A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, May 17, 2010

Poem of the Day: W.H. Auden

Musée des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong, 
The Old Masters: how well they understood 
Its human position; how it takes place 
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; 
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting 
For the miraculous birth, there always must be 
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating 
On a pond at the edge of the wood: 
They never forgot 
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course 
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot 
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse 
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree. 

In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away 
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may 
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, 
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone 
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green 
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen 
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, 
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on. 
--W.H. Auden 

Auden's wryly observant poem is maybe the most familiar example of poetry as art criticism, and has been widely imitated. Some of the imitations are direct homages to Auden's poem, like Billy Collins's:

Musée des Beaux Arts Revisited 

As far as mental anguish goes, 
the old painters were no fools. 
They understood how the mind, 
the freakiest dungeon in the castle, 
can effortlessly imagine a crab with the face of a priest 
or an end table complete with genitals. 

And they knew that the truly monstrous 
lies not so much in the wildly shocking, 
a skeleton spinning a wheel of fire, say, 
but in the small prosaic touch 
added to a tableau of the hellish, 
the detail at the heart of the horrid.

In Bosch's The Temptation of St. Anthony
for instance, how it is not so much 
the boar-faced man in the pea-green dress 
that frightens, but the white mandolin he carries, 
not the hooded corpse in a basket, 
but the way the basket is rigged to hang from a bare branch; 

how, what must have driven St. Anthony 
to the mossy brink of despair 
was not the big, angry-looking fish 
in the central panel, 
the one with the two mouse-like creatures 
conferring on its tail, 
but rather what the fish is wearing: 

a kind of pale orange officer's cape 
and, over that, 
a metal body-helmet secured by silvery wires, 
a sensible buckled chin strap, 
and, yes, the ultimate test of faith -- 
the tiny sword that hangs from the thing, 
that nightmare carp, 
secure in its brown leather scabbard.
--Billy Collins 

I'm sure William Carlos Williams also knew Auden's poem, but he found a particularly musical way to evoke his chosen painting:

The Dance 

In Breughel's great picture, The Kermess, 
the dancers go round, they go round and 
around, the squeal and the blare and the 
tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles 
tipping their bellies (round as the thick-
sided glasses whose wash they impound) 
their hips and their bellies off balance 
to turn them. Kicking and rolling about 
the Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those 
shanks must be sound to bear up under such 
rollicking measures, prance as they dance 
in Breughel's great picture, The Kermess.
--William Carlos Williams