Monday, January 31, 2011

Dance with me

I have a subscription to the dance series at the Music Center in Los Angeles. Last Friday I attended a performance by the Brazilian company, Grupo Corpo. It was rather extraordinary. They manage to combine classical ballet with modern and traditional forms of Brazilian dance, in a synthesis that, at moments, is breathtaking in its virtuosity. Some of the moves which characterize their style I had never seen before, a sort of bossa nova-tango-rumba gliding bow-bend articulation of the body which is typically rounded in its execution and spiked with lifts that appear to defy both muscularity and gravity. I found it all fascinating and revealing.

Prior to that I had seen Corella Ballet Castilla y León, a youthful Spanish company, and they were superb. Their vigor, inventiveness and almost gleeful energy was infectious, and the audience, including my eight-year-old son, cheered them heartily. In a program that spanned a very traditional tutu-ruffled choreography of Bruch's Violin Concerto (one of my many guilty pleasures) to an electrifying Flamenco pas de deux, to a post-modern evocation of the French high speed train, they displayed the kind of courage, creativity and exuberance that only a troupe of young dancers is capable of.

Before them the Hubbard Street Dance Theater of Chicago brought a truly wonderful program of modern and interpretive dance to the Ahmanson Theater. One number in particular, which opened with an apparently endless line of dancers simply stepping one foot at a time to their right as they crossed the stage reminded me of a Samuel Beckett play, spare, eloquent, almost silent in its simplicity. After this they did a comic rendering of Ravel's Bolero, in which a female tries to crash a party to which she has not been invited. I would not have thought there was any life left in the Bolero, which was originally written as a dance piece, but Hubbard Street, by not taking it seriously, revived it to the delight of the audience.

Next comes the Nederlands Dans Theater, and after them the Alvin Ailey. I have never seen the Nederlands, though I hear they are very good, but I make a point of seeing Alvin Ailey every time they are in town. They always offer something new, as one year, for example, they interpreted Charlie Parker's enforced stay in the state mental institution at Camarillo, and they usually close with their venerable Revelations, which, though performed for some twenty years, is invariably as welcome as the Spring.

My point in mentioning all this is twofold. First, it seems to me that some of the most interesting and exciting work being done in the performing arts today is taking place in dance. And second, I want to urge everyone to support the dance, which is in danger of strangling to death in this country on shoestrings of budget. Dance is as ancient and omnipresent as the human race itself, perhaps the oldest art form of all. Every culture, every society, has danced; indeed, I daresay, whether we do so in public or not, every human being who ever lived has danced at some point in his life. Movement to music, or simply to rhythm, is a natural part of the human experience -- it is in our blood and bones, and there are moments in life, of exaltation, awe, abstraction or despair, when we can do nothing other than move to the ebb and flow of emotion, ideas and expectation.

And so, I ask all of you who are kind enough to read this blog, to attend dance, support dance, and get up off your duffs and dance. Our nation and our souls will be better for it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pure Art

I have said that music is the highest form of art, and that poetry, being the closest to music, is the highest form of literature. This morning, as I was engaged in my quarterly chore of cleaning out the garage, I began to wonder why this should be so.

The answer, I think, must lie in that which music and poetry have in common. At first blush, this would seem to be rhythm. And while rhythm is at the heart of music, and may be said to be its essential quality, it is an aspect of poetry merely, though an important one. It may not be too much to say that this is why music is a higher art form than poetry: because, as it is essentially rhythm, music is purer than poetry, which is essentially language. But that language always and importantly embraces rhythm, and that, together with its intensity and the clarity and aptness of its images, is what raises poetry above the other forms of literature.

Now music, too, can contain images, and there are many wonderful examples of this, such as Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, Debussy's 'Images,' Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition,' Ravel's 'Le tombeau de Couperin,' and Vaughan Williams' Arctic Symphony. But when music sets out deliberately to paint a picture, it becomes program music, and to my mind, this form is inferior to what is often called pure music. It is for this reason that I consider Beethoven's Sixth to be the least important of his symphonies, since it is the most specific and concrete. In contrast, the organ music of Bach or the late Beethoven string quartets, especially the 0p. 131, are, to my mind, pure music; that is, unrelated to any material sense or experience. Because this is so, they are essentially spiritual in nature, and represent the highest realization of art.

It is when poetry approaches to a pure form -- that is, when the language is either so rarefied as to be almost detached from the images it seeks to convey to the mind, or when the language itself becomes almost one with those images -- that it finds its highest incarnation. This is seldom attempted, and even less often achieved.

I think G. M. Hopkins comes closest to achieving it in his spiritual sonnets, such as 'When kingfishers catch fire, when dragonflies draw flame,' and in 'God's grandeur.' In such works, the purity of language and the intensity with which words and images are interwoven renders the poetry pure in a musical sense. On one level the language is itself a kind of music, while on another, words and images become nearly the same thing. It is not that Hopkins' poetry is pure because it is spiritual; it is spiritual because it is pure.

And so, I suppose, as I was filling up the rented Dumpster in my driveway, I concluded that it is purity, spirituality and rhythm which the greatest music and the greatest poetry have in common. It is to these qualities that the best art attains, and this, in turn, raises the question: Why?

The answer is, I think, that the true nature and aspire of great art lies not in any sense experience or even in any idea, but, rather, in a reality that lies outside of those. What I am suggesting is that art is not born in the human heart or mind, but in the human soul, and represents a longing to embrace that soul's essential nature, and express the truth which the action of that nature in life implies. Art is truth in action, and in music and poetry, it is truth in rhythm. For life is made of rhythms: the rhythms of nature, the seasons, the revolution of the Earth, the beating of the heart, breathing and crying and laughing. It is the eternal cycle of coming into being, becoming being and going out of being -- life is rhythm. This is why music is such a natural and universal experience for man, since it echoes or replicates the inherent rhythm of living.

The best music -- and the best poetry -- reproduce this essential organic rhythm in its purest and most revealing form. For this reason, program music, being reflective of specific images or events, is inferior to pure music; since we sense in the purest music that native rhythm which in an undeniable way forms the foundation of our existence. This leads me to the assertion that the creation of art is not essentially a matter of expression but of inspiration; that is, the highest artistic impulses derive from outside man, and do not spring from inside him. They are, if you will, inhaled from a rarefied atmosphere which is the soul's natural domain. This, in turn, leads to the inescapable conclusion that there is a spiritual reality which transcends the material, and to the expression of which all art aspires.

Pure art lies closest to our souls. We recognize ourselves in its forms, and it reminds us, indeed, I think, proves, that we are essentially spiritual creatures, with a spiritual consciousness, and a spiritual destiny.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

From Gettysburg to Tucson

In the fall of 1863, Abraham Lincoln was asked to speak at a memorial for the soldiers who died at the battle of Gettysburg. On the train from Washington to the site of the event, he wrote out a brief speech on scraps of paper. The famous orator, Edward Everett, preceded him on the podium, and spoke for over two hours, his address punctuated by applause and followed by an ovation. Lincoln then rose to deliver his remarks, which lasted only a few minutes. There was no applause, and there was silence as the president returned to his seat. That silence lingered for some time.

Today no one can remember anything Everett said, while all of us (I hope) can quote from Lincoln's address. Every school child is required to read it, and, in private schools at least, to memorize it. The mainstream press of the time derided the Gettysburg Address, calling it silly, trivial, and disrespectful. They offered it as proof of Lincoln's unfitness for the office he held, and dismissed it out of hand. Yet it is now regarded as the greatest speech in American history.

The listeners at Gettysburg knew it if the self-appointed experts did not. Their silence throughout the speech, and especially after it, was not only a fitting response to Lincoln's words, which perfectly summarized the meaning of the event, but that silence was also a perfect tribute to the sacrifices and memory of those whom they had gathered to honor.

In Tucson yesterday, another president who, for reasons I cannot fathom, has been compared to Lincoln, spoke at a memorial for fallen Americans. The atmosphere, and his management of it, were quite different. There were cheers, hooting, shouts and whistles as he spoke; the event had more the character of a pep rally than a memorial service.

Now, of course, the behavior of the largely college-student audience was not the president's doing; but to my mind, as soon as the raucous reaction started during his speech, he had an obligation to quieten it, politely but firmly, as we do with misbehaved children. Instead, he chose to ride the wave of adolescent enthusiasm, and to encourage the entirely inappropriate aura of celebration in the wake of tragedy. He treated the memorial as though it were a campaign rally, which it quickly became, because, I suppose, that is the forum in which he feels most comfortable. And not only that: After the speech, he descended from the podium to shake hands, exactly as if it were a campaign whistle stop, and to pause for photo ops with members of the audience, smiling, hugging young women and backslapping supporters. To my mind, this went beyond disrespect; it was disgraceful.

Whatever you thought of the speech, whatever you think of the president, I ask you to try to imagine Lincoln having behaved in this way at Gettysburg. Can you conceive of that president whipping up the audience, eliciting and reveling in their cheers, and then moving down among the crowd to press the flesh and pause and grin while Brady or O'Sullivan flashed their magnesium? And what would history have recorded of the fact?

Presidential remarks at a memorial service for murdered Americans call for solemnity, grace, and the head of state's obligation to put current tragedy in the perspective of the nation's history not only in his words, but by his demeanor. That is what Lincoln did, and what Obama failed utterly to do. It is not what Obama said that I object to (though whereas Lincoln wrote his speech himself, Obama's was yet another oration by committee); it is the manner in which he comported himself and the shameful way in which he allowed this solemn occasion to become just another campaign stop that I found not merely disappointing, but disturbing.

In my view, Obama's speech was the equivalent of Edward Everett's, and Lincoln's, alas, was not heard, for there was no one to deliver it. I suppose that, just as every nation gets the politics it deserves, every generation of the electorate gets the president it deserves.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Westboro and Speech

I have just read that the Arizona legislature has passed an emergency bill restricting the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to picket at the funeral of the nine-year-old girl murdered in the Tucson massacre. The bill was passed and sent to the governor for signature in a matter of minutes.

I have read much about this bizarre religious group and its hideous protests at the funerals of soldiers, and have listened to many debates about the free speech implications of their activities. I even watched a documentary film, made by British television, about the sect. I have my own views concerning them and their peculiar beliefs, but whatever I or anyone thinks about them, they raise an important constitutional issue regarding freedom of speech in this country.

Let us be frank: What these religious fanatics do is repulsive, inhuman, disgraceful. But is it constitutionally protected speech? That, as Hamlet would say, is the question. On the one hand, all decent human beings are revolted by the efforts of these people to defile the funerals of honorable Americans, and horrified by their violation of the sanctity and grief of the victims’ families in order to make an abstruse, even absurd, theological point. On the other, their protests are precisely the kind of repugnant speech which the first amendment was written to protect. Now they propose to desecrate the funeral of a nine-year-old girl to make their inane point. This child, this innocent, died as a result of a madman’s raving, translated into horrific action, and the members of the Westboro Church, in their perverted logic, see fit to use her funeral as a platform for parading their odious ideas. That much is clear. But the question remains: Is it protected speech?

On this score, I would invoke the words of Lincoln: The question is a difficult one, and good men do not agree. Some argue that the activities of the Westboro Church are so repugnant to basic human decency that they must be suppressed, at least in their public expressions. Others would say that this kind of hideous speech is, and must be, included in the first amendment protection of all speech no matter how divisive and distasteful it may be. As Voltaire said: I may not agree with what you say, but I will protect to the death your right to say it. If ever there was speech with which we disagree, it is that of the Westboro Baptist Church. And so the question becomes: Are we prepared to defend its members’ right to protest this little girl’s funeral?

The convenient and politically expedient response is No. What the church members propose to do violates everything we understand about the innocence of children and the right of parents to grieve for their loss. The point is so obvious that even lawmakers can grasp it: This must be prevented, at all costs. But what is the cost, ultimately? Is it the abridgment of free speech for the sake of personal grief or of a communal sense of decency? Surely, that is too high a price to pay. Under that standard, the Ku Klux Klan would have been exonerated by its local constituencies for cross burning, on the grounds that local standards of fairness would have been violated otherwise. We embark on abridgment of free speech at our peril. Precedents will always come back to haunt us.

And so, what of the threatened Westboro protest of the little girl’s funeral? It seemed to me, initially at least, that the question should be framed thus: Do we hate what the Westboro Church stands for more than we love freedom of speech? If that is the correct way of phrasing it, then the answer is clear: No. We love freedom of speech more; indeed, we value it above all other freedoms, since all other freedoms flow from it: freedom of the press, of religion, of assembly to redress grievances against the government. In these terms, the answer is equally clear: The Westboro Church must have the right to protest the little girl’s funeral. What is at stake ultimately is not the grief of the family or even common decency, but something much greater and more far-reaching – it is the right of every free man and woman in this country to express views that the majority may feel to be repulsive. Such is the nature of free speech; such was the intent of the Founders, who, themselves, expressed views that were considered treasonous at the time. Indeed, they were views for which they could have been, and expected to be, hanged.

But as I continued to reflect on this thorny question, a subsidiary issue occurred. To my way of thinking, the Westboro Baptist Church members are the victims of systematic and unremitting brainwashing. Only such brainwashing could produce the hatred and despite which they display at their protests of the funerals of soldiers. How else to explain the fervent need which they feel now to protest at the funeral of a little girl murdered by a lunatic as she waited to meet her congresswoman, with whom, as a recently elected member of student council, she must have identified? How could the human psyche become so distorted? How could people comport themselves with such callous disregard for even the aspirations and death of a child? How can people behave in such a bestial manner?

The answer, it seems to me, is that they are not legally sane. Their religious indoctrination has distorted their view of reality to such an extent that they can no longer distinguish between right and wrong. Indeed, so brainwashed have they become that they actually see wrong as being not only right, but sanctimonious. I am reminded of the behavior of the priest-molesters of the Roman Catholic Church, who convince themselves that child rape is a blessed prerogative reserved to themselves alone. And so they indulge their bestial appetites at the expense of the innocence of children, content in the belief, religiously inspired, that what they were doing was not only right, but holy.

To my way of thinking, the Westboro people are no different in this case than the molesting Catholic priests – their view of reality is so distorted by their own neuroses and religious indoctrination that they cannot but behave in a criminal manner. And so the issue becomes, not whether we love freedom of speech more than we hate their actions, but, rather: Is the speech of brainwashed lunatics protected by the Constitution? Put this way – which I believe is the correct way – the answer, emphatically, is No. By virtue of their indoctrination and lunacy, the Westboro Baptist Church members forfeit their right to protection of their speech in protesting the funerals not only of the little murdered girl, but those of fallen servicemen as well.

Is insane speech constitutionally protected? Do lunatic ravings fall under the umbrella of the first amendment? Is that what the Founders intended? Certainly not. Indeed, they would, themselves, have to have been mad to protect such speech. The ravings of self-deluding lunatics is no more a legitimate form of speech than is the right of the Tucson killer to express whatever demented views he held by killing innocent people. Looked at from this point of view, the Westboro Christian Church has no more right to its form of expression than did Jared Lee Loughner to his.

To be or not to be clueless

"Hamlet" is my favorite play; indeed, it may be my favorite piece of literature. I have been fortunate to have seen many great productions, including John Gielgud's, Richard Burton's, Christopher Plummer's, Lawrence Olivier's and, my personal favorite, Derek Jacobi's. I own several dvd versions of the play (among them the not-so-great Mel Gibson and Ethan Hawke, and the rather disappointing Kenneth Branagh). I have memorized much of the text, and rarely does a day go by that I do not find occasion to quote from it. Thus, every time I have the opportunity to see a production on stage, I make a point of going, because "Hamlet" like every truly great work of art, reveals new insights and secrets with each experience of it.

When I learned recently that UCLA's graduate theater department was doing "Hamlet" in downtown Los Angeles, I was, frankly, excited. My favorite play performed by the best young actors from one of our finest universities... I imagined that, no matter how uneven the performance, no matter how odd the staging, the sheer energy, talent and youth of the actors would make it worth seeing.

Now, I have put all of my children through "Hamlet" school, watching with each of them several versions of the play; and the youngest one, the eight-year-old, is no exception. He has seen Olivier's "Hamlet" twice with me, and is able to tell you how every member of the cast of characters dies. But he had not yet seen the play on stage, and suddenly I had a chance to expose him to my favorite work of art, interpreted by actors only twelve or fifteen years older than himself. What an opportunity! So I got tickets.

To quote Polonius: I will be brief. As the audience, a handful of friends and relatives of the actors, was filing out after the performance, my son asked me what I thought. I answered that, while I had seen many versions of "Hamlet," this was the first time I had seen a clueless version.

No one connected with this production had the slightest idea what to do with the play. There was no insight, no innovation, no vision, no revelation. The UCLA graduate theater department nearly managed to do what four hundred years of history have not: kill an immortal work of art.

The acting ranged from adequate to miserable. To call the staging minimal would be a bad joke: apart from a few battered chairs and a table, there was none. Now this might be alright, as the Burton "Hamlet" proved, if the acting is brilliant and compelling. At UCLA this was not the case. The girl who played Opehlia was the best of a sorry bunch, and her mad scene was well done. This should have been the bar above which the rest of the performance soared but, alas, it was the high point of the production. The only other spark of life was the gravedigger, played by a young man who affected a Brooklyn accent. And while this was entertaining, it was entirely out of step with the rest of the performances.

Hamlet, himself, was utterly clueless. The young actor who played him was a muscular black fellow with a shaved head and goatee, and when I first saw him I thought: This is going to be interesting -- Tupac Shakur as Hamlet. Far from it, he seemed more intent on getting the lines right than doing anything with them. He brought nothing of himself to the part and got nothing from it in return. There was no depth, no style, no nuance or intensity, and he committed virtually every mistake against which Hamlet warns the players in his admonitions to them. This was, of course, not entirely his fault. To paraphrase Laertes: The director... the director's to blame. Whether he was a professor or a student I do not know; but whoever he is, he ought to turn in his card.

I could go on... The lighting was amateurish, the sound effects silly, and the costumes were a sorry admission that either the program could not afford period ones, or that the director hadn't a clue how to set the play in any other era. The whole thing gave new meaning to the idea that "Hamlet" is a tragedy.

I will say this: If this is the best that the UCLA graduate theater department can do, then they should shut the program down and use the money for something useful -- like landscaping or more parking spaces. Shakespeare would be better served.

Hate Speech

I had intended to say nothing about the tragedy in Tucson. It was madness, and in the sorry way of mad acts, it does not lend itself to the discovery of meaning. To try to find enlightenment in such travesties reminds me of the efforts of religious zealots to ascribe some discernible meaning to earthquakes and solar eclipses. We all scoffed and were repulsed when fundamentalist Christians read the will of God into the attacks on 9/11, and when fundamentalist Muslims did so after the tsunami in Southeast Asia.

Now we see observers on the left of the political spectrum attempting to interpret the shootings through the distorting prism of their ideology. Before we even knew the name of the killer or anything else about him, two prominent columnists, one at the New York Times and the other at Newsweek, declared that the shootings were animated by the political rhetoric of the right. This goes beyond irresponsible journalism -- it is itself a form of madness. And now this morning I find a colleague of mine, an active campaigner for liberal causes, posting on Facebook her conviction that "Sarah Palin bears a special responsibility for the shooting of Congresswoman Giffords." I submit that such irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric is precisely the kind of hate speech which she apparently seeks to condemn. This sort of hysterical, ideologically-driven nonsense must stop if the political discourse in this nation, which has become dangerous on both the left and right, is to be defused.

The hysteria goes beyond irresponsible speech, however; the next step is always irresponsible legislation. Yesterday I heard of a Pennsylvania congressman who is proposing a ban on the kind of extended ammunition clips which the killer is reported to have used. I have learned to expect such puerile behavior from members of Congress. It is as if the congressman is saying: "We can't stop the lunatics from shooting innocent people, but we can make it difficult for them to shoot more than seven or eight at a time." This nonsense, like the hysterical rhetoric, also has to stop.

The sad fact is true that, as Harry Truman said, any nut who can afford to buy a suit can kill a president. On the very eve of his assassination, Jack Kennedy observed that if somebody with a rifle wanted to kill him, there was no way to stop it. What is needed now, in the wake of this monstrous, irrational act, is mature, rational response. None of us, of any political persuasion, dampens the flames by fanning them.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Insanity Pleas

Increasingly, watching the news is like seeing a road company production of Marat/Sade. I hear politicians mouthing the same stale platitudes and offering the same pointless proposals that I have listened to my entire life. May I make one point clear? We are going bankrupt.

That fact, unmistakable and urgent, should be dominating our political discourse. Instead, the hacks in Washington and Sacramento are behaving as if business as usual will get us out of this mess. California is broke - desperately so - and Washington is very nearly broke, and persisting in the same rhetoric and the same tactics is not going to fix it. We will be the first generation in American history to leave our children impoverished, having saddled them with a debt they cannot hope to pay. And in the face of this, the so-called leaders of our state and nation continue to argue for increased spending, more government regulation and higher taxes as if the bus of our economy were not already dangling over the cliff.

The same inane arguments between liberals and conservatives continue regardless. The simple fact is that there is a vacuum of leadership at every level of government which is becoming more acute and lethal as generation after generation of politicians refuse to speak the truth to the public, and implement the painful policies of austerity and sacrifice that will be necessary to save our prosperity from extinction. On one level the solution is simple: Government has grown far too big and intrusive and it spends far too much money on programs that were never imagined or intended by the Founders. The size of government is the problem, and so the solution begins with reducing it radically. This will not only be salvation for the economy, but for personal liberty as well.

It is in the details that the devil devours everyone who comes near. All right, let me begin with this: Reduce the size of government by ten percent across the board and impose a freeze on any new government spending. Since fraud and waste are endemic in government programs, simply eliminate as many as possible. Personally, I would start at the federal level by eliminating the Departments of Labor, Education, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services and Commerce, and by privatizing the post office. Beyond that, I would dump the current tax code and replace it with a universal flat tax on individuals and corporations of no more than fifteen percent, and enact balanced budget legislation requiring federal and state governments to live within the means provided by the tax. Needless to say, Obama Care must be repealed and the new corporate regulations rolled back as well.

We must free the economy to do what it does best -- create jobs, opportunity and wealth. Give every disincentive possible to the growth of government and offer every incentive possible to private enterprise. Reward risk, innovation and excellence. Return to our faith in the power of the free market, personal liberty and individual initiative, and cleanse our society of the debilitating lie that government is not the problem but the solution.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Exposing "Exposure"

I had enjoyed the poetry of Wilfred Owen since I first discovered him in high school, and regarded him as one of the most important of the Great War poets. However, recently, I bought a CD of readings of World War I poetry, and among the works read was Owen’s poem, “Exposure.” I was stunned. I had somehow missed this poem, and when I first listened to it, could hardly take in what I was hearing. I played it over and over, finding more in the lines each time. The first thing that struck me, besides the power and intensity of the language, was the fact that the rhyme scheme seemed to consist entirely of slant rhymes; that is, words that nearly rhymed but were not true rhymes. Beyond that, the verse had a ragged, half-eaten rhythm which bespoke a meter both uneven and breathless. The imagery was haunting, as in much of Owen’s work, the metaphors darkly original, the use of onomatopoeia stark and rattling, and the tone, again as in his best work, not infectious so much as infected.

I looked up “Exposure” in my volume of Owen’s work, and read it for myself to determine whether what I was hearing on the recording was, in fact, on the page. It was. I regard “Exposure” as one of the greatest poems of the twentieth century – perhaps the greatest –and my estimation of Owen has risen with it. I now place him among the greatest recent poets of the English language, alongside Eliot, Auden, and G.M. Hopkins, and I cannot help but feel that, had he lived (he was killed one week before the armistice), he would have surpassed them.

I would like to attempt an exposure of “Exposure” here in order to try to explain why I think the poem is such a signal accomplishment; powerful, moving, original, beautiful in its own somber way, and as tightly crafted as the Enfield rifles which the Tommies carried in the trenches.

The setting of the poem is the trenches of the Western Front in 1917. Owen is an officer in a regiment which holds a trench in a salient. Surrounded on three sides by the enemy, these salients were among the most dangerous places in the front line. It is winter, dawn, snowing. Owen writes:

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us...
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent...
Low, drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient...
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
But nothing happens.

Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
What are we doing here?

The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow...
We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of gray,
But nothing happens.

Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less deathly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew;
We watch them wandering up and down the wind's nonchalance,
But nothing happens.

Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces -
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses,
- Is it that we are dying?

Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed, -
We turn back to our dying.

Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Nor ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
For God's invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
For love of God seems dying.

To-night, this frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shriveling many hands, puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
But nothing happens.

Before I undertake a detailed analysis of the poem, I should make a few general comments. A brief scansion of the verses reveals the jagged meter of the lines. The first three verses are characteristic: in verse one we find the number of syllables as 14, 13,13,14 and the refrain of 5; in verse two, 12, 13, 14, 12 and 6; in verse three, 12, 13, 13, 12 and 5, and so on through the poem. This is, of course, a deliberate choice on Owen’s part. The salient represents a jagged edge to the forward line, irregular, uneven, ugly in a formal sense. What is more, it is night, freezing, the men can see nothing through the thick dark and snow. There may be movement, there may not; there is wailing wind tugging at barbed wire, twitching, brambled, there is tense silence and rumors – nothing is certain. And for this reason, nothing about the metrics of the poem is certain. All is obscure, jagged, uneven. Just as the salient should never have occurred, is demanding dangerously to be smoothed and made regular and even, so, too, the meter of the lines is irregular, uncertain, and studded with the truncated refrain like the snouts of rifles pointing into the icy darkness.

My initial impression on hearing the poem was correct: there are no straight rhymes in the poem; all are near-rhymes. The rhyme scheme itself is regular, but odd: a/b/b/a/c; d/e/e/d/f, and so on throughout. Thus the two outer lines of each quatrain nearly rhyme, as do the two inner ones, while the fifth line depends, naked and exposed. “Exposure” contains some of the most original, daring and jarring slant rhymes I have ever read. Consider, for example: knive us/nervous; silence/nonchalance; snow/renew; faces/fusses; their/theirs (a truly daring rhyme); fruit/afraid; crisp/grasp. These near-rhymes, – we might almost call them anti-rhymes – strike like bullets, or glare out like the flares that confuse the men, failing, like the salient itself, to offer the protection and predictability of a straightened front line. Again, Owen makes the deliberate choice to rough up, or even to make ugly, his verse so as to bring it closer to the reality he describes. Nothing about this poem is comfortable, predictable, secure. Everything is exposed.

This raises an interesting point about the poem. Owen originally planned to title it “Nothing Happens,” but changed it at last to “Exposure.” The title has several implications; first among them, the exposure of the men to the elements and to imminent danger, but beyond that, the exposure of the insanity, futility and precariousness of their position. A third level of meaning of the title will become clear as we read of the men’s exhausted musings, indeed, hallucinations, about home: they know that even if they survive, they can never return. They are exposed mentally, morally, spiritually. Their condition, the violence of their role, has carried them beyond safety, comfort, even love. Yet for this unconscionable task they “were born,” Owen says; and with it, “love of God seems dying.” These men are exposed utterly and ultimately – their souls are stripped naked to the fingering of the black snow.

Thus everything about this poem, from the meter of its lines, to the anti-rhymes which cap them, to the layers of meaning of its title, speaks of exposure. The poem is itself the experience which Owen describes. It is not art imitating life: it is art breathing the putrid stench of despair and imminent death.

The opening words, “Our brains ache,” are, of course, a morbid reference to Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” (“My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense). I think it may not be too much to point out that Owen puts a comma after the first three syllables, though strictly speaking a comma ought not to be there. But it is there in Keats, and so Owen breaks the line as and where Keats did. The reference is additionally apposite in that Keats describes a drowsy numbness, brought about by melancholy, while Owen’s men also feel a drowsy numbness, though brought about by the much more pressing experience of exhaustion and fear. Like Owen’s Tommies, Keats, too, feels “The weariness, the fever, and the fret /Here, where men sit and hear each other groan.” The invocation of the romantic poet’s lethargy thus feels completely, though ironically, apt.

The remainder of the line contains our first sound effect: “in the merciless iced east winds that knive us…” The alternation of sibilance with hard consonants invokes the sound of the winds, which become the enemy's bayonets. There is a nice internal slant rhyme in “iced east”, and the use of “knive” is telling. Most poets would have written “knife” (and at least one editor of the poem uses "knife"), but Owen chooses the more unexpected form, which produces the desired effect. We are “knifed” suddenly by this choice of word, which is much more dramatic than it would otherwise have been.

I should point out here that my favorite poet, Gerard Manly Hopkins, often creates similar effects in his work. I think, in particular, of a wonderful example of using an unexpected word form which occurs in his beautiful poem, “God’s Grandeur.” Speaking of man’s strident assault on Nature, he says: “And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Again, any other poet would have written “freshest,” which would be the correct form; but Hopkins, like Owen, uses a deliberate distortion to shock the reader, heighten his consciousness, and create a dramatic effect. It is as if we are sentries nodding off, and suddenly jolted back to awareness by an unnatural sound.

Again, the first line of “Exposure” is an odd length, fourteen syllables; not ten or twelve, or fifteen or even sixteen, which would feel more finished. Immediately we feel that something is not right, something is unnatural, though because it is in the meter, we do not at first know consciously what it is. We are uncertain, we feel a tension, which puts us at once into the mental condition of the men. Thus, in the very first line, we have an ironic, apt, and soulful reference to romantic poetry, a howling onomatopoeia which puts us immediately into the scene, a deliberate use of an unexpected word form to produce a visceral effect, and an irregular metric scheme which creates the tension that infuses the entire poem. This is brilliant dramatic poesy.

Owen goes on to state that it is the silence of the night that keeps the men awake. This is ironic since silence would normally induce sleep. But just as with the rhythm scheme, tension is everywhere, and silence is entirely unnatural here. We have a wonderful near rhyme in silent/salient, followed by another sound effect: “Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous”. This low sibilance suggests the whispers themselves, curious and nervous. And then comes the refrain: “But nothing happens.”

It would be hard to imagine a more powerful denial of the tension inherent in the poem. The men are freezing, exhausted, confused, worried and nervous, expecting an attack at any moment… but nothing happens. This is the persistent irony of the poem, introduced here as a motif that will recur, though not exclusively (in Owen’s words, it will “flock, pause and renew”). For just as with everything else in “Exposure,” the refrain is subject to uncertainty, and to annihilation at a moment’s notice.

Our attention is next called to the wind and the barbed wire. Gusts tug at the wire “Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.” We have already heard this wind; now we are reminded that men, some still alive, may hang upon it as the soldiers look out across the salient. Owen refers to the barbs as brambles, an adumbration of his references to home and its fields and vegetation which will come later. To the north is the rumble of guns, “Like a dull rumor of some other war.” The reference here is to the New Testament (Matthew, 24:6): “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars.” With this, Owen places the men’s experience of exposure within a biblical context; one which presages the Second Coming and the end of the world.

At this apocalyptic moment, Owen asks the question, in place of the refrain: “What are we doing here?” To me, this is one of the most powerful moments in the poem. So simple a question, so apparently mundane; yet it is THE question – the one every soldier is asking himself but none dares to ask aloud. The question in the minds of everyone involved in the war – the ultimate existential question posed by the war: What are we doing here? The line is devastating in its frankness and simplicity, and represents an act of poetic courage on Owen’s part. Siegfried Sassoon tried something similar in his touching poem, “The Redeemer,” when he remarks that the boys in the trenches have “learned that nights are very long.” It is a homespun phrase, an ordinary sort of observation, but it falls flat like a dud shell. It lacks utterly the power of Owen’s question – What are we doing here? – which throws everything into a sudden stark relief of quandary and bewilderment as it cuts straight to the heart of the matter.

The next line contains one of Owen’s most moving and disturbing turns of phrase: “The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow…” Dawn should represent a reawakening, a hope for day, an end to night. But here it is a poignant misery bringing with it only another day of suffering, exposure, uncertainty and death. He describes dawn as “massing in the east her melancholy army” which “Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of gray.” Of course, the Germans lay to the east, their uniforms field gray, and so the image and the reality are one. As I have said, this is a characteristic of the poem: metaphor and meaning are so close as to become the same thing. Reality lies exposed, as close to the surface of imagery as it is possible for a poet to render it. This is one of the hallmarks of the greatest art – that expression and language are wedded into a single dramatic experience. Such is the nature of the late Beethoven string quartets, for example, in which the language of the quartets was created to mirror the spiritual insight which Beethoven was attempting to express. We see it, too, in the last sculptures of Michelangelo, in Turner’s paintings, and in the late plays of Samuel Beckett, which strip imagery down to the very shape of the ideas the artist wishes to dramatize.

The fourth verse begins with a sound effect typical of Owen’s poetry: “Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.” We think of his wonderful poem, “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” and the line “Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle,” which imitates the clatter of the firing. In “Exposure” the shots do not stutter; instead, they hiss and whistle, rather like the wind. Lethal as the firing is, the bullets are, as Owen says, “Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow.” It is the elements that pose the most immediate threat. The men may hunker down in their trench against the bullets, but they are not safe from the cold and storm, the “sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause and renew,” an onomatopoeia which creates a brilliant evocation of the swishing snowfall. “We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,” he observes, “But nothing happens.”

Owen continues his musing on the snow in the next verse, suggesting that the flakes have fingers which “come feeling for our faces.” The storm is deliberate, malicious, a lethal presence with fingers that seek them out more stealithy than the Germans’ bullets. Against this threat, the men “cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams,” Owen says, and with this he introduces the next major gesture of the poem: home. Dazed by the cold and snow, the men stare “Deep into grassier ditches,” where they lie in the sun and are covered with trickling petals “where the blackbird fusses.” Suddenly the scene is shifted – violently, we may say. We are wrenched from the snow-blown trenches to the petal-blessed field, and the freezing black air is replaced with the fussing of blackbirds. This is the single, central breathtaking movement of the poem: this macabre, miraculous shift from the trenches to home; from the present to the past, and it comes upon us nonchalantly like the flakes’ fingers feeling for our faces.

On the heels of this startling shift, the refrain also changes: “Is it that we are dying?” Owen asks. The answer is, yes, of course they are dying, from the storm if not from the bullets. But Owen’s query has a deeper purpose. The men must be dying if they are gazing into the fields of home. Indeed, the only way they can return is as dead men, as we shall soon see. Yes, they are dying, not just dreaming, and their dying takes them inexorably, ineffectually back home. They know the truth of this: that they must die in order to go home.

Owen makes this explicit in the next verse: “Slowly our ghosts drag home,” he says, admitting that, in fact, they are dying. There they find sunk fires “glozed With crusted dark-red jewels.” The use of “glozed” which conflates glow and glazed is beautiful. It has been suggested that Owen coined this word, but I find it in my linguistic bible, Chambers Dictionary, as coming from Greek, Latin and old French, and being related to the word “gloss.” One of its meanings is “to deceive with words,” and this would fit in an eerie way with the tone of the poem. For the poem is, in a sense, meant to palliate the reader and even the soldiers; to distract them in its verses from the truth which they face across the wire: that death is coming with the dawn, and to escape it, they must return home as ghosts. It is their only hope for survival, which is, in fact, a non-survival. They, too, have been glozed, turned to dying blood red embers, glazed by the snowstorm, glossed over by those who have left them for dead. This is an example in Owen (which we also find throughout Hopkins) of choosing or creating a word ripe with what is called deep structure, or hidden meaning. “Glozed,” as Owen uses it here, is such a word, simmering with intent; cratered with implication and force.

The home fires, tellingly, have sunk, for the men were not there to tend them, and now only coals the color of blood remain to welcome them. Like the men, the hearth, too, is dying. The house, abandoned, swarms with jingling crickets and rejoicing mice; “the house is theirs,” Owen says. But worst of all, the shutters and doors are closed, “all closed; on us the doors are closed.” They have been given up for dead by those at home; all that they were and had and hoped to return to is gone. Unable, thus, to go home, Owen concludes, “We turn back to our dying.” It is all the men have and are and can hope for now in the fingering dark and fear of the salient.
In the opening of the next verse, Owen ruptures the spell of the poem with a stentorian declamation. “Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn,” he asks. It is a jarring interruption, wholly out of tune with the rest of the poem, and one feels that this verse could be dropped without great loss. I can imagine that Owen may have considered dropping it, but chose to retain it, and I must ask myself why. The answer lies, I think, in the sudden shifts and jagged uncertainties of the piece. I cannot help but feel that Owen deliberately wanted to step outside the atmosphere of the trenches for a moment, for what can only be called an intellectual rumination. This is more likely when we realize that this is the penultimate verse, setting up in an almost formal, one may even say, literary way, the final lines of the poem.

“Since we believe not otherwise…” It is a difficult assertion to understand. To what does it refer? To the fact that they are dying? To the fact that their homes are closed to them? To the fact that they are ghosts and home has become an echoing dream? Yes, to all of that, I think; but to something else as well. What do they now believe? That question, like “What are we doing here?” imposes itself on the poem. The men do not believe otherwise than that there is nothing left to believe in. They have no belief left at all, having died, become ghosts, dragged themselves home and found their homes abandoned. The Great War which started in England at least as a crusade, has been stripped of belief, leaving the men to wonder what they are doing here? Again that existential query echoes through the poem: What are we doing here? now that there is nothing to believe in.

I think we must approach this verse, which, as I suggest, is at odds with the tone of the rest of the poem, as a sudden intrusion planned as deliberately as everything else in the piece. For just a moment, for a few lines, Owen emerges as Owen, the gentleman officer, the public school graduate, the scholar of antiquities and of literature, to reflect on what all this confusion, misery and fear may mean. And indeed he does so. Home fires can no longer burn, he has said, and he goes on: “Nor ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.” This reminds us of his poem, “Futility,” in which he laments that the sun upon the fields of home which always had wakened the dead soldier boy can do so no longer. “Oh what made fatuous sunbeams toil to break earth’s sleep at all?” he famously concludes.

The sun, like the fire, is burnt out, its reviving warmth exhausted, as the men are exhausted. There is nothing more to hope for from it, and so, no hope of rebirth remains. “For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid,” he continues. The year is dead, the earth will never be reborn; and the men fear the fact. The love which ought to have animated their homes and kept them alive in its memory, is dead – and with that love, they died. They have nothing left to believe in nor anything left to live for, and so “Therefore, not loath, we lie out here,” Owen declares; “therefore were born.”

This is the ultimate admission of doom: These men were born for death – for this meaningless, fruitless death among the wired brambles and black snow and before the grey armies of the deadly dawn. Yet they acknowledge the fact; they embrace it, “For love of God seems dying.” This statement is double-edged: It means both that their love of God is dying, and that God’s love of them is dying. They no longer can bring themselves to believe that God loves them; neither can they anymore love God. If one is born for death, then why be born at all? Owen is saying here that he and his men are creatures of death, and can look forward to nothing but extinction, like the fire, like the sun, like the spring.

With this, the final verse returns us brutally to the trenches, invoking once again the bitter, killing cold. “To-night this frost will fasten on this mud and us,” he writes, making no distinction now between the men and the mud, since they are nothing but the cold clay of that star which the sun once so fatuously awoke. Then, finally, he turns our attention to the burying parties, “picks and shovels in shaking grasp,” who brave their way into No- Man’s Land in search of comrades, and pause over half-known faces. “All their eyes are ice,” he notes, in recognition of the fact that the dead have themselves become mere elements of the winter. It is a chilling, horrifyingly sudden image of death – not their bodies, not their limbs, but their eyes, open, staring at the storm, and like it silent, frozen. And again he adds: “But nothing happens.”

The refrain, introduced, abandoned like the home fires, brought back to brief life and then forgotten again, returns at last with hollow force. Like a theme and variations in Bach or Beethoven, it is repeated at the end, having thickened and deepened with the revelations which it prompted and which preceded it. It is no longer the idle, ironic observation of the first verse; it is now a general condemnation of the race, for which spring is dead, love is dead, God is dead. It is for this, Owen declares, that “we were born.”

We are reminded of Hopkins’ sonnet, “Spring and Fall: to a Young Maid,” the conclusion of which is the poet revealing to the little girl, Margaret, who weeps at the fading of summer, that death “is the blight man was born for. It is Margaret you mourn for.” In “Exposure,” the revelation is broader: in the salient trench of this black dawn, it is humanity Wilfred Owen mourns for.