Monthly Archives: May 2007

May 31, 2007

Ammons: Collected Poems (1972)

A.R. Ammons (1926-2001)
Collected Poems: 1951-1971 (1972)
396 pp.

Roll 8. 2448: A.R. Ammons: Selected Longer Poems, but it’s preceded by Collected Poems so we go with that first. Dug out of the Brooklyn Public Library closed stacks again. It turns out it’s still in print, though. In a nice-looking edition, too.

About Ungaretti I said that my acclimation to poetry may well have to be a harsh dive into cold water, but that all the same, I doubted anyone would have recommended that I start with Giuseppe Ungaretti. I can, however, imagine that someone might have recommended I start with A. R. Ammons. I’m glad I read this, I enjoyed reading it, and I think I’ve made some definite poetry progress.

This was poetry not as “great art,” but as someone’s habit. It was like thought, the way that a diary is like thought.

That poetic language can actually resemble thought more closely than prose – because the human mind is loose even though reason itself is rigid – is something that has taken me some getting to to get to. Maybe poetry is out of fashion because in these scientific days we need better indoctrination in the difference between mind and idea. Poetry seems to me to be more about the former, in an era that heavily emphasizes the latter. Perhaps the language of psychology passing into common parlance – or something like that – has de-aestheticized* the inner experience. We tend to see the haze within quasi-scientifically, as something to be sorted and known accurately from without, if possible. Or ignored.

Earlier (like, pre-19th century) art is not particularly interested in the individual, and on the other hand, the “Romantic” idea of portraying nightmares and passions seems awfully self-pitying and counterproductive compared to Dr. Phil and Oprah and so forth, whose message of common-sense reasoned self-possession I wholly endorse, irritating and shallow though it may be.

This is exactly what I did not know about art until quite recently, then: the dividing line – that there is, or can be, a value in knowing the inner experience as is, consolation in recognizing it in art, and also value in this kind of knowledge without framework, without ground rules. That knowing what it is like to be alive is knowing something real, even if we can’t say what exactly we’re talking about. That it is possible to traffic in this kind of knowledge usefully and discriminately, even if sub-rationally. That poetry could be a real tour of real places, despite eschewing reason, because the interior life is both real and unreasoned. And that language, being in its strictest form a record of reason, must be handled specially and abnormally to accomplish this task for which it isn’t quite cut out. You have to package the not-quite-reason in sloppy poetic chunks of words or else it won’t survive being expressed.

A.R. Ammons himself, in fact, has a typical and lovely metaphor for this last notion in his Essay on Poetics in this very volume:

stop on any word and language gives way:

the blades of reason, unlightened by motion, sink in,
melting through, and reality’s cold murky waters
accept the failure: for language heightens by dismissing reality,

the sheet of ice a salience controlling, like a symbol,
level of abstraction, that has a hold on reality and suppresses
it, though formed from it and supported by it:

motion and artificiality (the impositional remove from reality)
sustain language: nevertheless, language must
not violate the bit, event, percept,

fact–the concrete–otherwise the separation that means
the death of language shows…

Which brings me to the book itself and how it relates. Ammons helped solidify my confidence in everything above because he is a modern-day American man, living, like me and my friends, within an essentially scientific philosophical framework, who is nonetheless writing from and about thought and experience, not rationality. In reading his musings about wind and sand and seeds and flowers, in terms of patterns and anomalies and larger patterns, in terms of vague general principles of perception and being like the one vs. the many, nexuses vs. peripheries… I recognized the quality and flavor of these thoughts, even in their specifics, and also while recognizing it, knew clearly (because Ammons knew it clearly) that this was not quite reason. That it was a sort of thing that lived in my head that was actually served better by loose, poetic language than it ever could be by straight talk. That was deeply satisfying!

Ammons’ poetry was also satisfying in itself. It was, at its best, a deep and analytic exploration of the kind of thought and experience that I found sympathetic in that long silent film of eddying water and swirling smoke I wrote about last year. His subject matter is mostly nature, observed with extreme care and precision, but the real subject is the same as his technique: meditation on the world. Which is where my mind goes when I meditate on nature – back in on itself, or down to the underlying forms – so I felt very much at home with these. When I understood them.

Of course they’re not all “good” in the sense of deserving isolated attention – there are hundreds of poems in here, most of them seemingly unrevised trains-of-thought – and that was actually reassuring and freed me to enjoy them more naturally. Reading the whole collection also meant gradually growing accustomed to the particulars of his semi-private language. The intended resonances of certain words within his language, such as “saliences” and “suasions,” only slowly became clear. I was okay with that; it was satisfying to know that I’d done it and gotten more fluent at it as I went, just as it’s satisfying to observe oneself getting better at any repeated task.

The poems are assembled in chronological order, but without identifying the original collections that are compiled here. The first 50 pages or so were less pleasurable early work in a different, more mannered style. That, ultimately, wasn’t a problem either – watching that style evolve and fall away over the years, as Ammons grew more and more comfortable just writing stuff down, so to speak, was in itself satisfying to observe.

One last thing I took away from this. There is art designed expressly to communicate with outsiders, and then there is art produced simply as a function of the artist, as a process. Outsiders are welcome but no special accommodations have been made for them. I have generally frowned at the latter; cutting the audience out of the equation seems selfish or at least self-centered. But having read this work, which was far closer to “mere process” than I am usually comfortable with, showed me that I shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss art just because it seems oblivious to me and I’m implicitly expected to run out to meet it. Passing through these 400-ish pages was more like very casually strolling out to meet the artist by following the sound of his typewriter, somewhere near a suburban window in the late 60s, and finding, when I got there, that I approved of what he was doing after all. So there’s a moral there for me to take away.

Everyone always likes sample poems, right? I typed up this one even though it’s hardly one of his finest and isn’t totally characteristic either. But when I first turned to it in the book was one of the moments when I took the time to articulate some of the stuff above to myself. It’s a poem about lines, or rather about perceptions of lines. That I could nod at it and think, “yeah, he nailed it, lines are like that” struck me. There was absolutely no way to paraphrase in rational terms what I had nodded at – I was nodding at the recognition of the shared sub-rational mind. Ah-ha!


Lines flying in, out: logarithmic
        curves coiling
toward an infinitely inward center: lines
    weaving in, threads lost in clustral scrawl,
        weaving out into loose ends,
wandering beyond the border of gray background,
    going out of vision,
        not returning;
or, returning, breaking across the boundary
    as new lines, discontinuous,
        come into sight:
fiddleheads of ferns, croziers of violins,
    convoluted spherical masses, breaking through
        ditchbanks where briar
stem-dull will
    leave and bloom:
        haunch line, sickle-like, turning down, bulging, nuzzling
under, closing into
    the hidden, sweet, dark meeting of lips:
        the spiralling out
or in
    of galaxies:
        the free-running wavy line, swirling
configuration, halting into a knot
    of curve and density: the broken,
        irreparable filament: tree-winding vines, branching,
falling off or back, free,
    the adventitious preparation for possibility, from
        branch to branch, ash to gum:
the breaker
    hurling into reach for shape, crashing
        out of order, the inner hollow sizzling flat:
the longnecked, uteral gourd, bass line
    continuous in curve,
        melodic line filling and thinning:
    whirling masses,
        thin leaders, disordered ends and risks:
explosions of clusters, expansions from the
    full radial sphere, return’s longest chance:
        lines exploring, intersecting, paralleling, twisting,
noding: deranging, clustering.

And now down here I want to recount one more thing. One day while I was reading this one on the subway (occasionally wondering what I would think of any other person that I saw reading such a thing), and half-musing about “what is poetry really” and “what kind of relationship can I or anyone else today really have with poetry” a guy with a sales pitch walked into the car and right in front of me started talking to us all by saying loudly, “Who here likes reading poetry?” Which seemed to me like a very strange coincidence, and for a second I considered holding out my book and saying, “look, I do!” But I didn’t. Nonetheless it seemed like what he was about to say was meant especially to encourage me that poetry was still alive and well. He continued, in a practiced stream of oration:

If you like reading poetry, you should check out my book, “Corner Stores in the Middle of the Block.” That’s my poetry book, that’s me on the front – and that [shifting his wares] is my novel, that’s me on the back. [on the front was a sexy lady] It’s called “Pretty Ugly.” You can get them from me or they’re also on the line at “Poetry Is A Live” dot com. That’s my book, there’s 38 poems in there. I have a poem that’s not in the book, and it goes like this: “If America became a cashless country / what would bums beg for?” I have another poem that I wrote for my sister, and it goes like this: “The difference between a pretty girl and a ugly girl is / ugly girl’s a better cook.” I have another poem, and it goes like this…”

and so on. If you go to “poetry is a live dot com” you can, oddly enough, see video of the guy bouncing around on the subway platform – i.e. more or less what I saw.

The only point of this anecdote is that at the exact moment that I was wondering whether poetry was, for want of a better word, alive, someone amazingly showed up to give me seriously mixed messages on that very issue.

* Maybe “de-personalized” or “de-humanized” would be a better way to say it – except those sound so bitter!

May 22, 2007

Short Cuts (1993)

directed by Robert Altman
screenplay by Robert Altman and Frank Barhydt
based on the writings of Raymond Carver

This one’s just a two-word review: “Shit Cuts.”

No, just kidding. But I do want to keep this short, and I wasn’t thrilled about this pretentious ponderous movie. All the Robert Altman movies that I’ve seen – which is only a few, but a famous few – have this remarkably dead, false feeling. The camera just sits there (except for when it occasionally careens around hyper-purposefully) and the actors go about their scenes like actors going about scenes. Maybe it’s supposed to play as a cool, literary distance, but to me it usually feels like the bread never rose. I see that things have been written, staged, performed, and shot, but I feel like they’ve been intentionally prevented from cohering to one another by any means other than pressure; that once they leave the frame, all the elements clatter back down on the table, totally inert. There’s no sense of a force of art or belief or anything that binds the actors to each other, to the sets, to the writing. There’s no stick in it. And given the kinds of things Altman does oh-so-intentionally – parallel stories rubbing shoulders, parallel dialogues rubbing shoulders – not to mention the fact that his movies, including this one, are so widely respected: I have to think that the loose, limp, humorless, ain’t-got-that-swing of every damn scene is somehow part of some kind of vision. But I don’t think it gets him anything; I think it’s just a mistake, a basic artistic shortcoming. The Player is good despite the fact that it feels like a world made of all soft-velcro, no hooks. Credit Thomas Newman’s score for submerging the whole movie in a vibe, any vibe, and thus saving it for the audience. Gosford Park was also dead on its feet, but at least had busy writing and production design that could be enjoyed nonetheless. What bits I was able to like about Short Cuts I liked similarly – only with a considerable handicap taken into account. As scenes played out, I was able to imagine how, in their original Carver short story form, they might have had some kind of edge. But as they actually stood, they had been completely defanged by the blandness that was in every frame. Nashville saved itself somewhat by having some really peculiar content; everything in Short Cuts, unfortunately, was really very straightforward. All the less reason that it should have been allowed to be so flagrantly slack. I’m all for leisurely pacing, but only when the film goes deep enough to sustain my thoughts over the long shots. Here each long shot was just a chance to ensure that the ball was good and dropped.

Lyle Lovett is in this movie as a baker. He supposedly acts testy and then cruel and then remorseful and maybe some other stuff, but you could have fooled me because it’s Lyle Lovett and he just looks like a banana bread the whole time. The whole movie was like that, Robert Altman apparently likes it – I mean, he cast Lyle Lovett! – and it’ll take a whole lot of Siskels to convince this Ebert that it’s anything but clumsy and deadening. And three hours of clumsy and deadening makes for a boring-ass movie.

Didn’t expect myself to be this negative! At the time I was open to it; I didn’t mind watching it. But in retrospect it really let me down. Let the record show.

May 18, 2007

The Plague (1947)

by Albert Camus (1913-1960)
translation into English (1948) of La Peste by Stuart Gilbert (1883-1969).

Next roll: 1304. That’s The Plague by Camus. The first listed work by Camus, at position 1303, to which I would normally fall back, is The Stranger, but ha HA! I’ve actually already read The Stranger! Even by my most self-critical standard, I’ve read The Stranger – I read it only last year (since this site started!) and remember it well. In general, anything I read prior to graduating from college is going to be considered suspect, which means there are only a very few great books I’ll be able to check off this list. But this is one of them, and I got to it on only the 7th try.

Furthermore, a copy of The Plague, seen above, had already been sitting on my bookshelf, having been given to me for my birthday last year by my grandmother, after hearing that I had read and enjoyed The Stranger, which she had given me previously. And my roommate, helping himself to my books, had very recently read my copy of The Plague and strongly recommended it to me. And then the magic-number machine spat it out for me. Think of that. Which is lucky, since apparently I’m more likely to listen to than to my grandmother or my roommate.

The Plague was excellent, a masterpiece. Very powerful.

This sincere praise is pretty bland compared to my elaborate whining about books I liked less, but that’s the way it goes.

The Stranger impressed me as an intelligent, memorable, well-conceived, well-controlled piece of work. But this was monumental in a way that the earlier work wasn’t – it felt important, which is a word I generally don’t feel comfortable applying to a piece of art. In this case I feel comfortable. The sense of moral purpose behind this work was intense, and the depth of thought justified that intensity.

It’s a commonplace to say that the function of art is to show us things about life, about the real world, but often this seems to be a bland justification after-the-fact for art that, in practice, feels like it has some other kind of aspirations. This was art that felt like it wanted to show me something about the real world, like the author was aware of the full scope of what he as a writer might try to accomplish morally – and was attempting it. I felt, in reading it, that the book wanted to convey a moral content more than it wanted to be, say, “intelligent” or “fine,” and that it only was those things – which it very much was – because they contribute to the power of the work as a whole. The ultimate purpose of which is moral.

It’s been hard for me to write anything here about the book in part because I felt obliged to summarize that moral content, and found that I wasn’t quite sure how to articulate what had nonetheless struck me as vital and coherent in the reading. But – it is also a commonplace (common, anyway) to say that one writes a poem rather than prose because the specific intended “meaning” can only be expressed as a poem. And I think the same could apply here. The philosophical content of this book has been expressed as a novel because the novel conveys a whole that would have to be fractured to be expressed more prosaically. Inherently philosophical though that whole may be. The book is a vision rather than a message.

That said, there is at least one facet of the moral content that I can articulate (and I see that it again relates to the general philosophical line I’ve found myself on recently). That being: Life is meaningless and all our values, emotions, institutions, customs, etc. are illusions, flimsy constructions. And the clarity of this knowledge is of course a kind of horrible, inescapable, deadening sobriety for those who attain it. But, NONETHELESS, despite life’s being meaningless, we must continue to do good for one another. That it is possible to know that only we ourselves imbue all things with meaning, and still, in all clarity, believe that these meanings deserve to be honored.

I think this is about as vital a philosophical message as could be conveyed to modern times. The elephant in the room of our contemporary culture is that everybody already knows that ultimately everything is meaningless. Camus describes a society that resists and resists this knowledge as it is gradually worn down by indifferent nature (only his most intellectually inclined protagonists already know it). The society I live in, far safer and more affluent, nonetheless is much closer to the philosophical precipice at all times. It’s just sort of in the air, and we’re all pretty much braced to wince at – or shrug at – or in some cases, try to drown out by protesting – the sad but unsurprising news that we’re evolutionarily programmed to believe everything that we believe and feel everything that we feel, and that the indifferent universe discovered by science is the real bottom line. We would love to turn back from this knowledge to a time of real beliefs, but we can’t in good faith, because the arguments that got us here can never be erased and will always be rational. So we’re stuck here, and I think this new philosophical reality is, at some level, responsible for most of what ails the world today – because nobody can quite figure out what we’re supposed to do when we know that nothing is important important, “in the scheme of things.” But Camus, 60 years ago, was already showing us characters who are at that precipice, or over it, and who are driven to do good anyway. They believe that the meanings that we share, even though we invent them and know that we do, can still be worthy. This is a next step for all of us, a step that the human race as a whole must gradually take. It’s something that we can all nod at, but to feel it in the gut of the culture will take a long time.

I assume this is what is meant by the quote on the back cover, from the New York Times: “Of such importance to our time that to dismiss it would be to blaspheme against the human spirit.” That’s strong stuff but by the end I recognized the sentiment. I didn’t, by the way, think that this book about death and meaninglessness was “depressing.” Like I said, these days we’ve all kind of got that in our veins, between the lines of everything.* What was far more striking to me about The Plague was the fact that it knew this and was still hopeful, human-affirming. A grim and sober kind of hope – a mournful kind of hope – but extremely clear-eyed and thus more affecting than anything sentimental might have been.

I don’t always want all this in a book, and there are many sorts of things I often want out of a book that this did not provide, or provided only feebly. But what it was, it was with great force. Definitely one of the two or three best books I’ve ever read.

* Notice how I shrugged off The Floating Opera even as it said this seemingly shocking stuff, simply because it wasn’t well-written enough – nihilism itself gets a yawn, and trumping nihilism with more nihilism is just doodling.

May 12, 2007

Absil: Alternances, Op. 140 (1968)

So bear with me here – I went to the music library and went to the piano section (MU 786.4) and checked out the FIRST score. In shelf order. Still with me?

The first score of the thousands in MU 786.4, at least on Thursday, was Alternances, Op. 140, by Jean Absil (1893-1974).

It’s remarkable, if unsurprising, just how much of the music that has ever managed to get published and shelved in libraries is nonetheless completely forgotten. The fact that 90% of the books in the library are obscure and unloved is less specifically imbued with pathos, for me, than the fact that 90% of the music in the library is obscure and unloved, which is somehow quite moving.

Getting out and playing the alphabetically-very-first score is a typically arbitrary/systematic/arbitrary move on my part, but it’s also sentimentalism: I am likely the first person ever to embrace and consider this score – this piece of art, this expression from a fellow human being! – for its distinction of being the very first volume on the shelf. A meaningless distinction, but an obvious one. One that you’d think would at least partially have saved this one piece out of thousands from being completely forgotten. But it hasn’t at all. But now I’m here, lavishing attention on it.

Jean Absil (1893-1974) was a prolific, fairly prominent Belgian composer of the twentieth century. Prominent for Belgium. Look, they named a school after him. Si ce portrait vous ressemble, vous avez l’esprit “Absil” !

He’s no Truid Aagesen but he’s definitely one of the top contenders in the “first in line” game. In general, Adolphe Adam usually wins that one, his alphabetic predecessors, Absil included, being too obscure for most purposes. If the playing field is big enough to include Absil, he’s also got to watch out for Karl Friedrich Abel – not to mention Evaristo Felice Dall’Abaco, though the Dall’ is a wild card that sometimes puts him out of the running altogether.

But this time Absil won, more power to him. Alternances is a late work, written when the composer was 75, but he seems to have been quite productive in his last years, turning out about 50 of his 162 opuses after the age of 70. Fluency of output like that, especially in an old man, seems to have meant, at least in the twentieth century, that the pieces themselves will be seen as statistics rather than known on their own terms. This is certainly the case with the later output of, say, Hindemith and Milhaud, and others who “just kept writing” – I mean, nobody knows the pieces at the bottom of this list. Some of Absil’s earlier output is known and recorded. But not known to me. And this piece, Alternances, so far as I can tell, has never been commercially recorded.

It’s got a lot in common with Milhaud, actually, with whom Absil was friends. As with Milhaud, the overall affect is easygoing and the impetus is generally improvisatory. Or exploratory. The sounds are all familiar and unexceptional Frenchy sounds; all deeply anachronistic by 1968 but I don’t have a problem with that. The piece is a continuous string of very mildly linked episodes, potentially suggesting four movements (Andante/Vivo; Con fuoco; Allegretto; Molto vivo e leggiero) fused together. But the first of these four sections follows a meandering path within itself, and the second one has some problems that I’ll talk about in a second, so the effect is a bit vague, for me, until the second half of the piece. Then things get a bit better. The third section – marked Allegretto but he surely intends something more languid – makes a bit more sense to me. It’s sort of song-like (or flute-solo-like) and has some nice features. And then the finale is a perpetual motion toccata thing, much in the mold of several Ravel finales, with a satisfying 7/8 groove. It has some problems working everything out within the restrictive texture it sets up for itself, but there are several fun effects at the very end and I’m sure it could be sold as exciting in concert.

Many details, as well as the overall sound and formal approach, reminded me of Roussel’s Sonatina (1912), which is, despite being written 56 years earlier by a less mature composer, a more assured and more interesting piece. Absil’s piece is far less muscular and flirts throughout with the danger of being too thin and too loosely knit to hold our attention. Furthermore he seems to have made some miscalculations. On the title page it says circa 14′ but, having played through the whole thing several times, trying different tempi, I cannot for the life of me make it last longer than 12 minutes, and that only by making everything too slow for my taste. The section marked “con fuoco” sounds stupid (totally senza fuoco) played slow – and yet the slow tempo seems to be necessary not just to match the overall duration, but because he throws in a few nasty bars of 16th-notes in the middle of the section that simply cannot be played to tempo unless the rest is slowed down to a drag. Maybe I’m just not getting it. But I think I am.

The weakest aspect of the whole piece is that it relies far too frequently on boring sequential repetition of static material. The sequences are always very short, but still. One of the classic earmarks of second-rate-ness.

The title, I assume, refers to the various figures involving alternation of the hands, which are prominent in several places, as well as to the general alternation of different types of material as the piece progresses (perhaps also alternation of augmented/chromatic harmonies with modal ones, as established at the beginning of the piece and emphasized toward the end).

So on the one hand, I’m saying that this is a mediocre and troubled piece. And I think that’s true. But on the other, let me say that my sentimental side also is touched by the fact that this TOTALLY OBSCURE WORK is far from worthless. The last two sections have their share of genuine charm. More to the point, I had a perfectly good time spending a few hours with the piece and getting to know it.

What does this mean, that even the mediocre isn’t so bad, and that even the better-than-mediocre is doomed to languish in anonymity? Nothing I didn’t already know, but there it is again.

To celebrate its brief time off the eternal shelf, and to nominally offer this sad visitor from the realms of oblivion a tiny chance to live a little more, I here offer up to the internet a scan of the score.

Absil: Alternances, Op. 140

This is a violation of Belgian copyright and I will gladly remove this file if contacted by CeBeDeM, the Centre Belge de Documentation Musicale – or, tell you what, I’ll remove it if I see that more than 10 people have downloaded it. Friends, if you enjoy Alternances by Jean Absil, please purchase a copy – currently on sale for EUR 9,12 (~ $12.30). Plus shipping from Brussels, mind you.

Here is the midi I produced the last time I played it through. As I’ve said before about such things, this is far from a good listen. But it could be a helpful guide to the score. I don’t recommend listening to this UNLESS you’re using it to follow along with the score.

It is possible that my dad will do this, or that he will start it and then stop it because it is boring; it is also quite possible that nobody will do this. But I do not discount the possibility that a complete stranger will listen and follow along, just as I, stumbling unpredictably into the ghost-town-quiet websites of anonymous nobodies, have clicked on their links with genuine interest and sympathy, if not necessarily admiration. And if Jean Absil (1893-1974) benefits from it, who can say that I haven’t done good here.

Alternately – ! – if nobody ever listens to the mediocre thing I offer them, I am in that respect in the good company of Jean Absil, and the whole crowd behind him in line.


This is the new social reality that the internet puts us face to face with. We the people are like unto the millions of unknown books at the library, shelved alphabetically because any other system would get out of hand. Google can direct us to one another but we no longer can; we are greater in number than our hearts can carry.

Si ce portrait vous ressemble, vous avez l’esprit “Absil” !

This is what I’ve been recently saying to the two people I talk to in real life. I want to write about it eventually; obviously this isn’t the place but all this talk about Absil and websites going unread put me in mind of it so I let out a few cryptic sentences. More to come someday.

Alternances will go back to the library on Tuesday. Wish it well!

May 11, 2007

Canon perpetuus

The reading-the-western-canon-randomly project is going really well for me, so naturally I thought to apply the same technique to other cultural lacunae.

We had some discussion about doing this for the visual arts but that becomes difficult twice over – 1) because apart from some blatantly commercial “The 10,000 Grrrrrrreatest Paintings Ever!” compendiums, there don’t seem to have been many attempts to articulate an Objective Master List of important artworks; 2) because it’s not clear what degree and depth of exposure ought to be considered satisfactory.

I was coincidentally thinking about this while thinking about jigsaw puzzles. The kind of intimate feeling I get for the geography/personality of a jigsaw puzzle image, while solving it, is a depth of engagement I rarely if ever reach at the museum. Solving a jigsaw engages the analytical/creative side of aesthetic perception – sort of a cheap and stupid way to simulate the process of painting the picture yourself. In sifting and sorting the pieces you end up having to recognize color relations and their significance, formal relationships, proportion, detail, etc. This is not the case with paint-by-number or tracing or any other common crypto-creative task I can think of. Art-school-style copying by sight obviously gives valuable access to the thought and craft behind the painting. But I think maybe jigsaw puzzling, being utterly non-technical, requiring no thought about paint itself, might actually have a more direct relationship to the task of viewing and understanding the finished art.

Maybe not – anyway, so the visual arts are still a bit up in the air.

Movies would be easier to manage systematically, of course – and god knows there are enough lists out there to work with – but 1) I don’t feel like my movie intake needs any kick in the pants like this, and 2) I’m not as convinced as I am in the case of literature that my experiences of “great” “important” movies have been genuinely more valuable to me than my experiences of the lesser stuff. This is odd, come to think of it. With literature there’s really no question that my sense of whether something is “good” and whether I’m glad to have it in my life are basically linked and proportional. Movies I’m less sure. It may simply be that my exposure to “art” movies has been too limited, in proportional relationship to multiple viewings of Back to the Future, to affect my overall sense of what movies are and ought to be.

Also came across this when I was looking into the issue, wherein Paul Schrader says he started to write a film canon book and then got disenchanted with the idea that it should exist at all. Eh. I’m not gonna get into it here, but despite my distaste for Bloom’s idea that his canon is “for real” in any sense, lists are valuable, as my exercise shows, and a well-made list of film worth seeing would be appreciated.

Okay, anyway, so the one that I am, in fact, currently taking on, is music, by which I’m talking about classical music – by which I’m talking about, if you insist, “Western” classical music, which is what you absolutely already knew I meant.

There are a bunch of “canon” type lists out there about classical music, but many of them list recordings rather than works, since these books are written for the “just tell me what to buy” market. As far as I can tell, the only pretentiously high-minded Bloom-style effort is David Dubal’s The Essential Canon of Classical Music, which satisfies me in terms of being both grandiose in its claims and also attempting to be evenhanded in representing the long-term cultural consensus rather than anything snootier. I.e. it includes Carmina Burana.

Of course if you look too close at any such list, the arbitrary nature starts to become apparent. So, having looked it over initially, I’m not going to evaluate any more. I have a list, and it has 750 works on it – which is a nice big round number.

Beth’s joining me on this one, by the way.

The rules are: once a piece comes up, we have to listen to it attentively, in its entirety, at least 3 times. That may seem easygoing but it’s nothing to snort at in the case of Parsifal and the like. But I’ll be honest with you – that’s just there so that Beth can stay in the game and so that I can move on fairly quickly in case of something really desperately unappealing. My actual personal goal is to listen to a piece until I know it and get it to my satisfaction. In my case I’ve found that this generally requires at least 9 listens.

What with ipods and the subway, though, this is actually a snap. Much easier than reading German poetry on the subway, which I have found is impossible.

The first Essential Canonic Classical Musical Work has been completed and will be written about someday soon, now that I got this intro out of the way.

I make a lot of hurdles for myself.