May 25 is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s birthday (1803). He is one of the great essayists America has produced. And as a poet, he’s a great essayist. This piece by Dan Chiasson, another poet, gets at Emerson’s importance for American poetry.
The fire yesterday at Notre-Dame Cathedral set off many thoughts, one of which took till this morning to announce itself. In 1981, I opened The Atlantic to find a story called “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver. I knew the name but hadn’t spent any time with him, his oeuvre being slight and the volume of stories that would make his name, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love only appearing that same year. Still, the magazine had been pretty reliable as a source of good-to-great fiction, so I read it. I was instantly hooked despite the unsavory quality of the narrator/main character, or maybe because of that. His voice and attitude fairly screamed, “something big is bound to happen to him.” And it did. After complaining about “this blind man” who was coming to visit his wife, the nameless main character (whom the blind man, Robert, calls “Bub”) reaches his revelation while watching a program about building cathedrals and helping Robert draw one by guiding his hand, that being the only way Robert can “visualize” a Gothic cathedral. In Emily Dickinson’s words, it blew the top of my head off.
But so did something else: I had watched that program a year or so before the story appeared. It was the moment when I learned how flying buttresses worked. And even what they were. Suddenly, I had a personal point of contact with this piece of fiction. That never happened with Dickens or Joyce. From that unlikely commonality, the story lodged itself in my consciousness, and I inflicted it on decades of Intro to Fiction students, who seemed to like it well enough even if they hadn’t seen that program.
That sentimental attachment came back yesterday, watching Our Lady of Paris in flames, complete with burning roof and tower, and a falling spire to do Yeats one better. While we all thought of Victor Hugo–whose tale involving a hunchback is actually titled, Notre-Dame de Paris in French–I felt, although it took a while to recognize the sensation, the tug of a much smaller piece of writing by a contemporary about sin and redemption and hope, which especially during Holy Week is the message the great cathedrals were built to convey.
In Bohemian Rhapsody, we see Freddie Mercury walk from the dressing trailer to the Live-Aid stage twice. The first time is at the end of the opening sequence. He preens, stretches, nods to people, and generally goes from Freddie Mercury, civilian, to Freddie Mercury, rock god. The performance is about to begin. The movie closes with that performance, Queen’s triumphant mini-concert to the adoring masses. The critical moment in terms of telling its hero’s story, though, is not the music itself but that same stage walk-up we watched earlier. Except that it’s not. Everything he did the first time, he does the second. Same actions, same people and objects crossing his path, the works. But there’s an addition.
This time, we see his bandmates close behind him, between “us” and the him. So we didn’t get the whole story the first time.
That tracking shot conveys two pieces of information. First, they were with him the whole time, ready to support him, to share in the glory, to be stars in their own right. And second, on the first trip the camera was interposed between Freddie and the other three. The early shot says, this is Freddie’s movie. The second, that he didn’t get here by himself.
So here’s the thing about those two shots: they select which information we see, and that selection is the essence of narration. The camera lens does not merely present; it includes, excludes, chooses. Does that make movies the same as novels? No, but it does mean that they control the flow of information in a way that resembles written fiction more than it does drama, despite the presence of actors and directors and such. This isn’t my original observation; Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg made it back in 1966 in The Nature of Narrative, a work I probably first read a decade later. But it is something that all serious moviegoers need to learn at some point. The language of film is visual, not verbal (else there could not be silent movies), but the mode is narrative. Kind of makes your head hurt, doesn’t it?
My interview with C.S. Soong for his Against the Grain program will air on KPFA in Berkeley, 94.1 FM, on March 4 at noon PST (3:00 EST) for those in the Bay Area and kpfa.org for everyone else. It will be archived at https://kpfa.org/program/against-the-grain/ for those who can’t catch it live. C.S. and I had a great conversation. That is, he asked excellent questions and held up his end of the bargain. All I ever hear on my end is Tom blathering and hoping desperately he doesn’t sound like at big an idiot as I suspect. Check it out and see if I was lucky!
The calendar is finally going to flip on New Year’s Day to 1923 for works entering the public domain. It was supposed to happen in 1999, but copyright holders got a twenty year extension. One of the outcomes here is that I just paid for permissions on a certain 1923 poem for a whopping ten months (the term is usually five or seven years, depending on what one can negotiate). At least I won’t have to pay for the renewal. On January 1, 2020, 1924 goes into public domain, and so on in perpetuity, barring further funny business.
I’ve never said this before, but that’s what I get for writing so fast.
[This is an entry in a group of observations from nature that, arrogantly following Pascal, I have called Pensées, the word suggesting thoughts but also the flowers, pansies. What could be finer?]
The Bleak Midwinter
The sky is a gray veil behind which
the midday sun is trying,
against nature, to set in the south.
Safe in my warm Ford, I still feel
the trepidation that must
have visited the ancients who,
unable to consult Wikipedia and
assure themselves that the golden
chariot would continue driving across the sky
day after day without end,
offered sacrifices to mollify the god.
My father, spirit crushed by the shortened days
and dying light,
perversely relished the solstice.
“It can’t,” he’d say, “get any worse than this,”
adding that every day from here
forward is a little longer.
A cause for celebration, never celebrated.
Merely endured. He died when the days
were nearing the nadir
and was buried on the solstice
in cold rain and a chill wind.
That fate would not have shocked him.
These darkest days are a stern reminder
that we should buck up, carry on,
trust an eternal pattern that has always
returned the light to us.
And while we’re about it, be kind,
share others’ burdens, and,
not ourselves born to save,
at least be of some small assistance.
This Saturday, November 17, I will be appearing with Carol Jago and Kelly Gallagher in a session on High School Matters at the National Council of English Teachers annual conference. The session (KL, for the record) is at 2:45 in Grand Ballroom C at the Houston Hilton, for those attending. I’m in awe at appearing with and in front of so many teachers who work incredibly hard to make our society more literate and fluent. I feel like such a slacker next to them!
I had occasion in How to Read Poetry Like a Professor to use Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, “The Bells,” as an instance of pure sound, which is to say, sound used for its own sake beyond the meaning of the poem. I never thought of is as something waiting for musical adaptation, and it turns out I was right, technically. It wasn’t waiting: the talented and tragic folk singer Phil Ochs had already been there. He adapted the poem on his first album, 1964’s All the News That’s Fit to Sing. It’s pretty great:
My interview about How to Read Poetry Like a Professor with Jake Nevins of The Guardian U.S. came out today. What a great birthday present! He does a great job of asking a solid setup question and then letting his subject blather, which is one of my specialties: