Two Poems with the Same Subject

and, to my mind, one is far superior. Which one gets your vote?


Boy at the Window

Seeing the snowman standing all alone
In dusk and cold is more than he can bear.
The small boy weeps to hear the wind prepare
A night of gnashings and enormous moan.
His tearful sight can hardly reach to where
The pale-faced figure with bitumen eyes
Returns him such a god-forsaken stare
As outcast Adam gave to Paradise.

The man of snow is, nonetheless, content,
Having no wish to go inside and die.
Still, he is moved to see the youngster cry.
Though frozen water is his element,
He melts enough to drop from one soft eye
A trickle of the purest rain, a tear
For the child at the bright pane surrounded by
Such warmth, such light, such love, and so much fear.

~Richard Wilbur



The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

~Wallace Stevens


If the live monkey is stapled to the dead monkey's back . . .

. . . they both shall fall out of the tree.

[H]ow is it consistent with belief that the church is the body of Christ, a belief I share, to think it has no intrinsic life to be relied on, and must, for the sake of its survival, be fastened to a more vigorous body, that of a nation?

~Marilynne Robinson in “Wondrous Love” from When I Was a Child I Read Books.

Zartman on the Moral Imagination in Harry Potter

Writer, theolog, man-about-Sumatran-coffee-joints, and friend of mine, Joel Zartman opines on J.K. Rowling’s successes and failures (the proportions of each of which I will leave to his article to reveal) in engaging the moral imagination via her Harry and his Hogwartian cohorts.

So, you can tell from the above that I’ve never read any of it, right? Quite obvious, I’m sure.

An Advent Psalm

     The LORD has made known his salvation;
     he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
     to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
     the salvation of our God.

Psalm 98:2-3 (ESV)

Vicit Agnus Noster

Many (20?) years ago, I heard a song I’ve never forgotten. The production of the song itself was understated but trendy CCM. The words, however, stuck out to me as quite good, and I liked the melody.

This year I discovered that the melody is actually an older hymn tune, St. Peter (Reinagle’s), to which How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds is often sung. Those Christian pop stars can be crafty when they try!

Anyway, here it is for your edification. If the author stumbles across it, I beg his indulgence in considering this fair use as well as his forgiveness for omitting the latin chorus (which I didn’t really know how to punctuate).

The title (of the song and this post) means “Our Lamb has Conquered.”

Did Abraham himself not say
God would provide a lamb
To take instead the punishment
That should belong to man?

And so to humble shepherds
Was His glory first revealed,
And with His birth a covenant
Made long ago was sealed.

Out of His dark obscurity
The Light of God has shone;
And through the meekness of the Lamb
God’s strength would be made known.

The just and gentle Promised One
Would triumph o’er the fall,
And conquer by His own defeat,
And win by losing all.

~Michael Card

Some Whitman for a Cold and Starry Night

Tonight’s clarity of atmosphere and brilliance of heavenly bodies reminded me of some favorite Whitman.

A Clear Midnight

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the
         themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.

O Woodchuck, My Woodchuck!

With some birthday money, I picked up a copy of Christian Wiman’s most recent collection, Every Riven Thing. The thing I like most about his writing is the even dispersal of energy throughout his poems. Every line is capably load-bearing. Punch one in the gut as hard as you can when it isn’t looking–not even a flinch. I mean this from a language deployment standpoint. Some places the meaning eludes me. Right now, I’m willing to assume the failure is on my part, but check out these examples all taken from one poem, “And I Said to My Soul, Be Loud.”

Madden me back to an afternoon
I carry in me
not like a wound . . .

. . . bash-dancing on the cellar’s fire
I am the sound the sun would make
if the sun could make a sound

And I will ride this tantrum back to God

until . . .
. . . my grief-nibbling, unbewildered, wall-to wall self
withers in me like a salted slug

I also ordered Frannie Lindsay’s Where She Always Was (more on that one at a later date) from a used bookseller, and was as pleased to find my copy had been autographed as I might be upon flipping a log and discovering a species of salamander I had never before seen. And not having to leave it in the woods when I go home.

Both volumes good to have at hand on a cool, gray evening with a fire in its place and the kids and missus delighted with the artichoke stuffed chicken I made for dinner. Nice to cook again, too.

Still A Child

November 5, 2008

Somehow it has taken me
until today
to understand, as
the sun cupped my face
in its warm hands, the wind
turned back the corner
of a leafy blanket,
and a dove lulled the afternoon
with a song that
in thirty-eight years
has never made me mourn,
I am still a child; I am
larger than nothing.

Nearly four years later, and appropriate to the day. Enjoy.

Movies, Art, and The Hunger Games

I am involved in an intermittent but (likely) ongoing conversation with a friend about the im/possibility of the movie medium qualifying as art. He says no; I still wonder. His objections seem to follow those advanced by Roger Scruton in An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, especially the chapter entitled “Surface and Surfeit,” which (chapter) I have not yet read, but have briefly skimmed.

My understanding of Scruton/my friend is that since the camera is passive, it merely records–it does not present something original. To (probably grossly) simplify, as a photograph of a painting is not art, so a series of photographs (complete with soundtrack) of a play is not a play, even if those photographs are viewed at quick enough succession to recreate the physical action and perfectly synched to said soundtrack. Ergo: not art.

(Aside to everyone: Interestingly, Neil Young [sorry] makes a similar [though not synonymous] complaint about digital recording vs. analog. Young contends that no matter how high the digital resolution of the recording, it cannot capture the complete aural experience of a person in the room in the same way analog does. I have not consulted the science of ear sensitivity vs. kbps to find out if he is only technically correct; my personal inclination, science aside, is to agree with him.)

(Aside to You-know-who-you-are: A potential objection to Scruton, and perhaps he deals with it in the book, is that this same assertion could be leveled against a microphone and one’s recording equipment of choice. If a movie cannot “make portable” a performance complete in itself and discrete from the camera, why can a CD or record or tape do so with a symphony? You will no doubt appeal to Postman, but Postman limited himself primarily to the field of public discourse as opposed to television or film drama. We can take this up later, but, assuming for now my objection overturns Scruton, I must concede that the question of the proper place of drama, if such a thing exists, remains.)

Into a mind in the midst of sorting these things out comes The Hunger Games, which I had occasion to view this weekend. (Aside to Suzanne Collins: Katniss is a perfectly ridiculous name; following closely in that perfection is Peeta.) In my opinion, the most available insight in the film has nothing to do with the moral dilemmas, but rather the role raw biography may or may not play in entertainment.

This question, begged first by Survivor and then by all its progeny (yea importunately demanded by Here Comes Honey Boo Boo) is most directly addressed when Katniss is interviewed by Stanley Tucci’s talk show host (and Hunger Games play-by-play announcer) character, Caesar Flickerman. By this point in the film, the viewer knows quite well that Flickerman does not care what Katnisss said to Prim in their last moment together other than it be something that will make “a good show”.

Nor does the studo (and home) audience (described by Mr. Joel Zartman as cruel and sentimental [aside to Joel Zartman: I nominate cruelty+sentimentality as a diagnostic for decadence]), genuinely care about Katniss and Prim as people. Instead the primary concern of producers and audience alike is that each contestant possesses (or seems to) some quality (heroic, tragic, invincible, etc.) that will allow them to feel a sufficient thrill, which they will name either triumph or loss, when that contestant kills or is killed. They seek to create/acquire mere cues that will elicit a later desired response.

This is a direct indictment of the reality show genre. Having seen more than one episode of more than one season of The Next Food Network Star (let the mockery begin), I easily recognize the social commentary. In those episodes, the onscreen coaches provided the same advice over and over to each contestant: “Tell your story with food.” The deeper the soul-baring, the more daring the revelation, the better suited to stardom a contestant was. Having the “cooking-chops” was not enough.

This then reveals the heart of reality television. Viewers are able to savor the struggles, the improvements, the tragedies, the exultation of the contestants without having any genuine investment–certainly no permanent interest–in the person herself. The investment the viewer makes is in their own self, and neither is that investment permanent. It is only as much investment as will provide him a momentary thrill at another person’s expense. This is what makes “a good show”.

But the contestant’s expense goes beyond the mere relating of personal information to amuse an uncaring crowd. As was Katniss, the contestant is prodded to go beyond their normal limits, to do and say things they would not normally do in order to make the show better. I work with a lady whose friend was a contestant on Food Network’s Cake Challenge. She related to me that her friend told her a significant amount of contestant commentary intercut with the action of the cake making is fed (harhar) to them by producers. A minor point perhaps, but if, as is likely the case, this is the standard practice in other reality shows, contestants are essentially forced to live the life, however briefly, of someone they are not. The viewer’s entertainment comes at the cost of the contestant’s personhood, or, at the very least, it’s diminution. No wonder Katniss, at the end of The Hunger Games, wishes only to forget all she and Peeta have mutually endured.

To this point we have discussed the decadence with which The Hunger Games might charge our society. Ironically, however, a very similar criticism may be made of the film itself. Consider the death of Rue. Before her demise, she appears only a handful of times, and then (Magic-Negro like?) only to amuse, assist, and endear herself to the heroine. Thus the viewer is not experiencing the emotions accompanying true personal investment, but rather a canned response. The viewer here is complicit with the producer. The latter hands out the emotional coupons, the former saves them and cashes them in for cheap exhilaration or, as in the case of Rue’s unnecessarily explicit death, dismay and outrage. Is there a real difference between what the producers of reality TV do and what those of The Hunger Games have done?

So we have returned full-circle to the question of the medium itself. I don’t have a final answer. The faults of The Hunger Games may well be due to the limitations of the medium, or they may be a discrete failure of its producers.

I suggest however, partially due to the reasons I mention late above, if The Hunger Games is art, it is flawed art.

Approaching Perfection

Bees work for man; and yet they never bruise
Their master’s flower, but leave it, having done,
As fair as ever, and as fit to use;
So both the flower doth stay, and hony run.

~from George Herbert’s “Providence”