Category: impressions

Sixth Friend: Vachel Lindsay, “Factory Windows are Always Broken”

I hope you brought a gift, because today is this friend’s birthday – Vachel Lindsay turns 138 years old today, having been born in Springfield, Illinois in 1879. Mr. Lindsay was quite popular early in his career, but his popularity began to decline later in his life and, unfortunately, has waned more since then. He started out selling self-published work on the streets, in New York in 1905 and during treks across the country on foot in 1906, ’08, and ’12. He caught a break when Poetry Magazine, at the time still new and already influential in the literary world, published “General William Booth Enters into Heaven” in 1913, and “The Congo,” which we’ll get to shortly, in 1914. Once his popularity took off, his tours and public performances were very successful, but his fame peaked early. His fortunes declined until, in 1931, he committed suicide by drinking a bottle of Lysol.

Though his reputation never reached the heights of the mid- to late-1910’s, Mr. Lindsay has never been forgotten, either. Friend and fellow poet Edgar Lee Masters wrote a biography of him a few years after his death, and he still shows up in anthologies of American literature. One thing that may work against him is that his most famous poem, “The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race,” also happens to be of the sort that requires a trigger warning these days, and was also fairly controversial even in his own lifetime. It’s not the one I memorised for the Hundred Friends project since it’s far too long, but it’s interesting enough that I’ll go ahead and excerpt a bit:

I. THEIR BASIC SAVAGERY

Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,
Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable,
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,
     A deep rolling bass.
Pounded on the table,
Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom,
Hard as they were able,
Boom, boom, BOOM,
With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.
THEN I had religion, THEN I had a vision.
I could not turn from their revel in derision.
THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK,
     More deliberate. Solemnly chanted.
CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST WITH A GOLDEN TRACK.
Then along that riverbank
A thousand miles
Tattooed cannibals danced in files;
Then I heard the boom of the blood-lust song
And a thigh-bone beating on a tin-pan gong.
     A rapidly piling climax of speed & racket.
And “BLOOD” screamed the whistles and the fifes of the warriors,
“BLOOD” screamed the skull-faced, lean witch-doctors,
“Whirl ye the deadly voo-doo rattle,
Harry the uplands,
Steal all the cattle,
Rattle-rattle, rattle-rattle,
Bing.
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM,”
A roaring, epic, rag-time tune
     With a philosophic pause.
From the mouth of the Congo
To the Mountains of the Moon.
Death is an Elephant,
Torch-eyed and horrible,
     Shrilly and with a heavily accented metre.
Foam-flanked and terrible.
BOOM, steal the pygmies,
BOOM, kill the Arabs,
BOOM, kill the white men,
HOO, HOO, HOO.
Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost
     Like the wind in the chimney.
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.
Listen to the creepy proclamation,
Blown through the lairs of the forest-nation,
Blown past the white-ants’ hill of clay,
Blown past the marsh where the butterflies play: —
“Be careful what you do,
Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo,
     All the “O” sounds very golden. Heavy accents very heavy. Light accents very light. Last line whispered.
And all of the other
Gods of the Congo,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.”…

Read More Sixth Friend: Vachel Lindsay, “Factory Windows are Always Broken”

Fifth Friend: Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice”

Today, we’ll meet a friend who every American reader will likely already know as the only good New Englander (well, maybe not quite the only, but close), Mr. Robert Frost. Few Americans made it through high school without reading “Mending Wall,” “The Road Not Taken,” or “Nature’s First Green is Gold.” For good reason, too. It’s not hard to see why Mr. Frost’s popularity has endured, as he’s one of the few modern poets to write mostly traditional verse, though his early work is more noticeably Modernist. So, his poems are generally aesthetically pleasant, but still thoughtful, and without the intense introspection that turns off some readers, and certainly without the degenerate form of introspection, the narcissism that marks lesser writers.

Now, for this project I’m using “Fire and Ice,” which I’ve actually memorised previously. In fact, it’s short and with such a strong rhyme scheme that I memorised it essentially by accident, simply after reading it several times:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

I’ve always liked the understatement and dry delivery of this one, but I’m not sure how much we’re supposed to read into this poem or if it is, in fact, completely tongue-in-cheek. I suppose one could use the poem to make a ham-fisted point about the destructiveness of greed and hate, but that reading is rather too obvious for me, and a writer of Mr. Frost’s calibre would, I expect, find a more subtle way of expressing that. So, I’ll keep it short this time, and let this poem stand for itself.…

Read More Fifth Friend: Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice”

Edgar Allan Poe and Engineering Poetry

There’s no better time than October to revisit Edgar Allan Poe, and since I already covered his short stories last year, this year I thought we’d move on to his poetry. Unfortunately, we risk doing so at some thematic loss. Yes, his short stories are mostly horror, and so is his most famous poem, “The Raven,” but most of his poetry doesn’t really fit that category. Some of it’s still morbid, though, as beautiful young women have the same astonishing mortality rate here as they do in the stories, but to keep things seasonal I’ll focus on his most popular work.

Before diving in, though, it’s worth considering how Poe approached poetry. He describes at some length in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition” not only his general theory of what a poem should seek to accomplish, but illustrates it by describing how he wrote “The Raven.” The whole thing is worth reading, but there are a couple main points relevant here. First, he says that when he begins writing, he “prefer[s] commencing with the consideration of an effect.” In his short stories, that effect or impression is typically horror; in “The Raven” Poe says that the poem’s province is beauty, and melancholy the tone.…

Read More Edgar Allan Poe and Engineering Poetry

Brief Thoughts on Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why

I just finished listening to the audiobook version Harold Bloom’s 2001 book, How to Read and Why. I often enjoy books about books, and since I’m occasionally asked for advice on how to jump into literature and Bloom seems to be a well-respected writer, I thought it’d be worth giving a shot. Overall, it’s good and I’d recommend it, but with some conditions and, for most people, not before a couple other works in the genre.

The main part of the book goes through various representative works in poetry, short stories, novels, and plays, with Bloom outlining some of the main structural and thematic points, and discussing the value of the work and author in question. Most of this is fairly standard literary criticism, but Bloom is clearly very well read, thoughtful, and engaging. The selection is, overall, rather conservative, which is fine. It’s hard to go wrong with Austen, Hemingway, Wordsworth, and Faulkner, for instance. His selection is weighted toward English literature and Shakespeare is the oldest author included; this excludes a great deal of foundational Western literature, but since How to Read and Why is targeted to beginners, it is reasonable to focus on well-known, easily available works, and avoid the potentially sticky issue of translation. I haven’t read many of the works included, but the only one I’d object to is Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, the only “affirmative action” selection, despite Bloom’s praise for the book.

One thing I especially appreciate about Bloom is his dismissal of academic fads, the idea that authors must be political activists, and the like. He writes in the Introduction:

Ultimately we read – as Bacon, Johnson, and Emerson agree – in order to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests. We experience such augmentations as pleasure, which may be why aesthetic values have alwasy been deprecated by social moralists, from Plato through our current campus Puritans. The pleasures of reading are selfish rather than social. You cannot directly improve anyone else’s life by reading better or more deeply. I remain skeptical of the traditional social hope that care for others may be stimulated by the growth of individual imagination, and I am wary of any arguments whatsoever that connect the pleasures of solitary reading to the public good.

Accordingly, Bloom takes each author on the author’s own terms, avoiding reading modern fashions into the texts, and focuses on what each author offers to the reader as an individual.

That’s all well and good, and Bloom so far sounds broadly Conservative. However, one quickly gets the impression that he’s simply a Liberal who’s been left behind as the rest of the Left moves forward faster than he has. For example, he has the silly habit of using “she” as a gender-neutral pronoun, and when discussing romantic relationships between characters feels it necessary to specify “heterosexual.” Also, though I don’t think he’s a Freudian, he still talks about sexuality in a way that makes me suspect that the discredited psychologist is lurking around somewhere.

Also, he offers a number of opinions that I’m reluctant to criticise at any length, not having read his full arguments, but that are, frankly, rather dubious. One of the more famous examples is his assertion that William Shakespeare “invented the human,” as we now think of humans. He discusses this in depth in another book, Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, but I find it hard to believe that this work would reward the time I put into it (though I am open to recommendations).

Finally, the audiobook is narrated by John McDonough, who does well and navigates the proper pronunciation of international authors’ names admirably (at least, as far as I can judge such things).

So, is How to Read and Why worth picking up? There are certainly benefits to it, especially for those looking to get started with a serious study of literature but want something less dry and systematic than Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren’s How to Read a Book, or less idiosyncratic and specific to poetry than Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading. I prefer these latter two, and Adler and van Doren will still be my go-to recommendation, but Bloom will do just fine for a more casual starting-point.…

Read More Brief Thoughts on Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why

Fourth Friend: John Milton, “Sonnet XIX: When I Consider How my Light is Spent”

If you’ve been on social media for any significant length of time, you’ve probably seen a meme purporting to show books typical for each of the three major branches of Christianity. For Catholicism, it has Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, for Eastern Orthodoxy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and for Protestantism, Joel Osteen’s Become a Better You. It’s funny, yes, but it also annoys me a little. For one thing, though I hate heresy and consider their revolt against the Church the greatest catastrophe of the past several centuries, I do have some sympathy for Protestants. I live in the American South, after all, which despite a significant Catholic presence is still a fundamentally Protestant place. Many of my friends belong to one of those denominations, and when I think of Protestants I first think, not of the despicable Luther and Calvin or the dopey Osteen, but of my Baptist grandfather, who in the last decade or so of his life approached his church with full sincerity, and collected an impressive library of different editions and translations of Scripture, comparing each and considering the commentaries of various theologians.

Also, it offends my sense of fairness, because there have been many great works of Protestant literature. I don’t think any come to the level of The Divine Comedy, but Protestants can claim no lesser artists than Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser, Donne, and indeed most great English authors from the Elizabethan era onward. Bl. John Henry Newman went so far as to say that the English literary tradition is fundamentally Protestant. Now, that was already debatable when he said it in the 1852, and it has become even more so since then, but I ultimately do agree with him and it’s hard to argue that there isn’t some truth to it.

Read More Fourth Friend: John Milton, “Sonnet XIX: When I Consider How my Light is Spent”

Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus

When writing about Tales of Mystery and Imagination, I mentioned that Edgar Allan Poe is an unusual member of the literary canon because of the types of stories he wrote, mostly horror. When thinking of comparable works, two come to mind right away. One is Dracula, by Bram Stoker. However, though Stoker’s vampire might be the most famous icon in horror, his work seems most influential in pop culture, rather than literature. Also, the novel kinda sucks (er, no pun intended). It reaches a climax too early, and was written in the horrid epistolary format, a style that has long since gone out of style, and good riddance.

Dracula’s only competitor for greatest horror icon is Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his monster, which brings us to a second work comparable to Poe, Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley. Again, it’s most influential in pop culture, so much so that just as it’s hard to think of Dracula without thinking of Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee, it’s hard to think of Frankenstein without imagining Colin Clive or Peter Cushing, or the monster apart from Boris Karloff. In literature, it’s an early prototype of both horror and science fiction; not exactly the most respected genres, but nonetheless, certainly worth something. It’s also very much in the Romantic mode, which may be a strength or a weakness, depending on the reader’s taste for melodrama. Most importantly, though, unlike Dracula it’s a genuinely good novel.

Read More Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus

New at Thermidor: The Book of Documents

I have another new post up at Thermidor Magazine, covering the Confucian classic, the Book of Documents, which includes a discussion of the Confucian approach to history, as well as a few comments on the Confucian-derived Neoreactionary slogan, “Become worthy. Accept power. Rule.”

Those wanting to read more about Confucianism may be interested in a few other articles I’ve written previously, covering the Book of Odes, Mencius, Leonard Lyall’s translation of the Analects of Confucius, and Xinzhong Yao’s Introduction to Confucianism.…

Read More New at Thermidor: The Book of Documents

A Short Review of The Last Unicorn

After watching The Hobbit, I thought it would be worth watching some more of Rankin/Bass’s films, and initially planned on moving on to The Return of the King next (on my own schedule, which some would call extremely slow but which I prefer to think of as simply a stately pace). At a friend’s insistence, though, I skipped ahead a bit and watched The Last Unicorn, their adaptation of Peter Beagle’s novel of the same title from 1982. Since a couple of people have expressed interest in hearing about it, I figured I’d go ahead and share a few brief thoughts on the movie here.

First, the film has a mythic feeling to it, which I appreciate. The movie opens with moving the camera through a dense forest, and the opening credits are done in a style that mimics illuminated manuscripts, in a manner that reminds me of some of Disney’s “storybook openings,” like Sleeping Beauty or Sword in the Stone, or a less elaborate version of the opening myth section of Watership Down. You can take a look for yourself on YouTube. Two hunters complain of not finding any game, and the older of the two surmises that it must be because of a unicorn’s presence, which would also explain why it’s always springtime there. The younger is incredulous, but the old man is, of course, correct, and they leave the forest as he shouts good wishes to the unicorn, as she is the last of her kind. Our equine protagonist hears this and is troubled by the possibility, and sets out to find out if this is true, and to learn what became of the others.

Read More A Short Review of The Last Unicorn

Plato’s Dialogues: Protagoras

Crito’s attempt to save Socrates has failed, so now we’ll go back and begin working through Plato’s dialogues from earlier in his life. First up are some discussions with various sophists, beginning with Protagoras.

This dialogue begins with a somewhat odd framing device; a friend meets Socrates walking through the city, and learns that he’s just come from speaking with Protagoras, who has recently arrived in Athens to work as a teacher. So, the rest of the work is Socrates recounting the meeting, so there’s a double narration going on, and the frame is never closed. I’m sure there’s been discussion enough of why the dialogue is structured this way, but I could only guess.

Read More Plato’s Dialogues: Protagoras

Going After Cacciato

After writing about Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried, Sam Stevens (whose own novel Lone Crusader I reviewed earlier this year) recommended that I also check out another of O’Brien’s novels, Going After Cacciato. That sounded like a good idea to me, so I got a copy of the audiobook edition expecting another war novel along the lines of The Things They Carried.

I was about half-right. It’s partly a war novel, and partly a modern version of Around the World in Eighty Days.…

Read More Going After Cacciato