Monthly Archives: May 2019

on photography (MINE; an exchange of emails, with apologies to Susan Sontag)

 

 

The following is an exchange of emails I had within the past day with my friend Ewa from the Bronx. Her email from yesterday evening contained what I regard as very insightful comments.

 

 

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May 29, 2019

 

Dear Roger,

I appreciate all the pictures you send me. Sometimes I have no time to give them the right amount of attention, but when I do, I go over all of them carefully.

They are very nice and show different and sometimes surprising City views.

It’s interesting how people play suggestive roles in the pictures, making natural gestures look theatrical (like the one from May 19th). I sometimes get surprised by unusual framing like with the photo where the Statue of Liberty peaks from between the trunks, or fronds of greens in the park. Frozen crowds and some of the places that I have never been to make the pictures distant, but knowing the fact that I could experience them on my day off makes looking at them like at goods at the store that I could afford.

I don’t have time to walk around the city, but it gives me an insight into New York City’s architecture and landscapes and life of the city in general.

I admire the style and cropping. Once again, thank you, Roger.

 

 

 

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May 30, 2019

 

Thanks for your emails from last night, Ewa.

Thanks for complimenting my photos

I have never been good at hardly any technical, hands on skill. I never seemed to have any aptitude for photography. I was pleasantly surprised to find that several people seem to like my photos a lot.

I have gotten a little bit adept at things like cropping and tweaking photos, but I am far from being a pro.

I appreciated your email because it showed an awareness of certain key things.

My photos are a sort of paean to Manhattan, my city. My feelings about it are similar to what Walt Whitman’s were.

Your comment “It’s interesting how people play suggestive roles in the pictures making natural gestures look theatrical (like the one from May 19th)” is very much on target. I find that a photo of, say, Central Park or Fifth Avenue is enhanced by having people in it.

I have acquaintances who have much more expertise in photography than I do and who own expensive cameras. Often their photos do not engage me. A splendid photo of the Taj Mahal in the evening; a photo of whales taken from a whale watching expedition or of a moose in a national park often leave me sort of detached. I feel that if I wanted to see such photos, I could find them on an internet site for tourists or in National Geographic.

A further thought: A relative of mine, noticing that I not infrequently include photos of myself (on my City walks) in Facebook posts, posted a critical comment about this on Facebook a while ago. When I complained to the relative, the relative replied: “Don’t understand why you post a picture of yourself almost every day in the same pose.”

Well, my hero Walt Whitman loved to have his photo taken — he was fascinated by the new invention of photography — often in a photo studio on lower Broadway. Posting pictures of myself may be a form of self-flattery, but the intent is also to show myself as being part of the scene: that I was at such and such a spot in the City on a particular date and time. In different parks, on the Brooklyn Bridge, on the steps of the New York Public Library, in front of some famous Manhattan building, and so on. I think it adds verisimilitude to a sort of photographic travelogue or diary of a City walker (me).

 

Roger

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   May 30, 2019

 

 

 

Central Park 2-47 p.m. 5-19-2019

Central Park, May 19, 2019; photograph by Roger W. Smith

 

 

 

Walt Whitman (3)

Walt Whitman

It’s gone.

 

It’s gone.

They’re gone.

The past. Our lived history. Past times. The particulars. What made them unique.

This past, our past, dies with people. As they pass away. Dies as well as the people themselves.

An era. A generation. Gone irretrievably.

 

 

 

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My friend Bill Dalzell.

I think of him often. Of New York as he knew it.

When the City was affordable, actually cheap. When it was hospitable to artists, writers, and editors; to independent types who loved culture, the arts, and the life of the mind and who didn’t want the buttoned down life.

The New York of art film houses, the Automat, McSorley’s Old Ale House, and the Blarney Stones; of the Metropolitan Museum of Art when admission was free; of the New York Public Library when it was open 365 days a year. When First Avenue bars held Sunday afternoon poetry readings.

When the subway fare was a dime, a glass of beer was twenty cents, and flats in the Lower East Side rented in the 30 to 50 dollar a month range.

Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr., my therapist.

He practiced when psychiatrists did talk therapy and were intellectuals rather than pill pushers; when (as was the case with me) they charged 30 dollars for a session scheduled for 50 minutes that usually lasted an hour; when a writer such as Dr. Colp used a Royal manual typewriter; when a Sunday afternoon or holiday recreation for him and many Manhattanites, such as myself, involved seeing a foreign film.

 

 

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This melancholy, mournful train of thoughts occurred to me today when for some reason or other I thought of Bill, when something reminded me of him.

 

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 22, 2019

“Let it stand.” (an exchange of emails about James Joyce)

 
Once or twice [Joyce] dictated a bit of Finnegans Wake to [Samuel] Beckett, though dictation did not work very well for him; in the middle of one such session there was a knock at the door which Beckett didn’t hear. Joyce said, ‘Come in,’ and Beckett wrote it down. Afterwards he read back what he had written and Joyce said, ‘What’s that “Come in”?’ ‘Yes, you said that,’ said Beckett. Joyce thought for a moment, then said, ‘Let it stand.’ He was quite willing to accept coincidence as his collaborator. Beckett was fascinated and thwarted by Joyce’s singular method.

 

— Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (Oxford University Press, 1965), pg. 662

 

 

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I had the following exchange of emails with my brother the other day. We were discussing certain aspects of writing.

 

 

 

May 8, 2019

 
ROGER

 

Writing shouldn’t amount to an incoherent, rambling screed; a sort of data dump of the brain. But sometimes thoughts creep in and occur that don’t have to be excised.

P.S. There is an interesting passage in Richard Ellman’s biography of Joyce describing how in Paris Joyce was dictating a passage from either Ulysses or Finnegans Wake (I don’t recall which) to his amanuensis, Samuel Becket. There was an interruption such as someone knocking on the door and Joyce said something which Becket wrote down. Then, Becket asked, was that supposed to be included? Joyce mulled it over and said leave it in. It was words such as “Come in.”

 

 

 

PETE SMITH

 

Agree.

But leaving “come in” in text when it was just a remark that happened while writing and when it has nothing to do with the subject about which is being written is absurd. Joyce’s ego must have been enormous by then.

 

 

 

ROGER

 

Joyce was a genius. Us mere mortals can’t carp or judge.

Yes, a bit nutty at times.

Dr. Colp [my former psychiatrist] and I talked quite a bit about Joyce from time to time. Dr. Colp once said to me: “What would I do with a genius like Joyce for a patient?”

 

 

 

PETE SMITH

Yes, a genius, but clearly his self-importance was out of control if he had become arrogant enough to leave something in that made no sense.

 

 

ROGER

I wouldn’t argue the point. When I read this (years ago), it made me wonder.

 

 

 

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I read Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce when I was in my twenties.

I don’t think it will be surpassed.

 

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    May 12, 2019

how could she omit the dates? (Whitman scholars won’t be happy)

 

 

 

 

'Walt Whitman Speaks' -book cover

 

 

I purchased yesterday at the Stand Bookstore the following slim book:

 

Walt Whitman Speaks: His Final Thoughts on Life, Writing, Spirituality, and the Promise of America

as told to Horace Traubel

edited and with an introduction by Brenda Wineapple

New York: Library of America, 2019

 

 

Whitman’s remarks are grouped, arranged, by topic.

They are all taken from With Walt Whitman in Camden by Whitman’s friend and acolyte Horace Traubel. Nowhere in the present volume is there any indication of on what DATE the conversation with Traubel occurred (all of which is fully indicted in the nine volumes of Traubel’s).

In James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the date on which a conversation with Johnson occurred is an important consideration, and was duly noted by Boswell. Same thing here (regarding the importance of dating when the remark was made).

What was Brenda Wineapple thinking? She is an accomplished and well known American literary scholar. I blame her, and also the Library of America.

Whitman scholars will be disappointed.

 

 
— Roger W. Smith

May 2019

Schubert (specifically, his last sonata), Mitsuko Uchida, and my mother

 

 

Schubert piano sonata in B-flat Minor, D. 960

his last piano sonata

not published

he died two months later

 

 

Mitsuko Uchida

flawless performance at Carnegie Hall on May 4, 2019

 

 

I have criticized her (perhaps unfairly) with reference to Schubert performances.

I saw her a couple of times performing at Carnegie Hall within the past year. A Schubert performance last year left me feeling lukewarm about her, despite the fact that the audience — she has a following — loves her.

But I shouldn’t jump to conclusions or “give up” on her too easily, I thought. It may be that I have been lacking in discernment and, consequently, appreciation for her playing.

She certainly confounded my expectations, and my prior less-than-enthusiastic opinions, on Saturday evening.

I realize that the three last Schubert piano sonatas are all great, just about equally. I have had a sentimental preference for the next to last sonata, D. 959. But I fully felt and experienced the greatness of the sonata D. 960 tonight. Mitsuko Uchida made me feel that.

And, I realized, as an auditor, why she is regarded, probably, as the foremost Schubert interpreter of our time.

So, from her hands, I heard Schubert and felt what makes his music unique and special. And so lyrical in a deeply affecting way. Note I said lyrical, by which I don’t mean to neglect what I would call complexity yoked to powerful, direct expression — a quality preeminent, unmistakably so, in Beethoven. It’s not quite the same thing, but — as to what makes Schubert great – in the program notes from last night’s concert, reference is made to Schubert’s “seemingly bottomless stockpile of melody, his ability to invest the simplest of musical phrases with dramatic significance.” (italics added)

Schubert sounds like no one else. His sound — if I were a musicologist, I could probably elucidate the distinguishing features; chords, for example (the program notes refer to “quicksilver changes of keys and moods”) — is sui generis. He is almost immediately recognizable. Perhaps this is a truism that applies to practically all great artists: the Handel of Messiah and Samson; the Haydn of the masses and The Seven Last Words of Christ; the Mozart of the Ave verum corpus and Masonic Funeral Music … the Melville of Moby-Dick; the Tolstoy of War and Peace, Anna Karenina and Resurrection; the Joyce of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

But– I’ll say it– I prefer Schubert to Chopin (with respect to the former’s compositions for piano).

 

 

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What is it about Schubert?

I would say that he is incredibly self-contained — his music is sufficient unto itself. By which I mean that his music holds, fulfills, and enraptures the listener without anything in it that was intended necessarily to impress or astonish. The music seems to bubble up like a spring. There is nothing imitative or referential. No other composer could write such music. There is was only one Schubert. Self-evident? Yes, admittedly. But I got to thinking about this at the concert, and my mind wandered without my losing focus on the music. (This has happened to me at other concerts, as I have noted in previous blogs.)
How could I express these feelings or opinions of mine about Schubert? In my mind, I strained to think of a way to put or couch it. I thought of my mother. Yes, my mother.

My mother was a remarkable person. People almost always seemed to notice her special personal qualities, and to speak about them. There was something “self-contained” about her too. The good things were just there, inherent, unchanging; sort of wafted out of her; were effused into the atmosphere, so to speak, to those around her. The good things, the remarkable things — her particular way of seeing things and relating to people and her milieu — seemed to have always been part of her.

She wasn’t trying to impress others (though she was self-conscious, naturally, about the impression she made and eager to be thought well of). She was, to the extent she was admired for her good qualities, just that way. One felt that one would never meet such a person ever again, which is not to say that she was a perfect person or deserved veneration. It’s just that what was good about her was constant; distinctive in her; treasured and consistently welcome for the sense of emotional satisfaction that came from being privileged to be related to or know her. By which I don’t mean that she was like a therapist, healer, or do-gooder (though she was kind and thoughtful), she was someone whom people wanted to know and associate with because of who she was.

 

 

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Like Schubert? Meaning one wants to listen to him. Not because one should (because someone told you you must, because of his musical standing or stature as a composer). Not because he is the best composer in this or that medium, or was important as a composer in the transition from classicism to romanticism. But because he’s Schubert . And, with my mother, people wanted to know and talk with Elinor.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   May 6. 2019

 

 

 

IMG_4547 (2)

my mother and I in Danvers, Massachusetts

 

 

May 6, 2019