I remember the first time I heard it. Jo Stafford sang it in Dark Passage, a late 1940s black-and-white movie in which you don’t see the face of the hero, a prison escapee who had been framed for murder, until a risk-taking surgeon reconstructs his visage and Humphrey Bogart emerges from the bandages. Lauren Bacall believes in him, and Stafford sings “Too Marvelous for Words” on the Victrola. It becomes their song. “You must like swing,” Bogart says. Yes, Bacall answers, “legitimate swing.”
“Too Marvelous for Words” is a legitimately great ballad whether sung wistfully by Stafford or Helen Forrest or in a more jaunty manner by Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole. It’s a valentine to the hero or heroine of almost all songs, “you.” The old familiar words of praise (like “glorious, glamorous, / and that old standby, amorous”) can’t convey how great you are, so I’ll resort to a “love song from the birds.”
The tune is lovely, easy to remember, delightful to sing. There is a shrewd key change in the phrase just preceding the bridge: “I mean they just aren’t swell enough,” where “they” refers to “words” and “swell enough” rhymes with “tell enough.” The bridge is musically and lyrically not only the song’s pivot but its marvelous climax: “You’re much too much / and just too very very / to ever be / in Webster’s Dictionary.”
What do you think of first? “Over the Rainbow,” “As Time Goes By,” “Singin’ in the Rain”? Win, place, and show on the AFI’s “Top Movie Songs of All Time” list. My pick, Judy Garland’s devastating “The Man That Got Away,” from A Star is Born, comes in at #11. It was another Garland song, “Get Happy,” the triumphant final number in Summer Stock, that launched what became a feature in my film class this semester: “Movie Song of the Day.” This innovation was inspired by some extremely music-savvy students in the class—astonishingly well versed in everything from Alternative Country to Tin Pan Alley, nearly impossible to stump, able to hum obscure covers of obscurer originals. Lately, owing to their tutelage, I find myself with a rather eclectic mix on the iPod.... It is one wild ride to work in the morning. After Garland, I brought in everything from Fred Astaire’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (Blue Skies) to The Rolling Stones’ “Monkey Man,” one of the many songs featured in that magnificent montage toward the end of Goodfellas. One morning I played The Doors’ “Peace Frog,” featured in, of all movies, The Waterboy—a fact one member of the class announced even before Morrison had time to warm up. My students also began to bring in their favorites: Bobby Bare’s cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” (Midnight Cowboy), Keith Carradine’s “I’m Easy” (Nashville), Citizen Cope’s “Bullet and a Target” (Alpha Dog).
Marcel Carne's little-shown pre-war classic "Le Jour se leve" is at the Film Forum on West Houston Street in downtown New York and must be seen by fans of Jean Gabin, admirers of Arletty (daringly naked in one scene), devotees of "film noir" in its earliest incarnation, and would-be writers and artists of all stripes who will, with a nostalgic ache, watch Gabin smoke one Gauloise after another as he is holed up in his top-story hideout, alone, with dawn about to break and les flics poised to come in for the kill. The dialogue is by Jacques Prevert and while it is fashionable to denigrate the man's poetry, as a writer of screenplays he possessed something approaching genius. The picture's title translates as "Daybreak" but is best left in the original. That's Gabin with co-star Jacqueline Laurent in the picture on the right.
If you plan to take in the 9:30 PM screening on Monday the 17th, you can make a rare double-bill for yourself as "Vertigo," one of Hitchcock's greatest pictures, will be ending its limited run at the Film Forum -- and you can take in the 6:45 PM show, refresh yourself in powder room or nearby bar for a quickie, and head back to the theater for "Le Jour se leve" at 9:30 PM. The former explores the consequences of unquenched desire for an illusory object; the latter is a masterpiece of melancholy and murder. In a sense both movies qualify under the heading of murder mysteries; the plot in each case revolves around a homicide. But the real subject -- one might say the real hero -- is Eros. -- DL
We recently learned that Wallace Stevens's Hartford, Connecticut, home has been sold and its new owners plan to use it as a private residence. While we're pleased that the home won't fall into disrepair, we're sad that the property will not be available as a historic site for lovers of Stevens's poetry to enjoy.
Now, news come to us that Alison Johnson (Wallace Stevens: A Dual Life as Poet and Insurance Executive) is making a documentary about Stevens, one that, in addition to the basic biographical information, will include footage of his home at 118 Westerly Terrace and his office at The Hartford (formerly the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company), and footage of his furniture and paintings. Johnson is working with Richard Startzman of Santa Fe, who films the Santa Fe Opera and with whom she has worked on other projects.
Their plan is to place the finished film on YouTube so that people all over the world will have a chance to learn more about Stevens, take a virtual tour of his house and office, and view the paintings that gave him such pleasure.
Finishing this documentary will require additional funds. If you click on the link here, you can easily make a contribution toward this worthy project.
You can watch a trailer here or follow this link:
Alison Johnson has enlisted prominent Stevens's scholars and poets to contribute commentary on Stevens' life and poetry and to read poems and excerpts from letters. Paul Mariani, an award-winning poet and author of several important biographies (and whose biography of Stevens will be published by Simon & Schuster in the summer of 2015), will read several Stevens poems and will also read passages from letters in which Stevens discusses the paintings he has received from Paris. Glen MacLeod, author of two important books about the relationship between Wallace Stevens and the world of art, will discuss this important aspect of Stevens's creativity. John Serio, who edited The Wallace Stevens Journal for almost three decades and has edited Wallace Stevens: Selected Letters and The Cambridge Companion to Wallace Stevens, will also appear in the film.
Thank you Alison Johnson for spearheading this important initiative!
Greetings, O Lovers of Contemporary Poetry!
When I was thinking about writing for this blog, I was trying to imagine what I’d want to read.
I’d heard pedagogical issues go over well, but the word “pedagogy” makes my legs fall asleep like I’m sitting on a folding chair in a church basement rec room. Also, my students affectionately (?) make fun of my poetry “prompts,” which usually require a 45-minute lecture to set up. There’s a lot of arcane context and emphatic hand gesturing.
So I thought, “What resources do I have for such a blog? What are my skillz?”
Frankly, I have few skillz beyond an early, useless career as a springboard diver, and a gift for finding objects disappeared into the hovel of dog hair and remodeling dust that is presently my house.
But I realize I am rich in friends—accomplished, irritatingly smart and talented poetry friends to be specific. If I could figure out a way to monetize these friendships I would. I’d be the Warren Buffett of poetry.
I decided it’d be fun to have some conversations with these guys in the next few days (so far I’ve pestered Carl Phillips, Dana Levin, James “Jimmy” Kimbrell, Kerry James Evans, Adrian Matejka and Stacey Lynn Brown into plopping their bottoms on the hot seat). Terrance Hayes has sorta committed, but given that our communications typically consist almost entirely of the disturbing, weirdly specific text emojis he sends me, we’ll have to see if that happens.
The only rules I set for the interview are that I would only talk to people I know well enough to ask vaguely pokey, forward, or inappropriate questions. Also, that they should try their hardest to answer spontaneously. No sitting around editing for hours. It is understood that all are poets I admire because how can you be actual friends with a writer if you don’t respect their work? You’d either have to wear your love goggles all the time, which ends up strangling your brain, or else you have a friendship based on lying and that’s too uncomfortable.
First up is Mark Bibbins, whose recent book, They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full (Copper Canyon), is one of the very best poetry collections I’ve read in years. The book is both generous-hearted and critically astringent, full of saber-toothed wit and language play paired with a deeply ethical, empathetic political consciousness that never belly flops into polemic or preaching. Seriously, you should read this book.
In person, Mark, despite turning up with the odd, not-really-explained broken bone from time to time, is the guy who arrives at his elegance without you ever seeing the gears of the machine whirring. He’s a man who really knows how to wear a shirt. When he makes you lunch, it appears that he’s doing nothing for two hours but farting around with the stereo and chasing his affection-harassed cats up and down the apartment. Then somehow, miraculously, he sets the most perfectly dressed, chilled lobster salad with little buttery slices of crostini in front of you, paired with a bottle of wine you’ve never heard of but that makes your life better in every way. I have known Mark since about 1995 when we met at a gay writers conference in Boston. We have been AWP roommates annually ever since:
One of the things I’ve always noticed about you, Mark, is that while you are a person with a clear sense of aesthetics, a person with opinions, a political person in your own way, and you’ve been in the writing world for a long time, you still manage to be well regarded and liked by pretty much every writer I know. With this description in mind, what are your rules for living in the Lit world, which can be such an understandably insecure, gossipy environment. What is your personal ethic about the business and life of writing?
Excuse me: "pretty much"? You sure know how to twist the knife, Erin. It's otherwise a sweet and generous question, but I'm afraid answering it will undermine the last twenty years of coldhearted strategizing and furtive betrayals upon which my empire rests.
There, maybe I've stumbled on my first rule: Try to maintain a sense of humor. I don't know that some of the other rules I've (often inadvertently) followed—be patient, don't imagine anyone owes you anything—even amount to good advice these days. It certainly seems like advice fewer and fewer people are hardwired to heed. And I admit I don't know what "the Lit world" is/means; from what I can tell there are many such worlds, usually coexisting, sometimes competing. Is that your sense too, or does it seem more monolithic to you?
To me the contemporary poetry world seems a bit like a fire ant pile, where you can see the single dirt mound at the top, but beneath it there are tons of separate little alleys. I mean, if some fascist regime were to take over, and assuming poets would still have the honor of being the first ones up against the wall, I have a hard time imagining the men with guns going, “Ok. So are you more of an alternative poetics type? Flarf? Confessional? Newly Gnostic? Did you go to Buffalo or Denver? How do you feel about Mary Oliver? Were you ever a fellow at Sewanee? Tell us which one of these three quotes is by Yvor Winters...”
Which is to say I think we all have a lot more in common than we like to let on. But camps create ever more opportunity for hierarchies and “branding.” I mean, there are obviously real aesthetic and intellectual issues people care about, too, but I can’t ever imagine fighting over them. Fighting over poetics feels like putting Nair in the shampoo bottle of a girl some boy you like has his eye on. It’s not going to make him like you more if you screw up her wig. I guess I just go to the mattresses over other issues.
NEXT QUESTION: Every time I tell you how much I love the final poem in your new book (They Don’t Kill You Because They’re Hungry, They Kill You Because They’re Full), which is a brilliant, political, meta rule-smashing, funny, finger-wagging manifesto of a poem, you get uncomfortable and sheepish and kind of half disown it while struggling with the pleasure of the compliment. Beyond your fetching modesty, why does that poem make you uncomfortable?
Good point about the anthill; my sense of our variety is most likely a delusion. Part of what makes me apprehensive about "A Small Gesture of Gratitude" is that it reminds me that I am ridiculously fragile—I can't watch TV news for five minutes without my blood pressure spiking (with Fox News it takes ten seconds, if that). There’s a flaw in my constitution that keeps me from participating in certain kinds of activism, so I avail myself of the more homeopathic possibilities that poetry affords. I frequently write in response to things that provoke or annoy me, but the sense of irritation seems rather high-pitched and raw in that poem—less transformed than what I usually aim for. In a lot of ways I'm a private person (another delusion, I realize), so seeing my thin skin stretched across several pages makes me anxious.
Don't you experience a similar uneasiness with some of your own work? I'm thinking of "Poem of Philosophical and Parental Conundrums Written in an Election Year," which is one of the powerhouses of Slant Six, and which you've referred to as a "rant." In the Venn diagram of our poetic projects, I think it and "A Small Gesture of Gratitude" are partying together where the circles overlap.
That sounds about right. I love to see poets put their consciousness on the rack and give it a good stretch. Not so comfortable to be the one doing it, of course. Though I have come to sort of enjoy that form of spiritual masochism. I remember seeing Vito Acconci, the early, groundbreaking performance artist, when I was a kid in college, and the powerful sense of attraction/repulsion I experienced through his art’s illusion of truthfulness and vulnerability left a very lasting impression. I like art to be excruciating generally, no matter what the subject.
With “Poem of Philosophical and Political Conundrums Written in an Election Year” I struggle with all the voices that frequently come into the room when I sit down to work. As in, “Who fucking cares about parenting issues? Serious poets don’t write about parenting.” Which is not how I feel when OTHER people write artfully about children and parenting, but after all this time I still feel afraid that I’ll be dismissed for my subjects. A case of “Physician, heal thyself,” I suppose. Do as I say, not as I do.
Speaking of parenting issues, and segueing like an eighteen wheeler, you have an inordinate fondness for pets, and for cats particularly. Like, I remember coming back to the room at AWP a couple years ago to find you lying in bed, watching cat videos online just to calm yourself in the maelstrom. Are cats your totem animal? Whence your obsession with kittays?
Oh my, if excruciating art is your thing, you should definitely check out the documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. It's as touching as it is harrowing, and should put some of those faculty meetings in perspective—or maybe vice versa. (I haven't been to any of your faculty meetings.)
If I remember that AWP correctly, I had broken my wrist a couple of months prior and was emerging from a haze of painkillers; cats facilitate various kinds of reentry. I grew up in a very creature-friendly household, and with the exception of a couple of grim years in the late ’80s, have always lived with at least one pet. Cats and dogs I adore equally, but when I first moved to Manhattan in ’91 I was going to school and working full time, so keeping a doggie seemed unfair and impractical, not to mention against the terms of my lease. Some buildings allow no pets whatsoever—who would want to live among all those petless people? If I'm ever around someone who says "I hate cats," I get away from them immediately and stay away, although I guess I can sympathize (begrudgingly) with people who are terribly allergic and have thus been denied the pleasures of feline company. It's old news, but you can gather a lot of useful information about people when you see how they treat animals and waitstaff. I could be remembering it wrong, but I think there's a scene in Jurassic Park where, even as the raptors have been merrily ripping half the cast to shreds, one of the characters says something like, "You still don't see them screwing each other over for a buck."
You probably saw this thing recently where some asshole CEO lost his job when footage of him kicking a dog wound up all over the internet. People were outraged—rightly so, and fuck that guy forever—and yet the even greater horror of factory farming continues apace. The vile abattoir owners and their lobbyists have also been getting our craptastic politicians to pass "Ag Gag" laws to criminalize the activities of investigative journalists and other whistleblowers.
Maybe here I can swerve to a question about the dumb prohibition against political poetry. Does it function as a kind of literary “Ag Gag” rule? Do you think poetry would be better off if poets ignored that prohibition, as they seem to be doing more and more successfully, or should everyone just stick to trees and urns?
I think American poets were oversold a bill of goods with the whole “art for art’s sake” notion. I understand this was an overcorrection for past aesthetic crimes that didn’t honor the poem for the artful, mysterious construct in language that a good poem always will be. But we as a country have often enjoyed the lucky, relative isolation of our geography, and our military and economic dominance have insured a kind of “What? Me Worry?” approach in mainstream poetics for many years.
But then the political poem may be one of the most difficult poems to write well. To have it not turn into propaganda, to avoid preaching to the converted. Hard row to hoe. But more folks seem to be taking up this task in recent years, and there were always American poets who ignored the memo about political poetry. The tradition was a smaller but important one.
Last question: You’re kind of a club kid deep down in your wee heart. If you were to put a super group of poets together, based on how their poems would translate into music, who would be in it and what instrument would they play?
I like that question, and I'll use it as an excuse to bust out the phrase "Mina Loy on keytar" at long last, but I'm sort of going to dodge it—maybe people will rise to the challenge and leave their own answers in the comments!
When you mentioned all the wee tunnels under the poetic anthill earlier, it reminded me of the labels for subgenres of electronic music that critics/bloggers have come up with during the last fifteen years or so—IDM, minimal techno, progressive house, drum and bass, dubstep, big beat, glitch, electronica, etc. etc. etc. If none of this music is your bag, it's easy to dismiss it all as "techno," just as you can remain blissfully oblivious to the distinctions between New York School and New Formalism if you don't care about poetry and/or are fixing to execute the poets.
When you talk about assembling a band, I'm reminded of how prickly we can get concerning affiliations and allegiances and communities—I feel like a lot of poets are in favor of the idea of community until they spot one that they feel excludes them. Poetry, the cliché goes, is art that people make on their own; a lot of us would secretly prefer to be in rock bands, although I don't know what this proves about poets, because so would a lot of bankers. Perhaps it speaks less to an interest in community per se than to an interest in groupies, leather pants, and having one's wildest catering demands fulfilled.
As technology (the internet in particular) has enabled poets to branch out and collaborate in new ways, it's also made it more practical and affordable for musicians to record and produce things by themselves. Projects by artists like Burial and Kathleen Hanna and Peaches are instructive concerning the value of privacy and autonomy in a business that typically demands the forfeiture of both. So here we all are, as ever, greening after someone else's grass.
Can we end with a poem, as well as a reminder that we have elections coming up in two months, and that it's important to register and vote? We were talking about your "Poem of Philosophical and Parental Conundrums Written in an Election Year" before, so I'm going to request that one.
What a terrific politician you would be! Rejecting the premise AND flattering the interviewer! Well done, Mr. Clinton.
Thank you for your time, Mark Bibbins. A very edifying conversation.
Next up tomorrow, Carl Phillips on race, Gordon Ramsay and yard work.
Note: due to the fact that the technology gods hate me, the link to “Poem Of Philosophical Conundrums…” is not yet functioning. I know. I know. You wonder how you will sleep tonight. If I can fix this, I’ll post it later…
Joseph Brodsky in his 1987 Nobel Lecture stated, “There are, as we know, three modes of cognition: analytical, intuitive, and the mode that was known to the biblical prophets: revelation. What distinguishes poetry from other forms of literature is that it uses all three of them at once (gravitating primarily toward the second and the third). For all three of them are given in the language; and there are times when, by no means of a single word, a single rhyme, the writer of a poem manages to find himself where no one has even been before him, perhaps than he himself would have wished to go. The one who writes a poem writes it above all because verse writing is an extraordinary accelerator of consciousness, of thinking, of comprehending the universe.”
The director, Richard Kroehling, and I want viewers of BE•HOLD to see how the weaving of film and poetry can be an accelerator of consciousness and a way to comprehend a world in which there is the persistent presence of genocide. I believe in poetry and what it can do. It is behind so much of the philosophy of my life and teaching. I’ve seen people’s lives change because of it.
We envision BE•HOLD as a cinematic film where each poem has its own style, its own visual island. Capturing a wide range of experiences, including the horrors, the beauty, the incomprehensible, the struggle, and even some small moments of transcendence, we will take viewers to a parallel world where those lost still walk. Through the power of movie making, we will pull the audience into this deeply examined and re-created world so their lives will resonate with the poet’s, allowing viewers to engage with history through a vibrant and contemporary lens. In BE•HOLD, language itself becomes a character. Modeled loosely on the PBS series, “The United States of Poetry,” the film is designed as a poetic anthology like Wim Wender’s dance anthology film “Pina.” Shifting focus to the interior states of each work, poems lift off from the page to the screen. Viewers will follow each performer into a time when good and evil, life and death walked the razor’s edge. It is our hope that new personal meanings for the audience will emerge out of the juxtaposition of the poems, the unique approach to each piece, the performances, cinematography, art direction, music and uses of sound and silence. In BE•HOLD, language itself becomes a character.
Creating a strong social media presence that will tap into the innate collectivity of the web, we want to create a community. We want to foster conversation. Facilitating exchanges between filmmakers, poets, survivors, their descendants, educators, students and visitors, we will also encourage and solicit work from writers and filmmakers.
Wilfred Owen wrote of his WWI poetry: “My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn.” For the next generations, we need inventive ways to ensure Holocaust memory. It is our goal for BE•HOLD to be a living legacy and an innovative way to remember.
BE•HOLD was accepted to the Independent Film Project’s Documentary Film Week held at Lincoln Center in September 2013 where we showed our progress reel and received strong interest. We are forming an Advisory Board for the film. Current advisors are poets Mary Stewart Hammond and Edward Hirsch, as well as Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, Chairman Emeritus of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. Currently, we are working with a casting agent to engage an actor for filming. Last year, we completed a successful campaign on Indiegogo and raised enough money to make the progress reel. We are still accepting contributions to complete production, and they are tax deductible. For anyone interested, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today, I am posting our progress reel which features Taylor Mali, Cornelius Eady, and me, along with my mother. Please note that it has not been fine edited yet. The password for the video is: perform
I would like to thank Stacey Harwood, Managing Editor, and The Best American Poetry Blog for asking me to be guest author this week. It has been an honor to write about my journey to poetry and where it has led me. If you’d like to learn more about the film, contribute or become part of the team, please be in contact on the BE•HOLD Facebook page or by email at email@example.com.
When I was little, I liked to make lists of things: sports I liked to play, bands/singers I liked to listen to, R.L. Stein books I’ve read and have yet to read. It was all usually things I liked, things that sort of defined me at the time. Today, I was similarly moved to make such a list, but this time, of TV shows I like, ones that warrant binge-watching entire seasons at a time. I don’t quite know why I’m compelled in this way. Why is the act of making a list a pleasurable thing? Is it the thinking process, the discerning? The result, the seeing them all together? Once I’ve exhausted the obvious ones, I’m forced to think of ones I might have forgotten about otherwise, thereby perhaps reinvigorating the idea? Homage? Inclusion? (Exclusion?) Is it like creating a club and I’m the leader who gets to approve membership (like picking teams in grade school kickball)? Am I attempting to keep myself organized? If I write down every city I’ve ever been to, will I then know myself more fully? Am I better able to hold myself together after listing every film that has ever made me cry?
And following this list of questions, another— Why the list poem? Similar to my list-creating desire’s elementary origins, the list poem is a technique often introduced to the young writer as a handy image-compiling tool. Some primary school teachers ask their students to create list poems to introduce themselves to their classmates, or when poetry is brand new. It’s easy. It’s fun. It’s productive, straight-forward self-reflection. And all of these are assets to someone in her late 20s (or, anyone older than primary school age) too. The list poem enacts this youthful ease of compartmentalization, while engaging with the more mature task of exploring a thing from all its angles.
Catherine Bowman makes lists in “Sylvia’s Photo Album,” “Things To Eat, Paris, 1953” and her series of “Things To Do” poems, all from The Plath Cabinet. Susan Firer’s list poems include “Small Milwaukee Museums,” “Where Song Comes From,” and “The Wave Docent.” Paul Guest gives us “My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge,” “To-Do List,” and “Things We Agreed Not to Shout,” which is reproduced here:
Things We Agreed Not to Shout [by Paul Guest]
Mom is dead. Dad melted. Again.
Bitter recriminations. Bitter infidelities. Bitter.
Streisand is on. Finnish curses on the firstborn
of everyone who held us back. My credit rating.
Your many catalogs of shame. Scrapbook time.
Do you remember where we sank the kindergarteners?
Infectious constipation. In our spare time,
we enjoy perfecting methods of evisceration.
Bingo. Also, fire. Let’s make a baby.
Not anymore. You feel kind of weird inside.
My brother’s indiscretions. My indiscretion
with your brother. That lost weekend in Vegas.
Landslide of therapy. Moving to another state. Again.
We are running out of America. Faster.
Right there. Good girl. Judas Priest lyrics.
Freebird. Woo. Random latitudes.
Imagined injuries. Getting tired of your meniscus.
Seriously. Routing numbers
and decade by decade
delineations of your bra sizes. Beginning with the seventies.
You promised. I thought you were
asleep. I thought you wouldn’t mind it.
The list poem inherently invites the reader into its space. It asks for suggestions. What’s left out here? What could be added to this list? What kinds of things have you agreed not to shout? (To Guest’s list, I’d add, “Curse words at seagulls in the morning.”)
But there’s also a clear reason why the reader’s additions are not a part of the list already (so clear that it probably doesn’t need to be said, but I’ll say it anyway): This is not my list. This list is a representation of the speaker at a particular moment in time. It’s possible that he might agree next week not to shout curse words at seagulls in the morning. But at the time of the poem, it wasn’t a defining piece of his character. Maybe it’s a piece of mine though… So maybe I’ll create my own list… And oh, another reason the list poem is so spectacular! The encouragement of new poems. And then, years after you write your own “things I’ve agreed not to shout” poem, you might write another one because maybe you’ve decided to start shouting at seagulls since then. It’s a wonderful process, really.
So I’m going to go make a list of all my favorite TV shows. Who really knows why. But when I’m done, the list will exist, and I will have it to look at and consider its implications, what it says about me as a TV watcher, an entertainment seeker, an American, a human being. And maybe I’ll never look at it again. Or I’ll make another list in 15 years because this list doesn’t define me anymore. Or maybe I’ll make a poem of it, like John Ashbery’s “They Knew What They Wanted,” a list poem comprised of film titles. And then he’ll write a poem in response to mine comprised of only TV show titles. And then… well, the list goes on, doesn’t it?
Note: Readers of "astrological profiles" know that the use of astrological terms is laid on pretty thick but with tongue in cheek, firmly so, on the nervy assumption that the horoscope -- like the "haruspicate or scry," "sortilege, or tea leaves," playing cards, pentagrams, handwriting analysis, palm-reading, and the "preconscious terrors" of the dreaming mind in T. S. Eliot's "The Dry Salvages" -- may be a bust at prediction bur may turn out to be not only "usual pastimes and drugs" but the means of poetic exploration.
Born in Brooklyn Heights on July 16, 1907, Barbara Stanwyck was an atypical Cancer, with both her moon and her rising sign in Virgo. Gemini, the sign of the twins, rules her midheaven. A talented actress (Mercury in Leo), she was able to project a wide variety of women -- a paranoid hypochondriac, a confidence artist, a calculating femme fatale, an unflappable witness to a murder -- in modes tragic or comic.
According to Isaac Babylon in The Charts of the Stars, his classic study of six Hollywood starlets from the 1940s (Stanwyck, Ingrid Bergman, Irene Dunne, Olivia de Havilland, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford), Stanwyck's Virgoesque self-restraint combined with the gush of watery emotion that comes from having not only her sun but her Venus, Jupiter, and Neptune in Cancer. She was a good businesswoman (Mars in Capricorn) but prone to morbidity (Saturn in Pisces).
The actresses of the 1940s – we can add Katherine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell to Babylon’s list -- belie the notion that women born before the age of female enlightenment lacked strong models who could either keep their families together despite the stresses of war or be psychiatrists, reporters, con artists; they could solve murders or commit them, could go crazy, could run a restaurant, pack a gun, slap her daughter, commit adultery, or risk her life as an American agent in South America during World War II.
Barbara Stanwyck came from a working class background. She went to Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. Thanks to shrewd investments (Mars in Capricorn) she grew rich. It figures that she never won an Oscar though she was nominated four times. Her real name was Ruby Stevens. She was hilarious in “The Lady Eve” and superb in “Golden Boy.” She helped William Holden get the title part and became Holden's lucky star. He was crazy about her as photos taken on the set of “Executive Suite” attest. In 1939 she married Robert Taylor. Whisperers said it was a sham designed to get gullible people to believe the two stars were heterosexual. Taylor was four years younger than Stanny. "The boy's got a lot to learn and I've got a lot to teach," she said. She kept the ranch and horses when they divorced in 1951. Robert Wagner said he had a four-year affair with her. Could be.
Stanwyck had a sharp tongue. She defined "egotism" as "usually just a case of mistaken nonentity." She had a proud notion of her true worth. "Put me in the last fifteen minutes of a picture and I don't care what happened before. I don't even care if I was IN the rest of the damned thing. I'll take it in those fifteen minutes." During the filming of Double Indemnity, the Billy Wilder masterpiece, she says that her co-star, Fred MacMurray, would look at the rushes every day. Babs would say, "How was I?" And Fred, perhaps in keeping with their dialogue in the movie, would reply, "I don't know about you, but I was wonderful!" Actors look only at themselves.
On the day we visited, Stanwyck, a self-described "tough old broad from Brooklyn," took one look at the script and started laughing. What's the matter? "Be a good lad and re-fill my glass. Scotch, rocks, no water. You know what my biggest problem is? My biggest problem is trying to figure out how to play my fortieth fallen female different from my thirty-ninth."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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)
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.