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Wordsworth Visits the Seventh Grade

If you’re old enough you may remember a time when as a school child you had to memorize certain poems. “By memorizing,”  the teacher said, “you’ll always have that bit of poetry with you.”  That practice has disappeared from most schoolrooms today.  Marilyn Robertson, a poet and songwriter in California, remembers memorizing poems when she was a kid, as she tells us in “Wordsworth Visits the Seventh Grade.”

We had to say his poem by heart—
the one he wandered in — our voices
droning down the stanzas, grateful
for the sturdy crutch of meter.

Standing by the teacher’s desk,
I trembled like a daffodil,
having no idea that
I, too, in fifty years, would wander

through the hills with pen and notebook
knowing chances would be slim
to none I’d ever come upon
then thousand blooms untrammeled by

the middy tires of some enormous
truck whose driver in his crowd
was never lonely as a cloud,
nor given much to gazing

and wouldn’t be caught dead
dancing with a flower.

—Marilyn Robertson


And if you want to refresh your memory, check out Wordsworth’s poem,“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.”


JPMorganChase, Jamie Dimon, & Chicken Little

Chicken Little

Chicken Little

We’ve called on our financial adviser, Chicken Little, for views on JPMorgan Chase’s loss of $2 billion in a trading mistake:

First we have to put the $2 billion in perspective. Jamie Dimon, the CEO, and all the others at JPMorgan Chase will be happy to tell you that $2 billion isn’t much of a loss when you consider that the bank had revenues around $90 billion over the past year. And, yes, we know JPMorgan Chase stock (JPM) has gone down, losing the company almost $20 billion in value, but it’s already on the way back up. So why are so many people upset about $2 billion?

Maybe it’s because the median household income in the US is $46,326. Let’s call that $50,000 just to make the math easier. Now, if you divide $2,000,000,000 billion by the median household income of $50,000 you get 40,000. In other words, that trading mistake equals the sum total of the year-long income of forty thousand households. (That’s a lot of households. Maybe you should check the math. We did. We kept coming out with 40,000 households.)

When Obama said that JPMorgan Chase was “one of the best managed banks”

Jamie Dimon

Jamie Dimon

and Dimon “one of the smartest bankers we’ve got,” the President was reflecting what most people in the banking and financial industry have been saying for years. After all, JPMorganChase was one of the largest banks that did NOT need a bailout,and Jamie Dimon has steered the bank through very troubled financial waters with great success.

It may be that Jamie Dimon had come to that point in his career where he believed he was as wise at investing and at managing risk as other people said he was. No matter the profession, when your work earns you continuous year-in and year-out praise as “the best,” and when you’re paid millions upon millions, you can believe that you simply do no wrong. Your colleagues grow deferential and no longer challenge you, nor do the directors on your board. That’s when you make a mistake, make the wrong assessment of risk, make the wrong bet, and then make another to cover the first. And another to cover the second.

Our prudent financial adviser believes that even pieces of the sky can fall.

Intergalactic Alien

Intergalactic vehicle

Read Intergalactic Vehicle Fake Photo

Have you ever listened to radio programs that broadcast late at night, very  late at night? At that hour your mind is open to all sorts of strange thoughts, and some pretty strange thoughts get broadcast in those small hours. Once, when Marilyn Robertson couldn’t get to sleep, she tuned in and heard an interesting story which she reports to us in her poem, “Alien”

Last night, a man on the radio was reminiscing
about the time he was touched by an alien.
He was sitting in his carport, shooting the breeze
with an ex-Marine buddy,
when a woman passed by the house.

She was making a kind of humming sound
and she stopped and asked him for a cigarette.
Well, he gave her one and when their fingers touched,
that’s when he felt the electric current in his stomach.
That’s how he knew.
She told him her name was Tomorrow.

Elsewhere on the dial, the usual mayhem:
hurricanes, robberies, runaway trucks, a warning
not to eat certain vegetables…but nothing more
about the humming woman from another galaxy,
bumming cigarettes along a country road.

 —Marilyn Robertson


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.



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…)

Two Sequels from Four Movies

Maybe you recall the movie Before Sunrise and its follow-up, Before Sunset, or perhaps you’ve seen L’Auberge Espagnole along with it’s sequel, Russian Dolls. Before Sunset posterThese aren’t new films. The earliest, Before Sunrise, was made in 1995 and the  most recent, Russian Dolls, came out in 2005. They’re not  deep, heavy-weight films. But they’re interesting movies with remarkably authentic, likeable characters and real conversations — a rarity in movies — and they offer us the special pleasure of  seeing fictional people blunder and develop over time. Each of these films was an acclaimed critical success. If you haven’t seen them, you may have four movies to enjoy.

Before Sunrise and Before Sunset focus exclusively on two characters: Jesse L Auberge Espagnole poster(Ethan Hawke) and Cèline (French/American actress Julie Delpy.) In Before Sunrise, this pair of twenty-something travelers meet on a train and end up together in Vienna where they spend the night talking, getting to know the city and each other until they part at sunrise. That’s it, they talk and get to know each other and promise to meet again in six months. These are two very engaging and intelligent young people who are open to experience and who hook up the way young people do. That they are interested in each other’s ideas  (Not exclusively, of course. This is an imitation of real life.)  places this movie above just about every other twenty-something flick.

But Jesse and Cèline don’t get together six months later. The sequel, Before Sunset, was filmed nine years later, and the story takes place after the same lapse of time.  Celine attends a book store reading by Jesse, now a successful novelist who is in Paris to promote his book. Jesse has a plane to catch and the couple have only “until sunset” to talk, to catch up on each other’s life. They’re the same talkative, engaging, interested and interesting people they were nine years earlier, but they’ve matured. Or, to put it another way, life has knocked them down a few times. Jesse is unhappily married and has a son he loves; Cèline, an environmental activist, is unsatisfyingly involved with a photojournalist. Happy marriages are not easy to come by, but maybe this thirty-something pair has a future. Or maybe not.

Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are narrow aperture films that focus wholly on two characters. Furthermore, Before Sunset plays out in real time, giving the viewer an even more closely framed cinematic experience. On the other hand, L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls are sprawling stories with a jumbled multitude of characters, and Russian Dolls spreads out geographically, too, taking place in Paris, London, St Petersburg and Moscow. (more…)

Noted Economist with Wicked Felt-tipped Pen

The noted political economist is Robert Reich,  a professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. In this video, he connects the dots about the structure of the US economy, and does it in a mere two minutes and fifteen seconds.  Reich is also a fast hand with the felt-tipped pen and may have an alternate career as a political cartoonist.  This video has been around a while and has been seen by well over a million people. But we have a weakness for the message. Check it out.

Living and Loving

Translating poetry is a matter of making choices. Man & woman kissingA literal word-for-word translation gives you the prosaic meaning and none of the poetry of the original. A good translation gives you a poem which has, you hope, at least some of the qualities of the original,  or qualities in English that are parallel to qualities in the poem’s original language.

Here’s a Latin poem by the Roman poet Catullus.  (Don’t get in a sweat, we have some translations coming up.) It’s in the form of a note to his love, a woman he calls Lesbia. “Lesbia” may or may not be a mask for Clodia, a woman who was married when Catullus wrote this. Catullus wrote many poems to “Lesbia” and it’s possible they refer to Clodia  (this gossip is two thousand years old), but they may refer  to other women, or to no particular woman at all. Clodia, the real woman, was soaked in sexual scandal throughout her life, and since Catullus wrote wonderfully free erotic poems it’s not surprising that these two Romans should be linked in literature, even if not in life. Today, this particular thirteen-line note is very likely Catullus’s best known poem. Here’s the original:

Vivamus mea Lesbia, atque amemus,
A kiss while descending stairwayrumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius aestimemus assis!
soles occidere et redire possunt:
nobis cum semel occidit brevis lux,
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum,
dein mille altera, dein secunda centum,
deinde usque altera mille, deinde centum.
dein, cum milia multa fecerimus,
conturbābimus illa, ne sciāmus,
aut ne quis malus invidere possit,
cum tantum sciat esse basiorum.

And here’s a quick, not-quite-literal translation…

Let’s live, my Lesbia, and also love —
And as for all the gossip by grave old men,
Let’s say it’s worth one cent.
Suns can set and rise again —
With us, once the brief light goes down
Night’s an everlasting sleep.
Young lovers kissingGive me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,
Then another thousand, then a second hundred,
Then up another thousand, then a hundred,
Then, when we’ve made many thousands,
We’ll scramble the number — we’ll not know,
Nor will the malicious find out and envy us,
The many kisses there were.

(You can find other translations on the Web, but don’t go hunting right now. We’ve got a couple of nice and easy-to-read translations coming up.) (more…)

Keeping Cool in 1863

Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe by Edouard ManetPictured above are four Parisians who found a way to escape the sweltering heat of the city. Well, at least two of party have found a way to keep cool.  These four are rather like a certain quartet of musicians who had a picnic in 1510; the women were bare naked but the men were smothered in velvet. All that’s further down this page.  Now pay attention to the painting above.  The woman in the background clearly enjoys wading in the stream and isn’t concerned that her chemise — what exactly is she wearing? —  gets soaked. And the bold young woman in the foreground has tossed aside convention and all her clothes. You’re cool or you’re not, right?

But the men! Look at them — suffocating in tight collars, heavy jackets, cravats, hats, shoes and, though you can’t make it out in this small image, the one on the right is even wearing a vest. These guys haven’t got a clue.

It’s hard to say exactly what’s going on here. The scene was painted by Edouard Manet around 1862-1863. He named the painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) and, in fact, along side the discarded clothing there’s a basket of fruit and a round loaf of bread.  But no one is eating.  And whatever the guy on the right is saying it’s clear that he’s lost the attention of his naked lunch date. She’s more interested in us. And, you know, we’re more interested in her.

Manet wasn’t having any luck getting his paintings shown when he captured this interesting picnic. His work was rejected year after year by the gate-keepers of the government-sponsored show at the Palais des Champs-Elysees. That exhibit, or Salon, was visited by thousands of Parisians and it was virtually impossible for a painter to make a living if he didn’t succeed there. The jurors were generally conservatives and Manet was one of several artists whose work was rejected by the Salon. In 1863 so many paintings were turned down that the government, giving in to the artists’ bitter complaints, sponsored an alternative exhibit for the rejected paintings, the famous Salon des Refuses.  That’s where Manet exhibited this painting.

Manet’s scene was inspired in part by Giorgione’s painting of a similar quartet 1510. We have an image of that painting further down this page. We’re not suggesting you try this at your local picnic grounds or National Park. We’re not stupid. We know there must be better places. You’re cool or you’re not, right?

The Readers at Readercon

Of the many literary gatherings held this summer, our attention was caught by Readercon, a conference focusing on imaginative literature. Readercon logoIt was held at the Boston-Burlington Marriott and drew people not only from all over the US but from other countries as well. Readercon has “con” baked into its name, which is unfortunate if it conjures up images of certain other “cons” which are primarily party occasions where participants dress up to resemble their favorite character from science fiction, fantasy, or vampire tales. Readercon has the reputation, deservedly, of being the most serious of the cons. For readers interested in imaginative literature in it’s many different forms, Readercon can be entertaining, sometimes scholarly, mostly engrossing and, in one way and another, simply enjoyable.

Though the program guide describes Readercon as “The Year’s Best Science Fiction Convention” the four-day event fortunately covers considerably more than science fiction. The recent 22nd annual Readercon offered a broad spectrum of discussions, stretching from an academic panel on the “Death of the Author” (a theory of French intellectual Roland Barthes), to the jovial “Kirk Poland Memorial Bad Prose Competition.” In between these extremes there were panels on such diverse subjects as young adult fiction, on myth, on the Midrash, on a literary agency, on  book design and typography, the retelling of Russian folktales, the blurring of genras —  plus book signings, readings by authors, and interviews. According to the volunteer organizers, a typical Readercon has about 150 writers, editors, publishers, and critics. But what struck us were the 400 or more people who attended the different events – it would be hard to find a more engaged and lively group of readers.

“Congress Continues Debate Over Whether Or Not Nation Should Be Economically Ruined” — The Onion

The US  Congress is going through one of those insane times when only headlines from the satirical online newspaper, The Onion,  can sum it up.  Their headline quoted above says it all.  To get the full flavor, click on The Onion.

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.