This week's critic's pick.
[credit: Becky Luigart-Stayner]
". . .if there's a friend tonight with the old predilection, I'll mix up a martini for the two of us, in the way we like it, filling a small glass pitcher with ice cubes that I've cracked into quarters with my little pincers. Don't smash or shatter the ice: it'll become watery in a moment. Put three or four more cracked cubes into our glasses, to begin the chill. Put the gin or the vodka into the pitcher, then wet the neck of the vermouth bottle with a quickly amputated trickle. Stir the martini vigorously but without sloshing. When the side of the pithcer is misted like a January windowpane pour the drink into the glasses. Don't allow any of the ice in the pitcher to join the awaiting, unmelted ice in the glass. (My friend likes his straight up, so I'll throw away the ice in his glass. But I save it in my own, because a martini on the rocks stays cold longer, and I've avoided the warm fourth or fifth sip from the purer potion.) Now stir the drink inside the iced glass, just once around. Squeeze the lemon peel across the surface -- you've already pared it, from a fat, bright new lemon -- and then run the peel, skin-side down, around the rim of the glass before you drop it in. Serve. Smile."
-- Roger Angell, "Dry Martini" (in Let Me Finish, 2006)
Is there a more mythologized drink than the martini? "Shaken, not stirred." Served by FDR to Churchill. Dry, very dry. With excellent gin you need a minimum of vermouth. (I like Angell's "quickly amputated trickle" above.) With onions it's a gibson. With a lemon twist, as above, or traditional olives, it's a martini.
I like it made with gin, straight up, dry, very cold, and shaken. Served in the right glass, "the narcissus stalk rising to a 1939 World's Fair triangle above" (Angell). Recommended gins include Hendrick's and Citadel (both on the herbal side), Miller's, Plymouth. Broker's, Tanqueray, Beefeater, Boodles, Bombay. Keep the gin [or vodka] in the freezer.
A reader asks: I hear we are in a bear market. What should I do?
I hear this question all the time:
In a bear market, what should I do?
The answer is simple, economical, perhaps surprising.
The answer is: Nothing!
In a bear market, do nothing!
Do not check the Dow Jones Industrial Average
or the S & P 500 Index.
Do not ask for stock quotes.
Look not at the Value Line or Barron's
or whatever you read for financial guidance.
Whatever you were thinking of doing,
don't do it. Do nothing. Do not take
your broker's calls, if you have a broker.
If you are a broker, take a break.
Go to a Yankee game. Bide your time.
Do not sell unless you have no choice
and do not buy unless your risk-tolerance is high
and you have some rainy-day cash to make
a long-term bet on some beaten-down
blue chip stock like GE!
Lehman went into the Banana Republic on the corner of Bleecker and Sixth and tried on a pair of "easy fit" jeans. He had Orwell on his brain and could figure out that this pair of jeans was for the fat. For fat folks. For fat fucken people. Lehman no like. Lehman decide to downgrade Gap (which owns Banana Republic as well as Old Navy stores) from 23 to 20. Politics played no art in this decision.
"It's hard to lose three pounds," Lehman said. "Much wiser to shave three points from the value of an inflated former growth stock."
Mitch: Jeez, Blatchford, you look like hell. You remind me of something Bugs Bunny said on a Disney children's record circa 1948: "What's the matter, tortoise? Got rigor mortis?" What's eating you, man? You used to be a good looking guy. Now you look like a hobgoblin or something.
Blatchford Sarnemington: I'm depressed. You know that line from Ashbery: "the plant realizes it will never be a tree"? That's how I feel. I'm beginning to doubt that I'll ever write a great poem and it's plunging me into despair.
Mitch: Well, it's interesting you should mention that. Do you know Pete Smigelski?
Blatchford Sarnemington: Of course I know him. He and I were partners in the industrial vacuum cleaner business for twenty-five years.
Mitch: Cool. So guess what? I just spoke with Pete Smigelski and he's writing poems like a man on fire. But not long ago he was in the same condition you're in now, maybe even worse. He was doing Eeyore, man, walking around all day like a donkey. Then he realized what his problem was: he didn't have a muse. So he ran some ads on the Internet and he got this total fox to muse for him. Now he's a writing machine. Good stuff too. He's hitting 'em with the bases loaded, as Hemingway used to say.
Blatchford Sarnemington: A muse, eh? Well, that might work for Pete Smigelski but it wouldn't help in my case. As Eliot put it, "I do not think they will sing for me."
Mitch: Or as Eeyore put it, "Hee haw, hee haw." Listen, Blatchford, if you want to make dysfunctional choices in your life go right ahead and wear the damn bottoms of your trousers rolled. Be a wuss if that's what satisfies your needs. On the other hand, maybe what worked for Pete Smigelski could work for you. As Ashbery wrote, "When you've got nothing left to lose, get yourself a muse."
Blatchford Sarnemington: That's Ashbery?
Mitch: Yes. Milton Ashbery.
Blatchford Sarnemington: (after a long pause) Well, I'll think about it.
Mitch: Okay, bro. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single shlep.
(to be continued)
Lehman went to the Boao Forum for Asia, on the southern Chinese island of Hainan, in pursuit of a partner for a brokerage joint-venture in China. Yang Zee Ha, correspondent for Nihao (Beijing), reported that Lehman was conducting "active discussions" with "potential partners" for a "long-term liaison." No names were given, but hotel records indicated that Rose Tatou, Coco Riesling, China Dollar, Samantha Fang, and Ho Ra were among the nommes de guerre chosen by women guests at the posh Hainan Retreat, where "partner suitability" tests were performed in suite #611 last week.
-- D. L.
A reader asks: If I have five thousand dollars to invest, how should I do it? There are so many mutual funds. How do you choose among them?
Thanks for this very good question, Linda. If you are investing for the long run, you will want to begin with a conservative growth-and-income approach. Remember the wisdom of diversification. Irving Berlin wrote a great song, "I'm Putting All My Eggs In One Basket," which is a sweet strategy in love, where risk varies directly with romance, but is a foolish policy in the stock market. That is why a combination of mutual funds (which own a basket of stocks and bonds) rather than individual stock picks generally makes the most sense for your Roth-IRA or other long-term investment dollar.
Say you have $5,000 -- a modest advance from a small press for your proposed study of opening and closing lines in epic poems from Homer to Byron. (Wonderful idea, by the way.) You might divide your investment between a diversified equity-income fund and a slightly more aggressive but also diversified mid-cap growth fund. OK, but which ones?
A good way to choose is on the basis of the fund manager: his or her track record and longevity. It's a very good sign when a fund has outperformed its peer group for periods of one year, three years, and ten years -- and when the same manager has been at the helm the whole while.
Brian Rogers has run T. Rowe Price's Equity Income Fund for more than fifteen years and has a sterling record in both bull and bear markets. The same is true for two excellent Fidelity funds, Fidelity Contrafund (run by Will Danoff) and Low-Priced Stock Fund (run by Joel Tillinghast): either would make a worthy choice for the growth half of your portfolio.
Caveat: nothing said here is intended as a specific buy-sell recommendation; examples are given for instructional purposes only.
Readers are invited to send in queries for future columns.
Eugenia Perpetua Butler might have been willing to be your Muse, Mitch.
A funny, uncompromising woman and conceptual artist, she died last month unexpectedly at the age of 61. Butler was one volume shy of completing her latest project, the "Book of Lies"—a work created to examine how other artists (including poets) use "the lie to explore our relationship to the truth."
Last year, the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica marked an exhibit with a series of private dinners. Every guest was expected to come to the Gallery ready to answer the following questions:
What is the lie in which I am most complicit? What is the truth that most feeds my life?
Tomorrow night is Passover. And in a few hours, I will head over to my own family dinner-cum-talk-service to eat and ask interesting questions. If I'm lucky (and if my son and his friend are unlucky), we'll talk so much my stomach will grumble. Or maybe that's exactly what we want out of Passover seders. I'm not sure I know.
Pete: My writing's going really, really great! I'm in the zone, man! I'm on autopilot! Jesus Christ, it used to be that if I wrote one poem a week I felt good. Now I'm writing a poem every couple of hours! It's amazing!
Mitch: Wow, Pete. What do you think has made the difference?
Pete: It's very simple. I never had a muse! I never had an inspiration! I was writing poems but I didn't know who the fuck I was writing them for. Then just by chance I happened to google Robert Graves and started reading about his concept of the White Goddess. That's when it hit me. I needed a fucking muse!
Mitch: So what did you do?
Pete: Well, I figured that if I found out about Robert Graves on the internet, maybe I could get a muse there too. So I did a little editing of my profile on match.com and in the Onion personals. I mentioned that I was looking for a muse -- and I must have gotten a dozen responses in the first week. I met up with Jennifer, and the rest is literary history!
Mitch: That's Jennifer in the photo?
Pete: That's her! That's my muse! Listen Mitch, if you're trying to write poetry without a muse you're an asshole. Not just you, but anybody who's trying to write without a muse. The poetry writing public has got to be made aware of this. You remember how Pound used to eat his heart out about what America would be like if the classics had a wide circulation? Well, that's how I feel about poets and muses. If people would glom onto this the whole poetry scene would be fucking transformed overnight!
Mitch: Hm. Let me give this some thought, Pete. You might be on to something.
Pete: You bet I am!
(to be continued)
The new Parnassus: Poetry in Review, edited by Herbert Leibowitz and Ben Downing, is finally out. (Supposedly a semiannual, it’s more like a biannual!) The thing is massive. It’s almost 700 pages, and it’s a bargain at $15 (though you might have pay to repair your rotator cuff after attempting to lift it). If you don’t know Parnassus--though if your on the BAP site I bet you do--you must check it out:
a) because it’s been around for 30 years and is one of the only journals I can think of that is devoted almost exclusively to poetry criticism (it has poems, too, but a relative smattering and almost as an afterthought). Criticism is Parnassus's meat and potatoes, and over the years it has featured the best critics around: Helen Vendler, Donald Davie, Guy Davenport, Paul Mariani, John Bayley, Donald Sutherland, Michael Wood, M. L. Rosenthal, Christopher Ricks, Ross Feld, Adrienne Rich, Hugh Kenner, Howard Nemerov, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Williams, Denis Donoghue, and Seamus Heaney. And that’s only the first five volumes! And, because
b) it probably won’t be around for much longer. In fact, it’s enjoying a Lazarus-like revival at the moment. A year or so ago, the magazine announced it was closing doors. When Willard Speigelman, editor of the excellent Southwest Review, wrote a valedictory piece on Parnassus in The Wall Street Journal an angel (the kind with dosh not wings) sent them some do-re-me to see them through another issue or two. But after that, who knows?
Words that come to mind to describe Parnassus are independent, eclectic, frank, elegant, witty, erudite. Parnassus espouses no school or program. It is unafraid to discriminate. It is generous with space, and exacting in maters of style. It stands in opposition to mealy-mouthed writing. Timidity in literary criticism, Herb Leibowitz writes in the 25th anniversary number, is “failure of nerve.” It “quashes the frank exchange of ideas . . . What should be a bracing intramural conversation turns bland, parochial, prevaricating.”
In that same issue Leibowitz explains that he stubbornly maintained “that poetry criticism is an art, one requiring airtight argument, a passion for style, and even an entertainer’s wit and timing.” Susan Sontag called it “the best magazine in the United States, no, in the World, particularly, she said, in its loving attention to style. . . .”
Here’s some highlights from the latest issue:
Eric Ormsby on La Fontaine;
Mark Polizzotti on Surrealism;
Eric Murphy Selinger on Latino and Latina Poetry
Cathy Park Hong on Asian-American Poetry;
Mark Scroggins on Ronald Johnson;
Daniel Albright on Shakespeare's Songs;
Tom Sleigh on Moosehunting with Robert Duncan;
William Logan on Robert Frost;
Leonard Barkan on Ekphrastic Poems;
Paul West The Shadow Factory (Memoir);
Richard Wilbur's translation Corneille's "The Liar";
Mark Halliday on Kenneth Koch (pictured).
Oh yeah, and a bunch of poems (including a few by me, I should say, though I dare you to find them amid the reams of good stuff here).
Thanks for a great week BAP! I’m out a here. As Avon Barksdale once said on David Simon’s brilliant series “The Wire”: “Take it slow, but take it.” I had a super time!
The Marriage of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere
King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (Part Two)
T. S. Eliot paid Tennyson a decidedly left-handed compliment when he marveled at how the Poet Laureate of Victorian England had “adapted this great British epic material” and made it “suitable reading for a girls’ school.” There’s some truth to this; Tennyson valued piety as assistant professors today value subversiveness. Nor is narrative his strong suit. Still, his peerless ear offers ample compensation. When Arthur weds Guinevere, it’s in a perfect pentameter line: “Let chance what will, I love thee to the death!”
The triple iteration of “May” that precedes the exchange of marital vows is exquisite: “Far shone the fields of May thro’ open door,/ The sacred altar blossom’d white with May,/ The sun of May descended on their King, / They gazed on all earth’s beauty in their Queen.”
Idylls of the King follows Malory in opening with the “coming of Arthur” and closing with his passing. Most medieval romances take place somewhere between these two poles, but in most Arthur is a background figure, at best a figurehead, at worst a cuckold. Yet some of these works far exceed Malory in literary greatness. Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal and Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan are unsurpassed renderings of the quest for the Holy Grail and the love story of Tristan and Isolde.
Undoubtedly the finest Arthurian narrative in medieval English is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by an unknown poet writing at the end of the fourteenth century. A giant of a man, green in hue from top to toe, rides into Camelot and challenges any knight to “exchange one heavy blow for another.” Sir Gawain accepts. The Green Knight gives Gawain his battle-ax and awaits the first blow without armor. Gawain strikes, the giant’s “handsome head fell from the neck to the earth,” and yet “the knight never staggered or fell.” Calmly he picks up his head and rides off saying he expects his rematch in one year and a day.
And that's just the beginning. W. S. Merwin's verse translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2004), which I've been quoting, renews the conviction that this medieval romance is one of the glories of world literature.
Giorgio de Chirico - Italian painter, writer, theatre designer, sculptor and printmaker. De Chirico was one of the originators of Pittura Metafisica. His paintings are characterized by a visionary, poetic use of imagery, in which themes such as nostalgia, enigma and myth are explored. He was an important source of inspiration for artists throughout Europe in the inter-war years and again for a new generation of painters in the 1980s. His abrupt stylistic changes, however, have obscured the continuity of his approach, which was rooted in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, and this has often led to controversy.
When asked about writers who had influenced him, John Ashbery cited de Chirico and encouraged his audience to read de Chirico's work including the de Chirco novel written in French that Ashbery himself translated. The poet took the title of his 1970 collection The Double Dream of Spring from a de Chirico painting. "De Chirico's novels would be among those that Andre Breton would want if stranded on a desert island," Ashbery noted.
So I'm riding the train to work this morning, and I have to say: the subway can be a wonderful place sometimes. I’m surrounded by people, but I don’t need to make conversation (in fact conversation is tacitly discouraged). People jostle each other, make room for each other, secretly check each other out, ignore each other, read, coast, float. It’s a weird instance of privacy in public. For a few minutes out of their day, people aren’t multi-tasking, taking the bull by the horns, kickin’ ass and taking names; they are swaying with the movement of the tracks, thinking, staring blankly, listening to music, people-watching, taking it all in, working out the meaning of life, or not. Here’s a painting by my friend John Dubrow, whose new show opens today at Lori Bookstein Fine Art on 57th Street in Manhattan:
The painting grew out of a thirty-second sketch that John made while riding the train. Unlike most of his paintings, which get reworked for years, this one came together quickly, with few alterations to the basic composition. It captures the public-private thing I’m talking about.
Of course, the subway can also be a tense place. The downside of people being in their own worlds is that they can be completely inconsiderate to others. I’m afraid I can gat a bit obsessive on this subject. If only that guy would move his bag so that somebody could sit down. (Did his bag pay $2 for a seat on the subway.) And how come, when the electronic announcement encourages people to step all the way into the train, do people stand crowding the doorway. If only they would have a little consideration, that poor slob on the platform could actually get on the train instead of having to wait for the next one. Let people on! Let people off! OK, I need to take a breath. It’s impossible to get through one’s commute without having to make a number of telling ethical and even moral decisions involving the way in which we behave toward others.
The inevitable frustrations of the subway, though, are surprisingly mild, given how many people ride it every day. It rarely gets as bad as this:
What could have been the big to-do
that caused him to push me aside
on that platform? Was a woman who knew
there must be some good even inside
an ass like him on board that train?
Charity? Frances? His last chance
in a ratty srtring of last chances? Jane?
Surely in all of us is some good.
Love thy bloody neighbor, buddy,
lest she shove back. Maybe I should.
It’s probably just some cruddy
downtown interview leading to
a cheap-tie, careerist, dull
cul-de-sac he’s speeding to.
Can he catch up with his soul?
Really, what was the big crisis?
Did he need to know before me
whether the lights searching the crowd’s eyes
were those of our train, or maybe
the train of who he might have been,
the person his own-heart-numbing,
me-shoving anxiety about being
prevents him from ever becoming?
And how has his thoughtlessness defiled
who I was before he shoved me?
How might I be smiling now if he’d smiled,
hanging back, as though he might have loved me?
This poem, by J. Allyn Rosser, is from her latest book, Foiled Again, which won this year's New Criterion Prize. Full disclosure: I was on the panel of five judges that chose it. It’s loaded with excellent stuff. Straphangers and other poetry lovers should check it out.
-- D. Y.
For those of you joining us for the first time, our guest blogger this week is David Yezzi. David Yezzi has published three volumes of poetry, most recently, Azores (Swallow Press, 2008). His poems and criticism have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, New York Times Book Review, Wall Street Journal, New Republic, The Best American Poetry 2006, and elsewhere. He is executive editor of the New Criterion. Read all of his posts here.
Yesterday the phone rang at 4:40. Alice Quinn, executive director of the Poetry Society of America, said, "Tomorrow is `Put a Poem in Your Pocket Day,' and Mayor Bloomberg has written a poem and published it -- his first -- in today's Metro New York.
Can you write a new poem using the first line of the Mayor's? It doesn't have to respond to his.
"Yes," I said."You know me, Alice. There's nothing I like better than a challenge."
"You have to do it in the next twenty minutes," she replied.
This is what I wrote. It's on page two of today's Metro New York.
Poem for Mayor Bloomberg Beginning with a Line of His
"Pardon me, Sir. I've a question or two."
That's what they all say.
What they really mean is: will you
listen to my rant of the day
which blames our problems as a nation
on the lack of a unifying vision
giving rise to such frustration
that people will embrace any illusion
that knocks on the door, and more along
these lines until you, Mr. Mayor,
say: is there a question here?
I say: Take the day off. Sing a song
like "(We'll Have) Manhattan." You, sir,
can count on the poetry vote. Cheers!
“We had macaroni for lunch every day,” John Ashbery read, “except Sunday, when a small quail was induced / to be served to us”
This produced laughter from the audience. Mr. Ashbery looked up from the page at us, and delivered the last two lines:
“Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.”
But we were there — at least three hundred of us, possibly more — we’d come to see him, to hear him tell us these things, and more things. Every chair was taken in Wollman Hall and those audience members who’d arrived not late, but not early, either stood or sat on the floor. The poem, titled, “The Room,” begins:
“The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.”
At the start of the evening, in his introduction, the poet and scholar David Lehman said that he’d studied Ashbery’s poetry as an undergraduate at Columbia University. And while Mr. Ashbery read from Notes From the Air, the two men sat side by side at the table, as intimately unacquainted as people sharing a table at the public library, each reading from his own copy of the same book, one aloud, one silently, and Mr. Lehman seemed a student again, absorbed in the poetry of one of his favorite poets.
Mr. Ashbery, in a white shirt, read not slowly, not quickly, and rarely looked up.
After reading from his published poems, Mr. Ashbery pulled loose pages of new poems from a well-handled manila envelope. Now, it wasn’t going to be possible for any of us to follow along, either from a book or from memory.
To hear a poem being read without having had time with the poem on the printed page is to feel mildly unmoored, and in between poems, when Ashbery looked up, his gaze was as piercing as it was opaque, which lent to the sensation. But his gaze is a private gaze that allows for privacy; one needn’t be seen drifting in public.
He read a new poem titled, “He Who Loves and Runs Away,” and then searched in silence for another poem to read. As he leafed through his papers, we watched in our own silence, staring at him so intently as though it was our duty to keep him from vanishing between poems.
“I wanted to read something, but I can’t find it,” he finally said.
He moved on to his translation of Reverdy, and then he talked some about his poetry, and took questions.
Of the poem “The History of My Life,” he said, “The poem sounds like straight autobiography, and actually it is, but I didn’t realize it when I was writing it. I had been writing about my own life without knowing it.”
Once upon a time there were two brothers.
Then there was only one: myself.
I grew up fast, before learning to drive,
even. There was I: a stinking adult.
I thought of developing interests
someone might take an interest in. No soap.
I became very weepy for what had seemed
like the pleasant early years. As I aged
increasingly, I also grew more charitable
with regard to my thoughts and ideas,
thinking them at least as good as the next man’s.
Then a great devouring cloud
came and loitered on the horizon, drinking
it up, for what seemed like months or years.
About the strange non-engagement between dreams and life: “We dream, we get up, we go about our business and a few hours later, we’re back to being invaded by dreams. The president dreams, the pope dreams. But we go about our lives as though these dreams never happen.”
Ashbery had read a pantoum, the title poem of his collection, Hotel Lautreamont (which also appears in Notes from the Air: Selected Later Poems.) About this unusual form Ashbery said, “The pantoum is weird and rather frustrating — you have to abandon what you wanted to write and let [the form] write it for you. This is one of the only poems I have written on a computer, and I found it rather helpful.” He usually types his poems on a manual typewriter.
About starting poems in the middle: “The middle is where everyone starts writing. It’s not as though there is a threshold called The Beginning. The same can be said for the end — there’s no formal ending.”
In anticipation of the sixth annual Poem In Your Pocket Day on Thursday, April 17th, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg today published his first poem:
Pardon me, sir, I’ve a question or two …
Sir, you said poetry is a delight…
Reading it makes you smarter, more mature?
But is it better for people not to read verse?
Do you read sonnets? Limericks? Odes?
All these short answers. Why?
Follow-up! What do you do in your free time?
Could poems appeal to the Press?
But can they help with traffic congestion?
The poem appeared today in Metro New York, the paper of choice for commuters stuck in overcrowded trains.
I have not been able to watch The Godfather in recent years. The first scene -- the undertaker asking for "justice" -- is too overwhelming and I can't go on. It's the same with the stunningly powerful films from Coronet. The absence of irony is not something we're used to in this day and age; without that layer of insulation, the effect can be disorienting. Those of us who are students of the cinema may want to compare Coronet techniques with the films Bunuel made in Mexico. Those of us who are not students of the cinema may want to just watch as many of these movies as we can safely handle. Here is the link:
OK, it has been a day from hell--two days from hell, in fact. I don't know about you, but taxes were completely brutal this year. I envy you, if you are one of those fortunate people who actually gets money back! I more than envy you; I want to come stay with you and eat food out of your refrigerator. I'm also exhausted this morning. I was up until 2:30 finishing a review, for which I will receive a small amount of money that will then be reported to the IRS so that I will owe taxes on it next year.
I thought I might write about the blues today. I'm in the mood. I was planning to expatiate on the pleasures of Mississippi John Hurt's alternating-thumb base line on the acoustic guitbox, and how his treble-line melodies infuse traditional songs like "Stack O'Lee Blues," "Casey Jones," and "Frankie and Albert" with his singnature sound. Then there's "Candy Man." "Candy Man"!: "He's got stick candy that's nine inches long, / He sells it faster than a hog can chew his corn / Candyman, candyman!" But I think I'll do that tomorrow . . .
Instead, I want to quote from a book of Macaulay's essays that I picked up on the giveaway shelf at the library this morning. A free book! Things are looking up. Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) was an English poet, reviewer, essayist, historian, and MP for Edinburgh. Here's a bit from his essay on Lord Byron, which I read on the subway on my way to work (I want to quote a bunch of it because, a) it's a great portrait of Byron and B) the prose rocks):
In the rank of Lord Byron, in his understanding, in his character, in his very person, there was a strange union of opposite extremes. He was born to all that men covet and admire. But in every one of those eminent advantages which he possessed over others was mingled something of misery ans debasement. He was sprung from a house, ancient indeed and noble, but degraded and impoverished by a series of crimes and follies which he had attained a scandalous publicity. The kinsman whom he succeeded had died poor, and, but for merciful judges, would have died upon the gallows. The young peer had great intellectual powers; yet there was an unsound part in his mind. He had a naturally generous and feeling heart: but his temper was wayward and irritable. He had a head which statuaries loved to copy, and a foot the deformity of which the beggars in the street mimicked. Distinguished at once by the strength and by the weakness of his intellect, affectionate yet perverse, a poor lord, and a handsome cripple, he required, if ever man required, the firmest and most judicious training.
Macaulay goes on in this vein for quite a while. It's pretty good stuff, and wonderfully sympathetic to Byron, though not nearly as sympathetic as Auden's tribute to him in "Letter to Lord Byron." Auden doesn't name Macaulay, but it's critics of his ilk that he is skewering. In fact, there are enough correspondences between the essay and Auden 's poem that I can't help wondering if Auden had it partly in mind:
I like your muse because she's gay and witty,
Because she's neither prostitute nor frump,
The daughter of a European city,
And country houses long before the slump;
I like her voice that does not make me jump:
And you I find sympatisch, a good townee,
Neither a preacher, ninny, bore, nor Brownie.
A poet, swimmer, peer, and man of action,
--It beats Roy Campell's record by a mile--
You offer every possible attraction.
By looking into your poetic style
And love-life on the chance that both were vile,
Several have earned a decent livelihood,
Whose lives were uncreative but were good.
You've had your packet from the critics, though:
They grant you warmth of heart, but at your head
Their moral and aesthetic brickbats throw.
A "vulgar genius" so George Eliot said,
Which doesn't matter as George Eliot's dead,
But T. S. Eliot, I am sad to find,
Damns you with: "an uninteresting mind".
I've known George Dinwiddie, pictured at left, since we were boys together in Chicago. We played baseball togther, we climbed trees, and when George's turtle died we buried it and dug it up every day for a week. But then, as sometimes happens to close childhood friends, our paths diverged. George matriculated at Cornell and went on to a stellar career as a Professor of English -- mostly at Harvard, with summers at Bologna, Quizmos, Payless, and other universities around the world. I, for my part, suffered one humiliation after another: failed marriages, foot problems, harebrained gambling systems, and bouts of religious mania. But when we met up again completely by chance at a Los Angeles E-Z Lube (George was at UCLA for a semester) we realized that at least one of our shared childhood interests was still burning bright: our passion for Tennyson! So that very day we got together for a leisurely discussion of "Tears, Idle Tears," from Tennyson's long work entitled "The Princess." A bit of that conversation is offered below. But first, the text of the poem itself:
Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather in the eyes,
In looking on the happy autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.
Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,
That brings our friends up from the underworld,
Sad as the last which reddens over one
That sinks with all we love below the verge;
So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more.
Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds
To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.
Dear as remembered kisses after death,
And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned
On lips that are for others; deep as love,
Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more!
Mitch: It's really an incredible poem, isn't it? Do you have a favorite line?
George: Well, two lines actually. "Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns/
The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds..."
Mitch: Yes, those are great ones all right. The average schmuck would have just said "birds." But this guy comes up with "half-awakened birds."
George: It really brings them to life. You see them waking up.
Mitch: The dude is dying just as the world is coming to life. The birds are waking up and he's checking out. "Sad and strange..."
George: "Wild with all regret...." You know what William Saroyan said on his death bed? He said, "I know everybody dies but I thought an exception would be made in my case."
Mitch: Aw haw haw haw! That's funny. Hey, yesterday I was in the waiting room at the doctor's office when the door opened and a guy scuttled in that looked just like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. He went up to the wicket or whatever you call it where there were these two very attractive nurses. Without further ado the Hunchback of Notre Dame tells the following joke: a guy comes into a doctor's office and he has a vibrator stuck up his butt. He says, Doctor you got to help me, I can't get this vibrator out of my butt. So the doctor looks at it and then he says I'm sorry, it's stuck too far up there, I can't get it out. So the guy goes into a panic. He says, you've got to help me! Can't you do something? So the doctor says, Well i can change the battery. This is the joke the Hunchback of Notre Dame told to the two nurses. Then he sat down right across from me in the waiting room. So I said to him, Hey, I've got one. A guy comes to the doctor's office to hear the results of his physical. The doctor says, I've got good news and bad news, which do you want first. The guy says, The bad news. So the doctor says, You've got terminal cancer, you're going to die. So the guy says, Wow that's pretty bad, what's the good news. The doctor says, I'm fucking the receptionist.
George: What's that got to do with Tennyson?
Mitch: Not a damn thing!
George: Aw haw haw! Haw haw haw!
Paul Scofield is my favorite Shakespearean actor. When he died earlier this year, I was fascinated to learn more of the details of his life from the many obituaries, both in the British press and here in America. An intensely private man, he declined a knighthood and preferred the stage over Hollywood. Of course he was great on screen. Every role he took on he made indelibly his own: in A Man for All Seasons, Albee's A Delicate Balance, as the King of France in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, and as Mark Van Doren in Quiz Show. When Scofield's friend Richard Burton returned form California, he told Scofield "You shouldn't be wasting time doing these plays. You could make a fortune in Hollywood." Scofield would have none of it.
In one sense, it is a shame that Scofield did not commit more of his roles to film. For years he was Peter Brooke's star actor on stage, but his Hamlet, to name only one, will never be seen again. Here's how the great theater critic Kenneth Tynan described Scofield's melancholy Dane:
No living actor is better equipped for Hamlet (Phoenix [Theatre]) than Paul Scofield. On him the right sadness sits, and also the right spleen; his gait is a prowl over quicksands; and he can freeze a word with an irony at once mournful and deadly. He plays Hamlet as a man whose skill in smelling falseness extends to himself, thereby breeding self-disgust. He spots the flaw in every stone, which makes him either an idealistic jeweller or a born critic. He sees though Gertrude, Caludius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Polonius and Ophelia--what remains but to see through him self.
Wow. That is some smokin' criticism. Tynan was an ace--more about him in a moment. (For the Burton and Tynan quotes I am indebted to Peter Brook's obituary in The Observer from March 23.) Now that Scofield has become his admirers (as Auden might say), the good news is that his greatest performance can still be seen and heard. In 1971, Brook made a film of King Lear starring Scofield, which is now available on video. Also: an excellent audio version of the play produced by Kenneth Branagh (who gives voice to the Fool) exists on three CDs from Naxos. This CD will change your life. Scofield's ability to turn verse into music, speech, lament, outrage, organs, drums, terror, etc. is indescribable. Don't just take my work for it. Several years before his death, two hundred actors and other members of the Royal Shakespeare Company voted Scofield's Lear the greatest Shakespeare performance ever!
So here's a funny story: After an evening of scenes from Shakespeare that I put together at the Poetry Center of 92nd Street Y a few years ago, I was having dinner with the actors: Philip Bosco, Rosemary Harris, and Brian Murray. I was completely dizzy with wine and the stories of working with the greats: what Olivier said, what Burton did, etc. Then Brian Murray launches into this story that I will never forget. Murray was in the stage version of Brook's Lear, playing Edgar beside Scofield's king. If the movie is any indication, the production was quite gritty looking. Edgar, who spends a fair amount of time in the mud, appears begrimed for much of the play. The week before opening they changed his make up, so that the mud was in fact chocolate sauce smeared across his face.
All went swimmingly until opening night, when Murray (pictured on the right) gets the jitters and, as he told it, begins to freeze up. Scofield, sensing this, crosses to him, which he had never done before, kneels down and runs a finger across his face. He then licks the finger and whispers loudly, "Mm. Mars. Delicious!" This absurd stunt puts Murray back on track, and he is able to continue.
Now here's the part I've always wondered about. It's a story too good not to be true, so I've never verified it. According to Murray, Tynan was in the audience that night and in his review wrote something to the effect that Scofield clearly marked Lear's descent into madness by picking a piece of mud off of Edgar and eating it. And, of course, despite this bit of praise Scofield never repeated the moment.
I don't have the heart to look up the Tynan review, but here is a bit of it quoted by Brook in his memorial tribute to Scofield (best to let Tynan have the last word here):
Paul Scofield enters with grey crew-cut and peering gate; one notes at once the old man's trick of dwelling on unexpected vowels and lurching phrases as if his voice were barely under rational control . . . And suddenly, greatness. Scofield's halting, apologetic delivery of "I fear I am not in my perfect mind," sightless Gloucester, sitting cross-legged on the empty stage while the noise of the battle resounds in the wings; and the closing epiphany, where in Lear achieves a wisdom denied in his sanity--a Stoic determination, long in the moulding, to endure his going hence . . .
What a sweet guy I am
when one of my enemies dies
I don’t Xerox the obit and mail it
to the others saying “Let
this be a lesson to you,” no
I’m more likely to recall
the persons’s virtues to which I
was blind until the news of mortality
opened my mind as you would
open a vial of Tylenol noticing
it spells lonely backwards with
only the initial T added, signifying
taxes no doubt, and now my headache
has gone the way of leaves in fall
am I happy I certainly am
as you would be, my friend, if
the Queen of Sheba returned your calls
as she does mine
-- David Lehman
The Daily Mirror (Scribner)
Parmigianino's Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror (c. 1524)
John Ashbery will not read his celebrated long poem "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" this evening (April 15, 2008) at 6:30 at the New School (Wollman Auditorium, 66 West 12 Street, near the SE corner of Twelfth Street and Sixth Avenue in New York City). But he will read recent work, including poems from Notes from the Air: Selected Longer Poems and A Worldly Country and maybe -- who knows -- even newer poems, poems too new for any book. And a page or two from his new translation of Pierre Reverdy's Haunted House. Get there early. Seats will be scarce.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.