Thursday, October 06, 2011

R.I.P. Sam, Bill and Fred

Three college teachers who were important to me have passed away in the past few months.  The most recent was Sam Moon, the professor who sought me out and first talked to me as I was registering for classes at Knox College.  I was there on the Scholastic Magazines Writing Awards Scholarship, and he was head of the writing program (which he pretty much invented.)  I can see his face across the table right now.

He wanted to talk to me before I registered in case I thought I had to take writing courses because of my writing scholarship.  He said I didn't, and probably would have gotten a scholarship anyway.  I had read and re-read the brochure on the writing program the previous spring, and then all summer.  It was one of the main reasons I chose Knox (I had a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh as well.)  So I told him I actually wanted to take writing courses.  He seemed very pleased.

I did take several writing courses from him, and he was always willing to read and discuss a manuscript even when it wasn't part of a course.  He listened well, asked questions, tried to get inside your thinking.  But he also let you know what he thought, in certain terms.  I don't remember much that's specific, just odd moments of classes or in his office.  I believe--and this applies to other teachers--that a lot of what we learn from teachers that turns out to be most important is what we absorbed without realizing it, or at least without realizing and remembering where we learned it.   

What I do associate the most with Sam Moon however is the bounty of writers and others who spent time at Knox while I was there.  Many of those specific individuals were there because of Sam Moon.  He was himself a poet who published regularly in Chicago's prestigous Poetry Magazine and elsewhere.  He had the respect of writers and he was connected to their world.

So in my time I saw and heard poets from Mark Van Doren to David Ignatov.  I had lunch with W.H. Auden!  Gary Snyder came pretty much directly from Japan for a week one spring, and read for hours every day.  We waited for him in Old Main, listening for the bells in his boots jingling down the stone hallway.  Nobody who was there will ever forget the week that Robert Creeley visited, or (for other reasons) James Dickey. Robert Bly came to read at least twice. These poets changed us.  John Cage came to campus several times, as did dancer Merce Cunningham--and once they were there at the same time, as the Cunningham group performed a piece by Cage.  Grace Paley read her stories. They are part of my college memories--bringing tea to Denise Levertov, talking about the New York Worlds Fair on the Gizmo patio with John Cage ("I liked the lines," he said.)  Others probably had something to do with bringing these people to Knox, but it was pretty much Sam. 

He was also possibly the last Knox teacher I talked to in his Old Main office, when I visited campus in the 1980s. I'd been out of school 15 years or so by then, but he recognized me standing uncertainly at his office door, as a group of undergrad writers surrounded him at his desk. We had a coffee in the Gizmo.

He retired soon after that (I remember I wrote something for a book to be presented to him at his farewell dinner), and I was surprised to see that he left Galesburg soon afterwards.  He had another life, another quarter century somewhere else, in New York state.  He's buried in Ontario.  Our teachers are always something of a mystery to us, as young as we were, but I'll bet Sam was more of a mystery than most.

William Matthews was pretty much the entire Religion department when I was at Knox.  I don't think I ever had a class with him, but for some reason he liked things I wrote, for the newspaper and the campus magazines.  People would tell me that he quoted them enthusiastically in his classes.  I was embarrassed, since it seemed to compromise my lapsed Catholic dogmatic anti-religion.  I did talk with him from time to time, but again, I couldn't feel comfortable, thanks to 12 years of priests and nuns.  I do wonder if he had anything to do with bringing another speaker to campus, who had a profound effect on me.  I don't remember what he was actually talking about, there in the Commons Room of Old Main, but he made one offhand comment that reoriented me completely: he noted that after killing an animal, a Native American hunter would say a prayer thanking the animal.  Eventually this moment would send me on a different road, spiritual and otherwise.

I recently learned from a fellow student who got back in touch after a very long time that Fred Newman died several months ago.  Fred was a philosophy professor who changed more than my life in his time at Knox.  I had only one class with him, and knew him for no more than a year or so.  I could write pages on that spring of my freshman year, and its impact on me for years following.

But I lost complete track of him after Knox, and though I had seen his name from time to time--not usually in flattering contexts, as a kind of New York political eccentric--I was unaware of the extent, nature and influence of his work over the years.  Which is kind of astonishing, since I used to spend a fair amount of time in New York in worlds that touched upon his.  He was political, a "public philosopher", a playwright and songwriter with dozens of productions, etc.  I learned most of this from his website.  It even has sound files of him lecturing--talk about a blast from the past!

I'm sorry that I wasn't aware of this while he was alive. He remained a charismatic figure well beyond Knox, so on the other hand it's unlikely I would have wanted to go through that exhausting experience again.  From his obits I learned something else: that he lost his college teaching jobs after Knox because he insisted on giving all his male students As because of the draft.  I wish I'd known that.  I'd probably need pages more to explain that to those who weren't young men then, but it's something else I will always admire about Fred Newman.

May they rest in peace--Sam, Bill, Fred, if I may call them that.  I probably can.  

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Hillman on the Author's Battlefield

I was never in any military, and although I played at war endlessly for a few years as a boy, I never developed a lot of interest in the military vocabulary.  But James Hillman was in the U.S. Navy during World War II, tending to amputees and other severely injured in hospitals.  His last book (so far) was A Terrible Love of War, which according to the paperback back cover, somebody in the San Francisco Chronicle called "A skillfully constructed tour de force."  Oh yeah, that was me.  And yes, it was a pun, kind of.

Anyway, that's a long way to get to this slyly revealing passage in that book in which Hillman talks about writing using military terms and concepts--not something I've ever thought about, or how I approached writing, but worth considering. 

"Writing books for me is anyway much like a military campaign.  I  confess to fighting my way through with military metaphors.  There is a strategy, an overall concept, and there are tactics along the way.  When stuck, don't dig in; keep moving forward.  Don't obsess trying to reduce a strongpoint by sheer force or laying seige.  Isolate it and in time it will fall by itself.  No pitched battles with the interior voices of saboteurs, critics, adversaries.  A light skirmish, a show of arrows, and disappear into the next paragraph.  Camouflage your own vulnerability, your lack of reserves with showy parades and bugles---remember everyone else is equally vulnerable.  Pillage the storehouses of thought, refurbish old material and use it to reinforce your lines.  Abandon ground you can't exploit, but when you've got an issue on the run, take all the territory you can."

Thursday, September 01, 2011

"Music's not for stopping.  You go till you drop...For me, it ends when it ends.  Johnny Cash did his best work in the last two years of his life.  That's what musicians should aim to do."

Roger Daltrey, lead singer of the Who, interview
in August 2011 "Uncut"

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

For Ralph Waldo Emerson (that's his Concord house in the photo), the crucial unit of living time was the day.  He was inspired by what could be accomplished or revealed in each new day, and frustrated by the lost hours, the plod of seemingly wasted days.

"Days" is probably his most famous poem:

Daughters of Time, the hypocrite Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.
To each they offer gifts after his will,
Bread, kingdoms, stars, and sky that holds them all.
I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,
Forgot my morning wishes, hastily
Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day
Turned and departed silent.  I, too late,
Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.

So in some real sense, the struggle to fulfill the potential of the day is the essential creative struggle. And it is renewed...every day. Elsewhere he wrote: "The days are gods.  That is, everything is divine."   In his great biography, Emerson: The Mind on Fire, Robert D. Richardson virtually outdoes the eloquence of his subject, on this subject:

"The personal consequences of such perceptions was an almost intolerable awareness that every morning began with infinite promise.  Any book may be read, any idea thought, any action taken.  Anything that has ever been possible to human beings is possible to most of us every time the clock says six in the morning.  On a day no different from the one now breaking, Shakespeare sat down to begin Hamlet and [Margaret] Fuller began her history of the Roman revolution of 1848.  Each of us has all the time there is; each accepts those invitations he can discern.  By the same token, each evening brings a reckoning of infinite regret for the paths refused, openings not seen, and actions not taken."

But the essence of it is "Each of us has all the time there is," but "each accepts those invitations he can discern."  This is beyond the irksome questions of "time management," or the conflicting demands, needs, temptations as well as falsely promising dead ends.  On good days, one may forgive the lapses, knowing that even apparently wasted time may contribute to something that arrives unexplained and redeems the day in a flash.  On bad days, the temptation of course is to wallow in that possibility.  The "divine dissatisfaction" jockeys with receptivity and acceptance, as the questions narrow with the numbered days. 

Monday, June 06, 2011

"All my writings may be considered tasks imposed from within; their source was a fatal compulsion.  What I wrote were things that assailed me from within myself.  I permitted the spirit that moved me to speak out.  I have never counted upon any strong response, any powerful resonance, to my writings.  They represent a compensation for our times, and I have been impelled to say what no one wants to hear.  For that reason, and especially at the beginning, I often felt utterly forlorn.  I knew that what I said would be unwelcome, for it is difficult for people of our times to accept the counterweight to the conscious world.  Today I can say that it is truly astonishing that I have had as much success as has been accorded me--far more than I ever could have expected.  I have the feeling that I have done all that it was possible for me to do.  Without a doubt that life work could have been larger, and could have been done better; but more was not within my power."

"A book of mine is always a matter of fate.  There is something unpredictable about the process of writing, and I cannot prescribe for myself any predetermined course."

"My life has been in a sense the quintessence of what I have written, not the other way around.  The way I am and the way I write are a unity.  All my ideas and all my endeavors are myself.  Thus the 'autobiography' is merely the dot on the i."

"In Bollingen, silence surrounds me almost audibly, and I live 'in modest harmony with nature.'  Thoughts rise to the surface which reach back into the centuries, and accordingly anticipate a remote future.  Here the torment of creation is lessened; creativity and play are close together."

Carl Jung, who died on June 6, 1961, 50 years ago today. [See also this post and its links.]

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould
White Pine Pictures

Nearly 30 years after his death, pianist Glenn Gould remains an icon. He’s one of the few classical musicians revered by peers who also has awestruck fans without expertise in that area of music. I’m one of those. I’ve collected his recordings, read two biographies, and have listened to few pieces of music—and none of classical music—more than I have of Gould’s 1981 version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

There are a number of videos about Gould that are limited, bathetic or complete rip-offs.  Also a fine fictional film based on Gould's life, Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould by Francois Girard (it took me years to catch on to the fact that the number corresponds to the number of variations in "Goldberg": this film had to have been called The Glenn Gould Variations at some point.)  And a 2006 film I haven't yet seen called Hereafter by Gould confidant Bruno Monsaingeon that adds dramatizations and encounters with Gould fanatics to archival video and audio. But this film, Genius Within by Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont is a satisfying biographical treatment with a fair amount of music. It's been on the festival circuit, but the DVD extra interviews really contribute.

I happened to rent this along with the docu DVD on 1970s popular singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, and they have provocative similarities. So instead of recapping the Gould story, I’ll suggest some of their commonalities as artists.

Artistic success is often a matter of being ready with the right skills at the right time and place. It also tends to be circumscribed in time, between the damage or obsessions that motivate, and the time when their effects accumulate.

Nilsson had a troubled childhood, Gould perhaps a lonely one. They both were successful in their 20s with a clear path to an artistic career, and they both violated career rules, to their benefit and at a cost. (Both notoriously avoided live performance for the recording studio.  Gould felt touring drained imagination, causing him to "grow old very quickly.  It's a dreadful life.")  Drugs (alcohol and 70s recreationals for Nilsson, prescription drugs for Gould) arguably fueled their work and arguably hastened their demise.

Both men mesmerized their friends, and demanded much of them. Both explored other creative areas but returned to culminating works—Gould especially, with his second Goldberg Variations in the last year of his life. They were both hyperactive and intuited an early death, and both died in their early 50s.

But their legends can lead to distortions. One woman on this DVD reveals a romantic relationship and implies a sexual one with the reputedly virginal Gould. Nilsson’s life also became more balanced with a happy family life in his later years.

Yet crucially they each followed internal guides, and apart from personal failings their unorthodox career decisions turned out to be artistically right.  Perhaps this sentence from Thoreau, from the journal passage quoted in the previous post, applies not only to individual works but to the arc of a career: “We must walk consciously only part way to our goal,” Thoreau wrote, “and then leap in the dark to our success.”

Thursday, May 05, 2011

"Find out as soon as possible what are the best things in your composition, and then shape the rest to fit them.  The former will be the midrib and veins of the leaf.

There is always some accident in the best things, whether thoughts or expressions or deeds.  The memorable thought, the happy expression, the admirable deed are only partly ours.  The thought came to use because we were in a fit mood; also we were unconscious and did not know that we had said or done a good thing.  We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success.  What we do best or most perfectly is what we have most thoroughly learned by the longest practice, and at length it falls from us without our notice, as a leaf from a tree.  It is the last time we shall do it,--our unconscious leavings."

H.D. Thoreau--Journal  March 11, 1859

Monday, April 11, 2011

So here's the dream: I'm in the driver's seat of a car, coming up to a huge truck.  It is so big that my car could fit under its carriage with plenty of room on both sides.  And that is what starts to happen--my car is moving slowly forward under this dark truck.  You might expect I'd put a stop to this, but I then realize that I have no steering wheel in front of me.  Instead I have a typewriter.  Not a computer keyboard: a typewriter.  And I'm typing as I observe the dark underside of the truck and feel it all around me.    

Saturday, January 08, 2011

“The function of an artist is to work for a)himself b) to leave something memorable, for the future, to shore up the ruins.”

Bruce Chatwin
painting: Self-Portrait by Gino Severini