Sunday, September 7, 2014

50 Works of Art, Part V

Final installment! Here are the last 10 works of art that have influenced me:

41. “Swim” – Ani DiFranco


Whatever Ani is doing to her guitar to make it sound like that, this song does to me. The sound and lyrics capture, to me, that feeling where you know you're not exactly OK, but you will be. There's hope.

42. “As I Walked Out One Evening” – W.H. Auden
…Because who doesn’t love being reminded that every day hurls us closer to death and human lives don’t mean that much anyway!

Images of lives like wheat (you know, which get collected by a REAPER), or of Time as a river that flows on after we’re gone, sneak into our consciousness as we read this. I always get lulled by the melody and simplicity of the language, and so the heavy ideas don’t overwhelm. Well, not right away. Rockabye baby, here’s a gushy love song… oh and by the way YOU CANNOT CONQUER TIME!

Nope, Time breaks us down gently, gradually. We don’t even notice it most days because we’re so distracted by little things.

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
‘Love has no ending.

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
 Like geese about the sky.

‘The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.'

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

‘In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.

‘Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.

‘O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.

‘O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart.'

It was late, late in the evening, The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.

These two lines gut-punch me every time. Every. Time.
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

43. “Henry and June” – Anaïs Nin


I admire Nin's fiction for the unusual word choices she makes and very powerful imagery, but I truly envy her for her journals. She had an uncanny ability to write about her own life as it was happening in cogent, highly readable ways.

Yeah, it helps that this collection from her journals is about seducing the wife of author Henry Miller and then seducing the author himself--it wasn't a dull life, to be sure. But it still unnerves me that she had editors--including Henry Miller!--read over her journals almost as soon as the ink was dry to try to make the writing better and tease out certain ideas.

Nin lived her art and didn't put up boundaries between her work and her life. I am the sort of idealist who admires that.

44. Kenneth Patchem
I learned about the life of Beat poet Kenneth Patchem through a graphic novel history of the Beats.


Patchem was the product of the working class Rust Belt in the early 20th Century, and developed a talent for startlingly beautiful and tender prose and poetry. At a young age he suffered a spinal injury that would plague him for the rest of his life, often leaving him confined to bed. And yet, he recounted almost ecstatic beauty in his writing.

I found his story, and his art, beautiful and heart-breaking, It will always stay with me.





45. “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” – David Foster Wallace



This collection of stories broke my brain. There wasn't a single traditional narrative. It's all fragments and obsessions over the tiniest of details that make up life.

This is a jarring, uncomfortable read at times, but it can also be tender. It made me want to experiment with how a story is told.

46. “Bird by Bird” – Anne Lamott


This is a great read about why we write--fiction, essays, school reports, anything--interspersed with Lamott's memories of becoming a writer.

What stands out of me is the author’s zany sense of humor. This book came into my life when I was still in high school and taking myself a little too seriously. I wanted everything I wrote to be dramatic and serious. Which is fine, but I spend a good part of each day of my life laughing. It’s important to be able to capture that, too, and to share it.

As far as I’m concerned, no one writes better essays or nonfiction than Anne Lamott. 


47. “The Tao of Pooh” – Benjamin Hoff




This unusual nonfiction project changed me forever when I read it at 16--I desperately needed this book in my life at 16. Taoist philosophy is patiently and warmly explained through examples from A. A. Milne's Winne the Pooh.

I’m not sure if I see the influence of parable in my own writing, but I was strongly attracted to the use of a familiar childhood icon to explain what was to me at the time a new way of seeing the world. I loved the fusion of this book.

48. “The Little Prince” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Hmm, perhaps the theme of this list is Children’s Lit That Makes Me Weep

Maybe I should take back what I just said about parables. They appear a lot on this list.

49. The Merchant of Venice – William Shakespeare
This is the first Shakespeare play I ever loved. I saw it put on at a festival when I was 11 years old, and I’ve had a soft spot for smart ladies who need to put on drag to be heard in their time/place/society ever since. THANK YOU PORTIA, NEVER CHANGE.

This is a controversial play and I never studied it in a class. The representation of Shylock is complicated, and certainly comes with the baggage of an ugly past. Readers are stuck with what’s written/recorded in the text, but on stage Shylock has at times been portrayed as a hideous stereotype of a Jewish banker.

But look at this modern embodiment care of Al Pacino:



Here Shylock is a sympathetic character. He’s not the hero, but he is certainly human; every reader can admit to being wronged and the desire for revenge. He isn’t stupid or petty or cruel. He’s proud and disillusioned and humiliated, and my heart breaks every time I watch this scene. (I own this version on DVD so that’s pretty often.)

I want to write messy characters, and sometimes the characters we love will fail. Characters don’t have the narrator’s birds’ eye view. To keep a story realistic, characters must get trapped by the pitfalls a reader may see coming. It can be emotionally exhausting for the reader/audience, but that also means that a work is resonating (succeeding).

50. “The Giving Tree” – Shel Silverstein
Yeah that’s three Silverstein entries on this list. Deal with it. No one has ever written more honestly or successfully about love than this author in this work, in my most humble opinion.



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