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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 21, 2011

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Best Idol Ever, Horoscopes for the Dead

I write this column before the airing of the first installment of the HBO miniseries The Game of Thrones, based on the brilliant and as-yet-unfinished series by George R. R. Martin. I'm TiVoing it, so my wife and I can watch together when she returns from a grandmothering trip.

There are few works of fiction so brilliant and powerful and unforgettable that you can dare to film the first portion without knowing how it all comes out. Game of Thrones is almost unique in that category. Marketed as fantasy, the magical elements are not dominant; rather it is a graustark -- a tale of intrigue in an imaginary kingdom.

I read each volume when it first came out; now I have downloaded them all from Audible.com and am letting a fine reader tell the tale to me. Here is the remarkable thing: I find, as I listen, that nothing comes as a surprise, because Martin's storytelling is so superb that everything is still vivid in memory. Ah yes, this is what happens; ah, no, please -- this time can't this life be spared?

My emotional involvement remains intense; dramatic irony is, in fact, more powerful than suspense. So my advice is this: I daresay that since Martin knows television, he has avoided most of the pitfalls of translation from one medium to another. But however good the series is on HBO, nothing will replace the reading of the book, and no manner of reading it will be better than having Roy Dotrice read it to you.

*

Officially nobody's supposed to say this, but ... American Idol is way better without Simon Cowell.

When Cowell was there, he was king of the roost. The judges' comments ended with him. He had the reputation of "telling the truth." Sometimes we wondered why Randy and Paula were even there. Adding a fourth judge didn't help, either. It was the Simon Cowell show.

But with Simon gone, there is a complete change ... for the better. Now the judges rotate being first and last.

Randy Jackson turns out to be more than what he seemed to be for so long (a guy who mutters vaguely with the word "dawg" surfacing frequently). Now we see that he's actually a first-rate music producer and a musician himself, with sharp and useful things to say.

Steven Tyler has credibility, not just because he's a superstar of rock and roll with astonishing staying power, not just because he knows and has the respect of everybody in the industry, but because he obviously knows music, deeply and widely. His personal charm softens even his harshest comments.

Jennifer Lopez is what the contestants want to be -- an A-list singer and actor. She speaks with authority and clarity. When contestants need help she gives it. She and Randy spar occasionally, but there's not a breath of flirtation (which was so annoying between Simon and Paula, and Simon and Kara).

Most important, nobody is ever mean. They're candid, but they deliver sharp criticism kindly.

I think the show's producers thought Simon's cruel comparisons were somehow "good television," the way train-wreck contestants in the audition phase were regarded as good television.

But it's not actually good television when you turn away from the screen in embarrassment. Because it had gotten to the point where, when I thought of watching Idol, what came to mind was that embarrassment. I wanted to avoid it.

In fact, we had stopped watching the show live. We had to be able to fast-forward through Kara's comments at first, and then through all of Ryan Seacrest's phony "conflict" with Simon, and then everything he said, and finally we skipped the judges entirely.

No longer. You can actually learn something about the music business by listening to them. Now what I skip through is the mentors' advice. But even though they're often wrong, I still prefer these mentors to the useless, asinine things that were said by most of the "star" guests.

Even the audition phase this year avoided most of the cheap, cruel "entertainment" at the expense of truly awful contestants, who didn't realize they were "joke" auditions.

There's only one problem this year. The field of contestants is so excellent that the judges often don't have anything to say but praise. When somebody's good, you don't make up fake criticism just to seem useful. These are good judges, and they praise the praiseworthy.

Not only that, but the voters have pretty much been getting it right. They only blew it once, when Casey Abrams finished last, and the judges correctly used their one save to rescue the finest musician that has ever graced the Idol stage. (Not the best singer -- that would be Adam Lambert or David Cook.)

The judges only made one serious mistake, and that was their endless rhapsodizing about Pia Toscano. Maybe when you're in the room with her you can feel the bigness of her voice. All I ever heard was how she strained to push her voice up to the high notes -- something you never hear in the voices of the great divas.

And what I saw in her was a mannequin; it was hard to look at her, she was so lifeless and empty on stage. I couldn't believe that they were urging Stefano Langone to "connect" with the audience and "mean" the words of the song -- something my wife and I thought he had been doing from the start -- while Pia got almost nothing but praise so lavish that I thought they must have been listening to mp3s of one of the truly great singers, like Barbra Streisand or Kiri Te Kanawa.

Their overdone praise may have hurt her. People who liked her might have thought she was a shoo-in, while others got sick of the unearned, irrational praise. But I suspect that Pia simply didn't have enough people who loved her voice to remain in the contest, because at home we knew what the judges didn't know: She has a nice big voice, but there's no star or diva in her -- not yet, anyway.

Look, the real problem is an embarrassment of riches. Once they got to the top nine, there were no weak voices left. Period. There was nobody who was staying in only because of personality. Even Paul McDonald, whose grinning attitude annoyed me at first, had grown into an excellent performer.

There has never been a year like this on Idol. Usually you have to get to the top five or even the top three (or, in one sad year, never) before you think, From here on it doesn't matter, because everybody's great. As of this moment, I would buy an album from every single one of the remaining contestants. When has that been true of the top seven?

Every show is a terrific variety show (as long as you fast-forwarded through the tragedy of Iggy Pop); the judges are smart and likeable; and every remaining contestant would have been a top contender in any other year.

For a decade now, American Idol has been the top-rated show on television. Everyone thought it was because of Simon Cowell. But they were wrong. Whoever's running the show now has got it exactly right. This is the best that Idol has ever been.

*

It's still poetry month, and you're getting a year's worth of saved-up commentary from me. Fortunately, if you hate poetry you can just skip the rest of this column. But then, if you keep reading, I can steer you to some poets who might just change your mind.

After all, it took years of schooling for you to come to hate poetry. That's because the teaching of literature today is designed to make non-readers of practically everybody. The whole approach to "art" poetry and "art" fiction ("What's the theme?" "Look for the metaphors." "What does this mean?") turns it into a course in decryption, and at the end, when you've decoded everything, you look at the pathetic result and conclude: So what?

Here is how literature of all kinds, but especially poetry, is taught today: "Look! Here's a puppy! No, we're not going to play with the puppy. We're going to cut it open. Yes, it will be dead at the end. And no, we won't look at any of the body parts that made it alive. We're just going to look at the inside surface of the skin and look for patterns."

Or it's like people looking for the face of the Virgin Mary in potato chips. Just eat the potato chip! If the Virgin Mary has something to say, she's not going to do it by putting her face on a potato chip.

Real poems -- the great poems -- may reward study, but they are beloved and have stood the test of time because, even without study, they are moving and powerful -- or marvelously funny and memorable. And the great poets didn't confine themselves to the short emotional bursts that seem to dominate the world of poetry today.

Take, for instance, Billy Collins, erstwhile poet laureate of the United States, whose new book of poetry, Horoscopes for the Dead, is funny, whimsical, startling, moving -- and always, always clear.

For instance, the poem "As usual." It begins by pointing out that "after we have parted," things will continue as usual, ending with this stanza:

The magnolia will flower,
and the bee, the noble bee --
I saw one earlier on my walk --
will shoulder his way into the bud.

That's a poet with an ear for the music of the language and an eye for the telling image -- has there ever been a more apt expression of the movement of a bee into the polleny heart of a flower?

But it's not the admirable language (though there is so much to admire). I don't think Collins writes to be admired; first, he writes in order to communicate. To understand "The Guest" it helps to know the old saying, "Fish and visitors begin to stink after three days," the message being that it doesn't take very long for welcome to be worn out.

I know the reason you placed nine white tulips
in a glass vase with water
here in this room a few days ago

was not to mark the passage of time
as a fish would have if nailed by the tail
to the wall above the bed of a guest.

But the poet can't help but see that the tulips are bending over, falling apart: "and my suitcase only half unpacked by the door." A perfect poem about the vague feeling that one might have stayed too long.

In "Cemetery Ride," Collins tells us of riding a bicycle among the headstones of an old cemetery, making up stories in his mind about the names and dates he sees. He wishes he could take them all for a ride "this glorious April day," but realizes that would be impossible:

Then how about just you, Enid Parker?
Would you like to gather up your voluminous skirts
and ride sidesaddle on the crossbar
and tell me what happened between 1863 and 1931?
I'll even let you ring the silver bell.

Unfortunately, if I quoted all my favorite poems in their entirety, that would be called "violation of copyright." You just have to trust me that these are poems that are a joy to read. And come on, who doesn't want to spend time in the company of a poet who can open a poem this way:

There is no such thing as a meatball department
as far as anyone knows.
No helpful clerk has ever answered the question
where do you keep your meatballs?
by pointing to the back of the store
and saying you'll find them over there in the meatball department.

He goes on to talk about how the annoyance he's causing his wife by reading in bed with the light on is too small a thing to have its own department:

I should just turn off the light
but instead I have stopped in that vast store
and I will now climb into my cart
clasp my knees against my chest and wait
for the manager or some other person of authority

to push me down to the police station
or just out to the parking lot,
otherwise known as the department of lost husbands,
or sometimes, as now, the department of dark and pouring rain.

Billy Collins is not the only good poet working today, rare as the breed might be. I again suggest my website Strongverse.org, which is (a) free and (b) constantly growing, as poets send me things I like (which is the only theory that guides the site's creation, considering that for a narrow-minded curmudgeon, I'm actually quite broadminded.

Last time I promised, though, that I would bring you more of Grace Noll Crowell's neglected poetry, so I close this week's column with:

The Child of Long Ago

by Grace Noll Crowell

For the sake of one small child of long ago
I shall go down dark alleyways and dim
To find the children there and give the gifts
I cannot bring to him.

And for his sake I shall go seeking those
Who have forgotten stars may shine for them,
To tell them of one everlasting star:
The Star of Bethlehem.

For the sake of one small child I shall be kind,
He was so kind through life to those who came
To seek him in the throng, to touch his hand,
To call him by his name.

And for that child's dear sake I shall be glad,
And I shall place a candle, slim and white,
Upon my sill that it may light the way
For those who walk at night.

And if I mark where others bear a load
And lend a hand until the burden lifts,
Perhaps, as he accepted gold and myrrh,
He will accept my gifts.


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