i sing the body electric

Whitman-leavesofgrassI recently watched a wonderful biography of Walt Whitman (American Masters). I knew beforehand about the significance of his lifelong work, Leaves of Grass, but I didn’t know anything about Whitman outside of what he presented through his poetry. He is the inspirational icon we all need, and this is why.

He came from a lower middleclass background, with little to inspire hope for something more. His father had big dreams, but became more and more bitter and unbalanced as he continually failed to fulfil them. He wasn’t a good example of perseverance and grace in the face of setbacks. But it didn’t discourage Walt. He maintained his own visions of success, incredibly lofty ones.

As a young man, he marched into the middle of New York with the idea of changing the world through his poetry. What? Really? Who the hell thinks they have the ability, much less the opportunity, to change the world through verse? Walt did. And though it took a lot longer than he had hoped, he did end up making a huge impact. Perhaps not world-changing, but certainly inspiring and thought provoking and incredibly forward thinking.

His first edition of Leaves of Grass was a small collection of poems, self published, with an irreverent full body sketch of Whitman in plain clothes and an almost cocky stance as the first visual. It was a “here I am” presentation that went directly opposite of the usual portraits of poets in their best clothes, and looking dignified in a cameo sort of way. It was a proper warning for what the reader could expect.

His poems gave the same full exposure to the workings of the human animal, mind, body, and spirit. There especially was a great focus on the body, the beauty of its functions, and how cleverly bodies fit together to precisely express what it is to be emotional, sensual, physical. And he didn’t hold back on claiming the same sensations, the same achievements of physical fulfilment between a man and a man. Whoa. In 1855, that took some great big balls. But if anyone was packing, it was the poet of the people, Walt Whitman.

The sheer force of the sensual experiences that he put forth – sensual in every possible connotation – brought tears to my eyes. Because how does a person live so boldly, so all-embracing, so fully engaged with the world? It would tear me apart to attempt such a thing. But his full-on embrace was the driving force behind his belief that he could be the Great American Poet, that he could put an end to the ills of mankind, including slavery, through his words. That he could so beautifully express love in all its varieties, and the sensuality of the grass beneath our feet, and the sky above our heads, and how fortunate we are to be surrounded by innumerable opportunities to engage our senses.

If that isn’t the world-changing model of how we should grab on and experience life – not just as observers, but as wholly committed participants… why finish that thought? It unequivocally is.

book recommendation: the world of jeeves

Everyone has a blue day once in awhile. When nothing goes right, when your boss or boyfriend or barista was a shit to you FOR NO GOOD REASON (or maybe with slight reason, but even if you deserved it, you were probably cranky to begin with) or when you have a cold and your head feels like it’s stuffed with cotton – you need cheering up. On days like that, it’s best to retreat to your bedroom or couch with a blanket, something warming to drink whether it’s tea, hot chocolate or a glass of wine, and this book.

The World of Jeeves is filled with wonderful short stories featuring P.G. Wodehouse’s characters of Bertie Wooster – a wealthy bubbleheaded and cheery good soul who constantly finds himself in a spot or two of trouble, and Jeeves, his impeccable manservant who always gets Bertie out of those same spots. The setting is 1930ish London and outlying country houses, and the world is one in which the worst problems of life involve extracting one’s self from an unfortunate engagement – something Bertie often finds himself whiplashed into.

Wodehouse’s writing is fun to read. Not only is he hilarious, he’s also damn clever and plays with the English language like few can:

“Lady Malvern was a hearty, happy, healthy, overpowering sort of dashed female, not so very tall but making up for it by measuring about six feet from the O.P. to the Prompt Side. She fitted into my biggest arm-chair as if it had been built around her by someone who knew they were wearing arm-chairs tight about the hips that season.”

“I mean to say, for years, right back to the time when I first went to school, this bulging relative has been one of the recognised eyesores of London. He was fat then, and day by day in every way has been getting fatter ever since, till now tailors measure him just for the sake of the exercise. He is what they call a prominent London clubman – one of those birds in tight morning-coats and grey toppers whom you see toddling along St. James’s Street on fine afternoons, puffing a bit as they make the grade. Slip a ferret into any good club between Piccadilly and Pall Mall, and you would start half a dozen Uncle Georges.”

You can’t help but smile when reading things like that. This is a perfectly gentle introduction to

hugh laurie and stephen fry

Wodehouse, especially for those in need of pampering. Read just one story, or as many as it takes to pull out of the doldrums. Stephen Fry, who portrayed Jeeves in the series, “Jeeves and Wooster” along with old friend and comedy partner Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster, named Wodehouse’s stories as those he turns to when in need of a quick buck-u-uppo, as Wodehouse would say.

Oh and by-the-by, if you can lay your hands on it, watch Stephen Fry’s Planet Word. It’s a five part series on language – how it developed, how we learn to speak and how language evolves, and the wonderful – and sometimes sinister – ways in which it is used. Those in the U.S. might have trouble finding it in playable form as it’s a BBC series, but it’s well worth the hunt. If you are linguistically inclined, or even if you couldn’t give a rat’s ass but enjoy a well-told story and a laugh or two, give it a go.

my bohemian fantasy

I’ve been trying to write a review of Graham Robb’s biography of Arthur Rimbaud for my Goodreads page, and all I can come up with is “When I regress, I want to be Rimbaud.”

I am fascinated with the artistic mind. There’s an ongoing debate about whether insanity breeds genius or vice versa, but it’s clear that minds which produce remarkable art don’t fire on the same synapses as most. I think one has to see the world at a slight tilt to uncover the potential of what could be in what is. It’s what causes the “artistic temperament”  – the moods, the inclination to enjoy things that even further skew perception, the disregard for anything that interrupts focus, including practical matters of paying bills and observing social niceties.

A certain dedicated motivation is required to create on that level. We assume they’re being difficult or are just plain crazy, when I think the truth is not so simply measured. Rimbaud is known as the enfant terrible of the decadents, and he became the go-to icon of those who only dream of such ballsy indifference (backed by the credibility of incredible gifts, of course). It all seems very romantic and attractive. It is very romantic and attractive, looking at it from this side, but I have no idea of what it was like to be in his head. Seems to me he lived a relentless life from beginning to end, a sort of hard-won freedom.

I guess the question is whether the legend is worth the difficulty in getting there. He certainly knew nothing of his upcoming immortality when he was slumming it around the streets of Paris, and ultimately dying in pain and delirium. I really doubt he would’ve cared. But if he had to trade in his brief fling with poetic genius for an easier road? No fucking way. He did what he did not as pretense or precursor to fame, but because he could. Experience is what he was after, in his writing and in the way he lived his life.

So maybe I should change that first line to “When I truly want to be Rimbaud, I will progress.”

Ma Bohème (Fantaisie)

I ran away, hands stuck in pockets that seemed
All holes; my jacket was a holey ghost as well.
I followed you, Muse! Beneath your spell,
Oh, la, la, what glorious loves I dreamed!

I tore my shirt; I threw away my tie.
Dreamy Hop o’ my Thumb, I made rhymes
As I ran. I slept out most of the time.
The stars above me rustled through the sky.

I heard them on the roadsides where I stopped
Those fine September nights, when the dew dropped
On my face and I licked it to get drunk.

I made up rhymes in dark and scary places,
And like a lyre I plucked the tired laces
Of my worn-out shoes, one foot beneath my heart.

to be or not to be

How do we feel about author information? Authors are like painters and sculptors and filmmakers – they are not inseparably joined to the art, not physically. Not knowing who the artist is doesn’t detract from the significance of the piece. And I argue that at times, it’s preferable not to know. The freedom to be completely absorbed in the experience without intrusion. Yes, sometimes the artists are the intruders.

Does it matter that Caravaggio was an asshole or Truman Capote a sly little drunkard? Perhaps. Perhaps not. At least not at this point. Were Caravaggio alive today, we might have another view of his destructive, murderous temper. Distance can seal the gap.

And then there are the instances of a work being enhanced by the physical presence of the creator. Music is like this: people are interested in the performance, not just the music. Popularity of singers and bands often are not judged on the quality of work, but the allure of the presentation. If paintings and books were judged on the attraction of the artist, how many works would be rejected?

Truman Capote’s sensual author picture on the back cover of Other Voices, Other Rooms is what threw that genius of a writer into the spotlight. His work was worthy of attention, but the come hither look of the young author is in part what made the public, well, go hither and read his words. Would his popularity have been affected had it not been for that debut photograph? I’d like to think not. But soon his work was overshadowed by the troubled man beyond the pages.

Henry Miller, who was unmistakably a complete ass, became more charming once I saw an interview with him as a much older gentleman, that took place in his bathroom, of all places. Is he still an asshole? Yes. But now he is a forgivable asshole.

I had both condemned him and forgiven him long ago when I read his words. Words that made me want to slap the piss out of him, and also drew me in to worship. I wanted to lick those words right off the pages, no matter how tainted they were.

So does it matter? Are there forgivable and unforgivable sins? Is there a line to be crossed, a curtain which should be kept drawn? Pay no attention to the artist behind the art. The magic is in the meaning.

writing is self abuse

I’m having a real fight with this third novel. Funny thing is, it’s the most enjoyable thing I’ve undertaken to this point. If I can pull this off, it’ll be a personal triumph. But oh, it’s driving me mad.

There’s much less structure to the underpinnings, I’m looping makeshift constructions around things as I go along. Makes me feel giddy, all of this brazen rule breaking. I just hope I end up with something that others will enjoy as much as I do.

It’s no surprise I wound up here – my favorite authors didn’t write in properly structured prose. I love going off the rails with them, adjusting to their rhythms and being shown a completely different view from sometimes crazily tipped angles. It’s enough to make you dizzy – but we love that, don’t we? We love the amusement of the ride.

I am nowhere near the levels of skill so seemingly easily tossed out by Henry Miller or Kazuo Ishiguro or Jean Paul Sartre. (I couldn’t find anything that gave a good description of The Reprieve, but the whole Roads to Freedom trilogy is remarkable.) I am no possessor of the ballsy bravery James Joyce showed when he said ‘fuck it’ and wrote in the poetic hum and private language of his characters. But god, it makes my mouth water. It’s like looking at the bent and swirled and pulled apart images of Picasso, or the layers upon layers of freeflow drips and spins of Jackson Pollock. To do that with words…. Yeah. That’s a mindgasm, right there.

But now that I’m into it, allowing my characters to drag me this way and that and running after them, trying to structure all of their actions – it’s tough. It’s fricking hard, it leaves me in little writing eddies of kinetic catatonia. Goddamn, it’s fun. I just hope I come through with a bit of sanity intact.