Tuesday, November 3, 2020

VIDEO: The ILIAD of HOMER: Book One in Performance (Lattimore translation)

Enjoy this performance of Book One of Homer's Iliad, most of it produced in quarantine as an effort to keep the crisis creative. 

From a psychoanalytic perspective, the clinical value of this story lies in its viscerally felt linkage between rage and misery; competition and bitterness; loss, and the revelation that there are things far more important than being right, or vindication, or even victory. For this wisdom, the tragic drama of ancient Athens is among the best sources in the world (though King Lear, for example, teaches some of the same lessons about shame). 

Homer's epic poem, or "made thing," is among the deepest works of our species. It represents the collective labors of over four centuries of bards, who span the gap between the Trojan War itself (c.1185-1175 BCE), and the emergence of a vast epic tradition that has kept its human images alive. Those labors were woven together, and presumably linked by improvised poetic transitions, by the mind of an individual blind genius, touched by poetry's Divine origin. 

Iliad I (traditionally, the "books" or chapters of the Iliad are noted in capital Roman numerals; those of the Odyssey, lowercase) includes a Divinely sent opportunity to put aside anger. Though Achilles' reprieve from his own rage proves all too brief, each of us may be more free than we suspect; free, for example, to let go of old resentments, of old yearnings for retributive justice, or for a great day of reckoning. 

The non-tragic outcome is surely still possible for you and me, in part because the tragic consciousness is already is still available to us---only (or as I prefer to think, especially) if, as Nietzsche said, we still have some connection to the past and the ancient world.

I made the first portion (lines 1-92) in 2013; the rest in the Spring of 2020. 
It was a great experience----a real reward for playing hooky from the daily regime of anxiety about wasting time; or about being too expressive; or about failing to monetize every minute of each day, or meet other American expectations that are levied daily at the expense of each human spirit who buys into them for lack of support. The latter includes love (rather than isolation), as well as connection--not only to a partner and the community, but to the to the past and the cosmos.

Art exists to help us live our lives---as everybody says, in a chorus that includes Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer; Shelley and Nietzsche ("hey, those are my guys"). Living with the help of art does not make you Don Quixote. It can put you in touch with much more of reality, and not (usually) less.

Sure a Poet is a sage, a humanist, physician to all mankind.--John Keats.

Enjoy some Homer, today.

VIDEO: The ILIAD of HOMER: Book Two in Performance (Lattimore translation)

Book 2 of the Iliad of Homer contains the famous "Catalogue of Ships," from kata+logos, a "down-telling," or listing, of all the contingents of soldiers who came to Troy from Hellenic, Greek-speaking places. A similar catalogue of Trojans and their allies ends the book, with the besieged Trojan people and their friends all marching out to meet the horde of Hellenic invaders. Note that the Hellenes (or Greeks, as the Romans later called them) are also called Danaans, Achaeans, and Argives, with broadly similar meanings for the poem. Book II also contains some of the most archaic poetry in the epic.

It's an especially touching poetic text for the brief anecdotes of fate and loss that are strung along its length like harmoniously spaced beads on a string. The micro-story of the brothers Protesilaos and Podarkus is a gemlike example, here silently (visually) mapped into a modern parallel for the vividness of its heartbreak.

Here and there, I have speeded up the movie, never omitting a word of Lattimore's translation, but increasing the playback speed to tighten what the modern ear might feel to be longueurs.
Homer's darkly beautiful epic poem, or "made thing," is among the deepest works of our species. It represents the collective labors of over four centuries of bards, beginning with the Trojan War itself c.1180 BCE, and eventuating in a vast epic tradition that has kept that war's human images alive. Around the 740's BCE, the most resilient of the fragmentary poetic results of those labors were woven together, and presumably linked by improvised poetic transitions, by the mind of an individual blind genius, touched by poetry's Divine origin.

My 2010 book about Homer will soon be available for free on Scribd. I haven't had time to scan and upload it just yet, but it's coming soon. Meantime, Chapters 2 & 3 are downloadable here: .

Enjoy the show! And may the bittersweet wisdom of the ancient world make your time in this one more fruitful and engaging.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Some Aphorisms from a manuscript I'm calling "Box of Darts"

A Defeated People

The humanities faculty at American universities constitute a defeated people.


One day, when you’re still a kid but not for much longer, you realize that you live where you do and attend school where you do for the sole reason that this was where your parents happen to be making their living. If they had different jobs, you might never have met your best friend, nor all your little enemies; everything could’ve been completely different—and so, consequently, could you. Pull too hard on that thread, and what unravels is the illusion of necessity, a sheltering bubble that had made it all seem ordained and important.

History Rhymes

Note the parallel between these two fifty-year periods: between the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BCE and the start of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE (49 years), and between the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and the end of the Babylonian Captivity in 538 BCE (48 years).

Oxymoron: the Educated Consumer.
Picking out which of the limes in the grocer’s basket is the greenest, the ripest, the worthiest, you finish off the thousands of man-hours that went into making them all identical. Agribusiness has taken the three tasks of planting, harvest, and distribution and added a fourth, namely the struggle to erase every difference between the specimens. It has done so precisely because mass-market produce is aimed at a faceless public of interchangeable consumers, who have forgotten both the variety of nature and the possibility of living a unique life: and you need to pretend that one of the limes is perceptibly better than the others, because those limes in the basket are eerily reminiscent of the milling crowd in the store, and—to the degree that what passes for individuality these days is a kind of hoax we play on ourselves—that greenest, ripest lime is you.

The Sphinx

The Sphinx has a desperate need not to be understood.  Oedipus comes along and solves the riddle, and suddenly there is someone who understands her; she promptly kills herself. Others need to be understood and die for lack of it; she needs to mystify and dies when she’s understood. The Sphinx is a composite beast, “a winged girl-faced lion,” and hearing the riddle one might expect it to be about a composite animal, too: “There is on earth a being two-footed, four-footed, and three-footed that has one name; and, of all creatures that move upon earth and in the heavens and in the sea, it alone changes its form. But when it goes propped on most feet, then is the swiftness in its limbs the weakest.” But it is not a composite animal; it is the human. and why don’t the Greeks notice that “it, alone, changes its form” is untrue, as tadpoles turn to frogs and caterpillars to butterflies?

Bion and Shakespeare

When Bion free associates to Shakespeare’s “Golden girls and boys all must / Like chimney-sweepers, come to dust,” it’s an unconscious allusion to the origins of psychoanalysis in Anna O.’s talking cure, which she called “chimney sweeping.” Which is also a sort of sexual reaming-out. I wonder what sexual jokes and locutions men have invented in three hundred years of reaming out chimneys, rifles, and cannons with ramrods.


Silence is Time pleading its lovesuit to Eternity.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Review: Broken Glory: The Final Years of Robert F. Kennedy by Ed Sanders

Broken Glory: The Final Years of Robert F. KennedyBroken Glory: The Final Years of Robert F. Kennedy by Ed Sanders
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm grateful whenever anyone has the courage to write a book that tells dangerous truths, especially about American history during and after the creation of the CIA at the end of WWII. Like so many, I have a deep passion for the authentic leaders of the 1960's whose lives of prophetic courage were snuffed out by the lawless militarists they dared to oppose. President Kennedy, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) were murdered by the U.S. national security state. Evidence, investigations, and legal proceedings in each case were grossly sabotaged by the FBI and the on-site urban police departments (Dallas, Memphis, NYC, and L.A., respectively), in support of a bogus official narrative that protected the actual planners and perpetrators. Some of those went unidentified; all went unpunished, and to this day there are a few thousand intellectual prostitutes whose "respectable" task is to repeat the official lies and marginalize (ignore, mock, trivialize, pathologize, pity, or revile) their dissenting opponents.

These histories form major elements of my worldview, and the tragically charismatic figures at their centers have shaped my sense of human nature at its best. One of my own books is a poetry collection, fifty 14-line elegies for President Kennedy called Limousine, Midnight Blue. Another is my blank verse translation of Sophocles' Three Theban Plays (Oedipus, Antigone, Oedipus at Colonus), which is dedicated to the memory of Robert F. Kennedy. So when someone writes a long POEM about the murder of RFK, I become immediately interested. With his new book "Broken Glory: The Final Years of Robert F. Kennedy," Ed Sanders does the USA a service by telling the truth: that the RFK Assassination was not the mad act of yet another lone nut; it was, in the words of former FBI Agent William Turner, "a CIA hit, from start to finish." For Sanders' courage in telling this truth--and for his clear and compelling account of the King Assassination, in this same book--I have great respect, and gratitude.

As a literary work, however, "Broken Glory" is a disappointment. Almost all of it is simply expository prose, lineated as verse. Most of the book comprises chunks of other people's discourse, quoted directly from historical documents (speeches, FBI reports, interviews, depositions); these are mostly well-chosen and well-assembled, but it's not at all clear why Sanders chose to put it all onto the page as verse. It's prose. Maybe Sanders thought he was emulating the political-historical poetry of Peter Dale Scott, who is both a real historian and a real poet, whose many works in both genres (i.e., books of historical scholarship, and books of poetry about history) are brilliant and important. In "Minding the Darkness," "Listening to the Candle," and other works of historical poetry, Scott often quotes from prose documents and lineates those quotations as verse, which Sanders does throughout "Broken Glory." But Peter Dale Scott's historical poems always have many dimensions: personal experience, philosophical reflection, religious thinking, ethical wisdom, and above all, poetic language. By contrast, Sanders' "Broken Glory" offers very little poetry, and is marred by the impulsive sloppiness ("first thought, best thought," remember?) which the Beats and the Yippies associated with authenticity. A few examples:

p. 68, "the upmost loyalty..." The word is utmost. Upmost is not a word.
p. 70, "the doursome J. Edgar Hoover..." The word is dour. Doursome is not a word.
p.132, "sleazesome..." I guess this word is a deliberate invention, but it's lost on me.

When Sanders does go for poetry, the results are not strong. Of 4-4-68, the day of Dr. King's execution, he writes: "The dire day of Dream-Doom / whirls with hidden fury / years & years later, / for an evil that Evil wants kept in the cauldron / evil'd forth that bright spring Southern day..."

The book's finale occurs on its final two pages, with a sudden switch to short lines:


Oh, won't somebody please tell me why
the guns aim so often to the left

It wounded the nation
in countless ways,
wounded her history
the rest of her days.

It wounded the future
Like Lincoln amort
Or Roosevelt sinking
and the A-bomb's retort.

Tell me again why the guns
always aim to the left?
with gun powder ballots
& voting with knife-heft

I'll stop there; you get the point. This is a mess--the capitalization, the lineation, the punctuation, and the meter are each in disarray. The word choices are unfortunate (amort... knife-heft).

Each of us is a product of his times, and I know Ed Sanders is a very different sort of poet from Peter Dale Scott, or Robert Lowell, or Yeats--poets who have tried to write a poetry of public life (epic) in an idiom of privately felt passion (lyric). Surely his artistic aims and his ideas about poetry are so different from mine that I am making the mistake of judging his good orange as a bad apple. It seems to me his style might be best appreciated by readers who love Allen Ginsberg or William Burroughs, writers whose breezy contempt for craft was widely regarded as liberated and liberating, rather than lazy and vain. That said, I'll put aside my criticism of Sanders' poetry and close with some recognition of the politics, where I think this book succeeds.

The flap copy has a bio of Sanders which notes, "He was also a founding member of the satiric folk-rock band The Fugs as well as the Yippies." Now, I was born in 1968. Sanders was at the heart of the counterculture which I only glimpse in books and films. I don't know what I'm talking about. But from my perspective, the Yippies were a very white, middle class, male bunch of folks who believed that the best way to stop the War in Vietnam would be a relapse into the pseudo-political surrealism and Dada which the French had enjoyed fifty years before then. Ancient Rome's insane Emperor Caligula was thought to have appointed his favorite horse to the Senate--a tyrant using an absurd gesture to mock the powerlessness of the old aristocracy. The Yippies outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago nominated a pig for President--in doing so, they were apparently mocking the militarist juggernaut which the presidency had become since the murder of JFK. But weren't they also emulating Caligula, mocking the whole process instead of working to reform it? Eight years later, the Yippies nominated "Nobody for President." RFK once reminded his audience that Plato used the word "idiot" to refer to people who had no interest in the political life of their own cities. RFK was serious. Fred Hampton was serious. Helen Caldecott was serious, and she still is. Bernie Sanders was serious, and he still is, though he can laugh when the time is right. I wasn't there; I was a baby. I don't claim to understand what it was like to be a draft-age man in 1968. But from my perspective, it seems as if things might've gone better if more folks shifted their focus from dropping acid (which the CIA fed them through Timothy Leary) to investigating the political assassinations (as did Vincent Salandria, Peter Dale Scott, Mae Brussel, et al.) that had made possible the whole disaster. That respect for structure and institutions--as necessary and stable frameworks for a living charisma, not dead substitutes for it--might also have spared us a few million lines of distastefully uninhibited "free verse." But I digress.

On page 124, Sanders seems to transcend his youthful identity with a wise hindsight born of experience: "On May 7 / RFK won his first primary in Indiana. / The Yippies in New York, / eager for confrontation at the Democratic Convention, / I remember were glum that Kennedy was able to reach out to the people / in ways that war-painted dope-jousters / could not..." Wow. Interesting.

I'm very impressed by the sobriety, the moral imagination, and the introspective courage it must have taken for a (former?) Yippee to celebrate, with love and grief, the life of Senator Robert F. Kennedy--a suit-wearing, wealthy, erudite, populist aristocrat who had once been the chief law enforcement figure in the U.S. government, later transformed by loss and agony, and compelled into a prophetic vocation by the depth of his nature.

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Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Review: "The Billy Collins Experience" by A. M. Juster (Kelsay Books, 2016)

The Billy Collins ExperienceThe Billy Collins Experience by A.M. Juster
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A brilliant send-up of a beloved figure in contemporary American poetry. Every poet, even the titans of English literature in the 16th, 17th, and early 19th Centuries, has a sort of literary underbelly where parody can and perhaps should attach. A.M. Juster's satire of Billy Collins is spot-on, unsettling, and hilarious. That might look easy, but it requires special equipment, and this guy has it. It's as if the underlying message of The Billy Collins Experience was something like:

{{Look, I'm not BC, and yet my own array of poetic powers happens to include the same ones he's been using to write these rather precious books of endearing, harmless, graceful yet somehow complacent little poems. Whereas I (a parodist here, legit poet elsewhere) have both a broader range and a more profound sense of mission which transcends Collins' tremendous success, I have not succeeded as he has. Well, maybe his abundance of fans, money, access, and opportunity is linked to the worldly nature of his goals, which I consider thus compromised, and either cynical or naively shallow. This takes the sting out of being both an even better poet than the formidable Billy Collins (a nontrivial, but not necessarily hubristic level of self-confidence) and a far more obscure one. So screw him.}} ...Did I get that right?

Perhaps the most popular American poet since Robert Frost, Billy Collins is also held in one or another degree of contempt by several very different classes of people/poets/critics. Hipsters (postmodern flarfulent bougie whiteprivilegical) tend to disdain his Frostian, popular, coherent, often deeply moving poems, because their own poems make no sense and they like it that way. Next, those whose consciousness is fully and primarily oriented toward social justice can often be found rejecting Billy Collins because there's almost nothing directly political in his large body of work. Poets whose literary identities include deep suffering may turn away from Collins because the tragic strain in his poetry is not as broad as that in, say, Larkin or Jeffers or Plath. I get as much out of Collins at his best as I do out of Frost, and I love them both. I'm also very fortunate to have a blurb from Billy Collins on the back of my first book of poems, Limousine, Midnight Blue : Fifty Frames from the Zapruder Film (Red Hen Press, 2009):

"Ovid himself might have taken notice of this volume. It’s one thing
to turn a woman into a tree, another more advanced thing to transform
fifty frames of the Zapruder film into as many sonnets. Limousine,
Midnight Blue is a radical display of poetry’s ability to freeze time, to
catch fugitive—and here, disputed—moments in the amber of form."

For your enjoyment, and to add a cornflake of context to this review... My new book of poems, Dodo Feathers: Poems 1989-2019, includes an "Homage to Billy Collins," a tiny poem whose mix of tribute, warmth, and irony is rather different from A.M. Juster's.


Billy Collins could not be here this morning,
so I am writing his poem for him.
In it, a dog sleeps beside a tree,
while that little girl from the painting
by de Chirico chases her almost silent hoop.
And you are there, and from his window
Billy Collins sees you and, too busy writing
a much better poem than this one,
wonders for a moment: how you got here,
and why you are wearing his bathrobe.

  Dodo Feathers Poems 1989-2019 by Jamey Hecht

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