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Archive for November, 2008

Saturday night I went with my family to see a local production of the musical, Children of Eden. As described in the program, it is “a musical about family and relationships inspired by the Book of Genesis,” with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (who also did Pippin, Godspell, and Wicked).

The book (meaning the lines and story of the musical), however, was written by John Caird, based on a concept by Charles Lisanby. And I have to say that I found their take on Genesis rather intriguing, though not surprising when you consider how a writer might interpret the beginning of the best known book in the world. After all, writers are always looking for themes and cycles, as well as symbolism, and Genesis is chock full of all of that.

As presented in this musical, the development and eventual breaking up of families is all a part of life. It began in Eden, when Adam and Eve grew up to the point where they disobeyed authority, and had to leave their Father. They began their own family and tried to control the lives of their own sons, until one disobeyed, killed the other, and had to leave. The cycle looks as if it’s going to repeat yet again, with Noah and his son Japheth… until, with the flood all around, Noah forgives Japheth’s disobedience and the family remains united.

While the show’s interpretation doesn’t entirely square with my own understanding of Genesis, it did cause me to think about the Garden of Eden story as emblematic of how we are entrusted with our children only until they have lost their innocence. At some point, our children must go out on their own. They can call us from time to time (just as Adam and Eve prayed to God), but they are free to act for themselves and we have to learn to face that fact. Our love for them never ceases; only our control over them.

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I’ve begun reading James Wood’s new book on writing, entitled How Fiction Works. On the very first page of the first chapter, “Narrating,” he writes:

“Authorial omniscience, people assume, has had its day, much as that ‘vast, moth-eaten musical brocade’ called religion has also had its.” (It is interesting that, yet again, religion is under fire.)

This well known literary critic for The New Yorker then goes on to quote, at length, W. G. Sebald from an interview published in issue 10 of Brick magazine:

“I think that fiction writing which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself is a form of imposture which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind…If you refer to Jane Austen, you refer to a world where there were set standards of propriety which were accepted by everyone. Given that you have a world where the rules are clear and where one knows where trespassing begins, then I think it is legitimate, within that context, to be a narrator who knows what the rules are and who knows the answers to certain questions. But I think these certainties have been taken from us by the course of history, and that we do have to acknowledge our own sense of ignorance and of insufficiency in these matters and therefore to try and write accordingly.”

I’m not certain how I feel about this. There’s a certain elegance to his thinking and the world has certainly spun out of control when it comes to rules and norms. But if he’s right, why does fiction written in third person omniscient continue to sell? He would probably sniff and reply that it only sells to the unthinking, unsophisticated masses. It sells to people who don’t mind having an all-knowing storyteller lead them on an adventure, away from this crazy, tilted world and into a world all its own, lighting the path ahead only far enough to keep them going. Well, I, personally, enjoy that kind of journey now and then.

I suppose that means I am unthinking and unsophisticated. But, for me, the world has become too self-centered, so I can only take an occasional first person narrative. Today it’s all the rage. But, then, I never cared much for fads.

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Reading a Poet

This past Thursday evening I had the real pleasure of listening to Washington State’s Poet Laureate, Samuel Green, as he read several of his most recently published poems aloud during a visit to WSU here in the Tri-Cities.

By “pleasure of listening,” I mean that I bathed in the rich cadence of his words, leading me to the isolated, cozy community of the small island on which he and his wife have lived for the past 26 years. He gave a brief account of their life there and then read enough of his poems from The Grace of Necessity to fill in the spaces between his descriptions. He opened to complete strangers some distant chapters in his life about his father and the Vietnam War.

What will remain with me most was the image he conveyed of burying his long-known friends. You see, when they moved to this island there were only some 90 other souls there. With no electricity, no indoor plumbing, and no phones (until the advent of cell phones in the past decade), friendships were a necessity and a gift. But, over time, the cemetery there is becoming filled with their acquaintances. When someone passes, all are called on to help… from preparing the body to shoveling the dirt. And, as the only resident poet, he is called on to pen some words for nearly every funeral or wake.

How easy it is for a writer to call up the dead with words. But to bury them? That takes the kind of strength that showed in his slow, rich, and easy way.

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