“Let’s say there was a burning building and you could rush in and you could save only one thing: either the last known copy of Shakespeare’s plays or some anonymous human being. What would you do?” asks Sheldon Flender of his fellow bohemians in “Bullets Over Broadway.” It’s a terrifying dilemma, although its terror assumes that people wouldn’t remember one of the most memorized writers there has ever been. A Shakespeare-less universe is unimaginable. On the most basic level, what would people say in those moments when we say “To Be or Not To Be”? What would people do when they want to crack a joke near a skull? What would “Brave New World” be called?
In fact, I suspect we’d soon get over it. True, there is a fairly startling drop in quality between the 100th best work of literature and the 101st (a distance equivalent to the drop from Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” to his not-bad but not-great “Adventures of Philip“). But so much of the canon’s greatness comes from the time we spend studying it and admiring it. Not all of it, but definitely some of it. If Shakespeare were to disappear, we’d still have Milton. We wouldn’t have Brave New World, but we’d still have “Look Homeward, Angel” as a title. And we’d also still have Marlowe and Jonson, who would most likely be the greatest beneficiary of a vanished Shakespeare. Jonson’s plays take time to like, time that we now dedicate to the tail end of Shakespeare’s canon.
And I think that applies to periods of 100 years in one country as much as it does to all the time in the world. You can knock the top few works out — the essentials — and be left with new essentials — a rich and important corpus that rewards study and delivers beauty at roughly the same degree. Samuel Jonhson’s Lives of the Poets, to me, presents the best test case for my little theory. Its index is disturbing: there’s so much space he is dedicating to poets that barely anyone cares about any more. According to my theory, that’s because Johnson only had about 200 years of what you might call modern poetry to discuss — a mere five generations of poets. As more poets emerged to grab our attention, the others got pushed aside.
It could well be, of course, that those poets deserved to get lost. The rhyming pentameters of the eighteenth century gave poetic license to a lot of lazy, overblown rhetoric. But still, it’ll be good to see what gems Johnson has in store, as well as to dig out some Johnsonisms. (I will post any good Johnsonisms on twitter in the meantime.) This is British literature, 1600-1800 without Milton, Shakespeare, Marvell, Swift, Pope, Gay or Gray. Let’s see how it looks.
FIRST UP: CONGREVE!
UPDATE: Here’s the first installment on Congreve.
Why use your own words when you can express yourself just as well by using someone else’s? And if your identity is not your own, then sincerity must be tossed out as well. Materiality, too, comes to the fore: the quantity of words seems to have more bearing on a poem than what they mean. Disposability, fluidity, and recycling: there’s a sense that these words aren’t meant for forever. Today they’re glued to a page but tomorrow they could re-emerge as a Facebook meme. Fusing the avant-garde impulses of the last century with the technologies of the present, these strategies propose an expanded field for twenty-first-century poetry. This new writing is not bound exclusively between pages of a book; it continually morphs from printed page to web page, from gallery space to science lab, from social spaces of poetry readings to social spaces of blogs. It is a poetics of flux, celebrating instability and uncertainty.
that’s Kenneth Goldsmith in Poetry. The bad guys undermine that statement by whining that the latest (and worth buying) issue of Poetry DOESN’T treat their poems with enough respect. Or else over-dissing the non-flarf poems and over-praising the flarf ones. Tom Philips, in his book on 20th century postcards astutely observed that the conceptual artists of the 1980s — the kind who would dress up in vinyl and stand dead still in busy streets for hours — were oddly and consistently humorless, even though what they were doing was prima facie funny. A lot of conceptual poetry charms on its ability to crack me up with its spontaneity and lack of weight — I wish its criticism was less war-like in its agenda. The way they discuss lyric poems — you’d think you were reading about Iran in the Weekly Standard.
Walking to Chelsea along the river, with her MRI scan tucked underneath her arm, my mother has been singing:
In the Tower of London, large as life,
The ghost of Ann Boleyn walks, they declare.
Poor Ann Boleyn was once King Henry’s wife –
Until he made the Headsman bob her hair!
Ah yes! he did her wrong long years ago,
And she comes up at night to tell him so.
With her head tucked underneath her arm
She walks the Bloody Tower!
With her head tucked underneath her arm
At the Midnight hour – Continue reading
The USNS Comfort Sails to the Gulf By Rachel Loden
Huge red crosses on the whitewashed hull:
Best part: That’s the poem in toto.
Why nominated: The riff on Ezra Pound. The slant rhyme. The fun contemplating whether this poem is better read aloud or silently.
Why it might not reach the final: It’s 65% gimmick.
Why it should reach the final: It’s not 100% gimmick.
Via Tinfish. Via Silliman. Buy the book here.
UPDATE: The poem contains a bad link! (The good one’s here). Discuss the significance of the bad link and how it relates to the rest of the poem from the critical vantage point of Derrida, Marx, Lacan or Bakhtin, possible points of reference might include the chain of signifiers and pseudohypertextualiy.
Statistically, Rimbaud was a Latin poet during his lifetime — Graham Robb pointed this out in his TLS review of the new Pleiade Rimbaud. Pierre Assouline mentions that from Latin Rimbaud got his trick of piling words one on top of another, conventional word order be damned. (“More firmly bland than to children apples’ firm pulp” in Beckett’s translation of Le Bateau Ivre.) It’s not just the likes of Horace that the loss of Latin makes obscure, it’s most European writers up until 1900. Some of Samuel Johnson’s best poems were in Latin and unless you speak the language you can’t read some 150 poems of a titan of English literature in their original language. See also, Milton. Thomas Gray wrote some 30% of his poems in Latin. Shakespeare, with his “small Latin,” is the exception as usual. Still his Latin, small for his age, was larger than the Latin most of us have in our age. A lack of Latin makes one deaf to a constantly sounding frequency in English literature, one equivalent in its importance to the woodwinds in an orchestra: we still have the tunes, but miss this beautiful tone.
WANDELVAKANTIES DICHT BIJ HUIS
by Andrew Philip
CATEGORY: Not messing around with the standard lyrical nouns too much.
WHY NOMINATED: “…The light cracks like paint—…“