Dylan and Bloom; or, Why Yeats Was Wrong

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There is a quote from the great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, from a poem called “The Choice,” which I have never really understood.  Here it is:

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work

Why do we have to choose?  I was thinking about this quote, because recently Netflix has announced that they will be releasing a new documentary about that most protean and enigmatic of artists, the pseudonymously named and pretty much always astonishing Bob Dylan.  What was I thinking about?  I was remembering various times in my life when, listening to Dylan in my car, driving somewhere, I would compare various tracks from different Dylan albums, if only to instantiate in myself a kind of marveling cognitive dissonance.  In other words, I liked the shock of encountering an artist who didn’t sit still, who was rather scandalously and bravely growing: as an artist, of course, but also, in many ways (to my mind) as a person.  Because, when you really thought about it, (and here is where the Yeats quote comes in), how could one compose such variegated and beautiful songs, if they were not emerging from the conditions of a particular life – a life that made room for the songwriting to happen in the first place?

As I thought about Dylan, I reflected on other artists and thinkers who, it seemed to me, had never really settled – who, by some strange alchemical need, urgency, prompting, were constantly producing works that built in tacit or not-so-tacit ways on the previous work – but who also found ways to fearlessly branch out, to break out of the confines of their earlier suppositions, norms, conventions, assumptions, standards, and to therefore transcend (but also include) what came before in their own work.

The American literary critic Harold Bloom is a great example of this form of striving, and he also has a new book out (feel free to click on the image below to put a hold on a copy).  I have been a devoted follower of Bloom’s career since I read, in the early 2000s, his rather confidently titled, How to Read and Why.  I can’t say exactly what it was about that book that led me to a lifelong addiction to the Bloomian voice, except that I can say with certainty that his passion for literature was so encompassingly large, so supremely infectious, so utterly and undeniably alive with fetching thought and feeling, that I became irreparably hooked.  And to reflect on his career is, in many ways, to come across another phenomenon, a la Dylan, whereby a human being, absorbing and breathing out the vast tradition from which they came, (Dylan’s Chronicles is a great place to start to learn about his own influences; Bloom is endlessly alluding to his forebears, which include the 18th century literary critic and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, and the 19th century poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson), create from that tradition something fearlessly “revisionary,” to use a Bloomian term, i.e. they re-vision, they re-see, what came before them, and they then, from this creative interpretation, this vision, this feeling, produce something powerfully compelling.  If you merely glance at Bloom’s bibliography on Wikipedia, you can see a rather staggeringly deep arc in his work, from the Romantic poets, to the study of what poetic influence means, to Kabbalah and Sigmund Freud, to religious criticism (his meditations on Mormonism and Joseph Smith are utterly fascinating), to the Western Canon and Shakespeare (!), and onwards and outwards, towards and into meditations on Christianity, the God of the Hebrew Bible, various Shakespearean characters, the King James Bible, and into his now present work, which comes from a man in his late eighties who has refused to stagnate or stop developing spiritually in any way.

What can artists like Dylan and Bloom teach us, artists that can be easily found at most public libraries, including our very own Rocky River Public Library?  They show us, I think, that Yeats might have been too eager to assume that the life and the work are easily separable categories, mutually exclusive dimensions of existence where you have to sacrifice one for the other.  Bloom has taught at Yale University for more than sixty years, and Dylan has played live shows on what he calls a “Never Ending Tour” since 1988.  These two artists are, in a very large sense, role models for the rest of us.  The synergy of their lives and works form ballasts on which we can stand and look out and really think about what it means to lead a good and meaningful life.  Their superb examples, which cannot exactly be imitated, but can be learned from and incorporated into one’s own life, marshal forth endless opportunities for reflection on how and why we not only imbibe thought and art, but also attempt, in our own idiosyncratic ways, to become artists of life ourselves.

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What we’re reading now….

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

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This is a story about isolation and resilience. Kya, also known as the Marsh Girl, was abandoned by her family in the marsh lands of North Carolina. Alongside the story of her survival in the marsh as a child, an alternate timeline of a murder is unwound throughout the story. The writing is lyrical and descriptive which drags you deep into the marshes of North Carolina. The book is both heartbreaking and triumphant. Beth

The Complete Poems of A.R. Ammons  by A.R. Ammons

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American poet A.R. Ammons taught creative writing for years at Cornell, and recently a two-volume collection was published. I’m working my way through the first volume and hope to read the second as well. His poetry is a very intense exploration of the relationship between the natural world and the metaphysical. His voice is charming and unforgettable, and he is able to be funny and profound at the same time. Ammons grew up in rural North Carolina, and some of his most affecting poems (for me) are about his memories as a child, taking care of the animals on his family’s farm. A good, slow, enjoyable and worthwhile read. Andrew

Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life by Eric Klinenberg

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In Palaces for the People, Klinenberg makes the argument that social infrastructure is fundamental to both the physical and social health of a community. In using the phrase “social infrastructure,” Klinenberg is referencing community places that cause human contact and social connections to form, including libraries, places of worship, parks, and schools. The connections made at these locations create social safety nets and allow for exposure to others; this imparts tolerance and understanding in a society often becoming more divisive. An interesting read; the frequent mentions of how libraries are valuable resources for communities may have influenced my appreciation and enjoyment. Trent


The Familiars by Stacy Hall

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This is a fictionalized account of the real life Pendle Hill Witch Trials. It’s 1612, Lancashire, England and young noblewoman Fleetwood Shuttleworth has yet to bear a child after four years of marriage. Each of her pregnancies have ended in miscarriage and the doctor has made a dire prediction-Fleetwood will not survive another pregnancy. And yet, she once again finds herself with child. When she meets Alice Grey, she begins to believe that both she and her baby might survive. Fleetwood places all her trust in her new midwife, who prescribes various herbs to treat Fleetwood’s ailments. While her health improves and her pregnancy progresses Alice finds herself being accused of witchcraft. Can Fleetwood save the only woman who can save her? Megan


Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

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Kindred was pushed up in my reading priorities in February, but as is often the case I don’t usually read books based on monthly themes. I am now part way through listening to it being read by Kim Staunton on my commutes. It has some similarities to the Outlander series, but this book was written 12 years earlier in 1979. Dana is a black woman living in the 1970s who is mysteriously pulled back in time to the early 1800s. The book is a bit more fast paced with back and forth time travelling. Dana must learn to survive living on a plantation in the slave state of Maryland where she has no rights. She meets a couple of her ancestors and learns about her surprising black and white family tree. She experiences physical trauma similar to the women of several generations past. There isn’t really a science fiction device for the time travelling, so it is more fantasy based. Sometimes time travel stories can be full of loopholes and anachronisms, but Butler has very carefully constructed the plot based on history that the hero Dana cannot so easily change for the better. Byron


American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt by Stephanie Thornton

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This is the story of Alice, the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt. Alice is just 18 years old when McKinley is assassinated and her father becomes president. Rebellious Alice is in constant conflict with her father and stepmother. She soon marries Congressman Nick Longworth and must deal with his infidelity and heavy drinking. Alice gives birth to Paulina, who is believed to be the daughter of Senator William Borah. When Paulina dies young, Alice raises her granddaughter. This is an epic story of a strong independent woman way ahead of her time. Emma


Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

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George Washington Black, Wash as we come to know him, is a ten year old slave on a sugar plantation in Barbados in the mid 1800s. When the eccentric brother, Titch, of the exceedingly cruel master, Eramus, comes to stay, Wash is taken under the wing of Titch. Wash is both confused and terrified by such an unlikely kindness extended to him. Titch is a scientist, inventor, explorer and abolitionist. Wash is swept up in the life of such a diversified, yet strange young man. This is a story of friendship and betrayal, love and redemption. The author deftly talks about slavery, racism and identity. It reads like both historical fiction and adventure. Have patience with this novel, at times, it seems disconnected, but well worth it. Mary

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

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Nine people join at a remote health resort in Australia for different reasons. Some are hoping to lose weight, some are getting over broken hearts, and others have heard it is just the most amazing experience ever. As each of them are cut off from the outside world and required to follow a rigid, individualized schedule prepared for them by the spa’s extremely eccentric owner/director, they begin to wonder what they have gotten themselves into. Should they stay and experience the promised life-changing experience, or should they run while (and if) they still can? Not as good as The Husband’s Secret or Big Little Lies in my opinion, but still a good read with some interesting twists and turns. Sara

When I Spoke in Tongues by Jessica Wilbanks

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This memoir is about a woman who grew up in a very religious yet impoverished rural Virginia community and becomes an atheist. As I read it, I could not help but think of Tara Westover’s Educated. Even though there were many similarities in their stories, When I Spoke In Tongues dealt mostly with the complicated, painful process of leaving one’s faith. The most interesting aspect of the author’s journey away from faith was the way her relationships with family members changed. Jessica Wilbanks holds an MFA in creative non-fiction, and the writing in this book is haunting and beautiful. This book would be important for anyone who decides to depart from the faith tradition they grew up with, as well as anyone who wants to know more about Pentecostalism as a movement. Lyndsey

Waterworks by E.L. Doctorow

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I went back a few years and revisited a 1994 E.L. Doctorow novel, The Waterworks, because it was recommended. Set in post-Civil War New York, the book is narrated by a world-weary newspaperman, McIlvaine, whose freelance writer, Martin Pemberton, has disappeared. Pemberton, smart, rebellious, and scion of the wealthy and recently deceased Augustus Pemberton, had confided to McIlvaine that, though his father had died, he believed he recently saw him passing by in a carriage. McIlvaine enlists the help of Donne, a rare honest police officer during the Boss Tweed era, and the two search for Martin, discovering his half-dead body in a facility where the genius Dr. Sartorious is trying to defeat mortality. Doctorow starts off well, lyrically capturing New York and its inhabitants, the poverty, wealth, power and industry, but eventually the plot becomes too gothic and the characters stereotypically good or evil. Maybe this isn’t one of his best? Dori

National Poetry Month – Why and How Do Books Affect Us When We Put Them Down?

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Turner, night scene

I was scrolling through my Twitter feed this afternoon, and came across a very interesting tweet from a Ted Underwood, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, who wrote, “The way the book you’re reading seeps into the rest of life, tinging it with undefined narrative potential: something everyone knows but literary critics don’t discuss enough.”

I loved this tweet.  Why?  Because the books we read, novels, poems, essays, plays, non-fiction, they do not only work on us (as we work on them) while we are reading them, but instead percolate and germinate once we have put them down for a moment; and when we re-enter the stream of life and interact with others and the world, these percolations and germinations color our perceptions, just as they influence our thoughts.  In a sense, then, reading a book does something to our consciousness.  For a long time, literary critics have written about language, and the dynamics of language, but reading and writing also of course have to do with the consciousness of the person reading or writing.  So when we read, what exactly is happening?  And how and why are we able then to see the world differently, after we placed the book down upon the table?

Here is one way to think about this: Have you ever visited an art museum, and spent good and meaningful time looking at the various objects, engaging with them, thinking about them, letting their forms and shapes and colors and textures speak to you?  Just looking at them, noticing them, wondering about them.  And then – and this is a very interesting  part of the experience – you leave the art museum, and the world itself has become more vivid!  The sun behind the clouds is seen more clearly, you perhaps notice the cracks in the sidewalk, the sound of children playing in a park a block away, the movement of cars as they make their way across the street, the feel of the wind as it does acrobatics with your hair.  What is going on when that happens?  I think that it is a matter of consciousness – that you have spent time sharpening your mind on the art objects, honing your perception, polishing your vision, so that when you shift from art to world that sharpness, that polish, that hone, is there, still.  Art, in this sense, augments our consciousness (just like poetry, just like books).

There is a great poem by one of my favorite poets, Wallace Stevens, that talks about this phenomenon.  It is called “The Idea of Order at Key West,” and it is about a woman walking along a shore and singing.  Stevens, like any poet, imagines this song, this indescribable thing that he hears and listens to in his imagination, and then he wonders about it.  He says, “what is this thing I hear?  What does it mean?  Why does it move me?”  Maybe even, “Who hears the song?”  The poem is, then, his own strong and idiosyncratic and profound answer to these questions.

In the penultimate stanza of the poem, we come across something very interesting and strange.  Stevens writes,

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

What does this mean?  What has happened?  Stevens has been listening to the song of the woman on the shore.  Then the song ends (we put down our book, our novel, our play, our  non-fiction).  And what happens?  “Why, when the singing ended and we turned / Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights, / The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there, / As the night descended, tilting in the air, / Mastered the night and portioned out the sea, / Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles, / Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.”  Stevens’ consciousness has been augmented, enriched, deepened, transformed, by the singing of the woman on the shore.  When she is done singing, Stevens still, in a sense, hears it, for what he sees has been inflected with her song.  The night itself is no longer only night – it is something seen and felt intensely and vividly, a vision, let’s  say, that permits Stevens to take part  in it.  He has allowed his consciousness to be infused with the song, and so it takes on contours of a wider, deeper impression, which then informs his vision of the night.

We are nearing the end of National Poetry Month, but that does not mean we should stop reading poetry.  Poetry, in many ways, in a sacred transaction, in which we encounter a deeper way of seeing the world.  When we imbibe a poem, and then put the book down, we have been blessed with a gift – a gift that is utterly free and part of the boon of all art – which is that we can for a moment step beyond ourselves, shift out of our accustomed habits of seeing and thinking, and dwell in a louder and vivified world.

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Wallace Stevens
Link to “The Idea of Order at Key West:

Cleveland International Film Festival Re-Cap

The Cleveland International Film Festival is such an incredible experience and this year several of our staff members attending screenings. Here’s a compilation of some movies we saw.

The Chaperone

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Directed by Michael Engler, Screenplay written by Julian Fellowes, Based on the book Laura Moriarty

Starring Elizabeth McGovern and Haley lu Richardson

A young Louise Brooks has the opportunity of a lifetime to attend a dance institute in New York City in the 1920s, under the condition that she is accompanied by a chaperone.  Local housewife, Norma Carlisle, volunteers to chaperone Louise and they embark on a life-changing adventure.  Norma seizes the opportunity to find closure with her past and redefine her future.

– Beth

Princess of the Row

Winner of the Roxanne T. Mueller Audience Choice Award

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Directed by Max Carlson, Written by A. Shawn Austin, Starring Ana Ortiz, Taylor Buck, Martin Sheen

A persistent young girl is determined to take care of her mentally ill father who suffered a traumatic brain injury while serving in Iraq, and now lives with severe PTSD on the streets of LA’s skid row.  This movie was beautifully shot with such a powerful message.  If you get a chance watch it, be sure to have tissues on hand.

-Beth

Shorts Program 3

Lunch Break – Directed by Tyler Smith

A Monsoon Date– Directed by Tanuja Chandra

Death Metal Grandma – Directed by Leah Galant

Bertie- Directed by Garry Crystal

Digital Age– Directed by Piripinghi

I am Black and Beautiful – Directed by Hawanatu Bangura

Light Work – Directed by Scott Kawczynski

With Thelma – Directed by Ann Sirot & Raphael Balboni

-Beth

100 things

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Directed and written by Florian David Fitz, Starring Florian David Fitz,  Matthias Schweighöfer, Miriam Stein

Lifelong friends, Tony and Paul develop a software that helps big data companies precisely advertise consumer goods to users.  As they are on the brink of breaking into a huge market, their egos force them to challenge each other in a bet.  They make a bet that the other can’t live without all their stuff for 100 days.  Each day they can reclaim one of their possessions.   The movie was hysterical and a great commentary on how much time and energy we spend being consumers.

-Beth

To Kid Or Not To Kid

To Kid or Not to Kid is a documentary directed by Maxine Trump. My wife and I previously met the filmmaker and identified with the topic, so our schedule was centered around making sure we were in the audience for one of the screenings of this personal film during CIFF43. Maxine interviews several women and traces her own journey of deciding whether or not to be a mother. She explores how the medical industry makes it difficult for women to make choices about their own bodies. She examines the cultural/societal pressure that pushes women to have children and makes them feel as if something is wrong with them if they don’t either by choice or by chance.

-Byron

Storm Boy

Storm Boy is a family drama from Australia directed by Shawn Seet. Geoffrey Rush plays a retired business man. The movie is primarily his reminiscences of his childhood when he raised orphan pelicans. Like the many stories about a boy and his dog or a girl and her horse or any other kid learning about the circle of life from raising a pet this was a bit of a tearjerker. This is actually the second adaptation of a short book by the same name. The production design set in modern day and back in the ’50s is well done, and the cast does an excellent job.
-Byron

Around the Sun

Around the Sun is an indie drama directed by Oliver Krimpas. This British film consists entirely of two actors having various conversations at a French chateau. Our library was one of the sponsors of it. There are multiple chapters and parallel realities imagined through this film where the young man and woman are at the chateau for different reasons and they meet under slightly different circumstances. They discuss big ideas of science and philosophy and human relationships. It is a bit disorienting keeping the different versions of their story straight, but I liked it. It was a challenge like putting together a puzzle.
-Byron

The Kleptocrats

This film is a documentary about the scandal surrounding Malaysian wealth fund 1MDB.  Investigative reporters from The New York Times and Wall Street Journal manage to trace the money trail and unravel the scheme.  3.5 billion dollars was allegedy stolen from a Malaysian government wealth fund called 1Malaysia Development Berhard.  This fund was intended for strategic development projects in the areas of energy, real estate, tourism and agribusiness in Malaysia. To the utter dismay of the Malaysain people, this fund evolves into one of the world’s biggest white collar heists.  Portions of the allegedly stolen money was used to bankroll the 2013 Leonardo DiCaprio blockbuster Wolf of Wall Street.  This is a compelling film about greed and a financial scandal of global proportions. As a viewer, I was very engaged and on the edge of my seat. 
-Mary

Ohio Poet Stanley Plumly: 1939-2013

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Ever year, it is inevitable, we come across the news of the passing into elsewhere of our heroes.  We don’t know where they go, but we know that we felt blessed to have had them here when they were here.  That’s how I feel today, on hearing about the death of American poet Stanley Plumly.  He was a deep and strong and elegiac poet, who wrote remarkable poems about the natural world and the worlds of human beings who shaped him.  He was the first poet I ever came across, with the exception of Philip Levine, who wrote utterly brooding and moving poems about his parents, how they were who they were, how they danced across the vista of his life and influenced him indelibly.

Sometimes I feel very sad when a beloved poet dies.  There is something, to my mind, very holy about the art of poetry, of speaking and bringing into being one’s own deepest, most vital thoughts and feelings, expressed into a durable form (language) that somehow miraculously outlasts and transcends civilizations.  There is comfort, I think, in encountering these various voices of poetry, for they suggest that something does live on after death, something beautiful about the soul and the spirit, something rich and flowering and fresh and familiarly strange.

But enough of the talk.  I wanted mostly to share a poem by Plumly, who wrote many.  Here is one from Poets.org, called “At Night”:

When did I know that I’d have to carry it around
in order to have it when I need it, say in a pocket,

the dark itself not dark enough but needing to be
added to, handful by handful if necessary, until

the way my mother would sit all night in a room
without the lights, smoking, until she disappeared?

Where would she go, because I would go there.
In the morning, nothing but a blanket and all her

absence and the feeling in the air of happiness.
And so much loneliness, a kind of purity of being

and emptiness, no one you are or could ever be,
my mother like another me in another life, gone

where I will go, night now likely dark enough
I can be alone as I’ve never been alone before.

 

What is the “it” in the first line?  What does it mean to add to the dark?  What is the relationship between loneliness and “a kind of purity of being / and emptiness”?  And what does it mean to be alone in a different, new way, “as I’ve never been alone before”?  Plumly raises these important and fascinating questions, and the poem, in its own unfolding, gestures towards answers that are perfectly capable of being and living and answering themselves within the form and content of the poem, and therefore within us, its readers.  The writing of the poem, as Plumly knew, was an embodiment of the poet’s spirit seeking to understand itself through the weaving and conjuring of a shape adequate to its own great longing.  Plumly was able to convert this longing into a form that seems to understand and speak to and assuage our own longings.  He was a poet who deserves a wide audience.  He will be missed.