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Conscientious Readers

Perhaps a week or so ago, Loren Webster wrote about Ezra Pound and not long after Jonathon Delacour mentioned the controversy surrounding Pound's being awarded Yale's first Bollingen Prize for the Pisan Cantos, despite Pound's loud and bilious anti-semitism. Then Burningbird re-addressed the dilemma of how to regard the artist who produces exquisite work but vile opinion.

I said, in a comment to Bb:

It is a difficult problem--separating art from artist.

Pound's work is a treasure (do you know his translations from the Chinese? "The River Merchant's Wife" is a wonder), but the passage you quoted of his opinions made me want to throw up. I'd forgotten just how bitter his bile was.

Some people have a similar problem with Frost, saying that at best he was a tough guy to live with and at worst he was abusive. But I don't want to live without the swinger of "Birches."

I'm writing a mixed media novel that jumps off of a wonderful poem by Ted Hughes. I'm finding that I've had to write into the story the conflict I often come across when I bring up his name: even now there are avid Sylvia Plath fans ready to club me to death for liking anything written by that ultimate bad husband. "But he was a poet laureate of England," I murmur. Ted and Sylvia's sexual politics, and the specter of mental illness have entered my novel, whether I really wanted to write about them or not.

May 29, 2003 in Current Affairs, practical theories | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack


It's a Mod, Mod, Mod World

Fresh and giggly from seeing "Down with Love," I read the Salon review of this cinematic confection after-the-fact. This was intentional, as I was fairly certain that Stephanie Zacharek would hold the film to a standard to which it hadn't aspired and while I wouldn't agree, I would feel sufficiently chipped off as to not enjoy myself as much as I in fact did.

"Down with Love" is a loving parody of the adorable and arch Rock Hudson-Doris Day films of the late fifties and early sixties. Filmed in a crisp retro technicolor with a bright lipstick palette, "Down with Love"'s intense visual appeal is matched with a fun, smart script and spot-on performances.

The first two-thirds of the movie proceed more or less as expected — following the pattern of the typical Hudson-Day romp — which leaves the audience amused at the all the blatant sexual innuendo and trying to remember if the sexual politics of the period really had quite this much edge. At this point we encounter some sharp U-turns that really do take the audience by surprise — and, apparently, either make or break the film in the critics' eyes.

I suspect it's a mistake to ask a film so devoted to artifice to develop realistic characters or plot a truly meaningful emotional arc. This is a film of surfaces and veneers, of multiple costume changes and changes-of-heart, of meeting your match and matching your mate. It's a designer's film, glorying in color, vista, form and tableau. It's the most perfect marzipan you ever saw.

Update, 05/29/03:

After I wrote the above, but before I got around to posting it, I came across this article, which analyzes "Down with Love" alongside "Far from Heaven", and suggests that:

In their oddball, covert way, both "Far From Heaven" and "Down With Love" make a more radical assault on the fantasy of the '50s than more overt attacks like "Pleasantville" do. They say to us: We're never going back there. It's not an option. So let's play dress-up because now that is all this will ever be -- a game, a performance, a show, a costume picture.

Laura Miller

May 27, 2003 in Film, practical theories | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack


Thought Foxes

Somewhat like what is true with the names "Aurora D." and "Hit Those Keys", the notion of a "thought fox" is a layered one. In the plural, it's the title of one of my works-in-progress, a YA novel that is showing signs of wanting to also be a critical essay and perhaps an e-narrative, as well.

I also use "thought fox" more generically, to refer to a certain kind of writing which is difficult to find a name for. I mean by it a writing that summons something into being through words. There's an incantatory quality to this, and more than a bit of sleight of hand. It is the sort of writing that is unsearchable by conventional means: Shelley Powers' RDF poetry finder would be very handy for locating more examples.

The original "thought fox" is a construct in a Ted Hughes poem:

The Thought Fox

I imagine this midnight’s moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now,

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, and eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

—Ted Hughes,
from The Hawk in the Rain


Do you see what happens here? A piece of writing that does that is a thought fox. At least, I name it so.

May 22, 2003 in if in doubt, quote, influences, practical theories, work in progress | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack


More on Genres

If you believe, as the Greeks did, that man is at the mercy of the gods, then you write tragedy. The end is inevitable from the beginning. But if you believe that man can solve his own problems and is at nobody’s mercy, then you will probably write melodrama.

—Lillian Hellman,
answering critics’ complaints
that her plots were melodramatic,
recalled on her death, June 30, 1984.

May 21, 2003 in if in doubt, quote, practical theories | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack


Blogging the Line

...between Blood and Bernstein....

A College Writing Assignment: Read Rebecca Blood's The Weblog Handbook, plus Mark Bernstein's review of Blood's book and, (this is my own addition), his article "Writing the Living Web".

If I'm not mistaken, among the various issues that might boil up in response to reading these two side by side, you will also find the following paradoxes of web writing, (which are, as it turns out, the paradoxes of all writing):

Say your piece. Link to what others have to say.

To thine own self be true. Only connect.

"Stacey A.", in her first-year teaching log for the college writing course, says:

I can't help but yet again feel pinned between Bernstein and Blood .... Blood says to write for yourself. Bernstein more or less says I need to be interesting, constructing rhetorical and social situations by creating effective links.

— entry for 5/15/03,

(quoted 5/16/03 by Bernstein)


Be yourself. Be interesting. Does some such dynamic pairing define a borderline between Bernstein and Blood, both influential personalities when it comes to the topic of web writing? Is this the uncomfortable rock and hard place where a fledgling web writer could get pinned?

Maybe. Except I don't see Scylla and Charybdis. To write at all you have to believe that you are interesting. Martha Graham puts it even more emphatically:

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time this expression is unique.

And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.

It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.

I believe this. And yet, to write at all well, a writer also needs to follow the lead of John Gardner, who says, "[the writing] is about other people." It would be a poor world, artistically, culturally, politically, if artists didn't enter imaginatively into the experience of another.

Individual. Community.

What seems important is to be mindful of where the balance point might be between creation's rival hungers for privacy and for audience. Creation plainly craves both. Privacy argues against exposure, but hiding blunts authenticity. Audiences claim to crave authenticity, but everyone knows audiences are fickle.

Still, the audience likes a good story. The audience likes context.

Include the audience. But don't lose yourself.

The first paragraph of Bernstein's review of Blood's manual gives the lay of the land of blogs:

Tragedy tells us that our weblogs are the playthings of the Gods, subject to the whims of fate and fortune. Comedy promises that our weblogs can succeed through hard work, struggle, and good fortune. Melodrama warns us that there are bad people and evil forces in the world, and that only through courage and determination can our weblogs overcome their malignity. And Romance assures us that, though weblogs fail everywhere, our weblog will prosper because we, ourselves, are wonderful.

Mark Bernstein, in HypertextNow.


I love this. If you substitute something a little broader — 'endeavor' or 'work' — the passage opens out to encompass the entire existential dilemma of the artist. The four "genres" of the blog are not discrete states of being, they form a continuum of the artist's state of mind, by turns fatalistic, hopeful, fearful and self-involved. The balance point is always shifting, and with it, the artist's ability to look inward or outward.

May 17, 2003 in Tinderbox, Weblogs, practical theories | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack


Soothing the Bear

At the risk of jinxing what I have, I do solemnly declare that I love being married.

This is not a new marriage. It will be 21 years next month.

Naturally, my pleasure in it has everything to do with who I'm married to, but also, I suspect, with the paradox of feeling utterly free within a construct. Poets who write in forms know what I'm talking about, as do those who follow the forms of an organized religion. In The Philosopher's Diet: How to Lose Weight and Change the World, which is both a good diet and good philosophy, author Richard A. Watson talks about the efficacy of living within the demands of some kind of form. I rate myself a notorious resister of forms, being an almost-prose poet, a disorganized agnostic, and an abandoner of diets, but somehow the form of marriage agrees with me.

Earlier in the week, when I was feeling quite foul, Don made me laugh as only he can. ("No, he's Fawlty." "Faulty? What's wrong with him?")

Yesterday, when he was feeling, in his words, "like a bear" (and growling like one, too) I eased his day by receiving it, as is our married-folk custom. In the construct we've built, "Tell me about your day," isn't small talk. For both of us, it's "How do I know what I think until I hear what I've said?" It's the Weltys' whistling duet, up and down the stairs, that ties the different refrains of our days together.

(An online notebook is a kind of form, too. But that's a different story....)

May 15, 2003 in dailiness | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack


Monday, Monday

A whole day wasted on depression and hiding from myself and my work.

I did the things I had to do: made child lunches, got kids off to carpool, did the 90-minute afternoon carpool loop, walked/fed the dogs, etc.

I didn't do any of the "should do's" — answer client email, read the passages that a group of us in my newsgroup are analyzing, continue tweaking of some online materials...

I think the bottleneck is with the client email. Not the clients. The clients are lovely people: interesting writers with good things to say. No, it's a certain assignment I used to think was really important, but which always leads to some unanswerable questions. Well, not unanswerable, exactly, I just don't like the answers. Giving them makes me feel like a fraud, even though it's not my fault some of this material is so confounding.

I'm in the midst of a materials shuffle for this (the Dramatica Basics) course anyway. An updated interface and a slightly different flow through the material is almost ready. (I've said this before, then found more stuff to tweak. It would probably help if I had lower standards and no aesthetic sensibilities whatsoever. I did please myself beyond all reason last week by teaching myself how to make a treeview menu for the course syllabus....)

In Dramatica's lexicon I am being very female-minded at the moment. (Thinking in intuitive widening-circle patterns instead of connect-the-dots logical patterns.) As a way of categorizing problem-solving, it's a bit reductive (well, more than a bit) but also descriptive. Because I do tend to work on everything at once, nudging it all along some sort of progression, so that when it does see the light of day everything is marvelously connected and lots of contingencies are already accounted for. The trouble is, it can take an awfully long time to nudge it all out where it can be seen by the light of day and in the meantime it can sit around in big scary piles of amorphous undone stuff.

However, I think I have talked myself into being able to tackle some tiny part of it. Whew. Someone was once nice enough to tell me my "wheel grinds slowly, but exceedingly fine." I hope that's true.

May 12, 2003 in dailiness, distractions | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack


What to write when you have a headache

Headaches are an intractable malady when it comes to writing. A stubbed toe can be ignored, but the writer lives in her head. When it's full of migraine there's not much room for anything else.

One can attempt whimsy: while I considered and rejected a weak joke about how there might not be much in this writer's head at the best of times, I also began considering a simile of a mind as a furnished set of rooms... This at least was mildly interesting; enough so that I wrote it down.

I suspect on all days this mind is furnished rather eclectically, but today in particular it probably resembles a certain sort of English bed-and-breakfast hotel. A riot of mismatched carpets and Laura Ashley-inspired puffy curtains and Staffordshire china with bucolic scenes and a little metered heater that doles out puffs of heat for 20p for about a minute and a half.

The migraine itself would be some sort of hotel pet that is entirely fictional and out of place, like a Push-me-Pull-you.

May 10, 2003 in blockbusters, methods | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack


One for the Copy Book

People are sometimes surprised that I actually do keep copy books. Today I felt I had to dig out this passage from Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings:

When I was young enough to still spend a long time buttoning my shoes in the morning, I'd listen towards the hall: Daddy upstairs was shaving in the bathroom and Mother downstairs was frying the bacon. They would begin whistling back and forth to each other up and down the stairwell. My father would whistle his phrase, my mother would try to whistle, then hum hers back. It was their duet. I drew my buttonhook in and out and listened to it — I knew it was 'The Merry Widow.' The difference was, their song almost floated with laughter: how different from the record, which growled from the beginning, as if the Victrola were only slowly being wound up. They kept it running between them, up and down the stairs where I was now just about ready to run clattering down and show them my shoes.

— Eudora Welty


I've copied this before. I covet it, just like as a child I coveted those chalk sidewalk landscapes in Mary Poppins that the characters were able to jump into. Welty's writing here carries the reader up and down those stairs along with the tune, and by the end its me running down the stairs. Those are my shoes.

May 3, 2003 in blockbusters, if in doubt, quote | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack


Don's Playlist: May

'don riffling record racks' © 1983 lgfDo you remember the first music you bought for yourself? My first vinyl purchases included George Harrison's All Things Must Pass and the cast recording of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Don's made it his mission of the past several months to reassemble his first dozen or so vinyl albums on CDs. This strut down memory avenue includes:

May 2, 2003 in indices, influences | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack