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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.”

NOTE: In lieu of Grossman today, I’m posting a short essay I wrote on Michael S. Harper’s poem “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” for one of my classes back at Hunter’s MFA program.

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.

Thoughts—deeds—vibrations, etc.

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.

God is.

God loves.

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

always will.

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.

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!

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!

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.

And so they are.

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

He hath.

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.

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

How do you know when you’re “done” a poem?

I’m not speaking about revision, but rather, the act of writing, particularly lyrical free verse. Donna Masini once described it to me (or a class I was in—can’t remember which), as a settling in the body: a literal sense in the poet’s body that there is no more to write. What a strange way to describe it—yet, I find it has been true with me. I’ll be sitting in front of a computer, write a line, and suddenly, intuitively, I know the poem is finished. It’s a sense of relief, that sighing experience when you’ve just removed a splinter (though the process of removing a poem from your body is usually more pleasurable.

Grossman speaks about the silence from which a poem comes. Silence is the place where “all men agree.” Not only this, but one must overcome silence, the gap between speech and no speech (more on that later). But once you’ve broken this barrier, how do you know when to shut up the stream of words? Often, it seems there is no end to the multiplicity. Once you’ve entered a poem, how the hell do you get out?

Grossman speaks about “closure.” Perhaps this isn’t the same as the closing of a poem, yet, once you’ve reached closure, how much further could the poem go? (Does anyone know of a poem that begins with closure and goes from there?) Grossman says:

The poem achieves “closure only when some new cognitive element has been added to the relationship of subject and object. Terminal closure is “something understood.” Closure brings the poem to an end as apocalypse (“dis-closure”) brings Creation to an end.

There seem to be couple different ideas Grossman is drawing on here. “Something understood” refers, perhaps, to an almost Buddhistic sense of Nirvana. The achievement of enlightenment brings about the end: one has finished becoming and is only being. Naturally, this seems like an ending place for the poem (especially if we understand a relationship between being and text—again, more on that in post 5, which is forthcoming).

On the other hand, there is a strong Judeo-Christian understanding of narrative here: the apocalypse, the end that must come (as the diver must eventually finish his dive). Strange to think of a poem and apocalypse as being in the same category, but it makes a certain sense: the poem is an act of a person (godlike) who breaks the silence (ex nihilo?) and at some point comes riding in on a white horse and ends the poem. On the other hand, is it fair to separate the beginning of writing from the myriad of things that inspire it?

Let’s look at an actual poem. I love David Ferry’s translations of Horace’s Odes, and it always amazes me how Horace’s poems seem to snap shut at just the right moment. (Note: I have been unable to get WordPress to get the exact formating of this poem–apologies to David Ferry.)

To Sestius

Horace (trans. David Ferry)

Now the hard winter is breaking up with the welcome coming
Of spring and the spring winds; some fishermen,
Under a sky that looks changed, are hauling their caulked boats
Down to the water; in the winter stables the cattle
Are restless; so is the farmer sitting in front of his fire;
They want to be out of doors in field or pasture;
The frost is gone from the meadow grass in the early mornings.
Maybe, somewhere, the Nymphs and Graces are dancing,
Under the moon the goddess Venus and her dancers;
Somewhere far in the depth of a cloudless sky
Vulcan is getting ready the storms of the coming summer.
Now is the time to garland your shining hair
With myrtle or with the flowers the free-giving earth has given;
Now is the right time to offer the kid or lamb
In sacrifice to Faunus in the firelit shadowy grove.
Revenant white-faced Death is walking not knowing whether
He’s going to knock at a rich man’s door or a poor man’s.
O good-looking fortunate Sestius, don’t put your hope in the future;
The night is falling; the shades are gathering around;
The walls of Pluto’s shadowy house are closing you in.
There who will be lord of the feast? What will it matter,
What will it matter there, whether you fell in love with Lycidas,
This girl or that girl with him, or he with her?

There is one clear arc through this poem that indicates the end is coming: it moves from dawn (of spring) to evening (of life). While not about a literal day, the movements of a day are naturally contained (and what a beautiful and subtle shift from the seasons to life here—one that’s been done a million times, it’s true—yet so perfect and worth repeating; c.f., Joe Weil on the Ballad. Joe’s post reminded me of a poem from Wendell Berry’s Given—the title of the poem escapes me at the moment—in which an artist states that he would be perfectly content painting the very same river over and over, that this was the ideal of every artist.). The ur-movement from morning to evening, and the association of it with the seasons (and thus life itself) is, I think, what Bly was getting at when he referred to “deep image.” I suspect such “deep images” that are arguably shared between even wildly diverse cultures have something to do with the where and when of our poems, the sense of when a poem “feels” “closed” to us.

But this movement from day to evening is not everything. If it were, the poem would not contain the “new cognitive element” of which Grossman speaks. The whole poem is an address, yet the addressee is not revealed until the very end. Indeed, grammatically, there is no clue that it is a poem of address (as opposed to private musings “overheard” by us, the audience), until the very end. The convergence of the “deep image” of day and the revelation of Sestius helps achieve, perhaps, what Grossman referred to as a “new cognitive element” that is “added to the relationship of subject and object.”

There is more going on here that indicates the ending (the repetition of words and the question are a rhythmic indication), but I suspect the address to Sestius (culminating in a question only) combined with the movement from day to evening is the basic structure of the poem. Horace is allowed to end on a question, not because it is open-ended, but it is the natural completion of the thought. Nighttime brings about both closure and anxiety (What will come tomorrow? Was today sufficient?). Thus it is entirely appropriate to end on this note, and not at all a (deliberate) incomplete ending.

On one other note, Grossman believes that the “occasion for generative speech” (i.e., poetry), is “some dislocation or ‘disease’ of the relationship of a subject and an object….Creation is not the speaking itself but the primordial disease or fall which thrusts me into a predicament in which speech is the only way.” This idea seems to conflict with the idea that Wendell Berry articulates, that a poet should be content to stare at the same river, rejoicing continually in it, painting the same thing over and over (though really, is a river ever the same?). For Grossman, poetry comes out of a problem; for Berry, ideally, poetry comes out of a sense of fullness, of completion (not to the exclusion of problem poetry). Interesting to note that in the creation narrative of Genesis, creation is sung into existence (or rather, the creation narrative itself is a hymn).

(Note I’ve skipped from Part 4 to Part 6. Part 5 is still in the works.)

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

– John Keats


Feeling like “a very village of sorrow,”
Just like Franz Schubert, with each sad bourgeois
Dolorously doleful, I only said
When you asked me for my life-story,
“Well, the world is a funny place, un
Pleasant things can happen.”

I chewed
The silence, cryptic and stupidly.
I felt diminished by myself, much like
The passport photographs that make you look
Like an escaped convict or
The victim of circumstances.

Am the oyster shell, after the
Succulent seaworm’s been devoured,
With only the pretense of sea in your cupped

The next day you wore a
Corsage of pansies.
Exultantly alive, serious scholars
Of melancholy, brave and lionhearted
With thoughtful thoughts.

In this well of eyes before me, icy eyes,
Now in the Broadway 7th Avenue Van Cortlandt
Subway, feeling quite walled in, Henry
David Thoreau breaks the ice, says
“Time is the stream I go a
Fishing in—what about

I, Henry, will study
These pansies, profoundest
Professors of the world’s woes.


I reached a point where there was no
Use going on: my companion said, “Do not waken
The watchman, do not shout, he will die
Of shock if you make the slightest
Sound.” I stood in the utter darkness,
Cold. Without evidence of myself.

The technique of diversion con-
Founds the rival by simulating friendship or
As the Victorians might say, worming
Affections. Then, at the point of trust,
As on this dark stage where on man sleeps
Slumped by the flashlight, to change the
Mode of address, from friend-
Ship to a complete stranger, to shriek-
Ing subtlety, to innuendo, and back to
Friendship. The executive wishes to
Demoralize his employee, perhaps he is slightly

I do not know. At the same time I could not enjoy
The enchanting silly coffee waves, sometimes
Sapphire, which is the fluid stream of our life.
Since then, like William James, I have learned
Ice-skating in my August, after—

At that point I returned;
Since there was no point going on I went back,
I spoke again to the marvelous friends of
My youth: for a short while it was a life.

That you were not willing I am sorry.


I dislike going with a woman
Into a restaurant. There is
A plot of mirrors
All designed to make me self-conscious.

“—Will you
Please top looking at yourself
In your exquisite Cloisonné compact.
Your lips, your hair is
Very nice. Everybody’s eyes say

O voyeurs! intruding
On my domestic date, do you see
Any glory in this ancient

Hunters of
The unshuttered nudes of accidental windows.


I would like to ask that dumb ox, Thomas
Aquinas, why it is, that when you have said
Something — you said it — then they ask you
A month later if it is true? Of course it is!
It is something about them I think. They think
It is something about me. It adds up
To my thinking I must be what I don’t
Know . . .

— The park is certainly
Tranquil tonight: lovers, like ants
Are scurrying into any old darkness,
Covert for kisses. It makes me feel
Old and lonely. I wish that I were
All of them, not with any one,
Would I exchange my lot, but the entire
Scene has a certain Breughel quality
I would participate in. —

Do I have to repeat
Myself. I really mean it.
I am not saying it again to convince myself
But to convince the repressed conviction
Of yourself. I think. I think. I think it.

Easier Than Learning Klingon

Jason Crane reviews John Gallaher’s Map of the Folded World

In the realm of wrong answers, someone

always has the radio on.

– “I Will Sing the Monster to Sleep, & He Will Need Me”


I’ve been watching the middle seasons of Stargate SG-1 again. If you’ve never seen the show, the premise is that there are Stargates that allow instant travel between planets. You step into one and step out into a completely different landscape.

To get around the problem of having to invent new languages for every race of aliens encountered, the producers cut the knot this way: They explained that a particular race of evil aliens had captured many humans from earth and sprinkled them throughout the galaxy to use as slaves. So most of the folks you encounter are human. And most of them speak English, albeit with some interesting variations in dialect.  And no, that last bit doesn’t make any sense, but it sure is easier than having to learn Klingon.

Which brings me to John Gallaher’s Map of the Folded World (University of Akron Press, 2009).  Gallaher has managed to create a language all his own using English words. Reading his poems, I felt like I’d arrived on some other world where the linguistic building blocks were familiar, but the physics of assembling them was completely different, surprising, otherworldly.

Map of the Folded World gathers momentum as it goes, and traveling through it I was quickly swept up into Gallaher’s deft use of language, not really needing to know what something meant so much as to hear how Gallaher had opened up the possibilities of the words by putting them next to one another in surprising ways.

I don’t feel it’s helpful to quote sections of his poems (even though I began this review with my favorite line from the book) because his poems are so dependent on wholeness. To remove any piece for study under the microscope would be to miss the point. Gallaher is sculpting, constructing, imagining, transporting the words. And while I’m sure these poems would be captivating individually, Map of the Folded World is a book; it is held together by the strength of Gallaher’s imagination and by the cascading wash of the language through the volume’s entirety. By the time I reached the end, I felt almost as though I could speak the language, as though I could understand what some of the natives were saying, and maybe even try to carry on a rudimentary conversation of my own.

All of that said, though, it’s worth giving you a chance to experience Gallaher’s linguistic achievements for yourself. Here’s the entire poem from which I quoted above:


I Will Sing the Monster to Sleep,
& He Will Need Me

In the realm of wrong answers, someone
always has the radio on.

Someone is eating, and someone
walking about the room, in the dim café
which ends in a distant range of snow-capped mountains.

There are vanishing people
meeting at the diving board off the window sill,
and a cloud pierced by windows.

There are a lot of things you don’t get to decide.

At first, the evenings were filled with stories, music,
or both, with a beige floor
shaded here and there with red.

And then the children are walking across the gravel
in the dark. Always small footsteps
in any manner of realms.

And they quiver like the moon.

Let’s look for them awhile, and see what we find
beside the intimidating tower at the summit
of the gently rising square.

There will be water in this pool soon.
And we’ll know what happiness is.
There’s time, and figures

moving among the arches.

We will take some questions now, they’ll say.
Please raise your hand.


I love clear, narrative poetry. For me, this is not that. What it is, instead, is something equally valuable and maybe more rare — a transformative experience that occurs through nothing but the careful placement of word blocks on a landscape of Gallaher’s own devising.

Highly recommended.

—Jason Crane

Jason Crane hosts the online jazz interview show The Jazz Session ( and writes poems at His first book, Unexpected Sunlight, is forthcoming from FootHills Publishing.

It’s been a year since that goddamned horse died
and I have yet to pick up the pieces.
It brought me water on down that road.
It took the tarp with buck’d teeth and made a tent

by lifting it over the low branches of a nearby tree.
It’s been a year since that goddamned horse died
and I’ve used all the lessons he taught me
during our time together braving the elements.

My right arm has burned off from the sun’s radiation
and I can no longer call out at night in pain like I used to.
It’s been a year since that goddamned horse died
from swallowing the last of the Brita filters.

And even if having clean water did nothing
it made me feel safe, like we were able to improve our
own condition. It’s been a year since that goddamned
horse died. Triple crown I lost my body, mind, and soul.

Amy Lawless’s first book of poems, Noctis Licentia, was published by Black Maze Books in 2008. Her poems have recently appeared in Sub-Lit, Scapegoat Review, The Paramanu Pentaquark,Forklift, Ohio, Portable Boog Reader 3, Agriculture Reader, Radioactive Moat, Pax Americana, Sink Review, and Barrow Street. Lawless holds a degree in journalism from Boston University and an MFA in poetry from The New School. She  teaches at John Jay College, and lives in Brooklyn. For more about Amy, check out her blog, (F)LAWLESS.

To honor the first day of National Poetry Month, I want to share this poem by Bill Wadsworth — the progenitor of NPM, launched in 1996. Bill is an extraordinary writer, advocate and teacher of poetry — I’m profoundly grateful for the work he’s done and continues to do.

For more information about Bill, visit and for more information about NPM:

Read “The River Twice” as three poems: the indented lines first, the italicized lines second, and together for an astonishing whole. This first appeared in Purchase College’s The Submission magazine, Spring 2008, edited by Natalie Eilbert.


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.

Armond White comments on the decline of film criticism:

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.”

Yikes. This isn’t the first time White’s burned all his bridges:

[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.

I’m sitting up in bed, or on the couch, as it were, where I have been trying to sleep off the slew of vodka-and-tonics I downed last night at our Sand Paper Press reading here in Portland.  Shawn Vandor, whose Fire at the end of the rainbow was just reviewed over at Dossier, and I read at 220 Salon.  Happily I had the chance to meet and fraternize with thethe’s own Evan Hansen.

Happily too I have had the chance to experience a temperate spring.  In my new adopted home we have a desert spring, which is an entirely different beast.   Anyway, it’s been good to see green grass against mud and cherry trees in blossom.  All of this reminds me of the wonderful lineage of cold muddy spring poems.  There’s ‘Spring and All’

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines—

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches—

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind—

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined—
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of
entrance—Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted they
grip down and begin to awaken

And then there’s ‘A Cold Spring,’ poem that adds its title to the marquee of Elizabeth Bishop’s 1955 updated North & South.  Unfortunately the wintereb is not obliging me, and I cannot find a text of said poem to paste and copy, nor can I manage to get myself out of bed, or off the couch rather, to open the actual book, which is about five feet away from me on one of Shawn’s shelves.  Truth be said, I have been consumed with convalescence lately; well, not consumed with it actually, more consumed by the idea of it.  But you never know when the time will come.   In fact, several people have been recommending Denton Welch’s In Youth Is Pleasure to me lately.

Anyhow, I’m still stuck in this rhyming couplet thing; I can’t tell whether or not it’s a good idea to post my own poems here; especially this one, which I literally just wrote; but nor can I see why this can’t be a forum for, eh, I hate to call it experimentation, or even worse, abusing the reader, but rather using and misusing this poetry stuff in our fraught digital kingdom.

Oh yes, back to the couplets.  Here are some more.  And to further dispel the mystery, I tried to do these while cycling through the vowel-sounds, or vowel-name sounds: ae, ee, aye, oh, you.  A little like Rimbaud, I guess, but without the intimidation.  So, throat cleared, couplets, voyelles, et le printemps froid:

Here in Portland another day
begins, the sky is the color of spring clay
and in fact it is spring, see
the blossoming tree
outside the window?  The sky
is the color of a sigh.
The blossoms show
that flowers too can mimic snow,
and fall, powdering the air they fall through.
The birds seem to have no clue:
can it be said that they pray
for wings they use to flay
the air and so are free?
Their wings must act the key
to a door locked to the sky,
locked no matter how hard humans try
to stick an intrepid toe
through it.  Unlike the winterland show
of crystallized precipitation, the blue
provides no backdrop to our dreams, who
dance against open black highway
of orbits at rushing play.
Their flight is galaxy,
not of this world; while the birds are free
to roost and be shy,
and only when they die
do they understand how gravity is foe.
One falls lifeless to the petals––or are they snow?
Armies of gust, the white specks form a crew.
Clouds retreat.  The Portland sky is blue.

People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share…

-Paul Simon

Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds….
-Vladimir Nabokov

To my wife Anne, without whose silence this book never would have been written.
-Philip K. Dick, dedication page from The Man in the High Castle

B. If you place two or more people in a lobby, they will produce words that string together discussions regarding recent changes in weather.  If you put one person in a lobby, he or she will hum a tune no one–not even he or she–knows, atonally and incessantly.

C. This is a cat named Silence.  He meows at the door as I write this.

Silence on "Silence" by John Cage

In the Brooklyn apartment where Silence lives, a man came to look at a room for rent.  The human tenants explained to the man about daily tasks.  “We all contribute,” one said, “when it comes to Silence.”

D. My grandfather tells the story of himself as a boy, talking in class.  “Schweig?” the teacher purportedly said, “SCHWEIG!”

E. Somebody in the lobby: “Did you know that ‘Silent’ is what your name means?”  Somebody in the lobby: “What are you writing about?”

“You are invisible,” the computer tells me.

John Cage

(I have nothing to say

and I am saying it and that is

poetry as I need it.)

G. And there was the time when Charles Wright walked in, sat down and said, “Instead of workshop today, I am going to read from this,” and he held up a book whose cover said, SILENCE.  Charles opened the book and started speaking.