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
From the black-and-white postwar British movie Easy Money (1948), here is the Norwegian actress Greta Gynt singing "The Shady Lady Spiv" to fellow spiv (or cheap crook) Dennis Price at the London nightclub where she works. She and Price are conspiring to rip off the football lottery outfit that employs him. The plot is a sort of milquetoast toast to Barbara Stanwyck's partnership with insurance agent Fred MacMurrary to defraud his company and eliminate ehr husband in one swell foop in Double Indemnity..But listen to the song, and delight in "spiv," a piece of English slang that has not lost its strangeness, especially when coupled with "shady lady." The movie is available streaming from Netflix. -- DL
A couple of years ago, after reading some Eliot and watching some Jacques Tati, I thought it would be a smashing idea to write a parodic blend of the two and it started thus:
The Hulot Men
Mistah Hulot—lui mort.
We are the Hulot men
We are the French men
Smoking togetherPipe bowls filled with straw.
but it didn't get much further, thankfully. But another entanglement of poetry and Tati has come together in this image of Monsieur Hulot's brother-in-law's swanky new car in Mon Oncle:
for the cover of Heather Phillipson's new book is inspired by this vehicle. Regardez-vous:
and this cover has already had an article devoted to it in Art Review (one of the perks of being a practising artist as well as a poet).
The reason I mention all this is that last night was the London launch of Instant-flex 718 (Bloodaxe) at the Art Review Bar just off Old Street ('Silicone Roundabout' as almost nobody calls it) and the great and the good (although I prefer the term 'the out and the about') gathered to start up this gorgeously hued vehicle and drive it away.
The first words I heard out of Heather Phillipson's mouth, back in 2007, were:
The only men it's safe for me to love are dead –
O'Hara, Stevens, Berryman.
when I read with her at The Poetry Café in Covent Garden and I became a fan at that moment. These are the opening two lines from 'Devoted, Hopelessly', which appears in the book. By the way, the title refers to the type of glue used to bind the book. I could talk about how the title and some of the poems inside speak of the materiality of language as used by the poet. But I won't.
What I will say is that this debut collection contains many hilarious, touching, surprising, and intriguing poems with wonderful titles like 'German Phenomenology Makes Me Want to Strip and Run through North London', 'Red Slugs in Every Irrelevant Direction', You're an Architect and I Want to Make Dinner for You' and 'Actually I'm Simply Trying to Find My Dressing Gown Sash'.
I like a launch to be more of a party than a reading and Heather chose to read a single poem, pushing the needle of the 'launchometer' almost as far away from the 'reading' end of the 'party – reading' scale as it is possible to do. But she left us wanting more, which is always a good thing.
Another good thing is that four of us peeled off to eat fish and chips at Kennedy's on Whitecross Street, which is worth a visit if you're ever out East.
So. As Monsieur Hulot departs at the end of Mon Oncle to allow his nephew to bond with his formerly stuffy father, Monsieur Arpel, so must I depart at the end of my week as guest blogger. It's been a pleasure and there were many other things I wanted to write about, like how can we get people to stop saying "x won the Internet"? but perhaps I will continue with these over at Mo' Worse Blues.
Au revoir. I leave you with an apposite poem from Heather Phillipson.
The Distance between England and America
Much could begin like this: a large man,
tie slackened, voice buoyed up by altitude.
My mind's elsewhere –
the air-conditioning. It's cold.
Above the Atlantic he bellows long vowels to me,
and I'm cabined, window-seated, polite.
With my English tone, I'm inadvertantly provocative –
No more salted pretzels for me, thanks Jeff.
At the sound of Charles Darwin's bassoon,
earthworms, apparently, writhed.
Jeff booms: Pittsburgh, golf clubs, his search for a wife.
I twist in my seat – suggest something,
in my movement, of all evolution.
His blanket folds back like an invitation
to navy shadows and polyester.
Heat and anything could happen under there.
Oh, take your loafers off, Jeff –
throw them in the aisle.
Your gusto can conquer my boredom, our bed can be the sky.
It's warming up. We won't be sleeping.
For almost nine hours beneath United Airlines covers
we'll share everything but thought.
In the morning, white bread rolls and Columbus, Ohio.
Women distribute plastic cutlery in the night.
For more information on Heather, click here.
Yesterday was a Bank Holiday in the UK. This is a day we occasionally grant to our banks so that they can take a breather from refusing to lend to businesses, insisting on unnecessary payment protection schemes, finding ways to turn public bailout money into private bonuses, and so on. They need to replenish their batteries.
And the rest of us need to go have lunch in cafés attached to museums and galleries. For a freelancer, depending on one's success or commitment, either every day is a Bank Holiday or Bank Holidays remain something that only other people enjoy. I must confess, I bunked off and practised my F major scale.
I also had time to reflect on a recent event I organised for the BFI (British Film Institute). The BFI has a generous and welcoming attitude to poets and it enjoys exploring the links between poetry and cinema. Over the last few years I've been involved in their poetry/film crossover event 'O Dreamland', which invited poets to write about their digital archive (The Mediatheque); I launched my collaborative Hitchcock homage Psycho Poetica at the BFI in 2010; and last year Isobel Dixon, Chris McCabe and I premiered The Debris Field there.
This year I was asked to organise something for their recent epic Pasolini retrospective and I considered various approaches. I thought of poetically 're-staging' Theorem using six poets playing each of the main characters, and I also toyed with comparing the 'swinging Sixties' of Pasolini, Antonioni and Bertolucci.
But in the end I took my lead from Pier Paolo himself and his love of the literary portmanteau movie, so I suggested A New Decameron: ten films, ten poets, ten film clips, one evening of poetic and filmic enthusiasm.
I asked nine other poets and writers to join me: Jane Draycott, Charles Lambert, Glyn Maxwell, John McCullough, Valeria Melchioretto, Luca Paci, Cristina Viti, Stephen Watts and Chrissy Williams. We were also lucky enough to have Rosa Mucignat of King's College London reading some of Pasolini's poetry in the Friulian language, with translations by Cristina Viti.
The sold-out show was funny, moving and powerful by turns and I wanted to give you a little taster by posting Chrissy Williams's poem and a film clip here. Chrissy freely admits to being obsessed with Pasolini's clownish muse, the great Ninetto Davoli. I'm currently talking to the BFI and the poets about getting all the work online in the near future.
First a small sample of the irrepressible Davoli from Chrissy's chosen film The Canterbury Tales.
And now her poem.
for Davoli in The Canterbury Tales
"col tuo sorriso, fulmineo e buffo" — Pasolini
"My only enemy is time" — Chaplin
I step to the screen
with your face so big, a kiss
with my arms reached up
would wrap around me whole.
Slip tongue, slip lip to the camera.
I fell in love with a face once
until it swallowed me.
And all him loved that looked upon his face
That each him loved who looked upon his face
No length of time or death may this deface
Step, nod to the screen and wink the bride.
You, happy as a goldfish in a glade.
You, little tramp with laughter for a face.
The bride winks back, slips back into a stolen moment.
Slip tongue to the world and hope for many moments.
and your face is a song, fool
your eyes light a dance, fool
lip-tight on the laugh of language
on the laughter
Step hip to dance with shadows till it's time
and it's always time to dance with shadows.
We dance against the day the music slips.
We dance the laugh of lips in bandages.
Thy face is turned in a new array
Your face is mottled in a new array
No step is left behind,
just kicked in a new way.
Stories shift, dreamed high,
kicked about in an angel's face
which changes, because
everything is always changing
although it stays the same.
No story is left behind,
just slipped on in a new way.
and I'll see you here again and again.
I'll love you here again again.
I'll fall and catch my heart in your constant face.
I fell in love with a clown once,
with a fool. Now I am the new clown
of no good, who falls with a cane
as time rearranges the stories of your face.
Is the face enough?
Is any one face ever enough?
In all his face there was no drop of blood
With his face pale and with a heavy cheer
Now list you down with face all pale of hue
I fell in love with your face once,
with the face I found, and I will follow it,
love, through all our familiar stories.
More about Chrissy Williams here.
The work of criticism is always, let’s say, ephemeral; Saint-Beuve’s name survives only because Proust was against him. Even more fleeting are the reactions of the mere reviewer. “No serious critic can devote himself, frequently, exclusively, and indefinitely, to reviewing works most of which inevitably cannot bear, would even be misrepresented by, review in depth,” sniffs Renata Adler in her screed against Pauline Kael.
So the outpouring of emotion in the wake of Roger Ebert’s death might seem a transitory thing; already, the passing of the Iron Lady (of whom more later) has moved him off the screens. The rise of Siskel and Ebert neatly paralleled in time the switch from the decade-long Prague Spring of New Hollywood to the blockbuster-driven economy still churning its way through the Marvel and DC lineups. Even if Ebert’s courage and openness in the face of his disfiguring illness and his resolute identity as a newspaper journalist in the twilight of that industry render him heroic, he and his partner might still seem like emblems in a narrative of cultural decline, banally and profitably celebrating the culture industry’s assembly line, whatever caveats they might have about individual products.
But I want to offer a different view. Sneak Previews and its successors enjoyed an astounding success, given how unpromising the show’s basic structure might have seemed: two untelegenic, middle-aged white guys bickering about movie clips. The show operated on the premise that arguing about culture could draw a mass audience. And it did. “Thumbs up or down” may have been the takeaway message, but both critics made clear that those decisions were made for reasons, and reasons that each would emphatically try to make the other acknowledge.
Maybe those arguments weren’t always the most sophisticated. And maybe the very act of treating Weekend at Bernie’s 2 as worthy of detailed consideration was as much a con as it was a tribute to critical open-mindedness. But in their humble way, Siskel and Ebert offered a model of rationality, one on which thinking wasn’t a matter of following an algorithm or asserting a purely subjective preference. In other words, it was a humanistic kind of education.
And it strikes me that poetry criticism, that much-lamented field, could do with more of a dose of At the Movies-style debate. We have our dramatic flareups, as with the fascinating byplay between Marjorie Perloff and Matvei Yankelevich last year. But too often, even when critical disagreements break out, they either proceed at an austere level of abstraction or wind up with people talking past one another. I’d love to see a pair of writers devote themselves to detailed and contentious consideration of recent books or poems of note. There are some excellent examples approximating this: Al Filreis’s Poem Talk, for instance, or the byplay between Christian Wiman and Don Share on the Poetry podcast, but I think there’s room for a similar effort that's neither tied to a particular publication nor emphasizing a scholarly conversation.
The use of thumbs in the poetic context, though, might have its risks:
What a thrill—
My thumb instead of an onion.
The top quite gone
Except for a sort of hinge
A flap like a hat,
Then that red plush.
(Sylvia Plath, "Cut")
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.