‘Twas The Night Before Brexit – GROUP READING! (YouTube)

I really like making things. After all, life can be so routine and boring. But when you make something, you never quite know how it’ll turn out. With any luck, the result may surprise you.

I had written a poem parody called ‘Twas The Night Before Brexit, and encouraged by the kind response from fellow bloggers (thank you!), I decided to turn it into a video:

I have a love-hate relationship with technology. I know technology can be incredibly useful, and I do use it; but I also hate the way our society is becoming so digitised. If you have a problem with a company, good luck reaching a human! And I hate getting calls from sooper friendly chat bots who are apparently programmed to sound like 18-year old girls, so happy they finally reached you, trying to keep you on the line until a real salesperson can take over and scam you with a credit card deal or Microsoft Support nonsense. Is that not the pits?

In the 80s, I was heavily into making music with synthesisers, and even eked out a minor living creating “patches” that other musicians could use. I still remember when synthesisers first emerged as expressive musical instruments with Switched-On-Bach, the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, and Chick Corea’s blazing synth leads on Where Have I Known You Before. But gradually, synthesisers became a cheap substitute for real musicians, and no low-budget production was complete without a fakey-sounding ensemble — a canned, frozen orchestra playing lifeless, soulless music.

I also used to write pop songs, which was fun even though I never really got anywhere. Back in the 80s I penned this lyric:

Computer bars where
Machines go to dance
Flashing their software
They pivot and prance

Time was humans
Could congregate too
I think of days…
Me and Susie Q would boogaloo

CHORUS:
Now it’s early to bed
And likewise early to rise
We serve the circuitry
We’ve gown to despise
We’re turning over
In graves we have dug
Machine is ruler
We can’t pull the plug.

Won’t someone save us
From this terrible fate?
Calling all aliens,
Please don’t get here too late.

Please send advisers
Who are licensed to kill
Destroy all silicon
And send us the bill.

CHORUS:
Now it’s early to bed
And early to rise
We serve the circuitry
We’ve gown to despise
We’re turning over
In graves we have dug
Machine is ruler
We can’t pull the plug.

We’ve heard that Mercury
Has creatures for hire
We’ll give them anything
They need or desire.

Please send advisers
Who are licensed to kill
Destroy all silicon
And send us the bill.

CHORUS:
Now it’s early to bed
And early to rise
We serve the circuitry
We’ve gown to despise
We’re turning over
In graves we have dug
Machine is ruler
We can’t pull the plug.

Today, I like how some people use technology in a knowing, ironic way — sometimes even to counteract or engage in open warfare with tech’s dehumanizing aspects, going up against the people who send armies of chat bots and sales bots to invade our lives. There’s even one fellow, Roger Anderson, who creates chat bots to interact with telemarketers and waste their time — with hilarious results. His theory, in essence, is that the more time scammers spend interacting with bots, the less time they’ll spend bilking seniors out of their life savings.

So, given how much I hate things that are fakey, the challenge in creating the “Night Before Brexit” video was to try and use technology in a knowing, ironic, and humourous way. Yes, I used synthetic voices, but I tried to make them as expressive as possible. I hope I succeeded, but that’s up to viewers/listeners to judge.

There were innumerable technical challenges. The Scottish lass has oodles of personality, so I gave her some of the best lines. But she tends to speak much faster than the others, so I sometimes had to slow her down by as much as 15%, which does produce artifacts. Still, I was very happy with her performance!

As for the poem itself, it’s only one of many Brexit parodies based on Clark Clement Moore’s “A Visit From St Nick”. Some are quite funny, and some have gone viral. In my version, I wanted to do things a little differently. My two main criticisms of other versions making the rounds are that the authors don’t bother to make the lines scan properly as poetry, and often the language is too steeped in political rhetoric and doesn’t create a proper tableau, or pictures in the mind.

Now, if you write poetry, you might have had the experience that some verses are workmanlike and help establish the setting, but there’s a particular verse you like because of the pictures it creates:

As I blinked in the moonlight, there appeared a fine elf
Playing ‘Scotland The Brave’ — it was Nicola herself!
Her colours were grand, and crocheted on her nightie
Was “Bollocks to Brexit, and a new vote for Blighty”.

Call me vain (and I am), but I like that verse so much! I admire Nicola Sturgeon’s rebel stance, and the way the Scottish National Party holds mini-insurrections during debates in the House of Commons (usually beginning with “It’s an insult to Scotland…”). The poem as a whole takes easy shots at right-wingers like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, portraying them as drunken, lecherous, toffee-nosed windbags who exploit Santa’s helpers (who are likeable SNP elves). Not the most nuanced take on UK politics, but in a parody you go for stark contrasts.

As a satirist, I insist on being politically incorrect in a variety of ways, so no need to tally them up. I intend no offence whatsoever, and am simply going for cheap laughs wherever I can get them. The views expressed by the (fictitious) Duchess of Ducks and Duke of North Prickly are not my views, and Santa’s (shall we say unique?) way of dispatching the Johnson is not meant to encourage any enterprising kidnappers at large in the Kingdom.

I’ve always been an odd duck. What interests, amuses, or enlightens me may not have the same effect on others. But I can say with gratitude that the way the video turned out has managed to surprise me.

I’m good at creating things, but not so good at promoting them. So if you find this video a helpful bit of agitprop in the anti-Brexit campaign, please reblog it, tweet a link to it, add it to your Facebook, or otherwise publicise it. The music is from YouTube’s royalty-free Audio Library. Thank you.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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‘Twas The Night Before Brexit

 

‘Twas the night before Brexit, when out in the Kingdom
Some wanker shot Boris, but the git only winged ‘im.
The Maybot was placed on her chill pad with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.
She had spent the whole week giving Corbyn a ragging;
Now she’d spend the whole night helping Santa with tagging.
Gifts for the gentry and gifts for relations,
For Labour MPs and for Tory Alsatians.
She had waited for Santa through elevens and twelvsies,
But began to despair the appearance of elvsies.
Then the clock struck out one with a note of revival,
As if presaging tidings of Santa’s arrival.
The Downing Street crowd, from toffs to plebeians
Beheld Santa’s sleigh, pulled by East Europeans!
“The Labour Exchange must be notified quickly”,
Said the Duchess of Ducks to the Duke of North Prickly.
“They’ve been fishing in Scotland, as is plain by the smell;
“And they’ve prob’ly been bonking the Sturgeon as well”.
But St Nick took no note of these tossers and yelpers;
He was flanked by a bus filled with SNP helpers!
As I blinked in the moonlight, there appeared a fine elf
Playing ‘Scotland The Brave’ — it was Nicola herself!
Her colours were grand, and crocheted on her nightie
Was “Bollocks to Brexit, and a new vote for Blighty”.
Then Nigel Farage arrived, driving a hearse;
He was stewed to the gills, and what made matters worse,
I could tell by the groans which emerged from the casket
He had Boris in tow, who had quite blown a gasket.
The two of them tried to take over the party;
Farage all too posh, and the Johnson all farty.
Between them they had only one sticky wicket,
But they tried to pull down Santa’s elves — was that cricket?
It’s an insult to Scotland, how these two carry on
On the holiest night, until well past the dawn.
So May in her ‘kerchief and I in my hoodie
Asked Johnson to leave — but do you think, would he?
His bellowed refusal resounded for miles,
But good old St Nick was all chuckles and smiles.
He bundled the Johnson up into his sleigh,
He sacked him and fracked him and took him away.
He shouted to May, before making his exit–
“Merry Yule, stupid woman! And to all a good Brexit”.

Michael Howard

Links

The Twelve Days of Trumpster
Christmas Music: The Rare and the Beautiful
Jesus is Born – in a World of Many Faiths
Simple Gifts, the Christmas Truce, and Benjamin Bowmaneer
Christmas, Childhood, and Cable Spaghetti

* * *

Brexit and the Bells of Rhymney

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair and MEP Ska Keller make a persuasive case for a second referendum, and why the U.K. will always be welcome in the E.U. Theresa May and Rupa Huq take Prime Minister’s Questions to a new level. Plus, we listen to (and discuss) the Welsh mining song ‘Bells of Rhymney’. (Yes, there is a connection!)

In my previous magnum opus on Brexit, much of my focus was on how E.U. membership benefits the U.K. After all, the nature of politics at the populist level is all about self-interest. (‘And what will you give me?/ Say the sad bells of Rhymney’.)

Yet, there’s a quite different way of exploring the Brexit question, based less on self-interest and more on the visionary aspect. In a representative democracy, one ideally tries to elect leaders who have vision, who understand the direction in which the world is headed, and who try to align their nation with the right tide of history. Despite many practical problems with E.U. membership which need ironing out, the E.U. represents a noble effort at cooperation between nations who had previously engaged in open warfare. It’s also a response to the burgeoning awareness that many pressing problems, including climate change, can only be tackled at a global level.

Aside from practical benefits, the E.U. offers each member nation an opportunity to come together with other nations and contribute its unique qualities, while not losing its individuality. This coming together of nations and peoples, which may be described as ‘oneness in diversity’, is the right tide of history, the good direction in which the world is moving post-World War II. In this visionary understanding of what the E.U. represents, Britain is a beloved member nation which has many good friends among other nations, and which has something most meaningful and special to contribute to the mix.

From this point of view, Brexit represents a retreat into the past, a rejection of the sometimes challenging, but ultimately fulfilling promise of the future, in which cooperation between nations is understood to be the highest political good, and a necessity for survival of the planet. If Remainers are sometimes tearful and angry, it’s because they love their country and know that Britain has a big heart, a heart which has the capacity to identify with broader Europe and not cordon itself off. From the point of view of Remainers, the Brexiteers have fooled the people into making a retrograde decision which is bad for Britain, bad for the E.U., and bad for the world. The result will be salt and vinegar, not any kind of cake feast or champagne breakfast.

When did Brexit (which was supposed to be such a lovely idea) take on the character of an unstoppable juggernaut to which we are all chained? As Tony Blair recently noted, “Things do not need to be like this. We’re not in a state of hypnosis to do this. We can assume consciousness. We have free will, and it’s past time to exercise it”.

Between working and raising a family, the average citizen may not have time to ponder these deep matters. That’s why it’s so important that political leaders elected to do the job bring out the best in themselves, respond dynamically to the changing situation, and not be afraid to admit mistakes while there is still time to rectify them. When government economists considered the worst-case scenario of a no deal Brexit, even then they did not look into the future and weigh the possibility of new troubles in Northern Ireland, or a second referendum in Scotland which might result in that nation leaving the U.K. In a chess game one must look several moves ahead, but too many in government are only playing ‘Chequers’.

I admire Prime Minister May, but she has a deeply bureaucratic streak in her nature such that she will not deviate from plan. The ‘Maybot’ sobriquet has stuck because she keeps delivering the same speech over and over again, and during PMQs often gives the equivalent of ‘I am not programmed to respond in that area’. Her lack of creativity and flexibility in a time of crisis naturally causes other leaders to step in to fill the void.

It is uncharitable of her to savage Tony Blair for stating what is becoming increasingly obvious, even to some of May’s own allies: After two years of discussion in which Brexit reality has gradually come to replace Brexit fantasy, the people deserve a final say on a decision which will impact their lives for generations to come. It’s not a ‘do-over’ or mere repeat of the first referendum. History is not static, and neither is democracy. It turns out that the Brexit which can be delivered is much different than what the people were promised. Those who led them down the garden path should at least give them a final say before plunging them over the abyss.

Adding ‘Bells of Rhymney’ to the mix

Welsh miner turned poet Idris Davies penned ‘The Bells of Rhymney” in 1938. It was later revived by fellow countryman Dylan Thomas. American folksinger Pete Seeger set the words to music circa 1959, and his tune is the one used for numerous cover versions:

There’s also a version by Bob Dylan and the Band from 1967, but I’m guessing it’s pretty well locked down by copyright Nazis. 😉

As for the poem itself, it is perhaps best understood as an impassioned response to a Welsh mining disaster, with the church bells in different cities pealing out different reactions to the tragedy. These responses are variously political, legal, metaphysical, and so forth, creating a kind of geographic tableau which also reflects the poet’s inner dialogue. ‘Even God is uneasy, sang the moist bells of Swansea’.

‘Is there hope for the future?’ This is a question oft asked in times of crisis, bringing us back to Tony Blair’s speech defining Brexit as such a time. There is always hope, and as Ska Keller said when interviewed by Channel 4:

Of course, [a second referendum] is up to the people in Great Britain to decide. But if they were to decide to change their minds, then they need to be welcomed back. There should be open doors for the people of Great Britain. Absolutely! But that is up to Great Britain to decide. If the people of Britain were to change their minds, then our doors and our hearts and arms are very welcoming, very open to them. For me, the Brexit is a real tragedy. We have so many great friends there, but also Great Britain is not going to move away. It’s very close to the rest of us, and we’re linked in a partnership, we’re linked together in geography, and for creating a better future we need each other. That’s why I think it’s such a tragedy. [If nationalism rises in Europe] I wouldn’t blame the Brits. I would still think it’s a tragedy that they have left, and I would always want them to come back.

In her comments we can see much of what’s good about the E.U. Where there is love, forgiveness, and oneness in diversity, eventually practical problems can be overcome.

This is Michael Howard ringing in the Christmas season, and hoping that the bells which ring for you are joyful ones.


Sidebar: The Bells of Rhymney – Further Reflections

When I first heard the song performed by Pete Seeger, I was about 14 years old and he was a guest artist on WBAI radio, helping them out during one of their interminable fund drives. I liked it for its poetic images — the bells of different colours sounding out different messages, and picturesque town names like Caerphilly and Swansea — but I didn’t really understand it. Or, let us say, I understood it at a surface level (which is not always bad). Some singers have beautiful voices, but don’t know the history or meaning of what they’re singing. Here are two more cover versions of ‘The Bells of Rhymney’:

The Cher version is rather insipid, but no need to dwell. The John Denver version strikes me as somewhat prettified, and his introduction fortifies misimpressions about the song: that it was written by Pete Seeger (no mention of Idris Davies), and that it’s primarily about local colour. You can easily picture him crooning ‘They were buried alive/ Said a Belgian endive…’ without batting an eyelash. Still, the bell-like guitar harmonics are a nice touch. Some fancy fingerpicking, but I wonder if it doesn’t detract from the meaning.

For me the song imparts a rare dual memory — of what it sounded like when I was 14, and what it sounds like now. Having learned more about poetry, I now know that the speech of bells can be a stand-in for the speech of men and women who might gather at churches in different towns the first Sunday after a mining disaster, and speak out in a myriad of voices. As with church bells, these voices might not exactly harmonise. Some might trail off or speak at cross-purposes, but their collective clanging would signify that some momentous event has taken place. Fire! Flood! Or Mrs Cropley putting anchovy paste in her lemon curd tartlets.

Maybe on some deep level, that’s why I thought to connect the song with Brexit. After all, Brexit is a slow motion political disaster, and is typically accompanied by a school of porpoises from the University of Wales banging on about this or that option on the BBC. “I prefer Norway Plus Plus, but without the Norwegians, and a side order of Canadian bacon gently sautéed in a litre of Glenfiddich Gran Reserva.” Ding-dong.

Like any good disaster, Brexit also has its share of junkies tuning in to the news every five minutes, hoping against hope that someone will insert a new punch card into the Maybot, and maybe she’ll say something genuinely new for a change. You can make better book on the 3:30 at Ascot, though now and then she does surprise:

As for ‘The Bells of Rhymney’, I’m convinced there’s a Gordon Lightfoot version stashed somewhere in the compilation Gordon Lightfoot Sings Every Song Ever Written:

I’m avidly rummaging through all 379 discs, but oh wait! There’s an interview with Nyle Hogg-Filth on ITV. Apparently, he’s found a new solution to the Brexit problem which involves nuclear physics and buggery. I just have to watch…

* * *

Storm Emma and the Meaning of Snow

I know it can be dreadfully inconvenient, but snow can also be unimaginably beautiful — a forced timeout by God which fades all our earthly scenes, earthly dramas to white.

After all, we human beings can make a dreadful hash of things, and a really good snowstorm feels like wiping the slate (or griddle) clean. In the midst of a great blizzard, one gets a feeling of Eternity — like it might never stop snowing and perhaps that would be for the best. Who ever heard of anyone starting a war in the middle of a snowstorm? Better that we should all seek comfort around a warm fire, and recognize our smallness compared to Nature — not to speak of God, of whom Nature is only a small portion.

It is best in a snowstorm — even if you are a citydweller — to locate some region of parkland, however small, where you can look on the falling snow without seeing automobiles or other signs of civilisation.

There is an individual occurrence of snow, and then there is the archetype of snow. What we want to do is move from the individual to the archetype. Everything has its essential nature, and the nature of snow is that it is holy. Believe in this, and contemplate the falling snow as it blankets even one lone tree.

When you are certain you know what snow means, then widen your gaze and take in more of the sights around you:

Wait! That is too fast! What we need is a more leisurely sojourn through the snow:

What is the meaning? You can make your own meaning. But ask yourself these questions: What does salvation mean to a man? To an angel? To a horse? Is snow the great equalizer?

In a December 1993 episode of Northern Exposure (set in the mythical town of Cicely, Alaska), radio DJ Chris in the Morning reads a fragment of an 1869 poem by John Whitaker Watson:

I can only wish all readers everywhere a (belated) Bon Hiver! as I vicariously enjoy Britain’s “inclement” weather.

Michael Howard

First Snow – Grace Ellen Morton

* * *

The Gospel Truth About Congress

Celebrating POETS day with an ode to our underworked legislators, and blues, gospel, and jazz. Musings about art, media collage, and the nature of reality.

For the second time in less than a month, the U.S. Congress managed to shut down the government late Thursday night, by failing to fund it. Then, by about 5:30 a.m. both the House and Senate had passed the necessary funding bill for Donald Trump to sign when he woke up — in between defoliating his eyebrows and sticking new pins in his Katy Tur doll. (What that mean, what that mean?)

At one time in the hoary past, Congress harboured the quaint notion that it was their duty to pass carefully crafted budgets. More recently, they’ve taken to making do by passing a series of stopgap funding measures known as continuing resolutions or CR’s. These are hard to fathom, stuffed with pork, and no one reads them anyway. The whole process has become farcical (thus steering it into my natural territory!).

Since they were up all night having adventures, I guess congresspeople were glad to finally adjourn and beat it out of town for the weekend. They are legendary celebrants of nothing if not POETS day, i.e. “Push off early, tomorrow’s Saturday.” While celebrants in Britain and Australia consider it proper to depart by 3:30 p.m. Friday, the U.S. Congress leaves nothing to chance. A Friday train disaster or invasion of midgets might derail their plans for the weekend, so best leave on Thursday and not come back till Tuesday next. Their departure reminds me of this bit of doggerel I penned a few years back:

The moving finger writes O Lord,
And having writ takes five;
So as this Congress now adjourns,
We thank God we’re alive.
We’re glad you didn’t strike us dead
Or cleave our tongues in two;
So many things you could have done,
But kindly didn’t do.
But most of all, O Gracious Lord
We thank you for the pork
Which thanks to CR feeding time
Now drips from every fork.
The rumours reach us now and then
Of hunger in the streets;
But we’re content to roam these halls
And milk the public teats.

I think it would best be recited in a deep, serious basso profundo like that possessed by Senate Chaplain extraordinaire Dr. Barry Black:

Here’s another good basso profundo:

And while we’re on the subject of politicans, scandalizing, and backbiting, here’s one from Bessie Smith:

Moving forward a few decades, how about John Coltrane: “Spiritual”

There’s a Church of John Coltrane which has survived for nigh on fifty years, but is threatened by gentrification. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if their goal was to pray ceaselessly, to make praying as natural as breathing. This brings us full circle, back to Dr. Barry Black:

Another basso profundo with a slow and steady delivery was the late Sen. Everett Dirksen. In an unusual cultural inversion, he was so square that he actually become hip:

Well, we’ve wandered a bit, but wasn’t it worth it? Wasn’t it fun?

These different connections create what’s sometimes called a “tangled hierarchy.” Sen. Dirksen praising The Monitors in a sci-fi flick from 1969 is an inflection point where we can stop and ask ourselves what the topic-at-hand is. The answer is that there really isn’t one. The fun is in the connections or kaleidoscopic movement of different elements hitting off each other, creating some kind of multidimensional pattern that’s too vast to describe or explain. We can only experience it.

Populist media often use framing to manipulate us and force us down a narrow pathway. Buy this! Vote for that! But when we connect media sources more freely, they begin to act as frames for each other. Reality begins to look like a rich, multi-layered tapestry woven of many kinds of fabric, in which we can yet perceive certain shared themes.

The truth that can be told simply and easily in a 30-second cable news segment is a dumbed-down truth — hardly a truth at all. In their richness, the arts have the potential to reveal more profound truths.

The 1960s comprised a new phase in the history of civilization in which many cultures, many views of reality, collided. It’s no coincidence that this gave rise, in the arts, to collage forms where it was up to the viewer or listener to respond to the sum total of what was being presented — not necessarily with a logical conclusion, but perhaps simply by giving himself/herself over to the experience of it.

This is related to a field of study which I’ve tried in my way to comprehend: hermeneutics. At its simplest, Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics implies that we each see reality through our own horizon, but that we can collide with other realities, other horizons, other frames, and so become more deeply aware. This stepping out of ourselves to become the whole universe and all of history is at once an aesthetic and a spiritual experience.

To express this in art is not always easy, and may result in dense, difficult works which require some effort to understand, such as James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.

Back in the early 1970s, I remember hearing composer Eric Saltzman’s avant-garde work The Nude Paper Sermon — a multi-layered sound collage (he disputes this term) in which different kinds of music and texts are superimposed. In its way, it’s like a modern multi-track version of Finnegan’s Wake. In the original liner notes for the Nonesuch recording, Saltzman writes:

The Nude Paper Sermon is about the end of the Renaissance — the end of an era and the beginning of another.

Therefore it is about old and new means of communication, about verbal and non-verbal sound, about the familiar and the unknown, about human activity and the new technologies. It is not a “neo-classic” work nor is it a collage; rather it is “post-modern-music, post-modern art, post-style,” a multi-layer sound drama that is itself an example of the kinds of experience which it interprets and expresses: the transformation of values and tradition through the impact of the new technologies.

Recording technology makes all possible musical and sonic experiences of the external world raw material and even, increasingly, part of a common culture. Multi-track, multi-layer experience becomes the norm: Ravi Shankar, John Cage, the Beatles, Gregorian chant, electronic music, Renaissance madrigals and motets, Bob Dylan, German Lieder, soul, J. S. Bach, jazz, Ives, Balinese gamelan, Boulez, African drumming, Mahler, gagaku, Frank Zappa, Tchaikovsky, Varèse . . . all become part of the common shared experience. Recording technology also transforms that which it communicates: it makes all music part of the present and in so doing changes it. There is nothing inherently good or bad about this; technology can liberate and it can oppress. But there is no running away any more; we must master what can oppress us, learn how to use it to create and liberate.

The words of the piece are taken from John Ashbery’s Three Madrigals (texts for soloists and chorus) and The Nude Paper Sermon by Steven Wade (texts for actor). The latter, produced especially for this work, is written to suggest the contemporary verbal barrage, that endless language stream of all those who use words to manipulate others: preacher, politician, TV personality, professor, newscaster, even poet. The actor’s part is a kind of scoring imposed by composer and performer on fragments of text that are used emotively and as a kind of symbology. At times words dominate, at times they are submerged, at times a precarious balance, interaction, or interweaving is maintained.

By and large, printed texts would be beside the point; spoken language — heard and overheard, comprehensible and incomprehensible, clear, elusive, simple, complex, logical, mystifying — is the subject matter here. Perhaps one printed text is in order, however: that part of one of Ashbery’s madrigals which has a traditional structure but is made out of a series of word images and verbal snapshots. It occurs near the very beginning of the work and is set as a kind of Renaissance ruin — real fake Renaissance music (“why don’t composers write like that any more?”) overlaid with electronic graffiti:

Not even time shall efface
The bent disk
And the wicked shores snore
Far from the divining knell!
[continues]

Read the full liner notes here: The Nude Paper Sermon and Wiretap – Booklet for the CD reissue (PDF)

Parts of the John Ashbery poem stuck in my mind forever: And the wicked shores snore/ Far from the divining knell! So true, but what does it mean?

Forgive the tangent, but people tend to assume there is either sense or nonsense. Yet, beyond what makes logical prose sense, there are infinite gradations and colorations of abstraction. This is easier to understand in the visual arts than in language arts. A painting is, by its very nature, an abstract representation of something; though admittedly, some painters tried to do little more than capture their subjects with lifelike realism.

Still, it’s easy to imagine how painters, in a new era of photography where they no longer needed to be slaves to realism, could gradually relax their grip and drift by degrees toward abstraction. But because we use language almost entirely for practical purposes, we may be quick to dismiss any impractical formulation of words as simply “nonsense.”

John Ashbery’s poems are not nonsense. They often contain exquisitely crafted passages which verge on meaning, and tend to create pictures in the mind, but ultimately defy logic. That is their charm.

In dreams we visit many places, many states of consciousness. Some dreams are like parodies of reality itself, from which we wake up laughing. It’s so much like those wicked shores to snore, being as they are, far from the divining knell…

By the late 1960s, not all sound collages and abstract poetic constructions were confined to an audience of avowed avant-gardists. As Robert Worby points out in this Guardian article, borrowed texts and sounds from short or long-wave radio became part of the new language explored by the Beatles and their producer George Martin. A classic example is the song “I Am The Walrus,” which owes some of its expressiveness to a closing collage with bits of King Lear nicked from an AM radio tuned to the BBC.

Musicians are fascinated by sound, influenced by sound, view the world in terms of sound, and (according to David Amram) symphony artists often have voices which resemble the instruments they play.

Eric Saltzman passed away in 2017, and his New York Times obit included this passage:

Mr. Salzman, among his many side interests, was an avid birder, and particularly favored the song of the elusive hermit thrush.

“The other thrushes are baroque artists, constantly elaborating, reworking and adding to their showy repertoire,” he wrote on his website. “The hermit thrush is a classicist, working on the principle of less is more, multum in parvo. Constantly changing variations appear within a simple, firm musical framework. Complex chords and high overtones climb and resonate between the tree trunks to create a sense of space and depth: a song in three — no, four — dimensional space that seems to speak of eternal things.”

To the mystic, everything is God; to the composer, everything is music; to the painter, all reality a collection of shapes and colours. That is as it should be. And to the collage artist (or maker of home brew mashups), each media source has greater meaning when it collides and refracts with other media sources. The ultimate meaning is supplied by the viewer or listener.

This post isn’t really about Congress, or gospel music. It’s more a survey of reality, reflecting on different media sources which may have something in common. Seeing the connections between things is often more interesting and satisfying than trying to wring out of them some trite prose conclusion about which one can say: lesson learned. How much more enjoyable to say: experience noted!

Backtracking to planet earth and the prosaic meaning of this post, I admit that my poem takes a rather bleak and sardonic view of Congress. In truth, there are some good people there — people of integrity without whom things would be far worse than they are. In between Congressional baseball games and Congressional turkey shoots (the two are sometimes combined for efficiency’s sake), Congress does occasionally turn its attention to doing the people’s business. (Some committees specialise in minding other people’s business. Trey Gowdy, do not ask for whom the bell tolls! What’s that committee called? The House Overbite Committee? “There’s been some backbiting goin’ on.” Meanings refract and collide!)

I’m trying really hard to close by saying some good things about Congress, but am not in the proper mood. Okay, when push came to shove, they actually did manage to nearly impeach Richard Nixon. (Hint, hint.)

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


The Gospel Truth – Video Annex

Michael Stanley: “Poet’s Day” (lyrics here)

Van Morrison: “Summertime In England” (lyrics here)

The Church of Saint Coltrane:

Gandharva Loka Orchestra: “Ai, Ai, Ai Chandra Taraka” (lyrics here)

Eric Saltzman: The Nude Paper Sermon Part 1 (YouTube)
Eric Saltzman: The Nude Paper Sermon Part 2 (YouTube)

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The Best of Leonard Cohen

I was so sad to learn that singer, songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen passed away on Thursday at the age of 82. He was best known for bittersweet lyrics that put together images in a way not quite like anyone else. Of those who rose to prominence writing folksongs in the late 60s/early 70s, only a handful could be considered excellent poets, and he was certainly one.

I’ve always thought “Suzanne” to be his most beautiful song, and I like the Judy Collins version of it best:

But his own rendition of the same song brings out more of his characteristic melancholy:

He was one of many folk artists I listened to religiously when I was about 16, and collectively they opened up a whole new world for me. No one taught me much of anything when I was growing up, so digesting the rich experiences contained in poetry set to music was a way for me to expand my world and empathize with people far distant in time and space. It was my education in feeling, and as I joke elsewhere, along with the work of visual artists like Picasso it helped prepare me for a lifetime of unemployment. I became quite old for my age listening to songs like “The Partisan”:

 

“Ah, the wind is blowing
Through the graves the wind is blowing…”

But I hope Leonard Cohen will find shelter from the cold, wearing his famous blue raincoat.

Michael Howard

Two Years, Ten Thousand Views, and Emily Dickinson

September 15th marked the two year anniversary of the Ethics and Spirituality blog. Only a few days earlier the number of views exceeded 10,000!

Many thanks to those kind readers who took the time to ponder my sometimes turgid prose. Thanks also to those who only looked at the pictures. 😉

joe-kracht-parody-6Writing (even the blogging variety) has the power to transport us, and this was well-known to Emily Dickinson, who travelled farther than ninety-nine percent of us while rarely leaving her Homestead.

I’m a great fan of Dickinsonia, which as all poets know is not an iconic fossil of the Ediacaran biota which resembles a bilaterally symmetrical ribbed oval, and whose affinities are presently unknown. (Fie on you, Wikipedia!)

Rather, Dickinsonia refers to all things Emily Dickinson. One of my quaint hobbies is looking for Dickinsonia in pop culture. The signs are manifold, but I do not present them all at once, for a little Dickinsonia goes a long, long way. (Would someone please set that to music?)

In a talk on appreciation of Emily Dickinson, spiritual master Sri Chinmoy says:

Emily learned very little from her association with her outer life. But she learned much from her inner association with her world-seclusion. Indeed, the outer world was an experience devoid of integral reality to her. Therefore, what she knew of earth and thought of earth could not become an encouraging, sustaining, inspiring, illumining and fulfilling experience leading to her own existence-reality.

Emily’s love of God and her love of nature made her inwardly beautiful. All her life Emily lived the life of an introvert. A self-imposed seclusion-life she embraced. God’s Compassion-Beauty was her reward. In God’s Compassion-Beauty, her world and those who wanted to live in her world became preparation-instruments for the transformation and perfection of the frustration-experiences of life.

Her aspiration was not only in seclusion, but seclusion itself became her aspiration. Inside seclusion-aspiration she did get a few striking glimpses of the inner illumination-sun. Life’s buffets gave her two or three times intolerable frustration-experiences, which commanded her to dive deep, deeper within to discover the wealth of the inner life.

What Emily Dickinson achieved is still studied today — not only in the ivory towers of Brown and Vassar, but in inner city schools as well. This video clip titled simply “Steamship” explores the way that books have the power to transport us, “to take us Lands away”:

(If the embedded video doesn’t play, view on Vimeo here.)


For Further Reading:

“Spirituality of Emily Dickinson” by Sumangali Morhall
http://ezinearticles.com/?Spirituality-of-Emily-Dickinson&id=441057

Coming Soon:

“Put a Bird on It! Part Three”

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Alice in the Snow I

A Christmas in July video gift to my readers

There’s beauty all around us, but we sometimes need to be in the right place at the right time to see it!

Then, as aspiring artists, we try and find a way to share what we’ve seen so that the edited view communicates strongly.

It took me a surprisingly long time to get this short video of the Alice in Wonderland Statue in a snowstorm just the way I wanted. I hope you find as I do that it communicates peace, beauty, and an unseen world that seems to have its own life when no one’s looking.

The best haiku writers are said to gently eavesdrop on their subjects, so that the impression you’re left with is of the thing itself. When filming, I longed to merge with the winter scene so that there was no me anymore, and what was left was simply nature unfolding of itself, for itself.

An ambitious (and pretentious) longing — one that can only be hinted at in this short video. I actually have lots of footage of sculptures in the snow, so much so that the thought of editing it all is daunting. I once did a roughish edit (to VHS tape) that expressed some of what I would like. I remember a particular day when I spent from morning till evening filming in the snow, and Nature made such a strong impression on me that later that evening I felt as though the snow were still falling in my mind.

Time seems to expand in a really good snowstorm, and it’s wonderful to surrender to that sense of monumentality — the feeling that it has always been snowing and will always be snowing; that the amount of snow which could fall is infinite; that it might easily bury the Empire State Building or even all of civilization, leaving only whiteness.

melting snow
an old woman in black
feeds red-tailed squirrels

* * *

More About Me

cambodian-boatman-by-michael-howardThis personal blog is happily not about me and my daily life, but about things that fascinate and inspire me — including music, poetry, art, and spirituality. It’s also about finding time to laugh out loud at Britcoms, and speak up for truth on subjects that surely demand truth.

Still, I hope the reader would learn something about me from the way I write about the artist Picasso, or Chinese female vocalist Chyi Yu, or the tragic attack on Charlie Hebdo.

When I first started this blog in September 2014, I wondered if anyone would even read it, and whether I’d find the words to express my thoughts and feelings on issues I’ve subsequently tackled. As I limbered up the writing apparatus, I also narrowed down the focus and zeroed in on issues that are personally important to me, such as religious freedom.

Now that I find I do have at least a few readers, some of them are curious about the exact vantage point from which I write on certain issues. For the benefit of those readers, let me clarify that I’m not a member of Sri Chinmoy Centre or a spokesperson for the group. I am a fan, admirer, or well-wisher of Sri Chinmoy, with whom I did study meditation many years ago. That was a very enlightening experience which I’m proud to stand up and “own.” I remember countless beautiful meditations and concerts with Sri Chinmoy, and often being moved to tears in his presence. I will always remain indebted to Sri Chinmoy for teaching me the most important life-skills which I lacked: love of God, and gratitude to God.

Sri Chinmoy saved countless lives, and one of them happens to be mine. He saved my life by reaching beyond my pain, doubt and confusion, and simply opening my heart — as easily as you or I would turn a key in a lock. He was a genuine spiritual Master who had the power to give spiritual experiences, to put seekers in direct contact with the Divine. He did not merely speak about Peace. When he meditated, he filled the hall with Peace so that all those who were seeking Peace were divinely satisfied.

As an ordinary human being, I may find it difficult to live this truth 24 hours a day. But I feel honour-bound to at least speak up for truth, especially since I’ve noticed that some people speak falsely about Sri Chinmoy or try to discredit him. For me, to be true to my own experience is essential, or how could I ever hope to be true to myself? Conversely, I find that those who falsify their experience and portray Sri Chinmoy negatively tend to become increasingly troubled in their nature, being out-of-sync with their better angels.

In writing about many different subjects, lately I’ve been finding that posts about Sri Chinmoy and Sri Chinmoy Centre are especially dear to my heart. After all, there are probably hundreds of books about Picasso, and Chyi Yu has probably sold millions of albums in Taiwan, China, and the Chinese diaspora. I love writing about those topics (and hopefully finding new insights), but how much am I really adding to the existing store of knowledge?

By contrast, I like to believe that some of what I have to say about Sri Chinmoy is genuinely new and timely. Failing that, it at least weighs in on the side of truth — and I feel that spiritual truth has become hard to hear in our society due to excessive materialism.

Though not about my daily life, this personal blog represents a continuing effort to find out what moves and inspires me and what I have to say. Lately, I’ve been writing a lot about Sri Chinmoy. I have no idea whether that trend will continue, but if it does, well and good. That would represent progress for me in knowing what’s important to me, what I care about. I’m sure that even if I digress into other topics, Sri Chinmoy is someone I will always return to, because his teachings are deep (even if I am shallow), and there’s always more to discover about his music, poetry, and art.

There are no barriers to entry. No matter who you are or where you are, whatever your religion or non-religion, you are free at this moment to see things anew with fresh eyes. As Sri Chinmoy himself writes:

Beyond speech and mind,
Into the river of ever-effulgent Light
My heart dives.
Today thousands of doors
Closed for millennia
Are opened wide.

— Sri Chinmoy, as quoted by Alan Spence in a BBC article on Hindu meditation

Michael Howard

About the image at top: “Cambodian Boatman” by Michael Howard, based on a video by Niriha Datta. This is a recoloured photograph, or more precisely a recoloured video frame to which art effects have been applied. I did three versions in Dynamic Auto Painter, then combined them in Photoshop, adding dramatic lighting to bring out the textures.