“. . . someone who vanished into the end of seeing. . .” (Russell Edson)

Where the athletic tutors offer support (Ford Stadium at SMU)

Where the athletic tutors offer support (Ford Stadium at SMU)

The number of people I have kept in long-time communication with over the years is quite small. My parents’ Christmas card list was in the hundreds, recipients from as far back as their seminary days. Many of my friends have hundreds of friends on Facebook. Is that the same as my parents without having to address and stamp cards?

A couple of weeks ago the one friend from childhood with whom I’ve maintained friendship called to wish me a happy retirement. One high school friend and I have lunch together every three or four years in Oakland and read each other’s Facebook postings with some regularity. I have constant contact with two college friends and sporadic contact with two others. One friend from graduate school is a friend on Facebook. I’ve maintained friendships with a few friends from churches where I’ve been organist, and with a few former students.

My college friend, Steuart Goodwin, built the tracker-action pipe organ that resides in my living room. Anyone who can’t instantly think up every Middle Schooler’s joke about Steuart’s organ in my living room is far less creative more serious than all of my friends.

Steuart and I have carried on a language game of “can you top this?” involving spoonerisms, assonances, consonances, and malapropisms to make puns, often mixing English with parodies of other languages to make new words. I say it’s a “can you top this?” competition, but I’ve never won—Steuart simply thinks this way, and I have to work too hard at it. An example he coined decades ago is still my favorite. Our professor Dr. Spelman was president of the American Society of Aestheticians. Steuart announced one day that Dr. Spelman had a bad case of aesthete’s foot, that is, “Wherever I go, my feet simply ache for the beauty of it all.”

A couple of days ago, I emailed Steuart that I had taken the “orientation” for tutoring at the SMU center for Academic Development of Student Athletes. (Tutors must know and adhere strictly to the rules of the NCAA for helping student athletes. I’ll bet I know more about the NCAA than any of my jock friends.)

Steuart’s response to my email was
Are you going from being a classroom teacher to a new position as an athletic supporter?
Signed, Jacques Strappe

My stilted response to him was
Yes, my cup runneth over.
Signed, Shirley Goodness

I should not admit publicly to such silliness, and I certainly shouldn’t drag poor defenseless Steuart into it. I must hasten to say this is the only such spooneristic relationship I have—whereas Steuart is blessed with verbal adroitness in any and all situations.

Steuart Goodwin "voicing" a pipe.

Steuart Goodwin “voicing” a pipe.

In 1964 Steuart was a senior majoring in music composition at the University of Redlands and I was a freshman majoring in organ. He presented the required full recital of his compositions, including his Sonata for Organ. He asked me to play his Sonata—the first time I gave the first performance of a work.

In addition to our friendship, based on years of sharing important moments of our lives, on our love of the same music, on our understanding and knowing each other in a way reserved for a few relationships in a lifetime—even yelling at each other over ideas about which we disagree sharply—we share a mystery I’m not sure we have ever discussed.

I was too young in 1964 to understand the process of performing a composition by someone I knew. I admired Steuart in that way freshmen admire students preparing to graduate. I was at the same time full of self-importance at being asked to perform the Sonata and terrified that I would not, could not, perform it as Steuart wanted to hear it.

Frankly, the details of that performance have faded from my memory. I don’t remember if Steuart was pleased with my performance (I assume he was).

However, over these fifty years since, that performance has come to embody one of the enormous mysteries of my life. That I could translate the musical notation in Steuart’s own handwriting, squiggles on the page, into movements of my hands and feet guided by my best understanding of their meaning (itself a mystery) so the audience at the recital could hear what Steuart had imagined (or at least a fairly good facsimile)—while he sat in the audience!—is incomprehensible.

During these fifty years I have participated many times in the first performance of a new work, but my mind goes back to Steuart’s Sonata because that performance was the one that established the mystery in my mind and soul. How? How does it happen, this performance of another’s music, new or old?

Obviously all great performers have somehow answered that question for themselves. They could not continue if they had not. Or perhaps living in that mystery is the only way truly to perform whether the music was written by a friend or by César Franck.

Perhaps a friendship in which that mystery was shared at the beginning can survive even flirtation with the Tea Party on the one hand and virtual socialism on the other.

I may be wrong, but if “music” is substituted for “fiction” in the following third stanza, the poem is about the vanishing “vanishing point” between musicians.

“Of Memory and Distance,” by Russell Edson

It’s a scientific fact that anyone entering the distance will
grow smaller. Eventually becoming so small he might only be
found with a telescope, or, for more intimacy, with a
microscope….

But there’s a vanishing point, where anyone having
penetrated the distance must disappear entirely without hope
of his ever returning, leaving only a memory of his ever having
been.

But then there is fiction, so that one is never really sure if
it was someone who vanished into the end of seeing, or
someone made of paper and ink….

It seems appropriate to play something on the first organ Steuart built. Soon his Sonata again, but for now, an example of the kind of music I play these days (simple enough for the old man to learn) trying to understand the mystery. Is this, indeed, the melody César Franck had in mind? (from L’Organiste; Non troppos Lento in E Major)

César Franck, from L’Organiste; Non troppo Lento in E Major.

 

“. . . How to find my soul a home. . .” (Maya Angelou)

Maya AngelouYesterday I was hoping to come across a poem or an essay or a witty saying someone else wrote to quote as my idea for the day, so I could forget this nonsense of trying say what I need to say. (I began this writing yesterday, but I realized only this morning that I already knew the words I was looking for).

I live (we all live) in conundrums. Riddles that cannot be solved. Sometimes the riddle can be solved with a play on words. Sometimes not. Here’s my conundrum for yesterday.

If Ann and I had remained married and she had not died, today would have been our 47th wedding anniversary. We were divorced shortly after our 8th anniversary, and Ann died in 2002. I am grateful we did not divorce from our relationship, only from our marriage. In my bedroom I use the bureau she and I bought together at an antique store 45 years ago. From where I sit at my computer, I can see a box of her family’s photographs on a shelf of my roll-top desk. The desk belonged to my partner Jerry who died a year after Ann, and who had become great friends with Ann—I carried a slight resentment for a long time that in 1997 when she came to visit us in Dallas, they went off to see Titanic together while I was at choir rehearsal.

I am NOT a pack rat or a hoarder. (People with addictive personalities do not know how to sort—a little known secret about us drunks.) Even when I figure out how to sort out all the stuff in my place (I won’t say the stuff I own, simply the stuff that’s here) so that when I die my nieces and nephew won’t have to bring in a backhoe to clean the place out, I will still most likely have my little collections. A rosary Ann gave me when we were Anglo Catholics, four buttons and a broach of her grandmother’s, a pair of rings we bought for each other and a Jerusalem cross all made with jade, a Canadian $5 bill I brought home in my pocket from her funeral, her mother’s watch, a gold chain with a St. Christopher’s medal I gave her, and her wedding ring (I don’t have my own)—a tiny part of my collection. Does anyone want a cloisonné butterfly?

So yesterday we would have been married 47 years.

Apparently one way I try to hold onto the people I love is to hold onto things they owned. This is not so unusual, of course (see Tim O’Brien’s, “The Things they Carried” for a moving expression of the way “things” are important to memory).

Things

Things

As usual, my memory of one part of my life is entrée to writing about another. A couple of days ago a friend took me to dinner to propose an enormous writing project for us to work on. It has to do with memory, with our collective memory with a large community of mutual friends and acquaintances. It will be difficult and lengthy. It will entail a range of feeling and experience I almost certainly cannot express. It will involve thinking and writing about people whose lives we need to hold in the dual reality of the present and of memory. We do not have “the things they owned” to hold onto. We have only our mutual experience, both in the present and in the past.

Yesterday the poet Maya Angelou died.

When I read about her death, I posted my favorite of her poems on Facebook:

“Alone,” by Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014)

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

I am grateful to Maya Angelou for her many expressions of truth over the years, and for broadening my (our) understanding of the beauty of language and the importance of “essaying” what we think and feel.

This morning I realized what I was trying to say yesterday—to say about Ann, about Jerry, about my friends and a possible writing project, to say about my life so far and about the time I have left—Maya Angelou has already said. What I long to know is

How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone.

Maya Angelou uses Biblical imagery. The Gospel of John records Jesus saying, “whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.” And the Gospel of Luke records his saying, “Which of you is a father whose son will ask him for bread and would hand him a stone.”

Bread and water are not “things.”

I don’t know if Maya Angelou thought of herself as a Christian. It doesn’t matter. She understood that finding “water that is not thirsty” and “bread [that] is not a stone” requires understanding

That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Happy Anniversary, Ann. And thank you to Maya Angelou, and Jerry, and YOU— everyone who has helped me to understand I cannot “make it out here alone.”

Even a country can't make it out here alone

Even a country can’t make it out here alone

“Life, like a marble block, is given to all. . .” (Edith Wharton)

The erotic moment

The erotic moment

Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1921 for her novel The Age of Innocence (the first woman to be so honored). If you want to see the single most erotic moment in all of filmdom, watch Martin Scorsese’s 1993 film of the novel with Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer taking off their gloves in the back of a carriage. Yep. Their gloves. You don’t have to get naked to be erotic.

Edith Wharton wrote poetry for which she is not well-known. One has to be careful not to try to find more in a poem than is there. For example, in her poem, “Life,” Wharton speaks of a sculptor working with a marble block who “shatters it in bits to mend a wall.” Wharton and Robert Frost were contemporaries living in the same part of the country and publishing poetry in the same journals and magazines (“Life” was published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1894). Frost’s “Mending Wall” was published in his collection North of Boston in 1914. So it’s obvious that Wharton’s “shatter[ing] it in bits to mend a wall” is not an allusion to Frost’s poem—likely as that might seem upon first reading.

By the way, the point of my writing this is not eroticism. That was just my “hook” to get you interested (that’s what many teachers of composition in universities call an irrelevant but interesting beginning to an essay). But you might as well fantasize about Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer. . . No, you’ll be irretrievably distracted.

So on with the point of my writing.

When I first stumbled upon Wharton’s poem, I thought I understood all of the allusions. “Mending Wall,” by Robert Frost. Parian, the finest Greek marble, so white and flawless that it’s almost translucent. And Lesbia’s gaze. We all know what that means. Well, no, most of us don’t, I think.

I gave up a long time ago trying to piece together the meanings and origins of the poetry by Catullus which is the basis of all its ideas about romantic love we carry around in our heads. You know, Lesbians, daughters of Sappho. I’ve intended for years to read the scholarship on the matter. As nearly as I can tell, Catullus was a man who used the pseudonym Lesbia to write poetry to the woman he loved, so it seems as if the poetry is one woman writing to another. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I do know that Edith Wharton was not a lesbian. She didn’t like lesbians, according to the New York Review of Books.

Oh, dear. Perhaps my “hook” about eroticism was more to the point of what I want to say than I thought. Never mind. I’ll get there. So the allusion to mending a wall was not to Robert Frost, and I don’t have any idea what Wharton’s allusion to Lesbia means.

The poem.

“Life,” by Edith Wharton
Life, like a marble block, is given to all,
A blank, inchoate mass of years and days,
Whence one with ardent chisel swift essays
Some shape of strength or symmetry to call;
One shatters it in bits to mend a wall;
One in a craftier hand the chisel lays,
And one, to wake the mirth in Lesbia’s gaze,
Carves it apace in toys fantastical.

But least is he who, with enchanted eyes
Filled with high visions of fair shapes to be,
Muses which god he shall immortalize
In the proud Parian’s perpetuity,
Till twilight warns him from the punctual skies
That the night cometh wherein none shall see.

The first observation should be that this writing borders on the sentimental, from which Wharton’s language began almost immediately to evolve. The Age of Innocence, for example, has not one sentimental sentence. It is unadorned storytelling, whose style encompasses satire and unflinching critique of the upper-class society in which Wharton grew up. (See below for a sample of the writing, in case you’ve forgotten.)

She lost her innocence in Paris

She lost her innocence in Paris

I don’t mean “Life” is sentimental except that it follows conventions of 19th-century romanticism with its dependence on Greek literary allusions and the like. The language seems stilted compared with the voice Wharton developed for her fiction. But that’s not what I meant to write about either.

So on with the point of my writing now that I’ve done my best imitation of the literature professor I never was.

“The night cometh wherein none shall see.” Death, almost certainly.

The professor in my undergraduate Shakespeare class said all poetry is about “kissin’ or killin’.” He said that could be “lovin’ or dyin’,” but it’s not nearly so poetic.

That is, however, the version I’m using. “Life” could be seen (obviously) as a poem about figuring out one’s life before it’s too late, before one is dyin‘. Wharton was only 32 when she wrote it, so some frustrated old man might ask, “What could she have known about such things at her age?”

Exactly. That’s why the poem sounds so sentimental, doesn’t have the clarity of Wharton’s mature writing.

However, even in Wharton’s youthful (that is, trying too hard to create a poetic image) language, the lines “with enchanted eyes / Filled with high visions of fair shapes to be, / Muses which god he shall immortalize” give me pause. I rather expect I’m one of those who has spent enough time musing about what god I might immortalize that I’ve frittered away my time. It’s most likely too late for me to learn to be a poet.

On the other hand, when a young man whom I have known for 20 years (since he was 10) needed an “adult” in whom to confide the secret of his life, he came to me. Perhaps we could do little better than to muse on immortalizing Ἔλεος, Eleos, the goddess of pity, mercy, and compassion. One ancient Greek source says that she “among all the gods [is] the most useful to human life in all its vicissitudes.”

Eleos, goddess of mercy

Eleos, goddess of mercy

__________________________________
From The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton.
Book 2, Chapter XXV.
The day, according to any current valuation, had been a rather ridiculous failure; he had not so much as touched Madame Olenska’s hand with his lips, or extracted one word from her that gave promise of farther opportunities. Nevertheless, for a man sick with unsatisfied love, and parting for an indefinite period from the object of his passion, he felt himself almost humiliatingly calm and comforted. It was the perfect balance she had held between their loyalty to others and their honesty to themselves that had so stirred and yet tranquillized him; a balance not artfully calculated, as her tears and her falterings showed, but resulting naturally from her unabashed sincerity. It filled him with a tender awe, now the danger was over, and made him thank the fates that no personal vanity, no sense of playing a part before sophisticated witnesses, had tempted him to tempt her. Even after they had clasped hands for good-bye at the Fall River station, and he had turned away alone, the conviction remained with him of having saved out of their meeting much more than he had sacrificed.

“. . . the spine of the European Enlightenment. . .” (Caroline Knox)

woosters-paperback-cover1Sometime in the ’80s a friend gave me a copy of a novel by P.G. Wodehouse. I guess his books are novels. That’s not an elitist remark—I genuinely don’t know. Because I never read it. That is, I didn’t finish reading it. That was elitism. It seemed insufferably silly to me, so my insufferable snobbery rejected it.

I’ve been meaning to read a P.G Wodehouse novel for some time. Eleanor was nobody’s fool—a graduate of Smith College back in the ‘40s when education still intended to make thinkers out of students instead of “successes.” She was WAC in WW II and did not suffer fools lightly. She thought I needed to read Wodehouse to lighten up.

This morning I discovered the complete novels (38) of Wodehouse available in one Nook Book from Barnes and Noble for $2.99—a dime apiece (a new meaning for “dime novel”). Who could pass that up?

I did read (and remember) enough of the novel Eleanor gave me to know that Bertie Wooster is Wodehouse’s eccentric whose “man” Jeeves has continually to bail out of one scrape after another.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed 41 symphonies. He composed 18 piano sonatas. He composed 23 “operas,” that is, theatrical pieces performed on a stage with singers “playing” the part of characters. I point that out simply to remind myself how much music he wrote in his short lifetime.

Mozart composed only one “church anthem.” A setting of the Latin hymn, Ave Verum Corpus.

Ave verum corpus, natum
ex Maria Virgine
,
vere passum, immolatum
in cruce pro homine
cuius latus perforatum
fluxit aqua et sanguine:
esto nobis praegustatum
in mortis examine
.

Hail, true Body, born
of the Virgin Mary,
who having truly suffered, was sacrificed
on the cross for mankind,
whose pierced side
flowed with water and blood:
May it be for us a foretaste
Of the trial of death.

The vocal demands of the anthem are not great. Among his enormous oeuvre Mozart wrote only one work that every church choir ought to be able to sing. It is a late work; he composed it while he was in the process of composing The Magic Flute.

The silliest boys in all of opera

The silliest boys in all of opera

I stumbled onto this poem by Caroline Knox as I was cleaning the saved files and folders out of my office computer at SMU. I don’t know where I originally read it, and I can find out precious little about Caroline Knox except she has a PhD from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and that she has published several volumes of poetry. I can’t even find the year she was born.

“Mozart,” by Caroline Knox
Can you imagine
what is true, that
smack in the middle
of making The Magic
Flute
he interrupted
himself to make
“Ave Verum Corpus,”
world’s most truth-telling
motet (Who made its
text? Maybe a pope),
then got himself on
track, back to TMF
(all the while dealing
with money worry and
sickness of wife). When
you get to the esto nobis
cadence in “AVC,” you
scale the spine of the
European Enlightenment;
when you get to the
idiotic “Three Faithful
Youths” chorus in TMF:

“Three faithful youths we now will lend you
Upon your journey they’ll attend you;
Though young in years, these youths so fair
Heed the words of wisdom rare!”

you’re dealing with
Bertie Wooster’s
three best friends.
Because he was Mozart,
not a problem.

Because he was Mozart, it is not a problem that the three forest sprites in The Magic Flute are nearly the silliest little boys who sing nearly the silliest music in all of opera. It’s Mozart, for goodness’ sake.

I don’t often try to ferret out a logical or literal meaning of a poem (because my thinking is mostly illogical, and I don’t recognize logic when I run into it), but Knox’s poem caught my attention in some way other than a poetic response with, “When you get to the esto nobis cadence in ‘AVC,’ you scale the spine of the European Enlightenment.”

The spine of the European Enlightenment.

My knowledge of such concepts comes from reading and sitting in classes many years ago (50!), and is most likely based on outdated ideas. Textbooks I was assigned to read are undoubtedly thought of (if anyone remembers them at all) as archaic and no longer relevant.

Here’s a succinct rendering of my understanding of the European Enlightenment,

. . . when the freedom of thought that originated in the Renaissance received a new impetus through the scientific discoveries of the sixteenth and . . . seventeenth century. These discoveries encouraged men [sic] to regard as true only what could be tested by direct observation or proved by logical deduction, and to accept the premise of the first great modern philosopher, Descartes, that doubt is the starting-point of philosophy. (Harman, Alec and Anthony Milner. Man & His Music. Late Renaissance and Baroque Music. New York: Schocken Books, (1962), 249.)

In the late ‘80s the Dean Minton of Bunker Hill Community College and I had long discussions in which she eventually prevailed about the evil that the Enlightenment had perpetuated on the world by making people “regard as true only what could be tested by direct observation,” leaving little room for mystery and the inexplicable.

I agree with Anne to this day, probably because I don’t have the brains to test much by direct observation. And the older I get, the less important that seems to me, anyway.

Knox’s poem seems to say that the ineffably sublime and mysterious music Mozart composed for the words “May it be for us a foretaste of the trial of death” is the “spine” (that which holds a body together) of rationality. The music is indeed “rational.” I can explain to you exactly how it works both harmonically and contrapuntally. It contains in a couple of phrases the complete “theory” of Western music.

And so does the silly (comical? innocent?) music the three boys sing in The Magic Flute.

I think Dean Minton’s perception of the damage done by Enlightenment thinking is more on target today than it was 30 years ago. Everyone. I mean everyone in this country thinks they have a market on rational thought. Scientists, climate-change deniers. Bankers, “occupiers.” Tea-partiers, liberals. Fundamentalist christians, atheists.

Our national discourse is the Enlightenment choosing up sides and going berserk. We don’t discuss, we yell at each other. We don’t try to be rational, we adopt opinions based on preconceptions that may (or likely, may not) have anything to do with reality.

Mozart’s music may well be the most rational anyone ever composed. But it’s also the most mysterious. And the same rationality can give voice to comical forest sprites and to the deepest held mysteries of human life.

Knox’s poem can tie all of those things together—and even bring in Jeeves the butler.

Mystery and rationality together. That’s not impossible.

The spine of the American Enlightenment

The spine of the American Enlightenment

“There are trout that die of old age and their white beards flow to the sea” (Richard Brautigan)

brautingan blogWho remembers Trout Fishing in America? That kinky out-of-step-with-the-normal book that helped shape the thinking of a couple of generations of American wannabe drop-outs. It was published in 1967, the year I graduated from college. Richard Brautigan (1935-1984) was one of the “Beat Generation” writers.

I read Trout Fishing when I was working in the 1972 George McGovern Presidential campaign. Our Campaign Guru from the East, gave it to me. The same way he gave me “Manassas,” the new (1972) album by Stephen Stills. (He said as he handed it to me—and this I remember exactly—“Don’t you listen to any music at all?”) All of this to make sure the McGovern Campaign in San Bernardino County, CA, was staffed by people who knew what was going on in the world (and to lighten his load a bit by finding me something to talk about besides Bach, Karl Barth, and Beverly Sills). He also arranged for a group of us to see Harold and Maude on a night off.

Poor Al. He not only worked with me 14 hours a day 7 days a week, but he rented a room in my house.

I wonder why I remember Trout Fishing in America. I recently came across a reference to the novel and had to look it up to find one of the sections I have carried around in my memory all these years, the chapter “Trout Death by Port Wine.” Probably because when I read it I was perilously close to dying by, not port wine, but some other “strong drink,” as my father would have said. I couldn’t quote it exactly, but for years I’ve remembered the sentence, “It is against the natural order of death for a trout to die by having a drink of port wine” (a snippet of the chapter is printed below to give you a flavor of the writing).

For some time I’ve been keeping an eye out for poems about friendship. Probably because I’d like to write a poem about friendship that doesn’t sound like a Hallmark card. I have nothing against Hallmark cards, but I would hope my poetry—if I knew how to write any—would be of a different variety. You know, post-postmodern, not rhyming, maybe not even sentences that make sense, but sounding beautiful with a sudden and unexpected profundity or sweet image at the end (that’s my description, not one garnered from a graduate seminar in wacky literature or anything like that).

That’s also something of a description of my personal writing, I think. Wandering around discussing some memory or current state of my affairs or the world’s, not making a whole lot of sense, and then suddenly at the end I get to the point (sometimes out of the blue), and I understand it whether anyone else does or not.

Back to Richard Brautigan. He was a tormented soul. Bipolar with a vengeance, or so all the biographical sketches say. A drunk (or was it heroin addict?). He shot himself in the head, and his body wasn’t found until it had pretty much decomposed—he was living off in the woods somewhere so he could go trout fishing. A tormented soul, as I said. I remember being aware a few years back (more than a few) that he had died. That was pre-Google, so I couldn’t research him easily, but I knew about the bullet to the head—sort of like Hemingway.

This is a cheery little piece, isn’t it? (Funny thing about writing. I wouldn’t dare to write about someone shooting himself in the head—I’ve said that about enough times now—when I am depressed myself. It would be too hard, too close to home.)

But I’m quite serene and unstressed this morning. I ought to be. This is my third day without a job—retired, remember.

Really, four plus 27

Really, four plus 27

And in my retirement (is that a weird thing to say, or what?) I’ve been thinking a great deal about friendship. I had a big retirement party last Saturday, and 31 of my closest friends (that’s not a joke or hyperbole but the honest truth) showed up to eat and talk and sing (seven songs from the ‘50s with me at the Steinway grand) and give me more hugs than I’d had total in the six months previous. Most of them knew only four or five of the others, but I knew everyone. With every person there I have shared a moment at one time or another when one of us managed to do just what was needed for the other—with some of them, that moment of giving/receiving has been reciprocal time after time.

So I’ve been hoping to find (or—not likely—write) the perfect poem about friendship. Then I remembered it’s been only a couple of months since I wrote about one of my favorite friendship poems, “Your Catfish Friend,” by (who else?) Richard Brautigan.

Louisianans and Texans like to think they have a special right to catfish. Perhaps they do, at least for eating. But I remember the catfish people snared from the North Platte River when I was a kid in Western Nebraska. I don’t remember that we ate them, but we knew what they were. Pretty nasty sorts of things.

I need to remember Brautigan’s poem as I think about friendship. It’s sad to think he perhaps didn’t understand it himself, or perhaps, living in the woods alone he didn’t have enough people around him to throw a party and get 31 times oodles of hugs.

But the idea that a friend can drive lonely thoughts from my mind even (or perhaps especially) when I don’t know my friend is near and/or thinking about me is a stunning idea. Even a friend I might not think capable of such thoughts, One of those ideas that keeps me sane and safe.

“Your Catfish Friend” Richard Brautigan (1935 – 1984)

If I were to live my life
in catfish forms
in scaffolds of skin and whiskers
at the bottom of a pond
and you were to come by
one evening
when the moon was shining
down into my dark home
and stand there at the edge
of my affection
and think, “It’s beautiful
here by this pond. I wish
somebody loved me,”
I’d love you and be your catfish
friend and drive such lonely
thoughts from your mind
and suddenly you would be
at peace,
and ask yourself, “I wonder
if there are any catfish
in this pond? It seems like
a perfect place for them.”

TROUT DEATH BY PORT WINE
It was not an outhouse resting upon the imagination.

It was reality.

An eleven-inch rainbow trout was killed. Its life taken forever from the waters of the earth, by giving it a drink of port wine.

It is against the natural order of death for a trout to die by having a drink of port wine.

It is all right for a trout to have its neck broken by a fisherman and then to be tossed into the creel or for a trout to die from a fungus that crawls like sugar-colored ants over its body until the trout is in death’s sugarbowl.

It is all right for a trout to be trapped in a pool that dries up in the late summer or to be caught in the talons of a bird or the claws of an animal.

Yes, it is even all right for a trout to be killed by pollution, to die in a river of suffocating human excrement.

There are trout that die of old age and their white beards flow to the sea.

All these things are in the natural order of death, but for a trout to die from a drink of port wine, that is another thing.

No mention of it in “The treatyse of fysshynge wyth an angle,” in the Boke of St. Albans, published 1496. No mention of it in Minor Tactics of the Chalk Stream, by H. C. Cutcliffe, published in 1910. No mention of it in Truth Is Stranger than Fishin’, by Beatrice Cook, published in 1955. No mention of it. . .
catfishp

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. . .” (Robert Herrick)

rosebudsOne of my students is on the cusp of failing because she has not submitted the longest essay of the semester. The essay is a 10-page expository essay on the work of the French performance artist ORLAN (I’m not shouting—that is legally her name, not Orlan).

I have written many times about ORLAN. I think she’s one of the most fascinating people in the world, and, while Paris is not one of the places I’m anxious to see before I die, I would buy ticket there if I knew I could meet her. The best of my writing about her is from three years ago—best because I am going to get my tattoo either today or tomorrow.

I’d guess most people think ORLAN is crazy or at least has some deep-seated psychological issss-ues that cause her to want to hurt her body. I don’t know. I’d also guess that anyone who is invited to lecture at the University of Nebraska—Nebraska?—can’t be publically certifiable.

I can’t imagine why my student has not finished her essay—she has written one almost-spectacular essay about ORLAN already, and she’s the only one of my students fluent enough in French to read ORLAN’s writings in the original.

I plan to become an authority on ORLAN—perhaps write a book about her after I’m sure I understand Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Maurice Merleu-Ponty, and all of the other (mostly French) thinkers who’ve influenced ORLAN according to C. Jill O’Bryan.

But back to my student. For some reason as I was trying to elicit an email response from her (six of mine to her—with notice requested that they were read) the cliché “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” popped into my head. Not that my class is rosy nice or anything, but she has a chance to get a grade in Discourse 1313 or she will have to take it over. Every student at SMU has to get through a section of Discourse 1313, and I can guarantee her none of the others are as fun as mine (except perhaps the one taught by one of my colleagues with Bart Simpson as its main research topic).

At any rate, I’ll bet almost everyone who might be reading this will be as surprised as I was to discover that “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” is the first line of a bona fide poem that could be studied in a section of Discourse 1313 in which students research 17th-century English poetry. What, I’d guess, most people would assume being an academic is all about. Ugh!

Sans-titre-1

But back to my student. Music academia has an honorary fraternity for graduating student musicians. Pi Kappa Lambda. I don’t hold it against Linda that she was the one person from my college graduating class inducted into the fraternity. I think it was because the university knew Frederick Loewe would rather have dinner with her than with me. That’s right. He attended the University of Redlands—never graduated—and gave the School of Music lots of money, and the Pi Kappa Lambda inductee went to Palm Springs for dinner with him.

The Chairman of the School of Music told me one of the reasons they chose Linda over me was that, even though my GPA was high enough to graduate with honors (I didn’t because I didn’t finish my honors research project—do you see where this is going?), the faculty was distressed because they thought I had never worked up to my potential. The example he used was the Advanced Counterpoint class in which all of my work was A-quality, but I earned a B because I submitted nearly every assignment late.

So here’s my very bright, talented student getting ready to blow her chance to be inducted into Pi Kappa Lambda (well, she can’t be because she’s not a musician), and all I can do is sit helplessly by and wish it were not so, and beg her to “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”

I, of course, am only now submitting her class’s grades because I’m still in the process of grading those essays on ORLAN. I have a reason—I was sick enough to go to bed for four days the week before finals, so I started the process a week behind. I have a good excuse. I wonder what hers is.

I’m not going to get into an orgy of self-flagellating for my regrets. I’ve never been able to get myself organized. There are at least three reasons for that—which I’ve also written about here. Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Bipolar II Disorder (diagnosed before it became the disease du jour), and simple lack of understanding the need to be organized Johnny-on-the-spot in this world. Pi Kappa Lambda isn’t the only honor I’ve not been awarded.

What most people probably don’t know (unless they were English majors) is that Herrick’s poem is titled “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” It’s about sowing wild oats—pretty explicitly sexual oats.

Well, I sowed my wild oats—sexual and otherwise—when I was in college. And that’s why I am so grieved by my student’s incipient failure. She would be the last person in my classes I would expect to fail. Bookish. Smart. Inquisitive. Bilingual. Has everything in the world going for her.

One aspect of teaching I will not be sorry to leave behind is the grief—I’m not being hyperbolic or maudlin—I feel every time a student fails. Surely an 18-year-old has plenty of time left to find out how difficult it is to be a human being on this planet. Especially to live in a society in which enough is never enough and too much is simply the incentive to get more.

“To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” Robert Herrick, (1591 – 1674)

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying,

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

The prize for winning the prize

The prize for winning the prize

“He who kisses the joy as it flies. . .” (William Blake)

Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking

Out of the cradle, endlessly rocking

Richard Chase, one of the preeminent American folklorists (how he would have disliked that kind of description of himself), owned a copy of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. It was an early edition with the plates colored by an unknown hand. It was one of his prized possessions. I’m not being grandiose when I say there was a time (many, many years ago) I would visit him so I could look at that wondrous book.

This is not a “name-dropping” exercise. Several people who are likely to read this post knew Chase as well; we knew him as “Uncle Dick” before we had any idea of his importance to American culture. I own his copy of William Chappell’s Popular Music of the Olden Time, one of the 20th-century reprints, not valuable except that it has Uncle Dick’s notations. One of my favorite memories of Uncle Dick is walking with him, naked, at midnight one full-moon night into the surf on the beach at La Jolla while he recited Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” The next day I decided the least I could do to keep that memory alive was to memorize the section

Yes, when the stars glisten’d,
All night long on the prong of a moss-scallop’d stake,
Down almost amid the slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer wonderful causing tears.

He call’d on his mate,
He pour’d forth the meanings which I of all men know.
Yes my brother I know,
The rest might not, but I have treasur’d every note,
For more than once dimly down to the beach gliding,
Silent, avoiding the moonbeams, blending myself with the
shadows,
Recalling now the obscure shapes, the echoes, the sounds
and sights after their sorts,
The white arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing,
I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting my hair,
Listen’d long and long.

Listen’d to keep, to sing, now translating the notes,
Following you my brother
.

I can’t recite it these days, but always, when I think of that night, I remember I’m basically an illiterate “bull-in-the-china-closet.” I have known true education, elegance, and kindness.

One of William Blake's visions of eternity

One of William Blake’s visions of eternity

Uncle Dick also explained to me his understanding of the poetry of William Blake. He served, Uncle Dick said, as the antidote to the Age of Enlightenment swirling around him. His poetry exists in the heart rather than in the mind. Newtonian physics and reason were fine for solving the world’s physical problems, but they were useless for understanding the human heart.

That is obviously my “spin” on Uncle Dick’s guidance and the way I remember it 40 years later. Whatever it was, in fact, that Uncle Dick said to me, what I took from it was that the life of the mind I was embarking on by going back to graduate school would serve me well only so far. Much of my life I have forgotten his wisdom.

I have not, however, forgotten the poetry of William Blake. Such wild, such odd, such emotional stuff. I came across this short poem the other day.

“Eternity,” by William Blake (1757 – 1827)

He who binds to himself a joy

Does the winged life destroy

He who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sunrise

Last night I said to a group of friends that, as I retire, I realize I am in the process of giving up perhaps the most joyful activity of my life—working with young students. At the same time I’m giving up one of the most odious of tasks—the paperwork and institutional nonsense that weighs down the academic world.

I have nothing profound or academic or, most likely, even interesting to say about Blake’s poem except that I hope, I trust, I can kiss the joy as it flies and begin living in the sunrise. Whatever that may be. Even, perhaps, another way to experience my joy.

Sunrise at Port Orford, Oregon

Sunrise at Port Orford, Oregon