V. Art Appreciation
Have you heard the Taoist tale of the Taming of the Harp?
Once in the hoary ages in the Ravine of Lungmen stood a Kiri tree, a veritable king of the forest. It reared its head to talk to the stars; its roots struck deep into the earth, mingling their bronzed coils with those of the silver dragon that slept beneath. And it came to pass that a mighty wizard made of this tree a wondrous harp, whose stubborn spirit should be tamed but by the greatest of musicians. For long the instrument was treasured by the Emperor of China, but all in vain were the efforts of those who in turn tried to draw melody from its strings. In response to their utmost strivings there came from the harp but harsh notes of disdain, ill-according with the songs they fain would sing. The harp refused to recognise a master.
At last came Peiwoh, the prince of harpists. With tender hand he caressed the harp as one might seek to soothe an unruly horse, and softly touched the chords. He sang of nature and the seasons, of high mountains and flowing waters, and all the memories of the tree awoke! Once more the sweet breath of spring played amidst its branches. The young cataracts, as they danced down the ravine, laughed to the budding flowers. Anon were heard the dreamy voices of summer with its myriad insects, the gentle pattering of rain, the wail of the cuckoo. Hark! a tiger roars,—the valley answers again. It is autumn; in the desert night, sharp like a sword gleams the moon upon the frosted grass. Now winter reigns, and through the snow-filled air swirl flocks of swans and rattling hailstones beat upon the boughs with fierce delight.
Then Peiwoh changed the key and sang of love. The forest swayed like an ardent swain deep lost in thought. On high, like a haughty maiden, swept a cloud bright and fair; but passing, trailed long shadows on the ground, black like despair. Again the mode was changed; Peiwoh sang of war, of clashing steel and trampling steeds. And in the harp arose the tempest of Lungmen, the dragon rode the lightning, the thundering avalanche crashed through the hills. In ecstasy the Celestial monarch asked Peiwoh wherein lay the secret of his victory. “Sire,” he replied, “others have failed because they sang but of themselves. I left the harp to choose its theme, and knew not truly whether the harp had been Peiwoh or Peiwoh were the harp.”
This story well illustrates the mystery of art appreciation. The masterpiece is a symphony played upon our finest feelings. True art is Peiwoh, and we the harp of Lungmen. At the magic touch of the beautiful the secret chords of our being are awakened, we vibrate and thrill in response to its call. Mind speaks to mind. We listen to the unspoken, we gaze upon the unseen. The master calls forth notes we know not of. Memories long forgotten all come back to us with a new significance. Hopes stifled by fear, yearnings that we dare not recognise, stand forth in new glory. Our mind is the canvas on which the artists lay their colour; their pigments are our emotions; their chiaroscuro the light of joy, the shadow of sadness. The masterpiece is of ourselves, as we are of the masterpiece.
The sympathetic communion of minds necessary for art appreciation must be based on mutual concession. The spectator must cultivate the proper attitude for receiving the message, as the artist must know how to impart it. The tea-master, Kobori-Enshiu, himself a daimyo, has left to us these memorable words: “Approach a great painting as thou wouldst approach a great prince.” In order to understand a masterpiece, you must lay yourself low before it and await with bated breath its least utterance. An eminent Sung critic once made a charming confession. Said he: “In my young days I praised the master whose pictures I liked, but as my judgement matured I praised myself for liking what the masters had chosen to have me like.” It is to be deplored that so few of us really take pains to study the moods of the masters. In our stubborn ignorance we refuse to render them this simple courtesy, and thus often miss the rich repast of beauty spread before our very eyes. A master has always something to offer, while we go hungry solely because of our own lack of appreciation.
To the sympathetic a masterpiece becomes a living reality towards which we feel drawn in bonds of comradeship. The masters are immortal, for their loves and fears live in us over and over again. It is rather the soul than the hand, the man than the technique, which appeals to us,—the more human the call the deeper is our response. It is because of this secret understanding between the master and ourselves that in poetry or romance we suffer and rejoice with the hero and heroine. Chikamatsu, our Japanese Shakespeare, has laid down as one of the first principles of dramatic composition the importance of taking the audience into the confidence of the author. Several of his pupils submitted plays for his approval, but only one of the pieces appealed to him. It was a play somewhat resembling the Comedy of Errors, in which twin brethren suffer through mistaken identity. “This,” said Chikamatsu, “has the proper spirit of the drama, for it takes the audience into consideration. The public is permitted to know more than the actors. It knows where the mistake lies, and pities the poor figures on the board who innocently rush to their fate.”
The great masters both of the East and the West never forgot the value of suggestion as a means for taking the spectator into their confidence. Who can contemplate a masterpiece without being awed by the immense vista of thought presented to our consideration? How familiar and sympathetic are they all; how cold in contrast the modern commonplaces! In the former we feel the warm outpouring of a man’s heart; in the latter only a formal salute. Engrossed in his technique, the modern rarely rises above himself. Like the musicians who vainly invoked the Lungmen harp, he sings only of himself. His works may be nearer science, but are further from humanity. We have an old saying in Japan that a woman cannot love a man who is truly vain, for their is no crevice in his heart for love to enter and fill up. In art vanity is equally fatal to sympathetic feeling, whether on the part of the artist or the public.
Nothing is more hallowing than the union of kindred spirits in art. At the moment of meeting, the art lover transcends himself. At once he is and is not. He catches a glimpse of Infinity, but words cannot voice his delight, for the eye has no tongue. Freed from the fetters of matter, his spirit moves in the rhythm of things. It is thus that art becomes akin to religion and ennobles mankind. It is this which makes a masterpiece something sacred. In the old days the veneration in which the Japanese held the work of the great artist was intense. The tea-masters guarded their treasures with religious secrecy, and it was often necessary to open a whole series of boxes, one within another, before reaching the shrine itself—the silken wrapping within whose soft folds lay the holy of holies. Rarely was the object exposed to view, and then only to the initiated.
At the time when Teaism was in the ascendency the Taiko’s generals would be better satisfied with the present of a rare work of art than a large grant of territory as a reward of victory. Many of our favourite dramas are based on the loss and recovery of a noted masterpiece. For instance, in one play the palace of Lord Hosokawa, in which was preserved the celebrated painting of Dharuma by Sesson, suddenly takes fire through the negligence of the samurai in charge. Resolved at all hazards to rescue the precious painting, he rushes into the burning building and seizes the kakemono, only to find all means of exit cut off by the flames. Thinking only of the picture, he slashes open his body with his sword, wraps his torn sleeve about the Sesson and plunges it into the gaping wound. The fire is at last extinguished. Among the smoking embers is found a half-consumed corpse, within which reposes the treasure uninjured by the fire. Horrible as such tales are, they illustrate the great value that we set upon a masterpiece, as well as the devotion of a trusted samurai.
We must remember, however, that art is of value only to the extent that it speaks to us. It might be a universal language if we ourselves were universal in our sympathies. Our finite nature, the power of tradition and conventionality, as well as our hereditary instincts, restrict the scope of our capacity for artistic enjoyment. Our very individuality establishes in one sense a limit to our understanding; and our aesthetic personality seeks its own affinities in the creations of the past. It is true that with cultivation our sense of art appreciation broadens, and we become able to enjoy many hitherto unrecognised expressions of beauty. But, after all, we see only our own image in the universe,—our particular idiosyncracies dictate the mode of our perceptions. The tea-masters collected only objects which fell strictly within the measure of their individual appreciation.
One is reminded in this connection of a story concerning Kobori-Enshiu. Enshiu was complimented by his disciples on the admirable taste he had displayed in the choice of his collection. Said they, “Each piece is such that no one could help admiring. It shows that you had better taste than had Rikiu, for his collection could only be appreciated by one beholder in a thousand.” Sorrowfully Enshiu replied: “This only proves how commonplace I am. The great Rikiu dared to love only those objects which personally appealed to him, whereas I unconsciously cater to the taste of the majority. Verily, Rikiu was one in a thousand among tea-masters.”
It is much to be regretted that so much of the apparent enthusiasm for art at the present day has no foundation in real feeling. In this democratic age of ours men clamour for what is popularly considered the best, regardless of their feelings. They want the costly, not the refined; the fashionable, not the beautiful. To the masses, contemplation of illustrated periodicals, the worthy product of their own industrialism, would give more digestible food for artistic enjoyment than the early Italians or the Ashikaga masters, whom they pretend to admire. The name of the artist is more important to them than the quality of the work. As a Chinese critic complained many centuries ago, “People criticise a picture by their ear.” It is this lack of genuine appreciation that is responsible for the pseudo-classic horrors that to-day greet us wherever we turn.
Another common mistake is that of confusing art with archaeology. The veneration born of antiquity is one of the best traits in the human character, and fain would we have it cultivated to a greater extent. The old masters are rightly to be honoured for opening the path to future enlightenment. The mere fact that they have passed unscathed through centuries of criticism and come down to us still covered with glory commands our respect. But we should be foolish indeed if we valued their achievement simply on the score of age. Yet we allow our historical sympathy to override our aesthetic discrimination. We offer flowers of approbation when the artist is safely laid in his grave. The nineteenth century, pregnant with the theory of evolution, has moreover created in us the habit of losing sight of the individual in the species. A collector is anxious to acquire specimens to illustrate a period or a school, and forgets that a single masterpiece can teach us more than any number of the mediocre products of a given period or school. We classify too much and enjoy too little. The sacrifice of the aesthetic to the so-called scientific method of exhibition has been the bane of many museums.
The claims of contemporary art cannot be ignored in any vital scheme of life. The art of to-day is that which really belongs to us: it is our own reflection. In condemning it we but condemn ourselves. We say that the present age possesses no art:—who is responsible for this? It is indeed a shame that despite all our rhapsodies about the ancients we pay so little attention to our own possibilities. Struggling artists, weary souls lingering in the shadow of cold disdain! In our self-centered century, what inspiration do we offer them? The past may well look with pity at the poverty of our civilisation; the future will laugh at the barrenness of our art. We are destroying the beautiful in life. Would that some great wizard might from the stem of society shape a mighty harp whose strings would resound to the touch of genius.
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.
Concerning all the recent discussions about memory, recitation, etc, I thought I would try it in my own way. I should disclose that I never recite my own poems from memory at readings. I think it is corny, weird, it makes me uncomfortable, and frankly, to spend that much time memorizing your own work is kind of sick.
I want to rebel against my own ideas.
I tried to write a poem entirely in my head and memorize it. I would never write it down. All editing would take place in my head. Line for line. The entire building and reconstruction could only exist abstractly. No writing as an aid. I would memorize the final poem. I would recite the poem and that is how it could live.
This is how it went: First I had a few lines, but I could only get at it by starting from the beginning over again each time. I imagined the line breaks and pauses to help remember it. I decided maybe I would to add three lines a day. I would imagine the form entirely in my mind. Maybe 12-16 lines total. A good length lyrical poem. It would be difficult.
I felt I was cheating. Picturing a form, with lines, line breaks, and any visual form seemed to me a kind of writing. Since I wasn’t marking anything down, why should there be “lines?” It’s just words in my head. There was also no need for form. When you recite a poem that you’ve seen on the page, imagining the stanzas certainly helps, but for this particular project (and yes it was becoming a project and yes I hate projects!) I felt that if I pictured lines, or stanzas, then that would essentially be the same as writing it on paper, because those forms are meant to see written and seen as a way of organizing thoughts on a page. To be true to the imaginative strength of the mind, it would just have to be a string, the rhythm of which would intuitively generate itself as I repeatedly said the poem allowed or thought it.
To order these words, these thoughts, I began imagining the actually words. Not just the sound. I saw the words in sequence. But to fix the words in an order seemed to me to always constitute a kind of writing. I felt I was cheating. It was also the kind of writing I could not get space from. It would be impossible to reflect upon the poem if I constantly had to carry it around. It would never sit and get cold. I could never see how shitty parts of it were and try and mend it. I got upset. It was becoming a drag on all accounts.
I decided that the only way this poem would be good, and interesting, and truly exist on the level, was if I created it anew from nothing every time I recited it. I would have to make up a new poem everytime. That would keep it from becoming this totally limiting enterprise. Because to go from memory is so safe…the only danger is forgetting, and thats more of a social anxiety than actually having anything to do with whats at stake in the greater art of it. Because to memorize my own thoughts, as megalomaniacal and funny an idea as it was, was really just writing another poem, and it wouldn’t be good. I am very happy to have moved on from this ludicrous idea.
So there’s always this double duty, neither to make the best the enemy of the good, nor to make the good the enemy of the best. Scylla and Charybdis. The reason I admire Johnson and Eliot and Empson so much – the thing that holds them together – is that they all think that doing the right thing is steering between two equally dangerous opposite bad things.
Do you remember that Eliot was billed as giving a talk on ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ and he’d realized that they’d simply misunderstood. That is, when he was asked what he was going to talk about, he’d said that these things were always a matter of Scylla and Charybdis and so forth, and this became the title of the talk so that we got a talk on this subject because they’d slightly misunderstood what he was saying. But it’s true to him.
And Samuel Johnson is profound on this. He asked why are we more lenient towards foolhardiness than towards cowardice. If you think of them as being equidistant from the right thing, two opposing faults. Why are we more lenient to the one? And the answer is because it is self-correcting. If you’re foolhardy, you bruise your shins. You find out, you learn from it. If you’re spendthrift, you learn as the miser never does. The spendthrift runs out of money, the miser never runs out of anxiety about money. Equidistant from the true course but one may prove preferable.
We need people to remind us that the good is the enemy of the best and we need people to remind us that the best is the enemy of the good. We need to protect ourselves from the dangers from both flanks.
—Christopher Ricks, interview from The Literateur Magazine
Something in a title suggests everything you could possibly want to say about a certain topic. As in the example of T.S. Eliot’s lecture entitled “Scylla and Charybdis,” mentioned by Ricks above. The title “The Problem of Style” suggested to me everything I wanted to blog about today concerning the evolution of a poet’s style, something I’ve been thinking about while reading through Robert Hass and Henri Cole to prepare book reviews about their new selected works.
Critics and academics—much maligned creatures to whom we should at least be grateful for having something to endlessly argue about—tend to regard style as a fixed thing, an external lacquer or recipe that poets consciously choose, modify, and have to then be evaluated for a/ which style they picked, b/ how well they handled it, and c/ at what expense Style X precluded Y or Z. Two conversations from memory substantiate the attitude I’m talking about, both by formidable minds. Archie Burnett teaching his class at Boston University was talking about John Milton and upon fielding some questions about the make-up of what we identify and label as “The Miltonic Style,” he went on to say “Ah, well, with a great poet like Milton he could have written in whatever style he wanted.” And recently, breaking bread with Daniel Mendelsohn, we entered into a large, hearty and even heated debate on whether or not a writer “sets out to know what he wants to write,”—his point being that whereas an amateur writer may just be throwing darts in the dark, merely provoking “questions,” suggesting possibilities he doesn’t have a finished thought about, the serious and accomplished writer knows exactly what he’s setting out to do, then tackles it with dispatch. I disagree with both of these statements—the first wholeheartedly, the second because of a zillion counter-examples. Milton, supreme artist that he was, wasn’t immobile or unaware of what he was up to, but to think he could have avoided the baroque line, his heightened Latinate phraseology, the robustly complicated syntax, is fanciful. For all his craft and intelligence and arch learnedness, Milton’s rhythmic DNA was predetermined (in a way). People, like poems, are after all a mixture of the given and the made. The made is not what I aim to dispute; but the given needs to be redefined, a little bit.
Style is foremost a tension of contradictions between a writer’s impulses and perception, not an absence of them. In a classical style, a writer’s personality is totally disguised behind the established proportions and prevailing measures of a tradition, or The Tradition, whatever that once meant. In the romantic style, a writer’s style emerges as an indulgence of their impulses and mannerisms that they recognized in past authors and themselves, developing towards “originality.” But originality as we know is at the root of idiocy, of speaking or sounding like someone outside the acquainted norms of the city—the polis. And this is what Samuel Johnson was getitng at when he said in response to a young poet’s manuscript: It is both good and original; the parts that are good are not original, the parts that are original are not good. Johnson, the epitome of the Augustan, classical mindset, looked on idiosyncrasy as a disease, one that had to be tolerated in the presence of a great writer like Swift, great that is for his other qualities, but extirpated in an overrated poet like Thomas Gray, whose diction was remote and eccentric. (I for one love Swift and Gray.)
And yet as Richard Howard has brilliantly written in his essay on Emily Dickinson, it is precisely a writer’s peversities that can make him so good, not in lieu of them, but directly because they were listened to, indulged, cultivated. He argues, shrewdly, that Dickinson’s dashes, capitalizations, peculiar rhythms, coy slant-rhymes are her genius as a poet, not provincial blemises that happen to sit on a great linguistic talent. The opposite point of view can be heard in Eliot’s essay on Blake, where the attitude is: Yes, this man was a great poet, but alas also a home-spun weirdo, who had these troublesome peculiarities that prevented him from being as important as good ol’ Dante. Harold Bloom, dissenting from Eliot (shocker!) has fired back, emphasizing in ‘The Western Canon’ (perhaps tipping the see-saw too much in the opposite direction) that Dante’s centrality to Western literature relies on his extraordinary brazenness, as when he ciphons Beatrice into eternal salvation history (an argument that is found also in Emerson).
But I am digressing between the Classical and Romantic trap, when what I want to talk about is what is akin to both of these modes, intrinsic to writing any poem, regardless of what the tradition it plugs into is.
When we think of style as a pathology—we do artists an injustice, to their deliberation and foresight, as well as to the range of a poet proven over time. Stevens writes in his characterstic mode for his entire life, but between ‘Harmonium’ and ‘The Rock’ the conscious artisan in Stevens decided to become more pared down, less jumpy in his adjective use, and honors the strain throughout his life to speak in the simple sentence.
When we think of style as a choice—we are forgetting that sensibilities are vast and complex and have so many unconscious ingredients, dispositions and biases at work, it’s impossible to say simply why W.C.W. favors the short, clipped line, and Frost keeps to iambic pentameter. One man’s nerves cannot stand noise, another bathes in distortion and static.
One of the problems of style then is when a writer acknowledges a past tendency as a mechanism no longer adequate, or pleasing, or just. True, for the precocious or immensely talented, perhaps this gap is indiscernable, or much shorter—as in a Merrill, who began writing as refined and polished as his very last works. Another exception is the occasional, and rare, writer who assimilates so easily other people’s styles, he can seemingly switch between them—but then isn’t that method their style? Joyce, Eliot, Ashbery: they don’t so much have different styles as styles with immense difference built into them. In Joyce, you see these as discrete effects as you follow his career towards a sea of chaos—but the Joycean tone, flippant, somewhat verbose?, and resigned, that’s there throughout. Eliot willfully goes against his inner discord, his turmoil and polyphony of voices that he discovered in ‘The Waste Land,’ then labors towards a ‘style’ in the ‘Four Quartets’ that is seamlessly regulated, and unified. Ashbery took the opposite route, and after he mastered in his third and fourth books the possibility for disjunctiveness in vocabulary, narrative and form—he has kept going, on and on and on, to this day.
It appears to me that everything that I am saying is grossly redundant, and obvious. So that’s a good place to stop.
The problem of style exists, larger than the unconscious and conscious distinctions I’ve circled around. One way of seeing poems must be not as answers to questions, solutions for the puzzle, or resolutions to the problem—but as a way to discover what the questions are, what puzzles need working out, what problems each writer has in store. If we’re lucky enough, though the problems, like our pathologies, never go away—we do get to master them, instead of them mastering us. That is, one hopes.
Journalistic standards have changed so drastically that, when I took the podium at the film circle’s dinner and quoted Pauline Kael’s 1974 alarm, “Criticism is all that stands between the public and advertising,” the gala’s audience responded with an audible hush—not applause.
Over recent years, film journalism has—perhaps unconsciously—been considered a part of the film industry and expected to be a partner in Hollywood’s commercial system. Look at the increased prevalence of on-television reviewing dedicated to dispensing consumer advice, and of magazine and newspaper features linked only to current releases, or to the Oscar campaign, as if Hollywood’s business was everybody’s business. Critics are no longer respected as individual thinkers, only as adjuncts to advertising. We are not. And we should not be. Criticism needs to be reassessed with this clear understanding: We judge movies because we know movies, and our knowledge is based on learning and experience.
“Truth is the first casualty of war,” runs an old axiom of journalism. In the current war between print and electronic media, in which the Internet has given way to Babel-like chaos, the critical profession has been led toward self-doubt. Individual critics worry about their job security while editors and publishers, afraid of losing advertisers and customers, subject their readers to hype, gossip, and reformulated press releases—but not criticism. Besieged by fear, critics become the victim of commercial design—a conceit whereby the market predetermines content. Journalism illogically becomes oriented to youth, who no longer read.
Commerce, based on fashion and seeming novelty, always prioritizes the idea of newness as a way of favoring the next product and flattering the innocence of eager consumers who, reliably, lack the proverbial skepticism. (“Let the buyer be gullible.”) In this war between traditional journalistic standards and the new acquiescence, the first casualty is expertise.
By offering an alternative deluge of fans’ notes, angry sniping, half-baked impressions, and clubhouse amateurism, the Internet’s free-for-all has helped to further derange the concept of film criticism performed by writers who have studied cinema as well as related forms of history, science, and philosophy. This also differs from the venerable concept of the “gentleman amateur” whose gracious enthusiasms for art forms he himself didn’t practice expressed a valuable civility and sophistication, a means of social uplift. Internet criticism has, instead, unleashed a torrent of deceptive knowledge—a form of idiot savantry—usually based in the unquantifiable “love of movies” (thus corrupting the French academic’s notion of cinephilia).
He continues by deriding the blogosphere:
This is the source of the witty riposte or sarcastic put-down’s being considered the acme of critical language. The Algonquin Round Table’s legacy of high-caliber critical exchange has turned into the viral graffiti on aggregate websites such as Rotten Tomatoes that corral numerous reviews. These sites offer consensus as a substitute for assessment. Rotten Tomatoes readers then post (surprisingly vicious, often bullying) sniper responses to the reviews. These mostly juvenile remarks further shortcut the critical process by jumping straight to the so-called witticism. This isn’t erudition; as film critic Molly Haskell recently observed, “The Internet is democracy’s revenge on democracy.”
[Pauline] Kael’s cutting remark cuts to the root of criticism’s problem today. Ebert’s way of talking about movies as disconnected from social and moral issues, simply as entertainment, seemed to normalize film discourse—you didn’t have to strive toward it, any Average Joe American could do it. But criticism actually dumbed down. Ebert also made his method a road to celebrity—which destroyed any possibility for a heroic era of film criticism.
At the Movies helped criticism become a way to be famous in the age of TV and exploding media, a dilemma that writer George W. S. Trow distilled in his apercu “The Aesthetic of the Hit”: “To the person growing up in the power of demography, it was clear that history had to do not with the powerful actions of certain men but with the processes of choice and preference.” It was Ebert’s career choice and preference to reduce film discussion to the fumbling of thumbs, pointing out gaffes or withholding “spoilers”—as if a viewer needed only to like or dislike a movie, according to an arbitrary set of specious rules, trends and habits. Not thought. Not feeling. Not experience. Not education. Just reviewing movies the way boys argued about a baseball game.
Don’t misconstrue this as an attack on the still-convalescent Ebert. I wish him nothing but health. But I am trying to clarify where film criticism went bad. Despite Ebert’s recent celebration in both Time magazine and The New York Times as “a great critic,” neither encomium could credit him with a single critical idea, notable literary style or cultural contribution. Each paean resorted to personal, logrolling appreciations. A.O. Scott hit bottom when he corroborated Ebert’s advice, “When writing you should avoid cliché, but on television you should embrace it.” That kind of thinking made Scott’s TV appearances a zero.
While White regularly gets pegged as an intelligent troll, my personal take is that he usually hits the critical nail on the head, even if he comes across as disproportionately strident. On the other hand, his rage is perfectly understandable when you consider that Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris are allowed to fall into the same categories as most “critics” today.
In other news, my very smart and artistically talented friend, Gene Tanta, has started his own blog about…well, it looks like everything so far.
Ben Luzzatto’s THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, ABRIDGED (UDP, 2010) is one of those rare artifacts that transfers its own actual magic—and it is real magic—until the possessed begins to lift a bit toward the sky.
Ugly Duckling Presse has been summed up quite well here as “a publishing collective specializing in experimental poetry and new editions of forgotten textual artist, producing lovely, cheeky books by authors you’ve probably never heard of but your grandchildren will likely read in college…a nesting ground for swans of the avant-garde poetry scene.” It’s true that I do feel personally attached to many titles UDP has produced (such as this or this). THEORY is the most recent in its Dossier Series, which produced the wonderfully heady though deadly pretentious Notes On Conceptualism, and soon will bring out Dottie Lasky’s Poetry Is Not a Project.
When I first held this particular book though, I do what I do with most books, hold it open it at a distance so I could see the entire cover spread. There was a figure of a someone umbilically attached to something, floating away, or recoiling. An astronaut? A cosmonaut? Where does that road go? You can’t see because of my shaky camera hands, but this is spot glossed over all the silver. This book was printed in Iceland by Oddi, and I haven’t read one word of it as of this point in my engagement and it’s practically trembling in my hands.
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, ABRIDGED, is broken into three sections. 1) The Aqueous Humor, 2) From Nonsense to New Sense, and 3) The Theory of Everything, Abridged. Each is a section of conceptual projects narrated by Luzzatto. The first section, The Aqueous Humor, we get what Luzzatto is after in his writing that oscillates from lyrical dreaminess to the more squared off language inherited from the Era of Theory:
“I don’t want to solve the mysteries of the universe, I want to know how I am a part of them…
The more you understand how you are already a part of something, which is the same as understanding how you see something, the more you can separate yourself from it. It is what it was, which already included you, but then it is also something else, which you know does not include you. You have remained together, but you have also become separate.”
Luzzatto’s ideas as he talks them out seem small compared to the immensity of his ideas as he documents them in photographs that accompany the text . We see images of the Cosmos, an umbrella made of funnels, and in section two, From Nonsense to New Sense, an ontological experiment where the subject ties a bungee cord to a tree (then dashes away from the tree without knowing the length of the rope)
Section three takes up most of the book, and one huge thing I’ve not mentioned yet is that this section involves yet another magickal feat of design, about 80% of the book has a hole through it:
This flip section shows two images of Luzzatto standing on a streer corner. The image below shows through the hole and remains static while the images above narrate a street scene in a city. The animation allows Luzzatto to complete his theory of everything:
“I see two of everything but I am usually not aware of it. A world that comes from me, which is expectation, and a world that comes to me, which is what I do not expect. Most of the time they do not appear to be separate.”
My favorite experiment of Luzzatto’s comes in section two, where the artist makes clouds (!) from helium-inflated urethane cells. I had a dream recently where I was back in my hometown hanging out with my buddy Cori and there was a street that was the actual place where all clouds were made. We were watching them appear out of nothing until they were heavy enough for the wind to lift towards to sky. Amazing. I don’t know what it means (what would Freud say?).
Luzzatto however makes clouds while he is actually awake, and it seems, he is quite good at talking about the whole thing (text following the images):
I assume there is a specific moment/distance at which the cloud disappears as it is rising up into the sky. When it is on its way up, still close to us and clearly a manmade cloud, it is more difficult to see the world that comes from me; it is more difficult to see a cloud that comes from my looking At a specific distance the cloud disappears. It looks like the other clouds in the sky…by making clouds disappear I am able to see how I see.
To see more about UDP, the book, and clouds, click here
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Before I post my regularly scheduled post, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I give you an excerpt from James Joyce’s “The Dead.”
Gabriel had not gone to the door with the others. He was in a dark part of the hall gazing up the staircase. A woman was standing near the top of the first flight, in the shadow also. He could not see her face but he could see the terracotta and the salmonpink panels of her skirt which the shadow made appear black and white. It was his wife. She was leaning on the banisters, listening to something. Gabriel was surprised at her stillness and strained his ear to listen also. But he could hear little save the noise of laughter and dispute on the front steps, a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man’s voice singing.
He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.
If I am anything at all, I am a vaudevillian. Considering that vaudville has been stone dead the last 80 years, that’s a hard thing to be, but wouldn’t you want to attend a reading where, first, someone read Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” beautifully, followed by a white poodle jumping through a fiery hula hoop, then a great tap dancer, and then a good torch singer doing “Strange Fruit,” topped off by a rousing version of Etheridge Knight’s “All Fucked Up”? Hell, I would, and this either means I have no aesthetic boundaries whatsoever, or that I prefer, during the course of performance, to do what Ashbery does in a poem: let the flow take me where it will, live in the process and variety of consciousness rather than in some fully set and determined structure. Now it would be even more fun if the poodle held the fiery hula hoop between its paws while the human jumped through, but why quibble?
I am making a point here. At least, I think I am. If the poodle act was done superbly, as most vaudeville acts were, if it was the end result of months and years on the road, honing the act, then I don’t see why it would be any less valuable than a good poem (especially if the human jumped through the hoop). Poems are made out of words, but poesis is made out of a chemical compound of ecstasy and precision. It need not be ecstatic, nor precise, but a synthesis of those qualities is important. By ecstacy I mean the entire spectrum between being good at and enjoying the writing and presenting of poems, and the sort of possessed by the gods kind of inspiration Plato feared. By precision, I mean something that must be done “just so.” If the poodle wavers in her resolve and does not hold the fiery hula hoop at the right angle, the human might go up in flames. This is the secret and mystery of presence: a good tenor goes dangerously to the top of his range. We are waiting for him to fail. He does not fail: wallah! ecstacy with precision!
Most poetry readings are boring these days because we do something absurd: the poet pretends not to be performing. They read in a lack luster voice, often intentionally so. The audience is there to be “present,”—but at what rite? Certainly not the rite of ecstacy merging with precision to become poesis. The rite is called identification: I am a well-credentialed and leading poet, reading to you. You are students in an M.F.A. program performing a snob’s version of cannibalism. By being in my presence (or non-presence) you are hoping to become what I am: a leading poet reading before a group of grad students. We do not clap. We do not do what the vulgar people do. We are all intelligent. We are all “serious.” Look at us! In our midst, a cough becomes significant. At the end, we may clap “warmly.” This is sad.
I hate it. I look for attractive faces and bodies in the audience. I moan and ooh when the audience moans and ooh’s because I don’t want to be left out. I notice the beautiful girl who is dangling one shoe from her well arched foot. I want her. She will never be mine. She will get naked and procreate with a boy who translates Wordsworth’s The Prelude into Bengali. I lament. Where is the fiery hula hoop of the blood?
Don’t think I am advocating that everyone become a spoken word poet. God forbid! That’s just as bad because it is often fake ecstacy, and total imprecision. Spare me your false epiphanies! Spare me your skeltonic rhymes if you don’t know who Skelton is. Spare me!
Let us go back to what I was saying by taking a concrete poet and putting her in an environment I would think showed her to best advantage: Louise Gluck. (Don’t know how to put the dots on her “u”. Sorry.)
I saw Louise Gluck perform at a high school festival about ten years ago. They trotted her out because she was a pulitzer prize winner. They trotted her out because she was a name. They didn’t care about her poetry which, at least in her earlier work, is fantastic. They didn’t care that she was a sort of reserved, introverted, Alfred Hithcock blond. Hitchcock would have known how to present her: Tweed skirt, nice legs (Louise has kiiller legs), a sort of tense primness that calls forth monsters by dint of its introverted splendor. I was on the bill. High school kids like me. I knew my audience. I read , “So Kiss Me Asshole,” a poem of mine. Strangely, Louise liked me, too. She said: “You’re a good performer, and your poems have some merit.” I have been in love with Louise Gluck since I read “Fear of Birth” and re-read it two hundred times in a day when I was 15, and saw her photo on the back of an old anthology. Call it the love of Caliban for that which is fully in opposition to him, yet equally monstrous: she was as introverted, and audience unfriendly as you could get, I am practicly a poodle act, but we talked for a full hour: about Schumann (I told her some of the shorter lyrics she wrote seemed perfect for Schumann, and she agreed). We talked about Oppen (we share this love as well, and she studied with him). She claimed there were too many voices in her poems, and she could never utter them. She hated to read aloud, but the money was good. I said: “Louise, I hate when you read aloud, too. They don’t use you right. They should have you read one short poem, and then someone could play a small Schumann bagatelle, and then you could say something about Oppen, and the importance of mentors, and recite a poem by him from memory. You should always wear tasteful skirts because, I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but you have killer legs.” She smiled and said, “Thank you.”
It is a mistake to think poems written for the page can not be effective in performance. They need the right setting, the precision that brings out the ecstacy. A good poetry reading has the same aspects as a good poem. Lately, I want to strangle audiences. They don’t clap (they are all too intelligent to clap, and they are Mark Doty clones .About fifteen years ago, Doty said don’t clap, and they listened to him. Wretches! Theives of joy! They make me sick). I believe in clapping after any poem longer than a page—just to relieve the stress. Of course, short poems are different. I believe poets ought to work hard at finding the right voice and cadence, and way of presenting what they do. And they ought to be honest: it is a performance, a rite, the second you get in front of a room full of people. The ceremony should be performed with the same artistry as the poems—the right ceremony depending on the voice or voices of the poet. Louise Gluck is like Chopin, intimate: she loses something when placed in a room with five hundred high school students. You don’t get her best effects. You lose all the little trills, and false cadences, and intricate passage work. You lose the deceptively simple lines. She is writing splendid cabaret poems. These ought to be presented like good Kurt Weill songs, soft blue light included. To do that to Gluck and those students is detrimental to poetry. It’s far more vulgar and wrong than a poodle act. I heard kids saying: “She’s so boring.” I was angry. A woman with those tremendous poems and great gams should not be misunderstood. I said: “You liked my poems?” They said: “You’re great.” I said: “Louise Gluck is better than me, way better. They screwed you over. You need to hear her the way you would hear soft rain on a roof at night when you’re lonely, and fearful, and your childhood is dead. It can’t all be ‘So Kiss Me Asshole.’ That’s boring, too. Grow up!”
I fell a little in love with Louise that day because she was kind to me, and she didn’t have to be. She opened in the way a Louise Gluck should open: carefully, with a wonderful reticence and accuracy, with an inward passion. I got the performance out of her I was seeking. When she recited Oppen’s Bergen street by heart, she did so with feeling, and perfection. I was lucky.
So what am I getting at? First, poems that are subtle, or small, or call for pianissimo, should not be thrown into a Dylan Thomas frame work. Seeing a good cabret singer singing in a stadium is just wrong. Second, no poet should read before an audience more than fifteen minutes. All good acts are teasers. They should leave you wanting more. Now to the practical, pedagogical purpose of this:
In a class of ten poetry students, only five should be given the poem on paper at any time. Five should be listening, and listening hard. They should jot down a line that seems off, or one that they like. They should consider why exactly they like a line, or why it seems off. They should be honest about the poem’s effect on them. The other five should be giving the poem a close reading, and not just to find its “flaws,” but to first discover its intentions. “ur” poems, your idea of what a poem “should be” ought to be temporarily suspended, and you should enter the poem as it is—it’s intentions, it’s own private triumphs and failures. A good class trains listeners as well as readers. Poems should be memorized so that the language of poems becomes muscle memory. After a few poems, someone ought to tell a joke, or mention something that happened to them during the week. Digression, if it is good, is more to the point than being overly focused. Before a poet appears at the school, their work ought to be handed out. No poet should read for more than fifteen minutes unless it is an audience well versed in poetry. Over reading hurts poetry. It rams poetry down the throats of those who are not yet ready to recieve it. It’s bad fr the business.
There should be snacks, and, if possible, some music. A good piano player or guitarist (no tuning up please) ought to do something—no words, just music. Maybe some Ellington, a little Maple Leaf Rag. And then the poodle, holding the fiery hula hoop between its paws, and the six Hngarian acrobats leaping through the fire, and the girl dangling her she beside a by who is translating Wordsworth’s Prelude… but I digress.
When I was 19 I interned at The Bowery Poetry Club. I can tell you that I didn’t get much done in the way of writing press releases; I was there to experience poetry. I was there to meet the real live poets who didn’t seem to exist on my college campus. I attended a private Long Island university where writing poetry meant none of the business student boys wanted to date me and most of the frat guys thought a stanza was a complicated version of the keg stand. Therefore, at The Bowery Poetry Club, I thought I was going to find what I was looking for: Poets Who Took Poetry Seriously.
Performers with names like Lovely Lazarus and Serenity Divine would grace the stage in mismatched outfits and dirty hair and then proceed to swoon the entire audience with a kind of audible beauty I imagine the Sirens possessed. Their lyrical composition was balanced by emotive arm movements or by their ability to seamlessly weave a poem from Prince’s When Doves Cry. There was a kind of competition amongst these poets usually noted amongst athletes. The audience scored each performer on a scale of 1 to 10 and reigning champs not only had bragging rights but word-of-mouth-fame.
While these performers were certainly impressive, and the ability to memorize a fifteen-minute performance can undoubtedly be envied, I soon realized that this group of poets were really, performers. It wasn’t that performing their work automatically made them more performer and less poet. It was that the sole purpose of their poetry was to be heard. It was poetry intent on being sung, enhanced with jumping and hip-jutting and physical rigor. It was my first live introduction to slam poetry and the incredible presence of Bob Holman’s master performers. However, I realized very quickly, that while I could envy the ability of any poet who could make an audience both cry and laugh, the purpose of my recitation and reading would not be supported by numerical scores or competitive bravado. I didn’t see myself as that kind of poet—one who read with entertainment in mind.
Fast forward about five years later to a classroom at The New School where the late Liam Rector sat before us in a room pungent with his last cigarette break. He looked regal in his thick framed glasses, his hand stroking his chin as he demanded an answer: “Are you going to make it to your 25th year?” The 25th year was Rector’s figurative marker for a poet’s success. Basically, if we didn’t reach that 25th year, we wouldn’t become Poets For Life. Aside from Rector’s ability to shake the very fear of poetry into his young pupils, he also cultivated a level of respect from us that resided in his ability to quote, recite and often assume the voices of Gunn, Larkin, Yeats, Sexton, Keats, Wordsworth and others that he mentioned too quickly for us to write them down. This ability was part of Rector’s lure. We often left class dizzy with names, lines, and an ever growing list of books we had to read if we were ever going to be the kind of poets he would call Poets. At one point, this combination of my departure from the slam poets I observed as a teenager and now the notion that a serious poet worthy of being a poet had to be able to quote 100 or more “important poets” cultured an anxiety that made me shun the idea of memorization completely. Truthfully, I felt I was incapable of memorizing a poem and knowing it so well that one would be unable to tell where I began and the poem ended. The very idea numbed me. I felt the page was where my words belonged and I would read my poems for people to hear them, sure, but it would not become a kind of game like the competitive events at The Bowery Poetry Club. I suppose I had unknowingly resigned myself to the category of poets that Do Not Memorize. I realize now, this fear was part of being a green, insecure graduate student and also about being under the spell of Liam Rector—a spell that has transfixed all of us who were among the very last group of students he taught.
Fast-forward again to 2010. I give a reading at this beautiful wine shop in Brooklyn. I recite, from memory, a few sections of a longer poem. I proceed to read newer poems that are not memorized, but I can give three or four lines without glancing down. I know the poems. The poems know me. I don’t feel a separation between the words and my page and my body. There is something physical about the way these specific poems ask to be read. I didn’t choose this, they chose. Several people approach me at the end of the reading. They want to know how long it took me to memorize, how I chose which poems I would recite. Later, I’m inundated with fellow poets who talk about how they cannot memorize their poems and how it is just so hard to do, etc. I’m told that reading my poems from memory was “kind of badass.” I immediately think of Liam Rector and I suppose that for a moment or two, I feel like a Badass Poet.
Fast forward yet again a few weeks later. I read some of the same poems in a lovely coffee shop. One fellow poet compliments my reading and she says that she likes how they read like a monologue. A stranger tells me it was his favorite part of the reading. Later in the reading, James Copeland reads from his new chapbook, Why I Steal and for one poem only, he completely leaves the page. His eyes click with the audience and from memory he speaks to us. He isn’t even necessarily reciting the poem but talking to all of us as we recline in our little green chairs. The hazy moment of hearing the third poet of the night is now magical and memorable. My non-poet friends tell me that it is their favorite poem of Copeland’s. I too, agree. As Copeland continues, the poem lifts into the air and we can see it and touch it and we understand something about Copeland’s poems. There is a connectivity, a sincere quality that becomes apparent when he recites this one poem: the poem is human.
Obviously, I have been thinking about memorization a lot. A lot. I have always analyzed the way people read, their inflection, their tone. I pay attention to accents, to poets who read in a voice other than the one that they speak with and I like knowing that a poet knows his or her work so well that they feel it is necessary to give the poem the kind of life it wouldn’t have if it stayed locked in a line or inside of a book. I am curious about whether or not they pace their living room, reading the poems over and over so they can hear them aloud, so they can listen to what the poems want to do or how they should change.
Of course, there are poems I will never read aloud—they are too cumbersome in my mouth or their structure is complicated and only suited to burden the eye. There are poems that are written with an audible voice in my head and these are surely, the ones that find a sound stage. I have to add that I really enjoy reading. When I stand at the podium, sails lift inside of me. The Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria are off inside of my limbs and each poem is a new America. A nervous (sometimes very nervous) excitement builds until it finds itself in a new world. There is something familiar about reading the poem aloud—perhaps because I have done so many times. There is also the thrill of foreign discovery: moments the audience laughs when I didn’t expect them to or lines that hang in the air long enough for people to recite them back to me at the end. I often find myself feeling just as scintillated when I see someone recite his or her own work.
So why all of this obsessive thinking about the recitation of memorized poems? Many of you may feel that yes, well, knowing one’s work is part of a being a poet—a way of making the work, “one’s own.” The truth is that a friend and fellow poet and I got into a slightly heated (on my part) debate. He said that he didn’t like when people recited their work; it made him nervous. He liked a fellow poet’s recitation the least of one particular reading, which I only assumed, was also what he hated about mine. He said that finding recitation favorable was “a matter of taste” and that the time one spends time memorizing could be the time one spent writing. This is one of those moments when I realize that you, dear reader, may align yourself with the enemy and say, well yes it is a waste of time! Yes, one could be writing new poems instead of memorizing. However, what you need to realize (and probably already know) is that for every ten poems you write, one or two will be “good.” I say, you could have spent the time writing those crappy poems, memorizing the one or two good poems.
In short, My Friend Against Memorization believes that memorizing one’s poems and reciting them from memory at a reading is a waste of time, if not a little pretentious. Given my love of arguing, and the challenge (because it truly is a personal challenge) of memorizing one’s work, I made this a personal battle. I stated that for one, his poems were not the kind of poems that begged to be memorized and given flight by the reader’s eye contact and tone. He agreed. I offered this notion as a small white flag and suggested that perhaps this was why he felt so beleaguered by memorization. I also pointed out that some poems lie flat on the page but when spoken, are infused with a gorgeous rage that is confirmed on the faces of the people listening. Most poets I know are in awe of other poets who read from memory. So why does my friend disagree so wholeheartedly? Is there something I am missing? Am I caught up in the glam of performing? (I am a Leo, after all…)
I think part of the answer lies in the way we accept confrontation. Rector’s knowledge was intimidating to a young graduate student. However, his delivery also enforced a power that few recognize until they are faced with it. I’d like to think of the audience like the soon-to-be-prey of a rattlesnake or a deer in the headlights of a clattering car that will not have time to move. We are all shaken, even if just a little bit, by something coming head on. When a poet is at the podium, staring at you, reading a piece of work, there is no red cape. You can look away, but you feel that poet’s eyes on you like a bull charging. In a memorized poetry reading the tauromachy becomes human. It is going to draw an opinion from the crowd and that opinion is based on how one feels about being taken and swept up into someone else’s world. This isn’t to say that if you aren’t impressed by the memorization of a poem that there is something wrong with you or that you avoid confrontation or conflict. But I do think, that if you can’t find something innate, something diamond and startling about a poet who delivers a poem, eyes locked to the audience, like a line drive to the heart, that you are missing one of the targets of poetry itself. Why keep all of it on the page? Why not give yourself up to the poem entirely?
Poetry began in the mouth. It was given by the voice as a gift. Today we write on Macs and Dells and print out a stark white sheet with little black letters on it and these letters spell something and that something is read—silently or aloud. I think that there are poems that can exist and be resonate if only seen and read silently. I’ve seen Joshua Beckman read directly from the page and feel just as inspired as when Carolyn Forche recites The Colonel. But I also believe that hearing a poet recite a piece from memory is like watching a plane take off from the runway.
You know that both poet and poem are connected, but you also need to see and hear the poem delivered completely away from the page, to know it can fly. I felt this way when I heard Eileen Myles read. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Sorry, Tree before, but hearing her tone injected a fire into me that didn’t exist in the private experience of me and the page alone. Hearing her recite pieces of the book, hearing her give not only her voice but the poem to us, cemented the experience. This experience, I believe, is an experience. When you go to hear live music, you want to feel what the musician is singing. Of course some musician’s lyrics stand alone, but most require the live presentation to sustain a following. All of us are a little bit Amelia Earhart—we stand in the field and wait for that plane to soar over us just as we sit at a reading and pray not to be bored. When a writer is reciting from memory, I pay attention a little more and I’m less inclined to let the words slip in and out of me as fast as they are spoken.
The topic of memorizing other poet’s poems is one that I am preparing to delve into and I assure you, that if you stay tuned, I can offer more insight into what is a kind of craft—just as nostalgic as making a book by hand. Poets Who Memorize the work of “classic” and contemporary poets are like physicists who internalize the periodic table or pilots who know the migration of all the birds on their flight path. I have several friends who try to memorize another poet’s poem each week. I regard them with mixed jealousy and respect. I think if we want to be responsible writers, we should commit to knowing a few pieces that live inside of us, not only in a book. The truth is, it IS difficult to memorize many of the nuances in a poem, especially ones that are wrought with complicated enjambment. Therefore, by accepting the challenge, you can only further the ownership of each poem you write.
This weekend I had the pleasure of hearing Heather Christle read from her debut book, The Difficult Farm. She sat at the microphone and proceeded to recite—Every. Single. Poem. It wasn’t just the fact that Christle was a Poet Who Memorized, it was that the poems became ours too. She read in a slightly monotone voice, a slight smile on her face. It complemented, if not elevated, her work. Mid-reading, I messaged My Friend Against Memorization, who is also a huge fan of Christle’s, just to let him know that one his favorite poets could be scratched off the list of Poets Who Have Taste. Just to let him know that, you know, maybe I was just a little bit right about something. He texted me back: Reynolds-1, Me-0.
Today I thought I should add my secret voice to your evaluations.
Your intelligence may be genius, but remember as my mother said also always be nice.
A seventh grade teacher consoled me when I was teased:
You can always tell the genius by the enemies who surround him.
Try, though it’s impossible. See JA. Make no enemies.
Well, you’ll always have aesthetic enemies just by liking something “they don’t.”
But I’ve noticed even one personal enemy is too much in the tiny circle of Prospero’s Kabbalah.
You impress me and you’re so young, so you have I think one task: Go on! Keep working,
and keep your opinions growing widening and changing.
One day love Chatterton. The next day read Villon.
One month give up to Proust, one year give up to Kafka.
Pound’s big canon is correct: Be curious like a physical scientist (Aggazis for Pound).
Keep your work, throw nothing away, it might be the best you’ll do one day.
Don’t be arrogant with the stupid as I was accused and am.
See the dynamics of politics and art but without getting bitter.
Reject none of the great religions—read and memorize all sacred texts without belief.
Or keep them with you if must for certain periods.
Be interested in all the arts. That includes architecture, dance, painting, sculpture.
Read more than philosophers in philosophy.
But don’t make your poems be a vessel just of abstractions.
Exercise in real life, stay healthy, don’t take drugs, don’t drink like kids.
Read all the old magazines. Find a library that has them.
Know 1952 and 1852 as if they were 2010.
Have together in your mind the value of the concrete particular.
Make your work dazzle but not razzledazzle—make your being elegant and defended.
Read all of Shakespeare and the great commentaries—that doesn’t just mean Uncle Harold necessarily.
Learn languages. Each language is worth 500,000 or more.
When you learn a language, keep it up.
Translate a page every day.
I mean mistranslate a page every day and that will be a religious duty.
Don’t be a Rilke—practicing vulnerability.
Make it your business to read Marx AND Finnegans Wake.
Search out no great men—be a great man.
Don’t let emotional problems destroy you.
Don’t commit suicide obviously, and learn to scorn it but not the victim.
Don’t get married too young and if you have to write love poems, do.
Try writing 20 songs a year.
Try writing short stories. Read Kawabata.
Read everything that Meyer Schapiro footnotes.
Learn to travel and be one “on whom nothing is lost.”
Continue reading James even if others tell you they haven’t.
They will and they will have the subtlest teacher. Therefore,
read William and Henry and their father. Good luck,
David Shapiro in a Polonius-like mood.
I’m planning on doing another entry today about Grossman, but I’m at work and I forgot my copy of Singer. In the meantime, I wanted to share a BBC series that is available on YouTube. A professor I know shared this with me, after I shared a link to Simon Schama’s Power of Art episode on Rembrandt.
I’m sharing this video (and my e-mail response to that professor) in an attempt to balance my Grossman post from last week, lest you think I’m only a cranky traditionalist.
First, the video…
And my email response to this professor…
an interesting set of videos.
though i’m not sure i’d start where scruton starts: art being buffeted on two sides by the cult of ugliness and the cult of utility. i think that’s putting the cart before the horse, in a sense, because it implies a sort of propriety about what art should contain and what it should not. i’m not the only poet who is grateful for the high modernist poets like eliot and pound and for the postmodern cornucopia of styles. on the other hand, i recognize the crisis that this freedom has unleashed.
for me, it seems the proper place to start with art is with the person, with a love of persons. in a sense, i would begin where scruton ends. and move backwards through the videos. i think it’s interesting when scruton finally talks about the value of persons (around video 5), he begins to acknowledge the way that messiness, filth, even ugliness can be great art. i’m thinking of a piece like guernica, which is just awful to stare at and ponder. it’s incredibly ugly, in a sense, yet what makes it great and vital, in part, is the fact that it contains the tragedy of persons.
when i look at emmins bed, i see an egoism that is ugly because it the artist has no care for the opinion of the those who see the art: “it’s art because i say it’s art and i don’t give a damn what you have to say about it.” there is no reaching out, no interest in the community that art could serve. the painting of the bed does not demonstrate this hatred for neighbor.
i’m really interested in the idea of the person, and have been reading a lot of jp2 recently. i want it to be less about finding a place where the “real and ideal meet.” i can appreciate that statement but i’m not sure how helpful it is. i feel like the “personalistic norm” is important somehow, but i’m still trying to figure out how.
What did you think of the video? Is Scruton just a cranky traditionalist or does he have valid criticisms about “the cult of ugliness”? Does this cult even exist?