On Bruegel’s “Icarus,” W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, And “Painting” Poetry

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As I’ve written elsewhere, Bruegel the Elder was, at his best, a great painter. No, he was not a technical master, like Caravaggio, nor diverse as some later artists, but he still had one disadvantage that later painters did not: he started at the bottom. And I don’t mean this in the typical socioeconomic sense, just that, excepting Hieronymous Bosch, who died a few years before the artist’s birth, and served as a kind of model, there was remarkably little depth in the art world, as a whole. Yes, the Renaissance Masters have some argument for greatness, in their very best work, but conceptually, the Renaissance was exactly what the term means: a “re-birth,” but of older ideas, decidedly un-modern except in a few details (Christianity, for instance, replaced Roman religion), and were, therefore, stuck in the past, even as one part attuned itself to the future. So, Bruegel had to depend upon himself – at least ideationally – in the same way that later artists would grow to depend upon Bruegel, showing, as he did, new ways to interpret ancient myths, and a subtler, less didactic means of treating religion.

One of Bruegel’s most famous paintings, Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus, illustrates the above quite well. No, it is not, on a purely technical level, on par with later, better paintings by others — just consider its flat, almost medieval-like quality — but on the plus side, while it could have been handicapped by its almost clichéd mythological subject, it subverts not only its own topic, but the very genre of landscape painting as a whole. Note, for instance, the simple pastoral scene, a shepherd casually looking up (a forgettable gesture, that), a fisherman, a ship, the indifferent backdrop, by the mountains… Yet the painting purports to be of Icarus, a subject that, in virtually every interpretation of the myth, from writing to visual art, would put HIS misfortune to the front. In fact, it takes a long time to even notice the boy’s legs (the only part of him that’s visible), which, once seen, really change’s the nature of the painting. The indifference of the farmer with his horse, or the fisherman’s complete lack of notice reveals how utterly small this event must be to everyone else involved — for even the shepherd, the lone person to even glance up, will, most likely, second-guess himself in the end, turn his face back to his sheep, and move along. The subject, then, is not REALLY Icarus (although the viewer expects him to be), but patterns of human interaction, and the loneliness such events usually engender. One can’t say too much for the technical depths, within, yet the medieval style works MUCH better for the subject, anyway, and the ideational depths — really, Bosch’s and Bruegel’s primary strength — would come to define artistic modernism at a time when few seemed to really care for such.

And this is how art works, folks. You take … Continue reading →

Review: 3 Poems By Hazel Hall

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Today, Hazel Hall is an almost-forgotten poet, but in the early 20th century, she’d written for some of the biggest publications of her day: Harper’s, The New Republic, The Boston Evening Transcript, The Nation, and others. Residing in Portland, Oregon, and sickly from adolescence (reminiscent, in that sense, of Elizabeth Barrett Browning), she spent much of her life paralytically confined to room and window, watching, as she would, all else around her birr. Thus, her subjects tended towards people (or rather, their images), sewing, and moments that, had she the opportunity to experience things a little differently, might have been larger, deeper, more expansive.

But such wondering is pointless, and Hazel Hall is quite good despite it all — excellent, even, in her best poems, with the occasional great flourish that reads like a classic what-if? moment. Yes, her poems are usually too ‘small,’ both in subject and accomplishment, to ever be called visionary, in the deeper sense, but they do have a kind of small-v vision, a way of looking at the world that, when compounded over time, is uniquely Hall’s. That’s because so much of her content is, rather than mere repetition, closer to being a slightly new angle from which to view the same basic idea. Loneliness, for instance, is treated sadly, or given a sinister edge, or a hopeful one, depending on the poem; people are interesting, and living fully, or pitiful and ignorant of such, refracting Hall’s own moods; sewing needles can be weapons in one poem, or almost personified as a ‘seeker’ in another, to the point that the narrator, being a seeker, herself, implicitly casts doubt on her own knowledge of things. Thus, after reading a few dozen or so of her poems, they really get condensed by the mind into 2-3 larger ideas. You may take that as a flaw or boon, but it’s undeniable that even her lesser work has a way of insinuating into the reader, even if some of the specifics are ultimately forgotten.

Hazel Hall, then, is an example of an artist who, barred from most kinds of life experiences, still had enough of an inner life to extrapolate into the rest of the world, and richly, at that. This is both uncommon and instructive, for it sheds light on talent in a way that strips away any real context, proving that, for all the silly attempts critics often make in ‘understanding’ a writer’s life to get to the bottom of WHY the art was able to be created, in the first place, talent (and its expression, really) is a mere crap-shoot, and knows NOTHING of its entry and egress, into or from whomever ultimately gets to indulge it.

It’s also interesting that, after many decades’ time, Hazel Hall is still very much a niche poet, affecting, as she does, only the occasional women’s studies course, and other academic events. She has not entered into the public consciousness like, say, Emily Dickinson, nor … Continue reading →

Woody Allen’s Top 10 Films, Analyzed And Explained

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Today marks the release of Woody Allen: Reel To Real, which is, as of this writing, the most comprehensive book on Woody Allen ever published. Poet and critic Dan Schneider, of Cosmoetica fame, has called it a “seminal” and “revolutionary” book, a book that ought to change the way people talk and think about film. I hope that you’ll agree, if not with some of my interpretations, then at least with the tools Reel To Real provides — tools that can be applied to the art world as a whole, for greatness (as Schneider has argued) is its own company, and what works or fails in one place can be extrapolated into another, from film to film, art-work to art-work, and to the kinds of stories people like to tell.

In short, the book covers every movie that Woody Allen has ever written, directed, or otherwise acted in, with preference given to the material from Annie Hall onward, and especially to neglected masterpieces such as Stardust Memories, Interiors, and Another Woman. Thus, I take a film-first approach, with detailed analyses and 100s of references spread across ~160,000 words on art-centered writing. Yet the book also features a dialogue between the writer and reader, a huge chapter dissecting 6 major critics of Woody Allen (read it here, in full), a fiery exchange between me and Jonathan Rosenbaum, perpetual updates to the e-book via a ‘sync’ system whenever a new Woody film is released, and a final chapter wherein — after much praise, from me! — I finally take Woody Allen to task on his influences, opinions, and general philosophy. In short, no one gets off easy, because, just as Judah is told in Crimes And Misdemeanors, ‘the truth will out.’ Except, in this case, it’s not mere naïveté, and I’ve got the hammer.

Anyway, to celebrate the release of Woody Allen: Reel To Real, I’ve decided to compile a list of Woody Allen’s top 10 films, and explain my reasons in depth. Note that while there are some films, below, that can legitimately be knocked up or down a few spots, they all have at least SOME claim to artistic greatness, if not being indisputably so. So, despite Jonathan Rosenbaum’s claims, to me, a 40-minute fluff-piece like Oedipus Wrecks simply does not belong here. And, conversely — and critical negligence aside! — a well-written, well-filmed, and well-scored opus like Another Woman does. And now that at least some of my reasoning is clear, let us begin with the list proper!

 

Woody Allen’s Top 10 Films

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Woody Allen's Top 10 Films Stardust Memories1. Stardust Memories (1980)

I respect the reader, and so won’t waste time by forcing anyone to scroll to the very bottom of this page to see my top Woody pick. It’s not merely annoying, but would occlude a great film, a film that deserves the #1 spot, and needs to be watched without blinders, and understood without the silly imbuements into Woody … Continue reading →

Review Of Gayl Jones’s “The Healing”

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In brief, Gayl Jones’s The Healing is not a book of many faults. Rather, it’s a book of a few monstrous faults repeated ad nauseum on almost every page. I haven’t read Jones’s other novels such as the lauded Corregidora and Eva’s Man, so, to be fair, I won’t comment on her talent as a whole, but stick to the clichés, ill-wrought dialogue, bloated, pointless description, and intellectual dearth specific to the novel at hand.

At the very least, I know Gayl Jones’s other novels are very different stylistically, which means, if she does lack quality, she might still have some diversity across her work. Thus, it’s probably not so much that Jones is talentless as she is lazy. And perhaps that’s the worst misdeed writers commit. A lack of talent is nobody’s fault and making fun of well-meaning passion is a bit cruel, even if accurate. Pure laziness, however, disrespects both writer and reader – I don’t want, for example, an artist to think me stupid enough to assume there is a reason behind every little miscalculation, the demesne and crutch of bad writers who use bad philosophy to justify bad art. Consider, for instance, the specifics of the plot. Harlan Eagleton, a folk healer, manages a minor but respected rock star named Joan Savage, travels all over the world, has affairs, and offers small observations about pretty much everything imaginable. She is eventually stabbed for “betrayal” by her former rock star. In a way, then, its peculiarities of detail and structure are similar to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, but while that book often makes good use of dialogue, irony, humor, and juxtaposition to talk about a familiar subject, the holocaust, in a unique way, The Healing simply drowns in details neither deep nor evocative. I suppose, then, the philosophical justification for such pap is the postmodern obsession with “multiple perspectives,” as Jones, in a way, does just that. She discusses, sometimes for pages on end, every little thing a character says or comes across, but reveals nothing in the process, not in the substance, and not in the construction. In fact, it’s the most obvious fault of the book – its utter pointlessness not only from page to page, but how little it actually says as a whole.

A couple of examples will suffice. The first paragraph, a bit over a page, sets the tone:

I open a tin of Spirit of Scandinavia sardines, floating in mustard sauce. The woman on the bus beside me grunts and leans toward the aisle. She’s a smallish, youngish, short-haired woman, small Gypsy earrings in her ears, looks kinda familiar. I offer her some of them sardines, but she grunts and leans farther toward the aisle. I nibble the sardines with one of those small plastic forks and stare out the window. The sun hitting the window makes a rainbow across a field of straw pyramids. There’s a few horses and cows grazing in the meadow, a … Continue reading →

No More Ghettos: On The Death Of James Emanuel, Poet

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In Confucian philosophy, there is a passage called Ta Tung, or “The Great Harmony,” which describes the ideal relation between things: that the best leaders are elected, wealth is shared and not left idle, and every man, woman, and child belongs to each other — and to itself. On my way to work, I often stop by a large statue of Confucius off the Bowery, in which this passage is emblazoned. There, one finds a multitude of trees growing up from stone, and flowers in the spring and green all summer. Yet not once did I ever see a Chinese person stand beside me and gaze at the man, much less read the inscription, for to the Chinese, he has become a kind of furniture, and the Chinese (at least here) live in a ghetto of their own construct.

The poet James A. Emanuel died on September 28th, 2013. The last few days, I’ve stopped at this statue a bit more often than usual. I’ve read the inscription carefully; I’ve tried to feel what it means to not regard oneself as “merely” oneself — as the words seem to exhort — but as part of something extraneous to it, something unnecessary, unimportant. Perhaps this is because I’ve been having trouble at my job and needed to stabilize. Or perhaps it is because, with James Emanuel more and more on my mind, now, I’ve realized that the content of those words was actually the content of his own life’s work: to keep the world from getting stuck on itself — that is, in its own skin, its own ghetto — and to bring it out of the enclosure.

Like many young writers, I’d first discovered James Emanuel’s poetry through Cosmoetica, and this essay, in particular. In reading his Whole Grain: Collected Poems, Emanuel — a black American poet and academic most recently living in Paris — immediately struck me as an artist of immense talent, even as his work (despite its strong identity) did not seem to “mark” him as a black writer, or as any “kind” of writer, at all, except one of talent and breadth that went beyond questions of race, and into deeper ideational concerns. Of course, he is not unique, here, for other black writers have routinely bemoaned their forced ghettoization into purely (and, even worse, stereotypically) black concerns: Charles Johnson, a Buddhist who wonders why blacks are so little concerned with “deeper” questions, even now; Claude McKay, who had his popularity stripped for his refusal to toe a political line; Ralph Ellison, who fictionalized these kind of subtly racist interactions; and James Baldwin, likely the richest of all black philosophical thinkers, and who — atheist, gay, and critical of everyone around him — did not ever comfortably fit into any school or methodology, save that of honesty and the striving for excellence, which have their own methods, separate and individuated for each human being, as opposed to merely having … Continue reading →