Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: freedom, how to live, ideology, Leaves of Grass, love, poetry, Walt Whitman
Here is an uncorrupted description of the idea of American individualism and freedom, which of course has been so utterly debased to be unrecognizable: randian selfishness, libertarian isolation, war and hate and poverty.
It’s a recipe for a lovely dish. Do these things: love all beings, commune with the marginalized, spurn ideology, read poetry, resist authority; and you will become … a great poem: distilled calm, revealed truth, aspect of beauty, before your tribe, for people to see.
This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
—Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass,” 1855
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: chris marker, japan, medieval japan, poetry, sei shonagon
This quotation is from the short film Sans Soleil by French filmmaker Chris Marker. The film’s narrator describes receiving letters from someone who is moving from place to place in the world – Iceland, Africa, Japan – and describing cultural difference, thoughts on memory, history and time.
He recounts how in medieval courtly Japan lady in waiting to the princess Shonagon likes making lists, her best being a list of things that quicken the heart. Now that is worth doing; I’d add one of things that freeze it and compare the two.
In Japanese poetry just naming something, like a rock or hail, is enough to quicken the heart in apprehension of it. In the western canon and life we don’t trust the noun alone and modify it with unnecessary adjectives.
Here is the quotation from the screenplay –
He spoke to me of Sei Shonagon, a lady in waiting to Princess Sadako at the beginning of the 11th century, in the Heian period. Do we ever know where history is really made? Rulers ruled and used complicated strategies to fight one another. Real power was in the hands of a family of hereditary regents; the emperor’s court had become nothing more than a place of intrigues and intellectual games. But by learning to draw a sort of melancholy comfort from the contemplation of the tiniest things this small group of idlers left a mark on Japanese sensibility much deeper than the mediocre thundering of the politicians. Shonagon had a passion for lists: the list of ‘elegant things,’ ‘distressing things,’ or even of ‘things not worth doing.’ One day she got the idea of drawing up a list of ‘things that quicken the heart.’ Not a bad criterion I realize when I’m filming; I bow to the economic miracle, but what I want to show you are the neighborhood celebrations.
He wrote me: coming back through the Chiba coast I thought of Shonagon’s list, of all those signs one has only to name to quicken the heart, just name. To us, a sun is not quite a sun unless it’s radiant, and a spring not quite a spring unless it is limpid. Here to place adjectives would be so rude as leaving price tags on purchases. Japanese poetry never modifies. There is a way of saying boat, rock, mist, frog, crow, hail, heron, chrysanthemum, that includes them all. Newspapers have been filled recently with the story of a man from Nagoya. The woman he loved died last year and he drowned himself in work—Japanese style—like a madman. It seems he even made an important discovery in electronics. And then in the month of May he killed himself. They say he could not stand hearing the word ‘Spring.’
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: african american, burial, children, death, grief, poetry, racism
“Blithe was the morning of his burial, with bird and song and sweet-smelling flowers. The trees whispered to the grass, but the children sat with hushed faces. And yet it seemed a ghostly unreal day,—the wraith of Life. We seemed to rumble down an unknown street behind a little white bundle of posies, with the shadow of a song in our ears. The busy city dinned about us; they did not say much, those pale-faced hurrying men and women; they did not say much,—they only glanced and said, “Niggers!”
We could not lay him in the ground there in Georgia, for the earth there is strangely red; so we bore him away to the northward, with his flowers and his little folded hands. In vain, in vain!—for where, O God! beneath thy broad blue sky shall my dark baby rest in peace,—where Reverence dwells, and Goodness, and a Freedom that is free?”
~from W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903) in which he describes the Atlanta funeral procession of his infant son
Filed under: departure lounge | Tags: apollinaire, belgium, childhood, english, french, immigrant, luc sante, modernity, paris, poetry, religion
(apollinaire, various iterations | gare saint-lazare | sante)
Luc Sante is the Belgian American writer who wrote Low Life. This is his description of how a poem by Guillaume Apollinaire described perfectly his experience of leaving Belgium. The poem, however, does far more than address his identity as an immigrant: it is a clear revelation, a flash, of his place in the world that lays bare his desire for the clarity of modernity in the face of the confusion of religion. He comes to a point of exhilaration and comfort.
“A la fin tu est las de ce monde ancien.” “In the end you are tired of this old world.” Thus began “Zone,” by Guillaume Apollinaire.
Bergère ô tour Eiffel le troupeau des ponts bêle ce matin “Shepherdess o Eiffel Tower the flock of bridges is bleating this morning.” The poem was speaking directly to me, to me alone, as proven on the second page: Voilà la jeune rue et tu n’es encore qu’un petit enfant / Ta mère ne t’habille que de bleu et de blanc. “Here is the young street and you are but a little child / Your mother only dresses you in blue and white,” which was exactly true of my early childhood; that tu clinched it. Tu regardes les yeux pleins de larmes ces pauvres émigrants / Ils croient en Dieu ils prient les femmes allaitent des enfants / Ils emplissent de leur odeure le hall de la gare Saint-Lazare. “You look with your eyes filled with tears at the poor immigrants / They believe in God they pray the women suckle infants / They fill with their odor the hall of the Saint-Lazare station”—I had been there and seen that! Furthermore, the poem seemed to be about a yearning for modernity in the face of confusion as to the truth of religion, a clairvoyant depiction of my own central inner drama of the time. But there was more: the poem was fluid, rhyming but in an elastic meter like an improvised song, with phrases strung together without punctuation but always clear in their meaning, with an unlabored syntax close to conversational, with capitalized names like cherries in a box of chocolates, with sudden movements in time and space executed with a casual legerdemain, with a flash and whirl and continual surprise that was just what I wanted from the modern world but with a palpable kindness that reassured me as the poem flung me about.
~excerpted from French Without Tears, by Luc Sante