In a poem called “Life,” which appears in his most recent collection, Words for Empty and Words for Full (Pitt Poetry, 2010), Bob Hicok writes: “The feeling that mysticism / is the only way to be polite…. / While I was masturbating, / more rainforest / disappeared….” These disclosures feel true—and inevitable, given what at least I believe about climate change and humans continuing to be humans. Also, these tragicomic disclosures reminds me of the “Note on Method” at the opening of Aaron Kunin’s just-released, The Sore Throat & Other Poems (Fence, 2010). Kunin opines: “…I really believe that the part of yourself that you’re most ashamed of is interesting and can be used as material for art.” I don’t know if this belief is always true, but I’m willing to read on because I really admire the poet who’s willing to publicize it (for other testimonials of admiration see, for one, the recent Peter Gizzi blurb and sampler of Aaron Kunin’s poems in the Boston Review).
Thus it is with humble joy that I’m simultaneously reading Hicok’s and Kunin’s new collections. The unruly gestalt-like deployments of Hicok’s pieces bounce wildly yet friendlily off Kunin’s careful, methodical compositions. It is with this joy in my life that I’ll offer reviews of each of these collections in the next two weeks. Check back next Sunday for the first of the two, and feel free to remark if you think Kunin poetic bullpucky or Hicok too undisciplined. I may disagree, but will read your comments with polite, continuing joy.
I want to do a bit of a meditation on the nature of voice and how the self is written into a poem.
When I first read Augustine’s Confessions, I felt I had discovered one of the hidden hinges of the modern “voice.” I was familiar with classical writing, and the coldness of the speaking voice in classical authors seemed absolutely foreign to me. Perhaps it was the fact that inflected languages do not always use a singular word to express “I.” The “I” in both Greek and Latin is snuck in by sticking an ending on the word, so grammatically the “I” stands out less.
Yet Augustine was radically different. Classicist, film scholar, and popular historian Thomas Cahill articulates it well:
Augustine is the first human being to say “I”–and to mean what we mean today….Open any collection of Great Thoughts or Great Sayings–especially one that, like Bartlett’s, goes in chronological order–and let your eye pick out the I’s. In the oldest literature their paucity and lack of force will begin to impress you. Of course, characters in Homer refer to themselves occasionally as “I.” Socrates even speaks of his daimon, his inner spirit. But personal revelation, such as we are utterly accustomed to, is nowhere to be found. Even lyric poems tend to be objective by our standards, and the exceptons stand out: a fragment (“The moon has set / and the Pleiades: / it is the middle of the night, / and time passes, yes passes– / and I lie alone.”), attributed to Sappho, and the Psalms, attributed to King David.
When in the classical period we reach the first works to be designated as autobiographies, we can only be confounded by their impersonal tone. Marcus Aurelius, by Gibbon’s standards the most enlightened emporer and the great philosopher of Roman antiquity, speaks to us in epigrams, like Confucius and Ecclesiastes before him: “This being of mine, whatever it really is, consists of a little flesh, a little breath, and the part which governs”–he means his mind. This is as confidential as Marcus gets. Or how about this for a personal revelation? “All that is harmony for you, my Universe, is in harmony with me as well. Nothing that comes at the right time for you is too early or too late for me.” For all their ponderousness, the great emperor’s thoughts are never more personal than a Chinese fortune cookie.
It’s immediately clear why Augustine is often seen as the last classical and first medieval man. He marks the ultimate synthesis of classical rhetoric and sensibilities with the concept of self that marked the Judeo-Christian tradition. As Cahill points out, the Psalms stand out among classical literature, as exceptionally personal. Augustine, says Ronald Heine, was “the undisputed master of using the psalms to lay one’s soul bare before God in the praise and confession of prayer….The psalms permeate everything Augustine wrote.” Rowan Williams points out that the very first sentence of Confessions is a quotation from the psalms. Augustine weaves them throughout such that we hardly know when the words are his and when they are not (a modern citation nightmare).
Consider a few selections from the Greek Anthology:
Earlier poets have left full accounts of these matters.
~Strato of Sardis (trans. Dudley Fitts)
And this poem, which is more personal, but even the personal impulse is mediated:
TO HIS MISTRESS
~Asklepiades (trans. Dudley Fitts)
One of the more consistently “personal” poets I have found in the several (meager) collections of Greek Anthology poems is Meleagros:
~Meleagros (trans. Dudley Fitts)
In addition to Augustine’s unique “I,” I believe that Augustine is relatively unique in his relationship to his audience. His audience is God, the You of Confessions, yet really, we know it’s us. Homer and Virgil invoke the Muse, yet, I don’t get the picture that the Muse is their audience. No, the Muse is there mostly to help them get started. Ultimately, they have some other audience in mind. Augustine, though, intends for us to “overhear” (in the words of John Stuart Mill that Allan Grossman is so fond of citing) his lyrical unbosoming. He wants us to eavesdrop outside the confessional booth.
There is a fascinating double movement going on here. Augustine, himself weaving, imitating, and voicing the psalms, wishes for us to hear, so that we, presumably, can sympathize, but be moved to make our very own confession. Ironically, much of western art has imitated Augustine’s confession. We have a continual chain of imitation that stretches all the way back to one of the Ur-poets of our world: King David (or whoever wrote the psalms).
Yet even the psalms themselves are not single-voiced. Traditionally, it was understood that many voices are encapsulated in the psalms. Early Christians and Jewish interpreters recognized this (though they often disagreed strenuously on who was speaking). Ronald Heine captures the sense that one has while praying through the psalms: “When I read the psalms…alone, sometimes I am instructed or exhorted by the voice of the ancient author as he relates the stories of Israel; sometimes I myself am speaking, addressing God directly in the words of the psalmist; at other times I am directly addressed by God in the words of the psalm. The conversation may move back and forth within a single psalm.” When you add to this the layer of “inspiration,” and all the accompanying debates about it, it becomes clear that any attempt to unthread the twisted ball of connections will be completely futile.
So we have before us what seems like a contradiction, a swirl of voices that somehow manages to lay bare the angst of the single person. Toward the end of my time at Hunter, coming up on what I felt was a dry period in my writing, I decided to try and rewrite various psalms. Psalm 39 was the first. When picking a psalm, one is immediately confronted with the difficulty of various voices. I was used to creating an overall emotional sense in my poems, something that was difficult with multiple voices. Psalm 39, however, was relatively uniform in its voice (or at least it seemed to me at that time).
This is how my poem came out:
Moth (Psalm 39)
Wanting to avoid your violent side, I tried to keep
my mouth shut when I saw the way you
rigged this game to destroy beauty—
and not just beauty, but the gaudy,
fast food smut that I hoard, too—
always savored by the hungry
moth. But you always hated the grudging
“Yes.” You made me broach the issue
of how you snatch away another’s beauty
in gloating silence, leave us bleached,
belly up, whales on the sand’s ecru:
Not even a bone to gnaw at when I’m hungry?
It’s either you or vanity, vanity…
So, you have my yes. True,
this might have been the point: your beauty
is a bitter sponge of lye you lift up daily
to my mouth, while I am consumed
by the blows of your hand, our beauty
—yours, mine—a moth, feeding, still hungry.
As you can see, it’s a villanelle built around two ending words (rather than lines): beauty and hunger. It became clear very quickly, though, that I would not be able to encompass all the ideas in the poem. Like Augustine, I was chopping and using what I could to fit into my own voice. But such decisions are hard to make. The psalms are often so layered with meaning and reference that it feels violent to cut any part while still doing justice to the psalm as a whole. In this case, the form worked as a way that dictated what to include and what to “evict” from Psalm 39: what worked went in.
Later, at Tom Sleigh’s recommendation, I picked up Donal Davie’s To Scorch or Freeze, which, as fortune would have it, also included an adaptation of Psalm 39. Davie, you can see, is considerably less angsty.
The Thirty-ninth Psalm, Adapted
I said to myself: “That’s enough.
Your life-style is no model.
Keep quiet about it, and while
you’re about it, be less overt.”
I held my tongue, I said nothing;
no, not comfortable words.
“Writing block”, it’s called;
Not that I had no feelings.
I was in a feever.
And while I seethed,
abruptly I found myself speaking:
“Lord, let me know my end,
and how long I have to live;
let me be sure
how long I have to live.
One-finger you poured me;
what does it matter to you
to know my age last birthday?
Nobody’s life has purpose.
Something is casting a shadow
on everything we do;
and in that shadow nothing,
nothing at all, comes true.
(We make a million, maybe;
and who, not nobody but
who, gets to enjoy it?)
Now, what’s left to be hoped for?
Hope has to be fixed on you.
Excuse me my comforting words
in a tabloid column for crazies.
I held my tongue, and also
I discontinued my journals.
(They accumulated; who
in any event would read them?)
Now give me a chance. I am
burned up enough at your pleasure.
It is all very well, we deserve it.
But shelved, not even with mothballs?
Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and please to consider my calling:
it commits me to squawking
and running off at the mouth.”
Song of a Man Who Has Come Through
Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the
Like a fine, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;
If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge
Driven by invisible blows,
The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the
Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul,
I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,
Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.
What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.
No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.
From the letters of John Keats:
“I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination—What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not—for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty.”
“I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness—I look not for it if it be not in the present hour—nothing startles me beyond the Moment.”
“The faint conceptions I have of Poems to come brings the blood frequently into my forehead.”
“Man should not dispute or assert but whisper results to his neighbor, and thus by every germ of Spirit sucking the Sap from mould ethereal every human might become great. and Humanity instead of being a wide heath of Fuse and Briars with here and there a remote Oak or Pine, would become a grand democracy of Forest Trees.”
“… what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—”
“I have an idea that a Man might pass a very pleasant life in this manner—let him on any certain day read a certain Page of full Poesy or distilled Prose and let him wander with it, and must upon it, and dream upon it—until it becomes stale—but when will it do so? Never—”
“I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity—it should strike the reader as a working of his own highest thoughts . . . but it is easier to think what Poetry should be than to write it—”
“Ethereal things may at least be thus real, divided under three heads—Things real—things semireal—and no things—Things real—such as existences of Sun Moon and Stars and passages of Shakespeare—Things semireal such as Love, the Clouds &c which require a greeting of the Spirit to make them wholly exist—and Nothings which are made Great and dignified by an ardent pursuit.”
from Welcome to the Future
so it came time and
no day like that is ever
good in the coming
the bleeding like satin
the river flowing down
and heavy and to the east
dark with soot
crossing the night bridge
the river flowing down
and heavy and to the east
there were roads into bitter
heads between knees
the diminishing systems
bleached and diagonal
the river flowing down
down and no sound
all night the breathing
all night the breathing continued
in lieu of
welcome to the future welcome to the new
I have come into the aware
where the gilt edges are
look all the men
and the distance sitting in the roar
with knotted blue glass
we are aware
as if all is tunnel and paper
there are bodies and
bills in these flattened villa
one waves as we pass him
and home isn’t here
and home isn’t there
and randomly we plead with the officers
to get down from their cophorses and help us
worry the river over its banks
the train into flames
worry the black rain into the city
the troops into times square
worry the windows cracked acidblack
and the children feverblistered
worry never another summer
never again to live here gentle
with the other inhabitants
then leave too quickly
leave the pills and band-aids
the bathroom scale the Christmas lights the dog
go walking on our legs
dense and bare and useless
worry our throats and lungs
into taking the air
leave books on the shelves
leave keys dustpan
telephones don’t work where you were
in the chaos
desolate oblivion face me along the bar
nothing will rest tonight in the high empty room
the nothing closes forever
in a shop-window
and forever opens the heads wide again
the streets bob up incessantly
height is felled wire rises
the glass is laced together with tunnels
the fathers are all glass
all air and windows
Drinking with Richard
Richard propped up the bottles
like bowling pins
I had fallen into despair
did this bother him
when Richard left I broke
my throat I bit my tongue
cracked teeth my mouth split my lip
smashed chairs in the bar trashed
poems I was writing
all this breaking was very expensive
there is no Richard but I think it was Richard
who had the idea of pouring libations
because of the stumbling thirst
because our lives are like that
I am writing this to do as right as possible by Richard
think back to the bed look out at the bar
the fragrant medicinal flasks
I don’t care to drink anymore because when I drink
it makes me hopeless
Richard, are you going to come back
to the bar where you belong
or just leave me here
here is a flask
I am tired of being metaphysical
our bar is a winter bar
at night we need the dream
of all the objects lined up in a row
from Dear Someone
my emptiness has a lake in it deep and watery
with several temperaments milk cola beer
at night the selves are made of water
all the openings flooded streaming with rain
my emptiness has an aqueduct in it
selves rushing through channels
dissolving washing away in streaks
my emptiness has a fish in it
a piece of seaweed liferaft a rocky strait
all night the selves are breaking themselves
again and again on the sandbar
you can’t get out from the drowning
nightwatery the blacksparkling pools
my emptiness has a nowhere reef an island
at night the immersion comes deep-running and sudden
it washes us under and sudden
In the interview, I think I am more talking about popular usage turning compound nouns into contractions while Deborah is on the money with elisions which even Catullus liked to use.
Deborah was not far off when she said I probably wasn’t born when PS122 was a new and exciting thing.
The Last Time I Saw RICHARD.
The Last Time I saw Richard SIKEN.
All poems reprinted with permission from the author. You can, however, see more of Welcome to the Future at TINHOUSE and the excerpt from Dear Someone at THE PARIS REVIEW. Also, one of Deborah’s poems at BEST AMERICAN POETRY BLOG and a blurb and excerpted poem at ANHINGA PRESS.
Genevieve Burger-Weiser’s poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Boston Review, Western Humanities Review, Washington Square Review and Juked. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
When I was in my late teens or early 20s, I was at Rich’s Cigar Shop in Portland, Oregon, which had the best magazine selection in the city in those days, and I picked up a copy of a magazine called Adbusters. The magazine had a hole in it, and a card insert with just a black spot on it, both of which were part of that particular issue’s design. I liked it. The subtitle was: “A Journal of the Mental Environment,” or something similarly boldly rhetorically Structuralist. I was surprised. I was excited. The articles were different, advocated for political agency in a way different than any I’d experienced. I felt that naïve vitality that, at 31, seems more and more difficult to kindle.
Today, I find Adbusters kind of stupid. Its lefty academicese smacks of the do-nothing superiority that masquerades as contemporary liberal revolutionary spirit. Honestly, Adbusters and your flock, what revolution has your “culture jamming” actually accomplished, other than inspiring many people to spend their money on your magazine and schwag and to read with a sense that they’re doing enough because they know enough to be in on the dark joke of the present? I enjoyed the snarky Obama-with-a-clown-nose cover, sure, but your magazine is a waste of time.
In any case, I was at Powell’s this week and saw another magazine which transported me back to the original geeky, excited tingle I felt when I saw my first Adbusters. This magazine, The Baffler, is less revolutionary in its rhetoric and sharper in its content than Adbusters. Volume 2: No 01, which I couldn’t help but purchase, contains an essay about what the Internet looks like, a follow-up to No Logo by Naomi Klein, images of “feral houses,” a “motor city elegy” written by a Detroit native, articles on finance, politics, social networking sites—the usual sort of upper middle class political stuff—and poems by Rae Armantrout, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Jack Spicer, and Devin Johnston. Poems!
I leave you with encouragement to check The Baffler out, should you be in need of baffling (or in need reading for the train or plane), and the second section of Armantrout’s fine, “This Is”:
This is a five star trance
To have this vantage
from the cliff’s edge,
to get drunk on indifference,
at a bright succession
raised from nothing
by Frank O’Hara
So we are taking off our masks, are we, and keeping
our mouths shut? as if we’d been pierced by a glance!
The song of an old cow is not more full of judgement
than the vapors which escape one’s soul when one is sick;
so I pull the shadows around me like a puff
and crinkle my eyes as if at the most exquisite moment
of a very long opera, and then we are off!
without reproach and without hope that our delicate feet
will touch the earth again, let alone “very soon.”
It is the law of my own voice I shall investigate.
I start like ice, my finger to my ear, my ear
to my heart, that proud cur at the garbage can
in the rain. It’s wonderful to admire oneself
with complete candor; tallying up the merits of each
of the latrines. 14th Street is drunken and credulous,
53rd tries to tremble but is too at rest. The good
love a park and the inept a railway station,
and there are the divine ones who drag themselves up
and down the lengthening shadow of an Abyssinian head
in the dust, trailing their long elegant heels of hot air
crying to confuse the brave “It’s a summer day,
and I want to be wanted more than anything else in the world.”
Dorothea Lasky is a poet of petulant grace. The particular way she does is she carves into the alphabet for poetry’s hurtfully buried, metastasized epiphanies of black life. Thence comes the fragments of jagged wonder she strings together to decorate her verse with pretty conflict. Her wonder (love and awe) is heavy and plain, stilted like she’s writing after a concussion, but the generalness of language (many fundamental ideas repeating, put forth directly) is thick—it spills over the edges of its meaning into the scary beyond. She meets herself in conversation with the space outside experience’s edges. That is the damaged holiness brought out: a haze of dirty purity like a cough toward an inaccessible God. It hurts like joy. I remembered, reading her previous collection Awe, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America—an answer in there re how people change: “Well it has something to do with God so it’s not very nice. God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can’t even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It’s up to you to do the stitching.” Lasky stitches her love and confusion, rent cosmically, together monster-like into her pages—along with shards of fuzzy relationships, tropes, emptiness, fears, wishes, loss, pride, doubt, desire, nature, the supernatural, the growling universe, the black life… and this under the shadow of a ruddy divinity barely glimpsed at for the shriek of its own confusing light.
Lasky does a lot minimally: her language, like Stein’s, is sophisticated in its retardation, pent up in its surface simplicity. Her craft is easy to read things under. Most of what she is doing, technically, is elementary. She doesn’t write, purplish, away from the nerve. The directness brings on resonance. The shapes pulse meaning, the word an animal though it’s read, “every poem full of blood and guts.” She goes mercurial between bruised-up frowning-confessional and witchy-theological/pastoral-abstract modes, of sorts, as she squishes colloquial and antiquarian postures together smoothly in her verse lines, pouring style into a page-shaped receptacle. I cannot read this as an ironic device or postmodern flourish—rather, she wants at what’s squinted at between kinds of language. What she’s reaching for is a way to wash the residue of an insincere poetics away from her truth (I would fain place such an ideal in quotes; not for her). Thence truth would be naked and cherished like an evil toy. She writes, “Maybe we are not so much false children / As we are conduits for the truth.” For Lasky, poetry is not a project and the author is not a function. She warns academic poets their line will knife: “The real life is wild and the animals will bite you.” (Moreover, “Whoever those postmodernists are that say / There is no universal have never spent any time with an animal.”) This essentialism, facing the brutal animal, doesn’t solve her existential upset—her melancholy threads through the fabric of the work, the veins of love and nothingness entwined, the I of the poet piercing her heart: “I am no I.” Like Rimbaud, here hinted, Lasky is a tortured seer. Today she is damaged by an experiential angst and the negative space around it, where lives a lonely God crying: “I am nothing.”
Lasky is after awe; being weird is so significant, like a power; her darkness is a special gift that she holds; she will know love— “That’s Love and Awe. / Say it / That’s Love and Awe. / There is nothing better. / Or if there is / Then I don’t care.” This stubbornness is godlike, her way, and (thus godlike) the fact of her, so put, chafes and grows threadbare in parts. She revels so in herself in Black Life, though it’s tempered with a glorious brand of primal anxiety, the audacity of some poems, when taken honestly because we trust her, assaults that our trust and sensitive transference. She teases, derides, and criticizes scathingly in places. She admits to a manipulative character in the poem “I Am a Politician,” blurting: “I only speak of myself when I smile at you / And when I smile at you / That is the scariest thing of all I could ever do.” Elsewhere, the incongruous tone pinches ugly still: “Do you wonder what I am? You are reading the work of a great poet, possibly one of the greatest ones of your time.” More examples read that bratty. How are we, then, to fully reconcile this poem, titled “The Poetry That Is Going to Matter After You Are Dead,” with another one titled “I Hate Irony” that ends in a statement of ideological contradiction, “I am only being real”? I look for an answer… settle on the concluding lines of the book’s title poem: “This life made me / This thing that I am.” A weird, dreadful loveliness governs her abuses, like the soul-eating monsters in Awe: “This is a world where there are monsters […] And there is nothing but fog out the eyes of monsters.”
Lasky elucidates a position she believes in, as a poet and about poetry, in her chapbook-length essay Poetry Is Not a Project: “Poetry has everything to do with existing in the realm of uncertainty. […] In a poem, the poet makes beautiful this great love affair between the self and the universal.” The grief and worship she achieves this way is, melded, an ambiguous religiosity of the self she intuits in the other’s marring dark. She is spelling out the negative turns of love… that form a word shaped so familiarly as to be unrecognizable. Ibid: “[T]o create something, like a poem, means that the outside world of an artist and the internal drives within her blend and blur. But there is something so human, so instinctual about the drive, that it might be hard to be conscious of it enough to name it.” Furthermore, back out of Black Life, “It just feels like love / It really does / I don’t know / I must have said it all wrong.” With Awe and now Black Life we see a poetry wrought from self experiencing ugly audience with God, where the poet’s tongue is ripped from her head, as blood drips pearling the front of her shirt—before the shameful promise of a universe. Men slip like drink in and out of proximity, becoming inconstant measures of sex and devotion (“Poem to My Ex-Husband”); a father is falling apart, fragmenting the narrative with his quietness and absence (“Some Sort of Truth”); thoughts explore their threats like prophetic amateurs; things are exuberantly appreciated, things are happening together; love hangs as a mocking plume off the corners of perfect despair—let the poems raise up “from the earth into the brain,” let beauty’s revenge be worn like a fancy hat. Black Life is important poetry.
Listen to the following as you read: A Love Supreme
It is almost impossible to read Michael S. Harper and not feel as though you are missing out on some sort of gnostic gospel of jazz history. Haper’s poem “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” would be one of the passages from this gospel. When you consider the history of the phrase “a love supreme,” the title and incantatory phrase from John Coltrane’s own album of praise, some of the “gnostic” implications are clear. Indeed, much of Harper’s work proceeds from history and art, particularly the history of African Americans and the art of jazz music. In “Dear John, Dear Coltrane,” Harper models his lines and rhythm, as well as content on John Coltrane’s exultant album. This essay will draw the parallels between “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” and Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, particularly focusing on the incantatory nature of the poem and album. Both are songs of praise. A Love Supreme is Coltrane’s love poem to God; Harper’s poem is to Coltrane. One important difference remains, however: while Coltrane’s art is inspired by the transcendence of God, Harper’s poem, for all its hiddenness, springs out of particulars, the flesh, the events of Coltrane’s life, a decidedly un-gnostic source of inspiration.
Coltrane’s album/opening song opens with a gong and cymbal swell and Coltrane riffing on the pentatonic for a moment, before leaving the cymbals alone to hearken the entrance of Jimmy Garrison’s bass line, the riff from which the album takes its iambic name. Harper, too, begins with this as his epigraph in italics, setting it apart from the rest of the textual tone: “a love supreme, a love supreme / a love supreme, a love supreme.” It is an incantation, and it couches the rest of the poem’s meditations. That Harper’s language becomes almost a musical drumbeat is no surprise, as it mirror’s Coltrane’s saxophone in A Love Supreme, which almost speaks. Indeed, the fourth movement on Coltrane’s album is based on a poem he includes in the liner notes, “Psalm.” When listening to “Pt. IV – Psalm,” it is possible to hear Coltrane literally playing through the poem, continually coming back to the minor third, the incantatory dactyl “Thank you God.” Not only this, but Coltrane actually speaks the phrase “a love supreme” in the album’s first track, repetitively, incantatorially. While Harper’s epigraph certainly alludes to this unexpected moment in Coltrane’s album, it also alludes to the bass line continually thrumbing this rhythm throughout the first movement.
Harper’s meditations on the many particulars of John Coltrane’s life make up the rest of the poem. The poem could be seen as an attempt to rectify the particulars of Coltrane’s life with the phraseology of his music that seems to sum things up so well. Harper opens the poem with the words “Sex fingers toes” (1). It could be a list, undifferentiated by the lack of commas to set the words apart, or it could be a mishmash of all those things: the use of it as a whole line indicating a singularity of these items. The latter seems more likely (and infinitely more suggestive) when one considers the contained completeness of the lines that follow:
in the marketplace
near your father’s church
in Hamlet, North Carolina—
witness to this love
in this calm fallow
of these minds,
there is no substitute for pain (2-8)
Contrary to “sex fingers toes,” each line is rhythmically contained, ending on downbeats, suggesting their end stop. This downbeat end stop continues until line 14, when he ends with the deliberately accented end stop, the first incantation “a love supreme;” (14). Although the line ends on an accent, it is grammatically completed with a semi-colon. But its accent, in addition to the slant rhyme with line 15, sends the reader into the next line with the incantation still echoing, the surprisingly haunting question: “what does it all mean?” (15). This question is perhaps the starkest line in the whole poem, both an angst ridden cliché and startlingly honest plea for understanding.
The next set of lines (16-24) serves to establish some more of Coltrane’s history, a picture of him playing A Love Supreme in Scranton, Pennsylvania. This section ends with the incantation, introduced with a colon, similar to its previous use with the poetic text at line 14. Both are loosely linked to the content of the previous phrase, grammatically worked into the sentence. There is a difference this time, though: “a love supreme—” (24). The long dash at the end indicates a sudden stop, a change in thought even. This dash also brings about the break in stanza, indicative of the larger shift.
The next stanza does not contain much in the way of literal personal history, although many implications could be drawn, especially if one is familiar with the life of John Coltrane and his abuse of heroin. Again, there is the mishmash of words grouped in these lines:
thick sin ‘tween
impotence and death, fuel
the tenor sax cannibal
heart, genitals, and sweat
that makes you clean—
a love supreme, a love supreme— (26-31)
The pace of the phrases increases, due to the assonance that appears in the first part of these lines. Harper also cuts the phrase “fuel the tenor sax cannibal heart” after fuel and cannibal. These line breaks add to the increased pacing and shift in intonation. Harper’s intonations shift with the various meditations, always coming back to “a love supreme,” which shifts with the various tonalities of Harper’s language, the same way Coltrane’s saxophone explores the phrase’s various modalities through “Pt. I – Acknowledgement.” Once again, there is the almost frenetic mishmash of words: “sax cannibal / heart.” It is almost incantatory, almost senseless. The words together, though grammatically absurd, form a cumulative effect, like the repetition of “a love supreme.” It also helps establish the theme of body in the poem. This idea of body is continued with the phrase “genitals, and sweat / that makes you clean— / a love supreme, a love supreme—”. Again, slant rhyme connects the incantation with its neighboring line. Whereas before it connects it with the question “what does it all mean?”, here it is connected with phrases of the body, emphasizing this theme of body, particularly its sexuality.
The theme of the sexual body continues in the third stanza, a playful one, repeating “cause I am” in response to every question as to why a particular person (Coltrane presumably) is so “funky,” “sweet,” and especially “black.” The sudden intrusion of this out-of-character stanza is set off by the dash after “a love supreme” in line 31, performing here a similar function to the identical phrase in line 24. The dash allows for the change in voice and intonation. In the third stanza, Harper is mixing themes of race and sexuality, creating another incantation within the incantation of the whole poem: “because I am.” More interestingly, he is mashing the lines together with little respect for grammar. The first word is capitalized, and there are question marks throughout, but the stanza is largely run together grammatically. This is indicated, primarily, by the lack of capitalization. The lines are cut in ways that would be expected, giving the sense of grammar to one who only hears it, but this whole stanza could be considered a continuation of the mishmash technique Harper employs throughout the poem.
Harper ends the third stanza, once again, with “a love supreme:” connecting it to the song as a whole, acting in many ways, like a chorus of sorts. This time, however, “a love supreme” is followed by a colon, a first in the poem. This colon connects the very final stanza with the penultimate stanza, even though there is a significant visual break between them, and the last stanza lacks the italics of the penultimate (excepting, of course, the final lines). Harper is subclausing the whole fourth stanza to the third. It is a reversal for the poem in that the song-like italics have always been subclaused to the generally fact-oriented non-italics. Before, all the song lyrics were proceeding from the facts of Coltrane’s life. Now, the finality of Coltrane’s end (which seems imminent), proceeds from his music. The tail is wagging the dog, so to speak, and the speaker is disappointed that Coltrane can barely play (43-45). This makes the final two phrases, incantations of “a love supreme, a love supreme—”, all the more poignant. It’s as if Coltrane is trying to gasp out the last phrases himself, but ultimately comes off “flat” (45). The poem comes full circle to the epigraph, only this time, the phrase is cut off by the dash, suggesting the possibility, the hope, of more. But the reader is left hanging by the final dash, an interruption, rather than an end.
Harper’s poem is ultimately rooted in the body and its life in the world, the “sex fingers toes” of Coltrane’s life, the mashing of the saxophone keys that produces his music. And, ultimately, it is Coltrane’s body that betrays him, snuffs out his particulars, rumbles over him, the same way his incantation continues even after he is done. Though “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” was written before Coltrane’s death, it foretells the continuation of the artist, his incantation that arises out of the particulars of his life after it is over.
A Love Supreme
I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee O Lord.
It all has to do with it.
Thank you God.
There is none other.
God is. It is so beautiful. Thank you God. God is all.
Help us to resolve our fears and weaknesses.
Thank you God.
In You all things are possible.
We know. God made us so.
Keep your eye on God.
God is. he always was. he always will be.
No Matter what . . . it is God.
He is gracious and merciful.
It is most important that I know Thee.
Words, sounds, speech, men, memory, thoughts,
fears and emotions—time—all related . . .
all made from one . . . all made in one.
Blessed be His name.
Thought waves—heat waves—all vibrations—
all paths lead to God. Thank you God.
His way . . . it is so lovely . . . it is gracious.
It is merciful — Thank you God.
One thought can produce millions of vibrations
and they all go back to God . . . everything does.
Thank you God.
Have no fear . . . believe . . . Thank you God.
The universe has many wonders. God is all.
His way . . . it is so wonderful.
They all go back to God and He cleanses all.
He is gracious and merciful . . . Than you God.
Glory to God . . . God is so alive.
May I be acceptable in thy sight.
We are all one in His grace.
The fact that we do exist is acknowledgement
of Thee O Lord.
Thank you God.
God will wash away all our tears . . .
He always has . . .
He always will.
Seek Him everyday. In all ways seek God everyday.
Let us sing all songs to God
To whom all praise is due . . . praise God.
No road is an easy one, but they all
go back to God.
With all we share God.
It is all with god.
It is all with Thee.
Obey the Lord
Blessed is He.
We are all from one thing . . . the will of God . . .
Thank you God
I have seen God—I have seen ungodly—
none can be greater—none can compare to God.
Thank you God.
He will remake us . . . He always has and he
He is true—blessed be His name—Thank you God.
god breathes through us so completely . . .
so gently we hardly feel it . . . yet,
it is everything.
Thank you God.
All from God.
Thank you God. Amen.
Dorothea Lasky’s POETRY IS NOT A PROJECT made huge waves when debuted at this years AWP. The newest book on UDP‘s Dossier imprint, Lasky lays out, in 19 quick pages, a theory of poetry that reaches back through High Romanticism into a more hermetic time. Illustrated beautiful throughout by Sarah Glidden, Lasky’s theory pushes against the limits set out by conceptual writing, striding toward a more cosmic and otherwordly approach to artistic creation. There’s a lineage of deep thought coming from poets back from Blake to Spicer’s ideas of poetic dictaction and Barbara Guest’s short collection of writing on art, Forces of Imagination. I was graced with the wondrous task of editing this book, and I present to you a soundbytey narrated version of the greater text, so you can get a flavor of what’s happening here.
“I once heard a scholar use the term “project” as he introduced another poet at a reading. He went on and on: “Her project echoes Dickinson’s project [blah blah blah].” The comparison seemed fine, but I wasn’t really sure the poet in question really had a “project” per se. Nowadays, poetry critics and scholars often refer to an entire body of work by one poet as a “project,” but I don’t think poems work that way. I think poems come from the earth and work through the mind from the ground up. I think poems are living things that grow from the earth into the brain”
“One day, many years ago, I was walking along the street, minding my own business, thinking of my future, and all that. As I turned the corner, I ran into an acquaintance of mine. He happened to be a poet. This acquaintance asked me what I was doing and I think I said “nothing much.” I asked him the same and he told me that he was working on a project where his goal was to go to the local art museum every day for a month and write a poem about a different piece of art each day. I told him I thought that was nice, because I thought it was. I like when people write poems about art. I like the idea of poetry being alive in museums. Months after our meeting, I went to see my acquaintance give a poetry reading. He was reading from his museum project and I was interested in hearing his poems, especially because I knew the museum he had written them in and liked a lot of the art there. Before he started his reading, he read an essay he wrote about his project. His logic was interesting. Then he read his poems. I did not like them. After the reading, people talked to him about his project and in general, most people liked the idea behind it, as did I. No one talked to him about his poems. His poems were not important to his project. His project was important to his project. Everything that mattered was in the idea.”
“being able to talk about the process of your work as a poet can sometimes breed its mediocrity”
“I am indebted to and in love with Bernadette Mayer’s writing experiments, with the experiments and exercises of the Language writers and the French Surrealists, and with beautiful forms of Flarf…but the poems were the most important parts of the whole thing. If a project does not get to a real poem, then it is not that important to your work because it generates nothing.”
“In a great poem, there is no certain beginning, middle, or end to the real human drama which incited it, propels it, and will finish it. What differentiates a great poet from a not-great one is the capacity to exist in that uncertain space, where the grand external world (which means anything and everything) folds into the intense internal world of the individual. In this moment, the issues of the self become one with the universal. In a poem, the poet makes beautiful this great love affair between the self and the universal. And like all kinds of love, linear intention (a plan) has nothing to do with it.”
“When people talk about poetry as a project, they suggest that the road through a poem is a single line. When really the road through a poem is a series of lines, like a constellation, all interconnected. Poems take place in the realm of chance, where the self and the universal combine, where life exist. I can’t suggest to you that going through a line that is more like a constellation than a road is easy—or that the blurring of the self and the universal doesn’t shred a poet a little bit in the process. The terrain of a poem is unmapped (including the shapes of the trees along the constellation-road). A great poet knows never to expect sun or rain or cold or wind in the process of creating a poem. In a great poem all can come to the fore at once. It would be worse yet, if none are there at all.”
“Poetry is not the project of a poet—it is the very life of the poet.”
When they say, “Spring is in the air,” they aren’t kidding. New York City is fully abloom–and it is most certainly in the air.
Yes, the tulips and daffodils are afoot in the city! Perfectly coiffed Park Avenue flower arrangements trumpet out enormous lilies at pedestrians. Petunias and pansies galore! Primped poodles in their fluffed white glory don’t give damn about signs directing them away from the flower plots, it’s all the same to them—they’re just happy to be out of winter coats. Bees of all kinds are quite busy. Poets are everywhere with little black notebooks, scribbling furiously at the crocuses sprouting up around trees in the parks.
But most New Yorkers (poets included, we just persevere and suffer later) are walking around in a Claritin daze, and it’s worse than ever. Itchy eyes, sneezing, throats ablaze. Doctors are saying this year’s pollen boom is the most prolific one in years.
Lately, reading poems about spring, and flowers, I’ve concocted a new fantasy “condition,” or maybe it’s a genre (same thing?): The Pollen-Poem. What does this marvelous thing entail? First and foremost, the Pollen-Poem is occasional: it is written only in spring and concerns only spring, in depth. And I mean obsessively in-depth, full-on obsession, rapture (if you will). Dysfunctional relationships with flowers, things of that nature. Then, think of the effects of a severe pollen allergy. Heightened sensitivity! Irritation of specific registers of the body (being)! Moodiness! Sometimes, a good Pollen-Poem will make your eyes itch. Couple all this with a poet’s faculties and the Pollen-Poem is born. I exemplify here for you some of the most perfect Pollen-Poems written to date (At least the ones that appeal to me–and not just in my fleeting, second-dose-of-the-day, non-drowsy, appetite-suppressed opinion).
|Little Lion Face|
|by May Swenson|
Little lion face I stopped to pick among the mass of thick succulent blooms, the twice streaked flanges of your silk sunwheel relaxed in wide dilation, I brought inside, placed in a vase. Milk of your shaggy stem sticky on my fingers, and your barbs hooked to my hand, sudden stings from them were sweet. Now I'm bold to touch your swollen neck, put careful lips to slick petals, snuff up gold pollen in your navel cup. Still fresh before night I leave you, dawn's appetite to renew our glide and suck. An hour ahead of sun I come to find you. You're twisted shut as a burr, neck drooped unconscious, an inert, limp bundle, a furled cocoon, your sun-streaked aureole eclipsed and dun. Strange feral flower asleep with flame-ruff wilted, all magic halted, a drink I pour, steep in the glass for your undulant stem to suck. Oh, lift your young neck, open and expand to your lover, hot light. Gold corona, widen to sky. I hold you lion in my eye sunup until night.
|by Emily Dickinson|
Come slowly—Eden Lips unused to Thee— Bashful—sip thy Jessamines As the fainting Bee— Reaching late his flower, Round her chamber hums— Counts his nectars— Enters—and is lost in Balms.
|Nothing Stays Put|
|by Amy Clampitt|
|In memory of Father Flye, 1884-1985
The strange and wonderful are too much with us. The protea of the antipodes--a great, globed, blazing honeybee of a bloom-- for sale in the supermarket! We are in our decadence, we are not entitled. What have we done to deserve all the produce of the tropics-- this fiery trove, the largesse of it heaped up like cannonballs, these pineapples, bossed and crested, standing like troops at attention, these tiers, these balconies of green, festoons grown sumptuous with stoop labor? The exotic is everywhere, it comes to us before there is a yen or a need for it. The green- grocers, uptown and down, are from South Korea. Orchids, opulence by the pailful, just slightly fatigued by the plane trip from Hawaii, are disposed on the sidewalks; alstroemerias, freesias fattened a bit in translation from overseas; gladioli likewise estranged from their piercing ancestral crimson; as well as, less altered from the original blue cornflower of the roadsides and railway embankments of Europe, these bachelor's buttons. But it isn't the railway embankments their featherweight wheels of cobalt remind me of, it's a row of them among prim colonnades of cosmos, snapdragon, nasturtium, bloodsilk red poppies, in my grandmother's garden: a prairie childhood, the grassland shorn, overlaid with a grid, unsealed, furrowed, harrowed and sown with immigrant grasses, their massive corduroy, their wavering feltings embroidered here and there by the scarlet shoulder patch of cannas on a courthouse lawn, by a love knot, a cross stitch of living matter, sown and tended by women, nurturers everywhere of the strange and wonderful, beneath whose hands what had been alien begins, as it alters, to grow as though it were indigenous. But at this remove what I think of as strange and wonderful, strolling the side streets of Manhattan on an April afternoon, seeing hybrid pear trees in blossom, a tossing, vertiginous colonnade of foam, up above-- is the white petalfall, the warm snowdrift of the indigenous wild plum of my childhood. Nothing stays put. The world is a wheel. All that we know, that we're made of, is motion.
God save thee, my sweet boy!
KING HENRY IV
My lord chief-justice, speak to that vain man.
Have you your wits? know you what ’tis to speak?
My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!
KING HENRY IV
I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest:
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots:
Till then, I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
For competence of life I will allow you,
That lack of means enforce you not to evil:
And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement. Be it your charge, my lord,
To see perform’d the tenor of our word. Set on.
Exeunt KING HENRY V, & c
Master Shallow, I owe you a thousand pound.
Yea, marry, Sir John; which I beseech you to let me
have home with me.
That can hardly be, Master Shallow. Do not you
grieve at this; I shall be sent for in private to
him: look you, he must seem thus to the world:
fear not your advancements; I will be the man yet
that shall make you great.
I cannot well perceive how, unless you should give
me your doublet and stuff me out with straw. I
beseech you, good Sir John, let me have five hundred
of my thousand.
Sir, I will be as good as my word: this that you
heard was but a colour.
A colour that I fear you will die in, Sir John.
Fear no colours: go with me to dinner: come,
Lieutenant Pistol; come, Bardolph: I shall be sent
for soon at night.
Re-enter Prince John of LANCASTER, the Lord Chief-Justice; Officers with them
Go, carry Sir John Falstaff to the Fleet:
Take all his company along with him.
My lord, my lord,—
Lord Chief-Justice I cannot now speak: I will hear you soon.
Take them away.
Si fortune me tormenta, spero contenta.
Exeunt all but PRINCE JOHN and the Lord Chief-Justice
I like this fair proceeding of the king’s:
He hath intent his wonted followers
Shall all be very well provided for;
But all are banish’d till their conversations
Appear more wise and modest to the world.
LORD CHIEF JUSTICE
And so they are.
The king hath call’d his parliament, my lord.
I will lay odds that, ere this year expire,
We bear our civil swords and native fire
As far as France: I beard a bird so sing,
Whose music, to my thinking, pleased the king.
Come, will you hence?
Spoken by a Dancer
First my fear; then my courtesy; last my speech.
My fear is, your displeasure; my courtesy, my duty;
and my speech, to beg your pardons. If you look
for a good speech now, you undo me: for what I have
to say is of mine own making; and what indeed I
should say will, I doubt, prove mine own marring.
But to the purpose, and so to the venture. Be it
known to you, as it is very well, I was lately here
in the end of a displeasing play, to pray your
patience for it and to promise you a better. I
meant indeed to pay you with this; which, if like an
ill venture it come unluckily home, I break, and
you, my gentle creditors, lose. Here I promised you
I would be and here I commit my body to your
mercies: bate me some and I will pay you some and,
as most debtors do, promise you infinitely.
If my tongue cannot entreat you to acquit me, will
you command me to use my legs? and yet that were but
light payment, to dance out of your debt. But a
good conscience will make any possible satisfaction,
and so would I. All the gentlewomen here have
forgiven me: if the gentlemen will not, then the
gentlemen do not agree with the gentlewomen, which
was never seen before in such an assembly.
One word more, I beseech you. If you be not too
much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will
continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make
you merry with fair Katharine of France: where, for
any thing I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat,
unless already a’ be killed with your hard
opinions; for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is
not the man. My tongue is weary; when my legs are
too, I will bid you good night: and so kneel down
before you; but, indeed, to pray for the queen.
- Sir John Falstaff is Shakespeare’s greatest invention.
- Sir John Falstaff is great because his wit is as vast as his waist, and his prose is some of Shakespeare’s finest, which makes it also, some of the finest ever written.
- James Joyce is but an offspring of blustering Falstaff.
- Leopold Bloom is Falstaff recast as a tragic hero. Stephen Dedalus is Hal (Henry V).
- Leopold Bloom cannot compare to Falstaff. (Though Dedalus can to Hal.)
- People lament that Shakespeare was not born in the 20th century to make films.
- Shakespeare did however make films in the 20th century.
- His name was Orson Welles.
- Orson Welles’ greatest film may well be his last: Chimes at Midnight.
- It took Orson Welles many years to complete the film, owing to his Falstaff-like poverty, due to his Falstaff-like debts, and certainly unhelped by his Falstaff-like obesity. Welles would shoot scenes and edit privately, which has resulted in a masterpiece of a film that is not only hard to find, but at times difficult to watch. The sound is often distorted (sometimes only slightly). The picture can go wonky.
- Joe Weil once told me that to understand Hamlet you need only combine Hal and Falstaff into the same person.
- Harold Bloom has quoted Orson Welles as saying he was born a Hamlet in America, and retired in Europe as Falstaff.
- Chimes at Midnight is indeed hard to find on VHS or DVD.
- Chimes at Midnight can in fact be found on VHS and DVD, through Amazon.com, and other online websites.
- Chimes at Midnight can be watched in its entirety in decent quality on YouTube.
- If you have not seen Chimes at Midnight, you should go to YouTube and watch it.
- If you have already seen Chimes at Midnight, you should watch it again.
- There have been many Shakespeare film adaptations, some good, many mediocre, even more not worth watching.
- There have been many adaptations of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2—these include My Private Idaho, by Gus Van Sant (recommended), as well as scenes from Javier Marias (recommended).
- Javier Marias is as obsessed with Falstaff as any of us.
- Correction: Than most of us.
- The great moment to be understood and analyzed is the coronation of Henry V (formerly Hal) at the end of Henry IV Part 2. It is famously the rejection of Falstaff.
- In case you would like one, a quick summary: Hal is the son of the King of England, and spends his times in pubs and brothels with unsavory characters, petty thieves and womanizers, a rabble of men lead by one fat fat fat man named Falstaff.
- Falstaff is perhaps the greatest name for a comic character ever thought up.
- It was Oldcastle, based on a historical person, named Sir John Oldcastle—but Shakespeare had to change the name, and add a disclaimer in the form of an epilogue at the end of Henry IV Part 2 because Oldcastle had powerful heirs and descendants that threatened Shakespeare’s company and business.
- Just as well. Falstaff is pure Shakespeare. And Falstaff sounds better than Oldcastle.
- Don’t worry about The Merry Wives of Windsor, it’s a curiosity but it has nothing to do with the actual Falstaff. Some scholars believe in fact that Shakespeare wrote the play at the request of the Queen of England, who enjoyed Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and wanted to see “Falstaff in Love.”
- Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 were in fact Shakespeare’s most famous plays, and demonstrated the maturity of his talents, both dramatical and poetical. They were performed often during his lifetime, and earned him great acclaim (in the middle 1590s).
- Why is Falstaff such a great character? Why is the play so entertaining to watch and read? Why is Chimes at Midnight such a great movie?
- I don’t know: you tell me. Read it. Watch it. Then you can be skeptical and argue.
- If you have any brains, or heart, or sensitivity to Language, or Cinema, you’ll probably agree.
- What I’m saying is not legendary or landmark.
- What I’m saying has been approved by Harold Bloom.
- How can I be wrong?
- Aside from many amazing moments in the two plays, and scenes in the Welles film, what it all comes down to finally is the coronation scene.
- In it, Hal—now Henry V—is King of England. Falstaff of course is hoping for recognition, a title, power, some money, but most importantly—he wants to be recognized by his friend, whom he calls sweet wag, his honey Lord, and other such names that are among the most earnest interjections spoken by a character in the play.
- The irony: the great conman, charlatan, huxster Falstaff is an earnest man. He loves Hal, though he also loves life, and money, and pleasure, and the easiness of self-interest, and the boast of self-privilege, and the fluid swelling at all times of his own voice in witty procession.
- The irony: Hal is a much more complicated character than we have yet considered.
- On the one hand: He is your typical adolescent badboy antihero; his father is King of England, he spends his time in bars and driving late at night, doing drugs and fooling around with women, and his grades can’t be too impressive.
- On the other hand: He is heroic and noble, and never unaware of the power he will yet assume. There are many cues throughout the Henry plays and the film that let us know—he is not mindlessly wandering in his devious peregrinations. He is biding his time. He is trying to avoid what he is also restless to assume: Power.
- It is the nature of power to be both indulgent and arbitrary, to be selfless and self-absorbed.
- It is the privilege of power to do what it wants, when it wants.
- When the time comes for battle, Hal fights and defeats Hotspur, surprising and honoring his father’s wishes.
- But Hal has two fathers—one of the political world, and the court, which is Bolingbroke, a usurper himself of the English throne, and another, Falstaff, the master of revellers in a court no less full of intrigue and ritual. That court is a boarding house, that intrigue is picking people’s pockets, the ritual is getting drunk and staying drunk.
- Welles’ genius is to distinguish between these social worlds and their pressures by the type of actors he casts in his great film.
- On the one hand, there is John Gielgud, arguably one of the greatest British actors and interpreters of Shakespeare ever.
- Gielgud, in the true English style, was known for his beautiful speaking of verse, a high stentorian, enunciated, articulated, masterfully subtle and with feeling and richness of tone.
- Alec Guiness likened his voice to a “silver trumpet muffled in silk.”
- Alec Guiness was right.
- I am stealing some of my information from Wikipedia.
- Wikipedia, much maligned, is as good a place as any to steal things from.
- Okay, well sometimes.
- Nevermind all that.
- So Welles chose Gielgud for the part of Hal’s father, Henry IV. It gives an air of authority and royalty and regalty to that role, and the persons of the court.
- Welles chose himself in the part of Falstaff, an American vaudvillean actor, who began in shows and plays, did Shakespeare in Harlem, did Radio Operas and Sagas, and contributed more to American cinema than anyone except Charlie Chaplin.
- The tension in high and low, between kings and hustlers, is showed in the contrasting styles of acting.
- It is not a matter of better or worse.
- It may be a deliberate matter of superbly refined and superbly vulgar showmanship.
- It is also a matter of America and England.
- Theater is an English thing, really.
- Film is an American thing, really.
- We produce actors who are celebrities, matinee idols.
- The Brits produce actors who are thesbians, masters of the stage.
- Both are necessary.
- Both in the same production are rare.
- Chimes at Midnight has both.
- Hal speaks like an American, acts like an American.
- When he becomes Henry IV, he pronounces and declaims like an English actor.
- It’s a marvelous change and directorial decision.
- Now to that Rejection.
- What’s it all about?
- Well the King of England can’t really spent his time rioting in a tavern.
- And Falstaff, smacking of the people but really just oafishly and splendidly himself, comes from that world and represents that world.
- Part of the play is a symbolic allegory about power and politics—are politicians may start like us, but they are not allowed to continue like us, because we want kings and presidents and leaders to be like gods.
- Gods are supposed to be inhuman and all-powerful.
- That is, power is inhuman.
- The more you have, the less like a person you become.
- Rhetorically, Shakespeare had his own stylization for these differences: he may not have had film vs. theater, American vs. British, but he certainly had a better tool.
- That is, language.
- In the Falstaff scenes, you hear a lot of prose.
- Amazing prose.
- In the courtroom scenes, you hear a lot of blank verse.
- Immaculate, gorgeous blank verse.
- For Falstaff scenes: Think Joyce. But better than Joyce.
- For Henry IV scenes: Think Marlowe. But better than Marlowe.
- Hal operates in both worlds for a time.
- For a time, Hal is Falstaff’s father. Hal, which is almost like Fal(staff).
- Then he becomes Henry V. Which is very like Henry IV.
- The friendship between Hal and Falstaff depicting in Chimes at Midnight, is romantic, but not in any sexual sense. Rather, it’s the essence of all friendship and comedy—two personalities that require each other to function. Falstaff performs, Hal commentates. Falstaff sins, Hal chastizes. Falstaff jests and boasts, Hal satirizes and mocks. They are seen drinking and walking, running and laughing, acting and plotting. They relate and complete one another, comically.
- This is what life promises.
- But power promises an elevation at the expense of all that. Especially, most sadly, friendship. Friendship is equivalent, and power is shared, mutual, reciprocated, given and taken. Royalty is absolute, and singular. Whenever there is one, there is violence.
- Or as Shakespeare says in Henry IV Act 3, Scene 1: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
- Shakespeare was obsessed with the nature of selfhood—was it public, or private? How did the nature of performing effect everything we do, with others, and how we see ourselves? Shakespeare’s greatest consciousnesses tend to be actors in their own plays, able to shape their destinies, create or resolve dramatic climax, see into the motives of others as well as self-consciously write their own lines. Hegel said something smarter and more eloquent, which captures this, about them being free-masons of their own selves. Something like that. Hal is such a character. He keeps talking about his true self, his old self, his new self. Who is he? He wears a crown, he dresses in a robe, he carries a scepter, and his part has changed. His verse alters. His tone is solemn. He does not want to joke. He does not want to riot and have sport. He rebukes Falstaff. He rebukes anyone who was as he was once. He becomes what he hated and loathed, and the lesson can’t simply be he’s a horrible friend. Is this just a case of absolute power corrupts absolutely? What is the corruption? Falstaff is a braggart, a cheat, a thief, a drunkard, and insolvent.
- In all of our lives, we’ve had these moments. People we’ve known have attained things, and gone places, received honors, and been privileged. And always, no matter what, like Falstaff (except without his crimes, without his generosity, without his genius, his mirth, his irreverence), we EXPECT to share in that, to be entitled, to remain equals. It is not just a matter of greed and ambition. It is a matter of love.
- Friendship is based in a love of two people for two people. Love is always between two people.
- Power, political and earthly power, is the reality of an individual representing everyone.
- But who cares?
- Haven’t you ever been expecting, on bended knee, a friend, a lover, someone, anyone, to acknowledge you? To honor their love? To privilege that bond? Shakespeare may have set out to write a political drama, a history play, appropriate to courts and battles, fighting and chanting speeches, which he does astonishingly so in Henry V, but in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, he writes something greater. Plays about history are plays about fate. Henry IV and Chimes at Midnight is about personalities—and the personality that is about foremost is Falstaff: the width of what it is to be human. Most of the play deviates from that law of genre, and takes to somewhere much more entertaining—two people who exist to know each other, share their mind, and enjoy nothing more than each other’s company. But the play has to end; Henry IV’s son has to become Henry V. And personalities like Falstaff’s (there are no others!) are too large a scope, too wide a berth. Fate and power and politics and monologues are vertical; personalities and dialogues and horizontal. Shakespeare may have been honoring a convention, finally, and rushing to a close, hastily, but he also left an audience (and a Queen) who loved this English buffoon aware of a sober truth. Our friendships like our love are commodities, accessories, ways in which we waste our mental and physical time. To those who are called to “serve,” to lead, there is no leisure to live life. (Ironically, Shakespeare had to please the Crown to promise to bring Falstaff back, the very Crown he depicted by dismissing that great man.) Henry V promises to give Falstaff advancement (a promotion of power). A few lines later Shakespeare puns on this word, as Falstaff is speaking of the advancement he owes Master Shallow. Earlier in the play, Falstaff jests: “Banish Falstaff and banish all the world!” But who would ever want to banish the world?
- But Shakespeare and Welles show us that for the chance of control we do.