Showing posts from October, 2011

Helaine L. Smith's "Homer and the Homeric Hymns"

My dear friend and colleague Helaine has just published a wonderful textbook for teaching Homer or studying him on one's own. Homer and the Homeric Hymns provides substantial selections, freshly translated, from The Iliad, The Odyssey and eight Homeric Hymns. These passages, focusing in turns on the different gods, are accompanied by thoughtful commentary on Homer's art, with detailed footnotes on background, literary terms and vocabulary. Each chapter ends with questions for discussion, and suggestions for analytic and creative writing exercises. There are even sample essays to aid training in composition. Indices of mythological and literary terms enable easy cross-referencing.

Helaine is a master teacher. She has taught English for over thirty-five years, and this book is really a treasury of those years of experience. As a colleague, she is always generous in sharing ideas and resources. When I taught sixth-grade English for the first time, her guidance meant the world to…

"3 Idiots" Feels Good

Recommended by friends, 3 Idiots is an extremely well done, extremely entertaining comic caper, with a big heart and boundless energy. After watching it last night, I wanted to watch it all over again, all 170 minutes of it. It had such life in it.

Netflix plot summary: "While attending one of India's premier colleges, miserable engineering students and best friends Rancho (Aamir Khan), Farhan (Madhavan) and Raju (Sharman Joshi) struggle to beat their school's draconian system, which, in their eyes, unfairly values grades over creativity. Loosely based on Chetan Bhagat's best-selling novel Five Point Someone, this entertaining Bollywood comedy also stars Kareena Kapoor (Rancho's love interest) and Boman Irani (the tyrannical dean of the Imperial College of Engineering)."

The film narrative takes the form of a search for Rancho by his two former friends, the college scenes played as flashbacks, and so ends with finding Rancho, and the fulfillment of his free-t…

de Kooning Retrospective at the MoMA

de Kooning's paintings make sense for me when they are seen as a part of the whole, a restless, always-moving whole. They are experimental in spirit, and so they change in method, materials and manner, although the themes of women and landscape recur in the oeuvre. The women appear in early abstracted interiors, then appear in later abstracted landscapes, and they become landscapes in the third Woman series. He is Matisse painting outdoors. His textiles and fabrics are the patchworks of light. He abstracts his figures more radically than Matisse ever did, reducing them to floating fragments and suggestions, but the love of women holds him, as it did Matisse, to figuration. His art is essentially erotic.

The breakthrough black-and-whites, painted in 1945, I find fascinating, even moving. They make beautiful, entangled shapes. Again and again, as if fighting against a strong innate feeling for shapeliness, de Kooning breaks his compositions apart. He does to achieve intensity. He pu…

War Requiem

This afternoon, LW and I heard Britten's War Requiem (1961-62) performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Slovenian Sabina Cvilak sang soprano, Ian Bostridge tenor and Simon Keenlyside baritone. I was especially taken by Cvilak's singing. The London Symphony Chorus, directed by Joseph Cullen, and the American Boychoir, directed by Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, completed the roster of performers.

The Requiem has six movements: Requiem aeternam, Dies irae, Offertorium, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Libera Me. In counterpoint to and ironic commentary on the Latin text are poems by Wilfred Owen. The bell-ridden first movement, for instance, is countered by "Anthem for Doomed Youth" ("What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?"). The effect is intended to be jarring, or at least dissonant, but I found myself wishing that Britten had not tried to combine prayer and protest. As a protest, the work came off as hectoring. As a prayer, well, it…

Joy Sonata

Last Wednesday, GH and I heard the London Symphony Orchestra, led by Sir Colin Davis, performed an all-Sibelius program at Carnegie Hall. Nikolaj Znaider soloed in the Violin Concerto in D minor, and he was terrific, warm and delicate in the quiet passages. I have his performance of Elgar's Violin Concerto on my iPad, and listen to it over and over again. For some reason I did not care so much for Symphony No. 2 performed after the intermission.

It was a rather more unconventional program last night at Alice Tully. A part of White Light Festival, "A Homage to J. S. Bach" looked at how Russian composers have been influenced by Bach's musical forms while using a modern tonal idiom. The program was headlined by Gidon Kremer, who played with beautiful intonation a chaconne from one of Bach's partitas. I also enjoyed very much Shostakovich's Piano Trio 2, which Kremer played with cellist Giedre Dirvanauskaite and pianist Andrius Zlabys, both from Lithuania. Kremer…

New Poetries V

Received my copy of New Poetries V yesterday. It's a beauty. It has a nice thick feel to it. The cover image, by Isabel Schmidt, is full of overlapping gentle things in soft colors.

Beyond advocating for his poets, Michael Schmidt's preface says a number of useful things on the principles that should guide an editor or anthologist:

Editors who are not promoting a movement or a group, when they tear open an envelope or click an email attachment, hope to be surprised by the shape on the page, by syntax, by the unexpected sounds a poem makes, sometimes with old, proven instruments used in new ways. They might hope to find evidence of intelligence. And they respect creative disobedience. Where there are schools they look for the truants; where there is a consensus with its levelling decorums, they edit against it. They are not looking for unschooled talent but for poetry as discovery in form and language. And the question of relevant subject-matter need arise only if it does arise.…

Interview with Lantern

The significance of the number seven, the fragmented self, the gay transnational Asian poet, the Singapore poetry scene, self-publication and critical legitimacy, literary awards, and poetry free-for-all... my interview in Lantern Review. The beautiful Wendy Chin-Tanner puts the move on me.

The Weekend and After

Too tired to post anything substantial, but do want to record a couple of things before they fly out of my head. Yes, this is a mishmash. Watched, or was it heard, Wynton Marsalis at 50 on PBS last night, while unfriending more than a hundred people on Facebook whom I have never talked to and who never talked to me. I liked the more complex, more "classical" compositions than the more populist ones. But what do I know about jazz? Zilch. I heard jazz at Iridium once, a long time ago, and did not enjoy the music, though the company was delightful. In New Orleans earlier this year, I heard an old-style jazz band, and imagined that this was the kind of music that Larkin loved and hated Charlie Parker for destroying.

GH and I watched Weekend last Saturday night. There are at least four different movies that go by that name on imdb, not including movies titled The Weekend. You would have thought that directors or studios would try harder to come up with something original. The Wee…

Storm King

Last Saturday, VM and JF drove GH and I to Storm King. We first took a long hike on the mountain, and then made our way to the Art Center. The grounds of the sculpture center were beautifully landscaped. The museum building overlooked the meadows to the North-west and the North woods. To the south was the leisurely undulating South Fields where gentle knolls raised monumental works like Mark Di Suvero's Pyramidian (1987/88) against a background of sky, and a mirror-clear serpentine pond provided the perfect playground for Roy Lichtenstein's Mermaid (1994). Yellow-brown grasses that came up to the knee were sculptured for contrast to the green fields.

At the very end of the South Fields was the highlight of the walk for me: Maya Lin's Storm King Wavefield (2007-08). The artist who designed the darkly shiny Vietnam War Memorial worked here with mounds of earth. The grassy mounds did not look very special when we walked past them, though they were taller than we were and quit…

Faith in Things Not Yet Spoken

Last night GH and I attended the opening night of a new season of music by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The highlight of the evening for me was Haydn's Symphony No. 73 in D Major (The Hunt), played with thrilling color and dancing rhythm. The disappointment was Brahms' Violin Concerto in D Major, with Gil Shaham. The first two movements were too slow, and lost the drama of the work. Shaham was clear and delicate in the quieter passages but did not bring out the architecture of the concerto.

The evening began with Mendelssohn's Fair Melusina Overture. The program note explains:

In medieval folklore, Melusina was a beautiful girl cursed to take the form of a mermaid one day each week. She married the knight Reymund, and forbade him from ever seeing her on Saturdays. He betrayed her one fateful day, spying on her in the bath, and she disappeared forever from sight of humans, although the sound of her wailing remained.
The music went from a rolling "water" theme in …

Poem: "I'll be there right away"

I’ll be there right away—
says the rocking horse.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxWait a minute—
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxsays the clock.

Not so loud—
says the tin whistle.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxThis way—
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxsays the mirror.

In here—
says the keyhole.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxThe bed, busy with blankets,
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxsays nothing.

Poem: "Laugh all you want"

Laugh all you want—

he is taking the scaffolding down,
this young man in a yellow hard hat

xxxxxhe is taking the scaffolding down
xxxxxwith the other deliberate fellows

xxxxxxxxxxhe is unscrewing the steel brackets
xxxxxxxxxxhe is dismantling all the right angles

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxhe is switching eyes with me—
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxthe kind fellow—as I hammer past

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxhe is taking the scaffolding down,
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxunlocking the entrance to the bank.

Poem: "Listen. I will say this only once"

Listen. I will say this only once—           in your language—

tonight’s special is a spring quartet         with pinto beans,

capers, bell peppers, wild onions            and a lemon source.

You can have either a tambourine          or a side of basilisk

but not both. I advise the basilisk.          For drinking I have

a medium-bodied Hungarian tune           from lost-and-found.

I also have a delicious Sangiovese         but it is not for you.

There are three desserts tonight.            Yes, quite a spread.

An American confection, heavy,            sweet and empty,

nine hundred and eighty calories            minus the Yiddish,

a fruit tart in a major chord called           The Less Deceived

and a slow crumble with Chinese           characteristics.

You need a minute? Take an hour.         Take the whole night

if you wish. Just don’t you dare to          ask me to repeat.

Poem: "Quiet, please"

Quiet, please—

the beach is turning over to sleep, drawing up

to its shoulders the slipping blanket of the sea.

The old Ferris wheel is slowing to a final stop,

its wooden cars empty. The stands are closing.

On the pier, extended like a promise, the lines

are reeled back to their hollow round casings.

The patrol boat is circling an invisible crater

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxas if a man is drowning.

Not Afraid of Seeming Ridiculous

TLS September 16 2011

from Seamus Perry's review of Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali (translated by William Radice); The Essential Tagore (edited by Fakrul Alam and Radha Chakravarty); Boyhood Days (translated by Radha Chakravarty); and Farewell Song (translated by Radha Chakravarty):

Tagore's familiarity with the nineteenth-century poets was evidently very deep, and in his critical pronouncements, he can sound the clear high note of Romantic idealism which Yeats would have recognized. "The world becomes another world in our mind.... This act of the mind enables us to individualize external reality"; and an even more strikingly Yeatsian turn, "How to express the world the mind creates within itself? It has to be expressed in such a manner that it leads to a mood".


Many of Tagore's best writings are animated by a similar sense, sympathetic but accepting, of the unshapely desultoriness of the lives that they narrate, as though exploring the flip-side …

Poem: "I won't lie"

xxxxxI won’t lie—

the cats bothered me. There were four of them—

xxxxxthree shaggy black ones and a ginger—

but they seemed more. They nosed around the yard

xxxxxlike a party of scouts. They measured

the top of the fence in steps in both directions.

xxxxxThey mewed and were answered.

I watched and watched for the others until night

xxxxxmade it impossible to count for sure.

Day brought back the cats and their number. One

xxxxxshort of the fingers on a hand. Two short

of ten if the number of the creatures were doubled.

xxxxxEight short of twenty if they were tripled.

If they were multiplied by five, there would be twenty

xxxxxbut where were the other sixteen hiding?

I caught the ginger staring at me through the window

xxxxxthe morning before the cats disappeared.

I watched and watched but they did not come back.

xxxxxI lost four cats but they had seemed more.

for Rachael Briggs

Poem: "My mouth is dry as I speak"

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxMy mouth is dry as I speak—

the arm thrown round me was encircled

xxxxxwith two bracelets,

one, two leather thongs were tied together at their ends

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxby tiny coils of wire

pulled towards each other and closed by an S-shaped clasp;

xxxxxthe other, a thin ring of nickel

with a running groove that made the single round

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxlook like two.

Inside the circlets, the arm

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxwas withering,

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxhair bristling,

but the leather preserved its O

xxxxxxxxxxand the nickel resisted oxygen and shone.

Poem: "To be brief"

To be brief—

when I entered the grotto
to find the Buddha
                               carved from the living wall of the cave,

I wasn’t expecting the bats
                                           hundreds of furry pulses
agitating the air
                  with more than blood.

          In the fearful disorder,
                                           image, wing, shadow,

I stumbled out,
                  my face
                              flittering still with near misses.

         They did not fly
into each other

Brahms' "Eroica"

Last night, the New York Philharmonic performance of Brahms' Symphony No. 3 sounded wonderfully fresh. The first movement was particularly dynamic. I did not care for the thick orchestral textures of movements two and three, but the last was again eloquent. The sun rose majestically, and the effect just fell short of the sublime, because the last part was played a little too softly. I was sleepy throughout the Berg violin concerto, but electrified by the Brahms after the intermission. It reminded me why I attend actual concerts instead of listening to a CD at home.

The program began with Bach's Concerto for Two Violins in D minor. Frank Peter Zimmermann and Alan Gilbert made a well-matched pair of soloists. TB was thrilled to hear the piece because she has been working on it with her music teacher, L, whom GH and I met that evening. L applauded the Bach enthusiastically and seemed to like the Brahm too. After the concert, he recited to me the opening of The Canterbury Tales. F…

Living as Form

In the words of its brochure, "Living as Form" presented "over 100 artists and projects, 25 curators, and 9 new commissions highlighting 20 years of socially engaged art." On Sunday GH and I wandered through the mostly empty Essex Street Market building in which the exhibition was held. The projects were not readily comprehensible, their explanations in densely written booklets, their images played on looped videos. Mitch Corber was there to show the interviews and books of Poetry Thin Air Cable Network, as was Cindy Hochman. Cindy was kind to press on me a copy of her new chapbook The Carcinogenic Bride, but I insisted on paying a poet for her work. The poetry is lively. I particularly like the last poem "Under Anesthesia," in which the disoriented patient addresses the doctor like a lover in a swirl of weird imagery and knowing humor:

Doctor, I am lying on your table with my compliant bones
Doctor, soon you will be under my anonymous skin
Doctor, you hav…


GH and I wanted to see Richard Serra's new works at the Gagosian Gallery, and so took in other galleries on a pleasant, if drizzly, Saturday afternoon. At the Magnanmetz Gallery, Colombian artist Miler Lagos built an igloo out of books from a defunct US Navy base library. The old index cards papered a nearby corner. On the other end of the gallery, his video Water House (2011) showed a water tank floating on water. It keeps water out instead of water in, and so becomes a kind of ark.

At George Billis, American artist Adam Normandin showed photorealistic paintings of freight trains. I like the idea of reproducing spray-painted graffiti on uneven metal sidings with oil paint on a flat canvas. Affirmation was particularly compelling an image. Another artist, British Paul Winstanley, at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, painted from photographs, mostly his own. Showing people alone in public spaces, the soft-focused works seemed to meditate on people meditating in a moment snatched from the …

Poem: "Another America"

Another America

the eye-white sky-light
white-light district
of lunar lusts

     Mina Loy, “Lunar Baedeker”

Port people
with sea for eyes
and river mouths

set up campfires,
courses of dirt,
and chandelier palaces

The other Paris
who picked Hera,
objectively most beautiful,
for the apple from the Hesperides

received the city,
the arrangement of avenues, handkerchief parks,
noon showers that flirt with bicyclists
but keep their promise to the asphalt,

midnight inheritance of the stars,
cemeteries on land

Sailors on saddles
of the jacaranda district

ride, singing,
to the silver altar
in the silver Basilica

The tango schools
once taught
men only

to drop
like a purple petal
from the mouth of the gaucho