, but there are no good books only for children.” I believe this is true, but I also believe that adults read children’s books with adult experiences that often shape the way these stories are perceived and they are changed by the adult mind into something different from what they where for the child that first read them. “The Little Engine That Could” and “Stone Soup” have different meanings for me now than they did when I was a child. I enjoyed how the soldiers tricked the townspeople in “Stone Soup” but I did not fully comprehend the point it made about generosity. In fact my views of generosity may have been shaped in part by this story without my being fully aware of how my views were being formed.

There is a Woody Guthrie song, “Pretty Boy Floyd” that talks about the outlaw leaving money under the supper dish after he has been given a free meal. I think stories often work this way, there is a gift left under the surface of our consciousness that we are often unaware of until long after we have enjoyed the story’s telling and the magic of the narrative has faded a bit. Sometimes we come back to the stories we read as children and find the messages that have shaped us and we are not always pleased with the way in which our views have been manipulated. This is the rhetorical nature of story telling. We are taken to a world that operates according to certain rules and we learn these rules as we journey through this world, but we bring them back with us to the world of our day to day lives.

Illustration of Alice with the White Rabbit
Arthur Rackham

The White Rabbit tries to live in Wonderland according to the rules of Victorian English society and he is somewhat out of place there. The rules of Victorian England did not apply in Wonderland, or perhaps they did but without their veneer of respectability. What happens to Victorian society, or any “respectable” society, if the rules encountered in Wonderland are brought home to the world on the other side of the looking glass? Which looks quirkier the rules seen in their true light or the individual just back from Wonderland confronting those rules? Sometimes stories do this, they open our eyes to the way things truly are, but in opening our eyes put us at odds with our neighbors whose eyes remain closed and who do not wish to have them opened.

There’s a Word for It

Rhapsody in Blue
George Gershwin

There’s a Word for It

Word Painting
Measures 24-41 of the Tenor line of Every valley shall be exalted Handel’s Messiah

Gershwin’s music captures the movement and the often fractious character of the American city. Woody Allen played this music under the opening sequences of his film Manhattan perhaps because New York City is among the most rambunctious and idiosyncratic of American cities, it often seems the city sees itself this way. Music can often tell stories, sometimes stories that language does not tell quite so well. Just as often, though, music is used in conjunction with language to tell stories more vividly than words or music alone could do.

I have always enjoyed the literary device of synesthesia. It is an under-noticed device I think, but it is used quite frequently. Whenever we refer to the clarity of sound as sound that is crystal clear we are using synesthesia, in that we are using a visual image, that of transparency, to describe an auditory image, a sound without distortion or interference. The image from the score of Handel’s Messiah captures another kind of synesthesia; it illustrates a kind of musical scoring that is called word painting. The music is sung to the words, “Every mountain and hill made low, the crooked made straight, and the rough places plain.” When the mountains are being made low, the music starts low and ascends, imitating the shape of the mountain then ends on a low not suggesting the mountain has been brought “low”. Similarly when the lyric talks about a “crooked” place the melody goes one note up and one note down (alternating “B” and “C” notes I think), suggesting a rough edge. And when the rough places are made plain, a single note is sung throughout the phrase suggesting a level surface. Of course this painting is not done with colors, at least not literal colors, but with sound. I enjoy this flexibility of language that describes a thing by making it into something it is not.

Salman Rushdie wrote an article for the London Times Literary Supplement, “Salman Rushdie celebrates the Paris Review”, in which he praises the English language for its great flexibility. He asked a jeweler friend of his why she liked working in gold and she told it is because the metal is so malleable that you can do almost anything with it. Rushdie sees the English language as being like that, pliable like gold and that is what makes it such a marvelous language for telling stories. Old English has a dark guttural sound to it that makes comedy difficult, Middle English has a musicality that makes tragedy difficult (perhaps just for me) but English as it is spoken today has both Old and Middle English elements to it that give real breadth to the possibilities of story telling.

Thomas Nast

The picture is a self-portrait caricature of Thomas Nast, America’s first editorial cartoonist. He used pictures and words to tell stories, as comics do to this day. He gave an additional meaning to the word “nasty”, a word that is much older than he. In the picture, Nast is sharpening his “sword” preparing for another strike. Nast used ridicule to show things up for what they were, in his view. Sir Walter Scott once said, “Ridicule often checks what is absurd, and fully as often smothers that which is noble.” This is the danger of ridicule and the editorial cartoon, I suppose. Nast’s targets were often folks like Boss Tweed and his corrupt cronies, but if he ever got it wrong, that satiric edge could do real harm, as it can to this day, whether employed in an editorial cartoon or some other venue.

In the case made against Socrates a reference was made to Aristophanes’ caricature of the philosopher to support their accusations. Aristophanes, in his play The Clouds, named his philosopher Socrates not because he was out to ridicule Socrates so much as philosophers in general and Socrates just happened to be the most visible philosopher of the day. The play is a great play, but it could be argued that if the ridicule it made of Socrates was undeserved than it is also a play that did some harm. Of course the same could be said of any work of art that was used for political purposes that had nothing to do with the real meaning of the work of art or the artist’s intent, at least to the degree that can be known. The artist is not always responsible for the way in which others misuse her or his work.

Con-Ed Explainers
Jules Feiffer

The cartoon relies almost exclusively on language, though the darkness and the candles make the joke work. You would have to know something about life in New York City in the 1950’s and 60’s to understand what is going on. Con Ed was the local supplier of electricity. They had a reputation for frequent power outages and rate increases and many felt that as the cost of the service went up, the quality of the service went down. The cartoon, though, underscores how simplicity in both the image as it is drawn and the language as it is used can make the most effective commentary.

Ocean Chart
Henry Holiday

Lewis Carroll was an inventor of words, mostly nonsense words but he was also adept at capturing the absurd at its most comical. The images above and below come from his poem The Hunting of the Snark. The story is thought by some to have introduced the word “snark,” along with its cognates, to the language. The image is a map of the sea and it captures with some accuracy what you are likely to see on the open sea, though its usefulness for navigational purposes is at best dubious. The joke works perhaps because it does capture what we expect to see in the open ocean and to those that do not navigate the map is as useful as any other while at sea. The second image captures a scene and is intended to illustrate (some think anyway, because the image does not appear with these words) the lines that accompany it (added by me and not the illustrator or publisher of the book).

To illustrate the lines (maybe):
They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They persued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.
Henry Holiday

Two prominent figures in the picture are a “careworn” young woman and a “hopeful” looking young woman, the “care” and “hope” referred to in the lines of the verse. Most everyone else has a fork of one kind or another in his hand. Everyone looks very serious and intent, with the possible exception of Hope. The sounds of the words in the rhyme are very serious sounds, though the meaning is of the words is nonsensical. I think this is an aspect of English story telling (though I am sure it is not exclusively English) that I enjoy, the ability of language to sound like one thing when it means something very different and the absurdity of this juxtaposition is what often creates humor in a text, it certainly does in this one. As was pointed out in the Rushdie essay referred to earlier, the English language is malleable and can be shaped in many ways to do many different things, even at times, things that are mutually exclusive, like serious comedy.

Paper Moon
Paramount Pictures

In this film clip we see another attribute of language, its ability to create a kind of verbal slight of hand that the con man can use to manipulate others. I think in the transaction the quick talker, Ryan O’Neal, came away with five dollars, but he may have gotten more, it all takes place so quickly. He is well away before the shopkeeper realizes that something isn’t quite right and even then she is not sure. The dexterous use of language can often achieve unexpected results. Like with many skills, those that use language well often appear to be doing something that is very easy, that anyone can do that is in fact quite difficult. Often in order for this skill to be effective, the person practicing it depends on the appearance of “simplicity” to be successful. As soon as the language is seen to be polished and complex, it becomes suspect and the readers or audience put up their guard, especially when it is language used by those like the Ryan O’Neal character in the film clip.

Language is how we communicate and the better our vocabulary and the more skilled we are at putting words together, the more effective we are at communicating our ideas. However, language is also inherently ambiguous, it means different things to different people. Often it succeeds by using images that lend themselves easily to multiple interpretations so that each hearer or reader can get from the words the message she or he wants to hear. This is often how a political speech works. But it is also how the words of a story enable each of us to use our imaginations in ways that make a story personal. There was an article in the Guardian, “Do you know what today’s kids need? Thumb amputation, that’s what,” about Maurice Sendak and his story Where the Wild Things Are. Sendak was asked what he would say to parents who were afraid their children would find the film version of his story “too scary”. Sendak replied, “I would tell them to go to hell.” For their children, he had the following message: “If they can’t handle it, go home. Or wet your pants. Do whatever you like.” Not a very sympathetic response from a writer of children’s stories.

The point of the article was that we need to be scared a little bit, especially if we are children. Sam Leith, suggests that the stories we most remember are the stories that frightened us. What makes these stories resonate is that they enable us to “leave home” without actually leaving home, to experience some of the dangers and “scariness” of the world while in a place of safety. We can experience danger without fear that we will actually be harmed by it. This serves a necessary purpose, in that it helps us as children to recognize danger before we actually have to experience it. We also learn how to respond to it after a fashion. We certainly learn that there are forces in the world that must be stood up to if the world is to spin merrily on its way through the universe.

Often we want to keep to children safe and this is a good thing, children by definition are probably not skilled enough to protect themselves in the “real world.” But if they are to ever be ready for the world they must learn what to expect and we always learn best from experience. Stories, especially scary stories, offer us a way to experience the dangers we might encounter in the world without actually experiencing them. They also force us to confront our courage, or sense of loyalty and friendship, or proper place in the world.

In the story Coraline, the central character experiences on the one hand a kind of abandonment by her parents, while at the same time she must accept the responsibility of rescuing them. There are two worlds in the story one safe, but indifferent to her, the other quite dangerous and desirous of her. Isn’t this how it often is in life, the people who seem to desire most our affection are the people that we can trust least with that affection and that the people that are most important to us, often take us the most for granted. Stories teach us that the most important people in our lives, those that we can most depend on, are often not the most exciting people. Because we know them well it is easy to take them for granted.

I enjoy the stories I read in English and I delight in the versatility of the language, but in part this is because English is the only language I know well. I suppose in part it is our familiarity with a language that makes it malleable, that makes it gold and that this quality of language is a product of being fluent in that language. All languages tell stories and they all work well in the cultures that these languages serve. But whatever malleable qualities other languages have I know and enjoy the malleable quality of the English language, that can terrify me in amusing ways and let me taste a sour expression.

The Same Old Song

Beethoven – Symphony #5 In C Minor, Op. 67 – 1. Allegro Con Brio
William Weller and the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 5 in D Major, Op. 107
Cesar Cantieri, London Symphony Orchestra

The Same Old Song

Still Life #20′, mixed media work
Tom Wesselmann,_mixed_media_work_by_–Tom_Wesselmann–,_1962,_–Albright-Knox_Gallery–.jpg

There was an article in this Sunday’s Boston Globe on the cliché. It was called “Let us now praise… the cliché”. The article points out that often clichés convey bits of useful information and folk wisdom quickly and somewhat universally, universal at least to the culture that created the cliché. The opening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has become a bit of a musical cliché, in that it is well known and carries a certain meaning that listeners are quick to recognize, it has in a way become a cliché for Beethoven’s symphonic work and classical music in general. The work itself is not clichéd, or at least it wasn’t when it was first performed but it has evolved into one. The clip from Mendelssohn that accompanies the Beethoven clip employs a musical cliché of sorts from the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Because this piece of music is so recognizable it conveys quickly a musical idea that gives its name to the symphony as a whole, it is often referred to as the Reformation Symphony.

The painting also makes use of clichés. The door to the cupboard above the sink suggests Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book being a red square (a cliché in and of itself) with a white star, the symbol of Communist China. The white bread, a cliché for wholesomeness, placed strategically next to another grain product that is a bit less wholesome. Then there is the Coca Cola glass, which is another cultural icon/cliché. The Piet Mondrian painting above the bananas is also a bit iconic, especially as it is representative of a kind of modern abstract painting. These components of the painting, because they are clichés, convey quickly a certain depth of meaning to the viewer that enables the painting to succeed as a comment on American culture of the early 1960’s. The painting is from 1962, before the Vietnam War dominated “popular culture.” The colors and the “product placement” suggest the conflict between Communism and Capitalism or perhaps the consumer culture of America.

As a teacher of writing I am usually encouraging my students to avoid clichés. Because clichés are by definition overused they tend to reflect badly on a piece of writing and make the writer appear to be a bit unimaginative. I am not sure that it is always necessary to find a new way of saying something that can be said effectively by a more commonplace phrase, but that is the “conventional wisdom.” As the article points out, many clichés are still around because they “say best what needs to be said” and we will have to wait and see if any of the substitutes writers struggle to invent will go on to become as successful, though, as the music of Beethoven may suggest, this success is something of a “two edged sword”.

It also important to be careful with clichés and how we use them. Sometimes clichés are used as a way of avoiding a real problem or of ignoring an impending problem or, perhaps, as a way of avoiding a little extra work. “Why”, for example, “reinvent the wheel” may be a way of avoiding the work of reinventing something that needs to be reinvented. We do not, after all, use wagon wheels on automobiles, so at some point it was indeed necessary to reinvent the wheel and it may not always be easy to tell which came first the “automobile” or the “reinvented wheel.” Some will tell us “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But just because a thing is not currently broken does not mean it is not in the process of breaking and a bit of preventative maintenance may be “just the ticket.” A cliché, like any piece of writing, needs to be judged by the circumstances in which it is employed. Some may always be dubious, but others may at times still serve a useful purpose. It is also very difficult, at times, to find a phrase that is not on some level clichéd. Is, for example, the phrase “serve a useful purpose” a cliché? Is it an over used expression? Some might think so. Others may see in it an avenue to a more economical compositional style.

The Mona Lisa (or La Joconde, La Gioconda)
Leonardo da Vinci

The paintings above and below are not unlike the two pieces of music, one having become a cliché and the other playing games with clichés. It is a danger for an artist who does something too well that that something may eventually become a cliché. Leonardo da Vinci is almost a Renaissance cliché in and of himself. He is often pointed to as the definition of the Renaissance, an inadequate definition in that he did not represent all areas of cultural advancement with which the Renaissance is associated but probably he was adept at enough of them to make the comparison work. C. S. Lewis said, “For it must be noticed that such dominance (the dominance of a literary form in any given age) is not necessarily good for the form that enjoys it. When everyone feels it natural to attempt the same kind of writing, that kind is in danger. Its characteristics are formalized. A stereotyped monotony, unnoticed by contemporaries, but cruelly apparent to posterity, begins to pervade it.” This is often the fate of the cliché, whether in painting, music, literature, or any other art form. It is because Beethoven’s Fifth (or the opening anyway) has become clichéd that the music often evokes a comic response when there is not necessarily anything comic in the music. Or is there? Was Beethoven being a bit over dramatic to serve a kind of satiric purpose in the music? Does the musical cliché it has become serve the musical purpose for which it was created? I am not sure. I do not think there is a comic intent behind the Mona Lisa but it has devolved a bit into “kitsch” because of the place it holds in the culture.

The Disquieting Muses
Giorgio de Chirico

The painting by Chirico plays with iconic forms from classical art for comic purposes and, probably, social commentary as well. It also plays with allusions to classical culture when it plays with the muses from Greek and Roman myth. There is the juxtaposition of the castle, a Renaissance cliché with the factory, a modernist cliché. The muse in the background appears as a conventional human likeness while the muses in the foreground have . . . well I am not certain what they have for heads. The colored box suggests the motley costume of the clown Pierrot from the Comedia del Arte. But are these in fact clichés or are they archetypes or symbols that add richness and do not in any way detract? For an icon of any kind to work it must be readily identifiable with that which it represents and it is this quick identification that gives it power. The issue is not so much the cliché as it is its use, is it a kind of laziness that enables us to avoid thinking deeply about something by letting the cliché do the thinking for us, or does it evoke ideas that lend a bit of depth to the issue being examined.

Plan Nine from Outer Space
Ed Wood

Ed Wood enjoyed a moment of popularity a few years back when a film biography was made about him. But what made Wood an attractive subject for this film was the excruciating excess of cliché and poor production techniques that characterized his films. These excesses made them comic, though comedy was not the Wood’s intent when he made the films. From the clip it can be seen how on one level there is almost a Monty-Python-esque humor to them. The characters are so over-blown and caricatured that it is difficult to take them seriously. Groucho Marx once said of Margret Dumont that she was the perfect foil for the comedian because she did not get the jokes. Others disagree with this assessment, but perhaps it has some truth in regards to Ed Wood, maybe he was a film comedian who did not get his own jokes.

Still, the problem with Ed Wood and taking him seriously as a filmmaker is that he did not seem to understand when a film convention had been overused. Films are full of clichés and conventions, even very good ones. Sometimes these are used to point the viewer in the direction of the filmmakers influences, as when Harrison Ford makes his way across the bottom of the German truck in The Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg is paying a complement to John Ford by evoking a scene from one of his films, Stagecoach, where John Wayne does something similar traveling underneath a stagecoach. It works like an allusion in literature to an earlier piece of writing. These allusions add richness to the film as they add richness to a poem or story. It is not necessary to understand the allusion for the scene to work, but it gives an additional level of pleasure to those that understand the allusion. They remind us that most works of art are produced by a culture that has a cultural heritage full of symbols, archetypes, and images that connect the parts of the culture to the whole.

Front Cover for the LP Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the artist The Beatles.
The cover art copyright is believed to belong to EMI Records, Ltd.

If we look at the images that fill the album cover of The Beatles record Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band we will see figures from throughout the culture, including an early version of The Beatles behind the more current incarnation of the album’s release. But amongst the crew that surrounds them are comedians and cowboys and film stars; writers, scientists, and clergy. There does not seem to be much that is left out. What is the point of putting all these images into the cover? Does it make a commentary on the music or is it just there to catch the eye of the record buyer to help sell the record? Often clichés are comfortable because whether they serve a real purpose or not they do not usually ask much of us or even if they do, it is not that difficult to avoid the work they invite us to perform by just focusing on the cliché itself. This is perhaps the ultimate weakness of the cliché, that even if it is intended to serve a higher purpose and the writer or artist is not being lazy in the use of the cliché, it is still very easy for the reader or viewer to be lazy in her or his interpretation of it.

A tall Ship, A Guiding Star, and a Usable Word Hoard

Shiver Me Timbers
Tom Waits

A tall Ship, A Guiding Star, and a Usable Word Hoard

The Clipper Ship “Flying Cloud” off the Needles, Isle of WightJames E. Buttersworth

Tom Waits is singing about a man who is saying good-bye to friends, family, and loved ones as he prepares to go to sea. The painting also captures some of the ethos of being away at sea on a tall sailing ship. The painting and the song seemed apropos in light of the upcoming holiday “International Talk Like a Pirate Day”, celebrated on September 19th. I suppose this holiday resonates more with folks who think of pirates in terms of Errol Flynn and Captain Blood or Johnny Depp and The Pirates of the Caribbean than those who think in terms of current events in the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz.

But “Talk Like a Pirate Day” also underscores an important dynamic of language, that the way we talk says something about who we are. This view of language is one of the themes of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. Early on the play’s hero, Henry Higgins, says, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.” Our speech reveals things about us, where we are from, the extent of our education, the kind of work we do. I studied theater in college. It was pointed out by one of my professors that many of the terms for those parts of the theater where lights are hung and sets are kept in readiness and many of the activities performed by stage hands had their origins onboard ships. This was because many of the early stagehands were out of work sailors. There were similarities, or so my professor suggested, between the skills required of an able bodied seaman and a stagehand. I do not know how much truth there is to this, I never spent much time in the professional theater, but it sounds plausible.

There was a recent article in the Times Literary Supplement on the language expert David Crystal, “David Crystal, language geek”, in which Crystal describes some of his adventures in language. In one part of the article he describes working for Randolph Quirk (an interesting name for a language maven) on “The Survey of English Usage.” One day at work he received a phone call from a local shoe store. The marketing folks wanted some new adjectives to use in their advertising. Crystal thought the call was a joke but assembled a collection of words and sent it off. A week later he received a check for services rendered. Perhaps there is a suggestion here of another career path, in addition to teaching, available to the English major.

Book of Kells, Incipit to John

As the illustrations above and below from medieval books suggest there is also a beauty to language, words, and the pages that contain them aside from what the words reveal about the people that use them. The making of books and the shaping of language can have a physical, a visual beauty that, though suggested by the literal meanings of the words, is separate and apart from the content of the language. The manuscripts are works of art in and of themselves and oftentimes the artistry of the decorations surrounding the words detracts from the words themselves. Some books offer pleasures that have nothing to do with the stories they tell. The textures of the paper and the bindings offer pleasures of their own. The illustrations and photographs that sometimes accompany a book are as satisfying as the book itself. I remember reading James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and thinking that my enjoyment of the book had as much to do with Walker Evans photographs as it did with Agee’s text, which was itself masterful.

Lindisfarne Gospels, Incipit to the Gospel of Matthew

The Anglo-Saxons had a love of riddles. There is a riddle that I do with my twelfth grade students, “Riddle #60” from The Exeter Book. The subject of the riddle is “the reed” and the poem mostly focuses on how the reed, once carved into a writing implement, is used to convey “secret messages”, to pass notes, not in class, but in the mead hall. If one remembers that one of the primary entertainments of the mead hall was the singing of songs and the telling of stories set to music, the riddle of the reed completes a kind of “linguistic circle”, in that it provides an avenue for the written word in an environment dominated by the spoken word.

Lingsberg Runestone,_Lingsberg.jpg

That the Anglo-Saxons and most of the other Germanic tribes that settled Northern Europe and Scandinavia took enjoyment from the “look” of their letters that is attested to by the many “rune-stones” that decorate the region. The earliest English poem is “The Dream of the Rood.” One of the forms in which this poem survives is as a runic inscription on a stone cross in Scotland. The stone cross consists of figures and patterns carved into the stone bordered by the runic text of the poem. I do not think one needs to be a follower of Tolkien’s hobbits to appreciate the visual beauty of these stones. The runic letters were also believed to have magical properties, a power that transcends their mere appearance, and for this reason their use was eventually forbidden by the religious authorities of the time. There is an irony in this because one of the few poets from the Anglo-Saxon period whose name we know is Cynewulf and the only reason we know his name is because he wove the runic letters of his name into his poems. It is not known for certain who he was, but he appears to have been a priest or a bishop, one of those responsible for the suppression of the runic alphabet.

Star Wars “Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back”
Lucasfilm Ltd.

Hans Solo’s spaceship the Millennium Falcon is a pirate ship from another age, or at least one gets that impression from Hans’ descriptions of the work he did before joining the rebellion. As he talks of his exploits one is left with the sense that piracy was one of his many skills. The romance of a thing and the reality of a thing are often very different. Just as the romance of the cockney in English culture, the culture of Eliza Doolittle and her father, has a romance about it that is appealing to those on the outside looking in, the reality of day to day cockney life is very different. The poor are often depicted in ways that idealize their lives often to make them appear simpler or more genuine or in ways that accentuate the humor of their situation. Sancho Panza, Sam Weller, and Sanford and Son are characters who are endearingly poor. But there is another side to poverty captured in Maxim Gorky’s plays, novels, and memoirs or Upton Sinclair’s “Jungle.” It may be fun to talk like a pirate, but it is probably less fun to be a pirate or to be captured by one.

The language we use to tell our stories often defines reality as it appears to us. Whether our stories create fictional worlds or capture bits and pieces of the world we inhabit, the language we use shapes a world that we expect readers to accept as real, as “believable”. The real world of poverty as perceived by Horatio Alger is a bit different from that same reality as it appeared to Charles Dickens but both authors expected their readers to accept as “true to life” the landscapes they crafted.

Also the language we use often tells others, in some way, who we are. Often we employ a language that tells us who we are, a “character” that we assume as we might assume a secret identity. When words fail us we lose touch with who we are or think we are. It is often not the case that we cannot find the words to say what we mean but rather that we cannot find the words that both say what we mean while preserving the persona we have crafted for the world to see. We may want to talk like a pirate for a day because it is kind of fun, the hard work is in talking every day like the people we imagine ourselves to be.

What’s That You Say

Crazy Words, Crazy Tune
Jim Kweskin Jug Band

What’s That You Say

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold
Charles Demuth

When Polonius asks Hamlet, “Whatcha readin’” (Polonius asks this a bit more eloquently than I quote him here) Hamlet responds, “Words, words, words.” Words are a major form of human communication, who knows, maybe non-human communication as well. According to Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band when Washington was at Valley Forge all he could say (or sing) was bododiyo-bododiyo-do. I am not certain what that means, but it communicates a kind of carefree joyousness. It is not always necessary for words to mean something, at least not something Dr. Johnson or Noah Webster would put in their dictionaries.

Images are another way we communicate. Pictures often tell stories. The painting above tries to do visually what the William Carlos Williams poem “The Great Figure” does with words.

Among the rain and lights I saw the figure 5 in gold on a red firetruck moving tense unheeded to gong clangs siren howls and wheels rumbling through the dark city

If we read the words and then look at the picture (or look at the picture and then read the words) we can see that there is something similar going on in both. We might interpret the picture differently if we did not know the poem, but the title tells us that the painter is trying to evoke the poem. Does he succeed at communicating everything the poem suggests? Does the poem capture everything that is in the painting? There is a relationship between the poem and the picture, but they each have their own lives as well.

There is a movement in some intellectual circles that would suggest that words do not mean much and perhaps they are right. They would tell us that we do not all mean exactly the same things by the words we use. Some lawyers have crafted a profession out of telling us what words might mean as opposed to what they were clearly intended to mean. As a result torture, which is illegal, becomes something more “benign” that conforms to the letter of the law, as some lawyers would shape that letter. And of course it is clear to most anyone who has more than a passing relationship with language that words are ambiguous and often contain many meanings. Both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis on the eve of the Civil War might have expressed their intention to cleave the nation and both would have been right by their understanding of the word, for cleave is one of those words that is its own opposite, it can mean to join together (as a man shall cleave unto his wife) or to cut into pieces (as we do to a piece of meat when we use a “cleaver”). Still if we heard each of these men use this word in the manner I suggest it would probably be clear from the context of each man’s words which definition of the word was intended.

In addition, words are often what hold us together as people. The promises we make speak to our integrity, the laws we write shape our society, the treaties we enter into shape our relationships with the rest of the world. These are all expressed using words, often using words chosen very carefully to assure that all parties share a common understanding of those words. Tristram Hunt in a review of Edward Vallance’s book A Radical History of Britain (“The People’s History”) discusses the importance of the Magna Charta to the evolution of liberty in western culture, especially British culture. He points out that though this charter has been used since the 13th century to defend liberty and legal due process and though its “language” may be clear it “has never proved very effective at countering the will of princes or parliaments.” This is I suppose another problem with language, those with the power to ignore it or to make it mean something counter to its intent are free to use their power to make it mean what they want it to mean. It can come down to the argument Socrates tries to refute in The Republic that justice is the will of the strong. Can words alone protect a people from tyranny?

Political Graffiti from Pompei

This image, as the title tells us, is a bit of graffiti from Pompei. It is of a politician who, even if he wasn’t as near sighted, seems to resemble a cartoon character from my youth, Mr. Magoo. It is sometimes easier to fight those in power with anonymous satirical drawing than with documents that identify their authors. Ridicule can often do more damage to those that abuse their position than an expose in the newspaper. Ridicule often makes clear how indefensible the indefensible is. Jonathan Swift published a series of letters; The Draper Letters that attacked with ridicule a plan of the British government to flood Ireland with worthless currency. The letters were unsigned but everyone knew their author, though, no one could prove authorship. The British government offered a substantial reward to anyone who would provide evidence that could be used to catch and to convict the Dublin “Draper” but no one would come forward.

Daniel Defoe got himself into a similar bit of trouble and was sentenced to be pilloried. This was often a death sentence because folks would come by and throw objects at the person in the pillory, which the pilloried individual was helpless to defend against. Instead of throwing lethal objects at Defoe, those in attendance threw flowers and drank his health. He was after a few days removed from the pillory and sent to prison because it was feared his popularity would foment a riot. Perhaps words do have power and mean what they mean despite the efforts of those in authority to make them mean something else.

The Diogenes of the Modern Corinthians without his Tub (Thomas Carlyle)
Max Beerbohm

Of course there is another side to ridicule, those ridiculed are not always deserving of the treatment. Sir Walter Scott said, “Ridicule often checks what is absurd, and fully as often smothers that which is noble.” Language does not lose its power to afflict when those against whom it is directed are undeserving of the affliction, nor does the visual image when it is a fine fellow that is being caricatured in an unflattering fashion. Carlyle may have been an easy fellow to dislike (I am told he was) but he had a point of view and expressed it well. I am not sure if Beerbohm intended to harm or just to have some fun with Carlyle, and for all I know Carlyle may have enjoyed the characterization. I am also not sure if by depicting Carlyle in a pose that clearly evokes that of Whistler’s famous painting of his mother Whistler is flattering Carlyle, regardless of the accuracy of the representation. Perhaps it was viewed differently in its own time than it is today.

Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 2 Thomas Carlye
James Abbot McNeill Whistler

Perhaps this is another aspect of language and the visual arts, their interpretations can change with time. What may have appeared harmless or flattering at the time the words were spoken or the image was drawn can assume new unintended meanings as a result of the passage of time. Aristophanes used Socrates as the comic foil of his play The Clouds; a play that ridiculed the “philosophical trades” on the streets of Athens and gave its philosophers a home in a place Aristophanes called “Cloud Cuckoo Land.” I read somewhere that Aristophanes and Socrates were friends and that Aristophanes was only having a bit of fun with his friend in part because Socrates was among the best known philosophers in Athens. However, when Socrates was put on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens the play was introduced as evidence against him. We do not always have control over how our words are used.

Henry V “Speech to the Troops”
Renaissance Films/BBC

On the other hand language can be motivating, inspiring, people to do things that are clearly not in their personal best interest after listening to speeches like this one from Shakespeare’s play Henry V. Of course it ought to be considered whether or not fighting the Battle of Agincourt was in the interest of any of those fighting the battle, with the possible exception of King Harry and some of his higher ranking nobles. But the words themselves and their delivery (especially with the sound track in the background) are very inspiring. When I heard it for the first time, and every time I have heard it since, it gives me chills and I feel myself moved to do something significant for king and country. What I do not find myself doing is questioning whether or not this particular service for king and country is the right thing to do. Often language makes the pretense of appealing to our intellect, after all it is the mind that hears and makes sense of the words, but more often than not, when language truly motivates us, it probably has more to do with what we are led to feel than what we are led to think.

David Crystal in an article for The Guardian, “Which Words Make You Merry?”, a few weeks ago points out that the way words make us feel often has little to do with what the words themselves actually mean. He asks us to imagine landing on a planet in a far away galaxy and that we have been told there are two groups of people, one who is friendly and helpful to folks from other planets and one that would like to make a meal of these people. He then suggests “that one of these groups is called the Lamonians; the other is called the Grataks.” Our inclination would be to trust the Lamonians and distrust Grataks, not because we know anything about either group of people but because the name of one is sweet sounding to our ears and the name of the other suggests a threatening growl. Language can be seductive and it is perhaps important to know how the language we hear is being used and why it is being used in that way and what it is the words actually mean before we decide on a course of action.

View on Delft
Johannes Vermeer

I heard once that one of the generals planning the D-Day invasion (it may have been Eisenhower, but I do not remember and I have not been able to confirm the story) would relieve the tension he was feeling as a result of this planning and what he knew the consequences of the plan would be for many of the soldiers by going to a local museum and looking at the collection of paintings by Vermeer. They would calm and relax him, or so the story went. Looking at the painting above has this effect on me. Even though the sky is cloudy and the water is grey and “cold” I find it calming. The words of a lullaby can calm a baby in much the same way. The point to consider, though, is this painting and the lullaby would have the same calming effect if I were planning a criminal act. According to some, the Nazi officers received a similar kind of solace from the artwork they visited in their museums.

I teach students to read and comprehend stories because I think the stories will make them wise or will help them in some way to engage life’s more troubling moments. I think stories help students to come out of themselves and see a bit of the world from another point of view. But this also gives the receptive student a power they might not otherwise have. There is no guarantee this ability to put oneself in the place of another and see the world from that other’s point of view will be used benignly. It might be used to manipulate and to take advantage as easily as it might be used to heal and to console. I remember reading a book on the Theater of the Absurd, I think it was by Martin Esslin, in which he quotes the playwright Samuel Beckett as saying (the quote was in French but I was told this is what it meant), “The words mean nothing but they are all I have to convince you with.”

If words mean nothing, than how do they convince? If they can be used to serve other ends than the ends the words claim to be serving, how do we avoid being deceived? Many of those that read Milton’s Paradise Lost from a Christian perspective see the devil as villainous and seductive. Many of those that read this same poem from a less theological perspective see the devil as heroic. They read the same words, and even understand those words in much the same way. To a large degree how we understand the devil in this poem is shaped by how we understood the devil before we began reading the poem and there is often hell to pay for those that would bring the one interpretation into the other’s camp.