Posts Tagged ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’

Seven Ways of Looking at a Line of Poetry

November 6, 2016


Anthropologists tell us* that “some time between 75 thousand and 60 thousand years ago” homo sapiens underwent a remarkable change (194). This event occurred “somewhere on the African continent (most likely somewhere in its eastern or southwestern regions)” (193). Suddenly, our already impressive brains developed the capacity for symbolic thought. Our ancestors, who heretofore merely consisted of roving bands of uppidy carnivorous weapon-wielding bipeds, were transformed into artists, shamans, scientists, and engineers. World-domination was now only a matter of time.

These new-and-improved brains rendered representational art, handicraft, metaphor, music, dance, language and poetry essential to our existence.

As Kurt Vonnegut notes, this spectacular transformation gave us not only the capacity and the inclination to produce Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; it also gave us the capacity and the inclination to

burn people alive in the public square for holding opinions which were locally unpopular, or build factories whose only purpose was to kill people in industrial quantities.

I’m seriously into words. I have argued that it’s ultimately impossible to separate language from poetry because our ancestors began playing with words as soon as they began to invent them. Uttered phonemes are automatically poetic just like every basket and every arrowhead homo sapiens produce is a work of art.

Death and disruption at an early age hurt Theodore Roethke into poetry, as W. H. Auden suggests “mad Ireland” hurt W.B. Yeats into poetry. And oh what prodigious poetry Roethke did make! I’m going to spend a little bit of time talking about how to say the third line of a villanelle Roethke wrote called “The Waking” because my brain spends a lot of time thinking about such things.

A villanelle is a nineteen-line Italian form in which the first and third lines are each repeated three times. (I’ve written a few of them myself.) (A smartass once wrote on this blog that “the cool thing about villanelles is that once you’ve written the first three lines, you’re 42% finished.”)

Here’s the first stanza of Roethke’s “The Waking.”

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

I told you the dude was prodigious, right? Anyhow, the first and third lines of a good villanelle must be firm and flexible as much heavy lifting is expected of them. Here are some examples:

Time will say nothing but I told you so.

(First line of Auden’s “If I Could tell You”)

(I think I made you up inside my head.)
(Third Line of Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song”)

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

(Third Line of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”)

Now back to “The Waking.” If a reader must read the same lines four times in a nineteen-line poem, the poet should provide her with options about which words to stress. Here are seven ways to say line three of “The Waking”:

#1 I learn by going where I have to go

Learning is about destination rather than free will.

#2 I learn by going where I have to go

The essential lesson is in the destination

#3 I learn by going (pause) where I have to go

The journey, so to speak, is the destination.

#4 I learn by going where I have to go

The lesson is in the doing.

#5 I learn by going where I have to go

The important thing is that the experience is educational.

#6 I learn by going where I have to go.

It’s imperative to take a certain route that is nonetheless educational.

#7 I learn by going where I have to go.

I find out what I’m supposed to do only by doing it.

by Richard W. Bray

*Ian Tattersall, Masters of the Planet

The Perils of Bardolatry: Harold Bloom’s Limited Perception of Hamlet

September 14, 2011

Harold Bloom

The Perils of Bardolatry: Harold Bloom’s Limited Perception of Hamlet

The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it.

Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? (178)

The essential function of art is moral. Not aesthetic, not decorative, not pastime and recreation. But moral.

D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (180)

When Kurt Vonnegut was working on Slaughterhouse-Five, he told movie-producer Harrison Starr that it was going to be an anti-war novel.

“Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?” Starr quipped.

Vonnegut found the comment amusing, agreeing that wars are “as easy to stop as glaciers.” This knowledge did not dissuade Vonnegut from completing his masterpiece because he realized that no work of art could ever rectify the human situation, and only the silliest sort of fool creates a work of art hoping somehow to fix the world. (This is what logicians refer to as assigning an irrelevant goal.)

But literature has its uses. And W. H. Auden notwithstanding, poetry makes all sorts of things happen. Great works of art render our world a lot more beautiful and slightly less confusing.

Harold Bloom, one of America’s most acclaimed literary critics, has released a curious collection of musings on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet entitled Poem Unlimited. According to Bloom, “of all poems” Hamlet is the “most unlimited,” and, as a “meditation upon human fragility in confrontation with death,” the play “competes only with the world’s great scriptures” (3).

Bloom has long been an idiosyncratic critic, cocksure about his own brilliance and emphatic about the singular authenticity of his opinions. His general predisposition towards even the most revered literary figures is often miserly in terms of handing out approbation. For example, Bloom dismisses Matthew Arnold’s oeuvre in one sentence: “Arnold, long admired both for his poetry and for his literary criticism, was not particularly good at either” (The Best Poems of the English Language 684).

And like the notoriously fussy Mikey from the Life Cereal advertisement of my youth, when Bloom finally comes across something that pleases him, he really likes it.

Hamlet remains our world’s most advanced drama, imitated but scarcely transcended by Ibsen, Chekhov, Pirandello, and Beckett. You cannot get beyond Hamlet, which establishes the limits of theatricality. (7).

Of course, Bloom is hardly the first critic to gush over Hamlet.

It is perhaps not necessary to emphasize the quality of the prose in Hamlet. Here are passages which represent the highest point Shakespeare ever reached in this medium….it is the excellence and the importance of the prose which separates Hamlet from, and in many ways above, all the other plays (George H. W. Rylands, Words and Poetry 159).

So Bloom, a devout secularist who considers “Bardolatry” to be “only another name for authentic response to Shakespeare,” is ecstatic about Hamlet (7). This play’s the thing for Bloom, and its eponymous hero is the pinnacle of literary achievement, eliciting rapturous bellows of praise from the usually cantankerous critic:

[Hamlet] himself is a frontier of consciousness yet to be passed (7);

Hamlet always has had nothing in common with his father, his mother and his uncle. He is a kind of changeling…fathered by himself (9);

Hamlet becomes the freest artist of himself in all literature (51);

We cannot play upon him: he is cleverer than we are, and more dangerous (54);

[T]he likes of] whom we have scarcely encountered before (82);

[H]e is more intelligent than you are, whoever you are (88);

[H]e is a mortal god in an immortal play (90);

Hamlet is the truth, insofar as any hero of consciousness can be (96).

Thus inebriated in adoration, Bloom almost completely ignores the enigma at the core of Hamlet’s personality which has confounded and infuriated critics for centuries: Yes, Hamlet is a devilishly clever young man, full of all sorts of wonderful words. But he is also cruel, capricious, and ditheringly indecisive. Indeed, the very expression “playing Hamlet” is a synonym for indecisiveness.

No one could seriously question Bloom’s assertion that Hamlet is a font of fabulous words. But if, as D. H. Lawrence argues, the moral function of art is paramount, then there is no escaping the fact that Hamlet is an abject failure as a man. If Hamlet had simply killed Claudius (the man who murdered Hamlet’s father), so much senseless death and mayhem could have been avoided. The Polonius family—who, whatever their faults, were decent, loyal and loving human beings—is utterly destroyed due to Hamlet’s vacillating stupidity.

Unlike Hamlet, Laertes has no need to navigate a sea of words in order to determine the right course of action. Hamlet himself speaks of Laertes as a “great gentleman,” and Hamlet admires the “bravery of his grief.” Furthermore, the similarity of their plight is not lost on Hamlet, who says of Laertes, “by the image of my cause, I see/The portraiture of his.”

Yet Harold Bloom will have none of it: “Laertes is too absurdly slight to be Hamlet’s ‘second self,’ as many critics aver (104).

Along with Laertes, the other heroic figure in Hamlet is Horatio. According to Hamlet, Horatio is

A man that fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks: and blest are those
Whose blood and judgement are so well commedled
That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As i do thee.

Again, Bloom is unwilling to listen, not even to Hamlet:

Though critics have asserted that Hamlet finds qualities in Horatio that are absent from himself, they are plainly mistaken. Hamlet is so various that he contains every quality, while Horatio, totally colorless, has none to speak of (15).

Alan Lerner jested that “The French don’t care what they do actually/As long as they pronounce it properly.” Similarly, Harold Bloom doesn’t care what Hamlet does, actually—whom he berates, whom he stabs, whom he has murdered, whom he brutishly badgers to the point of suicide, how many ways he contradicts himself, how many people die for his indecisiveness—as long as Hamlet collocates his lovely words better than anyone else.

by Richard W. Bray