Sunday, September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace.

I'm writing and talking about this all over the place, and I doubt I have anything to add to the conversations others are having, but I have to post briefly about the death of David Foster Wallace. I wrote in June about his brilliant and humane way with words, and I am so sorry for his family and the world that he is gone. I can't help wondering how he would comment on what's being said about him. Quite selfishly, I will really miss what he might have said about everything that's happening and is going to happen.

I think this article by Laura Miller is a lot more eloquent than anything further I could say. Like her, I think I would probably say that he was my favorite living writer.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Promised Land

Earlier this week, Dar Williams' new album Promised Land came out. I've really been looking forward to it. I always look forward to her albums, but I'm also hoping that I'll get a parallel situation going: the last time I bought a new Dar album (My Better Self in 2005), I was also unemployed, and I got a job within a couple of weeks. Anyway, I thought I'd post my (probably rambling) thoughts on it, writing as an uninformed music critic, but a semi-rabid fan since 2000.

There's this trend, whether fairly or unfairly applied, about folk singers who stray from their young acoustic roots and end up in adult-contemporary territory writing only about their kids. Not that there's anything necessarily inherently wrong with that. I think Dar's 2000 album The Green World (my personal favorite) marked a transition from what I've heard her call songs written hunched over her futon. The same intelligent lyrics and emotional accessibility were there, just with sort of a wider range, thematically and musically.

Okay, I'm really starting to get pretentious now, but I'll just say I think Dar does the same things well on this new album. I like it better than the two albums that came after The Green World - this one is a lot more even, and I like the covers and guest musicians better. It seems like there's a confidence that wasn't quite there in My Better Self.

Okay, so let's get into the album. I'd heard a number of these songs before, at shows or on radio broadcasts. All of them benefit from additional instrumentation and voices on the album, especially "Buzzer" - except maybe for "The Easy Way." It's got this bouncy percussion that ups the tempo a little that I'm not a huge fan of. The Dar-and-Suzanne Vega oohs and ahhhs in the background, though, are lovely.

There are a couple of songs, as usual, about morally challenging times - "Buzzer," about Stanley Milgram's obedience experiments, and "Holly Tree," about the monetary motives behind the Salem witch trials. There are also two covers - "Midnight Radio" from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and "Troubled Times" by Fountains of Wayne. "Midnight Radio" is a lovely song and fits Dar's voice well; according to her liner notes, she went to college with the song's writer, Stephen Trask. "Troubled Times" is a nice surprise. Covers are a gamble, and I don't particularly like Fountains of Wayne, but I do like this song, and Dar makes it more buoyant, smoothes out the lyrics into actual musical phrases. There are songs that I wasn't that into on first listen that are seriously growing on me ("Go to the Woods" and "Book of Love") and ones that I can tell are going to be solid favorites ("You are Everyone," which is just beautiful, and "It's Alright," which was on an EP Dar released a couple of weeks ago).

The subject matter as a whole is a little darker and more conscious of mortality than her earlier songs. "The Tide Falls Away" and the last song, "Summerday," are both acknowledgments that everything erodes and passes and dies, that no land lasts forever. "Summerday" could have been a sentimental song about the afterlife, but instead, it's about the much more real way generations of people come and go and do different things to the world. Like, the only promise land or anything else can offer.

Sorry that was so long. You can listen to the whole tracks of "It's Alright" and "Troubled Times" on Dar's myspace page, and you can buy the album on iTunes. You can also buy the physical album, which has a lot of gorgeous artwork in it by various artists that live in the Hudson Highlands, Dar's neck of the woods.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Take a letter, Maria

A couple of weeks ago, I read most of a collected volume of Vita Sackville-West's letters to Virginia Woolf. I guess I was thinking there would be a lot of love letters. There are some, but most of them are full of news and "business" - the kinds of things people communicate by phone (though they did have phones, and called each other occasionally) and e-mail today. More than one professor I had in college wondered aloud if modern writers would ever warrant "the collected e-mails of..."

The thing about Vita's letters is that they're full of references to letter-writing itself, especially the time and distance involved. She was often in Persia, where she would finish letters quickly saying that the only post for a week was about to come. In January 1926, she wrote:

…letters are the devil, disregarding Einstein and being subservient to so fallacious a thing as time, e.g. if you write to me in Persia and say you have got the ague it is no use my writing back to say I’m so sorry, because by the time you get it you’ll have recovered, whereas if I write from the Weald you’ll still be wretched when you get it and my condolence will be of some slight grain of use, but my feelings will be the same, whether in Persia or the Weald. (p. 84)

In September 1925, she writes about the physical difference between writing and reading a letter:

I like the sense of one lighted room in the house while all the rest of the house, and the world outside, is in darkness. Just one lamp falling on my paper; it gives a concentration, an intimacy. What bad mediums letters are; you will read this in daylight, and everything will look different.” (p. 68)

Is there a parallel to this in modern communication? Certainly, there can be gaps of time between the writing and reading of a text message or e-mail, but it's always possible to read what's been written nearly instantaneously. Does this mean that the writer's meaning is more closely approximated? I don't know, but it's very interesting to me.

I just finished reading Northanger Abbey, in which Henry Tilney gives a typically Austenian backhanded compliment that women are superior letter-writers:

As far as I have had opportunity of judging, it appears to me that the usual style of letter-writing among women is faultless, except in three particulars….A general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar. (p. 23)

I have to confess, I was a little bit surprised to find grammar and punctuation errors in Virginia Woolf's letters (especially absent apostrophes), but hey. Who cares, when the prose is so perfect? Vita knew what was up:

A curious fact: nearly all letters seem to contain at least one irritating phrase, but yours never. They leave one feeling more intelligent, charming, and desirable than one actually is. (p. 122)

Okay, I'm going to end this rambly post with one of Virginia Woolf's letters, from September 1929, reprinted in the volume, that I think is pretty awesome. Maybe few will agree with me, but there's something about it I love.

A thousand congratulations from us both.
I daresay these are the happiest days of your life.
No, alas, I go to London on Friday not Thursday.
Yes, very pleased about Kings Daughter.
Thank Goodness, no more dealing with Lady S.
Yes I’ve signed my name 600 times.
Yes, I’ve read Hugh.
Why need he say all his characters are dead, when its true?
How business this letter is!
And looks like a sonnet.

All quotations from:
DeSalvo, Louise, and Mitchell A. Leaska, Eds. The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1985.

except Jane Austen quotation, from:
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2000.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

I miss writing English papers.... here you go. Today's poem on Poetry Daily was "It Is the Rising I Love" by Linda Gregg, and I just wanted to post it, in large part as a reminder to myself of the kind of poem I'd like to be able to write. The poem progresses in this seamless way; my narratives always seem either horribly predictable or abrupt and broken. Recurring elements like...well, the elements aren't heavy-handed or repetitive. The line breaks are pretty great, too. And the first two lines are so wonderful: they're a combination ars poetica and defense of poetry without sacrificing language or rhythm.

Those who know my proclivity for "depressing" poems and songs have a case for accusing me of the same with the subject matter of this poem, but I don't know that it's totally depressing. To me, it's an acknowledgement of what it's like to be human and mortal. Humans aren't gods, or elements, or animals (none of which can produce poetry). We are limited by struggle and suffering and desire. I love this poem because Gregg says all this, but she says it in an eloquent and subtle way.

It Is the Rising I Love
by Linda Gregg

As long as I struggle to float above the ground
and fail, there is reason for this poetry.
On the stone back of Ludovici's throne, Venus
is rising from the water. Her face and arms
are raised, and the two women trained in the ways
of the world help her rise, covering her
nakedness with a cloth at the same time.
It is the rising I love, from no matter what element
to the one above. She from water to land,
me from earth to air as if I had a soul.
Helped by prayers and not by women, I say
(ascending in all my sexual glamour), see my body
bathed in light and air. See me rise like a flame,
like the sun, moon, stars, birds, wind. In light.
In dark. But I never achieve it. I get on my knees
this gray April to see if open crocuses have a smell.
I must live in the suffering and desire of what
rises and falls. The terrible blind grinding
of gears against our bodies and lives.

The poem comes from Gregg's book All of It Singing: New and Selected Poems from Graywolf Press.