Saturday, December 20, 2008

Kipling; Curtains; and clichés

In my news feed from NPR I find this article about Rod Blagojevich's use of the Poem "If" under the byline of Linton Weeks. This poem has been quoted, we are told, many times, and it has become trite, and even acquired a sense of irony. It has become a strand in the fabric of the curtain referenced in the entry "What is the curtain" in the blog of The Other Reader

"It's so familiar, says Thomas Pinney, professor emeritus at Pomona College and a Kipling scholar, "it's hard to escape a kind of irony about it."

"Pinney likens it to hearing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. One. More. Time."

I am reminded of Alexander Woolcott's comment in a review of an "innovative, brand new Broadway musical" that the audience went into the theater humming all the tunes. Or better, the story of the man who took a pretentious but poorly educated friend to a performance of Shakespeare. After the play the host asked his friend what he thought of the play, and the guest responded that he was disappointed, he didn't understand why Shakespeare was so famous when his work was filled with so many clichés.

I like to draw parallels, you may be gathering that I like off beat parallels, and the parallel I'd like to draw is between having sex with someone you love and respect on the one hand, and listening to Beetoven's Fifth- "One. More. Time" on the other. (actually, to those who have the courage to really listen to Beetoven this isn't off beat at all!) It is my wish for you all that both should become frequent in your lives. I see it as a symptom of the addiction to the new, whatever it's quality, and the shortness of the collective attention span, that anyone could become bored with either. Obviously we do, to the impoverishment of our enjoyment of both our relationships and our musical understanding.

 Innovation is possibly the smallest of those things that give value to either a relationship or a work of art. To fully, deeply understand either takes years, takes focus and patience. Listening to the Fifth over and over again may possibly bring a sophisticated listener to the door of the place of understanding, just as having deeply sensual sex with another human being takes years of trust building and understanding. It is a grail that is only won with hard work and discipline, but once won is precious beyond expectation. It is only when all the aspects of a work, or a person, that are obvious and easily accessible are completely assumed that one can get into the meat of the matter. I am not proposing that "If" has a great deal of "Meat" for an adult, but Beetovan's Fifth most certainly has more than anyone can handle reasonably.

"For an adult" to quote myself, which I admit to enjoy doing. It amuses me not a little that the last words of "If" do not factor in the discussion- "my son." This poem was written to address the development of a youngster, showing him where virtue and strength lie. The guidance it gives to a young person is extremely sound. All stuff that adults such as Margaret Thatcher, Rod Blagojevich and, we hope, one's self should have incorporated and moved on from years ago. Discussing the cliché content of the poem is a symptom of the way "Art" and "Poetry" have been so removed from life that the purpose and audience a piece was composed for is completely lost sight of. ( some construction such as Kipling is famous, therefore this is "Art," therefore it is the province of educated adults, therefore I can use it! seems to be in place.)  I really think it a little funny that "IF" is being referenced by adults to their peers; but on the other hand, perhaps the assumption that Maggie, Rod, and their audience are still digesting "If" isn't that far off the mark.

Those who read this blog will know that I am a 60 year old man who has had some very hard knocks over the last decade. I have been challenged in the ways this poem anticipates. At fifty I perhaps would have joined in the collective highbrow chuckle, but now I see and appreciate the value of this advice. It resonates with my recent experiences in a way that I hope my readers never share; but don't be too smug- fate is a fearful foe, and has a very perverse sense of humor! 

Sorry if I sound cranky but mom has made my porridge yet...... 

1 comment:

Carolyn (Cambridge) said...

I had occasion to recite the most familiar passage from Ecclesiastes in a concert last weekend, and two people asked me what translation I had used. The answer was the most familiar King James version, but I was flattered to think that my rendition of it made them hear it as a new thing.