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The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard. Edited by Ron Padgett, with an introduction by Paul Auster. Library of America. 535 pp. $35.

In the first volume of her diaries, Susan Sontag, on an off day in 1957, begins listing, in no particular order and with no reason stated, an odd assortment of memories from her childhood and early youth. It may be that the desire to write down (and ransom from oblivion) moments on the face of it trivial but somehow still persistent in memory comes occasionally to all reflective people.  Certainly it does to many writers. Four or five years after Sontag’s journal entry, the painter and poet Joe Brainard began a work composed of several hundred disparate vignettes drawn from his past, each recorded in a thumbnail paragraph, each beginning with the incantatory phrase, “I remember.”  Not billed as either poetry or prose, the book can be classed as a prose work simply because it’s not composed in lines; yet its directness and foregrounding of autobiographical experience remind us of Song of Myself , as well as the conversational poems of Frank O’Hara. Haikus of recollection, we might call these brief notations; but Brainard’s minimalist title is, simply, I Remember.  Two of them should give the general flavor:

I remember butter and sugar sandwiches.

I remember Pat Boone and “Love Letters in the Sand.”

Part of the work’s appeal resides in its evocation of the 1950s, the twentieth century’s most unironic and blithely American decade, the decade of I Love Lucy, Elvis, and Sputnik. Unironic, that is, until revived by an artist alert to the camp aspect of phenomena like Fifties movies, advertising, and pop music. Brainard’s best known work, it occupies the place of honor in this new edition of his writings even though putting it first violates authorial chronology.  Included along with it are a number of short poems, lineated and sometimes fanciful; a dozen or so drawings; a few short prose works; two journals that were published during his lifetime; substantial excerpts from diaries never before published; and two interviews.  I also want to mention “Self-Portrait on Christmas Night,” a prose piece written shortly before Brainard’s twentieth birthday, appearing for the first time in this volume.  It’s probably the most passionate and painful text he produed, touching on nearly all the themes he would, in more considered pieces, return to later on. What themes?  His dissatisfaction with himself as a visual artist and writer; his poet friends, in particular, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, and Anne Waldman; the importance of generosity; honesty, imperfectly attained; money; and love.

His reflections on these topics pour out in no particular order, according to the “free writing” method, and when he runs out of steam he stops without reaching any concrete conclusion except the stated desire to get on with his life as well as he can. He briefly comments on the topic of “pills,” which he began taking regularly when he moved from Tulsa to New York.  Noting his own growing dependency, he says, “But I nevertheless think they are basically evil; the effect they have on us is not ‘the way things are’ but ‘the way we’d like them to be.’  It would be so easy if I always took them and don’t know why I don’t want an escape. I don’t owe myself or the world an honest memento of life. God only knows most people don’t give it. In fact those of us who occasionally do are resented.  We know too much.” Brainard believed that truth and beauty were the same thing, so in order to create beauty, he had to be truthful.  His commitment to honesty sounds admirable, but it made life difficult for him, not just because he didn’t like hurting his friends’ feelings, and not just because pills distort the “way things are,” along with the way we report them. He fairly soon caught on that, however resolutely sought, honesty can only be a goal; it isn’t a mode of discourse ever fully realized.  Though words may intend to reveal the truth, in fact, they also inevitably conceal it.  To state is always, if only slightly, to falsify.  All social actions are, in varying degrees, compromised by deception; and language is social.  A decade later he commented on the question in a diary entry dated February 8th, 1971 (from Diary 1970-1971):

Brigid Polk said to me last night that I was the most honest person she knew. I wanted to say, “No,” but somehow more than just “No.” I don’t remember what I said, but this morning I was thinking about it and it came to me what I should have said. That honest is only something you can try to be. (If you want to be.) And I do. But I don’t want to have to take the credit for being honest. Because, even if it were possible, it would be too much to have to live up to. Another impossible weight.

Full disclosure: I knew Joe, admired him and liked him.  At some point in the mid-1970s I read I Remember, not expecting much. It finessed most of the aesthetic criteria I knew and cared about. It avoided metaphor and memorable images. The rhythms were unremarkable, the syntax overall flat and declarative.  I couldn’t discover any significance in the ordering of his memories; they arrived randomly, flickered, burned out, to be followed by a jumpcut to the next memory.  Yet this slyly humorous and sexually candid work was gripping and left me with a strange, triumphant glow hard to account for.  Until that reading I’d thought of Joe as a visual artist only, but the estimate clearly had to be revised.  Reading him was a pleasure not like any other, and his honesty was part of the reason for that.

Our circles of friends differed, so I didn’t get to know him well until 1981, and then by accident.  I happened to end up with a country place in Vermont about an hour’s drive from the house near Calais where he and Kenward Elmslie spent every summer.  My partner and I used to go there once a month for dinner, after which we went on to some card-playing, contract bridge, to be specific.  (In an interview he says that he learned to play bridge with Frank O’Hara, who was devoted to the game.) We, on the other hand, were anything but bridge whizzes, yet surprisingly enough came out more often than not with a higher score than Joe and Kenward.  I’d forgotten the I-remember that reports Joe’s habit of letting opponents win when he played.  In any case, the game provided an occasion for low-key, amusing conversation.

What I don’t understand now is why, once back in New York, we never made any effort to see each other.  As said, our social sets there were very different, and I’d always felt that the (as they are called) New York School of poets had a rather exclusive code about who belonged and who didn’t.  Being a poet in New York indifferent to middle-class values wasn’t enough to qualify. Admiration for Ashbery, O’Hara, Schuyler, and Koch wasn’t enough. Being gay wasn’t enough. It seemed to require something like pledging Nu Gamma Sigma fraternity, where you agreed to get to know, admire and uphold all the other brothers (some of them pretty obscure) and to regard the NYS as superior to all other literary coteries and their approaches to writing. Further, to constantly mention the names of the other members in and outside your poems. From the first, the New York School (much like the Beats) exhibited enthusiastic team spirit, a reflex that has served them well. Not much of a joiner, I never made the effort to pledge and, if I had, would probably have been blackballed. That said, I liked Joe, his paintings and his writings, and the same goes for several of the others—not on the basis of their being members in good standing, but because of what they wrote.  Is it necessary to point out that, when Ashbery, O’Hara, Schuyler and Koch were starting out in the 1950s, nobody referred to them as the “New York School”? The term had been used by art critics for the Abstract Expressionists, but its application to poets was the invention of John Bernard Myers, a gallerist and small-press publisher of that era who produced the first anthology of their poetry in the late 1960s.  This was followed up in short order by one that Ron Padgett edited, its cover designed by Joe Brainard.

Joe, Ron Padgett, Ted Berrigan, David Shapiro, Kenward Elmslie, Eileen Myles, and several others made up the “second generation” of the School, and their work (with the exception of Shapiro) tended to resemble O’Hara’s and Schuyler’s more than Ashbery’s and Koch’s.  Joe sometimes wrote lineated poems, but his works much more often were cast in prose format—not only the I-remembers, but also his mini-essays, diaries, and travel journals.  Influenced by his writer friends and by the rise of Pop Art, he moved away from the emo intensity of his “Self-Portrait on Christmas Night” towards something dryer and funnier, reminsicent of the “Oh wow” flatness of Pop.  It was the era of deadpan minimalism; a favorite restaurant in SoHo was called FOOD.  American commercial brands, cartoons, and advertising were suddenly the stuff of “high” art.  Andy Warhol had put a big cardboard Brillo box in one of his shows and painted Campbell Soup cans. Susan Sontag’s influential “Notes on Camp” appeared and was singled out for special praise in her successful first collection of essays.  One of the reigning artistic modes of the time was the “faux naïf,” a wide-eyed cluelessness adopted as an enabling mask by artists of considerable sophistication.  Of course American naivety is real enough, fostered by hit-or-miss education, provinciality, and the rigorous conformity imposed on our middle-class, at its most oppressive during the high-school years. But the 1960s artists taking the faux naïf approach were hardly Judy Holiday in Born Yesterday or the eponymous Forrest Gump.  They were savvy urbanites who saw the humorous potential in dumbing down and saying things that could easily have been jobbed into cartoons or TV soaps, this time surrounded by invisible quotation marks.

Humor aside, the pose of naivety plays out as a peculiarly American feature in the arts, an anxious reaction, I speculate, to a never fully resolved doubt in our consciousness: Can American civilization stand comparison with the complex achievements of the cultures that preceded it, and of Europe in particular?  It’s as though many artists have decided it doesn’t, and therefore have beefed up our supposed cluelessness, as a way of turning it into a virtue.  At this point in history, the notion of American cultural deficiency is strange given our extraordinary achievements in government, industry, science, technology, scholarship, and the arts. The USA, considering how new a nation it is, has accomplished incredible things. Yet the intimation of inferiority has been persistent for nearly two centuries, surfacing in bizarre ways—for example, the 19th-century fad for American heiresses going to Europe to marry themselves a title, rubber barons building French châteaux in Newport or the Hudson Valley,  or the way natives still gush when a visitor speaks with a British accent. The insecurity can also take the aggressive form of dismissing anything transatlantic as a toxin produced by “dead white European males.” The hard-shell American attitude is: “I may be a rube, but I’m a good person—anyway, a lot better than y’all sophisticates.”  The idea is that if you’ve very clever, you’re not going to be as straightforwardly goodhearted as your blank-slate counterpart.  It takes a Mammy Yokum to come up with formulas like, “Yep, good is better than evil—because it’s nicer.”

Strangely enough, American naivety has been welcomed by Europe as a possible escape from the quintessential European dilemma. Which can be summed up this way: “If my culture of origin gave to the world a Homer, a Sappho, a Dante, a Michelangelo, a Shakespeare, a Velasquez, a Bach, a Goethe, a Tolstoy, a Proust (add names here), what could I possible produce that might deserve the admiration those figures command?”  It’s a crushing legacy to have inherited, so no wonder if many European artists have snubbed it. Granted, the USA has itself originated a few sophisticates fully conversant with the European tradition—Henry James, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Moore, to name only the best known. But these don’t, in contemporary Europe, generate the same enthusiasm as our so-called primitives—Whitman, Mark Twain, William Carlos Williams, Raymond Chandler, the Beats, Bukowski, et al.  How the rating game will play out in the 21st century, though, is anybody’s guess.

A provocative feature of Brainard’s writing is its dialogic character, composed always with a cautious awareness of possible future readers. In journal writing, when he mentions a friend’s name in a third-person sentence, he often then switches to “you” and addresses the friend directly, as though absolutely certain that his remarks were going to be read by the person commented on. Sometimes he anticipates a reaction from his subject and responds to it as though it were actual. It’s a curious rhetorical strategy and certainly dispels any notion that Brainard’s journals are private, spontaneous utterances. They are designed to be read by friends and eventually by people he doesn’t know.  Unless you conclude that otherness, in the form of the internalized personalities of his friends or some abstracted General Reader, a nonspecific “you,” was a permanent fixture in the diarist’s mind. I sense that it was. Brainard’s other-mindedness peopled his solitude  just as it prevented him from ever being entirely offstage. The following entry from Diary 1970-1971 (dated December 28, 1970) shows that mental configuration in action:

If I have anything to “say” tonight (a bit drunk) it is probably just this: to like all you can when you can.

Or, don’t think about things too much.

I don’t know who I think I am, giving you this advice. Actually, when I “talk” to you I am really talking to myself  (mostly) but I guess I wouldn’t be writing it down if I didn’t think that—you might want to know what is going through my head too.

No, the truth of the matter is, that I want you to know.

Yes, Brainard did want us to know. He honestly did. That included exploring the topic of his good luck in having a rich patron in the person of Kenward Elmslie, heir to the Pulitzer fortune. They were sexual partners for a while and loving friends thereafter. Brainard tries on a couple of occasions to go into this subject and admits he likes the freedom from fear, indeed, the luxuries that Elmslie’s sponsorship afforded. But it seems clear he also felt some guilt about having an advantage over others equally deserving.  Not that he wasn’t generous. I remember once being invited to dinner by Joe and not being allowed to pay.  In an almost theatrical gesture, he slapped down a couple of bills with Grant’s portrait on them, smiled, and stood to go.

Why did Joe stop producing artworks at the end of the 1970s?  The explanation often given is that he swore off amphetamines and couldn’t then recapture the intensity they gave him for the making of art.  But there seems to be more to it.  His dissatisfaction with his painting, oil painting in particular, grew steadily.  He decided that he could never do as well as the Old Masters, and, if not, then he should just pack up his brushes.  Yet I don’t find any record of his saying the same thing about writing.  It’s possible, though provocative, to say that his I Remember is an American’s faux-naïf answer to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the great European epic of heroic recollection.  Since Brainard didn’t have to earn an income, and he had pretty much stopped painting, there was the problem of how to use his time.  He spent a couple of hours every day at the gym, maintaining his washboard abs, and the rest of his leisure hours absorbed in Victorian novels.  The choice of reading matter seems telling: not poetry and not the avant-garde novels of, say, The Fiction Collective or the Dalkey Archive, but instead Mrs. Gaskell and Anthony Trollope.  (His pronounced preference for the Victorians may explain a couple of British locutions in his own writing, for example, “at any rate” for “anyway.”)  I sense that he wanted to equal not only the Old Masters of oil painting but also the equivalent for literature.  I wish he hadn’t regarded his own work as unworthy of the tradition. His writing is an achievement of a different sort, not earthshaking, but real and compelling, one than can count admirers as disparate as Paul Auster (who provides the introduction to this edition), John Ashbery, Georges Perec, Edmund White, Craig Raine, Frank Bidart, and obviously the members of the NYS, who all seemed to have learned from him.  He is the second of their number (after Ashbery), to have received the Library of America treatment. Well, not quite. Instead of that series’s standard cloth binding, the book has a pasteboard cover and instead of Bible paper, a less delicate stock.  For the series’s uniform black dust-jacket with red-white-and-blue stripes, this edition substitutes a pale blue cover ornamented with gold stars drawn by the author.  You could say it was less pretentious than the routine Library of America format, more amusing, more down to earth. But if Joe had lived to see it, I think the difference would have disappointed him: for him it was Old Master or nothing.  On the other hand, the text is there and perfectly readable, with all its drollery, honesty, and surprise, which is the main thing.  His pages speak to you; and they will be remembered.


Poet, fiction writer, and critic Alfred Corn applies his special language skills to a comparison of the two dominant versions of the English language. The United States and Britain have been described as “divided by a common language,” but this guide will help speakers from both countries make their way in the other.  Pronunciation, vocabulary, spelling, and punctuation are all discussed, and there is a brief presentation of British and American slang. The result is an accessible and succinct overview appropriate for tourists, for teachers of English as a foreign language, for book and magazine editors, for actors, and for courses on British and American literature.

Available in the following formats:

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956, edited by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck.  Cambridge University Press, 2011. 791 pp.

The temptation to snoop overtakes all of us by moments, and unsought-after opportunity suddenly finds our eyes riveted to letters not meant for us.  There have been figures in literary history fully prepared to forgive the intrusion: Madame de Sévigné eventually heard that her letters were being handed around among her admirers but never stopped dashing off her acute and fluent observations about life at the Sun King’s court or in the provinces.  We wouldn’t remember the eighteenth-century figure Horace Walpole except for his letters, texts composed with the sort of regard, witty phrasing, and visual detail found only among those who write with one eye towards posterity. Aside from ecclesiastical epistles, collections of letters were not often published before the nineteenth century.  During the twentieth, they appeared much more often, with the interval between the author’s death and eventual publication of a selected correspondence steadily narrowing.  The three-volume edition of Virginia Woolf’s letters was probably the first such collection to reach a wide audience, but author letters now amount to a reliable niche in contemporary publishing.  Because of changes in society and the frank disclosures of modern biography, we’ve become more tolerant of personal failings in our star literary figures. We can listen to them in their off hours, their fits of pique, their bawdy moments, and not be shocked—or, if we are, take it in stride.  Meanwhile, the autobiographical, engaged aspect of contemporary poetry could also be described as “epistolary,” even if the poem isn’t addressed to any single individual. Qualities such as narrative economy, informality, or comic irony are standard for our “letters to the world” (one description Dickinson applied to her poems), and those same qualities are prominent in actual letters.

This book is the second volume in the Cambridge University Press edition of Beckett’s selected letters, the first covering the period 1929 to 1940. Though Beckett’s will stipulated that only that part of the correspondence having to do with his writing should be published after his death, the editors have interpreted the criterion broadly.  Personal letters that never mention his fiction or theatrical works are included, and it’s a good editorial decision.  Authors’ writing selves are never walled off from private concerns or obsessions.  All of it goes into the hopper, as careful reader-critics will eventually come to see, even though the connection may be stylistic only.  Consider this sentence from one of Beckett’s personal letters: “I had a glimpse of Brian over to bury his father looking very married and tired.”  (To Gwynedd Reavey, May 1945.)   Beckett’s thumbnail sketch of Brian Coffey arriving for a Dublin funeral exemplifies characteristic virtues: sharp economy, agile prose rhythm, and unsavage irony. We sense that the son is in imminent danger of following on his father’s heels as he trudges onward under the married condition. In any case, it’s a sentence worth putting in a poem, though we don’t find it in any of Beckett’s. The sometime poet was more memorable in his prose works than the actual poems, as he himself must have realized fairly soon in his development.

The title of this volume is a little misleading in that it gives us only one letter from 1941 and none subsequent until 1945.  As a citizen of the neutral Irish Republic, Beckett was allowed to remain in France during the German Occupation. Abjuring neutral status, he soon went underground and participated in Résistance operations, serving as a courier among several other agents. When one of them was captured and interrogated, the cell of resisters Beckett belonged to had to scatter. He and his companion Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil fled south to Free France, setting up in the little village of Roussillon. Only at the Liberation did he return to the post office and re-establish contact with his friends.

When he did, his correspondents can’t have failed to notice a change in his tone.  The first volume of letters gave us a Beckett often disgruntled and sneering, anxious about money, pleased to be drinking so much, and eager to publish, but rarely managing the trick.  Professional writers will find a perverse reassurance in observing this god of twentieth-century literature, this Nobel laureate, scrambling around from magazine to publishing house like any green careerist, and more often than not swallowing bluntly phrased rejections. But in the long run the record of this early phase makes for uncomfortable reading, even if the ambitious letter-writer’s style is acute and engaging.  Events Beckett had witnessed during the war, or only heard about, seem to have permanently shifted his perspective.  His post-war letters are generally quieter, more patient, perhaps more humane, than those in the earlier volume.  There is also the fact that he began by the late 1940s to have some success as an author, his novels appearing with the new publishing house Les Editions de Minuit. The name means “midnight publications,” and indeed the new house had begun during the Résistance, organized as an underground operation by its founder Jérôme Lindon.  Editorial taste at Les Editions de Minuit gravitated towards French avant-garde fiction, its list eventually including leading figures of the French nouveau roman like Robbe-Grillet. Judging from the letters Beckett wrote to him, Lindon became rather more than his publisher, in fact, something like a close friend.

Readers should be forewarned that more than half the letters included here were written in French. Editor George Craig provides good translations, along with notes alerting us to mistakes in usage or spelling. Beckett’s written French was very good, and not at all the stiff classroom version you might expect from a non-native speaker. He writes a fluent, satiric, slangy idiom that sounds as though it was picked up in the Montparnasse cafés he frequented, like La Coupole or Le Dôme. Also, because his wife didn’t know much English, French was the language the couple used at home, a running conversation that gave Beckett special access to the contemporary language. Occasionally he stumbles over words that look like cognates but actually aren’t; for example, “fastidieux,” which he uses to mean “fastidious,” though the French only apply that adjective to festal celebrations, those involving pomp and display.  His letters often quote tags from classic poems, and for these George Craig chooses extant versions rather than providing new ones of his own. In one instance, when Beckett is quoting Baudelaire’s “Réversibilité,” his footnote cites Richard Howard’s rendering of the poem, which translates “dévouement” as “disgust,” whereas the word actually means “devotion.” Howard no doubt had his reasons for translating with a free hand, but scholarly notes keep to a different standard and should have avoided this inaccuracy.

To regard Beckett’s French-language letters as spring training for the works he later composed in the language is plausible, yet his style in the letters is much more florid than in the novels. Beckett typically develops long sentences freighted with subordinate clauses, and sometimes resorts to a syntax based on the comma splice.  You see these tendencies at their most hectic in the letters to George Duthuit, an art critic and essayist who for a time served as contributing editor to Transition magazine.  Whenever Beckett writes to him, the style is so torrential, so metaphoric, so satiric, you begin to feel he was trying to show off his mastery of French as much as his overall authorial competence. Did Beckett not know that the French prefer a more restrained approach, with short, concentrated sentences rationally composed, subordinate clauses meanwhile kept to a minimum? If he did, he shrugged off the standard and wrote his helter-skelter blue streaks without any detectable qualms.

Beckett finally achieved fame with his play En attendant Godot, which opened at Paris’s Théâtre de Babylone in 1953. It was written in French and only later translated. This volume’s letters track the run-up to the first production, its première, and the gathering groundswell of fame that developed after reviews began appearing.  The alchemical action of publicity transformed Beckett’s life and consciousness just as thoroughly as the disaster of war had done.  Good news for the published and performed writer was not, all things considered, equally good for the letters.  More and more they are written to strangers as he handles business details connected to translation and publication of his work abroad. It’s something I’ve observed before in other collections of author’s letters.  The young and unfamous aspirant most often writes to friends, having both the time and energy for long, detailed, witty updates or closely argued esthetic manifestoes. The mature celebrity, though, has been drained by all the business to be dealt with in correspondence and can’t find the energy or the will to write at length to his friends.  Enjoying widespread recognition, he no longer needs to prove anything by drafting flamboyant displays of intelligence, impressive feats of observation, or polished phrasing.  He saves the best for the work he expects to publish. Not immediately after Godot, but toward the late 1950s Beckett begins to write less vividly.  It is the earlier letters in this collection that most reward attention. To give an example: after Godot opened, Beckettt’s wife attended an early performance without him and noticed that in Act II Roger Blin, the actor playing Pozzo, was gripping his loose, unbelted trousers rather than allowing them to fall down around his ankles, in keeping with stage directions.  This prompted a letter to Blin, in which Beckett insisted that the stage direction should be followed.  His reason for demanding maximum humiliation for the character was this: “The spirit of the play, in so far as it has one, is that nothing is more grotesque than the tragic, and that must be put across right to the end, and particularly at the end.”  In Beckett’s vision, human tragedy is not accorded the grandeur of, say, Sophocles’s Oedipus or Racine’s Andromaque: it unfolds in a series of grotesque situations and actions, so that we laugh and wince simultaneously.

They grow sparse, but Beckett’s letters to personal friends like George Reavey, Mania Perón, and Thomas MacGreevy continue in the volume, providing human relief from the impersonal business correspondence. A special case is the group of letters to Pamela Mitchell, a young American with whom he began a love affair not long after she arrived in Paris to negotiate for USA rights to Godot.  (We aren’t told whether the affair unfolded with or without Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil’s permission.)  After Mitchell’s return home, Beckett sends a number of letters to her, always with an affectionate regard and lightness of touch.  Here is an excerpt from one he composed in March of 1955 at his country retreat near Ussy in the Île de France: “Trees surviving, even the two shy apples showing signs of life.  Shall soon have to buy a mechanical scyther-mower, never get round the grass otherwise. Visited by partridges now daily, about midday. Queer birds. They hop, listen, hop, listen, never seem to eat. Wretched letter, forgive me. Hope you can read it all the same.”  Years pass, the two aren’t reunited, and Beckett gently lets Mitchell down. But the brief idyll gives us a sense of Beckett as lover, and the impression, despite the relationship’s unconventional context, has a graceful appeal.  After all, Pamela Mitchell knew that he was married right at the start.  Eventually fame takes its toll, (as all fulfilled dreams must), and the later Beckett settles into the psychological armchair he found most comfortable, that is, despairing negation.  One letter to Mitchell puts it this way: “The notion of happiness has no meaning at all for me now. All I want is to be in the silence.”

To her he also wrote,“Pen drying up too, like myself.” And,“Wish I could discover why my cursed prose won’t go into English.”  It’s a comment that makes us want to ask, “But why did you write it in French to begin with?” Beckett gave several answers, one delivered in private to a friend: “To get myself noticed.” But that must, at least in part, be a joke. To interviewers, he answered that French was an escape from English, which he knew too well to achieve the bare-bones stylistic effects he desired.  Another way he put it was, “à fin d’avoir moins de style” [in order to have less style].  We can see that it would be inconsistent to write about destitution and despair in an abundant, luxuriant idiom. What he needed was a blunt instrument, and colloquial, unliterary French gave him that.

Yet we still want to go back a step further and uncover the forces in his experience that drove him to prefer near-absolute negativity as his essential perspective on experience.  A list of possible explanations might include the absence of any sort of religious consolation; lasting effect of years of poverty and neglect; exile from a homeland he detested yet also missed; the death of parents and friends; knowledge of horrific things that had happened during the war; the loss of youth, health, and any expectation that human love might be redemptive for him.  All of these are perfectly plausible. Yet there are purely artistic explanations as well.  His close association with Joyce must have demonstrated to him that nothing more in the direction of excess, linguistic fireworks, and elaborate construction could be done. Joyce had got there first, and Beckett wasn’t so full of confidence as to compete with him on the turf the older Irishman had made his own.  Instead, Beckett turned 180 degrees, charting a course in the direction of austerity, of stylistic minimalism.  It’s also apposite to consider a citation from Francesco De Sancis that Beckett included in his brief study of Proust: “Chi non ha la forza di uccidere la realtá non ha la forza di crearla.” [Whoever lacks the strength to murder reality will not have the strength to create it.] In order to write, Beckett first had to wipe the slate clean and wipe out conventional notions about the nature of human reality. Doing so he was able to transform pessimism into a creative source, a nay-saying Muse who guided him to his masterworks. Yet he had to wait a long time before the letter announcing acceptance and acclaim arrived; and by then it was too late.

An encounter it would have been gripping to see: the 1875 reunion, in Stuttgart, of Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, at the conclusion of the older poet’s two-year imprisonment in Belgium. (He had been convicted for firing on his lover and giving him a flesh wound in the wrist.)  Verlaine told his friends that, as soon as he was released, he made his way to Germany, hoping he would be able to persuade the younger poet to resume their travels and adventures together. When they stood face to face again, did they cry, did they jump up and down, cackling with laughter? Or, if there were bitter reproaches, did those come more from Verlaine or from Rimbaud?  Until time-travel is invented we won’t have answers because neither poet left a detailed record of the meeting, nor were there any witnesses. So much about relationships that crash and burn must always remain undiscoverable, even when the breakup happens in our own time. Fact in these cases abdicates, replaced by gossip, rumor, and, often enough, malice.  This universally acknowledged truth doesn’t seem to prevent us from assuming we’ve got the lowdown on what really happened, even when we’re not close to those involved.

Assuming Verlaine’s account is accurate, it seems that the 1875 meeting was the moment when Rimbaud entrusted the manuscript of Illuminations to him, with the request that it be sent to a friend of his in Brussels, who might be able to arrange for its publication. If Rimbaud didn’t trouble to send it himself, does that mean he wanted Verlaine to read it first and perhaps regard the work as some sort of compensation for the disaster their relationship had been?  Should we see in this book another literary transformation of their shared experience, the follow-up to A Season in Hell?  Or was Rimbaud seeking helpful critiques of the poems, still unaware that he had already outdistanced his poetic master? Did Rimbaud put the poems in the order assigned to them when eventually published, or did Verlaine and later editors who handled the ms. change that order?  Few books have been as persistently dogged by enigmas as Illuminations, a fact that puts it in a paradoxical relationship to its title.

If it’s true that Verlaine kept his promise and sent the poems to Rimbaud’s friend Germain Nouveau in Brussels (a letter of Verlaine’s complains about the postage costs), then at some point he must have retrieved them. We know that they eventually turned up in the hands of his brother-in-law in Paris.  Not Verlaine nor Germain Nouveau nor the brother-in-law, but instead editors who weren’t intimates of Rimbaud a decade later arranged for their publication in the Symbolist magazine La Vogue. Because the loose pages of the ms. weren’t numbered, these editors admitted to an uncertainty as to the order of the poems, except for a few that Rimbaud had transcribed on the same page.

Also, we have to take Verlaine’s word for it that the title his friend  wanted was Illuminations because the sheaf of poems Verlaine forwarded to others lacked a title page.  The book has sometimes been published under the title Les Illuminations, the standard form for a French-language title. However, Verlaine said that Rimbaud was using the English, not the French word, as he did in several individual poem titles (“Bottom” and “Fairy,” for example).  The older poet explained that “illuminations” in English referred to printed, hand-colored engravings, which were common at the period. Of course the term in both languages carries the more general sense of light and even mystical enlightenment, one version thereof being the occult belief and practice known as “Illuminism.”  In English “illuminations” can also refer to the hand-painted pictures and decorations found in medieval manuscripts, but whether Verlaine or Rimbaud was aware of this extra meaning, who can say? (The French term for these is enluminures.) Considering Rimbaud’s ironic and challenging temperament, it’s possible he wanted to make both senses of the English term available, as a way to suggest that his mysterious and even quasi-religious texts could also be compared to cheap popular prints.  The strategy of the young and not yet established poet is often to “have it both ways,” defending his most exalted thoughts with an electric fence of high-voltage irony.  Since we’re on the topic of electrical equipment, consider this interesting coincidence: the first incandescent light-bulb was made in 1874, and commercial distribution of the new invention began in 1886, the year when La Vogue first brought Illuminations to the French reading public. If it seems fanciful to conflate the two phenomena, recall that the most widely distributed light-bulbs in twentieth-century Europe were called Mazda bulbs, after the Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda.

The central conflict in Zoroastrianism is figured as a struggle between the forces of darkness and light.  It seems fair to class Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell as a book about the forces of darkness, and so perhaps we can understand Illuminations as the poet’s effort to evoke—at least for poetry—the forces of light.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t flashes of beauty in the earlier book or that all is serenity and effortless ascension in the later one.  That would be too neat and monotonous, and besides, as Stevens put it, “No man of imagination is prim.”  The prose poems in Illuminations are rather short and the sequence develops no discernible narrative; instead, a series of dreamlike vignettes or meditations whose context is never provided.  More than half are descriptive, surveys of landscapes or cityscapes too imaginary and protean to exist in actuality, though they often include the equivalent of Marianne Moore’s “real toads.” The tone is generally exalted and hyperbolic, a cornucopia of images and words tumbling out rapidly in sentences with loosened syntax.  Apostrophes introduced by the exclamation “O” are frequent, yet the mosquito whine of irony is found in almost every poem, provoked in part by hyperbole and acting in part to neutralize it.  Thoroughly enigmatic as they are, the poems are the last to be aware of the fact, judging by the prevailing tone of confidential assurance and the absence of any fumbling efforts at explanation.  We may not understand them, but it’s clear that these poems understand themselves, giving meanwhile the curious impression that they can survive and even thrive without our assistance.

Rimbaud is an often-translated poet and many distinguished hands have made versions of Illuminations, Louise Varèse and Paul Schmidt among them.  Ashbery’s versions are strikingly better than his predecessors, which isn’t surprising when you consider that he resided for a decade in Paris and that he has also successfully translated the poetry of Reverdy and of his friend Pierre Martory.  Add to that Ashbery’s own unconventional literary mastery, and he would seem to be the ideal author to negotiate the difficulties of a poet who inspired a century of poetic experiments, continuing up to the present.  Ideal for us; but you have to wonder why a poet so eminent, so thickly swathed in laurel (he has won every important poetry prize except for the Nobel) should want to take time away from his own work to provide us with this topnotch version of Illuminations. The brief introduction Ashbery provides for this book offers no explanation apart from his thorough admiration for Rimbaud. Still, admirers can admire profoundly without bothering to translate.  I’m guessing that he undertook the task as a way of reminding readers hostile to his own poetry that experimental (or dreamlike, difficult, fragmented, disjunctive, enigmatic—whatever term seems applicable) poetry has been around for a century and a half. If you want to dismiss Ashbery, you also have to dismiss Rimbaud and the Surrealists, plus all the Modernists in various molds who were influenced by him.  It no longer makes any sense to call this kind of poetry the “avant-garde” or the “poetry of the future,” at least no more so than the poetry based on narrative, spoken language, prosody, and sequential reason. Both approaches will be used in the future, as they have been during the past. Some readers will prefer experimental, and another part, mainstream approaches, so there’s no point in trying to legislate an aesthetic Prohibition against either.

It goes without saying that some practitioners of mainstream poetry are better than others, just as it’s reasonable to assume that experimental poetry is sometimes good and sometimes not. Yet critics of experimental work don’t seem to have arrived at a practical criticism capable of sifting the large amount of experimental writing now being produced in order to put aside what’s not worth reading and to make a case for the part of it that’s good. All the alternative critics seem to be able to do at present is repeat any number of times that traditional approaches to poetry are old and therefore irrelevant or inferior. When it comes to the experimental aesthetic, they don’t offer a set of evaluative principles as familiar and dependable as the criteria used to analyze and assess mainstream work.  Given the antinomian and deconstructive nature of experimental writing, its resolute effort to undermine orthodoxy and consensus perception, we can question whether any individual or critical school could ever develop an agreed-on set of yardsticks applicable to it.  However, if adequate critical tools aren’t devised, then criticism will simply amount to “I like this” and “I don’t like that.” A purely personal criterion might be acceptable if we weren’t faced with the real-world problem of public rewards. Which poets should be published, and, among those, which should receive prizes and artist fellowships, including grants based on state funding?  Perhaps most experimental poets write without conscious concerns like these; but critics who ignore them aren’t acting responsibly.


Almost all of the Illuminations are prose poems, a form first tried by the French poet Aloysius Bertrand, then taken up with notable success by Baudelaire and Mallarmé.  That the poems are short and don’t rely on traditional French prosody lightens the burden of translation, with the result that a lot of time can be spent on finding the aptest word choices and pleasing sentence rhythms.  Ashbery handles both with cool but remarkable skill. A sample:

In an attic where I was shut up at the age of twelve I got to know the world. I illustrated the human comedy. In a cellar I learned history. At some nighttime carnival in a Northern city, I met all the wives of the master painters. In an arcade in Paris I was taught the classic sciences. In a magnificent abode surrounded by the entire Orient I accomplished my immense opus and spent my illustrious retirement. I churned my blood. My homework has been handed back to me. One must not even think of that now. I’m really beyond the grave, and no more assignments, please.

(part III of “Lives”)

Without arguing that this is the strongest passage in Illuminations, I can still see in it many of the work’s preoccupations, not to say obsessions: singular and perhaps visionary experience recalled from childhood; the mind’s susceptibility to rapid scene changes in space and time; a chest-thumping celebration of self that is nevertheless undercut by sly mockery; and the sense that the poem’s speaker has gone beyond the normal confines of human experience into something beyond reason and civility.

To translate is to interpret, and the reader who knows French will see that Ashbery’s “My homework has been handed back to me” (his reading of “Mon devoir m’est remis,”) could also be rendered as “My duty has been restored to me.”  In the poem’s final sentence, “pas de commissions” becomes “no more assignments, please.” But it could also be rendered as “no errands/messages/shopping lists.” Ashbery has added “more” and “please,” for sense, rhythm, and tone, but those words aren’t found in the original.  I cite this not as a fault but as evidence that he has tried throughout to make versions that are plausible as poems in English.  I was struck again and again how he passed over a reflexively dull equivalent to the French word in favor of something more idiomatic and non-routine.  That said, I also noticed several instances where non-cognates were translated as though they were cognates. Non-cognates are what the French call “faux amis,” “false friends,” words that look as though they meant the same in English and French, but actually don’t; for example, “actuellement,” which doesn’t mean “actually” but instead, “at present.”  Here are a few translations I had doubts about in this version: désert isn’t usually “desert,” but instead “wilderness”; pourpre isn’t so much “purple” as “crimson”; honnêteté isn’t merely “honesty” but rather “probity” or “integrity”; sciences need not be limited to “sciences” but can also mean “studies” or “disciplines”; cellier isn’t strictly “cellar,” but more properly “wine-cellar” or “storeroom.”  Apart from the “false friends,” there are a couple of other misleading translations. For example, faubourg and banlieue are both rendered by Ashbery as “suburbs,” but the right sense for the first is “district,” (as in “Garden District”) or “quarter” (as in “French Quarter”); and for the second, “outskirts of town” or “periphery.” Also, the word jour, when translated as “day” isn’t necessarily wrong; but in many contexts it means “dawn,” “daylight” or simply “light.” As the last word of Illuminations (at least, in the editorial order for the poems that Ashbery has adopted here) it seems probable that Rimbaud meant “dawn” or “light” when he wrote of the emblematic and redemptive figure that he calls “Genie”:

He has known us all and loved us all. Let us, on this winter night, from cape to cape, from the tumultuous pole to the castle, from the crowd to the beach, from glance to glance, our strengths and feelings numb, learn to hail him and see him, and send him back, and under the tides and at the summit of snowy deserts, follow his seeing, his breathing, his body, his day.

Translations of poetry are always in one way or another inaccurate. The reviewer with a sense of responsibility to the author being reconceived in English has the uncomfortable duty (homework?) of pointing out instances where the translation isn’t perfectly congruent with the original. This is done not in order to show superiority but to suggest that real interest, real love for a poet must inevitably inspire readers to learn the original language. When people tell me they don’t care for Dante, I ask them if they know Italian; none of the translations conveys all that can be found in his own idiom. By the same token, any reader astonished and moved to tears by Rimbaud will, I hazard, want to acquire a knowledge of the language and culture thatproduced the strength and beauty they’ve glimpsed through a door that translation has partially opened.  It goes without saying that the project demands a large commitment of time and energy that few can spare.  Meanwhile, those who haven’t had the luck to acquire a true working knowledge of the language and the thematic preoccupations of French literature can even so get a very good sense of Rimbaud’s Illuminations from Ashbery’s version, which is the best we have in English so far.


Don Paterson, the leading contemporary Scottish poet, throughout this book cites previous critical studies of the Sonnets (especially those written by Stephen Booth and Helen Vendler), but when he does it’s almost always to differ from them. Did he expect to get applause or even grudging acceptance from literary scholars? I’m not sure. To the task of exegesis and evaluation, Paterson brings neither academic credentials nor a rigorous critical method but instead a sharp mind, some serious homework, emotional engagement with the topic, a willingness to take risks, and the technical experience of a practicing poet.  Apart from having written sonnets himself, he has translated (or “imitated”) Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and is the editor of the Faber anthology 101 Sonnets. Clearly he has a partisan interest in the form itself and for that reason alone might want to comment on one of its greatest practitioners.

Still, if someone had told me a year ago that we were soon going to see a book in which a contemporary poet would read one of the central works of Shakespeare and assign grades to various parts of it, I wouldn’t have believed it.  To remark that it’s too late for our likes and dislikes to have any effect on the reception of canonical literary works like Shakespeare’s raises a more general question, one that can’t be instantly resolved.  To what extent do the classics belong to our actual, lived experience? How can we make use of them? These questions may sound shocking or naïve, but consider the following. Even if the best of Shakespeare’s sonnets were submitted to magazines today as being the work of a living poet, no editor would publish them.  As for the stage, producers wouldn’t get past the opening scene of Hamlet or King Lear before tossing these plays on the reject pile.  Renaissance or Jacobean English is not what we speak, in fact, we’re almost at the point now when Shakespeare, like Chaucer, requires a translation for new readers coming along.  We know that our response to Shakespeare isn’t and can’t be the same as his original audience’s because the weight and connotation of the words he uses has shifted (and sometimes vanished) since he wrote. Apart from that, no historical reconstruction of the staging and performance of Shakespeare could have the same effect on us as it did for Elizabethan audiences unless our minds, too, could be reconstructed in a 16th century mould. It has always struck me as too blithe when critics say, “Yes, of course we read Dante differently from the way his contemporaries did. It’s in the nature of great literature to support many kinds of responses, each valid for its time.”  But then why, if a literary work is just a Rorschach test whose meaning is nothing more than what we attribute to it, are certain figures (Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton) consistently deemed worthwhile occasions for our projected meanings while others (Hesiod, Ennius, Ariosto, Jonson, Marvell) are much less often considered? Besides, if we say that we don’t mind if our way of appreciating Shakespeare differs from his audience’s, we’re implicitly dismissing as irrelevant the actual abilities and targeted efforts of an author who wanted to evoke specific responses.

In fact, it’s the aim of most literary scholarship to reconstruct the mental and verbal compass of classic authors and of their audiences, so that we can measure the success of a given work according to the author’s own aims and, in varying degrees, appreciate that work roughly as its first audience did.  This is the literary equivalent to time travel.  Without the specialist’s literary archeology, we’d have only partial access to any work dating from earlier than the 19th century. Hence Auden’s well-known finger-wagging at Yeats for his poem “The Scholars,” a satire mocking academics who, “Edit and annotate the lines/ That young men, tossing on their beds,/ Rhymed out in love’s despair…”  Auden reminded Yeats’s ghost that without scholars we’d have erroneous texts and mistaken notions about what their authors intended.  Scholars can also inform us about prevailing tastes in the era when a given work was written. For example, dealing with Shakespeare, they can tell us that punning and metaphorical conceits were highly prized during the age of the Virgin Queen. This makes a sharp contrast with our own day, when “the lowest form of humor” is always met with a groan, and audiences experience literary conceits as excruciating artifice, contrary to our demand for seriousness and for discourse that is direct and uncensored.  That same demand would put a low value on the hyperbolic tendencies of the Elizabethan sonnet sequence, which, following Petrarch’s lead, hoists praise of the beloved to a level that contemporary taste would find overblown and dishonest.  (Granted, we’re not under oath when we write love poems or epitaphs, but even Shakespeare is aware of the problem, to judge by his sonnet “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun,” a stab at anti-Petrarchism that, despite its truth-telling aims, seems less successful than its hyperbolic counterparts.)

Once familiar with the earlier standards, do we then enjoy or at least admire Shakespeare’s double-entendres and those elaborate metaphors extended for a dozen lines, along with his promotion of the beloved to quasi-divine status?  The tutored reader can, I think, admire them at one remove, or at least acknowledge the author’s vast resourcefulness in devising effects he knew his readers would approve.  Yet it’s not easy for us to suppress habits of thinking and feeling like those that led Max Beerbohm to write Savonarola Brown, a wicked parody of a Shakespeare play.  What seems to happen when we read the Sonnets is that we remain in a kind of affective limbo, half believing, half disbelieving in them, yet consistently impressed by Shakespeare’s wordsmithery, his inventive figuration, and sonic finesse.  It doesn’t matter that present-day editors would consider them overdone and their author a show-off meriting only a printed rejection slip: the Sonnets will never go out of print or cease to be included in English Lit courses.  Nor can we rule out the possibility that a later age will place a high value on elaboration, artifice, and hyperbole: in cultural history, shifts in taste have often taken surprising turns.

Don Paterson certainly doesn’t attempt to transform himself into a contemporary of Shakespeare. Though familiar with Elizabethan literary standards, he evaluates individual sonnets according to contemporary taste or else his own.  Apparently not bothered by the fact that his strictures won’t stop them from being read, he’s quite ready to pronounce the first seventeen of the Sonnets (the so-called “procreation sonnets”) as “rubbish,” a judgment based on the artificial and implausible feelings they express. In a speculative vein, he cites and gives some credence to the narrative premise behind A Waste of Shame, William Boyd’s BBC drama of several years ago. In Boyd’s plot, the rising playwright is commissioned by the mother of the young nobleman William Herbert to write the “procreation sonnets.”  The widowed matriarch, distressed at her son’s celibacy and failure to provide continuance for the family line, pays a handsome sum for the bardic propaganda, and eventually arranges a meeting between the two men. At which point Shakespeare really does fall in love and begins writing out of emotional rather than financial motives.  Though it made for an entertaining play, I don’t find this narrative plausible. Moreover, it involves some harum-scarum speculation about the nature of Shakespeare’s sexuality, a topic on which Paterson has no doubts whatsoever:

The question ‘was Shakespeare gay?’ is so stupid as to be barely worth answering; but for the record: of course he was.  Arguably he was a bisexual, of sorts; though for all the wives, mistresses and children I’m not entirely convinced by his heterosexual side.  Mostly, his heart just wasn’t in it; when it was, his expressions of heterosexual love are full of self-disgust.

In that period, though, there were no homosexuals, only homosexual acts, these termed “sodomy” and punishable by death.  The “gay identity” hadn’t yet been formed, so the most we can say is that some people of the time were gay without knowing they should be classified as such.  A man so prominent as James I could marry and produce heirs, while still spending the lion’s share of his hours in bed with a series of young favorites, concluding with George Villiers, eventually made Duke of Buckingham.  As evidence contrary to the assertion that James had sexual relations with men, scholars cite the very harsh legal stance he took towards “sodomy.”  Yet the full account of the struggle for acceptance and civil rights for gay people includes incidents of strong opposition coming from figures who were later revealed to be gay. Opposition was simply throwing dust in the eyes of potential enemies as a clever way of avoiding arraignment and prosecution.  Any person who “protesteth too much” should be aware that those very protests to strike us as a card played in order to evade exposure or at least self-knowledge.

Paterson doesn’t do anything like this, in fact, he is more than sympathetic to the attraction that one man might feel for another. Discussing Boyd’s TV play he says:

Certainly if Herbert [William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke] looked anything like the young actor who played him on the box, I can see WS’s problem. (Although he almost certainly didn’t, if we’re to trust portraitists of the time. Wriothesley [Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, often proposed as the subject of the Sonnets], on the other hand, is clearly gorgeous. Though I admit that playing the game of ‘who’d you rather’ at 400 years distance does not, perhaps, represent the leading edge of scholarly research.)

This is funny enough to inspire in me a response just as unscholarly.  We have no proof that Shakespeare did or did not sleep with the young man described in the Sonnets, or with any man.  My speculation is that Shakespeare was no “gayer” than Paterson is, who, precisely because he isn’t threatened by any imputation of homosexuality, can be so relaxed about the topic.  On the evidence of the Sonnets, Shakespeare could recognize male beauty and form strong bonds of affection with men, bonds that could be described as love (or, nowadays, “bromance”).  But the keen bite of physical desire for men that we discover in Marlowe or Whitman is absent in his writings.  Where we do find it is in the so-called “dark lady” sonnets.  Further, if Shakespeare did in fact have sex with a man, he wouldn’t be so imprudent as to record and publish his desires, thereby risking arrest and a pre-mortem funeral pyre.  On the other hand, there was no law against one man loving another so long as that love never involved sexual expression.  A quasi-biblical text for the European Renaissance was Plato’s Symposium, which concludes by recommending a non-physical love on the part of an older man for a younger, as a means of transcending Nature and attaining knowledge of the realm of Pure Ideas.  In Dante and Petrarch, the gender of the beloved changed to female, but there was still no physical consummation, and the purported result was the same: propulsion (by sublimation, we would say) into the upper atmosphere of divine truth.  Meanwhile, if we’re going to read the sonnets as autobiography, then number 121 “’Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed” can easily be understood as a repudiation of slander to the effect that Shakespeare’s feelings for the beloved were ever actualized sexually.  In Sonnet 20, he had already spoken of the physical mismatch (which further demonstrates his total lack of experience concerning male-to-male sexual relations) between himself and the young man:

Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.

The pun on “pricked” was active for Shakespeare’s time as for ours.  The sense is clear: “I can’t make use of your genitalia, but we two have a non-physical, Platonic love, and that’s the most essential thing; where sex is concerned, women can handle that for you.”

Paterson represents this conclusion as tragic, but the tragic note is nowhere sounded. The speaker calmly accepts the impossibility and is, if anything, only too content to keep their love on a Platonic plane.  The poem includes a couple of instances of what Paterson describes as Shakespeare’s “knee-jerk misogyny” (found elsewhere in the Sonnets, not to mention the plays) without going so far as to say that it is proof of the poet’s gay orientation.  A good thing, because, as we know, gay men are far less misogynist than straight, indeed, the greatest percentage adore women, beginning with their own mothers. That adoration often takes the form of diva-worship, and some individuals will carry it to the point of simulating their iconic figures, cross-dressing as Judy, Barbra, or Madonna.  Dismissing women as “stupid cows” or “bitches” is more the habit of straight men because of course a woman can grant or withhold what they most desire. Frustration and anger when desire isn’t reciprocated take the form of misogyny, whereas sex with women is for a gay man “one thing to my purpose nothing.”  He’s fully satisfied with women’s company and friendship, which they are much more often willing to offer than sex.  Paterson wants to see the misogyny of the “dark lady” sonnets as the inevitable side-effect of his homosexuality; in fact, it suggests the opposite, to the extent that evidence drawn from these poems can be used to argue anything about his biography.

Putting aside Plato, in what human narrative is it psychologically plausible for a man in love with and lusting after another man to urge the beloved to marry and have children?  That is the burden of the first seventeen Sonnets. On the other hand, if we decide that Boyd (or Paterson) is right about the far-fetched commissioning theory, we have to regard Shakespeare as the most mercenary sort of hack, his palm crossed with enough silver to stimulate the drafting of sentiments passionately expressed and yet never in the least felt.  That hack (to follow the hypothesis) couldn’t automatically rule out the possibility that the young beloved would accept the faked protestations of love as genuine and possibly begin to have feelings for their author in return.  In that eventuality, how would the perpetrator of this literary imposture then behave?  It’s too damning a scenario to conjure up and amounts to a character assassination of Shakespeare.

Even when we decide that the first 126 Sonnets are dealing with a purely Platonic relationship, the sheer number of them and the variety of tacks taken suggest that a “marriage of true minds” needs as much treatment as a full-blown union would. In the real world, would it be salutary (if the author really meant to make use of them) to devise so many literary approaches to self-therapy, some of which seem like pettifogging or avoidance?  Modern readers can’t help wanting to recommend a professional counselor, at least in those moments when they forget that the poems are fictions.  To a degree that we find disturbing, it is literary convention more than autobiography that governs the production of poems in the Elizabethan era. Nothing requires us to believe the Sonnets had more than a casual basis in Shakespeare’s life; it’s even possible that they were written not to win over or reproach any existing beloved but instead simply to produce poems, poems exploring feelings more hypothetical than actual.  We certainly don’t suppose the Shakespeare underwent the experiences of the characters represented in his plays, no matter how intricately and convincingly developed their feelings may be. Many contemporary poets, though presumed to be working within an aesthetic of sincerity and authenticity, are ready to admit that they invent the subjects of their ostensibly autobiographical poems. How much more likely it is that Shakespeare did the same thing. The speculations we make about his motivations reveal more about us than about the author.

That sort of revelation, in fact, is the value-added aspect of this book. It provides us with an indirect portrait of the mind, technical preoccupations, and emotional commitments of Don Paterson.  Because of his first-rate work elsewhere, we’re interested to read this practical account of his own literary standards—well, more specifically than that, the motions of his thinking as he confronts the subjects dealt with in each sonnet and the rhetorical strategies used in their composition. Judging by the diction he uses, you can see (and this is useful information about him) that he wanted to avoid academic pomposity at all costs, the result, that the prose sounds spoken, informal, and American, with lots of slang and some Scottish diction thrown in for flavor. Sentence fragments abound, along with interjections, and the text deploys as many underlinings as Queen Victoria’s diary.  If the zingy style wasn’t sufficiently noticeable in the excerpt quoted above, here’s another example:

Yikes. SB [Stephen Booth] explores the various textual knots and cruces here at some length, and very instructively, but let’s see if we can find a more direct route through the poem, and take it line by line. OK. Suit up, scrub, and on with the gloves. This is going to get messy. At least five lines here present real interpretative problems. Scalpel….

The ensuing analysis is presented through the conceit of a surgical procedure, involving metaphoric use of artery clamps as the poem’s “blood pressure” drops, and a final stitching up.  It’s as though the Sonnets’ persistent use of conceits had overtaken their critic, this time in prose.  The effect of using diction more often heard on talk shows and Facebook is unsettling at first, but the fact is I quickly stopped minding and focused instead on the content being conveyed.  Reading pace through these pages is brisk, and they never have the sleeping-pill effect of most academic prose.  Yet, though Paterson circumvents the dead hand of scholarly style, he never entirely abandons the explicator’s task, even when says, “Sorry, it’s late, and I’ve been drinking.”  If I were teaching the Sonnets to undergraduates, I’d assign this book, knowing in advance that they would sense an ally in the author, one who understood their language and mental universe.  So primed, they would also be able to absorb content in the commentaries apart from what’s based entirely on the author’s personality.

The classroom would allow me the space (as a review doesn’t) the to single out the many brilliant insights Paterson arrives at along the way and to disagree with just as many others. Well, one of each then, beginning with a disagreement.  I don’t find all the “procreation sonnets” worthless, an assertion Paterson tries too hard to prove. Discussing Sonnet 12, for example, he says that its first line, “When I do count the clock that tells the time,” is padded out with the phrase “that tells the time,” since, as he says, all clocks tell the time.  But the etymology of the word “clock” is from “glokken,” which meant “bell.”  The first public clocks were bells, intelligible to a populace unable to decipher a clock face yet still able to count. The association with “passing-bells” rung at funerals is part of the meaning.  Beyond that, a master theme in the Sonnets is the passage (and ravages) of time, so it fits to get the word into the first line of this sonnet. Further, time takes on a numerical aspect in an art that requires counting—counting of metrical feet and lines, and, for that matter, some thought about the numbering of individual sonnets.  Paterson (and here is where I agree with him) thinks that Shakespeare did indeed arrange the Sonnets in the order given to them in the Quarto; and that in the great majority of instances the number assigned to a given poem in the sequence is connected to its meaning.  Numbers have a kabbalistic or magical dimension (think how much has been made of the Trinity); and, while we can’t say that Shakespeare was a mathematician, he was certainly an arithmetician, one whose rhythms and numbers were a key component of the spell being cast.  In Paterson’s keen analyses of the numerical aspect of the Sonnets, he demonstrates his own skills with numerology, plus an awareness of at least one poet’s opinion to the effect that, “Poetry is speech that counts.”   This book has sustained some heavy attacks in the press, so much so, that, to use a Shakespearean conceit, Paterson could be described as “down for the count.”  However, because he is a poet, he’ll be able to use the experience and soon be standing up for the next round. A review is never a permanent impediment to the marriage of true minds, in this instance, between the poet and his reader.

“Content dictates form.” “Less is more.” “God is in the details.”  These three statements sum up Stephen Sondheim’s artistic credo according to Finishing the Hat, whose title seems to establish a quizzical connection between writing lyrics and millinery. The first two criteria are the standard guidelines for modernist architecture of the twentieth century, so maybe the millinery metaphor is encapsulated in the third. Still, reading this book, I have trouble understanding Sondheim as the musical equivalent to either Mies van der Rohe or Elsa Schiaparelli. Perhaps it will all eventually become clear. Of two scheduled volumes dealing with his work in musical theater, this is the first, tracking his career from an early piece titled Saturday Night (1954) up to Merrily We Roll Along (1981). Highlights include Bernstein’s West Side Story, for which Sondheim supplied the lyrics only, as well as his best-known musicals (Gypsy, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd), which feature both his lyrics and his own musical score. We’re not given the complete book for each of the musicals, only their lyrics, prefaced by a summary of the dramatic context, and a brief narrative recounting the circumstances that led to the creation of the work under discussion. Sondheim has written a preface for the volume, plus a brief essay on rhyming as it is used for song-writing; and he makes dozens of insertions in the body of the text, commenting on the success or failure of particular songs.

He also adds a series of reflections on other lyricists of musical theater, restricting himself, however, to those no longer living. It’s a prudent choice, given that Sondheim isn’t a man to cloud the expression of his judgments with considerations like politeness or collegial complicity. Were his rivals still alive, they might want to take out a contract on him. Solely on the basis of the irony and satire characteristic of his musicals, you could have guessed that he wouldn’t fall all over himself to be kind. But the fact is he’s just as hard on himself, knocking single lines or entire songs of his own if they’ve come to seem pretentious or gawky to him.  A reviewer would have to work hard to give a worse account of Sondheim’s lyrics than their author does. By the same token, we wouldn’t expect any scholar of musical theater to make as many unflattering comments about it as you’ll find in Sondheim’s text.  In an era when “going negative” about any person, place, animal, or inanimate object is regarded as a career no-no, Sondheim’s approach strikes me as fresh and honest, a tactic well worth adopting.  It’s the tone of twentieth century New York, witty, sardonic, deflationary, and only seldom cornered into praising anything that actually exists.

The opening sentences of Sondheim’s preface establishes that he doesn’t consider himself a poet in the usual sense:

This book is a contradiction in terms. Theater lyrics are not written to be read but to be sung, and to be sung as parts of a larger structure: musical comedy, musical play, revue—“musical” will suffice. Furthermore, almost all of the lyrics in these pages were written not just to be sung but to be sung in particular musicals by individual characters in specific situations. A printed collection of them, bereft of their dramatic circumstances and the music which gives them life, is a dubious proposition. Lyrics, even poetic ones, are not poems. Poems are written to be read, silently or aloud, not sung. Some lyrics, awash with florid imagery, present themselves as poetry, but music only underscores (yes) the self-consciousness of the effort. In theatrical fact, it is usually the plainer and flatter lyric that soars poetically when infused with music.

Sondheim’s insistence that his lyrics don’t have enormous interest or point separated from the dramatic context for which he wrote them is fair. On the other hand, how useful are the plot summaries and descriptions of the individual scenes provided in this volume?  The problem with this format is that dramatic plot and its sequence of scenes come to effective life only when performed. The summaries offered are tedious to read and don’t do a lot to animate the lyrics they attempt to contextualize.  That part of the audience already familiar with Sondheim’s musicals won’t need the summaries, of course, and it’s safe to say that the most enthusiastic readers of this book will be his existing fans (myself included), who will welcome the chance to linger over lyrics they’ve heard but not memorized. Precisely because of Sondheim’s preference for song-writing that is rooted in character, and a literary practice that prefers flatness and plainness to what is “poetic,” I doubt this collection by itself will win new converts.  To appreciate Sondheim the lyricist, you have to see (and hear) the musicals themselves, and you can begin get your feet wet by searching for him on YouTube.

Sondheim’s mind is more ad hoc and emotional than analytical and scholarly.  He doesn’t discuss the difference between meter in music and meter in poetry.  He doesn’t tell us that English-language poems after Chaucer were traditionally written in accentual-syllabic meter, whereas song lyrics manage with accentual meter alone, not restricting themselves to a regular syllable count.  How so? Well, because the note value in a given bar of music can divide itself into smaller units to accommodate extra syllables while maintaining the governing beat.  To add or subtract syllables in a metrical line of poetry, however, risks derailing the meter. It’s true that many hymns and songs are quite strictly accentual-syllabic, but popular song usually loosens the syllable count; and lyrics for musicals go still further in that direction.

Making his distinction between poems and lyrics, Sondheim oversimplifies the more general question of the relationship between words and music. A full discussion would require, first, some reflections on the fact that all classical Greek lyrics were sung to musical accompaniment (it’s the Greek lyre that gives us the word “lyric”), as well as Anglo-Saxon poems like Deor and Beowulf. If Sappho’s poems were sung, that should be sufficient refutation of the claim that musical lyrics can’t have all the qualities we expect in poems as such. There are also the wonderful sung poems in Shakespeare’s plays, such as “Fear no more the heat o’the sun” and “Full fathom five thy father lies,” not to mention a number of subtle lyrics in Dryden’s dramatic works.  Bach’s Passions are interspersed with poetic arias of some verbal complexity; and if the King James Bible qualifies as poetry, then Handel’s arias and choruses in Messiah amount to great poetry set to music.  A few opera librettists composed arias worth reading without musical accompaniment: Lorenzo da Ponte (The Marriage of Figaro), Arrigo Boïto (Otello and Falstaff), and Hugo von Hoffmanstal (Der Rosenkavalier).  Even Sondheim acknowledges the high quality of the arias in Auden’s and Kallman’s The Rake’s Progress. He also has unqualified praise for the lyrics Richard Wilbur wrote for Candide, and in fact Wilbur has collected some of those in his books.  (Digression: why have producers of new Broadway musicals mounted since Candide never again asked a professional poet to provide lyrics for them?)

The problem intensifies when we stop to consider that many poets, Auden among them, have used the title “Song” for some of their poems, even though no tune is provided.  What does it mean to call a poem without musical scoring a “song”?  Short answer: a “song” without musical accompaniment is a poem whose sound qualities hold more interest than the poem’s paraphrasable content.  I don’t know of any poem designated as a “song,” that is composed without meter and rhyme. For that matter, about 99% of all pop music rhymes, the rhyming skillful in varying degrees, with country music lyrics generally the best.  Meanwhile, Sondheim insists that lyrics in musical theater must rhyme, and that the rhymes must be perfect rhymes, not near or slant equivalents.  He doesn’t provide a justification of this requirement, and we assume the stricture is based on nothing more or less substantial than audience expectations and the conventions of the musical genre.  Somehow Sondheim’s not bothered by the contradiction between his insistence that, on one hand, lyrics must reflect the linguistic earmarks of the character singing them and, on the other, the fact that no one speaks in rhyme.  If you aren’t bothered by the non-naturalistic aspect of rhymes in solos, dialogue, and choruses, it’s odd to become incensed as Sondheim does when a character’s lyrics use long words and elaborate metaphors, features that he dismisses as falsely “poetic” and unsuitable for the actual dramatis personae of the work.

The truth is, rhyming belongs to the “entertainment” component in musical theater.  Rhymes entertain even when they don’t perform an important semantic or structural function.  They take us back to the childhood world of “Hickory, dickory dock” and “Row, row, row your boat,” of  “Jabberwocky” and Dr. Seuss.  Let’s acknowledge it in so many words: we like musical theater because it’s entertaining, not because it is profound. Sondheim comes close to saying as much when he comments that Othello is a richer play than Verdi’s Otello and that Shaw’s Pygmalion has more real content than My Fair Lady.  If richness and profundity are your primary goal, then you don’t devote your talents to musicals.  They have their moments of sadness and disappointment, but there is no tragic musical.  All right, but do musical comedies at least have some serious content? As with most artistic phenomena, it’s a question of degree.  Sondheim refers to theater historians who single out Showboat and Oklahoma! as first efforts to move the lightweight, unambitious form of musical theater current in the 1920s and 1930s toward an art with more content, one that could present and fill out characters of complexity and depth. He inscribes himself in this movement and insists that it is the source of his own practice, which should be understood as more serious than what the general run of authors of musicals offer. We can acknowledge the favorable comparison, but that doesn’t establish a magisterial degree of seriousness.  Sondheim is the greatest living auteur in musical theater, and his works certainly have more content than the bits of fluff that kept Broadway box offices busy in 1925. But they don’t have the complexity and depth that we discover in the best of his contemporaries who write for legitimate theater. That isn’t to say that his work is valueless.  No one wants to live seven days a week in the mode of the sublime or of tragic grandeur.  Popular art forms give us a break from tedium and spiritual pinnacles both, and why not?  We need them, but we should know what it is we need, and why.

To get some perspective, I’d like to extend this discussion and comment on the extremely high value that British critic Christopher Ricks assigns to Bob Dylan, whom he has named “the greatest living American poet.”  It’s a ranking that probably influenced the decision of the Norton Anthology of English Poetry’s editors to include Dylan’s lyrics (without musical scoring) in the fifth edition. This was a misguided choice. When we hear Dylan sing the lyrics he writes in his own sui generis voice, with the musical accompaniment he has worked out for them, our attention is fully engaged, and we may also feel that he is saying something important above and beyond the sonic appeal of the song.  But in print the lyrics don’t function as actual poems do, in fact, they often verge on a silliness hard to swallow when combined with Dylan’s default mode of condescension.  When we read them, we can’t avoid asking ourselves what the-devil they really mean, and the answer, my friend, isn’t blowin’ in the wind.   A gold chain is a fairly boring object when not adorning someone’s neck, and the same goes for pop lyrics outside their musical context.

The music theater rival that Sondheim dislikes the most is Noël Coward, whose lyrics he describes as too clever and brittle to inspire confidence and empathy. But what’s the point of applying standards belonging to late 20th-century America to works conceived for the British public of the 1920s and ’30s.  To appreciate works of art from earlier eras always requires a little archeological spadework. No one could enjoy a play by Racine or an opera by Wagner without a lot of preliminary study.  It’s precisely Coward’s overplus of wit and verbal acrobatics that makes his lyrics fun to read on the page, even though they might be distracting or hard to follow word by word when sung.  Coward was forthright enough to say he had “only a talent to amuse,” as though that talent were nothing at all.  Like one of his models, W.S. Gilbert, (whom Sondheim also dislikes intensely), Coward had considerable skill with meter and rhyme, and that’s another reason his lyrics are interesting when we encounter them through print alone.  Though I’m happy to be in the audience of Sondheim’s musicals, only a few of his lyrics repay a cold examination on the page: “I’m Still Here” (from Follies), “Send in the Clowns” (from A Little Night Music), some of the choruses from The Frogs, and the “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” from that work.  These engage us partly because Sondheim sometimes overcomes his resistance to being verbally clever and deploys a Cowardesque wit in the development of the lyrics. As for the other lyrics, though rather drab when shorn of musical accompaniment, they are effective in their dramatic setting, and none ever falls completely flat. They don’t succeed as poems, as Sondheim’s preface states; instead, they have a different ambition and use.

I’ve gone farther than the second mile in the negative direction, but I want to conclude by saying that I found this book compulsive reading.  Sondheim’s commentary on musical theater, as practiced by others and himself, is riveting and often has a relevance that extends to legitimate theater as well.  The narratives of the origin of his concepts for particular works are fascinating, along with the anecdotes he tells about developing them with his collaborators, a roster that includes the most celebrated talents in the musical theater of his time. His discussion of rival lyricists, though unforgiving, even so marks out a very clear artistic profile for each figure, altering in small ways or large our sense of their accomplishment.  The strangest omission in the book is a discussion of his role as composer.  We admire Sondheim not only for his theatrical ideas and his lyrics but also for the music, which is anything but routine or inept.  (He studied composition with Milton Babbit, and is familiar with musical classics of the past two centuries, as well as film scores by the likes of Korngold and Steiner. In fact, one of my favorite film scores is the one he wrote for Stavisky.)  Why doesn’t he discuss the compositional process in its relationship to theater?  How did his work as a lyricist change once he began composing scores for his musicals, and not just the words?  Sondheim never goes into these topics, but that means that he has room to do so in the second volume, which I will certainly want to read if it’s as informative as this one.  He may by then have mustered the courage, too, to weigh in on his living contemporaries, a critique that couldn’t fail to be gripping.  The chance to speak freely about, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s works or Les Misérables would be well worth the price of hiring a bodyguard from Pinkerton and wearing a bullet-proof vest.  Assassination attempts would soon peter out, and Sondheim would be left center stage under a pink spot singing the now-classic standard from Follies, the wisecracking, subacid “I’m Still Here,” which begins, “Good times and bum times,/ I’ve seen them all, and, my dear,/ I’m still here.”

We live in the paradox that life is change, but that change taken to the ultimate is death.  Early signs of the great alteration shape our expanding or contracting limbs and are inscribed expressly on the face.  When the young woman of twenty-five notices faint lines around the mouth or tiny crowsfeet at the corner of her eyes, something even more intimate than vanity makes her stop to reflect.  The script for her very own mortality play, written on the finest parchment, has begun to develop, nor does she need any special clairvoyance to divine the final act from the first.

La Rochefoucauld says that neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily.  That’s the reason we avoid long or frequent exposure to the black rays of the mirror—unless we have the temperament of those medieval monks who kept brightly polished skulls in their cells as a handy memento mori, large enough not to escape notice but smaller than the coffins that still more ascetic contemplatives used to sleep in each night.  Some of the first group, striking a hopeful note, planted a candle on top of death’s head, meaningless to his blind sockets but not to the eyes of the living.

Looking at early photographs of yourself is not exactly a lark.  The person represented is recognizable, and you may even discover, among several patronizing attitudes and self-deflating commentaries, something like parental affection for that inexperienced youth being examined.  Considering all the roads to take and ways of cutting one’s hair current in that era, perhaps his weren’t the worst, just as maybe Crosby, Stills and Nash aren’t so bad, really.  To revive an earlier phase isn’t possible, though, or, more to the point, finally desirable.  For, in a sense, the photographed subject is our elder, and the present moment—fresh, breathing, more up to date—“younger” than any from the dim decades of yore.

We’ve changed; and we don’t care to be so passé as the ridiculously dressed person in the picture.  Does that also mean we must accept change even when raised to the highest power?  Apparently.  Preferring the present visual or verbal record implies that I will also prefer to it the next and the next and the next, until, finally, icon and identity plunge beyond the reach of pictures, in fact, beyond time and change altogether.  A photograph is, granted, a kind of death-mask, with the difference that it has been molded on a living face. The apple owes part of its sweetness to our knowledge that it gives the pleasure of its taste only when we consume it. In fact, we cannot enjoy anything unless, in the process, time consumes us as well. Mortality, expressed in the first-person, present-perfect tense, is summarized in a mere three words: I have lived.

A poem is also by analogy a photograph of the author. Rereading our first published apprentice work, we will feel many of the same emotions described above re looking at old photographs of ourselves. The self-portrait genre in poetry isn’t as common as in painting, though John Ashbery and Charles Wright have produced admired examples. The point is, even poems not designated as such are self-portraits, of mind rather than of body, and to just that degree, more intimate. We were hardly conscious in those days of all that could be thought or said about us. We know more now than we did then, and what we were is part of what we know.  If we can allow ourselves to approach objectivity (if only as a limit, in the mathematical sense), we may also allow that, despite the clumsiness and inexperience, despite the glaring failures of skill and hollow bravado, those early self-portraits have a vitality and authenticity that deserves some sort of acknowledgment.  They belong in the Department of Records that each life builds up in its life-span.

You’ve guessed it.  I’m preparing a new selected poems.