Episode 6 of Poetry Fix. Miroslav Holub’s “Ode to Joy.”
Episode 5 of Poetry Fix! Louise Gluck’s “Mock Orange.”
Episode 4 now available on YouTube. Wallace Stevens’s poem “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts.”
Mary Karr and I have started a YouTube video series called Poetry Fix. Episode 3 is now available. Twice a week on Mondays and Fridays we’ll upload a 2-4 minute video where we read a poem and briefly discuss it.
We’re trying to pimp poetry for average humans. Any feedback is appreciated. We hope you enjoy. And if you do, consider joining Mary’s facebook page and following her on Twitter (@marykarrlit) for more updates. Also, please forward and spread the word!
from Welcome to the Future
so it came time and
no day like that is ever
good in the coming
the bleeding like satin
the river flowing down
and heavy and to the east
dark with soot
crossing the night bridge
the river flowing down
and heavy and to the east
there were roads into bitter
heads between knees
the diminishing systems
bleached and diagonal
the river flowing down
down and no sound
all night the breathing
all night the breathing continued
in lieu of
welcome to the future welcome to the new
I have come into the aware
where the gilt edges are
look all the men
and the distance sitting in the roar
with knotted blue glass
we are aware
as if all is tunnel and paper
there are bodies and
bills in these flattened villa
one waves as we pass him
and home isn’t here
and home isn’t there
and randomly we plead with the officers
to get down from their cophorses and help us
worry the river over its banks
the train into flames
worry the black rain into the city
the troops into times square
worry the windows cracked acidblack
and the children feverblistered
worry never another summer
never again to live here gentle
with the other inhabitants
then leave too quickly
leave the pills and band-aids
the bathroom scale the Christmas lights the dog
go walking on our legs
dense and bare and useless
worry our throats and lungs
into taking the air
leave books on the shelves
leave keys dustpan
telephones don’t work where you were
in the chaos
desolate oblivion face me along the bar
nothing will rest tonight in the high empty room
the nothing closes forever
in a shop-window
and forever opens the heads wide again
the streets bob up incessantly
height is felled wire rises
the glass is laced together with tunnels
the fathers are all glass
all air and windows
Drinking with Richard
Richard propped up the bottles
like bowling pins
I had fallen into despair
did this bother him
when Richard left I broke
my throat I bit my tongue
cracked teeth my mouth split my lip
smashed chairs in the bar trashed
poems I was writing
all this breaking was very expensive
there is no Richard but I think it was Richard
who had the idea of pouring libations
because of the stumbling thirst
because our lives are like that
I am writing this to do as right as possible by Richard
think back to the bed look out at the bar
the fragrant medicinal flasks
I don’t care to drink anymore because when I drink
it makes me hopeless
Richard, are you going to come back
to the bar where you belong
or just leave me here
here is a flask
I am tired of being metaphysical
our bar is a winter bar
at night we need the dream
of all the objects lined up in a row
from Dear Someone
my emptiness has a lake in it deep and watery
with several temperaments milk cola beer
at night the selves are made of water
all the openings flooded streaming with rain
my emptiness has an aqueduct in it
selves rushing through channels
dissolving washing away in streaks
my emptiness has a fish in it
a piece of seaweed liferaft a rocky strait
all night the selves are breaking themselves
again and again on the sandbar
you can’t get out from the drowning
nightwatery the blacksparkling pools
my emptiness has a nowhere reef an island
at night the immersion comes deep-running and sudden
it washes us under and sudden
In the interview, I think I am more talking about popular usage turning compound nouns into contractions while Deborah is on the money with elisions which even Catullus liked to use.
Deborah was not far off when she said I probably wasn’t born when PS122 was a new and exciting thing.
The Last Time I Saw RICHARD.
The Last Time I saw Richard SIKEN.
All poems reprinted with permission from the author. You can, however, see more of Welcome to the Future at TINHOUSE and the excerpt from Dear Someone at THE PARIS REVIEW. Also, one of Deborah’s poems at BEST AMERICAN POETRY BLOG and a blurb and excerpted poem at ANHINGA PRESS.
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.
I have nothing to say today, or nothing specific, only miscellany, no fashion thing has occurred to me. Here you have an image of Ferula scorodosma, the plant whose dried sap is used to make asafoetida, a rather pungent spice. I received a packet of asafoetida in a box of spices given to me as a gift on my recent birthday – it tasted quite good in a stew of lamb’s neck and potatoes, simmered with orange juice and zest and some milk that had been heated up for coffee earlier in the day and left on the stove.
Speaking of nothing to say, I have been thinking this week about ‘Nothing To Say,’ an intensely sprawling poem from Ann Lauterbach‘s latest collection, Or To Begin Again. The poem takes its title from the opening of John Cage’s ‘Lecture on Nothing.’
But where Cage seems to calmly meditate his absent predicament, Lauterbach tears into hers, into the failings and possibilities of language, deeply felt failings and possibilities.
I have long been a fan of Lauterbach in this mode. ‘N/est,’ an overlooked poem in On a Stair, moves through variations and meditations on finding a home in the world, and preparing one’s body to be a home, i.e. pregnancy, abortion, figuring out how to speak, figuring out how to write. Ethical considerations.
These texts, with their prose-like presence on the page, but broken, or rather with verse breaking into them, breaking the prose apart, approach poetry from the outside, expecting everything of it formally, emotionally, musically. They are not easy to grasp, and are perhaps not meant to be fully grasped, rather read, and deeply felt.
Enough from me, now some ‘Nothing to Say,’ after this 1977 portrait of Ann Lauterbach by Alex Katz:
the excess of a dream, we who had been speaking mildly to each other following collapse, sipping tea in the tearoom, there, sequestered against those others and their meridians on the char, it was difficult in this setting to notice, although the waitress was an actress, her lips scarlet, but this was only the lure of
glamour, toned muscles of the arm, cleft above the thigh. Found her there again, walking the horizon, where what was alive and what not alive almost touched, as moments touch, walking now with her sister on the other side of the line which is an illusion, the line, not the sister, she was there, among all the sisters, their chorale in the meadow, now turning now following the path
I also couldn’t resist posting this wonderful footage of Lauterbach in conversation with Grace Paley in 1975.
We begin with an Interview with David Shapiro responding to Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn and much more. (You can catch up on the conversation by checking out last week’s post which included contributions from Alfred Corn, Richard Howard, Don Share, Dara Wier, and Richard Zenith.)
MORE RESPONSES FROM POETS AND CRITICS
That urn is cold. I find it strange that several poets and scholars speak of the beauty-truth equation as the last lines of the poem. That equation has called forth so much fuss – its bald assertiveness is immensely persuasive at first hearing, then almost instantly the mind rebels against the symmetry of identity. The equation seems like a handsome face you glimpse in the crowd—it teeters between vapidity and sublimity, depending on whether you keep on gazing or else close your eyes to retain the first impression. This very oscillation is Keats’ work, his way of bracing us for the actual conclusion of the poem: the last words the urn addresses to us, assuring us that the equation, problematic as it seems, is all we know on earth, and all we need to know.
If in fact we are the ‘ye’ –archaic second person plural familiar—spoken of twice in those last lines.
That urn is cold – ‘cold pastoral’ we have heard, the chill ring of marble. The strophes of the ode grow progressively more somber. The passions and delights pictured on the urn are sublated into eternity, which is usually a pretty chilly condition in Christendom – one doesn’t think of eternity as the prolongation of life but as the prolongation of the tomb, the marble replica of life – which this Grecian urn also is.
And the cold, marmoreal, eternal, all-encompassing time-denying Thing speaks to us, from the serene apartness of things, and says …all ye know, and … all ye need to know.
Experiment: Try hearing, just for once, the stress placed firmly on the ye. Then, with the sprezzatura so appropriate to artist and artifact alike, a creature from eternity condescends to speak to our flesh-bound mortality, whose antics the marble creature literally comprehends and (perhaps with infinite, tender subtlety) envies.
All ye know on earth – beauty, truth, these glorious abstractions, easily revered, more easily compromised. And that equation will serve people like you in your contingencies and trivial earthly need for reassurance that there is something to understand in life, and that you understand it. With the stress on the ye, I hear an insinuation that some higher, worthier form of knowing exists, whose propositions and parables far exceed the simplistic equation the urn offers us as our consolation.
Or do humankind and urn console each other? The urn consoles us for our transience and we console it for its inability to feel the kiss it holds suspended for two thousand years, unable to pursue the beloved or be pursued, unable to share in the sacrificial meal when the poor heifer is offered up to those vague and nameless deities towards which, even now, she raises her lustrous amber eyes.
I don’t think Keats meant (not that it’s important whether he did or didn’t) or believed the equation – if he had, he would have set it in his own authorial voice, which speaks with all the immense authority that found Keats in that mild May of 1819, the voice that speaks all the rest of the poem. By putting just those words in the urn’s mouth (so to speak) Keats proposes what our cronies overseas would call a rupture, a chasm in the texture of trust and sincerity we still insist on finding in poems. The urn tells us not what truth is, not what beauty is, but what we are.
—Robert Kelly, February 2010
The quotes given, except for Bridges, don’t have much range – from I.A. Richards to M.H. Abrams, we are throughout in the realm of the New Criticism, with the “Word According to Eliot” holding supreme sway. For all that I admire them, these critics shared two limitations evident in their commentary on Keats:
- They’re prejudiced against Romanticism and skeptical of the philosophical underpinnings of Romantic aesthetics (Bloom called them out on this).
- They looked for complexity to the point that they imposed it — mostly, it would seem, as a way of satisfying their own intellectual vanity (7 types, etc.). No one was going to out-sophisticate them! Richards’s disdain for the gullibility of the common reader and Eliot’s mock-modest “I fail to understand it” and his “grammatically meaningless” exemplify this tendency. Eliot wants to prove his superiority to Keats himself (by looking down his nose at Keats’s sentimental abstraction), not just Keats’s readers – and yet Eliot’s the poet of “in my beginning is my end, in my end is my beginning,” etc. and “What the Thunder Said” – a pseudo-philosopher among poets if ever there was one.
Also, there’s the newfound aspiration to a “scientific” kind of literary criticism, modeled on empiricism and the scientific method (doubt as the vehicle of truth), most purely exemplified by Richards. Ask any real scientist – this is largely a sentimental construct in itself.
Brooks and Abrams waffle more sympathetically with their invocation of dramatic context, though frankly this poem is hardly King Lear (nor was it meant to be) and the Urn is hardly a character in the Shakespearian sense. The Urn is an emblem and the quotes are not, cannot be, meant to denote a speaking Urn. This bespeaks another overdone motif of mid-20th century critical orthodoxy: Persona is all. What they really mean is much closer to Williams’s “no ideas but in things” (which Keats is one of the greatest exemplars of, as a supreme poet of the senses and of startlingly immediate imagery) than it is to anything specifically “dramatic.”
Don’t get me wrong, I admire all these critics tremendously, love and admire Eliot’s poetry, and I believe that the New Criticism was a far cry better than most of the ideological and theoretical criticism that followed. But I think they are all (except maybe Bridges), missing the point almost deliberately.
The context of the quote, and the thrust of the poem, is pretty straightforward, actually — and pretty run-of-the-mill for its time. It’s the execution that makes the poem special.
The predominant philosopher for all the Romantics, from Blake to Yeats, was Plato. Plato was the prime philosopher behind 19th century idealist philosophy, and so he was the philosopher that the 20th century empiricists (logical positivists, Popper, etc.), including the aestheticians, rejected first. Keats’s main man in this respect was Joshua Reynolds. Joshua Reynolds’s aesthetics were influenced by Locke, but they were first and foremost Platonic, and Keats’s poem is an extraordinary expression of this most admired contemporary intellectual’s belief in the source of the power of art: the Platonic tenets that a) the contemplation of Beauty leads to Truth and b) the highest forms of art refer to things eternal and immutable.
It’s as simple as that, but I’d add that in this context there are two moments in the poem that wonderfully presage the conclusion in this context:
- “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter…” == pure Platonism (out of Pythagoras). Yeats couldn’t have said it better
- “Cold Pastoral!” – a great moment in the poem, and tougher and brighter and more surprising by far than the ending. Here we’re in the realm of “the sublime” as it was defined by Longinus, then Baudelaire, and more recently by Anne Carson. The sublime is cold, truth is cold, beauty is cold. So much for sentimentality. And so:
The value of Beauty cooled by Truth, hardened by truth, made honest by truth, the sense that all the pleasures of the senses are belated and second-hand: this is at the heart of what Keats (speaking through his megaphonic Urn) has to say as a “friend to man.” This is another way of saying that we can’t really appreciate the value of beauty, or create an honest beauty, without admitting the truth of death to the equation.
One last observation, maybe too cute, but irresistible in the face of Eliot’s huffy “grammatically meaningless”:
If you read the famous statement (pace I.A.) as an equation, i.e. “Beauty = truth truth beauty” what you have is a recipe – a recipe for beauty that is not mere “beauty,” but aesthetically ideal “Beauty.” In other words: real Beauty = one part beauty, two parts truth.
This month marks the 47th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s passing, and my admiration grows more intense by the day—she is my touchstone, my first and last, my desert-island poet. I marvel at what she would’ve written had she lived longer, as each poem grows richer in chronological order.
Below: excerpts from an interview with Peter Orr, recorded in 1962, wherein Plath is wonderfully lucid and charming; candidly speaking about a poet’s life and work, the inextricability of the two. We’re extremely lucky to have access to this recording (and other brilliant videopoems!) here:
I think my poems come immediately out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have—but I must say I cannot sympathize with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying—like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience—and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and an intelligent mind. I think that personal experience is very important, but certainly it shouldn’t be a kind of shut-box and mirror-looking, narcissistic experience. I believe it should be relevant, and relevant to the larger things…
I feel that this development of recording poems, of speaking poems at readings, of having records of poets, I think this is a wonderful thing. I’m very excited by it. In a sense, there’s a return, isn’t there, to the old role of the poet, which was to speak to a group of people, to come across.
Now that I have attained, shall I say, a respectable age, and have had experiences, I feel much more interested in prose, in the novel. I feel that in a novel, for example, you can get in toothbrushes and all the paraphernalia that one finds in daily life, and I find this more difficult in poetry. Poetry, I feel, is a tyrannical discipline, you’ve got to go so far, so fast, in such a small space that you’ve just got to burn away all the peripherals.
As a poet, one lives a bit on air.
I find myself absolutely fulfilled when I have written a poem, when I’m writing one. Having written one, then you fall away very rapidly from having been a poet to becoming a sort of poet in rest, which isn’t the same thing at all. But I think the actual experience of writing a poem is a magnificent one.
Poppies in October : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mlNP81tKdkQ
Medusa : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S63laZCOGQA
Amnesiac : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfiSF8abeCM
Ariel : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJbX5o2gqhM