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
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)
The subtitle to the film Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, a documentary airing on HBO tonight (June 10, 9 p.m.), is accurate: Nadia Tolokonnikova, Masha Alyokhina, and Katya Samutsevich, who were arrested on Feb. 21, 2012, after performing for 40 seconds on the alter of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, do indeed embody many of the precepts of 1970s punk-rock culture. Although presenting themselves as a band, they view their work as performance art as much musical performance. A collective of unstated numbers of young women, Pussy Riot has found its most effective communication tool to be planned “spontaneous” musical performances that consist of rudimentary songs proclaiming their feminist, anti-authoritarian stance.
In the documentary, the members come off as tough-minded, resourceful, and wry: “It’s not too hard,” one of them says of their punk-band strategy: “Write a song and think of the place to perform.” Filmmakers Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin have footage of the group assembling at a protest site, divvying up the musical duties (“You play the guitar”), and diving headlong into a song or two before scramming.
Since the sacrilegious sin-crime and immediate arrest that made the group famous worldwide lasted a mere 40 seconds captured on what looks like a jittery cellphone, the bulk of A Punk Prayer is taken up by the show-trial of what I’d call the Pussy Riot Three. Placed behind a glass cage, the three women are allowed to make occasional statements, but their defense team comes off irritatingly smug and complacent – it’s as though the lawyers defending Pussy Riot lacked Pussy Riot’s own awareness of just how offended the combination of defying the Orthodox Church and Vladimir Putin’s leadership would be to the court system.
The trial exerts a sickening fascination. The film is warmed by the comments of some of the defendants’ parents. Soon after Nadia tells us that her father is “wonderful… so supportive,” he proves it. A thoughtful, baby-boomer generation man, he tells of being told by his daughter of Pussy Riot’s church-invasion plan as they rode the subway. He says he immediately tried to talk her out of it, but “after a few stops” on the subway ride, he realized she was determined to go through with her actions. His reaction? “I started helping out with the lyrics,” he says.
Unmentioned in the film is the debt Pussy Riot says it owes to the Russian poet Alexander Vvedensky (1904-1941), himself a government-suppressed poet of organized anarchy, and, like the Pussy Riot Three, a member of an art collective, OBERIU (Association of Real Art). During her group’s trial, Nadia specifically cited Vvedensky’s “principle of ‘poor rhyme’… He said, ‘Sometimes I think up two rhymes, a good and a poor one, and I pick the poor one, because it is the one that is right.”
A Vvedensky poem collected in the superb, recently published An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB Poets) includes lines that could be a Pussy Riot lyric:
Will they cut or bite off their heads
It makes me want to puke.
All those about to die get cold feet.
They have activity of stomach,
Before death it lives as hard as it can.
But why are you afraid to burn up, man?
Nadia and Masha are serving two-year sentences in prison camps; Katya was released on appeal. One key moment in A Punk Prayer occurs during a break in the trial: When informed that Madonna had written the group’s name on her back to display it at one of the concerts, and had donned a balaclava onstage as a gesture of solidarity, the faces of Nadia, Masha, and Katia are intent, avid. They seem not to be thinking, “Cool! A big star likes us, maybe we’ll become famous, too, and be freed!” Instead, what their faces communicate is: “Oh, good. Maybe she gets it. Maybe some of her fans will now hear about us and get it. Our message still has a freedom on Madonna’s back, and in covering Madonna’s face. She’s not as good as we are at communicating this freedom, this audacity, but she’ll do until we get out.”
(After tonight’s premiere, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer will be repeated on June 13, 16, 18, and 22.)
On Memorial Day weekend -- and again on the anniversary of D-Day -- we take a solemn moment to remember our war heroes. In 1944, the man who would have been my father-in-law, had he lived long enough, landed on Omaha Beach, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and liberated a concentration camp. He also slugged an officer who made anti-Semitic taunts.
Some spend the day, or a portion of it, watching war movies, and you can see great ones about a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Burma, the brainwashing of GIs by Chinese militants during the Korean War, the plight of returning veterans having a tough time readjuisting to civilian life, the story of a Swedish industrialist whom the British blackmail into spying on Nazi industrial capacity not to mention do-or-die missions behind enemy lines in Europe; traumatized pilots returning to their base in Britain after one flight too many; escape attempts from German POW camps; the exploits of generals, the fate of battles, the derring-do of a charismatic hero; a mutiny on a US Navy destroyer-minesweeper that has seen better days; heroism on the home front with an alliterative heroine such as Greer Garson or Claudette Colbert.
My Triple Cain theory of Hollywood and War is based on a primal parable of guilt and violence, the story of Cain's slaying of his borther Abel. Hollywood movies are the invention of wandering Jews, and the moviemakers conceive themselves as marked men like Cain, protected by the vvery sign that sets him apart. This identification with Cain supports the view that violence is righteous and inevitable. There are three prominent movies in which the name Cain figures.
(b) The Caine Mutiny (1954) with Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray, and Jose Ferrer as the Jewish lawyer Barney Greengrass who gets the mutineers off the hook by exposing the captain, Bogart, as a paranoid playing with marbles he is destined to lose. Well, maybe Greengrass isn't his last name. It's Greenwald. But you know what I mean. I thnk especially of the spech he makes when he spills his champagne into Fred MacMurray's face, which he does not just because Fred's a hypocrite and a heel but somehow also in the name of the batty captain and similar incompetents who donate their bodies to the machinery of war, which is metaphorically identified with a US Navy destroyer on its last sea legs.
(c) The hero of High Noon (1952), willful Marshall Will Kane, played by tall stoic taciturn determined manly Gary Cooper, with goodness blonde gracious Grace Kelly as his Quaker (pacifist) bride, who shoots a man before the "real time" movie is through, and the just-married couple drives the carriage out of town with no fanfare except the lonesome Academy Award-winning song, "Do not forsake me, O my darling." Several "types of allegory" come into play, depending on whether the focus is on
ii) Grace Kelly
iii)) Frank Miller, who has vowed to kill him and is expected on the noon train,
iv) the townspeople, who are either
2) too young to do do anything but play cops and robbers,
(3) too old to do anything but offer a warm hand clasp
(4) Lloyd Bridges.
(d) Summatiom of thesis
1. Cain and Abel (Genesis) as a parable of Hollywood and the American War Machine
2) Digression on Michael Caine as a British variant of the American type
3) The special attractions of the prisoner-of-war camp as a site; digression on William Holden, Steve McQueen, and James Garner as three attractive North American models
4) Digression on East of Eden with James Dean (whose last name is a near anagram of Eden) as a version of Cain,
5) Presidential hopeful Herman Cain's moment of fame.
6) Comment from Susan Cain, author of the bestselling Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking. Cain's research tells her that "we watch people like Charlie Sheen BECAUSE they are narcissistic, not in spite of it." The obnioxious are "better liked" in college. "Not only that, but the type of narcissism that was most predictive of popularity was the most malignant kind."
7) Everything else.
Details TK. -- 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.