Mary Karr and Christopher Robinson discuss Heather McHugh’s poem “I Knew I’d Sing.”
Last week we made the exciting announcement that Ben Pease’s Scattered Rhymes podcast was making itself a home at THEthe. In anticipation of the coming podcast, we are reposting the old episodes from the Scattered Rhymes website.
Today we’re reposting the 2nd episode from Scattered Rhymes, which features an interview with Joseph Spece.
Joseph Spece, Part 1
Joseph Spece, Part 2
Note: The interview takes place at JC’s apt., so here and there you may hear mention of a picture of the Winged Victory in the living room or various trinkets on a counter in his bedroom.
Today we’re featuring two poets who I have an incredible amount of admiration and who I am very excited to share with you today.
I did want to write a brief observation about what I believe both these poems–different as they are–share in common: both are built around a relational core of emotions; both poems climax with the impossibility of speech. Both poems, however, do it in very different ways: Colie through image, Maya through syntax. My observations follow the poems (and below that are author bios).
The Paper One
By Colie Hoffman
It helps to understand there were two realities
and words were in the paper one.
The other was made of clouds
and sometimes whatever animals
or feelings clouds made with their shapes.
The cloud world had giant one-way windows.
You couldn’t see inside and it was very, very dark out.
Your own face sent
out a search party for you.
The limitations of our brains and other body parts
kept rapping on the glass as we danced.
I could never tell which was you
and which was me
and if that simple touch
was some girl’s thighs
or the wings of a moth.
The paper world had words available
but none were the right ones. Later at the bonfire
people threw all the words in
and soon the entire world burned down.
Afterward we kept
talking but one of us kept glancing
at something over
the other person’s head.
You said it was to watch
for predators. I said what’s “predators.”
You made a cloud with your index finger
in the shape of a person whose language had words
for every complicated feeling.
I made the shape of that person’s insides
and internal organs
and started an electrical storm
that would never stop.
By Maya Funaro
Now I’ve heard for the last time.
It doesn’t snow today but October has laid its hands upon my shoulders.
We’re swaying now side to side as if we’re waiting something out.
But I have heard and we are no longer waiting.
It is October and you are gone.
In the air there is a long slow sigh.
In the air a surety dances like smoke.
I can be certain you are gone.
Still my knowing you pulls at me and turns a corner.
In October a life tries to fill itself out,
Searching pigment for even the loneliest spaces.
And death seeps in, a persistent stain,
Overflow of time outside of time.
An aberration, death speaks of saturation.
For this reason there is never enough.
For this reason you come to be all light and all shadow.
I’ve caught your laughter like a headcold.
All day and into the next
Grace tracks me down, looks me in the eye
While awkwardness takes my hand like an old friend and looks away.
What I’m trying to name here I can’t say plainly enough or with enough severity.
Colie’s poem enters into emotion through the backdoor. It’s a bit like wandering into an enormous and sparkling ballroom during an elegant affair, but only after having woven through a maze of underground hallways, each stretch full of doors opening to various rooms containing strange sights. Amazingly, Colie never loses control of the poetic “camera.” Somehow, almost suddenly, what has seemed to be a continual shell game of emotional deferral takes us straight to the heart of the matter, and we are amazed at the path we’ve taken (at least I always am), surprised to find that this whole time she’s actually been preparing us (in the strangest way possible) for a moment of open emotion. Colie’s poems are worth going through again and again, not because they “yield something new” every time (though that’s probably true), but because the poem works every time, the way a great guitar solo never gets old.
There are two things about Maya’s poem that I find worth noting. The first is that Maya’s poem, unlike Colie’s, does not defer any emotion. Beginning writers are told, “show, don’t tell.” And this is true to some extent with Maya: she knows how to imply emotion via objects and such. But Maya also tells a lot. Even the lines that “show” seem to tell (the emotion awkwardness, for example, is cleverly personified–it both shows and tells). The very climax of the poem is a direct statement of the theme of the poem: “What I’m trying to name here I can’t say plainly enough or with enough severity.” It takes a certain craft to openly discuss emotion without being labeled maudlin, especially in an age such as ours that has replaced vigilance of mawkishness with a cynicism of emotion in general.
The second thing to notice about Maya is her lines. Many poets “do” long lines, but I often find myself feeling that such lines wear out their welcome. As a poet, I’m inherently lazy and easily frustrated when I am forced to read across a whole page! Not so with Maya’s poem. There’s some metrical dark matter that sustains it far beyond where my poetic instinct tells me lines should go. It’s magic. I find myself continually amazed that Maya’s lines don’t run out of gas before turning the corner. Indeed, I think there’s a relationship between these two things I’ve noted. You may see that there is an almost direct relationship between the length of the line and the “telling” of emotional content. The longest lines are the ones that seem to carry the most emotional weight (some might disagree with me about that, but I think I’m right anyway!). I can’t imagine Maya cutting the last line of the poem up into 3 lines. Somehow, that would be mawkish. Instead it comes out in a great rush, like an arrow that has been shot into us. I do not know if Maya’s long lines work because of the content, or if the content works because of the long lines. The ghosts of form and content haunt each other mutually, I suspect.
Both Colie and Maya have found a way to enter into emotion that are worth learning from. This, among many other reasons, is why I share them with you.
Colie Hoffman is a copyeditor by day and poet by night living in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her poems have appeared in Blood Orange Review, Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora,and elsewhere. Thanks to a grant from the M Literary Residency, she is currently working on her first book at Sangam House in Bangalore, India.
Maya Funaro was born and raised in South Jersey, and currently makes her home in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Her chapbook Setting in Motion was released in 2009 by Fox Point Press. Her poems have appeared in Ekleksographia and Ology.
“Not freed / but caught up in what thinking tries to conceal:” that is what spending time with Timothy Donnelly’s poetry feels like, “where to know / is to feel knowledge dissolving. . .” (“Chapter For Breathing Air Among the Waters”).
Essentially metaphysical, the poems of Donnelly’s second book, The Cloud Corporation, are fueled and refueled by self-critical dueling, a curiosity about being, and a skepticism of being’s significance. The speaker’s craft is self-referential but never heavy-handed. The book is also driven by an inexhaustible love for language; many of these poems are expertly wrought love letters to language itself.
It is particularly refreshing to encounter Donnelly’s poems amid the ongoing financial spiral, with politicians posturing at troubleshooting and the generally frustrating vapidity (not to mention downright falseness) flying around like debris in the wind. Though these poems are not overtly political, there is an undercurrent of social and political commentary. Donnelly observes, “the mind that fear and disenchantment fatten / comes to boss the world around it . . . .” Readers may come to different interpretations of what precisely Donnelly is referring to, but I don’t think Donnelly would oppose connections to the current political and financial quagmires. Unlike most of the ad copy and corporate verbiage, which Donnelly satirically appropriates and alchemizes for reintegration into his own creations, Donnelly’s poetry can be taken to heart. He speaks like a parent who is not afraid to tell a child the hard truths he’s garnered from living: that most things are unstable (especially knowledge), that the significance of our existence is debatable, and that “nothing might feel good for a time” (“The New Hymns”).
These poems shine in the cold light of acknowledgment of things few people openly admit. In the first poem of the collection, “The New Intelligence,” Donnelly acknowledges that practicality does exert an influential hand in what happens, despite our romantic (or naïve) desire for it to be otherwise. The speaker and a loved one
observe an arrangement in rust and gray-green,
a vagueness at the center whose slow, persistent
movements some sentence might explain if we had time
or strength for sentences.
Donnelly acknowledges that if you are involved with living, you are probably weary. But his willingness to admit exhaustion, disenchantment, and uncertainty is coupled with tenderness. He does not merely point out where existence and the world fall short of our expectations; he also exhibits love for other people and the things that make up the world around us. These expressions of love escape preciousness every time because they are unmasked and unabashed. The speaker takes pride in how vulnerable he feels when in the presence of the person he loves:
I love that when I call you on the long drab days practicality
keeps one of us away from the other that I am calling
a person so beautiful to me that she has seen my awkwardness
on the actual sidewalk but she still answers anyway.
Yet for as much as these poems traipse amidst the clouds with an inquisitive and intellectual demeanor, they are also firmly rooted in the adult world, on the ground, anchored there by various responsibilities. I do not think it is an accident that the third poem in a book of forty-nine poems is a cheeky yet serious apostrophe “To His Debt.” Donnelly asks, like an indentured servant out of a Monty Python skit, grimacing through a smile, “What wealth / could ever offer loyalty like yours”? Somehow, perhaps paradoxically, Donnelly manages to depict that endless impediment to freedom with a Stevensian lexicon and aplomb:
My phantom, my crevasse—my emphatically
unfunny hippopotamus, you take my last red cent
and drag it down into the muck of you, my
sassafras, my Timbuktu. . .
Donnelly faces a thing that many people might deny—debt is uncomfortable, it makes it harder to breathe, it prevents us from hamming up our characteristically American idealism. He tells it like it is instead of looking away: “there you are, supernaturally / redoubling over my shoulder like the living / wage I never make, but whose image I will always / cling to. . . .”
Donnelly frequently turns his knack for facing reality on himself. His is a Blake-ian eye that sees outward, and inward too—at times with hyperbolic self-scrutiny, as in “Clair De Lune,” or with poignant projection, as in “To His Own Device.” In the latter poem the speaker addresses a specter, a shadow-self, “an antic of the mind”:
What’s more, I said, you are amiss in this ad hoc quest
for origin and purpose. . . .
—At this, the figure dropped the box from its hands,
turned down a dock I remembered and wept.
I followed it down there, sat beside it and wept.
The speaker acknowledges, while weeping beside a personification of his craft, that “being itself had made things fall apart this way.” Donnelly exhibits a constitution that can stomach such an observation and keep going, despite the fact that our very existence and the course of events mar the world. He sees that “the air nearest earth / …had been ruined by what happens” (“Chapter For Being Transformed Into A Sparrow”).
These poems do not limit themselves to the abstract. Some poems are lush with things—”sea-thistle, pinecones, a crate of tangerines” (“The New Hymns”). Others meditate explicitly on the production of commodities; “The Rumored Existence of Other People” interweaves litanies of things with the poignancy that comes from investing things with meaning:
A silver line, a souvenir, a sieve of relation
meaning to release something lovingly means always
remaining tied to it. . .
. . .The more I gave it thought the more it seemed to me
obvious. Also touching. Whoever built that warehouse
across the way built it thinking someone would one day
look at it in wonder. Also sorrow. To keep an endless
store of that feeling. To make, to provide it. . .
Occasionally, these poems do settle down for the night into a blissful, if brief, quotidian moment—”a present too lived-in to cherish” (“Chivas Regal”). From the speaker’s location in the bathtub, we hear his humble thought said aloud to the steam-filled room: “In this life I’ll almost certainly / not be acquainted with / much luxury. . .” (“His Theogony”). The speaker indulges in these spare pauses as if exhausted by previous sessions (and resting for future ones) battling a kind of Minotaur amid labyrinthine syntax. Though instead of half-man, half-bull, this hybrid monster is half-self, half-metaphysical conundrum; and the speaker’s sword is his mind. See him winding through maze-like syntax, pursuing a grasp on the idea of knowledge, in part four of the excellent “Chapter For Being Transformed Into A Sparrow,”
In the shade of the need to know, to know that what was once
remains, grows the knowledge that what was
was almost certainly not that, not merely,
not once. There is a way through all this—
After the speaker questions everything, including experience itself, he concludes with a reversal of previous perception: “what was / was almost certainly not that.” At times Donnelly plays with reflections of words so successfully (giving off optical and aural illusions) that language seems to unlock just for him. A lesser writer, or a mere dabbler in wordplay might get lost in the maze of language and never find a path to meaning. But Donnelly’s prismatic configurations of words masterfully reveal meaning every time. He writes, “After the first weeks after, I lost myself remembering / the worth of what was lost, the cost of which was nothing.”
The more time I spend with these poems, the greater my impulse is to treat them like impressionist paintings— stepping closer, observing the layered brush strokes, then stepping back and observing the whole, then stepping closer again. . . But, reading these poems aloud and carefully listening to the words seems to reveal even more than just looking. I hear that the words are not illusory, nor is their meaning. The lines, if you listen to them, speak directly to you. Who of us has not swam out farther than we should have, trying to remember “the worth of what was lost”?
A poem can be utterly concrete in all its details, yet abstract as to its meaning. This abstraction has better words to define it: vague, illusive, non-cognitive, gibberish, wide open to interpretation, etc. I’m sorry they used the word abstract to name such a poem, since, elsewhere, abstraction means to deal with the principle of the thing rather than the thing. Example: “man is prone to evil” rather than “Freddy is prone to evil.”
Here’s an example of a form called an “abstract” poem. Personally, I’d prefer “non-representational poem” to the extent that the poem is made out of words which may not refer to any idea, emotion, or agreed upon meaning outside the sequence of words. This is by Roy Campbell, supposedly the foremost practitioner of the “abstract poem”:
Of seven hues in white elision,
the radii of your silver gyre,
are the seven swords of vision
that spoked the prophet’s flaming tyre;
We have seven hues, a silver gyre, seven swords of vision, and a prophet’s flaming tyre. Beats me as to what Campbell means, but almost all lyrical poems contain such moments of high gibberish:
The mustard scansion of the eyes (Hart Crane)
This might be called ecstatic speech except that many language poets keep the totality of abstraction, and skip the lyricism:
With Eye Brows Thick As Tacitus
We dined on sacrifage. Remember the trouncing sun?
and how Melissa’s cape flew off towards infamy?
Wasn’t that nice? The live long day wore
wretched and vociferous gloves
while that distended cousin of Gwen had to
find another ruse for frolicking about
doffing her Pavlovian grin.
Let’s face it, the dance cards of longing
are marked for death, but semblances
of scalloped bawds still pock the surly afternoon
and bring us news of kith and kin
with eye brows thick as Tacitus.
This passage is not exactly abstract. It sounds like the ghost of someone recalling some odd get together. We could paraphrase the poem (at least this section) as a memory poem, but, again, just barely. In a sense, it is borrowing “remember when” and making it odd. The gist of the poem is not regularly forthcoming. The language may be informal, even chatty (“Wasn’t that nice?”) but its effect is abstracted in the sense of not being representational of any standard meaning or expectation. This is the sort of abstraction that language poetry and surrealism often employs. It is one of the tricks in the bag of postmodernism. It is a different order of abstraction than what we commonly mean. So let’s break abstraction down.
Abstraction of meaning, running from high gibberish to a sort of dadaist literalism that makes the meaning absurd or, at the least, makes meaning highly provisional. It is the chief operating device of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, of certain New York school techniques, and of what might be deemed a sort of emotionally detached surrealism. It often comes with many and usually random concrete images. It is often comical, having, at its best, the great childish virtues of Magritte’s paintings. It is a good defense against paraphrase, maudlin sentiment, or commitment to anything overt. It often sounds highly precocious if not intelligent. It does not hedge its bets. It makes no bets. It is all hedges. Here’s the problem: if the person wielding the technique does not understand vamps, and tropes, and little tricks of distorting cliché, then it might all dissolve into a sort of verbal vomit.
Now for the more common idea of abstraction: expressing a principle or idea without being specific in terms of sensual details, or in which the sensual details serve the merely utilitarian purpose of embodying a principle.
Abstract: Man is a moral creature. And sin makes man less than man.
The poetic abstract (using a vivid or concrete image in the service of an idea): Man is an oak, and sin an axe.
Narrative concrete: Jim was a good guy, always did whatever he could to help you out, but then that bitch, Tara came along and ruined him. Now he’s a bum. Just goes to show you how one bad mistake can ruin your life.
Proverbial version of the poetic abstract: “By Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”
Abstraction in poetry before the modernists:
Hope springs eternal in the human breast,
Man never is, but always to be, blest. (Pope)
Hope is a thing with feathers (Dickinson)
In either case, concrete sensual detail is there, but barely. We have the human breast, but it is figurative, rather than concrete or specific. We have hope defined by an extended metaphor and embodiment as a bird–but barely. This is poetry as wisdom: its images, though often beautiful, are always at the service of a principle, a truth, and very often, a sort of maxim. You might call this representational abstraction, and the first abstraction we mentioned non-representational abstraction. The concrete is really never absolutely there. The abstract, if it be truly abstract, isn’t there at all. You can’t “see” a season. You can look out a window, see the snow, feel the cold wind, and conclude it is “winter” but “winter” is a general principle embodied in snow and cold wind. You can also abstract by going too far into details without context. If you describe a daisy by painstakingly denoting all its parts–I mean, in every seen-detail–and you do not extend that detailing to an overall picture, chances are the reader won’t know you are talking about a daisy: detail without context is abstract. Context is the necessary abstraction of recognizing the details of a daisy as a daisy. Thus, against all the prevailing wisdom and preference of teachers, I would not tell beginning writers to avoid abstraction. I would tell them to play with the concrete towards representational abstraction or non-representational abstraction. In effect, either toward an “ontology” (the being /meaning implied by the details) or away from that ontology (if it is too pat, too obvious–for example: a grey sky equals sadness). Beginners must learn to employ the full spectrum of concrete details towards representational or non-representational abstraction. Painters know this.
We need two posts to cover this business of the concrete and the abstract. For now, here’s your homework: Read Dylan Thomas’ famous poem in which he admonishes his father to “Not go Gentle into that good night.” In what ways does this poem use details to bring home its abstraction? After reading this, read William Carlos Williams’ “The Last Words of My English grandmother.” Both poems are about dying elderly people. In a sense, Williams’ poem is far less poetic in its diction and imagery, but the grandmother, even though she is dying, comes off as a wonderful old coot and lively woman, whereas we know nothing of Dylan’s father at the end. Read these poems, then look at one of yours and see if you lean more towards one or the other. If you lean more towards the Dylan Thomas, re-write the poem to go more toward the Williams, and vice versa. Good luck.
Almost every poem in Matthew Zapruder’s third book, Come On All You Ghosts (a statement that is both joke and plea) starts with the word today or implies it with a declaration involving an observation almost generic in sound and meaning:
“Today a ladybug flew through the window. I was reading”
“Today in El Paso all the planes are asleep on the runway….”
“I woke this morning to the sound of a little voice”
“Sometime around 11 p.m. the you I was thinking of”
“Today I read about the factory”
“This morning I rode my gray metal bike”
“Today I have the feeling that no matter”
“Today I am going to pick you up at the beige airport”
Of course, that recurring intention of today gets predictable after a while, but Zapruder uses it to compose poems that sound like what the love child of John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara by way of San Francisco rather than New York might sound like: surreal, funny, dry, cynical and clever. Like Ashbery, Zapruder makes maps of language, usually in one stanza, that speak directly to our virtual age in the somewhat disarming way many people have learned to speak to it: with a quiet awe and a kind of increasing distraction. Zapruder gives us a world made of incidents and images meant to enlarge living into a kind of sweet cartoon while making it feel close: that short distance drawn between the experience and the effect of the experience:
This morning I made extra coffee
for the beloved and covered
the cup with a saucer. Skelton
I thought, and stay
very still, whatever it was
will soon pass by and be gone.
Or a world that outlines the failure of memory:
Everything I know about birds
is I can’t remember plus
two of the four mourning
also known as rain
doves, the young ones
born in my back yard
just this April
The mind is constantly moving here, even when it is trying to be still (sorting out the past, dealing with his grief—exquisitely documented in the title poem—or revealing any saving grace the natural world has to offer). Life is no bigger than one’s own autobiography and there’s an objectivity when one applies the pressure to its meaning. Thoughts are things:
I like the word pocket. It sounds a little safely
dangerous. Like knowing you once
bought a headlamp in case the lights go out
in a catastrophe
Zapruder reports on life as it is being lived, being chased, being failed at. His past—in the poems where the past mostly only intersects with the present (though these poems never really follow a strict memory narrative tract)—is something that memory sifts and turns vague and general, even when it’s punctuated with subjects of clarity: children and violence, for example:
… I played
Santa in the Christmas play
which made sense.
One day Luis stabbed
another kid with a pencil
in the throat, he was also fine.
Another day i went to visit
a friendly girl and ran
straight through the plate glass
window in her apartment building
lobby and out the door
and home, my parents
never knew, I was as I would
now say unscathed.
And at the end:
I think once a parent dies
the absence in the mind
where new impressions would
have gone is clear, a kind
of space or vacuum related memories
pour into, which is good
In addition to beginning in today (which runs against Rilke’s dictum that poems should start on the turn), many poems in Come On All You Ghosts follow a speaker who is a reader as much as he is a writer and whose obsession with books is so complete that it makes living in the world seem like an interruption to reading:
Today a ladybug flew through my window. I was reading
about a snowy plumage of the Willow Ptarmigan
and the song of the Nashville Warbler. I was reading
the history of weather, how they agreed at last
to disagree on cloud categories. I was reading a chronicle
of boredom that called itself The Great Loneliness
and caused a war
Perhaps Zapruder is making up the books as a way to document the imaginative mind, and it’s with that sense of invention and desire for having to know what what’s in a book that isn’t in the world that runs under all the poems sub texturally: a kind of poetry which is a study in fixation, certainly, but also an expression of the willingness to change course, ideas, direction. One senses Zapruder has only been thinking of his subjects only for as long as it takes him to write the poem: they’re happening, as opposed to happened and naturally they’re almost always in the present tense, beginning small with the speaker reading a book or looking at something move and ending up bigger than they were which is, in its organic way, everything one can hope for in poetry: the great and, in Zapruder’s style, always surprising enlargement of the world so we can see it.
Why did I – why do we – get into this profession? It’s hard to remember. Maybe they want us to forget. But how could I? Late nights with Dostoevsky, The Tempest at the Globe, Gravity’s Rainbow pre-dawn on the Metro. In a word, love. Or perhaps another, vocation.
A few weeks ago I was asked by a professor in the English department to participate in a roundtable with undergraduates to discuss graduate school. How to apply? What’s it like? After discussions of the logistical details, the professor asked if any of the panelists had any last words of wisdom. Her husband, also a tenure-track professor in English, replied simply, “Don’t go.” That is, “Don’t go – unless you must.” This sums up my experience with the all too maddening - and now sadly disillusioning - English PhD program.
“Don’t go.” The job market is toast. I actually took a class titled Introduction to the Profession of Letters this semester. I think it should have been called The Way It Used to Be. We learned about publishing books, peer reviewing, academic freedom, politicization. Important issues, no doubt. But you can see where I’m going with this – they don’t want us to know that we aren’t going to get the glitzy job that we dreamed of getting when we signed up for this. No – adjuncting, living year-to-year, teaching four classes a semester for peanuts – this is our real future. Had we known, would we have come? It looks bleak.
“Dont go.” I love literature, but to say that I still do might surprise a lot of people in my position. This gig seems to want more than anything to suck any romantic notions out of reading. This is a profession, after all, that requires the utmost in objectivity, discipline, and taste. Of course however they don’t mention an aptitude for backstabbing, brown-nosing, elitism and downright mean-spiritedness, tricks of the trade for the “successful.” I’ve seen departmental politics hault the progress of a graduate student firsthand. It looks bleak.
“Unless you must.” Thankfully, a silver lining. Namely, the spirit that guided me into this program in the first place. Sure, jobs are scarce, and life in an academic department is not too dissimilar from a corporate office, and the pressure to say something “smart” so that our papers will get published and we can lord our intelligence over friends, students, and, of course, interviewers, remains. But it will break me only if I allow it. My spiritual food still nourishes me. I still read the books that I like, and not because I think I should like them. I can’t leave home without something to read. I write sentences in my head, walking to work, riding my bike. Less than a week removed from the final gauntlet of papers, I am recovering this spirit. And with a year to go before my comprehensive exam, I have no obligation but to take in as much American lit as I can. I promise to do so on my terms, and politics, pressure, elitism, resumes, jobs, titles, and whatever other inferiority complexes that grad school wants to provide as a requisite, can go to the devil.
We’re pleased to announce that Ben Pease’s Scattered Rhymes podcast is going to become the official podcast of THEthe!
Scattered Rhymes is a long-form interview podcast in which poets discuss and read their work. Ben Pease has been doing the podcast for several years now and has created a back log of work that THEthe will be reposting over the next month or so in anticipation of Scattered Rhymes’ next installment. From that point on, we hope to make Scattered Rhymes a monthly endeavor. The latest episode will be posted and featured on THEthe and later archived at the Scattered Rhymes website.
The first featured poet from the Scattered Rhymes podcast is Gail Mazur.
Gail Mazur Interview, Part 1
Gail Mazur Interview, Part 2
Listen to Joe Weil’s album of original poetry and music, recorded with the help of Vic Ruggiero.
I met Joe Salerno in 1987 while featuring at a church in Morristown, New Jersey. As I recall, there was snow that night, and ice and I almost killed a fellow poet, Charlie Mosler when he went to get into my car, and, being a relatively new driver, I took off a little prematurely and turned him into an ugly version of Peggy Fleming. I was featuring with Steward Ross, a veteran of the New Jersey poetry scene. Joe, Stewart, and Charley are all dead now. It does not seem strange. Of the three only Charlie got to live into his sixties. Successful and well lauded poets live as long as borscht belt comedians; having your ass kissed on a fairly constant basis tends to increase life expectancy. However, the rank and files, the grunters, the ones who make it possible for poetry to exist anywhere outside of New York City often seem to enjoy a life expectancy equivalent to the male population of bullet ridden ghettos.
None of them smoked. Steward did like his ganja and his drink and never tired of missing his days as a hippie in San Francisco, but Joe was a vegetarian, and Charley a man who insisted on sleeping ten hours a day, and, as I recall, he lectured me on my fondness for disco fries and double cheeseburgers.
At any rate, they’re dead, and so is the wonderful poet and human being, Enid Dame, and the equally kind and gracious Yictove. These may be poets you’ll know, but I doubt it. They were all a regular or, at least frequent part of my poetry scene. I hung out in diners with them, argued and conversed late into the night. All of them were older than me, Joe by ten years, and Charley by a good 20, but there is no age where a mind is lonely for fellow travelers. We could have all been Trekkie or model airplane enthusiasts. I would like to think poetry is more than a hobby for nut jobs. Still, any hobby that creates years of friendship and the sense of communion with both the living and the dead more than justifies its absurdities.
I have told endless stories about Joe to my students. I have given out at least a hundred copies of his book. I am sick of my stories. I feel they are only the grooves I have worn in the road of my futility, attempting to peal out of my grief. I hate that he is not alive. On the day of my wedding, I wanted him to be there–he and my mother, and I wept like an idiot in the bathroom. He was a friend who could be more happy for your good fortune than you yourself. I remember when I featured with Allen Ginsberg, he showed up with his sons at my house, followed me to Camden. When Ginsberg needed a lift to West Paterson to see his step mother, Joe let his sons take the wheel of his car, and he rode with me, a sleepy Ginsberg, and my friend Deborah LaVeglia. He was much happier about the day than I was. It was May, 1995. Joe already had a slight pain in his back. By November of that year, he was dead of lung cancer– age forty-seven.
I always felt privileged that someone as talented as Joe wanted to be my friend. I couldn’t fathom it, but decided to receive the gift gladly. Besides his talent, I had no idea how accomplished he was. He had won the Hopwood award at Michigan, and his competition was Gregory Orr, and Jane Kenyon. I never knew until he died. Joe did not brag. He did not feel the need to puff himself up. His attention to other poets was beyond the often considerable selfishness of this “Art.” As Donald Hall wrote in the postlude to Joe’s book:
Joe Salerno’s devotion to poetry–to the art, not to himself as a practitioner– set a standard for everybody… if any cynicism or professionalism had stuck to me, Joe rubbed it away by his clear and radiant passion for the art itself.
Tonight I will introduce a poet at the official University reading for faculty members. She is a fine poet and does much for the program here. It will be a pleasure to introduce her, but, afterwards, my wife and I will not be sitting at a diner, chatting it up. Charlie will not be talking in 50s jazz lingo, and scolding me for my bad eating habits. Joe will not be there to remember whole lines of other people’s work. It will be professional, and pleasant (if a little stiff), but the camp fire of what is most human, most vital, most important will be missing. I try to tell my students that professionalism can be murderous. It can not offer what poetry truly has to give. It can succeed at the level of men, but it can not fail at the level of the truly profound and meaningful pact we make with love, beyond, and perhaps, because of our futility. I tell them certain forms of failure are Godly, and never to be mistaken for that poor, rather boring mechanism we call success. This is what Joe pointed out in his great poem “Poetry is the Art of Not Succeeding.”
I will end with a different poem of Joe’s because today the weather is horrible, and I feel gutted and lonely and I miss Joe as well as many others. We were good friends for only eight years. He’s been dead almost twice as long as I knew him. My mother has been dead twice as long as I knew her, but you do not ‘Unknow” those you love. Moving forward is for self-help books and motor boats I have always been on the side of Lot’s wife, and of Orpheus. All things vanish before our eyes, and we have no recourse but to defy that edict of what passes away and to break our gaze against the stones.
The Invention of Immortality
I had just turned
to go , when you called me
back into your room
The lamp a velvety glow
beside the bed.
“I love you,” you said
to me, the words
strangely stark and serious
in their familiar
setting. And leaning
over you, your small face
at four and a half
just blossoming into boyishness,
you reached up and
drew me down with such a
into your pillow, whispering,
“Even when I’m dead
I’ll love you.”
I’m happy to announce that we are rebooting our Poem of the Week feature here at THEthe. Every Thursday, THEthe will post a poem by an author that an editor has solicited. Every month, one of our contributors takes a turn at being the editor. Hopefully this will guarantee a nice diversity of tastes and styles. We hope that you enjoy this feature in the future as much as we think we’ll enjoy posting it.
I (Micah) will take the reins for the remaining Thursdays of November. The inaugural poem of our relaunch is by Rosanne Wasserman. Enjoy!
Ow, why are walls so hard?
Somebody’s mom could walk through them:
Not every dream sequence needs dwarves,
Though I get giants, like that Trevor Winkfieldian
Unfolding himself from a pillow in Louisville,
Half of a scissors-pair, wearing a boot,
Human face inside handle-loop.
We questioned him like an oracle:
“What’s going to happen next?”
But he just stared and said, “There is no future.”
Later I figured, “After all,
He’d just pulled himself out of a pillow,”
Rationalizing, and wondered
If his wings were wet, in folds—
But he was pretty much nothing but
Cold gray steel. What else could
Happen to something like him, anyway?
But the busted hardware drawer
Won’t do for an oracle.
He had a point.
Just one point, yes, but sharp enough,
Even in that Doc Marten’s.
He was right, for the half he spoke for.
He was a knife now, but Atropos used
Whole scissors: past and future
Meet, then there is no present. His other
Half’s no dream. Wake carefully.
Entering a new language is entering a new world. But what does it mean to be “in” a world? The word “in” originally had no spatial connotations. To say that someone was “in” something meant that they existed “in anger” or “in love.” Love and anger are not places, but modes of being. But this means that you can say these statements another way: to be “in anger” is to be angrily and “in love” is to be lovingly. To be “in a world” means to be worldly.
When you enter a new language, you enter a new mode of being. This is true not simply of English, Chinese, Farsi, etc. but also of the language games of technologies, skills, and other modes of thought. As long as there is a new vocabulary, it is a new language game, and anywhere there are new rules is a new world. Entering a new language is not simply acquiring a new means of communication, but, as Micah Towery said, learning a new way of thinking. I would go even further: to enter a new language is to enter a new way of being.
As Okakura Kakuzo said in The Book of Tea, “All translation is treason.” This is very true, but I would modify this: all we have is translation. All we have is treason. Every conversation is predicated on our essential being-guilty. To put it another way, discourse only proceeds when we remain open to the possibility of miscommunicating our ideas. Closedness is the greatest enemy to communication and to healthy relationships. If there is ever such a thing as Original Sin, it is most obvious in language – the mere birth of language brings about contradictory concepts. Language unites and separates. All discourse, though, requires concerted effort. The word “relationship” is overused, and there is nothing inherently good in having a relation to anything – relations can be good or bad, as my wife’s in-laws consistently prove.
Every action (and word) has a limitless number of consequences, most of which cannot be predicted. Because of the unpredictability of spontaneous conversation, the only way to sustain dialogue is forgiving the unintended consequences of the Other’s words (and our own). Forgiveness is therefore the very life of conversation and the heart of discourse. Without a constant flow of forgiveness even disagreement is impossible.
Forgiveness frees the victim and the victimizer from the crime. The victim is freed from the inhibition of the grudge, and the criminal is freed from the bondage of her sin. Engaging a new language is one of trial and error, but also always forgiveness of errors.
So, while we are all guilty of treason and are thus all guilty, we are all also in need of forgiveness. Whatever truth may be, it is always expressed in a historically-bound vocabulary and cannot be abstracted from our historical situation. But what makes up our vocabulary? Whatever conditions affected our species, our countries, our families, and finally ourselves. Since none of these conditions are ever identical, no vocabulary is identical and thus no world is identical. Translation is treason, but treason is our own means of being in the world.
If we believe metaphors can build civilizations, and if we agree that power is the right to decide which metaphors will be beliieved and instituted as truths, which ones will generate class, or race, or who is worthy, and who is debased, then we get at the heart of why Surrealism was, initially, a political movement whose strategy of disassociation and derangement was an attempt to take metaphors away from the power structures of state, of reason, of class, filter them through the subconscious, and re-empower them free of capitalist oppression. The trouble was, surrealism could do the same thing to Stalinism, or communism, and its process of dismantling agreed-upon authority got many a dadaist and surrealist killed. Later, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry would also begin with a political agenda of destroying the concept of property–deconstructing the authority of the speaker and freeing the auditor to invest or not invest in the process of utterance. But, for our purpose, we are going to look at this shift in metaphor as a change in “willful ignorance.”
All metaphors are, eventually, false, inaccurate, distortians of reality. Reality itself is a distortion. Frost–the conservative–said as much. Yet, by giving metaphors their due and refining them, we can create a sense of order, priority, and narrative that helps us negotiate the complexities of life. The problem arises when we impose that order through our political and religious systems. All metaphors when tested, fall apart, and, once we do not accept them at “face” value, all metaphors begin to seem absurd. Surrealism, dadaism, cubism, absurdism, language poetry, and, to an extent, the New York School of poets, and all the gradations in between, are a choice to emphasize the instability, silliness, and shiftiness of metaphor, while hyping its “process.” Thus, the atrophy of agreed upon meanings leads to the hypertrophy of a “process” of meanings.
Of course, my problem with that is, being idiots of system, we then make everything mere process, mere trope, mere parody, mere mark and counter mark, and we become immured in the qualifications and in the glamour of process, and power again rears its head and wears the terrible mask of the sociopathic trickster, the one who is willfully ignorant that his ongoing deconstructions of the linear, the sensical, the emotive, are, in themselves, a rigid construction– no matter how ongoing. All one might succeed in doing is creating flux and process as ultimate oppression. But let’s put that aside. I believe that a person who still believes in co-herence, and “meaning” and emotional truth can use some of the techniques of those who do not believe in any of those values toward good results. I also believe that a post-modernist does not have to abandon agreed upon meanings, or emotion, or tenderness, but can translate them into his process of deconstruction, derangement of the senses, and absurdist metaphor. We can have our cake and eat it, too, just as long as the cake we have and the cake we eat are not the same.
So this brings me to an excerpt from Breton’s poem “Knot of Mirrors.” The title is, well, knotty. How can you have a knot of mirror? It is nonsensical is it not? Oh, but how can you have a “rosy fingered dawn?” Taken out of its agreed upon acceptance as describing both the color and emotion of seeing the dawn, it is just as absurd and false as Breton’s knot of mirrors. But it is not being so willfully false. Let’s proceed:
The lovely open and shut windows
hanging on the lips of day.
Does day have lips? Not any day I have seen. But does a ship’s prow plough the field of the sea? Nope. This is called personification. If day has a face, then it can have lips, and windows can hang from them. Let us proceed:
The lovely shirt clad windows
The lovely windows with fiery hair in the black night.
So the windows are given human qualities. They may even, once personified, stand in for the whole of a person– a sort of strange synecdoche, or metonymy, but the metaphors here are being freely mixed and confused. The window wears a shirt, or it has fiery hair in the black night. Now we can conjecture that perhaps people are standing in the windows, and the windows are standing in for those people who are standing at the windows, and thus the lovely windows hang from the lips of day. It is complicated, yet no less or more absurd than conventional metaphor. It is not “Agreed” upon. It seems to be generated from a personal and private consciousness (or unconscious), which we may observe but not share in. This quality promotes the sense of voyeurism much modern art is comprised of: we are watching a verbal performance we do not wilfully pretend is a mirror held up to nature, and we either enjoy the process of this performance or grow indignant and insist it make sense in the way we are used to things making sense. We are in a dream world and our agreements with it may be only sympathetic rather than actual, but this is true of all verbal constructs. Modernism and Post-modernism do not hide the strings of the puppet show. Sometimes, there are no puppets and only strings. There is a dream world. During the day someone might mention to you that their lover bought a new car, and that night, you might dream a Ferrari rides up to your window, and, somehow, that Ferrari is also your own lover– disguised as a Ferrari. Or it is both a Ferrari and your lover?
Anyway, the point is, once we agree all metaphors break down, that they are distortions that allow us to enter a schema of distortions, we need not be so dismissive of certain surreal images. They are not rational. Old, pre-modernist metaphor is not rational either, but it depends on the agreed upon conceit of rationality upon the metaphor. Phrases that make total sense are truly, when scrutinized in this manner, absurd. If I tell you: “I am facing facts,” you know what I mean and accept, unless you decide not to. If not, you say, where are these “facts” you face? I can see a wall, or a statue, or me, and you can “face” these (again metonymy and synecdoche) but you can not “face” the facts. And “face” is, itself, figurative, a part for the whole.
So our problem with surrealism or language poetry is not one of nonsense, but of nonsense that seems outside the normative boundaries of our usual comparisons, and assumptions.
If James Franco’s first name had been Ben, it would take very little to convince me that he is, in fact, the 24-hour multimedia reincarnation of the original King of Enterprise and Toil, Benjamin Franklin, whose parades through Philadelphia at the dawn bell with a wheelbarrow full of already-completed paperwork resemble Franco’s continuous and uncanny stream of films, art exhibitions, grad lit classes, short stories, and appearances on soap operas. Sam Anderson rode the wave briefly over the summer, and wrote a telling profile for New York Magazine, concluding,
Plenty of actors dabble in side projects – rock bands, horse racing, college, veganism – but none of them, and maybe no one else in the history of anything, anywhere, seems to approach extracurricular activities with the ferocity of Franco.
Except for, well, Franklin. Anderson continues,
This fall, at 32…he’ll be starting at Yale, for a Ph.D. in English, and also at the Rhode Island School of Design. After which, obviously, he will become president of the United Nations, train a flock of African gray parrots to perform free colonoscopies in the developing world, and launch himself into space in order to explain the human heart to aliens living at the pulsing core of interstellar quasars.
Anderson’s quippy exaggerations nonetheless point up the outrageous nature of Franco’s juggling act. But it begs the appropriate question: is this seeming jack of all artistic trades still a master of none? Anderson smartly points out the lack of virtuosity in much of Franco’s work, particularly his fiction. He doesn’t, however, attribute it to being thinly spread, but to a more organic transitional period that besets every artist’s life. Ultimately, “He’s an excellent writer, for an actor. He’s brilliant, for a heartthrob. But he has yet to produce art that’s good enough to break the huge gravitational pull of his fame and fly off on its own merits.” Regardless of the quality of his work, his unabashedly zealous desire to work inspires me. Would that we could all be so tireless.
While many, including Anderson, may consider Franco’s entire professional life (this might be redundant—he doesn’t seem to have any other kind of life) to be a piece of performance art, I want to talk about two actual such pieces. In Franco’s fashion, two films—Howl and 127 Hours—are currently playing that have cast him as the lead, and each has the potential to establish Franco among the upper echelon of screen actors.
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s take on the inception, production, and delivery of Allen Ginsberg’s euphoric masterpiece exists across a series of evenly paced set pieces. The film begins as a seemingly reticent Ginsberg stands before an eager crowd at the now legendary Gallery Six in San Francisco, preparing to read for the first time those famous and often parodied opening lines. We return to this scene periodically as the entirety of the poem is eventually read across the film. The rest of it alternates between the obscenity trial (with a Hamm-like performance from Jon Hamm and well placed cameos from Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels), which ultimately serves an interpretive function, an interview with Ginsberg circa 1957 in which we glean most of our biographical information, flashbacks to his life pre-”Howl,” and an hallucinogenic rendering of the poem itself from animator Eric Drooker. This is by far the biggest risk of the film, but I don’t agree with the Times‘ A.O. Scott that it was “nearly disastrous, the one serious misstep in a film that otherwise does nearly everything right.”
I’m going to disagree with not only the first part of that claim, but also the latter part. There is one grating thing that, for me, Howl misses. The film does well to emphasize that much of Ginsberg’s poetic energy sprung from his (questionably) unrequited love for Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. But each of these figures is presented as a stiff, Don Draper type, rather than as the real madmen that they were. For a movement so devoted to the lovely power of the human voice, these characters have a combined total of—get this—zero lines. Not only does this serve to render Ginsberg’s love unrealistic, it does a disservice to the Beat generation and what it stood for. Both Kerouac and Cassady come off as leering fraternity brothers, in a malicious way. The real Beats were assholes—just not that kind of asshole. Ginsberg himself claims in the interview portion (granted, the entirety of the dialogue is drawn from historical record, but this was still a directorial choice), “There is no Beat Generation. It’s just a bunch of guys trying to get published.” I don’t think anyone, including Ginsberg, believed that in 1957. Regardless, Franco’s performance across these set pieces is every bit as “impressive [and] beguilingly sensitive” as Ann Hornaday claims in her Washington Post review. The film is worth seeing for that alone. What is more, with the sudden recuperation of the perpetually “in production” adaptation of On the Road, we may see a great Beat Generation film sooner rather than later.
* * *
Whatever hype I had encountered about 127 Hours, Danny Boyle’s follow-up to Slumdog Millionaire, spoke to the climax, what David Denby of The New Yorker has dubbed “The Scene,” namely the re-creation of Aron Ralston’s brutal extrication from a dire encounter with a rock. If you’re like me, then perhaps the most excruciating element of this experience is the anticipation. When is he going to get trapped? Is now the time when he will begin cutting? Are these screams going to be even more blood-curdling when he hits the nerve? But Danny Boyle spends this time of nervous anticipation artfully juxtaposing crowds and solitude, noise and silence in a way that prepares the stage for Ralston’s spiritual crisis (in all, Boyle stylistically airs it out on a premise that could have come off as, well, boring). Regardless, you will throughout the film sit with your hands (for which you are suddenly very grateful) at the ready to cover your eyes, pull at your hair, or just wring for minutes at a time.
Generically, 127 Hours can be compared to Sean Penn’s adaptation of Into the Wild, but while Emile Hirsch’s Chris McCandless treks to Alaska out of a rejection of society (not to mention everyone who loves him), Franco’s Ralston is passionate about the wilderness. He’s not escaping; Canyonlands is his “home away from home.” But his love and positive enthusiasm (when his co-worker tells him to have a good one, he replies, “Always do.”) are put to the ultimate test over five days, as his ordeal transforms from a race against time to free himself from the rock without dying of thirst into a spiritual journey through his conscience, memories, and hopes for the future. He “has nailed himself to his own special cross” (Denby), eventually realizing that “this rock has been waiting for me for thousands of years.” This is Ralston’s Trial, and it is ultimately a parable about embracing life.
The beauty of Franco’s performance resides in his preservation of Ralston’s quirkiness amid desperation. This story is so powerful because we know that this is a regular guy who has done something extraordinary. But Franco and Boyle were brilliant not to locate the human universality of the story in the unfathomable circumstances but in Ralston’s personal experience. Faced with death, he repents, remembers times of love, and laments unrealized future ones, all via nicely placed flashbacks, dreams, and hallucinations. But the nuance here is important—Ralston’s not a bad guy. He loves his parents, misses his ex-girlfriend (whom he apparently did slight), and laments his vainglorious subconscious wish not to have anyone know where he is. His life wasn’t in shambles, hence his happy-go-lucky attitude that pervades the first part of the film.
His transformation, however, is no less remarkable. His family knows he loves them, so he doesn’t need to ask forgiveness for wrongdoing; rather, he, and we all can identify with this, apologizes into his camcorder (which, for much of his ordeal, serves as a Bakhtinian superaddressee, a God-figure) “for not acknowledging you in my heart as much as I could.” This was powerful, and had me weeping, childlike. The acknowledgement of a higher power becomes more palpable the deeper into crisis he becomes. As he agonizes, his bellows of “Please!”—to the rock, to the camcorder, to God—resonate with our similar moments of angst. But his utterances after he gains freedom (which, thankfully, only took about five minutes, contrary to rumor) are most revealing. Standing there, suddenly unbound, bleeding, he almost immediately mutters, “Thank you.” He says nothing as he staggers his way out of the cave and—incredibly—rappels down a canyon wall. Soon after, he sees, murkily, a group of hikers, and, desperately, but at this point triumphantly, begins screaming for help. Of course, he needs medical assistance. But in this moment he is also affirming that he needs help in the same way that we all need help. The subsequent dénouement is exuberant, an exaltation over the letting go of material life—our literal attachments to our bodies—for the sake of a new, spiritual life. Which, for Ralston, is as enthusiastic as the one he already led, only with added consciousness. One comes away from 127 Hours not necessarily thankful for being spared a similar ordeal, but jealous of Ralston’s trial and awakening. But true to the humanness of this story, it reminds us that every day we are faced with the possibility of death, and should act and think accordingly.
I could say a lot more about this film, especially about Boyle’s work, but I will stay on task about Franco. Truth be told, I wrote the first half of this article before I saw 127 Hours, and a large part of me wants to take back that jack-of-all-trades bit. What if Franco wins an Oscar for this performance? Will he continue with his Alexandrian feats of intellectual conquest? Or will he focus on fulfilling his vast potential as an actor? Regardless, I propose Franco begin his speech as follows, in keeping with the mysterious and ironic fashion of his persona: “I’ll make this brief – I’ve got somewhere to be.”
“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.”
I have mentioned this before on the blog, but for those who do not know, I teach upper level ESL to students who plan on entering graduate school in North America. It’s basically a college writing class, but the ESL aspect creates interesting dilemmas for me as a teacher. For example, I’m consistently torn between allowing students the comfort of pulling out their electronic dictionaries and forcing them to live in the uncomfortable space between languages. If I allow dictionaries, I will essentially handicap (or allowing them to handicap) their future English skills. They will forever be tying English words to words or phrases in their native language. As a result, they will never be fully fluent in English (at least not in the same way as a native speaker is fluent–which is often what most of my students desire). If, however, I force them to use context, word roots, and experience to understand words, eventually they will understand English words in an English sense. Perhaps an end-run around this dilemma is letting them use an English dictionary, forcing them to associate English definitions with English words. Unfortunately, students often come upon words in the English definition that they don’t understand, so we’re back at the same dilemma again. Spare the rod, spoil the child, anybody?
Typically, by the time students get to a level or two below my class, electronic dictionaries are forbidden in the classroom. It’s much harder, though, to break them of the habit of composing whole sentences in their own language and translating them, an attempt which is doomed from the start. I get lots of grumble and pout when I tell them to start thinking about their papers in English. I feel a bit like a parent coaxing their child to stand up to a bully. And in many ways, a new language is a bully. I always tell my students that learning a new language is not really learning a new way to communicate, but a new way to think. When working in English, you have to know how to work within or manipulate the categories and expectations of English–something we native speakers do without realizing.
Which brings me back to the blog posts I mentioned in the beginning. As Geoffrey K. Pullum points out at Language Log, “untranslatable” doesn’t really mean there is no translation, it just means there is no one-word equivalent in English. This is the difficulty with translating poetry and why it is often such a fruitful angle to approach questions of poetics. What makes the poetics of a particular work tick? By poetics, I don’t just mean poetry, I mean all art forms (I tend to think of “poetics” as an arch-art form). Dziga Vertov, for example, thought that film was a new international language, a sort of visual esperanto. In his avant-garde film, Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov boldly declares in the first title cards:
The film Man with a Movie Camera represents
AN EXPERIMENTATION IN THE CINEMATIC TRANSMISSION
Of visual phenomena
WITHOUT THE USE OF INTERTITLES
(a film without intertitles)
WITHOUT THE HELP OF A SCRIPT
(a film without script)
WITHOUT THE HELP OF A THEATRE
(a film without actors, without sets, etc.)
This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema – ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY – on the basis of its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature.
Vertov’s ambition is palpable in the film. Each cut is gravid with meaning. Not only would film be the first international language, it would be the language of the revolution (according to Eisenstein). Many of us still think that film is an international language. In many ways, it is true. It certainly speaks across many cultures, but as McLuhan points out in Gutenberg Galaxy, film is the product of a literary mind. The conventions of film (at least as Vertov sees them) are the conventions of visual print culture. That is, we read films much in the same way we read books.
McLuhan describes the experience of aid workers (in the 1960s, I believe) showing hygiene films to people from what McLuhan identifies as aural-tactile culture (that is, lacking the thought structures that are inherited from print culture). It’s a bit too long to quote here (to read the whole section, click here), but the basic gist is this:
“Literacy gives people the power to focus a little way in front of the image so that we are able to take in the picture in a whole glance. Non-literate people have no such acquired habit and do not look at objects in our way.”
Later McLuhan quotes John Wilson:
“Film is, as produced in the West, a highly conventionalized piece of symbolism although it looks very real. For instance, we found that if you were telling a story about two men to an African audience and one had finished his business and he went off the edge of the screen, the audience wanted to know what had happened to him; they didn’t accept that this was just the end of him and that he was of no more interest in the story. They wanted to know what happened to the fellow, and we had to write stories that way, putting in a lot of information that wasn’t necessary to us. We had to follow him along the street until he took a natural turn–he mustn’t walk off the side of the screen, but must walk down the street and make a natural turn….Panning shots were very confusing because the audience didn’t realize what was happening. They thought the items and details inside the picture were literally moving….the convention was not accepted.”
The point of sharing all this (aside from the point that it’s generally fascinating) is to show that even images, which we often consider somewhat universal, often require certain conventions of thought. So even there, the poetics of an art form are mitigated by “translation,” which, quite literally, must translate it from one form of thought to another.
I do believe fruitful translation can and does happen, but we must be aware of the “extra layer(s)” of intent that exists over top a piece. I want to focus more on what we as poets (and poeticists) can learn from and through translation when I review the new translations of Horace’s Odes (edited by J.D. McClatchy), so the rest of this discussion will be postponed until then.