Archive for July, 2017


“I can’t be left to my imagination…”

Sometimes, during the busiest weeks, we need to find time to slow down. I did—and in two blog posts about current approaches to art I noticed, and cheered for, implicit heresies.

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First, via Cynthia Haven, comes video of California poet laureate Dana Gioia at the first annual Sierra Poetry Festival in April 2017. I’ve long been a fan of Gioia, but the first seven or eight minutes of his casual talk sum up every simple, contrarian impulse I enjoy in 21st-century poetry, which is as much of a niche pursuit as any can be. Gioia addresses a fellowship he describes as having “dedicated significant part of our lives, in a broader sense, to something our society doesn’t much value. We are people at odds with the values that are trumpeted around us in the media,” adding that poets aspire to exchange money, power, and social status for beauty, truth, and goodness. If your first impulse is to laugh at that, please think again: Almost nobody makes money with poetry, and doing something you love for its own rewards is actually a lot more normal than hoping your beloved hobby will turn a profit, earn you “likes,” or make you “YouTube Famous.”

The statement that struck me the strongest was this: “We don’t lead global lives.” Heresy! For all we learn from other perspectives and wider views, we can’t escape our own terroir, though many try. At a time when we’re supposed to aspire to be “global citizens,” whatever that is, Gioia preaches diversity of place, of values, of expression. I’m glad he does; those offer something true for all of us.

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And then there’s this from the website Artsy: “Why the Rise of Workout Classes in Museums Should Worry Art Lovers.” Do we really need an “explainer” on this? I understand that some museums have grave financial problems, and I attended several museum conferences a few years ago where older administrators were openly terrified by their inability to attract a younger audience with the attention span of a capsized stinkbug. Turning art spaces into noisy, oniony locker rooms is not the answer. Museums have tried these stunts for a while; symphonies have also tried to cash in with gimmicks like crowd-pleasing concerts of orchestral versions of video-game tunes. In the long run, do these things attract more patrons than they repel? No one has said.

In my 21 years in D.C., I learned to laugh at Capitol Hill workaholics who pretended that a few hours of weekly yoga balanced out their frantic attempts to get noticed after working until dawn on those brilliantly persuasive bar graphs in a sorghum-subsidies report for the assistant to Senator Bedfellow. Learning to be alone to exhume your own thoughts is (to use the language of the stressed) a lifestyle choice—no piped-in soundtrack to every meal, no CNN or Fox News blaring overhead as you try to read a book or reconnect with a friend, no checking your phone every six minutes for nonsense.

I like music. I like video games. Yoga is good for you. I value my smartphone. But I’m zealous about there being one secular place left in our culture that isn’t about bodies rather than minds, or doing rather than thinking, or noise rather than silence, or therapeutic self-improvement rather than grappling with the difficult thinking of older, wiser minds. I suppose that’s my heresy. I support it with my wallet, but for now I’ll continue to live in the woods.

“Carving deep blue ripples in the tissues of your mind…”

I’m glad I went to college when I did; I get the sense that campuses have become less hospitable to eccentrics who seldom publish but thrive in the classroom. Perhaps the glut of job-seekers is to blame, or the dependence on adjuncts, or management priorities right out of the home office of Walmart. But I once knew a professor who hoped we would see that education could be bigger than all of that, and I was saddened to learn that he has, as Thomas Malory wrote of King Arthur, chaunged his lyf.

The right kind of student loved his classes. He urged us to rip our massive anthologies in half to make the world’s great literature that much more portable. He had us draw maps of mythical places, and he bombarded us with comic strips, song lyrics, modern poems, anything to convince us that knowing this stuff—and he did call it “this stuff”—let us form profound connections with our fellow humans, living and dead. When we read the Aeneid, he pumped us up by blasting Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses” from a boombox and banging his head in psychedelic bliss—but then the frivolity ended as he passed around a tiny vellum manuscript in Greek and quietly asked us to consider both its fragility and its durability.

The last of the fanatic generalists, he taught ancient and medieval lit, the Bible, the Romantic poets, Shakespeare, and the Arthurian legend, but he had a special fondness for the Beats. He also loved Samuel Johnson, and I’m sure that when he went to London every few years, he roamed the alleys and streets with an 18th-century mental map. I don’t know if students see his like anymore: an outspoken liberal who defended the worth of the Western canon. He did so devoutly but without chauvinism: he also studied Japanese and joined his wife in an Indonesian gamelan ensemble.

In 1992 I was mulling over two improbable careers: cartoonist and medievalist. When I popped by his office to talk about graduate school, my prospects hung in the air for ages.

“If that’s really what you want to do, then of course I’ll write you a letter,” he said at last, “but I would be just as pleased to know that I helped to create a very literate cartoonist rather than another academic scrounging around wondering where the next pittance of grant money is going to come from.”

I was stunned to hear a professor suggest that campus life was anything other than a bower of bliss. I don’t know if he accurately perceived my eccentricities or was giving voice to his own disenchantment, but he was right to make me suspicious of the whole business. Decades later, I still make up my career as I go along. With no clear path to follow, life has been harder, and maybe I worry more, but I’ve also traveled more, written more, known more kinds of people, and stumbled more often onto unforeseen luck. More wide-eyed students should hear what I heard; it takes years to sink in.

That same year, I answered his call for a research assistant, an offer he rebuked. “It’s mindless work,” he grumbled, instead sending me home for the summer with an Arthurian tote bag: Malory in Middle English, Layamon’s Brut, and hundreds of pages of secondary sources ranging from credible archaeological studies to wackadoodle theories about the “real” King Arthur. Lacking any guidance or goal, I worked out my own mental outline of medieval Britain. I later built a ten-year teaching job on that.

When he organized a major conference on medievalism, he told me to check it out. The invitation itself was a compliment, but I was too callow to realize that such an event on my own campus was something I ought to attend. A few years later, he sent me the published proceedings, which started me thinking. I wander, I stall, but I do tend to get where I’m going. Did he know?

He could be frustrating. The forms I needed signed and the letters I needed written couldn’t compare to the brilliant conversations with Cavafy and Boswell that seemed always alive in his mind. More than once, he got into deep trouble with fussy little bureaucrats. I like to think he angered them by taking seriously the proposition that a university was a place to explore, to experiment, to gain perspective that makes you free in ways that the world can’t suppress.

We didn’t know each other well, but we shared stories about growing up in tight neighborhoods with large extended families. I hadn’t seen him in 24 years, but now and then a package would surprise me: boxes of books, a cache of poems, letters that rang with good cheer even in the face of failing health.

Good teachers leave you gifts long before you understand their value. Shortly before I graduated, he read my paper on an ephemeral modern author and congratulated me on work that was well-written and cohesive. Then he looked me in the eye and said, by way of farewell: “Study something lasting.” And so I have.


(Polaroid Land Camera photo of a grotesque near the University of Delaware campus)

“Now, the mist across the window hides the lines…”

Longtime readers might be surprised by how few medieval-ish doodads we have in our home. My office houses a framed copy of the opening of an Icelandic manuscript and a tiny set of Domesday Book postage stamps, and until recently that was about it. When we began renting a large house in the woods, the owners left us with a great deal to work with: not only sunny flower beds and several acres of bird-besieged trees but also walls with so many nails and hooks for hanging photos, artwork, and curios that we weren’t sure we could fill them all.

We did find art for most of them—but not all. And so a few weeks ago, when I noticed two bare nails over a doorway, I decided to put up some blemmyae.

The myth of the blemmyae goes back to the ancient world, when Herodotus described this race of creatures who resembled headless men but carried their faces in their chests. He placed them alongside other humanoids, such as dog-faced men, who were believed to abide along the coast of North Africa. During the Middle Ages, the blemmyae got dragged into texts about the wonders one might find in Africa and Asia. Alexander the Great captures several of them in one romance, and that wonderful liar Sir John Mandeville claimed to have seen some near India. Some medieval writers drew a comically fine distinction between headless men with faces in their chests and headless men with eyes in their shoulders. These beings went by various names, but their legend carried over to the Americas, where Sir Walter Raleigh chased rumors of their existence near what’s now Venezuela.

My blemmyae came from England. Oakapple Designs, a lovely company in South Yorkshire, has acquired the right to make casts of artwork at certain cathedrals and sell them to the public, and the cost is very reasonable. You can browse their assortment of people, animals, and mythical creatures, which runs rampant with angels, bats, dragons, green men, and monks.

According to Oakapple, the two blemmyae over my doorway were made in the 15th century for Ripon Cathedral, where they’re apparently carved onto misericords: folding wooden seats in the choir that can be leaned on in times of need.

I can only guess why people believed in these creatures for so long. Maybe they mistook certain stoop-necked primates as headless; perhaps real tribes of humans wore armor or helmets that gave Europeans peculiar ideas. I find these particular blemmyae rather ambiguous. I’m not even entirely sure what the one on the left is doing with that stick. What I do know is that the carver at Ripon Cathedral thought they were civilized: take note of the clothing and shoes. That’s good enough reason to welcome them into our home—and if they inspire a story or poem, so much the better. I doubt they’ll be the strangest things to emerge from our time in the woods.