Well-constructed plain lines have always held a fascination for me. From George Herbert to Thomas Hardy and Robert Frost, it’s always thrilling to see depth and beauty in what, on the surface, looks plain and simple, be it in a poem or in lines spoken in a play. To write lines like that requires care and attention to the smallest detail, so that every syllable, every letter, is functioning as part of the whole.
Two lines that have always epitomized this for me come from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. They occur in Act V, Scene I (lines 117-118). This is where Brutus, on the plains of Philippi, bids farewell to Cassius, his co-conspirator. They are both doomed:
If we do meet again, why, we shall smile;
If not, why then, this parting was well made.
These two unadorned lines, in modulated iambic pentameter, contain 18 words, with 9 words in each line. Symmetry! All the words are one syllable, except for “again” and “parting.” Each line is a grammatically complete sentence, each is cast as a conjecture, and each begins with the word “if.” When we drill down further, it gets even more interesting. There is the middle rhyme – and this isn’t even a poem! – of “again” with “then,” which holds the lines together, reinforced by the sonic repetition of “why” in each line. Then there is a rich network of consonantal links, mainly “M”s and “W”s. There are three Ms and six Ws:
If we do Meet again, why, we shall sMile;
If not, why then, this parting was well Made.
The understatement of these lines, as both men say goodbye, is profoundly moving. It suggests the noble equanimity of Brutus, even during this fateful moment as each Roman goes off to meet his death. It implies a balance and a stoical restraint, both linguistic and moral, that reflect Brutus’s willingness to follow through on the logical extension of his ideas about life, honor and Rome.
It’s the dramatic context, of course, that gives greater power to the lines and creates the option for understatement, but I always marvel over how tightly these two lines are put together and how they work their magic with everyday material.
I wanted to find a video clip of this particular scene on Youtube, so I turned to my friend, the poet David Yezzi, who is also a Shakespeare aficionado. (His longer poem based on Macbeth appears in his latest book, Birds of the Air.)
We came up with two versions of the scene.
Have a look at this segment from the 1950’s film adaptation directed by David Bradley, with Brutus played by Bradley himself and Cassius played by Grosvenor Glenn. It’s around the 2:56 mark in this clip. Apparently, none of the actors got paid for making this film, except for a young Charlton Heston, who played Mark Antony.
Here's another version of the scene. The passage starts at 13:48 or so.
I was looking for the version directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1953) with James Mason as Brutus and John Gielgud as Cassius, but I could not find a clip of the exact moment. Here, at least, is the movie trailer with all of its 1950’s Hollywood charm:
It has been such a pleasure to guest-blog here at BAP and I’m a little sad to be hanging up my spurs when I hit “publish” on this entry. This last post is a bit more scattered than my previous ones--it’s a round up of poetry-related (or kissing cousins to poetry) projects I wanted to share with you.
First, I want to mention that our reading period is open at Augury Books. Do you have a poetry manuscript, a short story collection, or a nonfiction book (full-length or a collection of shorter pieces) that is looking for a home? Send it to us please--we’re really excited to read new work. Secondly (I’m going to keep everything connected to organizations that I represent here in this one paragraph), The Mayapple Center for Arts and Humanities, a nonprofit center located in Stamford, Connecticut, is offering two half-scholarships this summer for Vijay Seshadri’s (this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for his book 3 Sections) workshop. The class is called Transitions and Transfigurations and runs from August 18th through August 22nd on Mayapple’s campus. If you want to study with an amazing teacher somewhere beautiful this summer, you should send an email inquiry to email@example.com with your CV and writing sample by June 30th.
Are you familiar with cellpoems? It’s a poetry journal that sends out one weekly text message containing a beautiful short poem. It’s free to subscribe and they publish a great mix of emerging poets, as well as established names like Charles Simic and Sherman Alexie. This poem by Heather Cousins has run through my head since I first read it almost four years ago. You may also like Motionpoems, a nonprofit production company that makes short film adaptions of contemporary poems. I can’t get over how gorgeous their movie-poems are--watching each one is like being able to step into a snippet of someone else’s dream.
Girls in Trouble is another project that I love, although related to poetry more tangentially than directly; it’s an art-rock band helmed by poet Alicia Jo Rabins. Girls in Trouble’s music tells the stories of women in the Torah through songs that fuse American folk, indie rock, strings (violin and cello!), and gorgeous verse. Also, this is my new favorite tumblr--it isn’t poetry-specific, but poets (and everyone) should contribute. Cristina Henriquez’s newest novel, The Book of Unknown Americans, tells the story of immigrants whose voices aren’t often heard. She created a tumblr to accompany it that asks people to share their own and their families’ experiences moving to the United States. I’ve loved reading the stories that are posted and I hope some of you will want to add yours.
Finally, I want to leave you with a poem:
A Book of Music
Coming at an end, the lovers
Are exhausted like two swimmers. Where
Did it end? There is no telling. No love is
Like an ocean with the dizzy procession of the waves’ boundaries
From which two can emerge exhausted, nor long goodbye
Coming at an end. Rather, I would say, like a length
Of coiled rope
Which does not disguise in the final twists of its lengths
But, you will say, we loved
And some parts of us loved
And the rest of us will remain
Two persons. Yes,
Poetry ends like a rope.
There are many things to love Jack Spicer for, ranging from the Vancouver lectures where he described the poet as a radio receiving “transmissions” from the “invisible world” (“The poet is a radio. The poet is a liar. The poet is a counterpunching radio.” Sporting Life) to his apocryphal last words as he died at age forty in the poverty ward at San Francisco General Hospital (“my vocabulary did this to me”), but this poem is one of the things I love best. There is so much beauty inside the darkness here--we have come to the end of things, the lovers are exhausted, and yet the title reminds us this is “A Book of Music.” I also love the plaintiveness of the you saying, “But...we loved” and how it leads into the ambiguity of the three lines below: is the “you” still speaking or can we potentially read the “And some parts of us loved / And the rest of us will remain / Two persons” as the speaker briefly agreeing, acknowledging that there was love (“some parts of us loved”) there, but then asserting separation again. What moves me the most about the poem every time I read it is that sudden shift at the end from love into poetry, the implied conflation of these two things: how the last line (and the “Yes” above it) are simultaneously devastating--the rope and its gallows-connotations, that the rope ends--and yet also somehow strangely uplifting. Despite the actual stated meaning of that bleak last line, the word “rope” also includes within it a subliminal rhyme with “hope,’ as well as connotations of rescue, of salvation.
Thank you for listening to me this week.
Click on this link to read Lloyd Schwartz on the 1936 screen adaptation of the classic 1927 musical (words by Oscar Hammerstein, music by Jerome Kern). There's a new DVD of this picture starring Irene Dunne and Allan jones (Jack's papa), with Paul Robeson's rendering of "Ol' Man River" and Helen Morgan from the original Broadway cast playing Julie and singing "Bill." Lloyd discusses it on NPR's Fresh Air and you can read his comments here. -- DL
There was exactly one international movie star who appealed equally to grunts in German, American, and British uniforms during World War II. Born on December 27, 1901 in Berlin at 9:15 PM, Marlene Dietrich spoke English in an accent all her own, with traces of German, schoolgirl British, and a sexy lisp. Acting in movies, performing in clubs, and doing one-woman shows in big West End theaters, she glowed in Der Blaue Engel (Josef von Sternburg, 1930) prior to a long Hollywood career working with von Sternburg again and later with Hitchcock, Welles, Billy Wilder, Stanley Kramer, and other Hollywood professionals. (Of Welles, she told aspiring actresses, "you should cross yourself when you say his name.") She played opposite Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Spencer Tracy, and took pride in having slept with three Kennedy men: Joe Sr, Joe Jr, and JFK. She lived to a grand old age and died in Paris on May 6, 1992, spoiling the birthdays of Tony Blair, George Clooney, and Professor Martha Nussbaum.
When Rodgers and Hart wrote that "the most beautiful girl in the world / isn't Grabo, isn't Dietrich," the songwriters confirm that Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich ran one-two in virtually all international blonde bombshell competitions in the fourth and firth decades of the twentieth century. Garbo (“I want to be alone”) had the reputation of a recluse and the silence of the lovers on Keats's Grecian urn. Dietrich, on the other hand, never could resist donning a man's top hat and sitting on top of the piano singing a sexy song in her hoarse voice and irresistible lisp. Dietrich sang in three languages (she does Piaf-like French ballads well) with a voice that made up in sheer sexual horsepower what it lacked in vocal range and power. Ich bin von kopf bis fus auf liebe eingestellt is even better in German than in the English version that begins “Falling in love again, / Never wanted to, / What am I to do, / Can’t help it.” She made that song seem autobiographical, the story of the female enchantress who can't blame herself for leading men like lambs to the slaughter. Anyone else singing the song sounds like an imitator. Of how many singers and songs can this be said? Not many.
Lorenz Hart rhymed “Dietrich” with “sweet trick” in “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” which I believe is a waltz but which I heard Sinatra sing at an incredibly fast tempo in a television concert in the late 1960s. Dietrich had major affairs with Sinatra, Jean Gabin, Yul Brynner, and Edward R. Murrow, and was bi-sexual. There is a rumor that she went down on Tallulah Bankhead at a party. In the dictionary of slang that Oxford University Press published, the phrase that most fascinated her was "cock holster," denoting the mouth in the act of oral sex though she could think of other apt uses for the phrase. In 1930 she measured at 35-24-33.
Marlene's natal chart reveals a lusty Capricorn with hard-working Virgo rising. Behind the scenes swift Mercury and blonde Venus play games of cache-cache inspiring all who watch to imitate the frolicking gods of Olympus. Dietrich's Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn are in Capricorn, her moon in Leo. This is consistent with her talent for arousing attention, her ability to communicate desire mixed up with wickedness and danger, and her hard-boiled complexity. She can sound sardonic or melancholy, jaded or contemptuous, and this adds a layer of depth to her poker-faced personality. Her eyes say she's seen it all and a lot of "it" was shitty. :Dressed in a man’s suit, tie, and shirt with French cuffs, she holds an unlighted cigarette between forefinger and thumb, waiting for you to light her with your Lucifer. And you will.
The Geneva School of astrology holds that when your mid-heaven is in Taurus and the constellations are in their proper order, the chances are that you will grow to a height of five feet six inches, if you're a woman, and that is exactly how tall Marlene was, and blonde, with lush lipstick that she needed to renew after every kiss she bestowed. Her cards (the Chariot, the Moon, the Knave of Swords, the Nine of Wands) reinforce the impression of a woman of rare beauty and charm. A palm reading indicates a fluency in languages, an appetite for sex, and a pair of shapely legs. The yin in her chart outweighs the yang by a healthy margin. But there is enough stellar ambiguity to make her the object of desire of males across the sexual spectrum. She is a role model for dominant women and an icon of veneration among the submissive. It is said there are two kinds of men. One kind favors Garbo, the Swedish goddess, who played Anna Karenina; the other goes for Dietrich, who would be terribly miscast as Anna Karenina. But you had to live in the twentieth century to grasp all the implications of this statement.
The greatness achieved in the career of Marlene Dietrich implies what Frankfurt School astrologists call a "fifth house dominant personality." I do not know what this means, but it sounds right. As a young woman Dietrich starred as a sultry seductress, the cabaret singer who turns the starchy professor into a lovesick bum in Blue Angel. She is Circe mixed with Carmen, radiating confidence. She demands at least as much from a man. “Give me the man who does things, does things to my heart, / I love the man who takes things into his hands and gets what he demands.” Ein Mann, ein richtige Mann! The strong and silent type, under a big palm tree. She'll see what the boys in the back room will have and tell them she cried, and tell them she sighed, and tell them she died of the same.
Several notable aphorisms have been attributed to the charming, alarming Blonde Venus: "Most women set out to change a man, and when they have changed him they do not like him." "A country without bordellos is like a house without bathrooms."" In America, sex is an obsession; everywhere else, it's a fact."
Dietrich is the ultimate sex symbol because in any relationship with her the forces of Thanatos are constantly threatening to create a crisis that the forces of Eros must confront. That raspy, intimate, seductive, threatening voice challenged or dared the manliness of any man: you’d pretty much have to be John Wayne to impress her, or Gary Cooper in his prime. Tyrone Power thought he would double-cross her in Witness for the Prosecution. He thought wrong. She could do a “ducky” English accent. During the war she transcended the conflict: Allied and Axis soldiers alike responded to Dietrich’s rendition of “Lilli Marlene.” And she retained her status as a sex symbol well into her 70s. Her appeal is enhanced by her power to do harm or to witness destruction without blinking. In Touch of Evil, she read Orson Welles's palm and knew his future was a blank card. And she kept a straight face while telling him.
Marlene Dietrich added something vital to every movie she was in, from a second tier Hitchcock effort to Judgment at Nuremburg, where, as Spencer Tracy’s confidante, she stands for nothing less than Germany herself, a magnificent blonde who once owned a brothel. -- DL
Among my many bad habits is reading old magazines, and one recent weekend I went through a year's worth of the London Review of Books, an instructive experience. They publish some very good poems and intelligent reviews. Their personals are state-of-the-art: one London-dwelling Bach-to-Buxtehude sophisticate caught my attention when she said she is looking for either a Pete Cambell or a Roger Sterling, two Mad Men characters who are so unlike one another that one has to wonder. . .
They also have a writer named Jenny Diski, who, whatever the subject, manages to make any review a celebration of the first-person point-of-view. Once you notice this, even her most self-absorbed pieces acquire a certain interest. Waiting for the first "I" to turn up is like noticing the bead of perspiration form at the top of an orator's nose and watching it ski slowly down the slope.
What surprised me more than perhaps it should is that you are likelier to get an even shake in the London Review of Books if you're the notorious spy Kim Philby than if you're Winston Churchill.
Unsurprisingly the English are as perplexed with Putin as we are.
Reviews of classic films, such as To Be or Not to Be, with Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, are a delight. A very astute movie critic with excellent taste startled me when, toward the end of an appreciative piece on Kathryn Bigelow's movie Zero Dark Thirty -- which I felt was by far the best movie of its year -- he wrote that he personally disapproved of the hunt for Bin Laden. He characterized the search and "certainly" the execution of Bin Laden as "an atrocity."
Presumably a critic writing about Waterloo would not feel a need to clarify that his sympathies were with Napoleon, if that were the case. We can go back and check this, but I doubt that anyone reviewing Doctor Zhivago felt it either pertinent or compelling to let us know how he or she felt about the course of the Russian Revolution.
Yet here were these sentences -- designed, one had to suppose, to protect the reviewer from any charge of political unorthodoxy. The gesture bothered me and I wasn't sure why until last week when the media made much of Michael Lewis's charge that the New York Stock Exchange is rigged. I understand the argument and I know that there have always been and always will be traders who figure out a way to skim an extra penny a share on any retail investor's trade. At the same time some recent weekends move me to say that the New York Stock Exchange is less rigged than the New York Review of Books or the London version of same. -- DL
In 1943, Edmund Wilson lamented the rise of what he called "the two great enemies of literary talent in our time: Hollywood and Henry Luce." Wilson's hostility was certainly not shared by Gertrude Stein, whose relationship with Hollywood and Time magazine were solidified in the 1930s. Not only did she appear on the cover of Time before her tour in September 1934, become friends with Henry and Clare Boothe Luce in the late 1930s, and arrange social encounters with Charlie Chaplin and Dashiell Hammett and other Hollywood celebrities while she was in the United States, Stein was mentioned in two popular films of 1935: Top Hat, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and The Man on the Flying Trapeze, starring W. C. Fields.
Both references to Stein in these comedies suggest that her lecture tour had not only created mainstream public awareness of her, but also that the most celebrated form of popular culture, Hollywood movies, found Stein an appropriate subject. In Top Hat, a telegram is read to Dale (Ginger Rogers) by her friend Alberto. "Come ahead stop stop being a sap stop you can even bring Alberto stop my husband is stopping at your hotel stop when do you start stop," and reads and then comments with bewilderment: "I cannot understand who wrote this." Dale declares brightly "Sounds like Gertrude Stein!"
from Gertrude Stein and the Making of an American Celebrity (by Karen Leick, Routledge, 2013)
The first time I watched this movie, this scene -- not the scene in which Warren Beatty pushes Natalie Wood to her knees, or frolics naked under the waterfall with the town tramp(the girl in the orange sweater here) -- made me prick up my ears. When Miss Metcalf (Martine Bartlett) made Natalie Wood read the Wordsworth lines aloud, I scribbled them on a scrap of paper and found the poem in one of my mother's college textbooks. I was about twelve or thirteen years old and for the next few days managed to slip a few lines of WW into all of my conversations as I tried to memorize Wordsworth's Immortality Ode. It's still one of my all-time favorite poems.
-- sdh(ed. note: this post originally appeared on May 3, 2008)
"Is that what you want on your gravestone when you die -- that you raised the dividend to three dollars or four or even five or six or seven?"
William Holden in Executive Suite (1954) with Barbara Stanwyck & Louis Calhern (pictured, left,enjoying a smoke off camera) & with Fredric March, June Allyson, Walter Pidgeon, Nina Foch, Paul Douglas, Dean Jagger, and if Shelley Winters comes, can spring be far behind?
With screenplay by Ernest Lehman. -- DL
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.