Monthly Archives: November 2016

Art and Structure

A couple of weeks ago, Anne and I attended a concert by Camerata Pacifica. The first part of the program was designed to illustrate how Bach’s fingerprints are all over music to this day. Appropriately, it began and ended with Bach, the 2 Part Invention in F Major, BWV 779 and the Trio Sonata in G Major, BWV 1038, at the beginning, and the Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue in d minor, BWV 903, at the end. In between there was Elliot Carter’s Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello & Harpsichord and Henri Dutilleux’s Les Citations for Oboe, Harpsichord, Double Bass, & Percussion.

Now, I am not a great fan of Elliot Carter’s music, not on aesthetic grounds but as a matter of person taste. This hearing was different, though. Perhaps it was the lecture given before the concert by Adrian Spence, the Artistic Director of Camerata Pacifica, or maybe it was hearing it right after the Bach pieces. I don’t know why, but this time as I listened to the Carter, I began thinking about structure in music in particular and in art in general.

I was able to hear the structure of the Carter piece in ways that I had missed before. It was very different from the structure in Bach, but it was there, created not so much out of themes interlacing with one another or the movement from one key to another, but out the textural differences in the sounds of the instruments themselves. Carter revels in texture and creates structure in his music, or at least this music, by passing the sound around the instruments, sometimes in a pointillist fashion, sometimes by trading musical lines, sometimes in other ways.

Realizing this, I began to ask myself what creates structure in art, any art. I thought first of poetry and how critical structure is to poetry. Unstructured haiku is an oxymoron. Even E. E. Cummings’ poetry is highly structured, albeit it is often a rather playful and decidedly non-conventional structure. Consider this poem, for example:






If you unpack this you get

A leaf falls

Maybe, but there is little power in this version, little of the actual feel of loneliness. So instead of writing it this more conventional way, Cummings wraps the falling leaf around the word “loneliness”, and in doing so evokes the melancholy of autumn. The structure is not about syllables or the rhythmic or rhyming pattern of the words as in most poetry, but in the visual pattern of the poem itself on the page. Maybe structure is built out of pattern.

Then I thought of the Disney Concert Hall and realized that any pattern in the building is by suggestion only. As you look at the curves of the walls, you begin to realize that Gehry rarely repeats a curve. The structure emerges out of the flow of the curves, not so much out of the pattern of them as out of the fact of them.

But why is structure so essential to art? Could there be an entirely unstructured work of art? Could one legitimately call a random collection of words a poem? Could one call random notes scattered about in time music? How about paint splattered randomly on a canvass? Would that be art? Well, what about Jackson Pollock? Isn’t that exactly what he did?

Actually, no, it isn’t what he did even though a cursory look at his paintings might suggest otherwise. If you look carefully, you will see how there is texture, flow of color, even a kind of symmetry to his work. His paintings are actually highly structured, and I think it is that hidden structure that creates the impression of randomness, and therein lies the art. His art is about structurally created randomness.

I am convinced that without structure there is no art. It may be hidden or obvious; it may be conventional or avant-garde; it may be built out of the nature of the materials used to create the art or be imposed on those materials. But it is always there if we take the time and care to see it. Elliot Carter’s work is still not my cup of tea, but now I understand the art of his music.




Thoughts on Survival in These Dangerous Times

Several years ago, I awakened in the night from a dream with words ringing in my head. I had no memory of the rest of the dream (if indeed there was more to it). Just the words: “Go thou peaceful in the world, for I am with thee.” I knew they were important, so I repeated them several times to be sure I remembered.

The next morning, I tried to find where they may have come from, but came up dry. A Google search, for example, turns up nothing. And so I am left assuming they came from the same place the poetry comes from, which is another way of saying I haven’t a clue and actually don’t much care. It really doesn’t matter where they came from. They came, and that is enough.

These words have been a comfort and an inspiration to me ever since. Sometimes I use them as a mantra, and sometimes I use them as a kind of koan. I remember them when I am troubled, and they settle me down. When I get angry, they help me to understand the anger and show me how either to let it go or to direct it constructively and creatively. When I am too full of myself, they restore my humility. They are rarely far from consciousness.

This week, though, as I watched the election results coming it, I forgot them for a while. I began to panic. Anger rose in my throat. Depression and despair threatened. And then I remembered. “Go thou peaceful in the world, for I am with thee.” The panic subsided; depression receded; the anger sweetened from bitter despair to beginning to think how to be, how to survive in this new and admittedly dangerous world.

Now, the world is certainly no less dangerous today than it was Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning. The danger is real, a thousand-armed demon reaching into our hearts and threatening to eat our lives and our very souls. It is real, and we would be foolish to think otherwise or pretend it will all be OK. It won’t be OK unless we summon up the courage to stand before the demon, stamp our collective staffs upon the rock, and proclaim, “You shall not pass.”

And where does that courage come from? It comes to me from those words spoken in my dream. You see, there is also a peace that flows through this world and floods it with light and love. You say the heart is broken? The broken heart has cracks running through it, and, as the late Leonard Cohen taught us, “That’s were the light comes in.” The light, spilling in through the cracks in the heart, brings us courage. But we have to open our eyes and see it.

Sometimes it is the courage just to get up out of bed in the morning. And that is enough. Sometimes it is the courage to go into the valley and face the possibility of death. And that is terrible. Most of the time is something in between, the courage to face the lives that we know in our bones we must live.

I believe in the peace given to me in my dream. Does it pass understanding? What do any of us actually understand? I think there is something more important than understanding. Acceptance is more important, sometimes, in some contexts. I find it better to accept this peace than to understand it. I find it better to live this peace than to understand it. I find it better to move through the world guided this peace than to understand it. And perhaps this is actually a deeper understanding, a way of standing under the peace.

So now what? What are we to do to face a world under the control of forces of hatred, selfishness, greed, and arrogance? I don’t know the specifics. Yet. But I think we start with finding peace in our hearts and the work living into a more loving and peaceful world in our own hands.

And so I offer you the gift that was given to me: “Go thou peaceful in the world, for I am with thee.”


Thoughts on the Recent Election

First, I wanted to write about how the glass ceiling had been shattered. But it hasn’t been. Then I wanted to write about how the Democrats lost the election by being complacent and by failing to address the perception of so many people that Hillary is just another establishment politician who will use them but not hear them. I would have pointed out that it does not matter whether or not the perception is accurate, because people do not act on what is true. People act on what they believe to be true. But all that can wait. Anything I have to say that is true now will still be true next week or next month or next year.

There is something much more important to address. Remember how Trump egged on the more violent and extreme of his followers at his rallies? Well, they have unleashed themselves. If I may mix my metaphors,  the barn door is open and the deplorables are beginning to stampede. Reports of vandalism and personal attacks are not scattered. They are becoming increasingly widespread. It is happening all over the country, from California to New York.

An example that I find particularly chilling: last night someone spray-painted “Black lives don’t matter” on a wall in Durham, NC. I and many others have long understood that “All Lives Matter” is usually code for “Only White Lives Matter”, but now the code is made explicit. The only code that remains is the use of “Black” to mean “All people of color, All People in the LGBTQ Community, All Muslims, and All Immigrants”. This graffiti is a way of announcing that “We are coming for you.”

As of this writing, I have not heard anything from Trump himself or his staff about trying to restrain these people. Does he know what he has unleashed? Does he care? Does he even condone what is starting to happen in his name?

There are also spontaneous demonstrations of anger and disgust at the reality that Trump is President-Elect. I have not yet read of any instance of these demonstrations being violent, but imagine what might happen if large groups of Trumpites started confronting them. And imagine what would happen if the police who responded were actually infiltrated Klansmen or even just sympathized with the Trumpites. It would make Standing Rock look like a bit of unpleasantness.

I think that the potential for very serious violence erupting is greater now than it has been at least since the riots of the 1960s. I pray that it can be averted, but the longer Trump remains silent the more volatile the situation will become. The violence may not break out immediately. It may take months or even a few years. But the potential is certainly there. It took more than 5 years for the Nazi regime to build from taking power to Krystallnacht. Things move faster now than they did in the 1930s. We will have to see what happens next.

It could be that things will settle back down again. It could be that Trump will be able to control the mobs he has empowered. It could be. But I am not sanguine. I am afraid, and I shudder for my people.

My Second Volume of Poetry

My second volume of poetry, “How To See Deer” is nor available on Amazon. It’s a collection of 30 poems, ranging in length from haiku length to several pages. What a sample? Here are two.

This was written during an extended stay ion North Wales, a land and people steeped in mystery.

Mynydd y Gaer: The Old Ones

I stand on a hilltop, surrounded by ancient stones
Gathered by The Old Ones and built into a wall.
Sheep wander in and out.

The sky darkens as clouds veil the sun.
A raindrop falls on my face, and a raven
Flies overhead with a hoarse croak.
The Welsh hills dissolve in the gathering rain.

Wind blows across
The old stone wall.
Sheep move at random.
The raven flies off.

I stand, alone, in the rain,
With The Old Ones,
And the stones, and the ruined wall.

And this is one of the “variations” in a section of the book I call “Zen Variation”.


Garden Zen

I sit in my garden and contemplate
The depth and profundity of the universe.
And all the while the wind blows gently
From the hills and teases the leaves
And flowers and brushes my hair.
A humming bird visits the bright red sage
And gnats hover in the warm air.

What need is there of profundity
When everything I need is here.

Apple Tree

An apple tree stands quietly in the meadow
Watching the afternoon. Sheep graze
In the next field, and a hawk circles aimlessly.
Gnats cloud against the blue sky.

I watch as the world opens its mouth and yawns,
Sleepy and ready to nap in the warm afternoon,
Under the apple tree. A single cloud wanders
Across the sky as if forgotten.

Old Bashō’s frog sits zazen.

The rest can be yours for only $10 on Amazon. Now I know some folks have trouble with Amazon, but its self-publishing program has everything that I need for publishing my own poetry, so I use it. But if you’d rather not go there yourself, let me know, and I’ll act as the book distributer for you. and while you’re at it, you might want to pick up “Full Circle: A Collection of Sonnets” my first volume.