Posts Tagged ‘My Fair Lady’

A Journey Across Syllables

July 5, 2015
I Rode My Ten Speed to Pomona to Buy this Single

I Rode My Ten Speed to Pomona to Buy this Single

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio,
Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

When songwriter Paul Simon wrote the above lines in his song “Mrs. Robinson” he was grasping after the illusion that the 1950s had been a simpler time than the turbulent 1960s. (But there are no simple times.)

Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio were Yankee teammates and unfriendly rivals. Years after writing Mrs Robinson, Paul Simon met Mickle Mantle. Simon gushed on and on about how Mantle had been his boyhood hero. When Mantle asked Simon why he had chosen to glorify DiMaggio rather than Mantle, Simon replied

“It was syllables, Mickey, the syllables were all wrong.”

A song, like any other type of poem, is a journey across syllables, and syllables are made of sounds. Linguists call these sounds phonemes. Linguists are people who study words. In England linguists are called philologists, which is a wonderful-sounding word. My favorite philologist is Henry Higgins from “My Fair Lady.” (Yes, I know he’s not a real person. So what?)

Linguists name and catalogue the sounds that make up languages. (That’s a lot of work.) They give these sounds really cool-sounding names like “fricatives” and “diphthongs.” Years ago I had to memorize the names of all the English language phonemes and a whole bunch of other stuff for a midterm in my Structure of Language class with Dr. Hilles. It was a tough test. (I got a 96%, thank you very much. But the student who spent her lectures reading fashion magazines got an 18%.)

Anyhow, those hardworking linguists tell us that the total number of phonemes employed in earthling human languages ranges from 11 to 112. The English language provides us with about forty-four phonemes to work with. That’s plenty of sounds for your gifted lyricist.

When Barry Manilow was recording the song that would make him famous, he had a phoneme problem. See if you can spot it.

Well you came and you gave without taking
But I sent you away, oh Brandy
Well you kissed me and stopped me from shaking
And I need you today, oh Brandy

The “b’” sound at the beginning of the word “Brandy” is called a voiced bilabial stop: voiced because it involves the vocal cords; bilabial because it utilizes both lips; and stop because it provides a halt between sounds. (Compare the voiced bilabial stop of the “b” sound with the voiceless bilabial stop of the “p” sound.)

The “br” sound at the beginning of the name “Brandy” was a jarring jolt which interrupted the flow of sounds. When Manilow switched out the name Brandy with the name Mandy, the sounds smoothly melted together, and the rest, as they say, is history. (The “m” sound is called a bilabial nasal)

Now consider the following stanza from Bob Dylan’s song “Shelter from the Storm.

In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation and she gave me a lethal dose
I offered up my innocence I got repaid with scorn
Come in, she said
I’ll give ya shelter from the storm

I lied. We’re not going to consider the whole stanza, with all its wit, humor, irony, imagery, and biblical references. We are only going to talk about the first half of the first line.

Say “in a little hilltop village” to yourself aloud. Now say it again, this time thinking about what your tongue, lips, and teeth are doing. Notice how all the action is happening at the front of your mouth.

And as for those poor benighted souls who don’t think song lyrics are poetry. Well, read the first comment on this blog post. It’s by somebody named Richard W. Bray.

by Richard W. Bray

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 gentelman,” 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

Resources for a Lesson Plan on Redundancy and An Amusing Teacher Story

March 30, 2010

George Carlin

Resources for a Lesson Plan on Redundancy

Use the list of redundancies from George Carlin’s wonderful book Braindroppings and The Redundant Little Short Story to teach a lesson on redundancies. Carlin’s list includes examples such as PIN number, safe haven, closed fist and linger on. (However, I would quibble with Carlin on the terms time clock and security guard. There’s a difference between a clock and a time clock just as there is a difference between a guard and a security guard.)


The Redundant Little Short Story

The two twins Ted and Ned lived in a teeny tiny little bungalow in the city of Chicago. The silly clown Fred Toolshed was Ted and Ned’s closest best friend. Fred lived in a small cottage near the University of UCLA. One day Ted, Ned, and Fred decided to go on a long journey in search of a famous celebrity or a royal queen. Ted said, “Fred, you would have to be a crazy maniac to travel through snowy blizzards and blustery tornadoes.”

“Ted,” said Ned, “only a stupid ignoramus or a cheap miser would pass up an opportunity to meet big giants, brilliant geniuses and dead mummies.”

So Ted, Ned and Fred had many exciting adventures in search of renowned luminaries and distinguished dignitaries. They also ate frozen popsicles with a young infant named Bed Wetter and an elderly octogenarian named Jed Sledder. The five of them met all kinds of living organisms, including a smelly skunk, a sleepy insomniac, a tiny microorganism, and a tall giraffe.

An Amusing Teacher Story

Sadly, due to the ill-conceived efforts of our current Education Secretary and his two immediate predecessors, frightened school administrators across the country are doing their best to eradicate all traces of art and humanity from the teaching profession (because, you know, teaching should only be about raising test scores).

But this sick, sad trend really has nothing to do with “accountability.” It’s just about power. (Accountability is a nice-sounding word, but in practice it means that schools are micromanaged by bureaucrats in Washington DC instead of being directly accountable to local school boards)

Back in the days before the federal government (a seven-percent stakeholder in education) made it so difficult for teachers to make even the smallest efforts to enrich the lives of their students, I used to show the kids gems like Donald O’Connor singing Make ‘em Laugh or the Nicholas Brother doing their thing in the movie Stormy Weather at the end of the day as we were preparing to go home.

Now, I’ve always been rather sympathetic to Freddy in My Fair Lady because I too find Audrey Hepburn to be irresistibly enchanting. So one day I was trying to explain why Freddy was so smitten with Eliza Doolittle before showing them the song On the Street Where You Live. I said that he had decided to sit in front of this woman’s house for days on end because he was in love with her but she was not in love with him.

One of my girls said, “I get it. He’s a stalker.”

I’m afraid she was right. (Kids really make you think sometimes.)

By Richard W. Bray