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Adam Fitzgerald

Faggot

As when a word lifts unexpectedly
________________________or implodes—
you had meant to say maelstrom but now
interposed between you and the open world,
male storm (no one would think to give a sex
to it, so were unready)—that was its arrival,

_____________________________fire
that didn’t act as one sheet but gathered
separately as flames around some common matter:
call it a heart, make this a Catholic scene, only the thorns
are missing unless they lie, like everything else,
beneath this oil-slicked water now risen, now ignited, as we are
ignited—like faggots thrown at the sinner’s feet
as he shakes, as he shouts It was only for love, as when all words abandon . . .

__________________________________
Rickey Laurentiis
was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is the recipient of several fellowships, including the Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Chancellor’s Fellowship from Washington University in St Louis, where he received his MFA. The author of the e-chapbook, Whipped, (Floating Wolf Quarterly), his individual poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Boston Review, Callaloo, Fence, jubilat, The Kenyon Review, The New York Times, Oxford American, Poetry and other journals.

CANARY

I held my canary out for you when you said your canary felt a little droopy.

Your canary was a ruby drop in my frosty glass of canary.

The canary between us grew for many days.

I wanted to fight the canary, but you held me back.

The officer shot the unarmed canary on a canary I used to walk down every day.

When you touched the canary underneath my knee, a balloon filled with canary in an eastern corner.

The sound of unmarked canaries overhead frightened the rural hospital.

The president has never commented publicly on the controversial canary program.

Can you remember where that canary was that we tried so many years ago?

Oh, that canary feels so good—just like that.

The canaries carry electricity to our houses in even smaller canaries.

When the activists passed out yellow canaries I took one and read it.

A canary is born every 8 seconds.

I log onto the large canary to check how my canary is faring.

When I go to the supermarket, I check the codes on the canaries to make sure they are not genetically modified canaries.

Many canaries suffer.

She pressed a thumb into my muscle and all the canary was released into me.

When I went outside I saw the sky. It was filled with canary.

You held the canary up to my face. You vibrated the canary at a new frequency.

You said the best time for canaries was 11:30 am.

___________________________
Emily Skillings
is a dancer poet poet dancer.  Recent poetry can be found in No Dear, Bone Bouquet, Lingerpost, Stonecutter, La Fovea and Maggy. Skillings dances with Saifan Shmerer, the A.O. Movement Collective and The Commons Choir (Daria Faïn and Robert Kocik). She lives in Brooklyn, where she is a member of the Belladonna* Collaborative, a feminist poetry collective and event series. She is a co-curator of the Brooklyn reading series HOT TEXTS with Krystal Languell. On July 25, 2013, she and her collaborator Lillie De will perform their dance theater piece (being fluid and knowing what to fill) at Dixon Place.

EVERYONE LIKE HER

I just had a little of your chocolate
and now I’m wild with desire
for more chocolate
it goes right to the discomfort
sweetens it I think.

The moon’s on
a short white leash
and what happens
to everyone
happens to you.

You’re gonna die too.

I’ll make you a tape
to play
when you say my name
slowly
like I’m stupid
like dogs are stupid
like the homeless are stupid
you’re always calling
everyone stupid.
And you are kind of
a lunk
big medium
mind.
I’ve been tuning you out
since I was a sperm
That’s why I can’t listen well
all your talk
you made it vulgar
to speak
talking in your sleep
when the fear cartoons play
talk when you wake up
talk
talk
hate is real
it’s an actual thing
and I really do
I hate you.

_______________________________________________
Leopoldine Core was born and raised in Manhattan. Her poems and fiction have appeared in Open City, The Literarian, Drunken Boat, Sadie Magazine, Big Lucks, iO, Harp & Altar, The Brooklyn Rail, Agriculture Reader, No, Dear and others. She is a 2012 Fellow at The Center for Fiction and at The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her chapbook Young Friend is forthcoming from Perfect Lovers Press.

The open sound of French

Even the sound of French is open
And the children find me very interesting to look at
It is as if I am a TV show or supper
All my pretty babies who paint the winter chests
With red and gold and green

It was on the afternoon
In the small wooden town
That I was so mired in my act of jealousy
I did not pay attention
To the beauty of the dark church in front of me

And now you ask me
To meet you in a park after dark
Well it is too late too late
I am already flying

__________________________________________________________
DOROTHEA LASKY is the author of three full-length collections of poetry: THUNDERBIRD (Wave Books, 2012), AWE (Wave Books, 2007) and Black Life (Wave Books, 2010). She is also the author of five chapbooks, including Poetry is Not a Project (Ugly Ducking Presse, 2010). Born in St. Louis in 1978, her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Laurel Review, Columbia Poetry Review, and Boston Review, among others. She is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and also has been educated at the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University and Washington University. She has taught poetry at New York University, Fashion Institute of Technology, The New England Institute of Art, Heath Elementary School, and Munroe Center for the Arts. Currently, she lives in New York City and teaches at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.

Very surreal day. Unpredictably beautiful weather. Delay at train station due to a fatality the NJ transit people say, at the New Brunswick station. Trains stop running for over an hour. They evacuate people from the station to allow for the coroners and police to investigate the scene. Then, bafflingly, we’re allowed back up on the platform, where we can see the young woman’s body (a suicide) covered in a white sheet on the other side of the station. People are informed at one point by the police officer to look away, but everyone looks in that direction anyway. Meanwhile, coroners crawl along the train tracks with two plum-colored biohazard bags to collect “remnants” from the collision. No words to describe how disturbing it is. And yet the simultaneity of life continues: an older gentleman wearing a Princeton hat says “Maybe it was one of my students who didn’t like their grade”; another woman is praying and visibly upset; hundreds in the crowd just seem to stare on riveted; meanwhile, the coroners, two young girls, can be seen bantering with police officers and photographers who have to take photos (even joking, at one point). How does one record this all without seeming smug, and not sound as if a judgment is being passed on the gross way in which we make death a spectacle, and we’re all compelled to be riveted, consumed by whatever we can see while we can stomach it? A mass of general confusion persists: at one point the policeman begins to ask people to clear the platform as his radio blurts out “We can’t move the corpse with all these people standing by” — but everyone is only cattled a little bit further down the station, and is meanwhile able to see enough of the details on the distant side of the opposite tracks. The young police officer in sunshades keeps saying “People, the trains will start rolling as soon as we can remove ‘this’ from the tracks. Please keep moving.” It’s an incredibly warm April day — nearly 80 degrees. People are crowded and waiting to get on a train back to Trenton or New York City. The northbound train suddenly rolls backwards into the station, and brings people back toward Jersey Avenue. Finally, a Penn Station bound train appears and carries everyone away, but not before a bunch of people can flood the train cars and look out the windows as we slowly shuffle past the crime scene. People of all ages, backgrounds, temperaments are transfixed. Maybe it’s just the mystery of death — or the sheer entertainment of horror — or the perverse curiosity to see what we don’t want to see. The body, visibly wrapped in a sheet, is being moved from the track as we leave the station. A young kid says “I can’t even see any blood.” Police and official-vested personnel are chuckling out the window. People are talking and sighing and some are being about their business or listening to their music on their headphones. What’s worse, really? Being so glued in like it’s all a reality TV show, or not even bothering to blink an eye? It’s all a spectacle — something not able to be understood (a young woman takes her life by walking into an oncoming speeding Amtrak train at 4:45 PM on a beautiful day). But no one — least of all me — can stop watching. And everyone around me seems nauseating. I know I must be too. It’s the vulgar, vitalizing simultaneity of life (whatever that means) and it’s going on, and it won’t stop, even if the trains do, temporarily. And I’m thinking about David Foster Wallace whose interviews and essays are in my bag. And I’m thinking about his essay on Lynch and how it’s not a Lynchian scene unless the coroners of a crime scene are talking about something mundane and irrelevant and fascinatingly bizarre while they clean up a crime scene. And I’m thinking about how I could ever turn this into a piece of writing and how vulgar and tawdry it would be to even think about something so, what? And I’m thinking about how what if it was me? (“And it would never be me,” we tell ourselves.) And the train’s moving away, and the sun’s still too bright, criminal almost. And someone asks the conductor will their ticket be discounted for the inconvenience.

Epithalamium with Rust

I remember the dream of rust on its own vague terms:
dredging the canal as though it were oneself,
hoping for trinkets that fix life to a landscape of flowers and trash,
and settling for bothering the levee with a stick,
notching my time card in the holy city.

In the margins of sky and dust­­­­­––distance specific to the dream of distance––
the thought of water comes on like vanity.  It is error,
as are the certainties of children, to make much of the dumb bend of sun
on copper, to heed what God writes in the sand with his pretty little feet.

Crows flood from the factory shell and out over trump ground,
into the easy marriage of actuality and nothingness that is the long patina
of days, drunk on lawn seed and disquiet.
I remember it again, but differently.  Archipelagos of debris and glow,
stars fashioning what light benefits the dead…

_______________________________________________

Brandon Kreitler‘s poems have appeared in Boston Review, DIAGRAM, Web Conjunctions, Indiana Review, Eoagh, Sonora Review, and Maggy.  His criticism has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Proximity, and Village Voice among others.  He was a winner of the 2010 Discovery / “Boston Review” award and a finalist for the 2010 Ruth Lilly Fellowship.  A native of Arizona, he teaches at Queensborough Community College and is working on a manuscript of poems.

He’s like those children who take apart a clock in order to find out what time is

“Fog forgets.  Fog is forgetting.”
This was hard for the drunk man
on the shuddering train to say
clearly, but he managed in fits
and spurts—thoughts through
a kinked hose.  In a past life,

when you wiped the counters,
the dogs stared up with saucer
eyes from the hardwood floor
as if you were a cleaning deity.
I was in the kitchen, too, waiting.
You’d stare into the vacant lot

through a window on the socially
awkward sycamore disrobing amid
frozen beer bottles and losing lottery
tickets.  You were your own
undocumented fog.  Years pass.
I’m still an inverse of the spiritual—

still feeling merciless forgetting
can’t mean joining cosmic order.
Above, a building rakes sky
as if it were the obscure index
finger of want, losing its end
in a belly of low, concise cloud.

________________________________________________________

Evan Hansen lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is a public high school teacher.  He has work forthcoming in Issue 50 of The Cortland Review.

Symptoms of Island

Sometimes in the morning your hand
finds the dip in my side.  For the moment

we’ll call it happiness.  This does not
account for weeks spent cursing

the apple trees, their sticky bloom.
The man on the bus gaping

at my slack lip knew.  Plump dumb
stone in my mouth.  I’m sure of it.

That afternoon you were a brisk,
starched thing.  We slipped out

the back way, screen door banging
cruel on my slim-boned grim.  Today,

like most days, my mind arrives
an island, tongue-numb, child wishes

ivied onto me.  God takes away,
it’s said.  Call it what you will.

_______________________________________________

Camille Rankine is the author of Slow Dance with Trip Wire, selected by Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America’s 2010 New York Chapbook Fellowship. The recipient of a 2010 “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize, she is featured as an emerging poet in the fall 2010 issue of American Poet. Her poetry has appeared in American Poet, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM and POOL: A Journal of Poetry. She is Program and Communications Coordinator at Cave Canem Foundation and lives in New York City.

Poem in the Manner of Charles Bukowski

You do what you want,
I’ll do what I want,
and we’ll see which one of us
gets to the twenty-dollar window
in time for the fourth race at Del Mar.

On the goddamn radio
that’s always playing
in my bitch’s kitchen,
I heard some East Coast big-shot author
say he needs to jerk off before he can write.
All is I can say is fuck that shit.

I hate poets who beg you
to like them because you feel sorry for them.
Do not feel sorry for me.
I won on Bitches’ Brew in the fourth
and went home and drank
a fifth of bourbon
and got laid.

___________________________________________
David Lehman is the editor of The Oxford American Book of Poetry and series editor of The Best American Poetry. He teaches at The New School.

A special thanks to Brian Adams for letting us use his photos in this post. To see more of his work, visit his website at www.baphotos.com. To see more of his pictures of David Lehman, click here.

Seen above, for the first time, is a newly-discovered photograph of Arthur Rimbaud from the 1880s. I quote from the Associated Foreign Press:

Unseen photo of French poet Rimbaud unveiled

PARIS — A previously unseen photo of French poet Arthur Rimbaud was unveiled in Paris on Thursday, bringing the total number of known images of the writer to eight.

The photograph, which shows Rimbaud on the porch of a hotel in Yemen around 1880, was showcased at the International Antiquarian Book Fair at Paris’s Grand Palais exhibition venue.

The black and white image is only the fourth to portray the poet as an adult and is “the only one in which Rimbaud’s adult facial characterisics are distinguishable”, according to the poet’s biographer, Jean-Jacques Lefrere.

Rimbaud, who was once described by Victor Hugo as “an infant Shakespeare”, produced his best-known works in his late teens. At 20 he gave up poetry and left France to travel. He died from cancer in 1891 aged 37.

Below, Rimbaud’s most famous poem, in the best translation the poetry has yet received into English, by Martin Sorrell (Oxford World’s Classics, 2001). He is the poet most important to understanding the crucial line of 20th century American-English symbolism: the inaugurator of Hart Crane, as well as of John Ashbery. He liberated words to music, and embodied the sovereignty of the imagination as an aesthetic principle foremost. For his sensualism, his precocity, and his recondite combinations of unexpected words, phrases—he is simply unrivaled. Rimbaud’s use of color in poetry anticipates Munch, as well as Georg Trakl. Far from being a reckless raving beatnik, Rimbaud was systematic—advancing the discoveries Baudelaire had made in revolutionizing and modernizing poetic form and style. He could parrot any style; yet he remains inimitable, unique, and resembles no one else. His prose poems are arguably still the best of their kind, in any language. The complexities of his life, which only dealt with poetry very briefly, between the age of 17 to 20, is inexplicable. There are other mysterious poets in history, but there is no other mystery like Rimbaud’s. Crane’s first book of poems, White Buildings, featured an epigraph of the French poet’s. (When he was drunk, he was taken to yelling, “I am Rimbaud come again!”) His letters are incredible. His insights have been adopted by no less an orthodox spirit than T.S. Eliot—whose own innovations, accredited to Jules LaForgue, owed much to Rimbaud’s. When W.H. Auden selected John Ashbery’s Some Trees he was quite reticent about the overall strategy and tendency in style of JA’s work, and saw Rimbaud as the precedent for such a subjective, surrealistic manner (one that might lead poets astray). Yet no style has meant more to poetry since.

THE DRUNKEN BOAT

I followed deadpan Rivers down and down,
And knew my haulers had let go the ropes.
Whooping redskins took my men as targets
And nailed them nude to technicolour posts.

I didn’t give a damn about the crews,
Or the Flemish wheat and English corn.
Once the shindig with my haulers finished
I had the current take me where I wished.

In the furious riptides last winter,
With ears as tightly shut as any child’s,
I ran, and unanchored Peninsulas
Have never known such carnivals of triumph.

The storm blessed my maritime wakefulness.
Lighter than a cork I danced on the waves
Which some call eternal victim-breakers-
Ten blind nights free of idiot guiding flares.

Sweeter than sour apple-flesh to children
Green water slid inside my pine-clad hull
And washed me clean of vomit and cheap wine,
Sweeping away rudder-post and grapnel.

From that time on, I bathed in the Poem
Of the Sea, lactescent and steeped in stars,
Devouring green azures; where a drowned man
Like bleached flotsam sometimes sinks in a trance;

When suddenly tinting the bluities,
Slow deliriums in shimmering light,
Fiercer than alcohol, vaster than lyres,
The bitter rednesses of love ferment.

I know skies splintered by lightening, breakers,
Waterspouts, undertows; I know the dusk,
And dawn, exalted like a host of doves -
And then I’ve seen what men believe they’ve seen.

I’ve seen low suns smeared with mystic horrors
Set fire to monster fires of violet;
Like actors in the very oldest plays
Slatted light shimmered, away on the waves.

Green nights I dreamed bedazzlements of snow,
A kiss rising to sea’s eyes slowly,
Circulation of undiscovered saps,
Blue-yellow wakefulness of phosphorsongs.

For whole months on end I followed the swell
Charging the reefs like hysterical beasts,
Not thinking that luminous Maryfeet
Could force a muzzle onto breathy seas.

I struck, you know, amazing Floridas
Where flowers twine with panther eyes inside
Men’s skins! Rainbows flung like bridles under
Sea horizons harnessed the glaucous herds.

I saw great swamps seethe like nets laid in reeds
Where a whole Leviathan lay rotting,
Collapse of water in the midst of calm
And distances tumbling into nothing.

Glaciers, silver suns, pearl seas, firecoal skies!
Hideous wreckages down in brown depths
Where enormous insect-tormented snakes
Crash from twisted trees, reeking with blackness.

I’d have liked to show children blue-water
Dorados, golden fish and fish that sing.
Foam-sprays of flowers cradled my drifting;
At times I flew on ineffable winds.

Sometimes, martyr tired of poles and wastelands,
My pitching was stilled by the sobbing sea
Which raised to me its yellow-sucker
Shadow-flowers – and I, like a woman, knelt.

Floating islands where the brawls and the guano
Of fierce albino birds bounced off my sides,
I sailed, while down among my fraying ropes
Drowned men descended backwards into sleep.

Now, I, boat tangled in the hair of bights,
Hurled high by hurricanes through birdless space,
Whom no protection-vessel in the world
Would fish up from the drink, half-drowned, half-crazed;

Free, smoking, got up in violet spume,
I, who holed the sky like a wall in flames
Which bears, good poet’s exquisite preserve,
Lichen of sun and cerulean snot;

Mad plank streaked with electric crescents, flanked
By dark formations of speeding sea-horse,
When Julys bludgeoned ultramarine skies
And pulverized them into scorching winds;

Trembling as I heard the faraway groans
Of rutting Behemoths and swirling storms;
Eternal spinner of blue stillnesses,
I long for Europe’s ancient parapets.

I’ve seen star-sown islands cluster; others
Whose delirious skies summon sailors.
Do you sleep banished in the pit of night,
You myriad golden birds, the Strength to come?

I’ve wept too much, it’s true. Dawn breaks my heart.
All moons are atrocious, all suns bitter.
Acrid love has pumped me with drugged torpor.
Let my keel burst, let me go to sea!

If I want Europe, it’s a dark cold pond
Where a small child plunged in sadness crouches
One fragrant evening at dusk, and launches
A boat, frail as a butterfly in May.

Steeped in your slow wine, waves, no more can I
Cadge rides in the cotton-freighters’ slipstream,
Nor brave proud lines of ensigns and streamers,
Nor face the prison-ship’s terrible eyes.

Arthur Rimbaud, from Poems 1869 – 1871, translated by Martin Sorrell

FALSTAFF
God save thee, my sweet boy!

KING HENRY IV
My lord chief-justice, speak to that vain man.

LORD CHIEF-JUSTICE
Have you your wits? know you what ’tis to speak?

FALSTAFF
My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!

KING HENRY IV
I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest:
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots:
Till then, I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
For competence of life I will allow you,
That lack of means enforce you not to evil:
And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement. Be it your charge, my lord,
To see perform’d the tenor of our word. Set on.

Exeunt KING HENRY V, & c

FALSTAFF
Master Shallow, I owe you a thousand pound.

SHALLOW
Yea, marry, Sir John; which I beseech you to let me
have home with me.

FALSTAFF
That can hardly be, Master Shallow. Do not you
grieve at this; I shall be sent for in private to
him: look you, he must seem thus to the world:
fear not your advancements; I will be the man yet
that shall make you great.

SHALLOW
I cannot well perceive how, unless you should give
me your doublet and stuff me out with straw. I
beseech you, good Sir John, let me have five hundred
of my thousand.

FALSTAFF
Sir, I will be as good as my word: this that you
heard was but a colour.

SHALLOW
A colour that I fear you will die in, Sir John.

FALSTAFF
Fear no colours: go with me to dinner: come,
Lieutenant Pistol; come, Bardolph: I shall be sent
for soon at night.

Re-enter Prince John of LANCASTER, the Lord Chief-Justice; Officers with them

LORD CHIEF-JUSTICE
Go, carry Sir John Falstaff to the Fleet:
Take all his company along with him.

FALSTAFF
My lord, my lord,—
Lord Chief-Justice I cannot now speak: I will hear you soon.
Take them away.

PISTOL
Si fortune me tormenta, spero contenta.

Exeunt all but PRINCE JOHN and the Lord Chief-Justice

LANCASTER
I like this fair proceeding of the king’s:
He hath intent his wonted followers
Shall all be very well provided for;
But all are banish’d till their conversations
Appear more wise and modest to the world.

LORD CHIEF JUSTICE
And so they are.

LANCASTER
The king hath call’d his parliament, my lord.

LORD CHIEF-JUSTICE
He hath.

LANCASTER
I will lay odds that, ere this year expire,
We bear our civil swords and native fire
As far as France: I beard a bird so sing,
Whose music, to my thinking, pleased the king.
Come, will you hence?

Exeunt

EPILOGUE

Spoken by a Dancer

First my fear; then my courtesy; last my speech.
My fear is, your displeasure; my courtesy, my duty;
and my speech, to beg your pardons. If you look
for a good speech now, you undo me: for what I have
to say is of mine own making; and what indeed I
should say will, I doubt, prove mine own marring.
But to the purpose, and so to the venture. Be it
known to you, as it is very well, I was lately here
in the end of a displeasing play, to pray your
patience for it and to promise you a better. I
meant indeed to pay you with this; which, if like an
ill venture it come unluckily home, I break, and
you, my gentle creditors, lose. Here I promised you
I would be and here I commit my body to your
mercies: bate me some and I will pay you some and,
as most debtors do, promise you infinitely.
If my tongue cannot entreat you to acquit me, will
you command me to use my legs? and yet that were but
light payment, to dance out of your debt. But a
good conscience will make any possible satisfaction,
and so would I. All the gentlewomen here have
forgiven me: if the gentlemen will not, then the
gentlemen do not agree with the gentlewomen, which
was never seen before in such an assembly.
One word more, I beseech you. If you be not too
much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will
continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make
you merry with fair Katharine of France: where, for
any thing I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat,
unless already a’ be killed with your hard
opinions; for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is
not the man. My tongue is weary; when my legs are
too, I will bid you good night: and so kneel down
before you; but, indeed, to pray for the queen.

  1. Sir John Falstaff is Shakespeare’s greatest invention.
  2. Sir John Falstaff is great because his wit is as vast as his waist, and his prose is some of Shakespeare’s finest, which makes it also, some of the finest ever written.
  3. James Joyce is but an offspring of blustering Falstaff.
  4. Leopold Bloom is Falstaff recast as a tragic hero. Stephen Dedalus is Hal (Henry V).
  5. Leopold Bloom cannot compare to Falstaff. (Though Dedalus can to Hal.)
  6. People lament that Shakespeare was not born in the 20th century to make films.
  7. Shakespeare did however make films in the 20th century.
  8. His name was Orson Welles.
  9. Orson Welles’ greatest film may well be his last: Chimes at Midnight.
  10. It took Orson Welles many years to complete the film, owing to his Falstaff-like poverty, due to his Falstaff-like debts, and certainly unhelped by his Falstaff-like obesity. Welles would shoot scenes and edit privately, which has resulted in a masterpiece of a film that is not only hard to find, but at times difficult to watch. The sound is often distorted (sometimes only slightly). The picture can go wonky.
  11. Joe Weil once told me that to understand Hamlet you need only combine Hal and Falstaff into the same person.
  12. Harold Bloom has quoted Orson Welles as saying he was born a Hamlet in America, and retired in Europe as Falstaff.
  13. Chimes at Midnight is indeed hard to find on VHS or DVD.
  14. Chimes at Midnight can in fact be found on VHS and DVD, through Amazon.com, and other online websites.
  15. Chimes at Midnight can be watched in its entirety in decent quality on YouTube.
  16. If you have not seen Chimes at Midnight, you should go to YouTube and watch it.
  17. If you have already seen Chimes at Midnight, you should watch it again.
  18. There have been many Shakespeare film adaptations, some good, many mediocre, even more not worth watching.
  19. There have been many adaptations of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2—these include My Private Idaho, by Gus Van Sant (recommended), as well as scenes from Javier Marias (recommended).
  20. Javier Marias is as obsessed with Falstaff as any of us.
  21. Correction: Than most of us.
  22. The great moment to be understood and analyzed is the coronation of Henry V (formerly Hal) at the end of Henry IV Part 2. It is famously the rejection of Falstaff.
  23. In case you would like one, a quick summary: Hal is the son of the King of England, and spends his times in pubs and brothels with unsavory characters, petty thieves and womanizers, a rabble of men lead by one fat fat fat man named Falstaff.
  24. Falstaff is perhaps the greatest name for a comic character ever thought up.
  25. It was Oldcastle, based on a historical person, named Sir John Oldcastle—but Shakespeare had to change the name, and add a disclaimer in the form of an epilogue at the end of Henry IV Part 2 because Oldcastle had powerful heirs and descendants that threatened Shakespeare’s company and business.
  26. Just as well. Falstaff is pure Shakespeare. And Falstaff sounds better than Oldcastle.
  27. Don’t worry about The Merry Wives of Windsor, it’s a curiosity but it has nothing to do with the actual Falstaff. Some scholars believe in fact that Shakespeare wrote the play at the request of the Queen of England, who enjoyed Henry IV Parts 1 &  2 and wanted to see “Falstaff in Love.”
  28. Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 were in fact Shakespeare’s most famous plays, and demonstrated the maturity of his talents, both dramatical and poetical. They were performed often during his lifetime, and earned him great acclaim (in the middle 1590s).
  29. Why is Falstaff such a great character? Why is the play so entertaining to watch and read? Why is Chimes at Midnight such a great movie?
  30. I don’t know: you tell me. Read it. Watch it. Then you can be skeptical and argue.
  31. If you have any brains, or heart, or sensitivity to Language, or Cinema, you’ll probably agree.
  32. What I’m saying is not legendary or landmark.
  33. What I’m saying has been approved by Harold Bloom.
  34. How can I be wrong?
  35. Aside from many amazing moments in the two plays, and scenes in the Welles film, what it all comes down to finally is the coronation scene.
  36. In it, Hal—now Henry V—is King of England. Falstaff of course is hoping for recognition, a title, power, some money, but most importantly—he wants to be recognized by his friend, whom he calls sweet wag, his honey Lord, and other such names that are among the most earnest interjections spoken by a character in the play.
  37. The irony: the great conman, charlatan, huxster Falstaff is an earnest man. He loves Hal, though he also loves life, and money, and pleasure, and the easiness of self-interest, and the boast of self-privilege, and the fluid swelling at all times of his own voice in witty procession.
  38. The irony: Hal is a much more complicated character than we have yet considered.
  39. On the one hand: He is your typical adolescent badboy antihero; his father is King of England, he spends his time in bars and driving late at night, doing drugs and fooling around with women, and his grades can’t be too impressive.
  40. On the other hand: He is heroic and noble, and never unaware of the power he will yet assume. There are many cues throughout the Henry plays and the film that let us know—he is not mindlessly wandering in his devious peregrinations. He is biding his time. He is trying to avoid what he is also restless to assume: Power.
  41. It is the nature of power to be both indulgent and arbitrary, to be selfless and self-absorbed.
  42. It is the privilege of power to do what it wants, when it wants.
  43. When the time comes for battle, Hal fights and defeats Hotspur, surprising and honoring his father’s wishes.
  44. But Hal has two fathers—one of the political world, and the court, which is Bolingbroke, a usurper himself of the English throne, and another, Falstaff, the master of revellers in a court no less full of intrigue and ritual. That court is a boarding house, that intrigue is picking people’s pockets, the ritual is getting drunk and staying drunk.
  45. Welles’ genius is to distinguish between these social worlds and their pressures by the type of actors he casts in his great film.
  46. On the one hand, there is John Gielgud, arguably one of the greatest British actors and interpreters of Shakespeare ever.
  47. Gielgud, in the true English style, was known for his beautiful speaking of verse, a high stentorian, enunciated, articulated, masterfully subtle and with feeling and richness of tone.
  48. Alec Guiness likened his voice to a “silver trumpet muffled in silk.”
  49. Alec Guiness was right.
  50. I am stealing some of my information from Wikipedia.
  51. Wikipedia, much maligned, is as good a place as any to steal things from.
  52. Often.
  53. Okay, well sometimes.
  54. Nevermind all that.
  55. So Welles chose Gielgud for the part of Hal’s father, Henry IV. It gives an air of authority and royalty and regalty to that role, and the persons of the court.
  56. Welles chose himself in the part of Falstaff, an American vaudvillean actor, who began in shows and plays, did Shakespeare in Harlem, did Radio Operas and Sagas, and contributed more to American cinema than anyone except Charlie Chaplin.
  57. The tension in high and low, between kings and hustlers, is showed in the contrasting styles of acting.
  58. It is not a matter of better or worse.
  59. It may be a deliberate matter of superbly refined and superbly vulgar showmanship.
  60. It is also a matter of America and England.
  61. Theater is an English thing, really.
  62. Film is an American thing, really.
  63. We produce actors who are celebrities, matinee idols.
  64. The Brits produce actors who are thesbians, masters of the stage.
  65. Both are necessary.
  66. Both in the same production are rare.
  67. Chimes at Midnight has both.
  68. Hal speaks like an American, acts like an American.
  69. When he becomes Henry IV, he pronounces and declaims like an English actor.
  70. It’s a marvelous change and directorial decision.
  71. Now to that Rejection.
  72. What’s it all about?
  73. Well the King of England can’t really spent his time rioting in a tavern.
  74. And Falstaff, smacking of the people but really just oafishly and splendidly himself, comes from that world and represents that world.
  75. Part of the play is a symbolic allegory about power and politics—are politicians may start like us, but they are not allowed to continue like us, because we want kings and presidents and leaders to be like gods.
  76. Gods are supposed to be inhuman and all-powerful.
  77. That is, power is inhuman.
  78. The more you have, the less like a person you become.
  79. Rhetorically, Shakespeare had his own stylization for these differences: he may not have had film vs. theater, American vs. British, but he certainly had a better tool.
  80. That is, language.
  81. In the Falstaff scenes, you hear a lot of prose.
  82. Amazing prose.
  83. In the courtroom scenes, you hear a lot of blank verse.
  84. Immaculate, gorgeous blank verse.
  85. For Falstaff scenes: Think Joyce. But better than Joyce.
  86. For Henry IV scenes: Think Marlowe. But better than Marlowe.
  87. Hal operates in both worlds for a time.
  88. For a time, Hal is Falstaff’s father. Hal, which is almost like Fal(staff).
  89. Then he becomes Henry V. Which is very like Henry IV.
  90. The friendship between Hal and Falstaff depicting in Chimes at Midnight, is romantic, but not in any sexual sense. Rather, it’s the essence of all friendship and comedy—two personalities that require each other to function. Falstaff performs, Hal commentates. Falstaff sins, Hal chastizes. Falstaff jests and boasts, Hal satirizes and mocks. They are seen drinking and walking, running and laughing, acting and plotting. They relate and complete one another, comically.
  91. This is what life promises.
  92. But power promises an elevation at the expense of all that. Especially, most sadly, friendship. Friendship is equivalent, and power is shared, mutual, reciprocated, given and taken. Royalty is absolute, and singular. Whenever there is one, there is violence.
  93. Or as Shakespeare says in Henry IV Act 3, Scene 1: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
  94. Shakespeare was obsessed with the nature of selfhood—was it public, or private? How did the nature of performing effect everything we do, with others, and how we see ourselves? Shakespeare’s greatest consciousnesses tend to be actors in their own plays, able to shape their destinies, create or resolve dramatic climax, see into the motives of others as well as self-consciously write their own lines. Hegel said something smarter and more eloquent, which captures this, about them being free-masons of their own selves. Something like that. Hal is such a character. He keeps talking about his true self, his old self, his new self. Who is he? He wears a crown, he dresses in a robe, he carries a scepter, and his part has changed. His verse alters. His tone is solemn. He does not want to joke. He does not want to riot and have sport. He rebukes Falstaff. He rebukes anyone who was as he was once. He becomes what he hated and loathed, and the lesson can’t simply be he’s a horrible friend. Is this just a case of absolute power corrupts absolutely? What is the corruption? Falstaff is a braggart, a cheat, a thief, a drunkard, and insolvent.
  95. In all of our lives, we’ve had these moments. People we’ve known have attained things, and gone places, received honors, and been privileged. And always, no matter what, like Falstaff (except without his crimes, without his generosity, without his genius, his mirth, his irreverence), we EXPECT to share in that, to be entitled, to remain equals. It is not just a matter of greed and ambition. It is a matter of love.
  96. Friendship is based in a love of two people for two people. Love is always between two people.
  97. Power, political and earthly power, is the reality of an individual representing everyone.
  98. But who cares?
  99. Haven’t you ever been expecting, on bended knee, a friend, a lover, someone, anyone, to acknowledge you? To honor their love? To privilege that bond? Shakespeare may have set out to write a political drama, a history play, appropriate to courts and battles, fighting and chanting speeches, which he does astonishingly so in Henry V, but in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, he writes something greater. Plays about history are plays about fate. Henry IV and Chimes at Midnight is about personalities—and the personality that is about foremost is Falstaff: the width of what it is to be human. Most of the play deviates from that law of genre, and takes to somewhere much more entertaining—two people who exist to know each other, share their mind, and enjoy nothing more than each other’s company. But the play has to end; Henry IV’s son has to become Henry V. And personalities like Falstaff’s (there are no others!) are too large a scope, too wide a berth. Fate and power and politics and monologues are vertical; personalities and dialogues and horizontal. Shakespeare may have been honoring a convention, finally, and rushing to a close, hastily, but he also left an audience (and a Queen) who loved this English buffoon aware of a sober truth. Our friendships like our love are commodities, accessories, ways in which we waste our mental and physical time. To those who are called to “serve,” to lead, there is no leisure to live life. (Ironically, Shakespeare had to please the Crown to promise to bring Falstaff back, the very Crown he depicted by dismissing that great man.) Henry V promises to give Falstaff advancement (a promotion of power). A few lines later Shakespeare puns on this word, as Falstaff is speaking of the advancement he owes Master Shallow. Earlier in the play, Falstaff jests: “Banish Falstaff and banish all the world!” But who would ever want to banish the world?
  100. But Shakespeare and Welles show us that for the chance of control we do.

She hears, upon that water wide without sound,
A voice that cries, “The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”
—Wallace Stevens, ‘Sunday Morning’

“Poetry may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.”
—T.S. Eliot

http://www.youtube.com/v/b39WzjxgYss
—Derrida on Christianity & Deconstruction

Hegel said we live in a speculative Good Friday—that the moment of philosophy is to think of God’s death, his absence, forseeing at least a hundred years the 20th century. Was there ever a century more sure and fraught with such an absence, devoid of absolute goods, of whatever Christianity meant, beyond its corruptions, scandals and inglorious crusades?

502 (Johnson)

At least — to pray — is left — is left —
Oh Jesus — in the Air —
I know not which thy chamber is —
I’m knocking — everywhere —

Thou settest Earthquake in the South —
And Maelstrom, in the Sea —
Say, Jesus Christ of Nazareth —
Hast thou no Arm for Me?
—Emily Dickinson

To Him that was Crucified

My spirit to yours, dear brother;
Do not mind because many, sounding your name, do not understand you;
I do not sound your name, but I understand you, (there are others also;)
I specify you with joy, O my comrade, to salute you, and to salute those who are with you, before and since—and those to come also,
That we all labor together, transmitting the same charge and succession; 5
We few, equals, indifferent of lands, indifferent of times;
We, enclosers of all continents, all castes—allowers of all theologies,
Compassionaters, perceivers, rapport of men,
We walk silent among disputes and assertions, but reject not the disputers, nor any thing that is asserted;
We hear the bawling and din—we are reach’d at by divisions, jealousies, recriminations on every side, 10
They close peremptorily upon us, to surround us, my comrade,
Yet we walk unheld, free, the whole earth over, journeying up and down, till we make our ineffaceable mark upon time and the diverse eras,
Till we saturate time and eras, that the men and women of races, ages to come, may prove brethren and lovers, as we are.
—Walt Whitman

Today is Holy Saturday, perhaps the least thought upon, least looked upon day in the Easter Triduum. But it has in the last few years come to epitomize for me my own life, spiritual and otherwise, where the pomp and majesty of supernatural events ceases; no gods dying, no gods reborn—merely dormancy on all fronts. This is the day when Jesus lay within his tomb; when the great hoax of the messiah was over; when if there was a hell, Christ descended.

Like many others, reprobate poets included, Jesus Christ continues to be a keen fascination—tantalizing, provocative, elusive, unforgettable. No character of literature—not Don Quixote, not Hamlet, not Walt Whitman, not Emily Dickinson, to name only a few of the most formidable ever to be created by human imagination—can rival the shock and astonishment I had when learning about this specific figure. Was he a historical madman who preached a new idea, forgive? Was he a philosopher, like Buddha or Socrates, that simply wanted to cure ignorance with peace, and noble deeds of charity? Or was he something more? God or human, or both—Christ is the supremest fiction—and yet he’s someone I talk little about (religions may be public matters but faith is always private), being a lapsed Catholic (redundancy?), being someone who hasn’t gone to Church and received communion since July 2004. And yet there was a time, as some of my friends know, when I wanted nothing more than to envision myself as a Catholic priest. In high school, I read a book called “I, Judas” which sparked my imagination into a pure rapture of fever. Then I watched Zeferelli’s masterpiece, “Jesus of Nazareth,” which was filmed with shots to mirror actual paintings from the Renaissance by the Old Masters. The film produced, for lack of a better term, a total conversion. It told me who I was, whatever Robert Powell (son of Elizabeth Taylor) dramatized. A stellar cast, full of drama, clocking in at over four hours, the film convinced me for the first time in my adolescent life that I had to ask larger questions than family dramas; I had to reflect on more than my own dizzy thought processes. Soon after, I read the Gospels, and by the time I finished Saint Matthew, in my heart, I felt something like a priesthood awaited. Month by month, I read more, saw the connection and relevance of the Catholic church to this old history, of a man and his disciples, and then decided if such a thing as a vocation existed, I felt a call to preach, to dedicate myself to God. In my callowness and intensity, I thought though that loving God meant rejecting all else, and my faith being built on a very inchoate, jerrybuilt consciousness soon demurred from such a radical decision. It was during this time I was also coming to terms with being gay, something that scandalized me deeply.

But how does this all get us to poetry? Samuel Johnson, a man who it is dangerous to disagree with, thought that prayer was too high and holy for the lowly provinces of poetry, an artifical utterance. Though Johnson knew of Herbert and Donne, he didn’t have Hopkins or Christina Rosetti, or Geoffrey Hill. I can’t say whether or not he’s wrong—but I do believe poets have been deeply interested in questions of faith. Eliot, among them. In an essay I am in no state of mind to summarize or track down, Eliot rehearses this matter about whether poetry and belief can meet—how important it is that we share the beliefs of the work we read? To Harold Bloom, and many others less religious-minded than him, such an artist as Dante can be read as literature without loss. The greatness of it is not for its dogmatic assertions, for its religious doctrines or philosophies. Perhaps this bring us back to the problem of what a poet makes of his materials—are the materials of art irrelevant? Are we simply interested in what an artist does with those materials? This is the disinterested, mostly secularly, attitude of many authorities, Keats foremost, who espouses disinterestedness as the key to produce and appreciate art. As Eliot even himself says, reading Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies,’ it is not important that we agree with the muddle of his life-philosophy – but only see into the poetic rhetoric he exhorts and exults in. But Dante is a persistent challenge – Blake also.

The philosopher Richard Kearney has written in his new book, called Anatheism, about an attitude and mindset which approaches God after God – realizing how dismantled, impossible and unsettled a simple Christian faith must be for the postmodern mind. I can’t help feeling drawn to such a new approach, as I am myself often in love with such worldly authors who in their own way have wrestled, and tackled with, the God question. That is, the absence of God, or: What Comes Next. Derrida. Beckett. Stevens. Dickinson. Blake. Whitman. Hart Crane. They aren’t dogmatic followers of Sect of Creed – how could that be respectably fashionable for arch individualists? – but neither can they, on the other hand, ignore hearing the long withdrawing roar of the Sea of Faith.

No matter where we turn, God creeps into the picture — even on Holy Saturday — in our media-blitzed lives — when faith seems so irrelevant, so in the hand of fanatics and madmen eager to blow up or imperialize the world. The best lack all conviction, / The worst are full of passionate intensity. Christ casts quite a shadow over some great minds, artists and poets who even turned away, weren’t interested in God Talk, some downright hostilely rejected the plausibility of Resurrection. Safe in their Alabaster Chambers / Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection. For some – this post may be idle nostalgia. Memoir drivel. Propaganda. And yet, even if only a matter of all-too human grief, we dream of returns. I for one, hope as TSE said of Tennyson, that I may be at least religious for the degree of my doubt, if not my faith.

The Everlasting Gospel
By William Blake  (1757–1827)
THE VISION OF CHRIST that thou dost see
Is my vision’s greatest enemy.
Thine has a great hook nose like thine;
Mine has a snub nose like to mine.
Thine is the Friend of all Mankind;
Mine speaks in parables to the blind.
Thine loves the same world that mine hates;
Thy heaven doors are my hell gates.
Socrates taught what Meletus
Loath’d as a nation’s bitterest curse,
And Caiaphas was in his own mind
A benefactor to mankind.
Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white.
Was Jesus gentle, or did He
Give any marks of gentility?
When twelve years old He ran away,
And left His parents in dismay.
When after three days’ sorrow found,
Loud as Sinai’s trumpet-sound:
‘No earthly parents I confess—
My Heavenly Father’s business!
Ye understand not what I say,
And, angry, force Me to obey.
Obedience is a duty then,
And favour gains with God and men.’
John from the wilderness loud cried;
Satan gloried in his pride.
‘Come,’ said Satan, ‘come away,
I’ll soon see if you’ll obey!
John for disobedience bled,
But you can turn the stones to bread.
God’s high king and God’s high priest
Shall plant their glories in your breast,
If Caiaphas you will obey,
If Herod you with bloody prey
Feed with the sacrifice, and be
Obedient, fall down, worship me.’
Thunders and lightnings broke around,
And Jesus’ voice in thunders’ sound:
‘Thus I seize the spiritual prey.
Ye smiters with disease, make way.
I come your King and God to seize,
Is God a smiter with disease?’
The God of this world rag’d in vain:
He bound old Satan in His chain,
And, bursting forth, His furious ire
Became a chariot of fire.
Throughout the land He took His course,
And trac’d diseases to their source.
He curs’d the Scribe and Pharisee,
Trampling down hypocrisy.
Where’er His chariot took its way,
There Gates of Death let in the Day,
Broke down from every chain and bar;
And Satan in His spiritual war
Dragg’d at His chariot-wheels: loud howl’d
The God of this world: louder roll’d
The chariot-wheels, and louder still
His voice was heard from Zion’s Hill,
And in His hand the scourge shone bright;
He scourg’d the merchant Canaanite
From out the Temple of His Mind,
And in his body tight does bind
Satan and all his hellish crew;
And thus with wrath He did subdue
The serpent bulk of Nature’s dross,
Till He had nail’d it to the Cross.
He took on sin in the Virgin’s womb
And put it off on the Cross and tomb
To be worshipp’d by the Church of Rome.
Was Jesus humble? or did He
Give any proofs of humility?
Boast of high things with humble tone,
And give with charity a stone?
When but a child He ran away,
And left His parents in dismay.
When they had wander’d three days long
These were the words upon His tongue:
‘No earthly parents I confess:
I am doing My Father’s business.’
When the rich learnèd Pharisee
Came to consult Him secretly,
Upon his heart with iron pen
He wrote ‘Ye must be born again.’
He was too proud to take a bribe;
He spoke with authority, not like a Scribe.
He says with most consummate art
‘Follow Me, I am meek and lowly of heart,
As that is the only way to escape
The miser’s net and the glutton’s trap.’
What can be done with such desperate fools
Who follow after the heathen schools?
I was standing by when Jesus died;
What I call’d humility, they call’d pride.
He who loves his enemies betrays his friends.
This surely is not what Jesus intends;
But the sneaking pride of heroic schools,
And the Scribes’ and Pharisees’ virtuous rules;
For He acts with honest, triumphant pride,
And this is the cause that Jesus dies.
He did not die with Christian ease,
Asking pardon of His enemies:
If He had, Caiaphas would forgive;
Sneaking submission can always live.
He had only to say that God was the Devil,
And the Devil was God, like a Christian civil;
Mild Christian regrets to the Devil confess
For affronting him thrice in the wilderness;
He had soon been bloody Caesar’s elf,
And at last he would have been Caesar himself,
Like Dr. Priestly and Bacon and Newton—
Poor spiritual knowledge is not worth a button
For thus the Gospel Sir Isaac confutes:
‘God can only be known by His attributes;
And as for the indwelling of the Holy Ghost,
Or of Christ and His Father, it’s all a boast
And pride, and vanity of the imagination,
That disdains to follow this world’s fashion.’
To teach doubt and experiment
Certainly was not what Christ meant.
What was He doing all that time,
From twelve years old to manly prime?
Was He then idle, or the less
About His Father’s business?
Or was His wisdom held in scorn
Before His wrath began to burn
In miracles throughout the land,
That quite unnerv’d the Seraph band?
If He had been Antichrist, Creeping Jesus,
He’d have done anything to please us;
Gone sneaking into synagogues,
And not us’d the Elders and Priests like dogs;
But humble as a lamb or ass
Obey’d Himself to Caiaphas.
God wants not man to humble himself:
That is the trick of the Ancient Elf.
This is the race that Jesus ran:
Humble to God, haughty to man,
Cursing the Rulers before the people
Even to the Temple’s highest steeple,
And when He humbled Himself to God
Then descended the cruel rod.
‘If Thou Humblest Thyself, Thou humblest Me.
Thou also dwell’st in Eternity.
Thou art a Man: God is no more:
Thy own Humanity learn to adore,
For that is My spirit of life.
Awake, arise to spiritual strife,
And Thy revenge abroad display
In terrors at the last Judgement Day.
God’s mercy and long suffering
Is but the sinner to judgement to bring.
Thou on the Cross for them shalt pray—
And take revenge at the Last Day.’
Jesus replied, and thunders hurl’d:
‘I never will pray for the world.
Once I did so when I pray’d in the Garden;
I wish’d to take with Me a bodily pardon.’
Can that which was of woman born,
In the absence of the morn,
When the Soul fell into sleep,
And Archangels round it weep,
Shooting out against the light
Fibres of a deadly night,
Reasoning upon its own dark fiction,
In doubt which is self-contradiction?
Humility is only doubt,
And does the sun and moon blot out,
Rooting over with thorns and stems
The buried soul and all its gems.
This life’s five windows of the soul
Distorts the Heavens from pole to pole,
And leads you to believe a lie
When you see with, not thro’, the eye
That was born in a night, to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in the beams of light.
Did Jesus teach doubt? or did He
Give any lessons of philosophy,
Charge Visionaries with deceiving,
Or call men wise for not believing?…
Was Jesus born of a Virgin pure
With narrow soul and looks demure?
If He intended to take on sin
The Mother should an harlot been,
Just such a one as Magdalen,
With seven devils in her pen.
Or were Jew virgins still more curs’d,
And more sucking devils nurs’d?
Or what was it which He took on
That He might bring salvation?
A body subject to be tempted,
From neither pain nor grief exempted;
Or such a body as might not feel
The passions that with sinners deal?
Yes, but they say He never fell.
Ask Caiaphas; for he can tell.—
‘He mock’d the Sabbath, and He mock’d
The Sabbath’s God, and He unlock’d
The evil spirits from their shrines,
And turn’d fishermen to divines;
O’erturn’d the tent of secret sins,
And its golden cords and pins,
In the bloody shrine of war
Pour’d around from star to star,—
Halls of justice, hating vice,
Where the Devil combs his lice.
He turn’d the devils into swine
That He might tempt the Jews to dine;
Since which, a pig has got a look
That for a Jew may be mistook.
“Obey your parents.”—What says He?
“Woman, what have I to do with thee?
No earthly parents I confess:
I am doing my Father’s business.”
He scorn’d Earth’s parents, scorn’d Earth’s God,
And mock’d the one and the other’s rod;
His seventy Disciples sent
Against Religion and Government—
They by the sword of Justice fell,
And Him their cruel murderer tell.
He left His father’s trade to roam,
A wand’ring vagrant without home;
And thus He others’ labour stole,
That He might live above control.
The publicans and harlots He
Selected for His company,
And from the adulteress turn’d away
God’s righteous law, that lost its prey.’
Was Jesus chaste? or did He
Give any lessons of chastity?
The Morning blushèd fiery red:
Mary was found in adulterous bed;
Earth groan’d beneath, and Heaven above
Trembled at discovery of Love.
Jesus was sitting in Moses’ chair.
They brought the trembling woman there.
Moses commands she be ston’d to death.
What was the sound of Jesus’ breath?
He laid His hand on Moses’ law;
The ancient Heavens, in silent awe,
Writ with curses from pole to pole,
All away began to roll.
The Earth trembling and naked lay
In secret bed of mortal clay;
On Sinai felt the Hand Divine
Pulling back the bloody shrine;
And she heard the breath of God,
As she heard by Eden’s flood:
‘Good and Evil are no more!
Sinai’s trumpets cease to roar!
Cease, finger of God, to write!
The Heavens are not clean in Thy sight.
Thou art good, and Thou alone;
Nor may the sinner cast one stone.
To be good only, is to be
A God or else a Pharisee.
Thou Angel of the Presence Divine,
That didst create this Body of Mine,
Wherefore hast thou writ these laws
And created Hell’s dark jaws?
My Presence I will take from thee:
A cold leper thou shalt be.
Tho’ thou wast so pure and bright
That Heaven was impure in thy sight,
Tho’ thy oath turn’d Heaven pale,
Tho’ thy covenant built Hell’s jail,
Tho’ thou didst all to chaos roll
With the Serpent for its soul,
Still the breath Divine does move,
And the breath Divine is Love.
Mary, fear not! Let me see
The seven devils that torment thee.
Hide not from My sight thy sin,
That forgiveness thou may’st win.
Has no man condemnèd thee?’
‘No man, Lord.’ ‘Then what is he
Who shall accuse thee? Come ye forth,
Fallen fiends of heavenly birth,
That have forgot your ancient love,
And driven away my trembling Dove.
You shall bow before her feet;
You shall lick the dust for meat;
And tho’ you cannot love, but hate,
Shall be beggars at Love’s gate.
What was thy love? Let Me see it;
Was it love or dark deceit?’
‘Love too long from me has fled;
’Twas dark deceit, to earn my bread;
’Twas covet, or ’twas custom, or
Some trifle not worth caring for;
That they may call a shame and sin
Love’s temple that God dwelleth in,
And hide in secret hidden shrine
The naked Human Form Divine,
And render that a lawless thing
On which the Soul expands its wing.
But this, O Lord, this was my sin,
When first I let these devils in,
In dark pretence to chastity
Blaspheming Love, blaspheming Thee,
Thence rose secret adulteries,
And thence did covet also rise.
My sin Thou hast forgiven me;
Canst Thou forgive my blasphemy?
Canst Thou return to this dark hell,
And in my burning bosom dwell?
And canst Thou die that I may live?
And canst Thou pity and forgive?’
Then roll’d the shadowy Man away
From the limbs of Jesus, to make them His prey,
An ever devouring appetite,
Glittering with festering venoms bright;
Crying ‘Crucify this cause of distress,
Who don’t keep the secrets of holiness!
The mental powers by diseases we bind;
But He heals the deaf, the dumb, and the blind.
Whom God has afflicted for secret ends,
He comforts and heals and calls them friends.’
But, when Jesus was crucified,
Then was perfected His galling pride.
In three nights He devour’d His prey,
And still He devours the body of clay;
For dust and clay is the Serpent’s meat,
Which never was made for Man to eat.
Seeing this False Christ, in fury and passion
I made my voice heard all over the nation.
What are those…
I am sure this Jesus will not do,
Either for Englishman or Jew.

So there’s always this double duty, neither to make the best the enemy of the good, nor to make the good the enemy of the best. Scylla and Charybdis. The reason I admire Johnson and Eliot and Empson so much – the thing that holds them together – is that they all think that doing the right thing is steering between two equally dangerous opposite bad things.

Do you remember that Eliot was billed as giving a talk on ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ and he’d realized that they’d simply misunderstood. That is, when he was asked what he was going to talk about, he’d said that these things were always a matter of Scylla and Charybdis and so forth, and this became the title of the talk so that we got a talk on this subject because they’d slightly misunderstood what he was saying. But it’s true to him.

And Samuel Johnson is profound on this. He asked why are we more lenient towards foolhardiness than towards cowardice. If you think of them as being equidistant from the right thing, two opposing faults. Why are we more lenient to the one? And the answer is because it is self-correcting. If you’re foolhardy, you bruise your shins. You find out, you learn from it. If you’re spendthrift, you learn as the miser never does. The spendthrift runs out of money, the miser never runs out of anxiety about money. Equidistant from the true course but one may prove preferable.

We need people to remind us that the good is the enemy of the best and we need people to remind us that the best is the enemy of the good. We need to protect ourselves from the dangers from both flanks.

—Christopher Ricks, interview from The Literateur Magazine

Something in a title suggests everything you could possibly want to say about a certain topic. As in the example of T.S. Eliot’s lecture entitled “Scylla and Charybdis,” mentioned by Ricks above. The title “The Problem of Style” suggested to me everything I wanted to blog about today concerning the evolution of a poet’s style, something I’ve been thinking about while reading through Robert Hass and Henri Cole to prepare book reviews about their new selected works.

Critics and academics—much maligned creatures to whom we should at least be grateful for having something to endlessly argue about—tend to regard style as a fixed thing, an external lacquer or recipe that poets consciously choose, modify, and have to then be evaluated for a/ which style they picked, b/ how well they handled it, and c/ at what expense Style X precluded Y or Z. Two conversations from memory substantiate the attitude I’m talking about, both by formidable minds. Archie Burnett teaching his class at Boston University was talking about John Milton and upon fielding some questions about the make-up of what we identify and label as “The Miltonic Style,” he went on to say “Ah, well, with a great poet like Milton he could have written in whatever style he wanted.” And recently, breaking bread with Daniel Mendelsohn, we entered into a large, hearty and even heated debate on whether or not a writer “sets out to know what he wants to write,”—his point being that whereas an amateur writer may just be throwing darts in the dark, merely provoking “questions,” suggesting possibilities he doesn’t have a finished thought about, the serious and accomplished writer knows exactly what he’s setting out to do, then tackles it with dispatch. I disagree with both of these statements—the first wholeheartedly, the second because of a zillion counter-examples. Milton, supreme artist that he was, wasn’t immobile or unaware of what he was up to, but to think he could have avoided the baroque line, his heightened Latinate phraseology, the robustly complicated syntax, is fanciful. For all his craft and intelligence and arch learnedness, Milton’s rhythmic DNA was predetermined (in a way). People, like poems, are after all a mixture of the given and the made. The made is not what I aim to dispute; but the given needs to be redefined, a little bit.

Style is foremost a tension of contradictions between a writer’s impulses and perception, not an absence of them. In a classical style, a writer’s personality is totally disguised behind the established proportions and prevailing measures of a tradition, or The Tradition, whatever that once meant. In the romantic style, a writer’s style emerges as an indulgence of their impulses and mannerisms that they recognized in past authors and themselves, developing towards “originality.” But originality as we know is at the root of idiocy, of speaking or sounding like someone outside the acquainted norms of the city—the polis. And this is what Samuel Johnson was getitng at when he said in response to a young poet’s manuscript: It is both good and original; the parts that are good are not original, the parts that are original are not good. Johnson, the epitome of the Augustan, classical mindset, looked on idiosyncrasy as a disease, one that had to be tolerated in the presence of a great writer like Swift, great that is for his other qualities, but extirpated in an overrated poet like Thomas Gray, whose diction was remote and eccentric. (I for one love Swift and Gray.)

And yet as Richard Howard has brilliantly written in his essay on Emily Dickinson, it is precisely a writer’s peversities that can make him so good, not in lieu of them, but directly because they were listened to, indulged, cultivated. He argues, shrewdly, that Dickinson’s dashes, capitalizations, peculiar rhythms, coy slant-rhymes are her genius as a poet, not provincial blemises that happen to sit on a great linguistic talent. The opposite point of view can be heard in Eliot’s essay on Blake, where the attitude is: Yes, this man was a great poet, but alas also a home-spun weirdo, who had these troublesome peculiarities that prevented him from being as important as good ol’ Dante. Harold Bloom, dissenting from Eliot (shocker!) has fired back, emphasizing in ‘The Western Canon’ (perhaps tipping the see-saw too much in the opposite direction) that Dante’s centrality to Western literature relies on his extraordinary brazenness, as when he ciphons Beatrice into eternal salvation history (an argument that is found also in Emerson).

But I am digressing between the Classical and Romantic trap, when what I want to talk about is what is akin to both of these modes, intrinsic to writing any poem, regardless of what the tradition it plugs into is.

When we think of style as a pathology—we do artists an injustice, to their deliberation and foresight, as well as to the range of a poet proven over time. Stevens writes in his characterstic mode for his entire life, but between ‘Harmonium’ and ‘The Rock’ the conscious artisan in Stevens decided to become more pared down, less jumpy in his adjective use, and honors the strain throughout his life to speak in the simple sentence.

When we think of style as a choice—we are forgetting that sensibilities are vast and complex and have so many unconscious ingredients, dispositions and biases at work, it’s impossible to say simply why W.C.W. favors the short, clipped line, and Frost keeps to iambic pentameter. One man’s nerves cannot stand noise, another bathes in distortion and static.

One of the problems of style then is when a writer acknowledges a past tendency as a mechanism no longer adequate, or pleasing, or just. True, for the precocious or immensely talented, perhaps this gap is indiscernable, or much shorter—as in a Merrill, who began writing as refined and polished as his very last works. Another exception is the occasional, and rare, writer who assimilates so easily other people’s styles, he can seemingly switch between them—but then isn’t that method their style? Joyce, Eliot, Ashbery: they don’t so much have different styles as styles with immense difference built into them. In Joyce, you see these as discrete effects as you follow his career towards a sea of chaos—but the Joycean tone, flippant, somewhat verbose?, and resigned, that’s there throughout. Eliot willfully goes against his inner discord, his turmoil and polyphony of voices that he discovered in ‘The Waste Land,’ then labors towards a ‘style’ in the ‘Four Quartets’ that is seamlessly regulated, and unified. Ashbery took the opposite route, and after he mastered in his third and fourth books the possibility for disjunctiveness in vocabulary, narrative and form—he has kept going, on and on and on, to this day.

It appears to me that everything that I am saying is grossly redundant, and obvious. So that’s a good place to stop.

The problem of style exists, larger than the unconscious and conscious distinctions I’ve circled around. One way of seeing poems must be not as answers to questions, solutions for the puzzle, or resolutions to the problem—but as a way to discover what the questions are, what puzzles need working out, what problems each writer has in store. If we’re lucky enough, though the problems, like our pathologies, never go away—we do get to master them, instead of them mastering us. That is, one hopes.

Below are some candid photos I’ve taken of Poetryland’s Personalities.

“One of the marks of our world is perhaps this reversal: we live according to a generalized image-repertoire. Consider the United Sates, where everything is transformed into images: only images exist and are produced and are consumes… Such a reversal necessarily raises the ethical question: not that the image is immoral, irreligious, or diabolic (as some have declared it, upon the advent of the Photograph), but because, when generalized, it completely de-realizes the human world of conflicts and desires, under cover of illustrating it.”

“Each photograph is read as the private appearance of its referent: the age of Photography corresponds precisely to the explosion of the private into the public, or rather into the creation of a new social value, which is the publicity of the private: the private is consumes as such, publicly.”

“The Photograph is an extended, loaded evidence — as if it caricatured not the figure of what it represents (quite the converse) but its very existence… The Photograph then becomes a bizarre medium, a new form of hallucination: false on the level of perception, true on the level of time: a temporal hallucination, so to speak, a modest, shared hallucination (on the one hand ‘it is not there,’ on the other ‘but it has indeed been’): a mad image, chafed by reality.”