Miley Cyrus’s performance at the V.M.A.s has been debated, criticized, and dissected to the point of absurdity. But the sheer proliferation of response and reinterpretation it has provoked is also interesting: the week offered a virtuoso display of the new forms of criticism that the Web has made possible.
In the first wave, there were essays about her crass declaration of sexuality (Cyrus, who is twenty years old, danced in a pale-latex bra and panties and rubbed herself with a huge foam finger) that asked whether the performance degraded or empowered. Others wrote about her blasé and seemingly uninformed use of African-American symbols (twerking, actual African-American women). The critic Jody Rosen called it “a minstrel show routine whose ghoulishness was heightened by Cyrus’s madcap charisma.” Camille Paglia criticized Cyrus’s artistic sophistication—unlike say, Madonna, who appropriates Catholic imagery and the dance routines of Bob Fosse, Paglia deemed Cyrus’s dancing to be perfunctory and ahistorical. While the rhetorical energy inspired by a mediocre young singer dancing half-naked at an awards show on TV was striking, it’s not really new.
Seamus Heaney died today at the age of seventy-four. Since 1971, The New Yorker has been lucky enough to have published his poems—thirty-eight of them, eventually. Many brought readers into nature; Heaney is often described as an “earthy” poet. But he was a great describer of the physical world in general, fascinated by the solidity and weight of almost everything, and by the meaning of solidity itself. In “A Shiver,” from October 25, 2004, Heaney describes the way you have to hold your body while swinging a sledgehammer, bracing yourself to heft “Its gathered force like a long-nursed rage / About to be let fly.” “Does it do you good,” he asks, “to have known it in your bones?” In “A Basket of Chestnuts,” from May 27, 1991, he describes the way it feels to walk while carrying a heavy basket. On the upswing, “your hands feel unburdened, / Outstripped, dismayed, passed through,” while on the downswing there’s “rebound— / Downthrust and comeback ratifying you.” In a Heaney poem, the sensation of swinging a basket suggests the contingency of your own existence.
It is no accident that Seamus Heaney’s selected poems is titled “Opened Ground,” since writing poems for this most remarkable farm boy was a kind of digging: “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.”
And it’s no accident that this selection of the best poems from three decades begins with the word “between,” for Heaney was a poet of the in-between (as his friend Helen Vendler has observed), writing from a zone somewhere between north and south, between Catholic and Protestant, between Ireland, England, and America, between formal and free verse, between public and private, between realism and allegory, and between plain speech and loading “every rift with oar,” while also balancing the gravitas of his subject matter with the frolic and grace of poetic language. As Heaney said, “The point is to fly under or out and beyond those radar systems.”
In addition to the extraordinary “Drinking Buddies,” by Joe Swanberg, and “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” by David Lowery (which are also available via video on demand), two other independent films that opened in the last few weeks are among the worthiest films on screens now: “This Is Martin Bonner” (also on V.O.D.) and “Short Term 12.” Both are in the accursed genre of social-services movies; the curse involves the too-easy eliciting of pre-programmed sympathies, and the directors of both movies—Chad Hartigan and Destin Cretton, respectively—skirt it with distinctive strategies and intentions.
Behrman (1893-1973) was born of Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants, who spoke little English. His father was a Talmudic scholar. In his time, Behrman won some fame as a playwright (“No Time for Comedy,” “Fanny,” “End of Summer,” “Wine of Choice”), as a screenwriter (“Queen Christina,” “Quo Vadis,” “Anna Karenina”), as a writer for magazines like The Smart Set, and for getting fired from the Times after it came out that he had been writing phony questions for his “Queries and Answers” columns. He was lionized by Brooks Atkinson and close friends with Siegfried Sassoon. But while Behrman was a popular figure on Broadway and in Hollywood, his finest work was published in The New Yorker; he profiled George Gershwin, Eddie Cantor, Max Beerbohm, and Chaim Weizmann. The best was the Profile of Duveen, which came out in six parts—one, two, three, four, five, six—in the fall of 1951. Not a short piece, but it’s a three-day weekend. It’s not a heavy thing at all, but the elements here of social comedy and status anxiety and aspiration, the portraits of the mega-rich trying to acquire, via Duveen’s expensive aesthetic advice, a glittering layer of culture, strike a familiar note in our times. It’s a masterful, deeply enjoyable work.
I learned that Seamus Heaney had died from a New York Times push notification, a feature on my phone that I keep intending to turn off. It was the saddest I have been about a poet’s death since the death of James Merrill, in 1995, which I learned about, also upon waking, from the NPR broadcast that served as an alarm on my clock radio. Poets place their voices inside our heads, so close to our thoughts that it feels as though we’ve thought them up. It is odd when they make the news, which they do only occasionally, and only by making it very big, by winning the Nobel Prize, as Heaney did, and by dying. It is like learning from the media something secret about yourself, something you thought you’d kept well hidden.
Heaney’s poems were full of finds, unlikely retrievals from the slime of the ground or the murk of history and memory. His poems about peat bogs and what they preserve are probably the most important English-language poems written in the past fifty years about violence—the “intimate, tribal revenge” that underscores the news. But they never stray an inch from the personal tone that Heaney honed in his poems about his four-year-old brother’s death or his mother’s method of slicing potatoes into soup. That the same vocabulary, the same notes, and the same intelligence could govern his personal poems and his political ones only pointed to the arbitrariness of the distinction.
The Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney has died, at the age of seventy-four. (Read Seamus Deane’s New Yorker story, from 2000, about his lifelong relationship with Heaney.)
Following Miley Cyrus’s much discussed performance at the MTV Video Music Awards last Sunday, Oxford Dictionaries says it will add the word “twerk” to its listings as part of its next quarterly update. The definition—which is likely to appear in Oxford Dictionaries Online, which focusses on modern usage, rather than in the O.E.D.—will read: “Twerk, v.: dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance.”
When he died last week, at the age of eighty-seven, Elmore Leonard left his forty-sixth novel, “Blue Dreams,” unfinished. In a radio interview that aired on Sunday, Leonard’s son, Peter, told the BBC that he’s considering completing the book.
In response to widespread criticism over its plans to remove the research stacks from its landmark Fifth Avenue location, the New York Public Library is revising its renovation designs. Instead of dismantling the stacks to create a vast atrium inside its new circulating library—a plan that had so far provoked two lawsuits by scholars and preservationists—the new designs will incorporate the stacks as “a prominent feature,” the N.Y.P.L. President Anthony Marx told the Wall Street Journal.
The unhealed wounds of Vietnam still show in diverse ways, as in “The Butler,” an aesthetically minor but politically canny film that, with editing, jams President Johnson’s aggressive pursuit of civil-rights legislation up against his aggressive escalation of the Vietnam War—the violence of which turns out to hit home. The horror of the war’s direct effect, the fury of the resistance that it provoked, the self-inflicted damage to American ideals, and its over-all impact as a lever for huge social, political, and psychological fractures are packed in the aptly diverse and ravaged form of the collective film, “Far from Vietnam,” from 1967, a new restoration of which opened yesterday at Film Society of Lincoln Center for a weeklong run.
Recently, a close friend sent me an e-mail with the subject line “Things I’ve Noticed As I Get Older.” The ten numbered observations ranged from the mundane (politics is getting stupider) to the poignant (the distant melancholy of Facebook’s News Feed, with its dispatches from lives that were once, and now no longer, close to one’s own). But with all due respect to the observational chops of my correspondent, it wasn’t so much the content of the message that impressed me as its form. It was an e-mail in the shape of a listicle, a personal correspondence structured for the purposes of frictionless social-media sharing. At some level, it seemed, my friend intended his e-mail to go viral within the highly targeted demographic of me. I couldn’t help feeling that some basic epistolary protocol had been breached, that I was seeing an early sign of what could be a shift in the way people communicate. In the not too distant future, all human interactions, written or otherwise, might well be conducted in the form of lists—for ease of assimilation, for catchiness, for optimal snap. I imagined myself, some decades from now, nervously perched on the papered leatherette of an examination bed, and my doctor directing her sad, humane eyes at me a moment before clearing her throat and saying, “Top Five Signs You Probably Have Pancreatic Cancer.”
Welcome, everyone. I am glad you could join us today in celebrating the union of Bryce Fox and Katie Hilland. This special day is filled not just with love but also with many symbols of that love. For example, the rings that Katie and Bryce exchanged represent the eternalness of their bond. The bridal veil represents the purity of the bride and her reverence to God. When you walked in this afternoon, you noticed three very tall, very muscular, very strange men speaking Czech to one another. They, too, symbolize devotion to God.
The chapel is decorated with flowers. The roses represent love. The irises represent growth and prosperity. The carnations represent death. Death, death, death. Dying and death. Bryce dying first, and then Katie dying three months after Bryce. The gardenias, however, symbolize devotion to God. And death.