Havel havalim (Koheleth)

hevel

Reading Koheleth (Ecclesiastes), I sit up in awe, drop stray thoughts, and listen again and again to the second verse (translated as “vanity of vanities,” etc.). Then I start hearing its cadences everywhere: in Shakespeare (as do others), in Mahler, in poem after poem, song after song, film after film. This poem holds millions of breaths.

I was first introduced to Koheleth as a teenager, through Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” via Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Here’s Orwell:

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

For a long time, that was all I knew of it. I understood that its language was vivid and lilting and that it looked askance at the world. I read parts of it here and there–but did not begin to understand the whole until I first heard it chanted in Hebrew (just a few years ago). Then I sensed its coherence–not quick meaning, but unity and movement–and a joy mixed in with the sadness, a joy of walking through life.

Just a week ago I started learning the first few verses, with trope and all. It was then that I fell in love with the second verse.

Havel havalim, amar Koheleth; havel havalim, hakol havel.

The whole verse sounds like a sigh; this is no coincidence, as “hevel” originally meant “vapor” or something similar.

The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament states (in volume 3, p. 315): “In virtue of its supposed onomatopoeic origin, hebhel consistently retains the meaning of “breath” and, especially with reference to the visible aspect, although possibly delimited by the stronger ruach, “vapor, mist, smoke.” … Ideas of transitoriness and fleetingness are associated with the word when it means “breath,” and these tend to point toward an abstract connotation (cf. the LXX). This tendency is aided by the capability and openness of onomatopoeic words for new meanings.” This paragraph continues–and it’s part of a much longer entry–but I want to get back to the second verse and the joy.

The noun hevel (or hebel), with root heh-bet-lamed, appears in this verse in three forms:

  1. havel (with a long “e” and a stress on the second syllable): the construct form of hevel. This indicates that it accompanies the noun that follows.
  2. havalim: the plural of hevel.
  3. havel (with a short “e” and a stress on the first syllable): the pausal form of hevel.

This verse not only shivers with alliteration (not only of havel, havalim, and havel, but also of hakol and Koheleth), but takes a single word and turns it around and around.

Vapor of vapors, says Koheleth; vapor of vapors, all is vapor.

But even this does not recreate the morphology and cadences. Here is my recording of the first three verses. Here, also, is a wonderful recording (and video of the text) by Rabbi Moshe Weisblum.

What is it about this verse (and the poem as a whole) that brings joy?

Koheleth is not conducive to takeaways. Its message is not “enjoy life” or “fear God”; it holds up both. In terms of theology and philosophy, it stands out as one of the most puzzling Biblical texts. (I would love to take Stephen Geller’s course on it; I have taken his course on the Psalms.)

Still, for all its complexity, the poem has a gesture of learning, of seeing beyond illusions.

If success, fame, power, labor, even wisdom are all vapors, then life is anything but futile. It is possible to understand a little more each day and to walk with understanding. Koheleth is a long and wistful walk.

Image credit: I took this photo today in Fort Tryon Park. It reminded me of the second verse.

Leviticus 13: Complexity and Simplicity

The other day I related the complexity of Leviticus 13 (which I had read, i.e., chanted, on the previous Shabbat) to the complexity of the human condition. In my mind, at the time, it was all complexity, complexity of complexities. In this complexity I found beauty. Now I see, at the same time, a logical and structural simplicity.

Leviticus 13, which forms part of the Torah portion Tazria, describes the diagnosis, treatment, and ritual purification of people with various skin disorders, which may or may not be “nega tzaraat,” or “the plague of [leprosy]” (it is commonly translated as “leprosy,” but we don’t know what the disease actually was).

As I discussed before, these verses present special challenges for the readers. Words and phrases repeat many times, but within different grammatical structures (and thus with different trope, or melody). It does not work to associate a phrase with a melody. You have to learn both trope and text in a different way.

Today we have our last cantillation class. We were supposed to bring some pedagogical materials that we use when teaching cantillation to others. (Most of the students are preparing to be cantors.) Since I have never taught anyone else how to leyn, I thought about how I might go about learning Tazria, if I were to do it again.

Then it came to me. In the earlier part of chapter 13, in many of the verses, the first part of the verse has to do with the symptoms and general diagnosis; the second, with the action or treatment (and sometimes the reason as well). The two parts are divided by a melodic phrase called etnachta, which indicates a pause analogous to our semicolon. (It appears under its corresponding syllable and looks somewhat like a curved caret.)

So there you have it: symptoms and diagnosis in the first half, and treatment or action in the second.

But you can break it down still further. Within the first half, the symptoms are sometimes grouped in phrases; these phrases are separated by a zakef katon, a trope that indicates something like a strong comma–not quite an etnachta, but closer than many of the other disjunctives, or melodic separators. (It appears above the syllable and looks like a colon.) In fact, sometimes this zakef katon separates specific symptoms from a more general diagnosis. In the second part of the verse, the zakef katon may separate two possible actions.

I am not doing justice to the topic of parsing; there’s much more to it than this, both within these verses and in general. I am just looking at a particular relation between structure and meaning. When you consider it in this way, everything falls into place–if not in this particular way, then in other ways.

Take, for example, Leviticus 13:2 (I have set the etnachta phrase in blue and the zakef katon phrases in green; the quoted text is courtesy of the Mechon Mamre website):

ב אָדָ֗ם כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֤ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרוֹ֙ שְׂאֵ֤ת אֽוֹ־סַפַּ֨חַת֙ א֣וֹ בַהֶ֔רֶת וְהָיָ֥ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂר֖וֹ לְנֶ֣גַע צָרָ֑עַת וְהוּבָא֙ אֶל־אַֽהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֔ן א֛וֹ אֶל־אַחַ֥ד מִבָּנָ֖יו הַכֹּֽהֲנִֽים׃

“When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy, then he shall be brought unto Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests.”

Up through “bright spot,” you see a description of the symptoms; in the next phrase, the larger condition (the plague of leprosy); and after “leprosy,” the possible actions: bringing him to Aaron the priest (pause) or to one of his sons.

You can hear Hazzan (Cantor) Rob Menes of Congregation Beth Shalom read this verse. He announces the verse numbers in English as he goes along, so just listen for “two” (and continue listening after that, of course).

Of course this is not the pattern throughout; but once you see how it works, you can find other patterns too. Many Biblical verses have a kind of semantic symmetry; once you see the relation between the two main parts, you can see other relations as well.

If I were teaching this portion (to myself or anyone else), I would encourage the person to think in terms of the logical patterns and their meaning: in this case, in terms of symptoms, diagnosis, and subsequent treatment or action. We would start with this pattern and then find some of the others. We would parse a few verses systematically and completely, for the practice and understanding–but other verses we would view in terms of cadence, movement, symmetry, and meaning.

The portion still requires hours of practice (for me, at least), but it’s much easier when I not only see the smaller and larger structures at once but relate them to the narration.

This leads to a subject that might seem off-topic at first: “growth mindset.” In a group of previous posts, I questioned the assertion (now widely popularized) that people have either a “fixed mindset” (an assumption that their abilities are fixed) or a “growth mindset” (a belief that they can improve) and that a “growth mindset” is conducive to success, while a “fixed mindset” is not. I argue that we both have and need a mixture of mindsets.

After stumbling over this reading last Saturday, I was definitely not in “growth mindset.” I felt terrible. I thought it was the worst I had ever done (even though it was the longest and trickiest portion I had tried to learn in a short time). My disappointment was unreachable; people’s kind and encouraging words barely grazed my skin. But I had no doubt that I wanted to persist with cantillation. Also, I knew I wanted to figure out what went wrong. So as soon as the distress passed, I went back to the verses. That is when I saw the pattern.

Someone might say, “But with a total ‘growth mindset,’ you can skip over the distress altogether; that way, you’ll be more productive.” The distress has an important place, though; it comes from longing. When I am discouraged by my own performance (in the sense of carrying out a form), it’s because it matters to me to do well. The mattering carries me forward.

That brings out another possible meaning of the portion and the next one. Sarah Krinsky, a rabbinic fellow at B’nai Jeshurun, gave a magnificent D’var Torah (commentary, interpretation, sermon) on the purification process for the leprous person. Once the priest has pronounced him unclean, his clothes must be torn, he must let his hair loose, and he must cry, “Unclean, unclean” (Leviticus 13:45). On the one hand, this seems like humiliation; why should the person be forced to cast such stigma on himself? On the other, it can be taken as a statement of truth and a call for help and compassion. The person does not stay “unclean” forever.

My discouragement was much like a cry of “Unclean, unclean.” I knew I had not done well. By seeing and feeling this, without mitigation or immediate “positive thinking,” I could then proceed to do better.

I am glad for human complexity and structures of simplicity; I am grateful for cadence and mattering.

Note: I revised this piece in several stages after posting it. For much more on trope and how it works, I recommend Joshua Jacobson’s 965-page book Chanting the Hebrew Bible.

The Trope of Esther

Rembrandt_EstherOn Purim (this Saturday and Sunday) I will be chanting Chapters 7 and 8 of Megillat Esther at a synagogue in Long Island. These are momentous chapters; Esther reveals to King Ahasuerus that Haman intends to destroy her people; at the king’s command, Haman is hanged on the very gallows that he prepared for Mordechai; then Esther entreats the king to reverse all Haman’s letters ordering the destruction of the Jews; the king orders letters to be written in his name, sealed with his ring, and sent out all over the land from India to Ethiopia; his order is executed; Mordechai goes forth in royal apparel; and all the Jews are joyous.

Purim is often known for its costumes and noisemakers, wine, food, and music–and rightly so. But underneath that, something serious is going on: the reading and hearing of the entire Scroll of Esther, at both the evening and the morning services. Every Jew (male and female, young and old) is required to hear the reading of Esther; the catch is that you can’t hear much, because of the noisemakers and general brouhaha. Every time Haman’s name is uttered, people are supposed to drown it out. The noise extends beyond the name. But that makes it all the more exciting to discover the text and melodies. They cry and rejoice below the festivities.

The Hebrew sacred texts have six distinct trope sets (codified by the tenth century, and probably much older), all with the same basic principles and symbols but distinct melodic phrases. These are: Torah trope, Haftarah trope, High Holiday trope, Esther trope, Festival trope (for the Song of Songs, Ruth, and Ecclesiastes), and Lamentations trope. Trope–the melodic system underlying the art of cantillation–brings out the structure, meaning, and beauty of the text.

I will give a brief sense of Esther trope through Chapter 8, verses 5 and 6. Verse 5 is in regular Esther trope; because of the sentence complexity, it is especially ornate. Verse 6 makes a diversion into Lamentations trope; it has a simple melody and a plaintive feel. (The Esther text has  many melodic diversions–some into Lamentations trope and some into special melodies.)

Biblical verses typically divide into two parts; from there, they subdivide into still smaller phrases. The first division is indicated by the trope called “etnachta,” which looks like a caret and comes with a pause. Further subdivisions and connections are marked by other melodies.

Here’s the Hebrew-English text of 8:5-6 as it appears in the Open Siddur Project (except that I have bolded and colored the word in each verse that contains the etnachta: “be’einav” in verse 5 and “et-ammi” in verse 6). This has both vowel and trope marks; the actual scroll has neither (the reader must learn the trope patterns beforehand).

הַ5 וַ֠תֹּאמֶר אִם־עַל־הַמֶּ֨לֶךְ ט֜וֹב וְאִם־מָצָ֧אתִי חֵ֣ן לְפָנָ֗יו וְכָשֵׁ֤ר הַדָּבָר֙ לִפְנֵ֣י הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וְטוֹבָ֥ה אֲנִ֖י בְּעֵינָ֑יו יִכָּתֵ֞ב לְהָשִׁ֣יב אֶת־הַסְּפָרִ֗ים מַחֲשֶׁ֜בֶת הָמָ֤ן בֶּֽן־הַמְּדָ֙תָא֙ הָאֲגָגִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֣ר כָּתַ֗ב לְאַבֵּד֙ אֶת־הַיְּהוּדִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּכָל־מְדִינ֥וֹת הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃ 6 כִּ֠י אֵיכָכָ֤ה אוּכַל֙ וְֽרָאִ֔יתִי בָּרָעָ֖ה אֲשֶׁר־יִמְצָ֣א אֶת־עַמִּ֑י וְאֵֽיכָכָ֤ה אוּכַל֙ וְֽרָאִ֔יתִי בְּאָבְדַ֖ן מוֹלַדְתִּֽי׃

In the JPS translation, Esther 8:5 reads, “And [she] said, If it please the king, and if I have favour in his sight, and the thing seem right before the king, and I be pleasing in his eyes, let it be written to reverse the letters devised by Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote to destroy the Jews which are in all the king’s provinces.”

The long subordinate clause occupies the first part of the verse–and the main clause, the second. The etnachta, dividing the two parts, occurs at the phrase “in his eyes.” There are more subdivisions from there. Here is my recording of the verse; here’s verse 6. (I posted recordings of verses 5 and 6 only, to give a sense of the trope.)

Verse 6 (still Esther speaking) is simpler in structure; through its Lamentations trope and clear parallelism, it contrasts with verse 5. It translates, “For how can I endure to see the evil that shall come unto my people? or how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?” The verse’s symmetry holds sadness.

In Esther trope, the etnachta sounds different from the sof pasuk trope, the melody at the very end of the verse. In Lamentations trope, the two are nearly identical. You can hear this difference in verses 5 and 6. Lamentations trope feels in some ways like swinging on a swing, all alone, in the courtyard of a crumbled city; you feel the repetition and rhythm, but everything is bare.

These two verses hold complexity and simplicity; they combine art and soul into a cry. It is this combination that defines Esther for me; with all her cunning, she lives and speaks for her people and their survival. Her plea rolls the story to its conclusion.

There is much more to say about cantillation–but the discussion gets more technical (and beautiful) from here. Of course there is much more to say about Megillat Esther too. The best book I know  on trope is Joshua Jacobson’s 965-page Chanting the Hebrew Bible: The Complete Guide to the Art of Cantillation. I recommend it to anyone interested in the subject. Of course the best book to read on Esther is the Scroll itself. In that spirit, happy Purim and almost-spring!

 

Image credit: Rembrandt, Ahasuerus and Haman at the Feast of Esther (1660)

Note: I made some edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

Days of Joy

intheheightsset.jpg

senechal-ad

I thank Columbia Secondary School for a joyous weekend of the musical In the Heights. My friends Deb and Eric came down from Peabody, Massachusetts (north of Boston) to see it with me. We went on Friday and Saturday nights; I was planning to go again today, but since all three shows were sold out in advance, I decided to release my tickets so that someone else could see it. The students put soul, wit, work, and talent into the show–and brought out the heartbeats of the Washington Heights neighborhood itself. I felt at times as though the musical were opening up the music of my everyday life and the lives of the people around me.

The above letter went into the program (as a little ad); when I wrote it, I didn’t know whether my friends would be able to come down, but sure enough, they did. Besides attending the shows, we walked in Fort Tryon Park, rode the train downtown to Katz’s Delicatessen, feasted, talked, and laughed.

After last night’s show, on our way back to the subway station, we saw some men working on a new storefront on St. Nicholas Avenue. The sparks mixed with the memories of the musical.

construction

One of the chapters in my new book is about joy: how people often associate it with outward cheer, but how it often accompanies difficulty. I thought about how this applied even to such an enjoyable weekend. In the Heights has difficulty and sadness: death, loss, failures, disappointments, stress. But the rapturous music and the characters’ spirited goodwill all lift the story into beauty. I realized just now that the musical doesn’t have a single villain. Yet at the same time it’s anything but pat and rosy; it shows people in subtle conflicts, internal and external, short and long.

Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” has been in my mind for years, day after day, but it seems especially appropriate now.

… satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
nnnnn This is mortality,
nnnnn this is eternity.

Who Ever Said Listening Was Passive?

danny-practicing-torah-reading

One of my favorite scenes in A Serious Man is the one pictured above, about 25 minutes into the film, where Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff) is practicing his Torah portion with the help of a recording by Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. He listens, imitates, listens again, imitates. That’s not how you’re supposed to learn your portion–you’re supposed to work with the text and trope–but this fits his character and allows us to hear the great cantor. But what gets me is how well he imitates. It’s transcendent. He picks up not only the melody, but the subtle textures, the ornamentation, the timing. (I have not found a video of this particular scene–but the bar mitzvah scene gives you an idea.) I was so intrigued by the excellence of this scene that I looked up the actor and learned that he is a cellist. In addition, this was his actual Torah portion when he became a bar mitzvah.

Here is a recording of him at age 15 playing Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody. There’s a funny interview afterward, too. The point is not, “Wow, how amazing that he could play that at age 15,” but rather: This is serious musicianship. The little scene in A Serious Man is no fluke; there’s some exceptional listening in it.

Listening is the beleaguered art or skill; again and again I hear it described as “passive.” Egad! Listening is not passive. It’s some of the most active activity in action. It requires intense concentration and attention to subtlety. You must be alert to the structure, tones, rhythms, transitions, and those qualities that aren’t as easily specified, in the collection of sounds you take in. It takes practice, too; if you have never listened to a symphony from start to finish, you might not know what to  make of it, or  you might get restless; but if  you are used to it, you enter a welcoming country (unless the performance or piece is horrible).

In education discussion people often oppose “active learning” to “passive listening.” Such an opposition is not only false but destructive. Yes, students need opportunities to discuss their ideas in the classroom–but if they do not also learn to listen to a sustained piece or presentation, they will miss out on a great deal. It is in a lecture, for instance, that one can lay out an argument and draw attention to its less obvious details. Putting it together, and forming questions in the mind, a student becomes involved with the subject in a particular way. There’s a dialogue in listening; you make sense of what you hear, and you find your responses.

Now, some may say that music and lectures–and the kinds of listening that accompany them–are so different that they shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same discussion. I recognize their differences but also see a lot in common. In both cases, something is conveyed through sound, over an interval of time; its various parts come together in a whole. When you listen, you basically travel through it in time, exercising your memory and anticipation all along the way. Your reactions may be analytical, emotional, or both, but they will not be complete until you have listened to the whole piece, and even then they may be in formation. You carry away not only the content, but the sound, which can play in your mind for a long time afterward.

Yesterday I put this to the test. On Tuesday I revised the fourth chapter of my book, the chapter on listening–so yesterday I treated myself to a day of listening. In the morning I went to an open rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic; in the evening I attended a lecture by Christine Hayes, “Forging  Jewish Identity: Models and Middles in Jewish Sources.” In both of these, in different ways, I was absorbed in the details and the whole. After both, I walked away with sounds and thoughts.

The New York Philharmonic played Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto (with pianist Stephen Hough). Both of these I remembered from many listenings in the past; in addition, I remembered playing the Brahms in symphony in college. I had that distinct sense of it from the inside; not only that, but I remembered some of the places where we played it (we toured England and Wales in the spring). With both the Brahms and the Beethoven, I was alert to the interpretation–the many tiny differences from what I remembered, the dynamics, the dialogues between instruments.

As for the lecture, I immediately understood the three-part structure (Dr. Hayes discussed Jewish identity in terms of memory, covenant, and Qedushah, and went on from there to explore different historical responses to crisis.) Understanding the shape and motion of the lecture, I was able to enjoy and think about the details. When she read texts aloud in English, I would follow along in Hebrew, not only for the additional challenge, but for the sake of the Hebrew text itself. This allowed me to encounter, for the first time,  the wonderful line from Mishnah Sotah 7:8: “Fear not, Agrippas, you are our brother, you are our brother, you are our brother!”

אל תתיירא אגריפס אחינו אתה אחינו אתה אחינו אתה

I walked away not only with the lecture’s  ideas (and my slowly forming questions), but with these words.

In short, listening is not passive, simple, or easy. But just a little bit can add serious riches to a life, and the lack of it can lead to grief. (That’s a different subject for another time.) I end with one of my old poems, “Jackrabbit.”

Jackrabbit

This land has never been painted properly.
Mix clumps of juniper with moonbeam blue,
Throw in a bit of tooth, a bit of song,
to fill the silhouette with bite and tongue.

This is a real dirt road with imagined rocks,
senses, insensate dangers, destinations.
Headlights sweeping the long floor of the mind
pan a jackrabbit back and forth in time.

Caught in the blank emergency of beams,
he dodges his dilemma with a brisk
“what if, what if” that dances him to death.
He could not find a way out of the way.

Earlier that day I was on the phone,
missing all your relevant advice.
A wire had got caught up in my throat,
an answer-dodger. It distracted me.

It trembled so fast that it numbed my tongue.
It did this while you were trying to talk.
I couldn’t listen well because the dance
had blurred all trace of consonant and sense.

I think now that this may have been a crash
of my old givens against your offerings:
new junipers, or ways of seeing them,
new countries, or ways of getting there.

When I hung up, there was no wire or word.
The moon was gone, the road a long fur coat
on some unwitting wearer, blissed and hushed.
I forgot all about it until years later.

You had said: “You can go left or right.”
Take me straight! I shouted. Straight to the remedy.
Gallop like the nineteenth century
down to the police station or cemetery.

Striding answerless, a station incarnate,
a cop ticketed me for not listening.
Now I can bear the rabbits and the wires.
I inch through forks and roadkill, listening.

Note: I made a few little corrections to this piece after posting it.

Something to Sit Up For

gazing-catsI know a few people who write both poetry and nonfiction (more or less concurrently), and while they involve different kinds of imagination, they still have a good deal in common. In both, you are looking and listening not only for the right words, but the right combination of sounds, the right allusions, the right departures from the known and expected.

Recently I have been writing much more nonfiction than poetry, but the poems still come now and then, and some of them hold up over time. This one (an unrhymed sonnet from 2009 or so) is one of my favorites. It appears on the dedication page of Republic of Noise; Stella Schindler quotes it in full at the beginning of her review in Humanum. Reading it now, I still hear something like the offbeat clanging of a bell (in the preposition “for,” which occurs at the end of three consecutive phrases with two enjambments). But of course my ear is slanted. (So is the picture I took yesterday morning of the cats and sunrise.)

The Speech

From far away I heard you speak today,
the way we hear bells in a slant of sun,
knowing they ring at five—the calendar
itself makes words, the very rays make chords.

A teacher must have rushed there after school,
arrived breathless, flopped in a seat, arranged
her coat and hair, leaned into heed, and found
a rampart in the very listening.

Something to sit up for, something to hold
one’s head up for, a time to put aside
one’s foibles for, even a distant time,
this came my way today, a reckoning.
I grasped that there was loneliness in gold
and gold in air, and debt in everything.

The Cat and the Candles

hanukkahOne of my two cats, Minnaloushe (pictured here to the left) is named after the cat in W. B. Yeats’s poem “The Cat and the Moon.” The other, Aengus, is named after Yeats’s “The Song of Wandering Aengus” (not about a cat, but fitting all the same).

Minnaloushe and Aengus show some of the complications of personality. Minnaloushe is friendly to everyone–rushes up to strangers and rubs against them–but does just fine without company for long stretches of the day. Aengus, on the other hand, hides from people he doesn’t know but craves and seeks affection from the select few (including Minnaloushe, who sometimes plays with him, sometimes rubs up against him, and sometimes pushes him away).

Despite appearances, I’d say Aengus is more “extraverted” than Minnaloushe, in that he seeks company more determinedly. But he’s also reserved and selective in his affections, which makes him, well, complex and difficult to define. If cats are difficult to define, what about humans?

I got myself sidetracked here; I meant to talk about Minnaloushe and the candles! Just before I took this photo, Minnaloushe was gazing at the candles with an expression of awe (or something that looked like awe to me, given my tendency to read into things). But now both cats seem oblivious to the fire. One is bathing, the other sleeping. So, if this suggests anything about humans, I suspect we experience, from moment to moment, only a fraction of the possible awe. But even that much is quite a bit.

“Mozart, 1935” and Candle-Lighting

For some reason, as I think of the upcoming Hanukkah candle-lighting, I find myself remembering Wallace Stevens’s “Mozart, 1935.” What could the two have in common, other than winter?

The poem begins,

Poet, be seated at the piano.
Play the present, its hoo-hoo-hoo,
Its shoo-shoo-shoo, its ric-a-nic,
Its envious cachinnation.

“Play the present”–this seems directly opposed to playing Mozart; the sounds of the present are rough and rude. One might think Stevens (or the speaker in this poem) is urging the poet to adopt the language of the street.

But something different seems to be at work here. Mark Halliday comments,

A different poet–one more like Thomas Hardy, or more like William Carlos Williams, or more like Kenneth Fearing (a significant poet of social protest in the thirties)–having turned to face the “angry fear” of people, would feel that his poem’s project must be to explore “this besieging pain” and to show forth its lineaments. Stevens, however, is interested not in writing about the street, but in writing about the problem of writing about the street. “Mozart, 1935” is a poem about poems that will do the work it does not itself undertake.

If this is so (and the interpretation seems both sound and illuminating), what does the poem suggest that poems can do?

Be thou the voice,
Not you. Be thou, be thou
The voice of angry fear,
The voice of this besieging pain.

There is something extraordinary happening here in this repeated “thou.” (It should be read in the context of the full poem.) Halliday again:

Stevens’ earnest wish to maintain a distance from the turmoil of others’ experience is reflected by his stern insistence on the word “thou,” which is repeated four times in the two stanzas just quoted and returns as the final word of the poem. Stevens does not want the poet to be one person among others, a “you” among “yous.” Indeed, he judges that for the poet-pianist to perform the new work, to strike the piercing chord, it will be necessary for him to adopt a status and a role larger and more central than mere individual selfhood: “Be thou the voice, / Not you.”

This is not a matter of rising above the crowd, but rather of rising up through the self into something beyond one’s immediate perceptions and capacities. To be the “voice” of the “besieging pain” is not to imitate or reflect it. The pain, up to this point, has noise but not voice; to become its voice is to inhabit a great soul.

This takes me, in a way, to candles.

To light a candle is not to express flimsy hope in the face of a broken world, a noisy street. Nor is it to “rise above” the world. Nor is it even to endure. The candle hints at the possibility of “thou”–of a dignity that faces the world with full intensity of form. When I look at a candle’s flame, I am entranced by the upright quivering; it seems at instants that the quiver is mine. Of course that is my imagination–but without imagination, a candle would be just functional, a thing that could help me see around a room.

What on earth does this have to do with Hanukkah–a minor holiday commemorating the rededication of the Temple and, according to tradition, the miracle of lights? I am not proposing any special interpretation here. Rather, in this cheerful festival, where the candles stand by the window, there is a chance to form and fortify a relation to the world.

Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year.

The Terror of Subscription

columbia-record-co-a-serious-manIn the Coen brothers’ movie A Serious Man, the physics professor Larry Gopnik enters his office to find three messages and an anxious student waiting. One message is from the Columbia Record Club; unbeknownst to Larry himself, he has subscribed and fallen behind on his payments. (See that magnifying glass in the still; I didn’t even notice it when watching the movie. Maybe it suggests that Larry is looking so closely at certain things that he completely misses others.) I see this “surprise subscription” as one kind of deep nightmare.

What is so scary about subscriptions? Some of it is innocuous and even good; people proudly maintain their subscriptions to newspapers and journals, for instance. But in other cases, the subscription technology (crude or advanced) tricks you; you agree to a “trial” or some such thing and then find out that you’ve signed up for a whole year. Or else you sign up for a year and then forget  to cancel at the end. Subscriptions sneak up on you and claim a debt. Suddenly, out of nowhere, you owe someone money.

But that’s only one side of it. To “subscribe” to something is also to become it. Sometimes, when I get a surprise renewal notice, I ask not only “Can I afford this?” but “What do I have to do with this? Is it really part of my life?” Once upon a time I subscribed to the Franklin Library. The books were beautifully bound, and some titles I was delighted to have–but after a while, they started looking and feeling like a fake collection. I couldn’t keep up with the reading, and when my shelves started filling with books I had barely opened, I knew something was wrong. The subscription had go. I would buy books when I actually wanted to read and reread them. (So I did, and my shelves still overflow.)

So that leads to yet another of subscriptions’ scullduggeries. They can con you into overgetting. You end up amassing “stuff” that  you don’t really want, merely because you continue to pay for it. Somewhere in there, presumably, is something you want, so you accept the full pile, knowing full well that you will use only a handful of it. (I am not referring here to journal subscriptions. There, in my experience, the situation is different; if it’s a good journal, there will be all kinds of surprises in it, things I wouldn’t otherwise have known to read.)

And then, when you do want to quit, you won’t be let off easily. You’ll get reminders, phone calls, letters… won’t you please, please rejoin us? Even if your answer is an emphatic “no,” you are continually reminded that you once did sign on for a whole year.

Today the problem has heightened, since there are so many more things than before that require subscription: antivirus software, word processing and photo finishing software, genealogical research databases, even your own domain name. To do your basic daily work on the computer, you probably need to subscribe to at least three services. And then there are all the subscriptions to “ad-free” versions of blogs and other things; if you don’t want to have ads dancing before you all day long, you must subscribe to peace and quiet.

All of these things combine into the terror of subscription. It’s a mild anxiety; for the most part, I barely think about it. But I often catch myself wishing that I could just have something or not, instead of signing on to this costly, nagging, partial purchase, the effect of a hesitant click one dubious day.

All of this reminded me of Bill Knott’s sonnet “The Unsubscriber” (which isn’t “about” subscriptions in this sense but plays with the topic in an interesting way.) You can see it quoted in full in an article by Edward Hirsch (though the formatting is bad; I recommend the book of the same title). It ends,

No one loves that vain solipsistic sect
You’d never join, whose dues you’ve always paid.

To understand and misunderstand what this means, one needs to read and reread the full poem, to subscribe and unsubscribe, many times.

Image: A still from the first  “Clive scene” in A Serious Man.

 

On Listening to Poetry in Unfamiliar Languages

I have some upcoming posts about TED and what it could do to improve. My TEDx talk may appear on YouTube any day now, so I speak from an inside-like place. (TED refers to TEDx events as “TED-like,” so I suppose the inside of a TEDx event is “inside-like.”)

But right now I have something different on my mind: poetry in unfamiliar languages. Last night I went to the wonderful Uncle Vanya Cafe (quiet, cozy atmosphere, delicious food) to hear three poets: Tomas Venclova (whose poetry I have translated), Valzhyna Mort, and Vasyl Makhno. All three were superb in my ears. Mort and Makhno read some of their poems in Belarusian and Ukrainian, respectively; although I do not know those languages, I enjoyed listening as carefully as I could, picking up not only on familiar words (that is, words that had similar-sounding counterparts in Russian), but on cadences, repetitions, rhythms.

In some strange way it is possible, when listening to a poem in an unfamiliar language, to tell whether it is good. You can sense a mastery of orchestration. Something about the momentum and structure will come across strongly. For this reason and others, I love the exercise. Also, when you listen with that intensity, you remember the poem later.

Two of Mort’s poems stand out in my memory. One was titled “Psalm 18” (I think). She read it in Belarusian and English. There was a magnificent passage with curtains opening and closing, opening and closing. I can’t find it online, but I hope to track it down.

Another one, “Belarusian I” (which she read only in Belarusian, I think) had a progression that I immediately grasped. I didn’t understand the words at the very end, but I understood what led up to them. You can read the poem in Belarusian and English, listen to an audio recording, and watch a video here. (For the first four minutes of the video, she speaks about her work and background; then she reads the poem.)

In the video, she explains that she came to poetry through music. In childhood, she studied music with the intention of becoming a professional musician. When she started writing poetry, she thought of it as music too; she used words she didn’t understand, just for the sound of them. Something of this quality has stayed in her poetry; this partly explains why I could listen with such involvement. Her  poetry, reaching the listeners, returns in some way to its beginnings. At the same time, I need to take time with it to understand it better. Someone who understands nothing in a poem may still understand something (nonverbally); someone who understands something, a little more, and so on. Understanding a poem is a long and layered feat.

 

Note: I made some minor changes to this piece after posting it.