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Stamp out starving writers, buy their books!


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Snowbound

This is a good a time to take a look at the wonderfully descriptive opening lines of “Snowbound” by John Greenleaf Whittier.  (We do this every winter.) Here they are.

The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon.
Slow tracing down the thickening sky
Its mute and ominous prophecy,
A portent seeming less than threat,
It sank from sight before it set.
A chill no coat, however stout,
Of homespun stuff could quite, shut out,
A hard, dull bitterness of cold,
That checked, mid-vein, the circling race
Of life-blood in the sharpened face,
The coming of the snow-storm told.

"Snowbound"Yes, it’s only simple couplets. And each line has only four beats, which means it isn’t like virtually all the great poems in English. Instead, it uses the rhymes  and rhythms of children’s verse.  Here’s a poet who has fallen far from the high esteem and great popularity he once enjoyed. No one reads Whittier’s poems now. But “Snowbound” was an astonishing success. It blessed the author with more money than he had ever had, giving him the ability to provide his beloved niece with a suitable education and allowing him to expand his old house and to live the rest of his life without financial worries.

The long poem — and it’s very long — was first published in book form in February of 1866, became an amazing success, sold out the first printing by spring and by summer 20,000 copies were gone. It continued to be read and enjoyed for about fifty years, its jingling couplets easy to remember. The opening stanzas give us a wonderfully accurate and detailed picture of the snowstorm, the excitement as it whips around the house for two days, the changted landscape afterward, and the pleasant work of digging out.  Whittier dedicated the poem  To the Memory of the Household It Describes, the  household he remembered from his rural childhood. That rural lifestyle, so lovingly described in the poem, was rapidly disappearing and certainly one of the reasons the poem was so popular was that it brought to life a lost time that many readers fondly remembered. The people described in the poem were drawn from people Whittier knew and many of them, like the life described, had passed beyond recall.

“Snowbound” is far to long to quote here, but if you’d like to take a look at the entire poem there are other pages on the Web which have it whole.   Now take a look at those opening lines again. Recite them once and you’ll discover how easy they are to memorize. Commit them to memory and you’ll have them forever, even if you don’t have your computer, your i-pad or your phone with you.

Pirates and the Web

Screen-shot of site protesting censorsip legislationEver hear of STOPA or PROTECTIP?  Here’s what the initials in those strange acronyms stand for:  STOPA is the U. S. House of Representatives Stop Online Piracy Act,  and PROTECTIP is the U. S. Senate’s Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act. (With elephantine cleverness, the acronym says Protect IP,  meaning Protect Intellectual Property. )

Both blunderbluss bills aim to protect intellectual property — copyrights and the like — and both are directed against what the sponsors call “rogue” websites and “foreign pirates” who use the web to steal US intellectual property. That certainly a fine goal and supporters say the bills are necessary pieces of legislation, and actually, in the words of one legislator, “patriotic.”

At Critical Pages we’re strongly for protection of intellectual property rights. But we’re against these badly written pieces of misguided legislation.  The Motion Picture Association of America is for the bills, as is the Chamber of Commerce. On the other side, eBay and Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, Yahoo, and Zynga are against it. Such bills would make business, domestic as well as foreign,  virtually impossible for sites that depend on user-generated material, sites such as YouTube or Tumblr. The Electric Frontier Foundation, an old and distinguished private watchdog group, is also against the bills.

As for you, while you’re surfing the web, it would put you in the position of a typical Internet user in China or Iran. Certain sites would be blocked because the government determined that they’re “rogue” sites belonging to “foreign pirates.” (more…)

Shelley and Late Autumn Weather

Now that a hard November wind is whirling the leaves about, it’s time for Shelley and his Ode to the West Wind. Percy Bysshe Shelley had a brief life, but it was so vivid with poetry, so politically radical, so sexually unrestrained, so romantic and Romantic, that he still arouses controversy among readers who know even a little about him.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley

He was born in England on August 4, 1892 and drowned in a stormy sea  off the coast of Italy on July 8, 1822, not having quite reached age 30. Shelley ran afoul of law and convention a number of times. He  wrote some great poems, many political and social pamphlets, and a number of papers which advocated atheism.  He also indulged in  sexual shenanigans, inspired loyal friendships,  and left a few ruined lives in his wake.

Technically, Ode to the West Wind is composed of five cantos in iambic pentameter and the overall rhyme scheme is terza rima – a beautiful method of linking three-line stanzas with aba, bcb, cdc, and so forth. Terza rima had been rarely used in English. It was most famously used by Dante in his Divine Comedy, that poem of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, where the number three recurs in a multitude of ways. Terza rima isn’t easy to work, and nobody has succeeded in doing a good job of translating Dante into English using his rhyme scheme. As for the meaning of Shelley’s Ode, that’s impossible to cram into a brief paragraph — yes, it’s about the weather, but much, much more as well.  Don’t sweat it. You can read a bit now and come back to it later.  OK, here’s the poem:

                      Ode to the West Wind

O WILD West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes! O thou             5
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill      10
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill;

Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and preserver; hear, O hear!     (more…)

Letting Go. Whose Story Is It?

Joan Didion’s most recent book is a meditation on the death of her only child — a death which followed shortly after the death of  Didion’s  husband, which she had recorded in her previous  book. Such events stagger the imagination and most of us avoid thinking of them. Jo Page, the essayist and fiction writer, is also a Lutheran pastor and has thought about these things longer than many of us.  We’re happy to present her reflections in the essay below.

*****

I started reading Joan Didion’s book, A Year of Magical Thinking, out of a blend of fear, horror and a voyeurism I didn’t like in myself. In it she  details the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne,  which  occurred while she was also dealing with a succession of illnesses that afflicted her 39-year-old daughter, Quintana Roo. Quintana died after the book was completed.

The Danish proverb, “shared sorrow is halved sorrow,” may be true, but in my reading the book I was not doing anything to reduce Didion’s sorrow. I was just looking in at it.

Didion, Joan

Joan Didion

Didion now has a new book  out, Blue Nights, which is another foray into the landscape of loss, in this case, the life and death of her daughter. Writing in New York magazine, Boris Kachka says “The book is about many things: mental illness, fate, and our overgrown faith in medical technology. But it is most importantly a reckoning with her shortcomings as a mother.”

Though I was drawn to read A Year of Magical Thinking, I will not be reading Blue Nights for more reasons than the obvious one: that the subject matter is brutally sad. It’s more complicated than that and more personal. I’m a mother watching the slow ascent into adulthood of my two daughters and I find it a difficult and sometimes heart-wrenching job.

In parenting—or at least in mothering—there are always two constants: fear for your child’s welfare and doubt about whether or not you are doing a good job in loving them and raising them. These twinned constants—fear and doubt—are absolute states. Why I ever thought this would lessen as they grew up I have no idea.

But as I watch my daughters outgrow their childish need of me, I feel a fear of becoming useless and a sense of my own mortality. That all sounds grim, I know, but I’m not alone in this. Kyra Sedgwick of all people, with brilliant insight, described mothering grown children in terms of employment: “You’ve had this job forever, it’s the job you always wanted to do, and you were pretty good at it. Then you get fired for no reason!”

Once they’re past a certain age you recognize there are no do-overs. You recognize that what you’ve done as a mother, you’ve done. You can’t shelter them as you once could from all the perils we move among in our lives. You can’t shield them from the slings and arrows of adulthood.

Didion, however, wades deeply into the fear and doubt terrain.

When we talk about mortality, she writes, we are talking about our children: “Once she [Quintana Roo] was born I was never not afraid. I was afraid of swimming pools, high-tension wires, lye under the sink, aspirin in the medicine cabinet. . . . I was afraid of rattlesnakes, riptides, landslides, strangers who appeared at the door, unexplained fevers, elevators without operators and empty hotel corridors. The source of the fear was obvious: it was the harm that could come to her.”

She fears she is neglecting her daughter. She feels she bears some responsibility for Quintana’s mental health issues, her overuse of alcohol. She finds Quintana’s journal and castigates herself for reading from the perspective of a writer rather than a mother.

Enough. In fact, too much.

When my children were younger I used to write about them fairly frequently. As they have gone from childhood into early adulthood I write about them less and less. I think it’s partly out of a sense of respect for their lives. Their stories were once mine to tell as I wished. Now they belong, fully, to them.

It isn’t that Didion discusses her daughter’s life story that bothers me about Blue Nights. It’s that she’s calling awareness to the irreversible and the irretrievable. Unlike her long partnership with her late husband, the relationship between parent and child is unstable and mutable; its hallmark is that children grow up, move on, and claim the rights to their own stories.

Parents lose the rights to those stories, however close the bond between parent and child remains. And I do hope the bond between my daughters and me remains strong; I’d love to be one of those mothers whose daughter lives close enough to see each other frequently, without involving long car drives, plane tickets or hours of separation.

But that’s not my decision anymore.

They will make their own choices. They will tell their own stories. And I will remember, not without bittersweetness, the stories of theirs that I have been able to tell.

—Jo Page

 


Help stamp out starving writers!Yes, you can do it. Writers starve not because people don’t read — you’re reading this note, right? — but because not enough readers buy their books.  So as a Public Service we at Critical Pages urge you to visit your local, privately owned, independent bookstore and buy a book. They’ll love you, the publisher will love you and the author, getting his crummy 10 percent of the retail price, will love you, too.


Take a Break, Read Some Keats

As you probably know, Greece is close to defaulting on its debts, the Euro nations can’t agree on a coherent fiscal policy, the European banking system appears more fragile every morning, the Palestinians have reasons to ask the UN to recognize them as a nation, the Israelis have reasons to occupy ever more of the land the Palestinians regard as their nation, Egypt is having trouble being re-born as a democracy, the US stock market plunged 300 points the other day, unemployment remains high, the recession my repeat itself or, avoiding that calamity, this one may last for years, Congress remains deadlocked, and a recent study reveals that men who take care of their children suffer a decline in testosterone. But you know all that.

On the other hand, if you live in a city, you probably don’t know that this is the season when early morning mists blanket the landscape. You could say it’s the season of mists. In fact, John Keats wrote a poem about this season and it begins Season of mists…  To put you in the mood, here’s a photo of a misty morning landscape provided by the writer Francesca Forrest.Misty morning landscape

Keats’s poem, “Ode to Autumn,” is a complex and linguistically rich poem. Today’s common reader may be put off by the dense, gorgeous language. But you’re not a common reader…

(more…)

Hot Coffee

Back in 1992 a woman spilled a fresh, hot cup of McDonald’s coffee in her lap. McDonald's logoYes, you remember it. She sued McDonald’s and in 1994 a jury awarded her nearly $3 million, $2.7 million of which was punitive damages. Those are the bare, misleading facts — facts that became the basis of a hundred jokes and the prime example in arguments for tort reform against “frivolous law suits.” Over the years, the incident took on a life of its own and became an urban legend. Early in 2011 a documentary about the incident, Hot Coffee, premiered at the Sundance film festival and this summer it appeared on HBO.  (The movie was brought to our attention by a post at the always interesting suzannesmomsblog.com)

The documentary’s website says, “Everyone knows the McDonald’s coffee case. It has been routinely cited as an example of how citizens have taken advantage of America’s legal system, but is that a fair rendition of the facts? Hot Coffee reveals what really happened to Stella Liebeck, the Albuquerque woman who spilled coffee on herself and sued McDonald’s, while exploring how and why the case garnered so much media attention, who funded the effort and to what end.”

The website also points out that “Susan Saladoff (Producer, Director) spent twenty-five years practicing law in the civil justice system, representing injured victims of individual and corporate negligence. She stopped practicing law in 2009 to make the documentary, Hot Coffee, her first feature-length film.” This is a modest way to confess that the documentary is NOT going to be even-handed in its presentation. Indeed, Abnormaluse.com, a website on the other side of the legal issues involved, says that the attorneys interviewed during the documentary were chosen by Susan Saladoff to represent exclusively her own point of view.

Organized Crime and the University of Michigan

The Authors Guild, the Australian Society of Authors, the Union Des Bookcase verticalÉcrivaines et des Écrivains Québécois (UNEQ), and eight individual authors have filed a copyright infringement lawsuit in federal court against HathiTrust, the University of Michigan, the University of California, the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, and Cornell University. Essentially, the suit accuses the University of Michigan the others of stealing copyrighted works and offering them to students and faculty members.

First, the universities obtained from Google unauthorized scans of an estimated 7 million copyright-protected books. (The rights to those works are held by authors in dozens of countries.) Next, the universities pooled the unauthorized files in a repository organized by the University of Michigan called HathiTrust. Then the University of Michigan decided, all on its own, that the copyrighted works were “orphans” — books whose copyright holders couldn’t be found.  And now the University of Michigan has announced plans to permit unlimited downloads by its students and faculty members of those copyright-protected works. Thus, the University is giving away books for which it has no rights and doing it without consulting the writers who posses those rights. Of course, the University isn’t giving away courses or any of its own intellectual property.  After all, you have to draw the line someplace.

 

Scribal Error

ow we must apologize for our mistake.  One of our underpaid scribes, pictured at the left,  copied the wrong version of a poem which we then posted a short while ago. We had asked the writer for permission, and we received permission.  But our ink-stained wretch copied an early version instead of the final published text. The poem is “The Classics So Far by Marilyn Robertson, and you can read the published version  by clicking on the title.

Who Was Ernest Meissonier?

Dejeuner sur l'herbe 460

Dejeuner sur l'herbe

You know who painted the glorious sun-shot scene just above. (You’re right, it’s by Claude Monet.) And you know who painted the scandalous nude below. (Right again, it’s by Édouard Manet.) And you can probably recognize a painting by Berthe Morisot or, if not a Morisot, surely a few peaches by Cézanne or a dancer by Degas. You’re familiar with these 19th century painters because you like their works. In fact, a great many people enjoy paintings by Manet and Monet and Cezanne and Pissarro and Seurat and – well, the list goes on.

Olympia

Olympia

As printing technology and inks evolved over the past hundred years, copies of images by these painters spread across Europe and the West. Reproductions of their paintings are now for sale everywhere from classy shops offering expensive prints to book stores selling illustrated kitchen calendars. But have you ever heard of Ernest Meissonier? Have you ever looked at one of his paintings? Have you ever seen even cheap print of his work? (If you said No, you’re in the great majority.) Yet in the world of art, Ernest Meissonier held top place far above those other painters. In fact, he was the most famous and, as a result, the richest painter in the Western Hemisphere. And he wasn’t just a pop success. He was the favorite of art critics, was showered with awards, and his paintings commanded the highest prices. Here below is one of his better known works.

Campagne de France by Ernest Meissonier

Now you know. Meissonier was most highly regard for his exactitude – he was a great horseman and at one point had a special mini-railroad track laid out so he could be pulled in a cart along side a galloping horse to study the movements of the horse’s legs with greater accuracy. He had a collection on military garments and knew the position and color of every button and ribbon; he once had a group of cavalry ride across a wheat field, trampling it so he’d be able to more accurately portray a particular battle which involved such a scene.

But political, social and cultural forces are always changing, and what constitutes the best in art evolves with those changes. France and the city of Paris itself underwent great and at times horrific changes, and these inevitably played out in galleries and salons as well. Precision and exactitude, polish and finish, lost favor to a new way of portraying the world. The revolutionary and sometimes scandalous vision of painters like Manet and Courbet began to make sense to people. And Ernest Meissonier went into eclipse, a penumbra  from which he’s unlikely to emerge. (more…)

More Notes


Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.