Prodded by recent events, I’ve been mulling this over since those thought-leaders of the 1950s, novelist J. P. Donleavy and publisher Hugh Hefner died within a couple of weeks of one another in September (having been born that close together in April of 1926). Why is it that those writers and thinkers of the Fifties and Sixties who championed “freedom” conceived of it entirely in terms of masculine freedom, which resulted in treating women so shabbily? I don’t mean to pick on these two, although they commend themselves to the role. Consider the work and thought (and in some cases, lives) of John Cheever, John Updike, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Alan Sillitoe (in case you thought I was letting the Brits off the hook), Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Fowles, Kingsley Amis, Anthony Burgess–the list goes on and on. And let’s not start on rock stars or we might never finish. Some might argue (I would be one) that not all of these are created equal. Burgess’ preferred monster, Alex in A Clockwork Orange, is held up not as a model but as a cautionary tale: if we believe in free will, we’re stuck with him. And Fowles’s buttheads are at least problematic within their respective texts. Still, even if some might have been diagnosing a problem rather than presenting their males-run-amok for approval, the trend was, and remains problematic. And it lives on. How many of Jim Harrison’s heroes, nearly all surrogates for the author, were bedding women far too young for them? Once or twice, maybe, but come on! I’m all for freedom, but all too often it comes for one group at the expense of someone else. That doesn’t sound all that free.
First of all, here’s the line as it actually reads: “Players and painted stage took all my love.” It’s there in every version of Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” that I (or you or anyone) have ever read. The thing is, that’s not what I have seen. Thanks to my copyeditor’s diligence, I now see that for forty years I have been inserting a “the” ahead of “painted stage.” If you were my student, you heard me put it in there. You may even think, thanks to me, that it belongs. But it doesn’t. And realizing that error was distressing.
You’d think I would have noticed. As written, the line scans: PLAY-ers and PAINT-ed STAGE took ALL my LOVE–the first foot inverted to a trochee (DUM-da) but all the rest iambs (da-DUM). With the inserted “the,” we have eleven rather than ten syllables, and so on. But what’s an extraneous syllable among friends? Most poets, Yeats included, add them from time to time (or drop on out), and how can you rule it out with a poet who ends the following line with a preposition–“And not those things that they were emblems of”–which was a bigger no-no in the thirties than it is now. Mostly, however, it just feels, has always felt, right to me. But I promise to reform. Henceforth, I shall endeavor to read the line as written.
I wish for you, Dear Reader, less shock upon discovering your misreadings. More, I hope you have none to regret.
The new one, right, just came today. Does anyone have more fun with cover art than the Czechs?
That’s a year that everyone studying History of the English Language (abbrev.: HEL) learns to love. It explains why our Germanic language doesn’t sound or act like, well, German. Because that’s when Duke William of Normandy defeated the English and their king, Harold Godwinson (he really was the son of Godwin), at the Battle of Hastings, although there were several towns nearer the site who could have lent their names. The location is now the town of Battle. Go figure. So why am I bothering you with this information? Because that battle, which incidentally Harold didn’t survive, had a date as well as a year, and that date is today’s, October 14. Which is the date French walked in the door of the English language and began something amazing. I knew you’d want to know.
Today is the birthday of E. E. Cummings (b. 1894). He drove an ambulance in WWI until the French censors took issue with his predictably incomprehensible letters and decided that (a) they must be code and (b) he was a spy, so he became a prisoner of the country he went to help. He is famous for his curious approach to poetic form and orthography, but he could also write conventional forms, even sonnets. You doubt? Read on.
i like my body when it is with your
i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you,
i like, slowly stroking the, shocking fuzz
of your electric fur, and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh … And eyes big love-crumbs,
and possibly i like the thrill
of under me you so quite new
He has twice won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, has been a long-time nominee for the Nobel Prize for Literature (I figure they have one more chance to correct that oversight next week), and won the Yale Younger Poets Prize for his first book, A Mask for Janus. In 1952. He has published over fifty books of poetry, fiction, and translations. In addition to the huge body of poetry, he was an early practitioner of very short fiction, what is sometimes called “flash fiction” or in the trade parlance, the hideous term “short-shorts.”
On his ninetieth birthday, however, I think we should also celebrate M. S. Merwin’s other durable achievement: friend of the earth. He has practiced his stewardship in southern France and especially on Maui, where he and his late wife bought an old pineapple farm and returned it slowly and patiently to its native forest. They established the estate as a conservancy in 2010 to protect it for future generations. His environmental concerns manifest themselves in much of his writing, and it is the rare later poem that does not invoke nature somehow or other. Those of you who know me are aware of my immense admiration for him as a writer; I am no less in awe of him for his respect for nature.
Today is the claimed or maybe presumed or only hoped-for birthday of Miguel de Cervantes (1547). He did a lot of different things, but the one we remember him for is Don Quixote (1605/1615), the parody of knightly romances so popular in Spain during the sixteenth century. Not only is it the first major instance of a novel in the modern sense, it is highly postmodern not only in its self-referentiality (mainly in part 2) and its cunning intertextuality, from his habit of reusing, quoting, and sometimes savaging other works. In part 2, Quixote and Sancho Panza find they have become famous as a result of a book about their earlier adventures. Pretty subtle for an early novel, but then, see also, Shakespeare and plays-within-plays.
While the novel is important the world over, its centrality in the Spanish-speaking world cannot be overstated. Carlos Fuentes said that he reread it every year; he also raised the possibility that Cervantes and Shakespeare were the same person, which is one reason I like Fuentes so much. He may have meant that they were embodiments of the same spirit or genius, but then again, he may not have. They died on the same date, you know, so maybe he was on to something.