Bob Schwartz

Scenes from a Wedding

Note: Some of this happened, some of it only seems to have happened. Initials are used for the cast of characters. Some characters share the same initial (so many Ks!) that it will be impossible to tell who is who and which is which.

1. The wedding ceremony between T and B is perfect. The summer wind and birds play and sing along in approval.

2. The reception is perfect. Many, many happy people, including especially T and B.

3. Late in the reception, C and K suggest that B join them at the fire pit outside. But in the confusion of a wave of guests leaving, C and K disappear. B unsuccessfully searches for them.

4. The wave of guests is heading for a bar at a local resort. But when B and K arrive at the resort, they find dozens of guests not at a bar but gathered outside the front entrance, like children with noses pressed against a toy store window. Someone has brought two portable coolers filled with beer and a canned drink containing sparkling water, fruit flavoring and some kind of alcohol.

5. An official from the resort comes by to say that the people and drinking are fine, but that the coolers must leave the public space and go to a room.

6. K picks up a cooler and takes it inside. K eventually returns and announces that the situation is greased. It turns out that K has set the cooler down in the back of the lobby, next to an ATM.

7. K, C and B overhear a complicated and hard to-follow-conversation between J and N. They are discussing how best to whiten a christening gown. Looking back, it appears this may have been a theological debate, though it didn’t seem so at the time. The final word is that Oxi-Clean is better than bleach.

8. B suggests to C that they steal the guest cart parked next to them at the front entrance. Despite many opportunities, this scheme fails to materialize.

9. K, C and B explore the parking lot. B tells a subtle and philosophical joke about a farmer and a pig (punchline: “What’s time to a pig?”). After they are finished laughing, K and C abandon B, who returns to the resort entrance. No one is left there, however, because the remainder of the guests are inside at the actual bar.

10. B and K drive back to their hotel. K is hungry and wants to eat a Filet-O-Fish sandwich at the McDonald’s next door to the hotel. They walk over to it, where the inside counter is closed but drive-thru is open. They determine that walking through the drive-thru is impractical, so they walk back to get the car. They want to stop by their room first, but discover they have both forgotten their keys. They must first go to the front desk for replacements, and then drive to McDonald’s. K drives the wrong way into the drive thru, but eventually turns around and lands in front of the display menu. K and B study the menu for five minutes, but discover no Filet-O-Fish sandwich. They drive back to their hotel, disappointed.

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Dream in Love

Dream in Love

Years and days
Drain the sense of love
An embrace even in a dream
Brings it flooding back
It is still you and me

©

Note: If you have loved for a moment, or been loved for a moment, or for years, or not yet, you may forget exhilaration, but it never disappears. You will dream it.

The Weight

Everyone carries a weight, some lighter, some heavier. The question raised is how best to bear it. Some say it depends solely on you, some say it depends solely on an Other. Whatever works is one approach. The best approach may be that carrying the weight depends on you and on an Other. Anyone trying to carry a long piece of lumber knows this.

Everyone who is not you carries a weight, some lighter, some heavier. The question raised is whether you have any responsibility to help, especially since you are already carrying your own weight. Some say you have no responsibility, some say you have absolute responsibility. Some say an Other will come along to help, some say that the Other is you.

Neighbor

Neighbor

the next door neighbor
never visited
will live forever
but not you

©

Note: It is literally true that we might live next door to someone we never meet or talk to. It is a missed opportunity, the extent of which we will never know.

But the mention of a neighbor who lives forever takes this out of the literal. Matters we are familiar with—spiritual matters for example—might have a close neighboring tradition or school that we learn late about, if ever. That too can be a missed opportunity, or if we knock and walk in, a new and enlightening discovery. Just one door away.

Don’t Read Poetry

I am here to say that anyone who tells you that they know how to read poetry, or what poetry really is, or what it is good for, or why you should read it, in general, is already getting it wrong.
Stephanie Burt, Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems  

Some people reading this read poetry. Some people reading this write poetry. I read and write poetry, as people reading this may be aware. Poetry sits at a special place near the top of our experience as individuals and cultures.

Everyone is entitled to write poetry, while others may say it is good poetry, it is bad poetry, or it is not poetry at all, whatever any of that means. Everyone is entitled to read whatever poetry speaks to them, whatever others may say.

If you write poetry, poetry belongs to you. If you read poetry, poetry belongs to you.

In her new book Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems, Stephanie Burt takes on these and many other matters concerning the reading of poetry. A brief excerpt follows.


From Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems by Stephanie Burt:

READING POEMS

Of all the kinds of art that people make, poems are, or should be, the easiest to share, maybe even the easiest to find. They need not be read live, or on stage, or by their authors, or even aloud (though it helps); they require no musical instruments or playback devices. Some can be memorized; most can be collected, reprinted, copied out by hand, or shared via email; and most of them don’t take very long to read.

So why don’t more of us read more poems? Why do some people care so much about poems that baffle the rest of us? Why do the same people often loathe poems others like? Are poems from five hundred years ago really the same things—can they work on us in the same ways—as poems by living authors now? Do all sorts of poems work the same way? Have they always? How can the poems that are out there all deserve the label “poetry” when they seem so far apart?

This book tries to answer those questions. It gives not just ways to read poems but reasons to read them, and ways to connect the poets and poems of the past, from Sappho and Li Bai to Wordsworth to some poems being written right now. And it starts from the idea—which took me a while to realize was not obvious, or universal, or widely recognized in schools—that poems are like pieces of music: by definition they all have something in common, but they vary widely in how they work, where they come from, and what they try to do. Various readers like various poems for various reasons, just as various listeners like various genres of music, various artists, and various songs. And the same listener (you, for example) can care about different songs for different reasons, at different times in your life or even at different times of day….

Until about two hundred years ago the word could mean “imaginative literature,” anything made up, or not real, or not true in prose or verse. Now it means verse, or prose that feels like verse, or (sometimes) anything that feels elegant, moving, sublime, above-and-beyond, not quite of this world: athletes’ shots and politicians’ speeches and dance moves are said to be pure poetry, meaning that we admire their beauty or their sublimity but wonder if they have any practical use. Much-noticed and much-debated essays, going back at least two hundred years, with titles like “Can Poetry Matter?” and “The Four Ages of Poetry” (gold, silver, bronze, and iron), have argued that poetry is in decline, has long been in decline, because fewer people love Shakespeare or Dickinson or Homer or Robert Frost. Other essays, some with surveys to back them up, show that poetry is coming back, or never left: after all, look how many people now write it!

Look, too, at the communities that have formed, some within universities, some far outside them, around particular poems and ways to read poetry, from classrooms where kids love The Odyssey in new translations, to self-conscious avant-gardes in urban centers, to immigrant communities refreshing a heritage language and its verse forms. These readers and writers are not all reading the same poems, or reading in the same way, or for the same reasons. They’re not all reading the same kinds of poems, and they may not agree on what counts as poetry, much less on what counts as good poetry.

And yet some of them—some of us, many of us; not just we readers of poems but we Americans (since I’m American), we readers of English, of anything at all—are caught in a myth about what counts as poetry and how we might learn to enjoy and to read it. The myth says that poetry is one thing and that poetry matters to us, or should matter, for one big reason. Maybe it introduces us to other people and other cultures, opening up our minds. Maybe it makes us more authentic and opens us up to ourselves. Maybe it brings us together as a country or as a community; maybe it used to do that, but it doesn’t now, so poets had better change how we write poems….

I am here to say that anyone who tells you that they know how to read poetry, or what poetry really is, or what it is good for, or why you should read it, in general, is already getting it wrong. Poetry, the word, has many overlapping meanings, most of them about composition in verse; there are many such compositions, and many ways to write them, and many reasons to read them, and if you want to find or like or love or write more of them, the first thing to do is to start to tell them apart. Many people read poems for many reasons, and yours may not be your uncle’s, or your best friend’s, or your daughter’s, or your professor’s.

I started to write this book because I got frustrated with books that told their readers, and teachers who told their students, that poetry was one thing. Sometimes the readers and the students learned to love that thing; sometimes they tried it and decided that this one thing—this major poet (say, Robert Frost), this reason to read (say, mystery and the sacred), or this style of poetry (say, modern conversational free verse)—wasn’t for them. That’s like hearing Beethoven, or hearing Kendrick Lamar, and not getting into it and then deciding you don’t like music. There are other kinds of music and other ways to listen to music out there, and if you look and listen and ask the right people, you can probably find one that works for you.

So: don’t read poetry. Don’t assume poetry ever means only one thing, other than maybe a set of tools for making things with words, as music means a set of tools (beats, rhythms, harmonies, textures, instruments) for making things with sounds. Instead, find ways to encounter kinds of poems and learn different reasons to read poems, realized in various ways by various poems. In this way, if in no other, poetry is like the New York City subway (albeit in slightly better repair). The subway system is always running and can take you almost anywhere in New York, but not all trains run at all times, and each train goes only to certain destinations. In the same way, lines of poetry can take you to many emotional places and to many parts of history and of the world today, but each line of poetry goes only to certain places, and what line you take depends on where you want to go.

Path

Path

some paths paved
others worn by travelers
this one obscured and obstructed
by trees and brush
the obvious way here

©

Walt Whitman

Who wishes to walk with me?

May 31 was the bicentennial of the birth of Walt Whitman (1819–1892).

You cannot love America if you don’t love Walt Whitman. You cannot love poetry if you don’t. You cannot love American poetry if you don’t.

If you find people among America’s most benighted leaders and talkers who don’t love him, maybe because of his unbridled exuberance for people and sexuality and life and freedom and America and Americans, and all the inherent unresolved contradictions and challenges, question their understanding and love of America (which you might already).

We would still be America without Walt Whitman. But we would be missing our most perfect and poetic narrator.


From Song of Myself (1892 version)

1

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

16

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine,
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin leggings, a Louisianian or Georgian,
A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger, Buckeye;
At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland,
At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and tacking,
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the Texan ranch,
Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners, (loving their big proportions,)
Comrade of raftsmen and coalmen, comrade of all who shake hands and welcome to drink and meat,
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfullest,
A novice beginning yet experient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.

I resist any thing better than my own diversity,
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.

(The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place,
The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place,
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.)

51

The past and present wilt—I have fill’d them, emptied them,
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.

Who has done his day’s work? who will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?

Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?

Location and Dislocation: Where Are You?

Half of a compass from Pompeii

you are here
you are there
here is there
there is here
here is nowhere and everywhere
there is nowhere and everywhere
here is not there

Dislocation is basic. It suggests more than being in one place and then another wholly intentionally and voluntarily. It may not be forced in the sense of dictated; it might be circumstantial or incidental. One thing somehow leads to another, one place somehow leads to another. What is this place? How did I get here? Where am I?

Religious and spiritual traditions spend much time on location and dislocation in many contexts. People are forced to move out and wander. People are judged and forced to go to good places and bad places after death. Or maybe the good place or bad place is right here, except we don’t know it. Or, to quote Neil Young, everybody knows this is nowhere. Or, this is somewhere and then nowhere and then somewhere.

We are not always prepared for dislocation, or for ultimate dislocation. The traditions confuse us, sometimes because they themselves are confused or misleading, sometimes because they want us to work on the matter of location and dislocation ourselves. If you think you know exactly where you are and where you’re going, think again. Or stop thinking. Find a compass, throw away a compass. Here you are.

We are in a monster movie. Some scientists say impeachment will defeat it. Some say that will only make it stronger.

All great monster movies include heated debates among scientists about how best to deal with the devastating creature. Some desperately suggest fire, some say electricity, some say atomic bombs. Others warn that fire or electricity or atomic bombs will only make it stronger, maybe invulnerable.

That is exactly where we are on the impeachment debate. As the damage mounts spectacularly, there are some who say we have no choice but to try anything and everything to save the nation. Others warn that this will only make the creature bigger, angrier and more destructive.

Who is right? What do the monster movies tell us? Sadly, they are just movies, and in any case, there is no single certain resolution or happy ending. Sometimes the combative scientists are right and the monster is destroyed. Sometimes the skeptical scientists are right and the weapons only make the monster bigger and meaner. Sometimes the monster skulks off for the moment, but returns, or has children, and they return. Nothing to do then but wait for the sequel.

Max Boot: Are we becoming too stupid to govern ourselves?

 

“Democracy remains the best form of government if only because all the alternatives are worse. But the resurgence of irrationality at a time when people should really know better is testing the faith that I have always had in government of, by and for the people. Could we reach some critical mass of collective madness where democracy no longer functions? Maybe we already have.”
Max Boot

In an era of unlimited writing heads and talking heads, Max Boot stands out as a public intellectual. Born in Moscow, educated at Berkeley and Yale, celebrated writer and analyst, former opinion editor of the Wall Street Journal, world-class expert on global affairs and national security. And once a conservative Republican, until he left the party, and wrote The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right (2018), a book described as a “devastating dissection of conservatism’s degeneracy in America”.

Max Boot is a now a columnist for the Washington Post, and today published a column specifically about the anti-vaccination movement, but more generally about growing irrationality among a segment of the American electorate. He asks a question that may be on the mind of many observers, but for media seems insulting or extreme to ask: Are we becoming too stupid to govern ourselves?:

The case for democracy is that voters in the aggregate will make better decisions than a lone monarch or dictator would. But does majority rule still work when so many people believe so many things that simply aren’t so?

Many people, of course, have always been irrational. In the 16th and 17th centuries, as many as 60,000 people were executed in Europe as suspected witches. But it would be nice to think that centuries of advances in science and education have made people less prey to phantasms and falsehoods. I suppose it’s progress that the “witch hunts” today are strictly metaphorical.

But the Internet hasn’t delivered on exaggerated expectations that it would spur universal enlightenment. “We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace,” the Internet evangelist John Perry Barlow vowed in a 1996 declaration. You don’t hear that kind of techno-utopianism anymore, and for good reason.

It’s true that the Internet has put a lot of information online. Anyone anywhere — as long as you live in a country that does not censor the Internet — can now read this newspaper. But like diners passing up a healthy salad for an artery-clogging cheeseburger, many information consumers are instead digesting junk news. One study of the 2016 election found that the 20 top false articles combined on Facebook were shared, reacted to or commented on more widely than the 20 top mainstream news articles combined….

Can it get any crazier? Actually, yes. Researchers at Texas Tech University found an increasing number of people have been convinced that the Earth is flat by YouTube videos with titles such as “200 proofs Earth is not a spinning ball.” So a belief that should have disappeared 500 years ago has been given fresh life on the Internet. This isn’t the Information Age. It’s the Misinformation Age. There is a seemingly endless supply of suckers online — and just as many grifters and cranks eager to dupe them.

Granted, Flat Earthers remain a tiny minority. They aren’t taking over the country. But do you know who has taken over? The 38 percent of respondents who in a Washington Post-ABC News survey said President Trump is “honest and trustworthy.” Yes, this is the same president whose 10,000th falsehood was recently recorded by the Post Fact Checker. Whether you support Trump or not, his dishonesty should not be a matter of dispute. But roughly 40 percent of voters seem to have suspended their critical faculties to get on the Trump train.

Irrationality may be more prevalent in the party of climate denial, but it isn’t limited to Republicans. One of the leading anti-vaxxers is Democratic scion Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and liberal actress Gwyneth Paltrow has made a fortune peddling “jade eggs for vaginas, $30 sex ‘dust,’ and body stickers that ‘promote healing’ ” despite scientific exposés showing that these New Age tchotchkes don’t work. Quack remedies retain their allure even in an age of gene therapy.

Democracy remains the best form of government if only because all the alternatives are worse. But the resurgence of irrationality at a time when people should really know better is testing the faith that I have always had in government of, by and for the people. Could we reach some critical mass of collective madness where democracy no longer functions? Maybe we already have.