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Monday, May 22, 2017

William Stafford

Rumored to have written 22,000 poems, William Stafford won a National Book Award and for thirty or forty years won the hearts of poetry readers across America. You can see his style of simple lyrics full of wisdom bubbling through the boiling cauldron of a particular era in our country's poets.

His "Way of Writing" was associative. Allowing himself plenty of time without distractions, he would get up early to write (a habit from being a conscientious objector during WWII and working in camps in the States before they put him to work) and he would write whatever came--sensory, visual stimuli; words. This seemed to be critical to his process which he called receptivity. He'd let that suggest something else. From there he felt free to use reason/intentionality/eloquence.

In writing "Ask Me", he states that in both the writing and revision, he was following a feeling. [Turner's 50 Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process]

Curiously, his influence as a poet has waned. It's hard to pinpoint when, but sometime after his death, the space he occupied in retrospective anthologies (even ones that expanded) decreased to match the relatively minor poets. Why? Is it the seeming simplicity? Or a desire not to see "The Way It Is" or "accepting what comes"?

If it's his plainspoken simplicity, possibly it has outworn its welcome for a time and may circle back around again.

Here are five of my favorite Stafford poems. Stew on them until they release their savor to you.

  1. "Traveling through the Dark" -- heartbreaking signature poem, emblematic of his perspective: "The Way It Is"
  2. "At the Bomb Testing Site"
  3. "A Story That Could Be True"
  4. "Waiting in Line" (at the end of file)
  5. "A Certain Bend" (The whole poem is there, but it isn't properly lineated. Definitely, look up the original. From the first issue of Missouri Review. 

Great lines from "Waiting in Line":
the nation of the young, like jungle birds
that scream as they pass, or gyrate on playgrounds,
their frenzied bodies jittering with the disease
of youth. Knowledge can cure them. But
not all at once. It will take time. 
A poetry writing book pointed out the attitude toward the young in the first two lines. But zeroing in on that misses out on the larger picture since it is a poem about the continuity. See the title again. Genius. Beautiful, funny and moving.

Hundreds more poems:
Poetry Magazine (their lengthy biography)
poet's website

Saturday, May 20, 2017

"Your job is to find what the world is trying to be."
--"Vocation" by William Stafford

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Review: A Little Book on the Human Shadow by Robert Bly

Had I known what kind of book this was, I might not have bought it. But then again, I might have. It is a strange hybrid on poetry, writing poetry, myth (fairy tales--not in the pejorative sense, but I'm sure some would like to apply that as well), self-help, and pop psychology. Clearly, Bly saw a deep connection between all of these things, and part of the appeal is how strongly integrated he views them. He takes the entire field of poetry (especially Wallace Stevens) to task for not using these ideas as he has. Most writers consider their field of study as pointless. See my review of David Orr's Beautiful & Pointless, so it is gulp of cool water in so vast a desert to come upon Bly's drinking trough.

Note: I do not tend to write glowing reviews. I try to steer away readers who would dislike such a book. Most books, like humans, are flawed and sometimes those flaws are part of the appeal. I hate to state this over and over for every review, though.

I also bought the audiobook that followed after this edition. It is always curious to read (or hear) how a writer revises his work after second and third thoughts. Bly is uncannily honest and states in the audio that his work has truth and lies, but he doesn't know which is which.

There is a great deal of useful information in here, and a little that rings less useful. The overview: Bly asks that people find balance in their writing and their lives. We have a tendency to blame our failures on others, but Bly states we should take ownership, pull out the aspects of our personality that we've hidden away, and develop our lives fully.

First, a definition, if possible: The shadow is the darker side of ourselves, which we need to embrace. The shadow is not evil, Bly said. Following Bly's definitions requires paradigm-shifting, not to mention accepting squishy definitions.

The book is divided into five sections:

  1. Problems in the Ark. This details the author's own experiences in finding his shadow and dealing with it in his poetry. Later, he points out that some of the things he hated in others (Alexander Pope, businessmen) he had in himself, and he had to accept this before he could appreciate such men. Paradoxically, he mentions politicians he also hated (or at least he suggested he did), so perhaps this is a never-ending process.
  2. The Long Bag We Drag behind Us. Society tells us to hide certain aspects of ourselves. These aspects (the feminine, the masculine, the witch, the giant, the shadow, among others) we hide in a bag and drag it around with us.
  3. Five Stages in Exiling, Hunting and Retrieving the Shadow. We start at birth and, say, hand our witch to our mothers (who expresses it for us) and later hand it to our wives. The witch is what allows us to get what we want. We need to retrieve this by asking for these missing parts back.
  4. Honoring the Shadow. This is an interview with William Booth, the editor, who gets Bly to expand on ideas he mentions only in passing earlier, such as eating one's shadow, etc.
  5. Wallace Stevens and Dr. Jekyll. Bly believes the personality is also a part of the poet and needs to be examined as part of a poet's oeuvre. Stevens, Bly says, brought out the shadow in his poetry, but never lived it out in his own life, so the gifts of the shadow were wasted on Stevens and this shows up in Stevens' late poems.
The positives of the book outweigh the negatives. The main positive is asking people to face themselves, instead of shifting responsibility on others. This could also be a negative since people often create or contribute to a problem, but at some point, we must realize the person who may have done damage doesn't care, and we must work through issues for ourselves. One can read an abundance of poetry where that is its primary failing. It keeps stumbling over the flaws of others as if that were one's only failing in life: other people.

This is where Bly's methodology steps in and tells you to ask for your missing parts, the aspects of yourself you gave away. I keep imagining how this might play out in real life: the puzzlement on the other person's face. 
"Hey, give me my witch back." 
"You want your what? 
"My witch!"
"Oh. Okay. If you lost your witch doll, I'm sorry, but I don't have it."
Still, it is a physical statement, a stance that makes the metaphor real, which is both good and bad. The good is that you are telling yourself that you are changing. The bad is that it is a metaphor:
"Projection without personal contact is dangerous. Thousands, even millions of American men projected their internal feminine onto Marilyn Monroe. If a million men do that, and leave it there, it's likely she will die. She died."
It may be within the realm of possibility that that is why she died, but it seems doubtful. Unless she were part of a hive mind, she probably had her own issues. One of the measures that some poetry readers use to decide the quality of a poet is their personal mythology. It seems likely that Bly's is unique, so maybe he'll remain within the canon for centuries to come.

Unfortunately, Bly does judge Stevens by a measure that maybe Stevens had not considered or might have rejected as part of his poetics. All humans are problematic, so to judge one because he does not follow your aesthetic is dubious at best. If we had a time-traveling recorder to mark our every misstatement, we would all be exposed as cruel. This is where David Orr's "pointless" perspective on poetry gains legitimacy.

No matter. A Little Book on the Human Shadow has plenty to recommend it. The audiobook is similar, covering overlapping territories, but it goes a little further into fairy tales and skips much of the later discussion found in sections four and five of the book. I do recommend both but with caveats, We should be examining our various aspects of personality we may be leaving out.

What book doesn't require caveats? Maybe that is the  measure of a book that takes risks. Flaws are, after all, where the personality shines through.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Star Trek: Season 1, Episode 18. "Arena"

 Summary:
As the officers visit Commodore Travers on Cestus III, Travers request tactical people as he has an interesting problem. When they beam down they find the colony outpost destroyed. After they find life a mile away, they are immediately under attack.

Analysis with spoilers:
Kirk believes the messages he'd received from the Commodore were faked. Red shirt dies. Meanwhile, Enterprise is under attack. If they lower shields to beam up officers, they would be vulnerable to attack, so Kirk orders shields up and retreats.

Kirk dashes and tumbles to an artillery depot. When Sulu's attacks against alien vessel are ineffectual, Kirk advises them warp away. Spock believes, when the aliens are moving, he must join Kirk. They fire a type of grenade that causes aliens to beam away and flee. Kirk decides to search for survivors. Enterprise returns.

Survivor explains ruthlessness of the aliens in battle even though the colonists tried to surrender. He also states that they never sent the Enterprise any messages. Kirk concludes that the Enterprise was lured to be destroyed in order invade their space. The Enterprise pursues.

Spock and Kirk debate over the need for retaliation. Kirk is decided that they must be destroyed. They pass a system that stops them both. The Metrons have stopped both. Federation ship captain must fight the Gorn ship captain. The losing captain's ship will also be destroyed.

The scenario matches the common saying where kings, presidents, and tyrants should fight the wars.

The battle here differs from Brown's. There is no barrier. The Gorn is a lizard (as opposed to a tendriled roller) and stronger if slower than Kirk. Kirk believes he is smarter, but the Gorn listens in as Kirk records his plans. Kirk hunts for weapons while the Gorn builds them. Kirk drops a boulder and thinks he has the Gorn, but it rises. Kirk flees into a trap. Kirk escapes but is exhausted.

The Metrons tell the Enterprise that Kirk is done for and to prepare to die. Nonetheless, Kirk dashes down hill. Meanwhile, the Enterprise watches on screen and suddenly, they understand the Gorn might have been defending their own space against the human invaders.

Meanwhile, Kirk invents gunpowder as the Gorn approaches. Kirk succeeds but decides against killing the Gorn. The Metrons free both parties without killing. Enterprise zapped back toward home.

Quotes:
  1. Spock: "Doctor, you are sensualist."
    McCoy: "You bet your pointed ears I am."
  2. McCoy: "We appeal to you in the name of civilization. Put a stop to this."
    Metron: "Your violent intent and actions demonstrate you are not civilized."
  3. Kirk: "We're a most promising species as predators go."

    Notes:
    1. Red shirt zapped.
    2. Not only is this episode based on Fredric Brown's "Arena", it also alludes to Murray Leinster's "First Contact" as a kind of framing device with slightly different outcomes (Enterprise instantly transported back into familiar space as opposed to swapping ships.
    3. Sustained Warp speed 7 is dangerous.

    Sunday, May 14, 2017

    "Arena" by Fredric Brown

    First appeared in John W. Campbell, Jr.'s Astounding. Reprinted in several major retrospectives by Groff Conklin, Carol Mason, Patricia Warrick, Anthony Cheetham, Stephen V. Whaley, Stanley J. Cook, Bonnie L. Heintz, Frank Herbert, Donald A. Joos, Jane Agorn McGee, Brian W. Aldiss, Harry Harrison, Edward L. Ferman, Barry N. Malzberg, Robert Silverberg, Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, David Drake, Charles G. Waugh, Edel Brosnan, Debbie Notkin, Roger Stewart, Garyn G. Roberts, Winston Engle, John Gregory Betancourt, Ian Watson, Ian Whates. Filmed as a Star Trek episode by the same name.

    Summary:
    After spotting an Outsider scouter beyond Pluto's orbit, Carson almost crashes into a planet. The g-forces cause him to black out. He awakes, naked, on a blue-sand planet--not even a planet, but a hemisphere bordered by force fields.

    A voice enters his mind and tells him he must destroy the alien that is rolling in the sand. Roller, he calls his enemy. Carson makes a telepathic link with the Roller to make peace but fails. The Roller only wants to fight.

    Analysis:
     They cannot get at each other directly, but by the Roller's killing and throwing a lizard, they learn the projectiles work fine. Carson has the stronger throwing arm and forces the Roller back. Carson, already parched, has a gash in his leg. He tries to patch it with local vegetation, but that only seems to make it worse. Meanwhile, the Roller has constructed a catapult. He manages to destroy it, but he is weakening. It makes another.

    Later, he discovers that the Roller's de-legged lizard is actually alive. It was lack of consciousness that allowed through the barrier. Carson uses this information to cross the barrier and hopes the Roller throws a rock at him to revive him through pain. The Roller obliged Carson bides his time to attack.

    Some interesting comparisons/contrasts with the Star Trek episode:

    1. The human is the stronger party in the story, the Roller more agile.
    2. No barrier in the TV episode. This also leaves them nothing but older, primitive technologies; whereas in the story, the barrier becomes a kind of technological tool if not a direct weapon.
    3. The story's lizard who is something of an indirect ally in the story becomes the enemy in Star Trek (although perhaps they are later allies--or at least, no longer enemies).
    4. The Trek episode works better as anti-war theme--both because the captains have a go and because Kirk chooses not to continue the fight to the death.
    5. However, what works better for the story was the importance of the little guy. SF is full of important, epic characters. Here, the little guy gets his chance at the limelight.

    Friday, May 12, 2017

    Star Trek: Season 1, Episode 17. "The Squire of Gothos"

     Summary:
    Colony Beta VI waits for supplies. Officers open with a discussion of deserts. Spock, "logically," fails to see their beauty. McCoy and Kirk smirk at Spock's Vulcan ways.

    Eight days away, Spock demonstrates his Vulcan superiority by spotting a space-displacement reading before the ship's human expert does. An unrecorded planet looms on screen. Radio interference spurs a change in course; however, Helmsman Sulu and Captain Kirk disappear.

    Analysis with spoilers:
    DeSalle requests to search planet; McCoy seconds; Spock, now in charge, denies and pursues understanding of planet first (second point for Vulcans over humans).

    Sulu's replacement, Jaeger (a meteorologist), confirms that humans could not live long on the planet. However, Uhura receives 18th Century messages and font from planet. McCoy and Jaeger and DeSalle beam down. Lush vegetation. They remove masks but cannot communicate to the Enterprise. They spot a castle and enter. Salt creature from first episode frozen in alcove. Sulu and Kirk also green and frozen.

    Figure in long blue coat, lime green pants, and ruffled white shirt [retired General Trelane, now Squire Trelane] appears playing harpsicord. He magically unfreezes Kirk and Sulu. Jaeger points out that this era would have been visible at nine hundred years ago (apparently, they are nine hundred light years away, living in ~2600s). He must have a remarkable telescope: not only to see the surface and fashions, but also the interiors of buildings (not to mention, overhearing conversations).

    Squire, the only character who seems to be enjoying himself, wants to hear of their conquests. He says that they are one of the few species that preys on itself. ["Prey" must be meant loosely in the sense of killing although cannibalism is not unknown. Here is a sampler list of cannibalistic species. Here's another and another and a Wired article that discusses phenomenon,  with some overlap]

    Half of the conversations occur through a large mirror, viewing crew in reflection. Squire catches DeSalle in the act of trying to stun Squire. He removes the weapon, turns it to destroy, zapping the salt creature and a frog with seaweed plumes, human legs in flippers. Despite the impressive display of power, Kirk calls bluff and Squire snaps Kirk to the actual surface temporarily to show who is in charge.

    Meanwhile, Spock has diverted power to sensors in order to spot location of missing crew. Spock hopes to beam up of living beings in rescue.

    When Squire Trelane goes back to harpsicord, crew discuss that Squire doesn't exist at all. Squire taunts he will bring all crew (especially females) to planet until transporter beams the missing back aboard.

    Kirk readies to go warp when Squire snaps himself aboard the Enterprise and promises to bring them back to his castle Gothos (or planet Gothos?). Clearly, this is a Gothic novel in space: 1) trapped in castle with a powerful, attractive figure who is also something of a nightmare, 2) castles, 3) dark moody fog (or poisonous atmosphere).

    When they note that Squire's Earth details are flawed, they surmise that Squire himself is flawed. The focus on the mirror pays off in terms of story. Spock notes this and assumes it is the source of Squire's power. So Kirk challenges Squire to a duel, giving him a weapon. Squire purposefully misses his first shot. Kirk hits mirror.

    After beaming up, the crew dodge the planet Gothos--simultaneously cool, corny, and creepy. The squire zaps Captain Kirk back on his planet as his prisoner on trail. He's found guilty (of what is not explained),

    The camera and Kirk both treat the shadow of the noose as though it were the thing itself. It is a familiar visual--perhaps Hitchcock?

    We return from the commerical break to Squire who is emotionally changed (or returned to his fun-playing self), though, is enthused that he felt anger. Kirk talks Squire into a predator game of Hide-and-Seek.

    As Squire Trelane clinches victory, it is stolen by his "parents."

    Quotes:
    1. McCoy: "In the name of Heaven, where are we?"
    2. Squire: "Oh, come now. We are all military men under the skin. How we do love a man in uniform."
    3. Squire: "Oh, how absolutely typical of your species. You don't understand something, and you become fearful."
    4. Squire: "So many questions. Make the most of an uncertain future. Enjoy yourself today. Tomorrow... may never come at all.
    5. Spock: "I object to you. I object to intellect without discipline. I object to power without constructive purpose."
    6. Squire: "Oh, Mr. Spock, you have one saving grace after all: You're ill-mannered. The human half of you, no doubt."
    7. Spock: "His food had no taste; his wine no flavor? No. It simply means Trelane knows all of the Earth forms, but none of the substance."
    8. Squire: "You stand accused of the high crime of treason against a superior authority, conspiracy, and the attempt to foment insurrection. How do plead?"
    9. "Oh, the absurdity of these inferior beings."
    10. Kirk: "We're living beings, not playthings for your amusement."
    11. Kirk: "There's still not enought sport in just  killing me with a sword."
      Squire: "I know. That will be dull."

      Notes:
      1. The light-hearted debate between human and Vulcan heats up. As a child viewing these episodes, I found McCoy's teasing annoying. As an adult, I see the good-natured ribbing as more complex. McCoy is revealed as stodgy and unable to see outside his human frame although he does illustrate some advantages to being "human" (usually interpreted as "not logical). Spock is an interesting case. In this opening salvo about deserts, he interprets McCoy's seemingly cutting remarks as a compliment, which it is to a degree. While McCoy does not understand Vulcan ways, he does sneak in back-handed compliments. Such remarks, which  existed in the 60s, could not exist in today's political climate. That is, it could, but only the negativity would be observed. Star Trek attitudes still seem more advanced than ours.
      2. This episode provides a nice contrast to the last "The Galileo Seven".
      3. Planets are often numbered. This suggests many colonies, of course, but it also suggests that colonists haven't yet come up with a proper name for their planet. There's a shiny, cellophaned frontier promised on each planet.
      4. Squire Trelane seems to be an early predecessor of The Next Generation's Q.
      5. Likewise, Squire Trelane is preceded by Jerome Bixby's child in "It's a Good Life".
      6. Spock explains his use of the term "fascinating": the unexpected. "Interesting" appears to be a step down.

      Wednesday, May 10, 2017

      "It's a Good Life" by Jerome Bixby

      First appeared in Frederik Pohl's Star Science Fiction. Reprinted in major retrospectives by Frederik Pohl, Edmund Crispin, Alfred Hitchcock, Brian W. Aldiss, Laurence M. Janifer, Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, Thomas E. Sanders, Robert Silverberg, Leslie A. Fiedler, Leonard Wolf, Malcolm Edwards, Kingsley Amis, Stuart Gendall, Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, Charles G. Waugh, Richard Matheson, Alberto Manguel, Sebastian Wolfe, Gary Goshgarian, Peter Haining, Syd Bentlif, Joan Kahn, Jean Marie Stine, Jeff VanderMeer, Ann VanderMeer. It was twice filmed--once as part of the Twilight Zone series and again for the 1983 movie.

      Summary
      In a small town, people unwillingly come to Anthony's house. Anthony is a young lad who can make things happen by thinking about them. A rat bites his tail off. A man on a bicycle wants to bike away quickly, but Anthony reads the thought and sends the man rocketing away only because Anthony was in a good mood. Around Anthony, everyone mumbles and thinks simple multiplication tables so that he cannot read their thoughts. They talk about how good everything is, lest Anthony improve things for the worse.

      Analysis with Spoilers:
      Can there be a spoiler with this? The tale is less a story than a slice of life (albeit, a rather extraordinary one), but there is no plot, per se. Just events. In fact, the tale doesn't seem to have received much notice until Frederik Pohl reprinted it seven years later, followed the next year by Alfred Hitchcock's reprinting.

      There is no one character perspective, either. It hops from mind to mind. Or is Anthony's mind the true observer? If so, Anthony often makes no commentary on or takes no action against the minds that think negatively toward him.

      Anthony goes out into the cornfield to improve the lives of the insects and animals that live out there, which he seems able to do with their simple minds and thoughts. But when he returns, he puts on his own television show. The town is cut off from civilization (or maybe the rest of civilization is destroyed since their world ends a little ways off). Anthony's TB show is little more than abstract figures, but when Dan Hollis drinks too much and gets upset he doesn't have a record player to hear an album he received for his birthday, Anthony picks up on the thought and buries Dan (alive?) in the cornfield.

      That's the climax. The denouement wraps up with everyone thinking in response what a good life it is. Close on irony.

      The tale can be read at least four different ways:
      1. Our society over-caters to youth who control how society is run.
      2. If there is a god, he is capricious at best, unknowingly cruel at worst.
      3. If there is a god, he serves animals well since they are simple creatures whose lives he can improve. Humans are so complex in their wants, that it is impossible to improve their lives without making it into a living hell.
      4. This is the snapshot of a child's mind: how it interprets its influence on the world. The world even stops at the point of his journeys. He sees himself as the deserved center of attention.
      The story also influenced Star Trek (he wrote four episodes though not the ones this story likely influenced). See "Charlie X" and "The Squire of Gothos".