Lists All Around Us

Are we in a list moment? They seem to be all around us, even gaining their own silly term, listicle. But humans and lists go way back (one of the earliest cuneiform relics is of course a list of kings). List making is perhaps definitional of humans (my list of potential blog entries, most never written, could be my own exhibit A).

This all occurred to me perusing the plethora of lists on Gramophone’s web site. (Gramophone is a classical music magazine published in the UK, and mostly concerned with reviews of recordings. It’s been around a long time and this, plus its focus on classics, is basis for dismissing it out of hand, or treasuring it. I alternate positions.)

Like most digital publications, Gramophone has gotten in line with lists in a big way. Playlists on many topics (Hall of Fame Sopranos, Great Violinists, Inspirational Castratos (that is modern performances of work original written for castratos, not modern inspirational castratos, I hasten to say). This push you to a streaming service after you have read a pithy paragraph or two. I was pleased that the violin list  reminded me of how wonderful the fiddling of Arthur Grumiaux was.

They also have numerous compilation lists, “50 Greatest Chopin Recordings” “50 Greatest Schubert Recordings” and so forth. Since they are aiming at record collectors, and we are nerds by definition, they also have “The 50 Greatest Classical Recordings You’ve (Probably) Never Heard.” (If you want a count, I own or have owned three of the 50  (am a streamer now), heard some others, but more than a few are tantalizing unknowns to me: to wit, soprano Gertrud Grob-Prandl,  & composer, Johann Heinrich Schmelzer; I also didn’t know Stokowski did one of his technicolor arrangements of Wagner’s “Magic Fire Music” with the Houston Symphony–(a whole LP of magic fire for reals?)

Although music is ideal fodder for listomania, it’s hardly limited to that. Every bookstore I go in seems to have at least some entries in book series titled “1000 [insert noun here] before you die” with varied nouns:
Places to see
Books to Read
Songs to Listen To
etc.

The spoof writes itself, just slot in a different noun:

1000 Episodes of Law and Order to See Before You Die
1000 Starbucks Latte Varieties to Drink Before You Die
1000 Arguments to Have With Your Spouse, Children, Roommate, Dog About Where They Leave Their Stuff

Granted mine don’t have the ‘bucket list’ frisson of visiting Corfu or reading Ulysses, but they do have the virtue of being easily achieved.
Oddly, there is, at least as far as I know, no parallel “1000” series about things to avoid (call it the anti-bucket list). The 1000 Books Not To Read Before You Die (so many choices!) would be a hit I bet. I can contribute a few entries.

In addition to being easy, lists do emit at least a weak signal as a bit of rhetoric. Little doubt that most composition teachers and editors would discourage lists in prose. Writing-wise their challenges (parallel or not? what order? list within lists?) aren’t very taxing (certainly not the furniture moving-level effort required in the typical essay).

Yet they are writing, and sometimes can shine. That list of guests at Gatsby’s party is a miracle. And lists spin through Stephen Millhauser’s magical novels. Just now, I’m deep into Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways, inspired by the life of naturalist and poet Edward Thomas, whose guides to rambling through the British Isles are quiet classics, and whose bleak-beautiful poetry is newly appealing to me. Macfarlane has this delectable bit for the list-o-mane.

pilgrim paths
green roads
drove roads
corpse roads
trods
leys
dykes
drongs
sarns
snickets

he goes on “—say the names of paths out loud and at speed and they become a poem or rite–holloways, bostles, shutes, driftways, lichways, ridings, halterpaths, cartways, carneys, causeways, herepaths.”

Macfarlane’s book is beautifully written, and carries its literary and geographic learning with a light touch.

There is, of course, course another famous list, Ko-Ko’s from The Mikado of potential victims for the Lord High Executioner. Frequently updated, but at its most swell, perhaps, in Martyn Green’s classic recording.

So that ends today’s list!

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Poetic Words: Sharon Olds

poetryBoth Poetry Daily and Knopf Poem of the Day do celebrations of National Poetry Month (April, of course, the ‘cruelest’ month). Sharon Olds was one of Knopf’s selections, and she has always resonated with me, perhaps never more so than in this poem.

Directly

Then, one late afternoon,
I understand: the harm my father
did us is receding. I never thought
it would happen, I thought his harm was stronger than that,
like God’s harm—flood, or birth without
eyes, with mounds of tissue, no retina, no
pupil, the way my father on the couch did not
seem not to be using eyes
but not to have them, or to have objects
for eyes—Jocastal dress-brooches.
But he had not been hated, so he did not hate us,
just scorned us, and it is wearing off.
My son and daughter are grown, they are well
as if by some miracle. The afternoon has a
quality of miracle, the starlings all facing
the west, his grave. I come to the window
as if to open it, and whisper,
My father’s harm is fading. Then,
I think that he would be glad to hear it
directly from me,

so I come to where you are, bone
settled under the dewed tangle
of the blackish Northwoods moss like the crossroads
hair of a beloved. I come to you here
because it is home: your done-with body
broken back down into earth, holding
its solemn incapable beauty.


Perhaps all writers make use of their family first and foremost, but few do it as fearlessly.

Commonplace Book: October in Poetry

Some verse for a blustery start to October, as the mid-Atlantic hopes to be spared the wrath of Hurricane Joaquin.

October

by Don Thompson

I used to think the land
had something to say to us,
back when wildflowers
would come right up to your hand
as if they were tame.

 

Sooner or later, I thought,
the wind would begin to make sense
if I listened hard
and took notes religiously.
That was spring.

 

Now I’m not so sure:
the cloudless sky has a flat affect
and the fields plowed down after harvest
seem so expressionless,
keeping their own counsel.

 

This afternoon, nut tree leaves
blow across them
as if autumn had written us a long letter,
changed its mind,
and tore it into little scraps.

Commonplace Book: Jacques Bonnet

BonnetStill dipping into Phantom of the Bookshelves, one of those charming books on books that show up from time to time. Chapter 7 addresses a phenomena that many readers encounter.

 

Chapter 7

Real People, Fictional Characters

“The best bacon omelettes I have eaten in my life have been with Alexandre Dumas.”  — Jacques Laurent

Hundreds of thousands of people live in my library. Some are real, others are fictional. The real ones are the so-called imaginary characters in the works of literature, the fictional ones are their authors. We know everything about the former, or at least as much as we are meant to know, everything that is written about a given character in a novel, a story, or a poem in which he or she figures. This character has not grown any older since the author brought him or her into existence, and will remain the same for all eternity. When we hold in our hand the text or texts in which such a person appears, it feels as if we are in possession of everything the author wanted us to know about the character’s acts, words and sometimes, thoughts. The rest doesn’t matter. Nothing is hidden from us. For us, a novel’s characters are real. We may be free to imagine what we don’t know about them, though we know quite well that these are just guesses. And we are free to interpret their words or their silences, but again these will just be interpretations. We know quite a lot about Odysseus, Aeneas or Don Quixote, correspondingly little about Homer, Virgil or Cervantes. Sometimes characters are even deprived of an author as if their creator had discreetly sipped away. Who made up the first version of Don Juan? Who invented Faust? And while we feel sure that Harpagon, Tartuffe or Monsieur Jourdain undeniably exist, what do we know in the end about a certain Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, whose stage name was Molière. Not very much, not even whether he really wrote all the plays attributed to him.

[…]

Authors are just fictional people, about whom we have a few biographical elements, never enough to make them truly real people. Whereas the biography of a literary character, even if it is incomplete–and explicitly so–is perfectly reliable: it is whatever its creator decided.

malgudi
A real map of a fictional place, R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi, which is nonetheless a place that was very real to me when I fell in love with his books in my twenties.

Poetic Words: Frank O’Hara

POEM

“Two communities outside Birmingham, Alabama, are
still searching for their dead.” — News Telecast

And tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock in Springfield, Massachusetts,
my oldest aunt will be buried from a convent.
Spring is here and I am staying here, I’m not going.
Do birds fly? I am thinking my own thoughts, who else’s?

When I die, don’t come, I wouldn’t want a leaf
to turn away from the sun — it loves it there.
There’s nothing so spiritual about being happy
but you can’t miss a day of it, because it doesn’t last.

So this is the devil’s dance? Well I was born to dance.
It’s a sacred duty, like being in love with an ape,
and eventually I’ll reach some great conclusion, like assumption,
when at last I meet exhaustion in these flowers, go straight up.

–Frank O’Hara

 

berries

Seaside Words

A last shot from vacation….

Ptown
Early morning, Provincetown, MA

an excerpt from

Corsons Inlet

by A. R. Ammons

in nature there are few sharp lines: there are areas of
primrose
       more or less dispersed;
disorderly orders of bayberry; between the rows
of dunes,
irregular swamps of reeds,
though not reeds alone, but grass, bayberry, yarrow, all …
predominantly reeds:

 

I have reached no conclusions, have erected no boundaries,
shutting out and shutting in, separating inside
          from outside: I have
          drawn no lines:
          as

 

manifold events of sand
change the dune’s shape that will not be the same shape
tomorrow,

 

so I am willing to go along, to accept
the becoming
thought, to stake off no beginnings or ends, establish
         no walls

 

 

The Sea

Whitehead
Headlands at Monhegan Island, ME. August 2015

An excerpt from Beowulf:

Then moved o’er the waters by might of the  wind
that bark like a bird with breast of foam,
till in season due, on the second day,
the curved prow such course had run
that sailors now could see the land,
sea-cliffs shining, steep high hills,
headlands broad. Their haven was found,
their journey ended. Up then quickly
the Weders’ clansmen climbed ashore,
anchored their sea-wood, with armor clashing
and gear of battle: God they thanked
for passing in peace o’er the paths of the sea.

Vacation Words

Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.
          It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.

–Wallace Stevens

Monhegan Harbor, August 2015
Sunset view across Monhegan Harbor, August 2015, my photo

Words & Pictures: Sunflowers

There’s a sea of sunflowers in a park in Montgomery County, MD, visited just after their peak this weekend.

And some accompanying poetry from “Letters to Walt Whitman” by Ronald Johnson.

let us burrow in
to a susurration, the dense starlings,

of the real—
the huge
sunflowers waving back at us,

as we move

—the great grassy world

that surrounds us,
singing.