Sunday, August 31, 2008


I just received early copies of the paperback edition of my most recent book of poems (titled Contradictions and published by Copper Canyon Press). The hardcover came out in 2002, and I sympathize with those who in times of economic uncertainty couldn't spring for it. It will be nice to see the new edition on the shelves of Barnes & Noble and Borders again.

On another topic: I've been reviewing the American presidency in terms of the length of terms. We think of the minimum as being four years, but history gives us examples of much shorter Presidencies. William Henry Harrison held office only in the months of March and April in 1841. James Garfield served from the month of March through July in 1881, no more. Warren G. Harding had about two years before dying of mysterious causes. Millard Fillmore had about three years, the same as John F. Kennedy, as many of us remember. Gerald Ford completed just the shank end of Nixon's second term, after the Watergate scandal and Tricky Dick's resignation. Actually, several presidents didn't complete their second term, and F.D.R. died during his third. It would be interesting to hear testimony about the damage to health that the stresses of holding this strenuous office bring on.

May John McCain, the oldest first-term presidential candidate in history, and one whose health was no doubt compromised by his awful years in a prison camp, have a long and vigorous life, whether or not elected President. Meanwhile, here are two intriguing ifs: if he happens to be elected, and if he doesn't complete his first term, we will apparently have Governor Palin as President. Which means the White House will also be occupied by--what term do we apply to him, the First Man? When does the public get a chance to meet this man and take his measure?

McCain supporters have made the curious assertion that Governor Palin is actually more experienced than Senator Obama, at least, insofar as executive experience is concerned. But the duly chosen Democratic candidate's experience has in large part developed in the national capital, not in Alaska (population, about 680,000). Among the tasks facing a first-term President coming from outside the District is to get to know all the players, elected and otherwise. Senator Obama has had time to do this. Governor Palin obviously could not. He has also participated in the legislative process, and a President who doesn't understand the ins and outs of Congress more than superficially is in big trouble. Critics of the Senator say that he has insufficient knowledge of foreign policy. If he does, what about the Governor's experience in that area?

I may as well say it: even the very remote prospect of having a gun-loving individual of either gender as the American President doesn't appeal to me at all, no more than one who prefers drilling the United States, inland or offshore, instead of developing clean alternative energy sources. Governor Palin has made jokes about us non-carnivores, keen hunter that she is. With the result that now, whenever I see her picture, I don't think of the former beauty contestant; instead, an image of her smiling over the carcass of a deer she has shot (perhaps a doe with a near-term fawn in its belly), blood streaming from its side. Governor Palin must realize that a deer of course wants to bring its offspring to term. It does not want that fawn aborted by someone else's decision. Why would she ever feel entitled to kill a conscious being that, according to her faith, is a divine creation? The same question for John McCain who likes to hunt, too. And he has even had first-hand experience of the pain a bullet causes and other things it does when it rips into flesh.

Friday, August 29, 2008


We’ve just had a rousing Democratic Convention, with speeches exalting our citizens and the “American Dream” from extraordinary individuals Michelle Obama, Hilary and Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and of course Barack Obama, all of them bringing Convention crowds to a fever pitch of enthusiasm. This election was already a landmark, given that the Democratic candidate is the first to have African ancestry (at least, the first acknowledged as that, but who really knows?). And now Senator McCain has chosen Sarah Palin as his running mate, the first time a Republican candidate has chosen a woman—though of course Geraldine Ferraro was the first Democratic Veep candidate nearly three decades ago.

As I prepare to go to live in London, I’ve decided to do some America boosting myself, listing a few places on the American scene that have made a deep impression on me during the last few decades—places of special beauty or historical importance or cultural resonance. I’ve visited all 50 states and almost all large or notable cities in the U.S.A. Some of this is touched on in a long poem titled “1992,” which appeared in the book Autobiographies. That’s out of print but still available at online booksellers. Here goes:

The Taos Pueblo, in New Mexico, nearly a thousand years old, a Cubist urban wonder of the New World. Also, the Mesa Verde settlement, tucked into a cliff wall, at an early point in history and later abandoned.

The Walt Whitman House Museum in Camden, NJ.

The view from Coit Tower, Telegraph Hill in San Francisco; Golden Gate Park in the same city; and Chinatown.

The Potomac River, VA.

New York City from Fort Tryon Park all the way down to Battery Park, and the view from the Staten Island Ferry. Also, Brooklyn Heights.

The modernist architecture of Chicago and the view of Lake Michigan along Lakeshore Drive.

The Barrier Islands of Georgia, St. Simons, Jekyll, and Sea Island.

The Grand Canyon, a jaw-dropping fusion of geology and awe.

The Poe tomb in Baltimore, MD.

Views along the stretch of I-91 above Putney, Vermont all the way to St. Johnsbury, the Green Mountains and the Connecticut River.

Route 100 from L.A. to San Francisco. Carmel and Monterrey, CA.

Basin Street in Memphis.

Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, where the Civil War ended.

Old houses and liveoak trees near the Battery, and Catfish Row, in Charleston, SC..

Skyline Drive and Monticello in Virginia.

Louis Kahn’s Kimball Museum in Fort Worth, TX.

The vast, flat, treeless plains of North Dakota.

Glacier, Yellowstone, Zion, and Yosemite National Parks.

The Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, MA.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.

Fort Ticonderoga, NY.

The Frost House, near Breadloaf, VT

The conjunction of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers at Hermann, just north of St. Louis, MO.

Skagway, Glacier Bay, and Sitka, AK

Harper’s Ferry, WV.

Lake Tahoe and Carson City, NV

The Ryman Theater in Nashville, TN, cradle of the country music empire.

Langston Hughes’s birthplace in Joplin, MO.

Santa Monica, Silver Lake, and the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles.

Independence Hall and surrounding historic buildings in Philadelphia.

Mt. Rainier, WA

Seneca Falls, NY, birthplace of the Women's Suffrage movement.

St. Augustine, FL.

Vineyard country along the New York State shore of Lake Erie.

Provincetown, MA

The Black Hills of South Dakota

Talequah, OK, capital of the Cherokee Nation.

The Rockies from Montana down to Colorado.

Wilmington, DE

The Roebling Bridge in Cincinnati, OH.

The Florida Everglades.

Wichita, KS.

Lake Bemidji, MN.

Eureka in the Arkansas Ozarks.

The Columbia Gorge, OR

Vicksburg, MS.

Omaha, NB

The Lincoln Memorial, Smithsonian, and Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Branford College, the British Art Center, the Beinecke Library, and the Elizabethan Club, Yale, New Haven.

Tulsa, OK.

The Hudson Valley north from Poughkeepsie to Albany, NY. The view from Frederick E. Church’s Olanna in Hudson.

The causeway running from Miami down to Key West, FL.

The Great Salt Lake, UT.

Cannon Beach and Manzanita, OR

The East End of Long Island (Whitman's "Paumanok"), NY

The Penobscot Bay area, Castine, and Mt. Desert National Park, ME.

The Snake River in Idaho.

Niagara Falls, NY.

Black Mountain and the Nantahala Range, NC.

Haleakala Crater and Ohe’o Park on Maui, HI

The Cliff Walk, Newport, RI.

The Governor’s Palace in Santa Fe, NM.

Cranbrook School, Detroit, MI.

The Shaker village at Pleasant Hill, KY.

Boston’s Old North Church and State House; the St. Gaudens monument to Colonel Shaw, Boston Common; 91 Revere St., birthplace of Robert Lowell; and Richardson’s Sever Hall, Harvard, Cambridge.

Iowa City, IA

New Harmony, IN.

Louis Kahn’s Salk Pavilion in La Jolla, CA.

Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard, MA

Boulder, CO.

Monument Valley, AZ and UT.

Nantucket, MA.

The Gulf Coast from the Florida Panhandle to Biloxi, MS.

Benefit Street, Providence, RI

Savannah, GA

Tucson, AZ

The Abbey of Gethsemani, KY

Estes Park, CO

Mount Vernon, VA.

The Paterson Falls and the Palisades, NJ.

The French Quarter and the Garden District in New Orleans.

Ephraim on the upper peninsula of Wisconsin.

Brasstown Bald in the North Georgia Appalachians.

Wallace Stevens’s house in Hartford, CT.

The White Mountains, NH.

Emerson once remarked that the magisterial landscape of New Hampshire was mocked by the pettiness of the people inhabiting it. But I’m going to put aside negative feelings about our saber-rattlers, philistines, dolts, and fundamentalists and recall instead my friends here and those like them, people abundant in warmth, intelligence, fair-mindedness, artistry, and generosity. Auden once said, “Americans are like omelets. There’s no such thing as a pretty good one.”

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Pindaric and Olympic

Strophe 1

Water is the finest of all, while gold, like a lambent fire,
Shines through the night in pre-eminence of superb wealth.
And if, my heart, you wish to tell
Of prizes won in trials of strength,
Seek no radiant star whose beams
Have keener power to warm, in all the wastes of upper air, than the sun’s
Nor let us sing a place of games to surpass the Olympian.
It is from there that the song of praise, plaited of many voices,
Is woven into a crown by the subtle thoughts of poets,
So that they chant the praises of Kronos’ son
As they make their way to Hieron’s rich hearth,

Michael Phelps having swept the board this past week and become the all-time swimming champ, I thought it might be stimulating to go to Pindaros (Pindar), the great 5th century B.C.E. Greek celebrant of Olympic athletes. The above is the first strophe from his Olympian Ode I.

Here is my effort to transliterate the sounds of the first two lines. I’m aware this isn’t the standard notation used by linguists, but it may give some idea of the sound, based on typical English spelling.

Ahriston men hiudor, ho de chriusos aithomenon piur
Ahtay diaprepei niukti meganoros eksokha plutu

The text in Greek and in William Mullen’s translation can be found at:

In Pindaros and in other Greek poets you find a frank acknowledgment of the love and admiration men have for other beautiful, physically agile men. And we see echoes of that in Whitman’s celebration of the young swimmers in “Song of Myself” and in A.E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young.”

At some point last week it occurred to me that TV coverage giving details about the lives of American contenders mostly left out information about their spouses or boyfriends or girlfriends. Why? I’m willing to bet that some of the women are lesbian and some of the men are gay. Just maybe there were a few hints about that here and there. However, though same-sex orientation isn’t illegal, apparently it still can’t be broadcast in Olympic coverage. Which means that TV has determined or arbitrarily decided that the broad public wouldn’t like it mentioned. That makes me angry. If the Olympians who happen to be gay really want to make a lasting contribution to life on the planet, they might consider speaking openly and honestly about who they are and thereby help remove the stigma projected by part of the public on the orientation that is theirs.

Back in the early seventies I used to have a magazine picture of Mark Spitz on my bulletin board. It was interesting to hear him interviewed about his own Olympic success and Michael Phelps’s. He had nothing but uncompetitive praise for the young man who has surpassed his record. Nor did he make any mention of the fact that the new swimming caps and engineered suits developed since his day help contenders trim seconds from their events. In 1972 Spitz had the typical longish hair of male fashion in the early 70s, which must have slowed him a bit. I also recall getting interested (in ’88, I guess it was) in Rowdy Gaines, a compact and appealing youngster, partly because Andy Warhol decided that year to take photographs of some of the competers and publish them in Interview. Interviewed back then, Gaines mentioned he had shaved his whole body so as to create less drag against the water. Well, Gaines was one of the newscasters for these games, and he appeared a couple of times, still fit, but clearly older and with a receding hairline. Spitz, also fit, now has white hair, and I believe his work for many years was to own a car dealership, though I gather he has become something like a corporate consultant now. Which leads me to this question: When the high point of your life comes around age twenty-one, how can the remaining fifty or sixty years not seem like a letdown? There was an article in this month’s Smithsonian magazine about Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the two African American runners who in the 1968 Olympics made the Black Power gesture just after receiving their medals. Their lives since then have been anything but a picnic, partly because of the controversy. I doubt any Olympic gold medal winner has read Frosts’s “Provide, Provide.”

It’s anybody’s guess what Phelps’s future life will be. I suppose he will earn millions by doing product endorsements. But there is something hard-edged and brooding in his nature, not entirely concealed in his interviews; and I wonder if he will remain in the public eye long enough for us to understand what the source of that is.

Meanwhile, anyone tempted to get Pindaric and base a poem on him? It would also be great to read a lesbian poem about some of the women Olympians. Come on, people, you can do it! There’s more than one kind of gold.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

August 14

The strange resonance of dates again. My birthday coincides with V-J Day—the day not the year. I was two when Japan surrendered and the Second World War ended. The general celebration unfortunately overlapped with an irreparable personal loss. My mother, in her mid-thirties in 1945, and living in a small town in South Georgia, developed appendicitis in August of that year and didn’t get treatment in time to prevent the appendix from rupturing. She could still have been saved if the little hospital had had any penicillin,but the limited supplies available in those years were all sent to the various war zones, and so she died of infection on the very day when the fighting ended. The upshot is, I’m never able to celebrate this day without an underlying sense of loss. For the reasons stated, I count her as one of the war casualties, “collateral damage” as the current euphemism has it. If there had been no war, she would not have died, and my life would have been very different. So there’s no surprise if I oppose war now and always.

Meanwhile, here we go again. I heard Mr. Bush’s speech about the crisis in Georgia. We are sending humanitarian aid to the invaded nation, which is good; but, unfortunately, this aid is being accompanied by military escort. Yes, we should stand by Georgia and condemn the Russian invasion. But we should not use military intervention. How long is it going to take before we step down from our role as global policeman? This is a matter in which Europe and the United Nations must act. We can make statements, send envoys to Moscow and Tbilisi, and cooperate with other countries to implement sanctions against Russia; that is all. Or, if the U.N. calls on its members to provide peace-keeping personnel, then we should send them, along with every other country’s. We should not act on our own initiative. Remember that the First World War was launched by a single bullet. Much more than that has already happened in Georgia. Who’s to say that we are not on the brink of the third such conflict, with the difference that weaponry is vastly more sophisticated and destructive than it was one hundred years ago.

Since I’m plumping for the U.N., will someone explain to me why no one has proposed the possibility of having U.N. forces come in while we’re making U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq. If it’s true that Iraq isn’t yet stable enough to be left on its own, surely the Iraqi people will be more tolerant of the presence of U.N. peace-keeping troops than ours. After all, we dropped bombs on their country with no prior provocation. And our occupying forces have killed and brutalized (everyone remembers Abu Ghraib, right?) their people. The very sight of a U.S. soldier and the American flag must make many Iraqis sick. It’s time for us to get out (safely), and as we get out, let the U.N. help Iraq achieve stability and full autonomy.

One world and one at peace. So far, a dream, but one that will come true if the desire and dedication can be found to bring it to birth. W.H. Auden: “We must love one another or die.” (“September 1, 1939.”)


This post comes out of the exchange of comments on the previous post. It didn't seem adequate to look at the question in the space of a note. What the letters dealt with was my own dissatisfaction with the competitive aspect of the contemporary scene. How valuable a characteristic is the competitive spirit, for an individual and society? A fish in the sea doesn't know how salty the water is. Americans apparently aren't aware just how competitive things have become here, the tendency is too universal for us to perceive clearly--unless we back off a bit and try for objectivity.

We're taught that competition helps us excel, in athletics, scholastics, and art; that competition between businesses offering commercial goods and services produces better goods and services; and that we need to compete on the world stage in order to insure the security and well-being of our country. These assumptions are so much taken for granted that we don't even bother to look at the other side of the question. What is the cost of competition, for the self and for the world? First, a sort of garrison mentality, in which the goal of beating the rival never gives us a moment of relaxation or untroubled rest. W.E.B. Dubois, after his first visit to Liberia, noted a certain laisser-aller in that country; it wasn't a model of efficiency or tidiness. What he did see was ordinary human contentment and added that he had noticed a correlation between unhappiness and the demands of efficient modernity in advanced Western nations. Obviously something is going wrong in our own particular society, if you consider how many Americans take antidepressants, the shockingly high percentage of people in prison, high divorce and suicide rates, drug addiction, alcoholism, and troubling level of unemployment. Businesses, in order to be competititve, must downsize, reduce the payroll and schedule of benefits. No one's job is safe in the current competitive ambiance. Computers now answer telephones, absorbing many of public's productive hours during the week while we thread our way through the beeps and then are kept on hold until one of the company's two telephone answerers gets to us. And why? So that businesses can downsize and remain competitive.

And when we go to the supermarket, yes, we're confronted with forty varieties of laundry detergent, but do we really think that any one of them is significantly better than any other? The main way that the companies compete is through eye-catching ads on TV, which cost the companies a fortune, at least until advertising expenses are passed on to the consumer. A recent credit card ad proclaimed, "We are a nation of consumers, and there's nothing wrong with that." Oh? The main spur for consumption seems to be the old keeping up with the Jones syndrome. A high school senior dare not appear in the classroom without the sneaker of the month. His parents dare not drive a car that fails to make his neighbors choke on envy. "He who dies with the most toys wins." Designer clothes, designer furniture, designer lives, designer drugs, Subzero fridges--all to show that you have successfully competed. Unfortunately, in the race to keep up we've moved to the edge of bankruptcy and become a debtor nation. If our competitive spirit produces better products, why does no one but an American want to buy an American car or home appliance? Because those products are inferior. In fact, affluent Americans all want foreign cars and products because these expensive items prove that you have successfully competed. And if you're still not happy, you can go on Lexapro. Jefferson's "pursuit of happiness" has become all pursuit and no happiness.

As for international competition, it has meant the build-up, at staggering cost, of a massive military machine, absorbing tax dollars that could have gone to socially constructive programs like national health and repair of the infrastructure (see the collapse of the Minneapolis bridge). This huge military potential lulls us into a false sense of security, and encourages in us a readiness to use military rather than diplomatic means to solve international problems. There's an important article by Tony Judt in the May 1 New York Review of Books, where he accounts for American blitheness about war by the fact that we did not experience on home ground the terrible devastation of the two World Wars. We lack first-hand knowledge of what it's like to have your own city or town bombed, to see dismembered bodies of people we love, to lose all that we have. War for us is just another video game. But not for those who are sent to Afghanistan or Iraq, who return to tell us or don't return. And certainly not for the civilian populations whose lives we have pulverized.

In today's New York Times journalist John Tierney suggests that we just drop the restricitons on athletes doping, since drug tests are unreliable and anyway athletes should be free to use any method whatsoever in order to compete successfully. Apparently there's even a way to alter your DNA by injecting genes with the help of a virus so that stronger muscles can be built, more records be broken, and more gold won by the country with the easiest access to the latest biotechnology. Is this grotesque or what?

What produces happiness? Moments of solitude and communion with what is divine, moments when no rivals are around to stir up anxieties. And then moments of shared happiness with those I love, moments of community spirit with people I like and don't regard as enemies. In Chaos theory, it's said that every time a butterfly unfolds its wings in China, weather patterns in the Western Hemisphere are slightly altered. Along the same lines, there's a popular ballad titled "Let There Be Peace on Earth (And Let It Begin With Me)," which, sentimental as it is, even so contains a grain of truth. Every time I choose competition over cooperation, every time I try to cut someone off on the freeway, every time I am violent in deed or word, I increase the world sum of aggression and the probability of armed conflict. It's only a question of scale between, on one hand, the high-school and college shotgun massacres we've come to expect now, and, on the other, bombing countries we decide are dangerous to us. Maybe the best expression of this concept is Marianne Moore's poem, "In Distrust of Merits," where she speaks of the war-producing disease of "myself."

Turning to the arts in general and poetry in particular, I have to say I find the spectacle of competition on the contemporary poetry scene thoroughly repellent. There used to be a website called Foetry that detailed some of the underhanded tactics of some poets to get ahead of their rivals or to promote the particular aesthetic faction to which they belong. Perhaps the website was sometimes in error and maybe they overplayed their hand. But no one with an inside view can fail to see that competitive infighting is a destructive, not a creative force. Yeats's phrase about the "worst" being filled with a "passionate intensity" applies well here. So far from being in favor of freedom of expression, today's aesthetic factions are dead set on crushing any and all rivals. Whereas, to prove that they are more than simple machines designed to advance the case of Number One, I believe that poets or poetic parties ought to sometimes publish or allow into their forums representatives of alternative views. In Marxist theory, progress in thought or in social organization works through dialectic. How little we see of that in the current scene. No, it's all about Moi, and everybody else can go to hell.

I would like to see great works of art produced in my time. If they are produced by this hand, fine. If they are produced by someone else, equally fine. I feel lucky to be the colleague of many wonderful poets now writing. I'm glad when someone else scores a triumph, it's one more artwork in the world that I can enjoy. The artist I'd like to outdistance is the artist I was before now. Lao-Tse: "The wise man does not compete. Thus no one can compete with him."

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Olympians & Co.

The Olympics! The eighth day of the eighth month of 2008, at eight minutes after eight o’clock (for the Chinese, the number eight represents prosperity). Like four billion other inhabitants of the planet, I watched the opening ceremonies of the Olympics last night and found it staggering. It must surely be the largest and costliest single spectacle in human history, even discounting the expense of building the “bird’s nest” stadium. The crack precision of the thousands of performers executing carefully calibrated maneuvers was impressive and not a little daunting. It far surpassed the German equivalent as recorded in Leni Riefenstahl’s classic film about the 1936 Olympics, The Triumph of the Will. Unfortunately, the planner failed to omit thirty seconds of Chinese soldiers marching goose-step fashion, which rather undermined the peaceful ethos of the Olympic games.

On the other hand the spectacle included a summary of Chinese cultural history, beginning with Chinese calligraphic painting, the presentation imaginatively conflating dance with the movements of the inkbrush. And then on to the Chinese invention of printing with moveable type and so on up to digital contemporaneity, with glancing references along the way to other inventions like silk, fireworks (based on the Chinese discovery of gunpowder, about which I can’t avoid feeling ambivalent), and martial arts (suggested by the choreographed movements of 2008 practitioners of tai chi). Two omissions that puzzled me were Chinese poetry, one of the world’s greatest traditions, influential on twentieth century English-language poetry through the publicizing efforts of Ezra Pound; and Chinese porcelain, which numbers among the perfected achievements in visual art at any period, not to mention its utility in realms as disparate as dining, tiles, electrical equipment, and heat shields for spacecraft. Since we're on this topic, it's interesting to see poetry and porcelain meeting in some English-language textual instances, for example Gray’s poem about his cat drowning in a porcelain “tub” of goldfishes, Marianne Moore’s “Nine Nectarines and Other Porcelain,” or Eliot’s “The stillness, as a Chinese jar still/Moves perpetually in its stillness” (Burnt Norton). You may think of other examples and alert me to them.

If we're meant to regard the Olympics as a world celebration of what the human body can do, there’s no need to wonder why its intellectual/ethical counterpart, the annual Nobel ceremony, isn’t televised. Even if it were, nothing like four billion viewers would tune in. For most people, the body is more absorbing, more compelling, than the mind. No artist can pull down the enormous salaries of famous athletes, with the occasional exception of film or rock stars (whose success is often more the result of physicality than artistic skill), and no artist has an audience as large as the sports audience. Does that mean sports are more important than art? I don’t think so, and if people were reasonable (which they aren’t), they’d agree. A sports event results in no lasting object, no pleasure that can be re-experienced, no advance in learning or technology, and no improvement in the social fabric. Once over, it’s done, though of course some few people may want to review the video record of a particular game from time to time. Most, however, will prefer to see newer events and pay huge admissions prices to do so. Fundamentally, it’s an ephemeral, one-off show of fleeting importance.

You can say that sports events encourage people to practice a sport and become fit, which is sometimes true. And yet America, the most sports-minded of all countries, has a devastatingly high percentage of people suffering from obesity. Please explain the disconnect. Also, we shouldn't overlook the high incidence of sports-related injuries, which leave some athletes permanently disabled or killed. Perhaps Muhammed Ali might be the symbol of this danger. Finally, sports events often result in spectaor violence, when winners and losers start insulting each other and then start getting physical, assisted by beer bottles and whatever blunt instruments are handy. I know that by raising these problems I will earn the hatred of all sports enthusiasts, and actually the totalitarianism is part of what bothers me. It's OK not to be interested in, say, handicrafts or gardening; but when you say you're not interested in sports, you're instantly branded as a freak or an unpatriotic s.o.b. I mean, it's just a game. Why do I have to care so intensely about who gets a pigskin over a certain boundary marked on a grassy field?

The Olympics have a putative value as an affirmation of peace and global cooperation; and, though it was a lift to see the wonderful variety of faces, ethnicities, and national costumes when each delegation paraded before the camera, how to overlook nationalistic conflicts going on between or within the countries represented? Georgia was being overrun by tanks at the very moment the Georgian and Russian teams were smiling at the world. When the Sudanese paraded their participants, how was it possible not to think of Darfur? When the five Palestinian participants walked slowly along, who could forget what is going on in their homeland? And so on with Iraq, the Congo, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, and the United States. World peace? Cruel irony.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Significant Dates

Every year, when the calendar reaches the date August 6, I find myself unable to forget that it's the anniversary (the sixty-third in 2008) of the first military use of atomic energy. The date has an extra edge this year because of current international anxiety about the possibility that Iran has developed or is developing nuclear armaments. Not that I have any say in the question, but I wish Iran wouldn’t develop them, just as I wish all the nuclear-weaponed nations would dismantle what they already have. I also wish the world would review what happened at Chernobyl and be less blithe about nuclear power plants. Even if we have no more meltdowns, the problem of disposal of radioactive waste remains, and I don’t believe that burying them deep in the earth is really a solution. Solar energy is the only safe future, along with the goal of engineering some microbe able to convert cellulose into a combustible substance. Every nation with the power to finance research should pursue, cooperatively, the goal of clean energy.

These notes begin with a date and I’d like to go on from there by pointing out some strange calendric coincidences in the war between the United States and Japan, 1941-1945. That began on December 7, when Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Meanwhile, in the Catholic religious calendar, it's the day before the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Most Christians wrongly assume that the Immaculate Conception is the same thing as the birth of Jesus from a virgin mother. The doctrine actually says that Mary was “conceived without sin” from her mother Anna. It was developed in Roman Catholicism as a way to get around the difficulty of giving Jesus a physical inheritance tainted by Original Sin. (The Eastern Orthodox church never accepted the doctrine of Original Sin, by the way, and by the same token don’t have a Feast of the Immaculate Conception.) But to the extent that Japanese authorities understood Christianity (which Jesuit missionaries had begun to spread in Japan as early as the 17th century, despite repression sponsored by Japanese imperial authority), would they have made a distinction that few Western Christians are even aware of? If they assumed December 8 celebrated the birth of Jesus from a virgin mother, perhaps they thought it made sense to bomb Pearl Harbor the day before the feast—symbolically, a rape.

Meanwhile, among possible dates for its nuclear reprisal, the United States also chose one that figures in the Catholic calendar. August 6 is the Feast of the Transfiguration, which celebrates that moment in the gospel narratives where Jesus went up on a mountaintop with his closest disciples and suddenly became “transfigured,” glowing with an unearthly white light attesting to his divinity. If atomic fission amounts to a “transfiguration” of matter into energy, the date has a symbolic resonance. What can only regrettable to Christians is the association of Jesus’ divinity with a weapon of mass destruction that incinerated a city and most of its inhabitants.

Finally, the war ended with the Japanese surrender on V-J Day, August 14, which is not a church holiday, but precedes the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin by one day. The doctrine maintains that the Virgin did not actually die, but instead was taken up physically into Heaven while still alive. This non-biblical supposition was optional for Roman Catholics in 1945: faithful Catholics were not required to believe it, but they were allowed to. Five years later Pius XII declared ex cathedra that the doctrine was now obligatory, an indispensable component of the regular teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

I mention this partly for its intrinsic (and bizarre) interest, but it also has a bearing on American poetry. Those familiar with the career of Robert Lowell know that he converted to Roman Catholicism around 1940. They also know that he left the church at the end of that decade. He himself attributes his decision to the promulgation of the doctrine of the Assumption in his poem “Beyond the Alps,” dated 1950. “Who could believe, who could understand?” he asks in a poem both personal and historical. My guess is that he was motivated by other factors as well, for example, his non-canonical divorce from Jean Stafford and remarriage with Elizabeth Hardwick. But the poem doesn’t bring other reasons forward and concentrates instead on the historical role of the Church and the papacy, as contrasted with secular and cultural history.

These topics are on my mind because I’ve begun working on a play about Lowell in the late 1940s. Having written poems, fiction, and essays, I decided it was time to tackle the remaining genre, and on ground that was familiar. I met Lowell only twice, in the last year of his life, and Elizabeth Hardwick perhaps a half dozen times after that. But sometimes small suggestions are enough to go on, at least, I hope they are. I'm sort of feeling my way forward, so wish me luck.