Confessions of a Rock Snob

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If a lifetime of listening to pop music has taught me anything, it’s that there is no incompatibility between intellectual aspiration and a passion for rock ‘n’ roll. You can love T S. Eliot and the New York Dolls. In fact, there’s no snob like a rock snob. I should know. I am one.

There’s an amusing scene in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity in which a potential girlfriend is trying to pass the audition of one of the rock snob friends of the rock snob narrator:
“Richard Thompson,” [Dick] explains to Anna. “It’s a song off a Richard Thompson album. ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,’ isn’t it, Rob?”

“Richard Thompson,” Anna repeats, in a voice which suggests that over the last few days she has had to absorb a lot of information very quickly. “Now, which one was he? Dick’s been trying to educate me …“

“Anna’s a Simple Minds fan,” Dick confides, emboldened by his Richard Thompson success.

“Oh, right.” I don’t know what to say. This, in our universe, is a staggering piece of information…

“But I think she’s beginning to understand why she shouldn’t be. Aren’t you?”

“Maybe. A bit.”
Go ahead and play that Simple Minds record. I won’t bite. But I vastly prefer Richard Thompson, and I’ll tell you why: because sometimes in its deferred gratifications and the demands it makes on the listener, his music achieves a richness beyond the scope of the wholly proficient and likeable Simple Minds. Sometimes, in fact, his music sounds very much like — oh, what’s the word I’m looking for? — art.

The glorious thing about rock ‘n’ roll, of course, is that you can have it both ways. The spectrum of pop music runs from “Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen to Björk’s Medulla, and maybe the best of it is smack in the middle – The Beatles’ “Nowhere Man,” for instance, ostensibly another one of their melodic toe tappers but in truth a performance of such overwhelming majesty and pathos as to render all categorization meaningless. My truth, however, isn’t necessarily your truth, especially in matters as fundamentally subjective as personal taste. Nevertheless, I think there are a few things we can all agree on: that however much it may be abused and misused, music can penetrate to states of consciousness beyond the reach of words; that music deepens, enriches, and nourishes our lives; and that The Remains were the greatest garage band of the mid ’60s.

What — you haven’t heard of The Remains! I’ll try not to sound like a Nick Hornby character, but I must explain that their one and only album, released just before they broke up in 1966, is an apotheosis of garage rock, with sneering vocals, jagged guitar breaks, and irresistible hooks. What’s not to like? Well, some people didn’t and don’t like it. There will always be those who sneer at pop music as infantile pabulum for the masses. Might I have become such a stiff? Given my highbrow predispositions, that nightmare version of myself is scarily conceivable. While I don’t expect to pass the time with strangers in the airport lounge talking about poetry or cubism, I can more than hold my own if the conversation turns to Michael Jackson or Metallica — or could until about 15 years ago, when I finally abandoned all efforts to keep up with the current playlist. And if this egalitarianism sounds slightly patronizing (yes, I too enjoy the music of the common folk), I can assure you, I really don’t understand Mahler.

How in a few short years pop music got from “Da do ron-ron-ron, da do ron-ron” to “Half of what I say is meaningless / But I say it just to reach you, Julia” is a question I can’t begin to answer. All I know is that when the change came (around the time when I was beginning high school), I was ready for it. That’s partly because much of the lyric writing preceding all this self-conscious Poetry was pretty good too. Smokey Robinson’s elegant and ingeniously constructed conceits, Chuck Berry’s marvelous wordplay and delight in the vernacular: I grew up with these words in my ears and learned from them (without realizing I was learning anything at all) to appreciate language as something precious in itself. “Jubilee,” “jamboree,” “home brew,” “wooden cup,” to cite a few choice idioms from Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music:” these words summoned multiple meanings and sounded like poems in themselves. Anyway, when John Lennon started writing songs about his dead mother, I was sufficiently sensitized to language to follow him to places where pop music had rarely gone before.

One of those places was my own consciousness. “Nowhere Man” and “Eleanor Rigby” and “Waterloo Sunset” by The Kinks and “Runnin’ Away” by Sly and the Family Stone: these songs spoke so directly to my loneliness and fear and insecurity that talking about them with my friends (it was safer to talk about guitar heroes) risked revealing the dark secret at the heart of every teenage life: I’m not as cool as I pretend to be. In truth, I was even uncooler than most, and in my increasing unhappiness and isolation, I found myself drawn to the moody lyrics as much as to the flashy fretwork. Unbeknown to me as a hapless high school geek, things were going to get a lot worse before they got better. I had four and a half years of intense undergraduate misery and a lot of Joni Mitchell songs still to come.

My parents thought the songs we listened to were barbarous, and by the standards of Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter and the Gershwins — the pop songwriters of their day — many of them were. What the best rock lyricists offered in place of the playfulness and teasing indirection of the great American show tunes were audacious explorations of the self and the permutations of consciousness. I’d call that a pretty fair trade off. Soul music, it’s true, seemed more outer-directed than white pop and rock, maybe because black people just had too much shit to deal with in the real world. But even Marvin Gaye and Sly Stone’s songs of social import shared the undisguised subjectivity that was the lingua franca of the period. What they didn’t share was the outright narcissism of songwriters like Laura Nyro and John Lennon and Peter Townshend. I preferred the narcissists.

Frank Zappa said somewhere that singer songwriters who bared their innermost souls in songs intended for complete strangers were in desperate need of psychiatric intervention. Well, Zappa was a remarkable composer, arranger, and guitarist, and Hot Rats is an extraordinary achievement. (Real rock snobs, however, will always prefer Trout Mask Replica by his erstwhile collaborator, Captain Beefheart.) Yet if Zappa had bared his soul a little more, his music might have had some of the warmth it so entirely lacks. It wasn’t the coldly brilliant Hot Rats that got me through my first god-awful years at college; it was the equally brilliant and madly introspective Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell that did that.

Aside from “Raised on Robbery,” which featured a sizzling guitar solo by Robbie Robertson, Court and Spark didn’t exactly kick ass. That was okay. I had plenty of other kick-ass records to listen to, but they couldn’t do for me what Court and Spark did: help me to know myself, and others, a little bit more. It wasn’t that the songs contained extractable “meanings,” which inhered at least as much in the beautiful arrangements, with their odd tunings and jazzy inflections, as in the lyrics. Line by line readings of pop songs generally fail for the obvious reason that a song lyric depends on its compositional setting. A song lyric is less like a poem than a play, the text of which awaits the interpretive skills of particular actors to bring it fully to life. Which is only to say that as fine as Joni Mitchell’s lyrics are, they pale in the glare of the printed page. But I wasn’t reading her lyrics, which didn’t have and didn’t need consistent rhyme schemes and stanzaic forms; I was hearing them through her ululating vocals and dramatic piano stylings. The totality of this experience, come to think of it, was not unlike that of coming to a great and complex poem — the song (or poem) changed slightly each time I encountered it, and maybe I changed with it. My critical faculties, whether applied to a complex poem or a far simpler pop song lyric, had a long way to go, but I knew enough to understand that parsing Mitchell’s brave and brazen lyrics wouldn’t get me very far. The heavy duty analytical stuff I could save for my term papers on Hart Crane, who did not write poems as simple and touching as Mitchell’s “People’s Parties:”
Cry for us all, Beauty
Cry for Eddie in the corner
Thinking he’s nobody
And Jack behind his joker
And stone-cold Grace behind her fan
And me in my frightened silence
Thinking I don’t understand
There wasn’t much to analyze here, but there was a lot to feel. Real feeling, the kind evoked by these songs, required a little effort. If I could open myself to the exquisite vulnerability that seemed to be Joni Mitchell’s raison d’etre, I would be living my life more fully, wouldn’t I? Not only that — I’d be entering more fully into the lives of others. Such was the paradox of artistic creation; the further Mitchell delved into her own psyche, the more she revealed about everybody else’s. Stone cold Grace and Jack behind his joker were putting on a good front, but they were as lost as the frightened songwriter and all the other carriers of Mitchell’s introspection. I didn’t even mind being Eddie in the corner thinking he’s nobody, except that I couldn’t get invited to a party in the first place.

It wasn’t all oceanic subjectivity, even on Court and Spark. In “Raised on Robbery,” a rocker about a floozy coming on to a drunk in a hotel bar, Mitchell indulged her Chuck Berry side. It’s the one song on the album openly and gleefully about people who don’t sound remotely like Joni Mitchell. (“First he bought a ’57 Biscayne / He put it in a ditch / He drunk up all the rest / That son of a bitch.”) Satire and social observation are part of the rock and pop tradition too and likewise furnished a part of my education. If Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On didn’t nail the zeitgeist as much as anything by Norman Mailer or James Baldwin, I don’t know what did.

Randy Newman composed songs in this more impersonal tradition, and in 1974 he performed some of them at Glassboro State College, the lowly teachers’ school in southwestern New Jersey where I was honing my misery and discovering — thanks to some excellent professors — that I had the rudiments of a mind and might enjoy using it. But while many of my professors were inspiring, my fellow students — except for the girls I pined for and a few deviants manifestly more intelligent than I — were rather less so. At any rate, a clutch of scholars shuffling out of the Student Union with me and passing by the artist’s waiting limousine, had not relished that night’s performance.

“That asshole gets a limousine for sitting at a piano and playing those dumbass songs?” one of them said. “Why can’t we get somebody really good, like Argent?”

We did get Argent, who performed, if memory serves, the next semester. While I’ll always love “Hold Your Head Up” and “God Gave Rock and Roll to You,” I love them less than Randy Newman’s off-center, piano-based compositions that do occasionally rock the house but have other things — things like wit, irony, and chromatic shading — on their minds. I wouldn’t have had a lot to say to the student who bitterly regretted spending his five or six dollars on the sorely disappointing Randy Newman (who was wonderful, by the way). Did that make me a snob? Plenty of people would have said so, and would say so now. Truthfully, compared to the real rock snobs I’ve known, I’m a peasant. In the first place, that disgruntled student and I could have found some common ground in Argent. He might not have agreed that Rod Argent’s first band, the soulful, jazzy pop balladeers known as The Zombies, outclassed the eponymous arena rockers known as Argent, but I’ll bet he got just as hopped up as I did during the shout along chorus of “Hold Your Head Up.” Anyway, I wasn’t telling him or anyone that he must make room in his life for progressive Britpop as the expense of the crap he really liked. I’ve been tempted, admittedly. For example, I emphatically believe that P.J. Harvey is “better” in every meaningful sense than Hall & Oates, but listening to her doesn’t make me feel superior. It makes me feel alive. Which, no doubt, is exactly the way Hall & Oates fans feel when they listen to their guys.

David Hume wrote, “We are apt to call barbarous whatever departs widely from our own taste and apprehension; but soon find the epithet of reproach retorted on us.” In other words, think twice about sneering at someone’s taste, because someone else can just as easily sneer at yours. I repent of my past as a rock ideologue in the late ’80s and early 90s, when I was “apt to call barbarous” anything to the right of Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Not all that music holds up so well. Nevertheless, the punk and new wave bands of that period remain my touchstones, partly because I associate them with the gradual termination of my protracted adolescent misery and the beginning of a new life in New York, party because they were kinda, well, snobbish. What Talking Heads and R.E.M. and the Patti Smith Group and The Smiths and The Clash gave me was the best of both worlds. They rocked, all right, some more than others, but they also composed thoughtful, lyrical, mysterious, acerbic, furious, and funny songs that engaged me emotionally and intellectually. I was still pretty raw in my 20s. If Patti Smith could teach me something about spiritual experience in “Easter” or David Byrne something about media-saturated discourse in “Don’t Worry About the Government,” who was I not to listen? Mostly I learned by osmosis. (Osmosis: if that’s not the name of a band, it should be.) A lifetime of listening to relatively smart pop music might make you a relatively smarter person. And so it has gone on through the decades. Though I love meaningless, head banging rock ‘n’ roll as much as the next person, I’ve gravitated towards arty indie bands with pop sensibilities: XTC, The Replacements, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol. Naturally, I became a dinosaur ages ago, but I figured I’d embarrass myself less by not pretending to care about rap or rave or whatever variants of grunge obtain at the moment. Except for The Feelies, for whom I make regular, devoted, and fanatical exception, the only live performances I attend anymore are at the Metropolitan Opera House. How’s that for creeping conservatism?

And yet I don’t find the experience of opera to be so very different from that of rock ‘n’ roll. In the former case, I might shed a few discreet tears from the privacy of my nosebleed seat in the Family Circle, in the latter case I might jump up and down a bit in front of the stage. In either case, I’m listening pretty hard. It’s never background music, even when chopping vegetables for that night’s dinner, with Mozart or The Supremes on my iPod to keep me company. How does that aria grow so subtly out of the recitative and is that a fretted or a fretless bass guitar I’m hearing on this song? Do non-snobs ask themselves these sorts of questions when they listen to music? No, they probably ask themselves better ones. I’ve never been one to let my ignorance stand in the way of a deeply personal involvement with the music. If you can’t listen closely, what’s the point?

Maybe I’ve always missed the point. Looking back on all those nights in clubland in the 1980s, I sometimes think I was the only person on the floor not expecting to get stoned or laid. I was there to hear the music, and truthfully, sometimes the music sounded better at home. But on the good nights there was something approaching communal ecstasy, and the inhuman decibel levels never failed to pump me up. Once at a show featuring X or Graham Parker or Public Image Ltd. (sorry, can’t remember who or where), some girls, noticing my aberrant dance style, asked my regular concert going companion and cousin John “Rotten” Akey what fabulous drugs I was on and where they could get some.

“What’s he on?” John replied. “He’s not ‘on’ anything. He’s never on anything. He’s just into the music.”

Image Credit: Flickr/Alex W.

Thug: A Life of Caravaggio in Sixty-Nine Paragraphs

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1.They tortured him of course.
2.More precisely, they carved up his face – “sfregio,” it was called, a ritual disfigurement intended to inflict permanent and visible dishonor on one who had disrespected the wrong people. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was no stranger to this code of vendetta. In his earlier Roman years, he had run with prostitutes who were known to take the occasional blade to the face of a rival. Now in Naples, towards the end of his strange and violent life, it was his turn to be branded.
3.With so many enemies, it was difficult to know who had carried out or ordered the hit. Was it the clan of Ranuccio Tomassoni, the Roman pimp Caravaggio had murdered in a duel in 1606, precipitating the flight and 19 months of wanderings that had led to this squalid bloodletting outside a notorious brothel? Or was it the work of Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, the Maltese Knight Caravaggio had seriously wounded in a fracas two months earlier and who just might have tracked him down through the Straits of Messina and the Gulf of Salerno? Or was it any number of other lowlifes, nobles, rivals, or patrons he might have crossed along his furious way?
4.Whoever it was, the assailants slipped back into the night, never to be known or apprehended. They had done their work. Nor was it any common street thug they had mutilated, perhaps partially blinded. The victim of this assault outside the Osteria del Cerriglio, where poets and artists mingled with courtesans, rentboys, and cut-throats, was the greatest painter of the age, one of the greatest of any age. He never really recovered.

5.You can see the damage in “The Denial of Saint Peter,” executed in Naples during his convalescence and one of his very last works. It’s still a Caravaggio — the peasant earthiness of Peter’s features, the flaring chiaroscuro, the heightened drama of sin and redemption. But the reductive simplicity of the composition, the shallow, featureless space, the coarse description of Peter’s hands — this too is Caravaggio at the end of his life. Either he couldn’t see what he was painting anymore or his hands were shaking.
6.He would die soon, trying desperately to get back to the place where, once, it had all gone right: Rome.
7.Before there was Rome there was Milan, where the adolescent boy apprenticed under a feeble imitator of Titian named Simone Peterzano. And before there was Milan there was Caravaggio, the sleepy backwater on the Lombardy plain that would ultimately give Michelangelo Merisi the name by which he is (mistakenly) known today.
8.Caravaggio did have one thing going for it: patronage. The local marchese, Francesco Sforza, was connected to the Pope; his bride, the marchesa Costanza Colonna Sforza, was the daughter of the military commander who had triumphed over the heathen “Turks” at the Battle of Lepanto. And Fermo Merisi, the father of Michelangelo, had the good fortune to work for them.
9.Nominally, Fermo was their house architect. In fact, he was more like a majordomo, but what matters to history is the alliance formed between the marchesa and her majordomo’s intriguing son, who somehow touched her maternal heartstrings. Given his penchant for wildly destructive behavior in later life, Caravaggio would need friends in high places. The marchesa, at crucial times, would be that friend.
10.Despite this useful connection, the lowborn Merisi children would have to make their way in the world, especially after Fermo was carried off by the plague while still a young father. In three years (1576-1578), it carried off about a fifth of the city of Milan along with him. Such was life in early modern Europe.

11.Caravaggio knew a lot about plague. It spared his mother, who died of other circumstances in 1589, but took his father, his grandfather, his grandmother, and an uncle. The late, sepulchral “Resurrection of Lazarus” clearly draws on memories of the ravages he would have seen as a boy. So much for the lofty idealism Peterzano would have tried (unsuccessfully) to instill into his recalcitrant apprentice.
12.After mother Lucia’s death, the children were cared for by relatives and the Colonnas. They had a small inheritance to help them stake their place in the world. Sister Caterina married well and had six children. Brother Giovan Battista became a priest. The eldest, Michelangelo, rose from his humble origins (according to Karel van Mander, a Dutch artist who knew him) “through his industry and by tackling and accepting everything with farsightedness and courage, as some people do who refuse to be held down through timidity or through lack of courage.”
13.Years later, when Caravaggio had established himself in Rome and Giovan Battista came calling, the flourishing artist denied knowing him. “Brother,” Giovan Battista said, “I’ve come such a long way to see you, and now that I’ve seen you I’ve had what I wanted. May God grant that you do well.” He did do well. And he never saw his brother again. Was Giovan Battista being insufferably holy or Caravaggio being willfully perverse? Or was it a bit of both? Life imitates art. Maybe that’s why, years later, Caravaggio painted “The Denial of Saint Peter.” He had lived it.
14.By the time of that fraternal rebuff (witnessed by his protector, Cardinal Del Monte), Caravaggio’s truculence was a long enforced habit. Little is known of his apprenticeship in Milan, but his early years in Rome were hungry and hardscrabble. He had arrived in 1592, a young man on the make like thousands of others. Hopefuls from all over Italy and beyond were flocking to Rome to cash in on the visual propaganda blitz known as the Counter Reformation. Caravaggio would surpass them all, but in the beginning there was only penury, rejection, and hackwork.
15.The hackwork — mostly copying small devotional pictures — was supervised by a miserly house steward, who lodged him but barely fed him. (“Monsignor Salad,” Caravaggio called him, after the starvation rations he received.) Caravaggio’s lot improved when he joined the workshop of the renowned Giuseppi Cesari, who assigned him still life details and other piecework on the many commissions that came his way. Caravaggio must have seen that he was already better than the gentlemanly Cesari would ever be, but for now he had somewhat steadier work and a foot halfway in the door.

16.But all this hustling took a toll. Around this time, Caravaggio painted for himself a “Self Portrait as Bacchus,” which shows the hunger and ill health that would have been his daily lot. Never had a Greek god looked more sickly. The ash colored lips, the swollen left eye, the filthy thumbnail, even the moldy grapes that Caravaggio as Bacchus holds in his right hand: there would have been thousands of desperate hustlers and street people in the city, and some of them would have looked just like this.

17.If Counter Reformation Rome was Hollywood on the Tiber for artists and architects, Caravaggio was about to be “discovered” by the Eternal City’s equivalent to a powerful casting agent. It happened in 1595 when Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, the Medici’s smoothly adroit fixer in Rome, spotted Caravaggio’s “Cardsharps” in a second hand dealer’s shop near the Piazza Navona. Del Monte had the money and the taste to acquire pretty much whatever he wanted, and what he wanted was not just the painting. He wanted the painter.
18.So Caravaggio moved into Del Monte’s Palazzo Madama on Piazza de San Luigi and joined his circle of artists, scientists, musicians, connoisseurs, and very expensive courtesans. He brought with him as an assistant Mario Minniti, the meltingly beautiful teenage boy who had posed for him in the picture that had caught Del Monte’s eye. Like his newly acquired painter, the cardinal, it would seem, liked boys too.
19.At any rate, Del Monte commissioned one or two of the outrageously provocative canvases of overripe male adolescents that Caravaggio produced in the next several years. Mario Minniti was subsequently replaced as Caravaggio’s boy model and studio assistant by Francesco “Cecco” Boneri, the naked, splay-legged figure posing as a laughingly corrupt Cupid in “Omnia vincit Amor.” It was of this painting than an English traveler, picking up on rumors still current, wrote in 1650, “Twas the body & face of his owne boy or servant that laid with him.”
20.If Caravaggio is Exhibit A in the queer studies wing of art history departments, the loving attentiveness he lavished on the earthly beauty of his Madonnas and female saints somewhat complicates that claim. That all these Madonnas and saints were well-known prostitutes who worked with him regularly implies a level of intimacy beyond the professional. Of course Caravaggio slept with his models. Whether they were male or female didn’t much matter to him.
21.One such prostitute was Fillide Melandroni, as beautiful as she was violently temperamental (the Roman police, or sbirri, were all too familiar with her outbursts) and the model for the serenely majestic “Saint Catherine” and the holy assassin Judith in “Judith and Holofernes.” Like Mario Minniti, she remained loyal to the wayward genius she had known for a few years in Rome and will reappear at the end of this story.
22.Caravaggio stayed at Del Monte’s Palazzo Madama for the next six years, doing some of his very greatest work under the cardinal’s protection — in fact, becoming a star, the kind of artist who changed the rules and attracted schools of imitators. Artemesia Gentileschi (who would have known him from her girlhood as a friend of her painter father’s) would have been inconceivable without Caravaggio, and Rembrandt wouldn’t have been quite the Rembrandt we know.
23.In Rome, being a lot better than everybody else (with the sole exception of Annibale Carracci) and loudly proclaiming it to the world wasn’t necessarily a wise career move. The long knives came out.
24.Trouble had started as early as Milan, where Caravaggio had been a less than obedient pupil of Petrerzano. There were dark reports of his involvement in quarrels and even in a murder in that turbelent city. By the time he got to Rome he was already intimate with the sort of thieves and hustlers he depicted in his early cabinet pictures. There was nothing worked up in Caravaggio’s revolutionary realism. It was the life he lived.
25.It was and had been for some time a double life — on the one hand, conversing with intellectuals and cultured aristocrats in Palazzo Madama, on the other hand, swaggering around the streets with a crew of like-minded hotheads. “When he’s worked for a fortnight,” wrote his contemporary van Mander, “he goes out for a couple of months with his rapier at his side and a servant behind him, moving from one tennis court to another and always looking for fights or arguments, so he’s impossible to get on with.”
26.He looked the part, too, wearing the rich silks and velvets favored by the Roman bravi — except that he wore them until they were in tatters. Then he’d acquire a new suit and wear that one out too. If any of his cohorts thought his eccentricities merited comment, they probably knew enough to keep their mouths shut.

27.This particular hothead, with his striped taffeta and poniard, happened to be a genius. When he got the commission for the Contarelli Chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, his genius would be put to its greatest test. Caravaggio had never before attempted anything on this scale — three multi-figured, wall-sized narratives on the life of the Apostle Matthew. He struggled at first, and had to redo the smallest of the three, a depiction of an angel guiding Matthew in his writing of his Gospel. With the other two, especially “The Calling of Saint Matthew,” he changed Western art forever.
28.Matthew the tax collector sits in the backroom of a tavern or inn with assorted thugs, pretty boys, and hangers-on. Christ has entered with Saint Peter at right and is calling Matthew to a new life with a simple pointing of a finger. In a moment Matthew will rise, follow his Savior out of the room, and never look back. You must change your life, Rilke said. This is how it happens.
29.Among the throngs who flocked to the see the installation in 1599 was Giovanni Baglione, a grasping second rater who played the role of Salieri to Caravaggio’s Mozart. Baglione tried very hard to be unimpressed, which didn’t stop him from aping Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro without approaching anything like Caravaggio’s originality, humanism, subtlety, and above all profound understanding of the interpenetration of the sacred and the profane. Anyone else might have ignored the ugly backtalk that Baglione stirred up. Caravaggio wasn’t anyone else.
30.Like all the other painters in Rome, Caravaggio and Baglione were competing for the same commissions and the same patrons. It was bad enough to lose, as he sometimes did, to a hack like Baglione — worse still to lose to a hack who slavishly imitated him while slagging him to anyone who would listen. Caravaggio might have hit back violently. Instead, he had one of his crew compose and circulate a couple of scurrilous poems. They weren’t very subtle or even literary, but anybody who was anybody read them, or knew about them. Baglione, the poems, said, couldn’t paint for shit.
31.One of the few moments of levity in the otherwise terrible saga of Caravaggio’s life is the spectacle of the aggrieved Giovanni Baglione mustering all his dignity before the Governor of Rome in a libel suit he new brought against Caravaggio and his friends. Asked by the magistrates to identify the documents in question, he replied with the ingenuousness of a village idiot, “that which begins ‘Johnny Baggage’ and ends ‘an insult to painting’ and the other that begins ‘Johnny Prick’ and ends ‘otherwise he’d’ve been a fucking prick.’”
32.This commedia del’arte imbroglio wouldn’t have mattered if it hadn’t helped to establish a precedent: trouble with the authorities and a few weeks in the Governor’s prison before the whole mess was straightened out, perhaps through the intervention of Del Monte or some other art-loving patron. Nor did it allay growing suspicions in some quarters that this jumped up genius might be more trouble than he was worth.

33.Caravaggio was still the leading painter of the Roman avant-garde, and commissions for masterworks like the “Madonna of the Pilgrims” were still ahead. But he was living on his own now, no longer under Del Monte’s stabilizing influence, and his noisy altercations in taverns and on piazzas were starting to attract the wrong kind of attention. Worse still, he was about to see one of his greatest works, “The Death of the Virgin,” removed within weeks of its unveiling from the altar for which it had been commissioned.

34.You can see “The Death of the Virgin” in the Louvre rather than on the altar of Santa Maria della Scala, where it ought to be. And you can also see why the pious Carmelites who commissioned it might have changed their minds. Some said that the beautiful and still youthful Mary that Caravaggio depicted was all too evidently “a courtesan he loved,” but that wasn’t the problem. Everyone knew that painters used prostitutes for models — who else could they get? — and everyone knew that Caravaggio’s woman at the time was the much desired courtesan Lena Antognetti. No, the problem with “The Death of the Virgin” was that this Virgin was just too emphatically, transcendentally dead.
35.Caravaggio’s way of dealing with Counter Reformation orthodoxy was to ignore the limp piety and enforced bigotry and to focus instead on the life experiences of humble believers. If he had to throw in an angel or two, that angel would be equipped with dingy, oversized pigeon wings. Almost all his miracles, epiphanies, and crucifixions took place in the workaday world of taverns, sparsely furnished rooms, and darkened, nondescript interiors. His more discerning collectors appreciated this stunning naturalism, but to get away with such heterodoxy, he had better be on his best behavior. And he wasn’t.
36.The infractions were racking up: carrying his sword without a license, insulting a police officer, assaulting (big mistake) a mid-level Vatican functionary. Impossibly touchy where his honor was concerned, he threw a plate of artichokes in the face of a waiter who had made the mistake of serving them with insufficient deference. A Roman police blotter preserves his furious words: “It seems to me, you fucking prick, that you think you’re serving some two bit crook.”
37.Caravaggio’s get out of jail card was his association with Del Monte, but even Del Monte could do only so much. After the bloody attack on the Vatican functionary, Caravaggio betook himself to Genoa, ostensibly to work on a commission for the Duke of Modena, but really to keep a step ahead of the law. In Genoa, relations of Costanza Colonna sheltered him until Del Monte could work out a settlement in Rome, which duly occurred later that summer. Upon his return, Caravaggio swore to the legal authorities an oath of peaceableness. Which he violated almost immediately.
38.This time it was a squabble with his landlady, who had locked him out and thrown out his few belongings. She issued a complaint saying that Caravaggio had come round in the middle of the night, throwing rocks and smashing her window shutters — trivial enough, except that it boded ill for the fresh start he hoped to be making.

39.Caravaggio’s misfortune’s were Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s main chance. Younger, richer, and, if possible, even less devout than Del Monte, he snapped up the rejected “Madonna of the Palafrenieri” for a song and had it installed in his villa on the outskirts of the city, where it can be seen to this day. Enough influential clients coveted Caravaggio’s work to pull strings for him when needed, and he would need every possible string pulled when his increasingly reckless behavior culminated in the tragedy that was waiting to happen: the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni.
40.It might have looked like a mindless eruption of violence over a meaningless tennis match, but trouble between Caravaggio and Tomassoni, a street tough with relatives in high places, had been brewing for some time. Very possibly they were rival pimps. Fillide Melandroni definitely worked for Tomassoni, and maybe Tomassoni felt that Caravaggio was encroaching on his territory. Keeping a small stable of prostitutes would have been a way of ensuring a steady supply of models, not to mention some free sex. All that late night roistering, armed to the gills, might have been partly a matter of business: Caravaggio was looking out for his girls.
41.So the killing wasn’t spontaneous at all. It was a duel. Caravaggio and Tomassoni, accompanied by their “seconds” and supporters (three to each side) met on a tennis court on the Campo Marzio on May 28, 1606. It was all over in a few moments: Tomassoni bleeding to death from a severed artery, Caravaggio with a gash in his head, and Caravaggio’s second, Captain Petronio Toppa, left almost for dead.
42.Caravaggio had always been proud of his swordsmanship, but the coup de grace was a flick of his blade at Tomassoni’s crotch. So much for the gentlemanly art of dueling. After the fatal blow, the duel degenerated into a murderous free for all. Tomassoni’s brother slashed Caravaggio in the head and probably would have killed him if not for the intervention of Petronio Topapa, who barely survived the wounds he incurred. Tomassoni was carried off to a surgeon’s, where he died that night. Caravaggio didn’t wait around to hear the death sentence (bando capitale) pronounced by the Pope. By the following morning he was nowhere to be found.
43.Caravaggio was now a wanted man, exiled from Rome and with a price on his head. He couldn’t have escaped from the city without the discreet assistance of one or more of his patrons, most likely the Marchesa Colonna, now resident in Rome and with a network of family connections in the region. It was to a Colonna stronghold in Zagarolo, about twenty miles southeast of Rome, that Caravaggio made his way, finding refuge with the Duke Marzio Colonna. And there he did what he always did in times of stress: he painted.
44.Under these circumstances, the self-portrait as a decapitated Goliath that Caravaggio now painted for Scipione Borghese (who didn’t much care that his favorite painter was a murderer condemned by in absentia by Borghese’s uncle, Pope Paul V) was a harrowing Act of Contrition. The blood streaming from Goliath’s neck, the saliva pooling in his open mouth, the sightless, half open right eye: Caravaggio painted himself as the brute he knew himself at least partly to be.

45.If Borghese was expecting triumph, which was the way most artists treated the subject, what he got was tragedy. A slender, beautifully lit young David holds out the giant’s head in troubled contemplation. David has reason to look troubled. The model is Cecco Boneri, and he’s gazing at the ruin of his friend and protector.

46.Hoping to gain lost ground and win a papal pardon, Caravaggio moved on to Naples, where Marzio Colonna sheltered him and where avid patrons were already lining up. For the Church of Pio Monte della Misericordia he produced one of his greatest altarpieces, “The Seven Acts of Mercy.” But he also produced work like the slackly conventional “Madonna of the Rosary,” which for the first time showed signs of compromise and even desperation. He had taken to sleeping with his clothes on and his dagger at his side. Paranoia? Maybe not.
47.There were interested parties working behind the scenes to smooth Caravaggio’s passage back to Rome. Del Monte, Borghese, and others wanted their man in the art capital of the world, where he belonged and where they might keep him busy creating masterpieces bound for their own collections. And in fact there were signs that the Vatican was softening. The fiction that Caravaggio had killed in self-defense offered a convenient cover for everyone. Just when the machinery seemed to be moving, however, Caravaggio chose this moment — July 1607 — to sail to the southern Mediterranean outpost of Malta. There he would create possibly his greatest painting. And throw his life away.
48.Why Malta? Costanza Colonna’s son was there, a former black sheep like Caravaggio himself but now a member of the island’s Venerable Council. Fabrizio Sforza Colonna would be an important contact for Caravaggio, but Malta — a garrison state controlled by the severely militaristic Order of the Knights of St. John — nevertheless seemed an odd choice for someone so resistant to authority. Maybe he thought that if he put his shoulder to the wheel and pleased the right patrons, he would be protected by and even welcomed into the fold of the most formidable brotherhood in Christendom. Incredibly, that is just what happened.
49.Once again, Caravaggio’s reputation preceded him. Some of the greatest grandest Knights of the Order of St. John very much wanted their portraits painted by this celebrated prodigy. The greatest, grandest of them all, Alof de Wigancourt, the Grand Master himself, was so taken with his new portraitist that he sat for him twice.
50.The surviving portrait of Wigancourt recalls similarly majestic state portraits by Titian, but in a touch entirely typical of Caravaggio, attention falls on the all too human pageboy standing warily at his master’s side. If the boy seems less impressed than he ought to be, Wigancourt didn’t notice. The warrior aristocrat must have felt a strange kinship with the headstrong artist. He would soon bend or break nearly every rule of the Order, going so far as to lobby the Pope personally, to get Caravaggio knighted.

51.In lieu of the tribute money that the generally well-born knights paid for their induction, Caravaggio would paint an altarpiece depicting the beheading of John the Baptist for the oratory of the Co-Cathedral of St. John in the capital city of Valletta. Working as always with no preparatory sketches or studio assistants to block in a background, he created in about three months the largest (10 by 15 feet) and maybe the greatest work of his career. It’s the only picture he ever signed. There, beneath the pool of the Baptist’s blood, inscribed in the same crimson, is the name by which he wanted to be remembered: “F. Michelangelo” – Brother Michelangelo.
52.The executioner hasn’t quite finished the job. Holding his victim prone and reaching back for the dagger that will sever the head from the neck (at this point it’s only half attached), he impassively follows the instructions of the jailer standing beside him, while Salome’s servant holds the plate that in a few more seconds will bear the weight of a human head. No one is taking any particular pleasure in this distasteful task but, well, orders are orders. About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters.
53.A newly minted Knight of the Magistral Obedience, with the honors and rewards appertaining thereto (a gold chain bestowed by the Grand Master himself, not to mention a couple of slaves for his personal use), Caravaggio chose precisely this moment — August 18, 1608 — to go off the rails. It was yet another brawl — an especially ugly one — but Caravaggio wasn’t a layman anymore, and the penalties for a brawling Knight of Malta admitted of no extenuation.
54.Exactly what happed outside that house in Valletta is not known, but one of the six or seven disputants — very likely Caravaggio, in the light of subsequent developments — ended up firing a small pistol at a higher-ranking Knight, Fra Giovanni Rodomonte Roero, the Conte della Vezza. Whatever brought on the quarrel — an insult to Caravaggio’s honor is not hard to imagine — a senior Knight of Justice had been shot and seriously wounded. Nobody, not even the greatest painter in the world, could be allowed to get away with that.
55.If Caravaggio had begun to chafe under the Spartan regulations that a knighthood entailed — no quarreling, no whoring, no leaving the island without express permission — that was as nothing compared to the straits in which he now found himself. Nine days after the shooting and a hurried investigation, Caravaggio was arrested and locked up in a dungeon in the fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo. There he might have read the graffiti of despairing prisoners who had gone before him — “imprisoned forever, victim of evil triumphing over good,” reads one — and reflected on the turn of fortune that had plunged him overnight from the summit of public acclamation to this abyss of deprivation and dishonor.
56.Perfect timing: Caravaggio had been locked up the day before he was to attend, as part of the anniversary observances of the Baptist’s beheading, the official unveiling of his altarpiece in the Oratory of Saint John. As if that irony weren’t sufficiently crushing, three months later he was formally expelled from the Order “like a rotten and diseased limb” in a ceremony that took place, as did all such ceremonies, in the same oratory that housed his monumental canvas. Fortunately, he wasn’t around for that final humiliation. In October, in a move that seems more like a scene from a Clint Eastwood movie than an episode in art history, he had escaped from the well-nigh impregnable fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo.
57.That escape would have entailed breaking out of his cell, scaling the castle ramparts, rappelling down a 200-foot precipice to the sea, and swimming to safety. Which he did. Then he would have had to find a captain who could sneak him past the harbor night patrols and, once arrived at the haven of Sicily, he would have had to avoid the murderous bandits on the inland route to the port of Syracuse. Clearly, he couldn’t have got off the island without much plotting and the inside help of a corrupt official or two or perhaps a blind eye turned at the right moment by Fabrizio Sforza Colonna. By mid-October, he had arrived at Syracuse, about as safe — which is to say, not very — as he would ever be.
58.Caravaggio had chosen Syracuse as his destination for one compelling reason: Mario Minetti. His former companion, model, and (probably) lover had returned to his native Sicily and prospered as a respectable family man and the master of a fashionable workshop. Violent and volatile as he was, Caravaggio compelled abiding loyalty among a small band of intimates, among whom Mario was one. The younger man succored his old friend, lending him his state of the art studio and spreading the word to his rich and powerful clients. It soon became apparent that the work those rich and powerful clients wanted was Caravaggio’s, not Mario’s. Which was fine. Mario could have had no illusions about who was the greater artist, and he could afford to pass on a few commissions that Caravaggio desperately needed.
59.He stayed in Sicily about a year, moving restlessly from Syracuse to Messina to Palermo and keeping a step ahead of the enemies he imagined — and in fact, were — pursuing him. The altarpieces he left behind in those cities were increasingly dark and expressionistic, forfeiting detail and color, but losing nothing of tragic intensity. Local legend had him exhuming a corpse to use as a model for “The Resurrection of Lazarus” and slashing to ribbons a completed canvas that someone had dared to criticize — unlikely, but his behavior had become more erratic. Always armed and now accompanied by a big black dog he named “Corvo” (Crow), “he looked more like a swordsman than a painter,” as one early biographer wrote.
60.Now more than ever a papal pardon was the goal, not just to remove the death sentence hanging over his head, but also to protect him from the wrath of the Knights of Malta, if they were indeed the ones pursuing him. In September, 1609, he left Sicily for Naples, bringing him one step closer to the capital and ultimate rehabilitation. Caravaggio was a known quantity in Naples, where he stayed once again in the Colonna palace at Chiaia. But neither the Colonnas nor his own wits could save him from what had been in the cards for a long time: the savage and nearly lethal attack that took place outside the Osteria del Cerriglio within a few weeks of his arrival. His enemies, finally, had caught up with him.
61.He never had a chance. Three men held him down while a fourth sliced his face. Afterwards, he was almost unrecognizable. They could have killed him, but they wanted him to live, bearing his scars for the rest of his life. Everyone would know what that meant.
62.So who were “they”? Probably not the Tomassoni clan. They definitely would have killed him if they still wanted revenge for the murder of one of their own — an eye for an eye. And probably not Wigancourt, the Maltese Grand Master whom Caravaggio had severely embarrassed with his colossal infractions — a sneak attack outside a louche brothel wasn’t his style. Most likely it was Roero, the aristocratic heavy whom Caravaggio had attacked and injured on Malta. This was how an aggrieved count and Knight of Justice dealt with a mere painter.

63.C remained in Naples another six months, convalescing to the extent he could and dreaming of Rome. He did manage to create one more major work, “The Martyrdom of St. Ursula.” The chiaroscuro that had once dramatically illuminated complex figurations of theme and action had now given way to a depthless and murky field of browns and reds. “And universal darkness buries all,” as a later poet once wrote.
64.From here on, the story gets very hazy. On July 9, 1610, Caravaggio boarded a felucca that would take him north towards Rome and the papal pardon he had reason to believe was imminent. He never got there. What went wrong is the subject of multiple conspiracy theories, some of which have a shred of plausibility. However or wherever it happened, by the beginning of August, all of Rome had heard the news: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was dead.
65.His enemy Giovanni Baglione wrote, “he died miserably — indeed, just as he had lived.” It pleased Baglione to think so. In his account, Caravaggio had been arrested (no reason given) upon landing at the port of Palo, 20 miles west of Rome. There, he was held in prison for two days while the felucca bearing three of his paintings — his passport back into the good graces of his patrons in Rome — sailed on without him. Upon his release he embarked on a suicidal chase along the beach in malarial weather to catch up with the ship at Porto Ercole. He died of a fever along the way.
66.The story doesn’t quite hold. Why would he have been arrested only to be released? And why would the paintings have been disembarked at Porto Ercole, 70 miles north of Rome? Nor was a body ever found. But it’s not hard to believe that Caravaggio had died of a fever exacerbated by the stress of losing his pictures and, more importantly, from the debilitating and improperly treated effects of his nearly fatal wounding. He didn’t die miserably. He died fighting to the last.
67.The poet Marzio Milesi composed some elegies for his deceased friend, which serve to remind us that if Caravaggio was a thug who hung with gangsters and sex workers, he was also a highly cultured artist no less at home in the company of poets, musicians, scientists, and learned prelates. Milesi genuinely grieved, whereas some of the other principals — Borghese, Wigancourt, and their underlings — just wanted to get their hands on the loot. In the unholy scramble that followed Caravaggio’s death, Borghese bullied and threatened his way to the largest share of the takings.
68.One picture that Borghese didn’t get, known as “Portrait of a Courtesan” until it went up in flames during the fighting in Berlin at the end of World War II, remained in the hands of Fillide Melandroni. She held onto this portrait of herself, at her most beautiful and bejeweled, till the end of her days.
69.Fillide had done quite well on the game, until venereal disease caught up with her at the age of 37 or 38. When she made out her will a few years before she died in 1618, she left most of her costly belongings to charity, but the portrait by the passionate artist she had known so intimately she bequeathed to her aristocratic lover Giulio Strozzi. It was her most cherished possession, and she wanted him to have it.
Bibliographical Note:The flavorful translations of the historical documents in this account come from Peter Robb’s impassioned and novelistic M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio. The notions that Caravaggio might have had a second career as a pimp and that the murder of Ranuccio Tomassoni occurred in the course of a duel derive from the entirely persuasive account of Andrew Graham-Dixon in Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane. Other estimable sources that I’ve used are Helen Langdon’s Caravaggio: A Life, Howard Hibbard’s Caravaggio, and Francine Prose’s Caravaggio: Painter of Miracles. And, of course, there are always the paintings themselves.

The Poet Who Died for Our Sins: On Charles Baudelaire

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The figure of Baudelaire — dandy, rebel, enfant terrible, hysterical hypochondriac — compels such fascination that it’s almost possible to forget he wrote a few poems too. In fact, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a book-length critical study (Baudelaire, 1950) that barely took notice of a single poem. To Sartre, Baudelaire was not so much a poet as an episode in the history of consciousness. Suffice it to say that Sartre did not find in his protagonist a paragon of existentialist engagement. You can open the book almost at random and find such judgments as: “he was nothing but a gaping wound;” “his bad faith went so deep that he was no longer master of it;” “he never progressed beyond the stage of childhood;” “He was an eternal minor, a middle-aged adolescent who lived in a constant state of rage and hatred, but under the vigilant and reassuring protection of others.”

It’s true that Baudelaire seemed less interested in finding reasonable solutions to his many problems than in cultivating his hysteria. For that we must be grateful. Rage, resentment, and infantilism might have gone into the poems, but what came out of them was a majestic representation of heightened states of consciousness. Sartre was right — he was a “gaping wound,” as the abject, beseeching letters he wrote to his mother make all too clear. I don’t say that deep within we’re all as screwed up as Baudelaire was, yet even the healthiest and happiest among us owe him a debt. All that darkness and perversity that he sang so beautifully form the permanent substratum of our psychic lives. After all, we’re still reading these poems long after they’ve ceased to shock anyone — except maybe, in the deepest and most salutary sense, ourselves.

If Baudelaire were around today and, fed up as usual with his mistress Jeanne Duval, decided to try his luck on an online dating site, he’d never get far enough to meet any woman for coffee at Starbucks. Every prospective date would say precisely the same thing: “You’re so negative!” In that context it would avail him nothing to protest that his negativity was a complex dialectic that allowed for the discovery of beauty and value against social norms that had cheapened them. Since, however, we’re reading Baudelaire rather than dating him, we can see, as a prospective girlfriend might not, the morality beneath the negation. Or some of us can. Martin Turnell considered “The Little Old Women” (“Les Petites Vielles”) a “bitter little comedy” in which the poet feels only “faintly sorry” for the “repugnant” and “monstrous” old women who are the subject of the poem (Baudelaire: A Study of His Poetry, 1972). Given that “The Little Old Women” is one of Baudelaire’s longest poems and occupies a critical place in the “Parisian Scenes” section of Flowers of Evil, it might be worth a closer look to see if Turnell is right.

A cursory reading of the poem (in Richard Howard’s translation, the closest thing to a standard one) would seem to confirm the judgment that Baudelaire’s unhappy dating prospects might have rendered — it’s pretty negative all right. The harshness of the language will not be palliated. “These travesties were women once” (“Ces monstres disloqués furent jadis des femmes”) is not the way most of us would like to think of our grandmothers. “Decrepit,” “broken,” “shriveled” (“décrépits,” “brisés,” “ratatinées”): nor are the adjectives exactly euphemistic. Nevertheless, “The Little Old Women” brims not with brittle mockery, but with pathos. In the first stanza, Baudelaire acknowledges that his “fatal humors” govern his unholy fascination. “The Little Old Women” is the 93rd poem in Flowers of Evil; by now we have a pretty firm sense that the author of this book does not incline to sunny appraisals of his or anyone’s psychic condition. Against this dark subjectivity any expression of tenderness or pity will carry disproportionate weight. Sure enough, the pathos overwhelms the mockery. Baudelaire enlists our compassion by looking at — not away from — a despised and dishonored old age in the unforgiving Paris of the Second Republic. After witnessing the children mocking them and the derelicts taunting them with obscenities, we are with the poet whose “fatal humors” salvage a nobility from what the workaday world recognizes only with scorn or sentimental evasions:

But I who at a distance follow you
and anxiously attend your failing steps
as if I had become your father – mine
are secret pleasures you cannot suspect!

I see first love in bloom upon your flesh,
dark or luminous I see your vanished days –
my teeming heart exults in all your sins
and all your virtues magnify my soul!

Flotsam, my family – ruins, my race!
Each night I offer you a last farewell!
Where will you be tomorrow, ancient Eves
under God’s undeviating paw?

Roberto Calasso said, “only Baudelaire had access to a region of the purest pathos, unscathed by any sentimentality, that of ‘Les petites vielles’ and ‘À une passante’” (La Folie Baudelaire, 2012). Not quite true. Alexander Pope got there before him, and on the same subject — despised and forgotten old women. Pope depicts his dowagers with a similarly heartbreaking mixture of harshness and pity:

Still round and round the Ghosts of Beauty glide,
And haunt the places where their honour dy’d.
See how the world its veterans rewards!
A youth of Frolicks, an old Age of Cards;
Fair to no purpose, artful to no end,
Young without Lovers, old without a Friend;
A Fop their Passion, but their Prize a Sot,
Alive, ridiculous, and dead, forgot!

The comparison with Pope is not so farfetched as might appear. Both poets were dyed in the wool classicists. Pope couldn’t have expressed his seething resentments without the ordering discipline of the closed couplet, and Baudelaire’s psychic turmoil needed the formality of the alexandrine line to achieve its maximum coherence. The poet of whores, opium, and lowlife Paris, as the world thinks of him, brought to his work all the orderliness and mastery so conspicuously lacking in his private life. “All his poetry,” wrote Calasso, “seems translated from Latin.”

“Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work,” advised Flaubert. Baudelaire did precisely the opposite. The chaos of his life fueled the grandeur of his work, and that grandeur makes him more rather than less accessible. Since his style abjures all avant-garde dislocations, he remains well within the reach of readers (like me) considerably less than fluent in French. Apart from the vexing problem of rhyme, Baudelaire lends himself reasonably well to English translation. Even better, his originals can be read without too much difficulty using the translations as cribs. As startling as his imagery often is, he typically employs the simplest of epithets. In “Correspondences,” for example, the key adjectives “longs,” “profonde,” “vaste,” and “riches” might be roughly translated as “long,” “profound,” “vast,” and “rich.” Sometimes the largest realities require the plainest language, and the realities “Correspondences” point to are very large indeed: “les transports de l’esprit et des sens,” as the last line has it. No summation could possibly do justice to the indeterminate character of this sonnet. Is this poem about nature? Or is it a part of nature itself? The disconcerting thing is that if we’re looking hard at the forests of symbols, interpreting them as we interpret this poem, the forests of symbols are looking right back. We will be worth the look only if nature finds in us a corresponding openness to sensation, not excluding, if we’re honest about it, an openness to corruption and other less sanctified predispositions:

The pillars of Nature’s temple are alive
and sometimes yield perplexing messages;
forests of symbols between us and the shrine
remark our passage with accustomed eyes.

Like long-held echoes, blending somewhere else
into one deep and shadowy unison
as limitless as darkness and as day,
the sounds, the scents, the colors correspond.

There are odors succulent as young flesh,
sweet as flutes, and green as any grass,
while others – rich, corrupt and masterful –

possess the power of such infinite things
as incense, amber, benjamin and musk,
to praise the senses’ raptures and the mind’s.

Such undisguised Platonism sits easily with the maggots, bats, serpents, and putrefying corpses that haunt Baudelaire’s poetry. A wounded idealism underlies his putative “decadence,” and although that decadence occasionally strains for effect (as in “Carrion” [“Une Charogne”], which almost achieves the tastelessness of his revered Edgar Allan Poe), the decadence too is ethical. Baudelaire conceived of Flowers of Evil as an antidote to the false and shallow meliorism of modern culture. It still is.

Similary, his idealism is quite at home with allegory, another tendency of his thought that seems shockingly conservative. In the proem that opens the book, “To the Reader,” la Mort and l’Ennui are capitalized as they might be in a medieval morality tale, and La Beauté, l’Horreur, le Temps, and la Vie stalk through the whole book. What we get, rather than distancing abstractions, is the best of both worlds: the particulars of a place and time that Baudelaire perceived not only with a great eye but even with a great nose (Baudelaire’s, wrote F.W. Leakey in his study Baudelaire: Les Fleurs du Mal, “must be the most receptive and unforgetful nose in all poetic history!”) as well as the concentrated speculations of a fearless intellect. “The Swan,” for example, is a big poem about a big subject: exile, and its congeries of loss, longing, and memory. With its vision of displacement in urban squalor, the poem prefigures the scenes of refugee camps that have come to seem a permanent feature of modern life. We know the phenomenon all too well. Baudelaire takes us inside the experience that has almost become for us a numbing cliché of newsreel photography. How better to convey the agony and humiliation of exile than by allegorizing a swan?

one cold morning – with the sky swept clean,
the ground, too, swept by garbage-men who raised
clouds of soot in the icy air – I saw

a swan that had broken out of its cage,
webbed feet clumsy on the cobblestones,
white feathers dragging in the uneven ruts,
and obstinately pecking at the drains,

drenching its enormous wings in the filth
as if in its own lovely lake, crying
‘Where is the thunder, when will it rain?’
I see it still, inevitable myth,

Like Daedalus dead-set against the sky –
the sky quite blue and blank and unconcerned –
that straining neck and that voracious beak,
as if the swan were castigating God!

It’s possible that Baudelaire did in fact see an escaped swan dragging its dirty wings through the construction site that Baron Haussmann was then making of the Tuileries Garden, or maybe he merely read about the four wild swans that bad been stranded there some years before. In any case, the imagery is expansive enough to convey a sense of the universal pain of exile and precise enough to convey a sense of the sufferings of a real animal — once again, the best (or worst) of both worlds. And later in the poem, how like Baudelaire, when most Europeans would have regarded as barbaric or childishly “exotic” anything having to do with Africa, to take as a symbol of grieving humanity a black woman in Paris “starving / and consumptive in the muddy streets, / peering through a wall of fog for those / missing palms of splendid Africa.”

Frankly, I’ve never understood why readers of self-help books waste time on frauds like “Dr. Phil.” If self-help is what they want, the book they should be reading is Flowers of Evil. Unlike the Dr. Phil sort, it has the advantage of not glossing over horror and despair, so that instead of telling readers how they should feel, it tells them how in all likelihood they do feel or anyway how they feel in some of their most vulnerable moments. This quality is also known as courage, but not for this alone does Flowers of Evil support and solace the soul. At the bottom of Baudelaire’s metaphysics of despair lies a depression that might be described as clinical. There may or may not be a way out of such depression (for Baudelaire, there wasn’t), but surely the necessary first step for dealing with it, in literature as in life, is to acknowledge it. Baudelaire’s acknowledgement took the form of certain key poems in Flowers of Evil and certain prose passages in Paris Spleen. These are landmarks in the representation of depression, no less central to their time than Albrecht Dürer’s print “Melancholia” or Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Depression assumes multiple guises in Flowers of Evil, but achieves its most concentrated expression in the dozen or so poems that conclude the first section, “Spleen and Ideal.” “Craving for Oblivion,” “Sympathetic Horror,” “Alchemy of Suffering,” “The Irremediable:” we’re a long way from Dr. Phil and even from the somewhat milder treatment of ennui that had figured earlier in the book. Each of the four poems titled “Spleen” displays sovereign control over volatile subject matter, but the best may be the last, if only for its technical brilliance. Its five quatrains consist essentially of one bravura sentence structured as a series of subordinate clauses resolved grammatically — and only grammatically — in the two concluding stanzas. All the Baudelairian music is there: the languorous alexandrines that enforce a funereal rhythm, the perfect interlocking rhymes suggesting confinement, the touch of onomatopoeia in “S’en va battant les murs de son aile timide.” The wonder is that poetry this sonorous can induce in the reader (as it does in me) a feeling near to physical illness. Maybe spiders in the head (“infâmes araignées / Vient tendre ses filets au fond de nos cerveaux”) will do that every time. The fears that the imagery raises concerning the violation of bodily integrity aren’t just depressing; they’re sickening:

When the skies are low and heavy as a lid
over the mind tormented by disgust,
and hidden in the gloom the sun pours down
on us a daylight dingier than the dark;

when earth becomes a trickling dungeon where
Trust like a bat keeps lunging through the air,
beating tentative wings along the walls
and bumping its head against the rotten beams;

when rain falls straight from unrelenting clouds,
forging the bars of some enormous jail,
and silent hordes of obscene spiders spin
their webs across the basements of our brains;

then all at once the raging bells break loose,
hurling to heaven their awful caterwaul,
like homeless ghosts with no one left to haunt
whimpering their endless grievances.

— And giant hearses, without dirge or drums,
parade at half-step in my soul, where Hope,
defeated, weeps, and the oppressor Dread
plants his black flag on my assenting skull.

Can anything be salvaged from such despair? Yes, if not exactly triumphantly. The soul survives this assault on its integrity because, in the first place, there is a self to assault. Racked by ennui and despair, the self that Baudelaire depicts is in some respects a most unattractive one, yet it remains whole. Rather like Milton’s Satan, whom he rightly considered the tragic hero of his own destiny, Baudelaire preferred reigning in his own private hell to serving in anyone else’s heaven or even in the purgatory of gainful employment.

Faced with such misery, a little spiritual compromise doesn’t look like such a bad thing. That Baudelaire was incapable of such compromise was his undoing and our good fortune. Like a blasphemous Jesus, he took on our worst sins — pride, sloth, envy, lechery — and turned them into art. T.S. Eliot and others have found in him a profound religious yearning beneath the blasphemy. I, on the contrary, find blasphemy beneath the blasphemy. Baudelaire’s “business” was not, pace Eliot, to “assert the necessity” of Christianity. He asserted, if anything, the necessity of belief in a self that, threatened from forces within and without, might remain whole and integral, if only through the consciousness of its own suffering. Even so, it’s impossible not to be moved by Eliot’s essay on the poet, which concludes not with the expected apportions of praise and censure but, astonishingly, with this prayer: “Baudelaire was man enough for damnation: whether he is damned is, of course, another question, and we are not prevented from praying for his repose.”

Extraordinary as Eliot’s benediction is, Baudelaire didn’t hold out for prayer. He had work to do. Tormented, slothful, and sickly, he managed to produce masterpieces in every genre to which he turned his hand: metrical verse, prose poetry (which he more or less invented), translation, and art criticism. I think of Baudelaire at work much as he depicted his loved and hated city in the last stanza of his magnificent aubade “Twilight: Daybreak” (“Le Crepuscule du Matin”). It’s a Baudelairian dawn. Whores, beggars, the debauched and the dying fitfully awaken to a cold and damp morning — not a promising start to the day. And yet this city will clothe itself in beauty and get to work:

Shivering dawn, in a wisp of pink and green,
Totters slowly across the empty Seine,
and dingy Paris – old drudge rubbing its eyes –
picks up its tools to begin another day.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Shakespeare as God

- | 9

My reading of Shakespeare tends to be seasonal: comedies in the spring and summer, histories and tragedies in the fall and winter. There are exceptions. A hot, sweaty tragedy like Othello or Antony and Cleopatra reads better in hot, sweaty weather, and a “problem” comedy like Measure for Measure seems less problematic during an autumn chill. I persist in this folly even when confronted with The Winter’s Tale, three/fifths wintry tragedy, two/fifths vernal comedy, and wholly a masterwork, because Shakespeare seems to me more rooted in the earth and its rhythms than any other writer. Samuel Johnson believed that “Shakespeare is, above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature.” Johnson was speaking primarily of human nature, but if we extend the term to mean the other kind too, we get a little nearer the mark. Shakespeare is the poet of everything.

What then is the optimal time to read The Winter’s Tale – in winter if you feel the burden is primarily tragic, in spring if you feel the opposite pull, or maybe (if you feel the issue is eternally undecided) in a blustery week in late March when the crocuses have begun to push through? (The logical solution – to read the first three acts in the winter and save the last two for warmer weather – is, alas, a reductio ad absurdum. Not that I haven’t tried.) Theater people don’t have the luxury to be so choosy, and I’ve seen excellent productions of The Winter’s Tale at all times of the year, the most recent being a (winter) performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music starring Simon Russell Beale and Rebecca Hall that left me in tears. A local high school production probably would have done the same. In my experience, The Winter’s Tale plays more effectively on stage than more celebrated works like Hamlet or King Lear, which are sometimes doomed by theatrical self-consciousness and present obstacles to staging (the storm on the heath, for instance) difficult to surmount. In particular, Act IV of The Winter’s Tale is so perfectly conceived that it seems as much carnival as theater. Slapstick, satire, music, dance, suspense, disguise, romance, bawdry, philosophy, sleight-of-hand: one mode of performance succeeding another, and all stage managed by the greatest dramaturge of them all. So yes, Shakespeare was a playwright – an actor, a director, a producer, in fact a man wholly of the theater – and The Winter’s Tale is a play. But we can’t always have the benefit of an actor as skilled as Simon Russell Beale interpreting Leontes for us, and even then, it’s his interpretation, not ours.  When we read the plays, we’re actor, director, and lighting designer at once. And what we’re reading, it’s worth pointing out, is very largely poetry.

Seventy-five point five percent poetry, to be precise. The Winter’s Tale is just about the golden mean – 71.5% blank verse, 3.1% rhymed verse, and 25.4% prose, plus six songs, the highest number in the canon, and appropriate for the genius of wit and improvisation who sings them, the “rogue” Autolycus. How I love Shakespearean metrics! Iago has 1097 lines to Othello’s 860, 86.6% of The Merry Wives of Windsor is in prose, King John and Richard II have no prose whatsoever, 45.5% of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is in rhymed verse, there are 150 named female characters in the canon as opposed to 865 male, and the actor who plays an uncut Hamlet has to memorize 1422 lines. (Cordelia, by contrast, makes her overwhelming presence felt with a mere 116 lines.) If there were a way of computing the Bard’s earned run average, I would want to know that too.

Clinical as they might seem, these statistics do remind us of a salient fact: three quarters of Shakespeare’s dramatic writing is poetry. (The other quarter is pretty good too. Shakespeare wrote the best prose as well as the best verse in the English language, and if there were anything other than prose and verse, he would have surpassed everyone at that as well.) Polixines’s first lines in The Winter’s Tale are, “Nine changes of the wat’ry star hath been / The shepherd’s note since we have left our throne / Without a burden” (I.ii. 1-3). That’s a long way from, “It’s been nine months since I’ve been away from my kingdom.” Even if Shakespeare had phrased the lines in prose, they would have been suitably orotund, something like the courtly politesse Archidamus and Camillo speak in the opening scene. (“Since their more mature dignities and royal necessities made separation of their society, their encounters (though not personal) hath been royally attorney’d . . . “) Nevertheless, they are in verse. No prose could match the effect of the bold initial spondee balanced by an unstressed pyrrhic before catching up with the regular iambic rhythm of the pentameter line. (“NINE CHANG/es of/the WAT’/ry STAR/hath BEEN . . .”) It’s like a bell going off. Surely what’s greatest about Shakespeare is not that he knows where to put his iambs and trochees but that he writes so expressively within character. Polixines’s periphrastic way of saying what could have been said much more simply is more than the eloquence one would expect of a king taking leave of another king. In evoking the moon and the waters and the shepherd’s eternal rounds, Polixines conjures the elemental, folkloric realities that the play will traffic in. There will be shepherds, long passages of time, lots of water, and boy will there be “changes.” Plus, this being Shakespeare, Polixines’ lines are almost gratuitously beautiful. He just couldn’t help it.

On the other hand, beauty has a job to do. It compels attention, and if you’re paying attention to the words, chances are you’re also paying attention to what words do: tell stories, define characters, establish themes, orchestrate emotions, explore ideas. Not that it’s as easy as all that. There are times in The Winter’s Tale when it’s maddeningly difficult to figure out what the hell the characters are talking about. You are ill-advised to attend any production cold.

Harold Bloom has grumpily admitted to boycotting most productions of Shakespeare out of frustration with tendentious interpretations. For me the problem is less directorial overkill than the sheer difficulty of doing Shakespeare at all – finding actors who can speak the verse properly, trimming the texts to manageable lengths, not overdoing the dirty jokes, and so on. I usually attend three or four productions a year and happily settle for whatever patches of brilliance (sometimes sustained for nearly a whole evening) I can get. And yet I wouldn’t want to deprive myself of the pleasure of unpacking the involutions of Leontes’s soliloquies in The Winter’s Tale at my leisure and with text in hand – partly because in the theater it’s so hard to follow what this lunatic is actually saying. Even his faithful courtier Camillo at one point has to confess that he’s mystified as to precisely what dark “business” his Highness is hinting at:
Leon.      Was this taken

By any understanding pate but thine?

For thy conceit is soaking, will draw in

More than the common blocks. Not noted, is’t,

But of the finer natures? By some severals

Of head-piece extraordinary? Lower messes

Perchance are to this business purblind? Say.

Cam.      Business, my lord? I think most understand

Bohemia stays here longer.

(I.ii. 222-30)
It’s true that the density of this language depends at least as much on formal rhetoric – all those tropes and devices that Shakespeare had drilled into his head as a schoolboy – as on versification. But what the poetry gives us that prose could not (or not so well) is a sense of formlessness within form. Leontes is falling apart. His jealous ravings feed on themselves in an ever more frenzied cycle of psychological dislocation. You might call it a nervous breakdown. Yet no matter how feverish his utterances, they all stay within the strict boundaries of ten or sometimes eleven syllables. If you’re losing your mind in iambic pentameter, your mode of expression is necessarily compressed. No wonder Leontes is so hard to understand:
Affection! thy intention stabs the centre.

Thou dost make possible things not so held,

Communicat’st with dreams (how can this be?),

With what’s unreal thou co-active art,

And fellow’st nothing. Then ‘tis very credent

Thou mayst co-join with something, and thou dost

(And that beyond commission), and I find it

(And that to the infection of my brains

And hard’ning of my brows).

(I.ii. 138-46)
To my mind, no one has ever satisfactorily explained the meaning of the first line, but the sense of psychic violence is clear enough, as is the sense of delusion that Leontes unwittingly demonstrates in the following lines – he perfectly illustrates what he thinks he’s criticizing. Hard as it is to follow this soliloquy on the page, it’s that much harder in the theater, which doesn’t allow for second readings or leisurely reflections on dense ambiguities. Unlike the pattern of some other geniuses, the movement of Shakespeare’s late work (at least verbally) is toward an increasing complication rather than a simplicity or clarity of expression. Those Jacobean groundlings must have had remarkable attention spans, and no wonder. The linguistic transformation that they witnessed, according to Frank Kermode in Shakespeare’s Language, “happened in the writing of Shakespeare and in the ears of an audience he had, as it were, trained to receive it.”

Dense, compressed, harsh, impacted: these qualities don’t stop Shakespeare’s later dramatic verse from being magnificent. Has anyone ever rendered the grosser tendencies of the male imagination with more obscenely “reified” imagery? What makes Leontes’s ravings especially sickening is that he pronounces them in the presence of his innocent son Mamillius:
Inch-thick, knee-deep, o’er head and ears a fork’d one!

Go play, boy, play. Thy mother plays, and I

Play too, but so disgrac’d a part, whose issue

Will hiss me to my grave: contempt and clamor

Will be my knell. Go play, boy, play. There have been

(Or I am much deceiv’d) cuckolds ere now,

And many a man there is (even at this present,

Now, while I speak this) holds his wife by th’ arm,

That little thinks she has been sluic’d in ‘s absence,

And his pond fish’d by his next neighbor – by

Sir Smile, his neighbor.

(I.ii. 186-196)
When Simon Russell Beale spoke these lines at BAM, that “sluic’d” went through the audience – or at least through me – like a wound. Sometimes it’s hard to believe just how graphic Shakespeare’s imagery can be. As a woefully inexperienced undergraduate, I thought Pompey’s description in Measure for Measure of Claudio’s offense against sexual morality – “Groping for trouts in a peculiar river” – vaguely amusing. Amusing yes, vague no. There are some things no book can teach you.

The simplicity that many people would like to find in late Shakespeare as they do in the closing phases of Beethoven or Michelangelo is in fact there but selectively deployed and as much a matter of technique as of vision. Hermione’s protestations of innocence during the horrendous trial scene have a dignified plainness in contrast to the casuistry with which Leontes arraigns her. (“Sir, / You speak a language that I understand not.”) The language relaxes in the last two acts, as we move from suspicion and sterility to rebirth and reconciliation. Yet touches of lyricism occur earlier in the play (as in Polixines’s “We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ th’ sun, / And bleat the one at th’ other”), just as echoes of Leontes’s rhetorical violence occur later in Polixenes’s rage at the prospect of a shepherdess daughter-in-law (“And thou, fresh piece / Of excellent witchcraft, whom of force must know / The royal fool thou cop’st with”). Our Bard, who knew rhetorical tricks from hypallage to syllepsis, was not likely to disdain something so basic as plain contrast. Consider this contrast: Leontes, who earlier expressed the most extreme repugnance toward almost any form of physicality, now uses the homeliest of similes to express his wonder at the “miracle” of Hermione’s transformation from statue to living creature in Act V: “If this be magic, let it be an art / Lawful as eating.” Eleven lines later the loyal retainer Paulina, who has brought off the whole improbable spectacle, speaks the half line that is, for me, the most wrenching moment in the whole play: “Our Perdita is found.” How like Shakespeare – to expand emotionally by contracting linguistically. (Compare the lonely, cuckolded Bloom’s “Me. And me now” in Joyce’s Ulysses – the emotional heart, in four words, of a novel much given to logorrhea.) To gloss such a line would be almost an impertinence, except to say that being lost (“Perdita,” analogous to “perdition”) and found is in some sense what the play is all about. It’s not just Leontes who, rediscovering his wife and daughter, finds himself. Ideally, at a performance or in a reading, so should we.

Self-discovery can be a pretty scary experience, which is why Tony Tanner in his Prefaces to Shakespeare wrote that the proper response to this play is one in which awe borders on horror: “It does not merely please or entertain. It should leave us aghast, uncertain of just what extraordinary thing we have just witnessed.” Iambs and trochees will get you only so far. They signify that Shakespeare thought poetically, and thinking poetically means expressing experience in a highly concentrated manner. It’s curious that as Shakespeare’s language grew increasingly dense and demanding, his plots moved in the opposite direction – towards the deliberate improbabilities of folklore and fable. Shipwrecks, foundlings, treasure chests, prophecies, oracles, and hungry bears: if the plot of The Winter’s Tale were to be retold stripped of its poetry, it “should be hooted at / Like an old tale,” as Paulina says of the biggest improbability of them all – the apparent transformation of the martyred queen from cold statue to living flesh. To the disappointment of some, the patterned contrivances of the four late “romances” (Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest) necessarily entail a slackening of authorial interest in the particulars of character development. Othello’s jealousy is motivated point by excruciating point; Leontes’ jealousy just is. Sometimes it’s well to think back to Samuel Johnson’s point of view. Shakespeare is the poet of nature, and all that naturalism shines out amid the archetypal movements and resolutions of the late romances. Certainly these plays have evoked unusually personal responses. Northrup Frye, no critical slouch, wrote of The Tempest, it is a play “not simply to be read or seen or even studied but possessed.” When Eric Rohmer wanted to depict a transfiguring moment in the life of his heroine in A Tale of Winter (Conte d’hiver, 1991), he did so by having her attend a regional production of The Winter’s Tale and training the camera on her face during Hermione’s transformation scene. Nothing like seeing a clunky, old-fashioned version in French to make you understand what Shakespeare can do without language.

Another curiosity about the romances is the degree to which they turn on the concept of forgiveness. “Pardon’s the word to all,” says Cymbeline late in the play of that title, jauntily brushing aside five acts worth of treachery, corruption, murder, and deceit. Was there something in Shakespeare’s experience that turned his thoughts in his last years to the possibility of forgiveness? Had his many years as an absent husband and father begun to gnaw at him as he contemplated retirement and a return to the wife and family he had clearly neglected? Or had his wife Anne – perhaps understandably in the light of their long separation – been “sluiced” in his absence, and had he, with all his attendant guilts and slippages, to pardon her for that? Was he thinking of the Catholicism he might secretly have been raised in and of the doctrine of grace that – it could be argued – subtly informs these plays? Or was it something simpler and even more personal – namely, brooding on the usual fuckups that everyone racks up over time and hopes to be forgiven for? Virtually nothing is known of the man’s inner life, but few people dispute the semi-autobiographical nature of The Tempest, with its sense of a valediction to the theater he had known and loved. So why not extrapolate a little from the work to the life?

Depends on whose life, I guess. While I’m very much interested in Shakespeare’s life, I’m more interested in my own. What I extrapolate from The Winter’s Tale is that if Leontes deserves a break, so do I. There came a time in my life when I needed to be forgiven. I wasn’t. If I must take my consolation from a play rather than from any flesh and blood Hermione, that’s not quite so bleak as it sounds. Yes, I would have preferred real forgiveness to the literary kind, but I find it no small consolation that at the end of his life the world’s supreme imaginative writer returns again and again to a basic home truth: we must forgive each other. For me, reading Shakespeare is like going to church, except that in place of a God I could never and wouldn’t want to believe in, I “commune,” so to speak, with a mind that seems to comprehend all others and enforces no doctrinal obedience. This community of believers embraces anyone who has ever seen, heard, or read a word of Shakespeare’s and been moved to wonder and reflection. That’s what I call a catholic church.

The forgiveness I’ve spoken of is not without cost. Antigonus and Mamillius die, and when Hermione steps off that pedestal, she speaks to her daughter, not to her husband. Part fairly tale, part moral exemplum, The Winter’s Tale is what religion would be if it could free itself of those hectoring, incomprehensible Gods. In the unveiling of the supposed “miracle” in Act V, the sage and long-suffering Paulina speaks the lines that could serve as the epitaph for all of late Shakespeare: “It is required / You do awake your faith.” The fact that the miracle turns out to be completely naturalistic (the “resurrected” Hermione has been hidden away for sixteen years and has the wrinkles to prove it) means only that the faith required transcends any particular religious dispensation. It’s a faith, first of all, in the reader’s or spectator’s willingness to enter without quibbling into the imaginative world that Shakespeare has created, but more than that, it’s a faith in life itself – in the human imagination, and in our capacity for endurance, transformation, and renewal. As Leontes exemplifies, our capacity for hatred, rage, and murderous insanity is pretty impressive too. To see whole and to understand these contradictions – that too is an act of faith.

I don’t presume to know what this or any other play by Shakespeare ultimately “means.” They will not be reduced to “themes.” Obviously, the plays and sonnets teem with ideas, a few of which are near and dear to my heart, but I could no more sum up the “themes” of Shakespeare’s work than I could sum up  the “themes” of my own life. If his work has any unity of meaning, it is simply that of life itself – its abundance, its ongoingness. In Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us, Caroline Spurgeon wrote that “The thought constantly in Shakespeare’s mind,” in The Winter’s Tale, is:
the common flow of life through all things, in nature and man alike, seen in the sap rising in the tree, the habits and character of flowers, the result of the marriage of base and noble stock, whether it be of roses or human beings, the emotions of birds, animals and men . . . the oneness of rhythm, of law of movement, in the human body and human emotions with the great fundamental rhythmical movements of nature herself.
Spurgeon was writing in 1935. We tend to be skeptical of such claims now. There are no universals; or, as Terry Eagleton bluntly put it apropos of a couple of poems by Edward Thomas, “If these works are not ‘just’ nature poems, it is because there is no such thing” (How To Read a Poem). If language and culture mediate everything we can know, why should Shakespeare, the playwright-businessman writing for a motley provincial audience of sensation seekers and esthetes, be exempt? Wouldn’t he be just as blinkered by the social prejudices of this time, just as imprisoned by the reigning discourse, as anyone else? So it would seem – until we turn to the plays themselves. There we find that our hearts speak to us in a different register than our minds do. There we find, as in Florizel’s wooing Perdita, precisely that sort of “universality” that is supposed not to exist:
What you do

Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,

I’ld have you do it ever; when you sing,

I’d have you buy and sell so; so give alms;

Pray so; and for the ord’ring your affairs,

To sing them too. When you do dance, I wish you

A wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do

Nothing but that; move still, still so,

And own no other function. Each your doing

(So singular in each particular)

Crowns what you are doing in the present deeds,

That all your acts are deeds.

(IV.iv. 134-46)
Ever been in love? Florizel speaks courtly Renaissance verse because he’s a prince. The shepherd’s son, who isn’t even granted the dignity of a name (“Clown”), woos the shepherdess Mopsa in rustic comic prose. Although Shakespeare grants Clown the full measure of his country kindness and courtesy, he won’t let him talk like Florizel. Such were the parameters of the Jacobean worldview. I doubt any lover anywhere has ever spoken so beautifully as Florizel, but if you have been in love you’ll recognize the feeling – the idealization that has yet to withstand the test of time but nonetheless ennobles both the lover and the beloved and creates, as it were, its own truth. How did the groundlings and the nabobs respond when they first heard those words at the Globe Theatre in 1611? My guess is that some of them reacted much as I do. They wept.

Chuck Berry, Neoclassicist

- | 16

I want to run, I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside
I want to reach out and touch the flame
Where the streets have no name.
(U2, “Where the Streets Have No Name”)

Way down South they gave a jubilee
Them Georgia folks they had a jamboree
They’re drinking home brew from a wooden cup
The folks dancing there got all shook up.
(Chuck Berry, “Rock and Roll Music”)

Now, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, and because I’m one myself I know how devoted rock and roll fans are to their favorite bands, but it must be seen that compared to the Chuck Berry lyric, the U2 lyric is, well, shit. I say this as a fervent admirer of U2 and one who was lucky enough to witness the band perform “Where the Streets Have No Name” in 1987 or so, when to hear it for the first time was to be swept up in a tide of communal idealism. Who could argue with such lofty sentiments, especially when accompanied by the surge of the Edge’s ringing guitar and the most propulsive rhythm section in all of rock? Alas, there isn’t a word, phrase, or image in the whole song not utterly staled by cliché. As in much of the best rock and roll, the majesty of the music disguises the triteness of the lyrics.

There’s no triteness to be disguised in “Rock and Roll Music.” It is what “Where the Streets Have No Name” manifestly is not: poetry, or at least a variety of folk poetry that delights in language and its own expressiveness. Not that “Rock and Roll Music” will ever be mistaken for “Sailing to Byzantium” or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In the first place, it’s a song, with lyrics not intended to be experienced apart from the music. Secondly, it derives from and relates to pop culture, not high art; as he cheerfully admits in his Autobiography, Chuck Berry has read a total of six books in his life. Yet who would disdain the wit and ingenuity of a typical Chuck Berry lyric merely because it lacks the density of Yeats’s Byzantium poems? Good and great poetry lies all around us. Whether it comes to us over a car radio or in a heavily annotated textbook, it’s still poetry.

In a long-ago television interview I half remember, Berry described his songwriting method as entirely commercial. He studied the market and hit upon three common denominators for the mass (mostly white) teenage audience he aspired to reach: school, because school was the locus of teenage social life; cars, because teenagers in the car-crazy fifties and early sixties couldn’t wait to get the keys to the ignition in their hands; and love, because “everybody falls in love, or wants to fall in love.” Two things struck me about that interview – that Berry conceived of songwriting in terms more collective than subjective (the opposite tendency – I hurt! I suffer! I’m famous! – tends to be the norm in rock and roll); and that he had the delicacy to understand that while everybody wants to fall in love, some people never will. So in addition to his acuity and catholicity, I’d add another attribute to the list of Chuck Berry’s compositional distinctions: his humanity. That he himself, according to Keith Richards and others who have worked with him, has all the charm of a rattlesnake only adds to the poignancy of his lyrics. When I consider what Chuck Berry the man might have wanted to do with a sweet little sixteen-year-old girl (he says almost as much in his Autobiography, a book that does nothing to allay his reputation for sleaziness), the tender solicitude of that song seems even more remarkable:

Sweet Little Sixteen
She’s got the grownup blues
Tight dresses and lipstick
She’s sportin’ high-heeled shoes
Oh but tomorrow morning
She’ll have to change her trend
And be sweet sixteen
And back in class again.

Exactly: a sixteen-year-old girl is at once an innocent child and a sexual agent. This doubleness so disturbs us that we (meaning middle-aged men like me) tend to conceive of such a creature as childlike or provocative but not both. Well, sorry – this sixteen-year-old girl is hot as a volcano but still elicits all the paternal protectiveness the song bestows on her.

Note also that Sweet Little Sixteen isn’t “wearing” high-heeled shoes; she’s “sportin’” them. You could say that “sportin” is to “wearing” what poetry is to prose. Or you could say that it’s the right verb for the right line, providing the necessary linkage, as it were, between vehicle and tenor. Or you could say nothing at all and just dig it. I could no more define poetry than I could play guitar like Chuck Berry (I’ve tried – it’s harder than it looks), but I do know that the one thing all poetry must have is a love for language that ultimately transcends instrumentality. Words mean things, and the better the poem, the more meanings attach to the words, but in the way that painters fall in love with paint itself – pushing it, pulling it, scumbling it, scraping it – poets fall in love with words. Like any true poet, Berry has what James Schuyler, in “The Morning of the Poem,” called the “innate love of words,” the “sense of / How the thing said / Is in the words, how / The words are themselves / The thing said.” Given the poverty of the standard rock and roll lexicon, where words like “baby,” “love,” “run,” “hide,” “want,” “need,” “live,” “die,” and “bodacious” circulate with depressing regularity, the key words in Berry’s songs stand out as poems in themselves: “calaboose” for car in “No Particular Place To Go” or “hound” for Greyhound bus in “The Promised Land” or “motivatin’” for what might be described as “motoring joyfully but with determined purpose” in “Maybellene.” Those six books he read more than sufficed. Berry’s idiomatic exuberance derives not from the written word but from oral traditions in African American and even Southern white culture. No surprise that a black musician would draw on the structural template of the blues, but that the same musician would see the compatibility of blues structures with the narrative sense of country music – that sounds a bit like the birth of rock and roll, actually. (Elvis Presley made a similar discovery coming from the opposite direction.) The catalog of place names in the first verse of “Sweet Little Sixteen,” for instance, is echt-country, yet the song itself is as stolid a twelve-bar blues as any composition by, say, Willie Dixon, who, as a matter of fact, played bass on it. So where are they rockin’?

They’re really rockin’ in Boston
In Pittsburgh, PA
Deep in the heart of Texas
And round the ‘Frisco Bay
All over St. Louis
And down in New Orleans
All the cats want to dance with
Sweet Little Sixteen.

You could draw a pretty comprehensive map of America from the poetry of place names in Chuck Berry’s songs. Norfolk Virginia, downtown Birmingham, Houston town, Albuquerque, Los Angeles: they’re all there in “The Promised Land,” inventoried with great good humor even when the traveler encounters, as we all do from time to time, “motor trouble that turned into a struggle.” Wouldn’t “The Promised Land” make a better national anthem than that unsingable and bellicose dirge we’re stuck with?

I left my home in Norfolk Virginia
California on my mind
I straddled that Greyhound and rode him into Raleigh
And on across Caroline . . .

Workin’ on a T-bone steak a la carte
Flying’ over to the Golden State
When the pilot told us in thirteen minutes
He would set us at the terminal gate.

Swing low chariot, come down easy
Taxi to the terminal zone
Cut your engines and cool your wings
And let me make it to the telephone.

Los Angeles give me Norfolk Virginia
Tidewater 4-10-0-9
Tell the folks back home this is the promised land callin’
And the poor boy’s on the line.

Now, some people might suspect the motive of a songwriter who could write such a paean to place when the place in question subjected him to constant racial harassment. But Berry never concealed his motive – to make as much money as possible. How American is that? That a man who had every reason to begrudge his country could write “The Promised Land” or the even more besotted “Living in the USA” (“Looking hard for a drive-in, searching for a corner café . . . / Yeah, and the juke box jumping with records like in the USA”) is, for me, cause for the profoundest patriotism. Furthermore, unlike “This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie’s national anthem of Depression-era populism, “The Promised Land” doesn’t ask that you hate the rich or share the singer’s sectarian politics. (Listen to the rarely sung verses four and five if you don’t believe me.) I do hate the rich, but that’s because I’m not as generous of spirit as Chuck Berry is. All that “The Promised Land” and “Living in the USA” ask of you is that you love American place names, not be a complete stiff, and maybe appreciate a “rare hamburger sizzling on an open grill night and day.”

Although the right word is ideally a poem in itself, you still have to put one next to another. This too Berry does with masterly efficiency. The way his words roll off the tongue in “Tulane” and “Downbound Train” and so many others turns language into music – a useful quality for a body of songs not known for their melodic invention. (Let’s face it, Chuck’s thing is rhythm, not melody.) Most pop song lyrics don’t scan on the page and don’t need to, but sometimes Berry’s compositional regularity requires the assistance of some classical versification, as in the giddy triple meters of “School Days”:

Up in the  /morning and / out to school
The teacher / is teaching / the golden / rule
Ameri/can his’try / and practi/cal math
You study / ‘em hard and / hopin’ to / pass
Workin’ your / fingers right / down to the / bone
The guy / behind you / won’t leave you / alone

Ring ring / goes the bell
The cook in / the lunch room’s / ready to / sell
You’re lucky / if you / can find / a seat
You’re for/tunate if / you have time / to eat
Back in the / classroom op/en your books
Gee but the / teacher don’t / know
How mean / she looks.

No, Berry probably didn’t know he was using anapestic, dactylic, and amphibrachic feet, but neither, I suspect, did the anonymous author of “There Once Was a Man from Nantucket,” and he (or she) was a genius too.

Chuck Berry has had a hard life: reform school, two prison terms, financial exploitation, bankruptcy, racial discrimination, and much else. It is not his manner to rehearse his private grief in public, though the sly braggadocio of “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and the crypto-autobiography of “Johnny B. Goode” trade playfully on his public image. Whether the pathos of “Memphis, Tennessee” derives from his own domestic sorrows is, strictly speaking, beside the point, though in a song this tender and touching, no supposition seems entirely extraneous. At any rate, “Memphis, Tennessee” is one of the greatest story songs in American music, all the more affecting for being so offhand and bouncy. (Berry himself, so he says in his Autobiography, played the swooping bass and “the ticky-tack drums that trot along in the background.”) What appears on first listening to be just another comic ditty about frustrated pedophilia (or so I used to interpret the top-forty version by Johnny Rivers that I knew as a child) turns out to be the desperate plea of a divorced father barred from any contact with his six-year-old daughter. The narrative builds to its final revelation piece by piece, with incidental details carrying an emotional load too freighted to be acknowledged outright: that the girl is furtively trying to reach her father; that the father has taken refuge with relatives; that although he now lives in the sort of place where messages are written on the wall, he once lived in a house high on a ridge overlooking the river; that the girl’s mother, not he, has broken up the family. And all of this – the heartbreak, the loss, the wit – by way of a conversation with a telephone operator:

Long distance information, give me Memphis Tennessee
Help me find the party trying to get in touch with me
She could not leave her number but I know who placed the call
‘Cause my uncle took the message and he wrote it on the wall . . .

Last time I saw Marie she’s waving me goodbye
With hurry home drops on her cheeks that trickled from her eye
Marie is only six years old, information please
Try to put me through to her in Memphis Tennessee.

Berry’s take on the song in his Autobiography may seem naïve, but to me it sounds like the very definition of classicism: “The situation in the story was intended to have a wide scope of interest to the general public rather than a rare or particular incidental occurrence that would entreat the memory of only a few. Such a portrayal of popular or general situations and conditions in lyrics has always been my greatest objective in writing.” Add a “sir” and complicate the syntax a bit, and this could be Dr. Johnson speaking to Boswell or Sir Joshua Reynolds. Although “Memphis, Tennessee” addresses a more adult audience than Berry’s more typical ballads of teenage life, even the ballads of teenage life are classicist: we were all teenagers once and we have all fallen, or (to observe Berry’s astute qualification) want to fall, in love.

Blues, country and western, Johnsonian neoclassicism: these are the traditions that nurture Chuck Berry’s lyrical art. But really, who gives a damn about the categories when you’re listening to something as smoking as “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”? Many critics have taken this song to be a pointed avowal of black pride (not exactly a safe career move in 1956), and since the songwriter himself is unquestionably a brown eyed handsome man, blackness (or brownness) is very much to the point. In fact, the opening lines – “Arrested on charges of unemployment / He was sitting in the witness stand” – call to mind all too clearly the sort of harassment that black Americans have had to endure. But there’s that classicism again – all women, everywhere, have been falling for a certain kind of handsomeness “Way back in history three thousand years / In fact ever since the world began.” This would include the Venus de Milo (here reimagined as a modern girl named Milo Venus) who, like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is “No more, but e’en a woman.” Why should it be any different for her than for the judge’s wife in the first verse who “called up the district attorney / She said you free that brown eyed man / If you want your job you better free that brown eyed man”? Never, it seems to me, has the universalizing tendency of classicism been more cogently expressed:

Milo Venus was a beautiful lass
She had the world in the palm of her hand
She lost both her arms in a wrasslin’ match
To get a brown eyed handsome man
She fought and won herself a brown eyed handsome man.

Robert Christgau, in Grown Up All Wrong, wrote that Chuck Berry “was one of the ones to make us understand that the greatest thing about art is the way it happens among people.” Berry himself makes no such claims. He really seems to believe that compared to a transcendent “artist” like Joan Crawford, who “will go down in the history books of even Russia, China, and Arabia,” he is a mere satellite, “circl[ing] a few years in the foreign magazines and then fad[ing] away in the next conventional war.” Far from being a “star,” he merely has a job to do and a check to pick up. Although Berry’s underestimation of his own talent seems incomprehensible, it did save him (and us) from the windy grandiloquence of songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Anyway, it’s a refreshing twist – the rock auteur who, for once, doesn’t think he’s a genius.

For people of my parents’ generation, rock songwriting seemed a paltry thing, and they certainly would have believed that Chuck Berry lacked anything like the sophistication of Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter. That may be. But I didn’t grow up with Broadway musicals, I grew up with rock and roll, and it is to that happily debased art form that I owe my first exposure to poetry. Before rock and pop lyrics in the late sixties and early seventies turned to the outer reaches of narcissism (gloriously exemplified by Joni Mitchell and John Lennon, among others), they tended to follow in the more impersonal and commercial lines laid down by Berry and that he too was following from lines laid down by Nat King Cole, Louis Jordan, and others. I will concede that, lyrically, Brian Wilson was no match for Lorenz Hart, but the Beach Boys got to me first, and when I was ten years old the perfect couplets of “I Get Around” conjured up a world as glamorously ritualized and unreal as the Arthurian romances, which I read avidly in those days but found a tad pale by comparison:
I’m getting’ bugged driving up and down this same old strip
I gotta find a new place where the kids are hip
My buddies and me are getting real well known
Yeah the bad guys know us and they leave us alone.

It was like first looking into Chapman’s Homer. Language (and not just Wilson’s superb compositions and the band’s gorgeous harmonies) had revealed to me a world more beautiful and desirable than the one I lived in, even if I dimly perceived that no such world could possibly exist. (It sure didn’t exist for Brian Wilson and his brothers, whose hellish upbringing in what looked like a picture perfect California household went unmentioned in their songs.) Not every song, not even every Beach Boy song, held such wonders. Even then a catchy chorus and flashy guitar break served to deflect attention from the nullity of the lyrics. Anyway, if the song was as great as “Be My Baby” or “Louie Louie,” who could complain? Yet as an unprecocious child I had heard enough real poetry in the songs of the Beach Boys and Smokey Robinson and Chuck Berry (usually in cover versions by later bands) to know that words could be more than functional. When, a few years later, pop musicians were suddenly writing lines like “Half of what I say is meaningless / But I say it just to reach you, Julia,” I was ready. If this more inward approach sacrificed some of the charm and playfulness of the Chuck Berry/Beach Boys/Smokey Robinson manner, it offered instead audacious explorations of the self and the permutations of consciousness. I’d call that a pretty fair trade-off.

So I owe a lot to rock and roll lyricists. I wouldn’t necessarily say no John Milton without Chuck Berry, but in my case the great songwriters like Berry helped me do some of the necessary prep work. They helped me to love language. And if there were more sophisticated lyricists before Berry, there have been more sophisticated lyricists since Berry. By now the proposition that certain rock and pop songwriters have achieved depths of feeling comparable to the best poetry isn’t even controversial. Ray Davies, Shane MacGowan, Randy Newman, Lucinda Williams, Tom Waits, Warren Zevon, Morrissey, and many others – some working in a more confessional, others in a more impersonal tradition, and others making any such distinction ultimately meaningless – have all written songs that do what all good poetry does: moves, enlightens, disturbs, delights. Yet it all had to start somewhere, and in rock and roll, much of the greatest lyric writing started with Chuck Berry. (As for the basic musical D.N.A. of rock and roll, Berry pretty much created that too.) He could have said, as many rockers would have, knowing that the music would do most of the work, “Let’s go for a ride in my car, baby.” He didn’t. He said, “Climb into my machine so we can cruise on out.”

The Poetry of Mental Unhealth: Philip Larkin

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To my knowledge, the last poet to have made the bestseller list — in England, anyway — is Philip Larkin, whose Collected Poems spent several months in 1988 battling it out with Robert Ludlum’s The Icarus Agenda. That’s a remarkable achievement for a poet whose constitutional cheerlessness would not seem designed for popular success, but maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised. British readers in 1988 apparently found in Larkin what most readers would delight to find anywhere: a compulsively readable meditation on the common life rendered in language formally rigorous yet wholly accessible. Larkin’s poetry, wrote Clive James in As of This Writing, “gets to everyone capable of being got to.” In composing superb lyrics for ordinary readers, Larkin in some ways faced a more daunting challenge than some of his modernist forbears, who, writing for a coterie, could occasionally allow the large or small passage of complete gibberish to pass through the net. After three slender volumes of mature verse, Larkin essentially gave up the job forever in his middle 50s. Unlike more typically gargantuan Collecteds, his is an inviting and readerly 200 pages.

Or was. The newly issued Complete Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), edited by Archie Burnett, weighs in at 729 pages. Is Larkin well served by exhaustive annotations and the preservation of every scrap of juvenilia and disjecta? Such is the unhappy fate of a major writer, even one as scrupulously self-editing as Larkin. Must we now read every word, the obligation that, according to T. S. Eliot, is the debt owed to every major writer? I like to think Eliot was just kidding; I haven’t read the collected works of anyone. The nearest I’ve come is Larkin, whose Collected Poems (the nice friendly early one, not the big daunting new one), two fine early novels (Jill and A Girl in Winter), one collection of critical essays (Required Writing), one collection of music criticism (All What Jazz), and the posthumous Selected Letters can be got through in a couple of months. Brevity — some might say parsimony — not only shaped his career; it inhered in his poetry. Aside from a few narratives and quasi-narratives, all of his poems are lyrics, most fitting comfortably on one page and some a mere quatrain or two of tetrameter or less. Brevity, however, is not the same as reticence. For all his Englishness, Larkin was, superficially at least, as “confessional” as any of his American contemporaries, though what he had to confess was rarely so lofty as the rarefied anguish of Lowell or Plath or Sexton. In “If, My Darling” he inventoried the contents of his mind, there to find:
                                           [a] creep of varying light,
Monkey-brown, fish-grey, a string of infected circles
Loitering like bullies, about to coagulate;

Delusions that shrink to the size of a woman’s glove,
Then sicken inclusively outwards.
Although the Larkin persona obviously resembled the man himself, he unashamedly distilled his worst qualities for literary effect. Neither “If, My Darling” nor any other poem tells you that Larkin ran a major research library at the University of Hull with uncommon perspicacity and professionalism for 30 years. Narrow, small-minded, and willful as his letters sometimes show him to be, Philip Larkin was hardly the monstrous collection of resentments and fears and lusts that the poem describes; or if he was, we all are, for the contrast “If, My Darling” makes between inner and outer, appearance and reality extends well beyond the individual case. It sickens inclusively outwards to us.

During the 1990s a great storm arose over the seamier revelations of Andrew Motion’s Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life and the even seamier revelations of Anthony Thwaite’s edition of Selected Letters.I found all that censoriousness much too pleased with itself. Larkin hoarded like the miser he was, collected mild bondage magazines, and occasionally used the “n” word — hardly laudable traits, but not exactly war crimes either. Persona or no persona, didn’t he make it clear in “If, My Darling” that he was no model of mental health? The argument seemed to be that if someone used the word “nigger” in his correspondence (which he did — half mocking his own bigotry, but only half), the poetry he wrote must reflect the same racist, rancid prejudices. But it doesn’t. Larkin, who was very far from confusing art with life, knew that his prejudices and pettinesses were inassimilable to his poetry. “Wogs,” “niggers,” and “bitches” belong to the lexicon of his prose, not to his verse, which does indeed sometimes express conservative social and political views. Yes, I too wish he had been a liberal, but I fail to be horrified by the nostalgia for duty (“Next year we are to bring the soldiers home / For lack of money”) expressed in “Homage to a Government,” which happens to be quite a good poem.

Readers have a perfect right to regard Philip Larkin, as I do not, as a complete shit. But if they consider his personal failings indistinguishable from his poetry, I think the loss is theirs. Did the celebrated author and distinguished university librarian really believe that “Books are a load of crap,” as the last line of “A Study of Reading Habits” has it? Unlikely, even if the Larkin-like speaker of that poem gives vent to feelings of bibliographic disillusion and disgust that even the most enraptured bibliophile will secretly have experienced. As it happens, the sorts of books the poem describes (“the dude / Who lets the girl down before / The hero arrives, the chap / Who’s yellow and keeps the store”) are a load of crap; they certainly have damaged the speaker, who, unlike the poet, made the fatal mistake of confusing art with life. Any poet/librarian can gush about the wonder of reading; it takes a special kind to deplore it.

Philip Larkin is so hated in some quarters that it may be necessary to point out that the pulp fiction fantasies of “A Study of Reading Habits” (“Me and my cloak and fangs / Had ripping times in the dark. / The women I clubbed with sex! / I broke them up like meringues”) are not intended as models of social interaction. Larkin neither broke up women like meringues nor recommended doing so. Nevertheless, it would be hard to mistake the bitter irony of the title. This study of a severely damaged psyche does not hide its meanings in layers of symbol and allusion. None of Larkin’s poems do. Rather shockingly, they mean pretty much what they say. “There’s not much to say about my work,” he told the Paris Review. “When you’ve read a poem, that’s it, it all quite clear what it means.” I’ve read many fine essays about him but no book-length critical study. What would be the point? An ordinary reader with a modicum of experience in poetry and its forms is as likely to appreciate Larkin as any scholar or poet. Aside from the rare hermetic specimen like “Dry-Point” or “Myxomatosis,” every Larkin poem is eminently paraphrasable. This one is about the tedium of working for a living, that one is about visiting provincial churches, another one is about listening to jazz, and they are all, to invoke the similarly tarnished Matthew Arnold, a criticism of life. How is it that verse that can be reduced to paraphrase and that offers restricted scope for interpretation can be so affecting? Maybe it’s because the poems still allow for mystery, uncertainty, doubt. In “Days” Larkin asked the unrhetorical questions “What are days for?” and “Where can we live but days?” and proposed an unrhetorical answer:
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
Larkin’s poetry may be unfashionably paraphrasable, but it rarely takes positions or declines into the merely personal; that’s what his letters were for. (“The Slade [art school] is a cunty place, full of 17-year-old cunts,” for example, or, thrillingly, this bit of railway intrigue: “I had a hellish journey back, on a filthy train, next to a young couple with a slobbering chocolatey baby — apart from a few splashes of milk, nothing happened to me, but the strain of feeling it might was a great one.”) How a dour, penny-pinching, provincial fussbudget created poetry of such delicacy and grace might in the end have something to do with the person in the persona. Could it be that Philip Larkin wasn’t such a horror after all? I leave that question unanswered. However, the sympathy he extended to ordinary suffering mortals is no less characteristic of his work than the mordant wit and atrocious honesty for which it is equally reputed.

The temptation with any Larkin poem is simply to quote it. What can be said about the overwhelming pathos of “Deceptions,” a depiction of the rape and abandonment of an impoverished girl in Victorian England, that isn’t already in the poem? Oh, I’ll think of something. In fact, I will stoutly rise to Larkin’s defense, because the tact with which he treats the subject has sometimes been mistaken for callousness. It’s true that “Deceptions” lacks all declamation or handwringing; therefore Larkin must be on the side of the rapist, mustn’t he? But after all, Larkin is merely writing about rape and abandonment. Unlike the girl whose testimony serves as the poem’s epigraph (“I was inconsolable, and cried like a child to be killed or sent back to my aunt”), he’s not actually suffering these things. These are rather different orders of experience, as he acknowledges in the lines, “I would not dare / Console you if I could.” He had the luxury to reflect in rhymed pentameter on the girl’s violation. She didn’t:
Even so distant, I can taste the grief,
Bitter and sharp with stalks, he made you gulp.
The sun’s occasional print, the brisk brief
Worry of wheels along the street outside
Where bridal London bows the other way,
And light, unanswerable and tall and wide,
Forbids the scar to heal, and drives
Shame out of hiding. All the unhurried day
Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.
And if she was, as the second stanza maintains, “the less deceived,” this hardly excuses her persecutor. The victimizer was more deceived than the victimized because, being male, older, and of a higher social standing, he could afford to be. The poor start out undeceived, and stay that way. Unless you think that the act of writing enacts the crime symbolically, the cruelty and coldness here belong to the rapist, not to the poet. Put it another way: If you read this heartbreaking, miraculous poem — a Dickens novel in 17 lines– and find in it nothing but confirmation of Larkin’s bad faith and misogyny, maybe the problem is you.

Paraphrasable but irreducible, Larkin’s work remains poetry, not argument. What possible ideology can be inferred from “Water” other than a nostalgia for transcendence? Typically for Larkin, such transcendence as can be imagined is to be found not in some exotic tarn or “crouched in the fo’c’scle” of a freighter rounding the Horn but in a glass of water:
If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.
As often as not in Larkin, such moments of nearly visionary consciousness are as likely to be negative as positive, but his work is in fact full of intensely lyrical apprehensions that belie his reputation as a crusty conservative with no patience for the inexplicable or the numinous. The man who revered Margaret Thatcher, wrote weekly letters to his nagging mother, and vacationed in provincial British resorts like Sark, Malvern, and Chichester, had more poetry in his soul — perhaps that was his problem — than he knew what to do with.

To return to the question of how Larkin’s poetry can be so affecting, I repeat that I have no clear answer except to say that his remarkable technique clearly has something to do with it. Like Thomas Hardy (his principal influence) or, for that matter, Shakespeare, he uses established poetic conventions as beautiful in themselves and as the most efficient means of carrying content. I like a little showing off, but Larkin’s most brilliant effects are deployed so subtly as to be undetected until the third or fourth or 20th reading. The concealed intricacy of his rhyme schemes and enjambments allows for a seemingly straightforward, conversational style; it sounds as if a man of unusual fluency is simply talking to you. For instance, the three stanzas of “Faith Healing” (“Slowly the women file to where he stands / Upright in rimless glasses, silver hair”) rhyme ABCABDABCD — often enough, that is, to knit the poem together, but at such spatial and temporal distance as to avoid any sing-song predictability and to afford pleasures both conscious (if you notice the pattern) and subliminal (if you don’t). And that’s an easy one. Sometimes the rhymes are consonantal (park/work, noises/nurses in “Toads Revisited”), sometimes they’re whole words (home/home, country/country, money/money in “Homage to a Government”), and sometimes I know they’re there but I can’t quite determine where (passim). Nor is this to speak of the variety of stanzaic and metrical variation, the enjambments, the half lines, and the metaphors so powerful that they lodged even within a mind so unpoetic as Margaret Thatcher’s. (When they met in 1980 the Iron Lady favored him with a misquotation of the lines, “All the unhurried day / Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives” from “Deceptions.” “I . . . thought she might think a mind full of knives rather along her own lines, not that I don’t kiss the ground she treads,” he noted to a correspondent.)

Even readers hostile to Larkin will generally acknowledge his extraordinary craftsmanship. What ultimately matters, of course, is not this or that bit of adroit versification but the intellectual and emotive truth of his work. Even here, alas, we’re not quite in the clear, because Larkin’s pessimism is sometimes hard to distinguish from morbidity. I believe that his work is fundamentally humanistic and humane, but a poet capable of lines like “Life is first boredom, then fear” (“Dockery and Son”) and “Man hands on misery to man” (“This Be the Verse”) was not out to provide easy consolations.

No work of Larkin’s is more “challenging” — that is, more apparently inhumane — than “Aubade,” a sort of “Anti-Intimations Ode” and certainly his last great poem. Its theme, to put it more bluntly than the poem does, is that the horror of death renders life meaningless. (In a nice bit of Larkinesque irony, “Aubade” appeared in The Times Literary Supplement two days before Christmas in 1977.) It would be difficult to overstate the bleakness of this poem, starting with its savagely ironic title. The poem is, literally, an aubade — a song of dawn — but whereas most aubades herald the coming of light and life, Larkin’s proclaims the immanence of “Unresting death, a whole day nearer now, / Making all thought impossible but how / And where and when I shall myself die.” The speaker — oh, what the hell, let’s just call him Larkin — has awoken at 4 a.m. and waits out the dawn in existential terror. Till then the darkness will serve quite nicely as a metaphor for “the total emptiness forever, / The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always.”

Well, Larkin certainly had the courage of his convictions. No stoicism or detachment softens the harshness of “Aubade.” The subject announced in the first stanza — “the dread / Of dying, and being dead” — is carried with remorseless consistency to its remorseless conclusion four long stanzas later. I might as well admit that I’m determined to find whatever shred of humanism I can in this pitiless poem, but others have given it up as a bad job. No less an authority than Czeslaw Milosz called it “a desperate poem about the lack of any reason — about the complete absurdity of human life — and of our moving, all of us, toward an absurd acceptance of death” (Czeslaw Milosz: Conversations, University Press of Mississippi, 2006). It’s not that Milosz objected to Larkin’s thematics, and he greatly admired his “wonderful craftsman[ship].” What he found “hateful” about “Aubade” was its passivity, its “attitude of complete submission to the absurdity of human existence.” With this attitude, he went on to say, “Poetry cannot agree…Poetry is directed against that.”

The first and perhaps feeblest answer to Milosz’s objections is to point to the sheer beauty of the poem, its equipoise and fluency. Any formal structure won out of the materials of horror and death represents some affirmation of the will, does it not? Larkin might simply have got “half-drunk,” lost the battle to insomnia, and succumbed to despair, as he no doubt did on many a night and as a few million people are probably doing at this very moment. But he also ordered his thoughts about that experience, conjoining the intimate and the cosmic in five 10-line stanzas rhymed ABABCCDEED, with a penultimate half line setting off the devastating apercus of the concluding pentameter line. And he makes it look easy. Seamus Heaney, who shared some of Milosz’s doubts about the ultimate value of “Aubade,” nonetheless found a moral significance in its artistry. “When a poem rhymes, when a form generates itself, when a metre provokes consciousness into new postures, it is already on the side of life” he wrote in Finders Keepers. “When a rhyme surprises and extends the fixed relations between words, that in itself protests against necessity…In this fundamentally artistic way, then, ‘Aubade’ does not go over to the side of the adversary.”

Nevertheless, Heaney believed that in every other way “Aubade” does go over to the side of the adversary. I maintain, on the contrary, that this doom-ridden dirge is on our side. You may disagree, and if you do, you should never read “Aubade” again. A book or a poem may chasten or challenge or disturb or disillusion, but if it just makes you feel lousy, you are well advised to toss it out the window. In the end, “Aubade” doesn’t make me feel lousy, though God knows it’s not a poem I can read casually or without a certain tautening of the nerves. In the first place, why would Larkin, who repeatedly and strenuously objected to what he considered the inhuman alienations of modernist art, inflict punishment on his readers? This was a man who adored Beatrix Potter’s fables for children and believed, as he wrote in “The Mower,” “We should be careful / Of each other, we should be kind / While there is still time.” Still, the gentle, nostalgic Philip was quite at home with the scabrous, vindictive one, and there’s no reason that the latter couldn’t have written “Aubade,” as the less forgiving, bitterer man wrote “The Old Fools,” “The Card Players,” and some other characteristically intransigent pieces. “Aubade” is a long way from Beatrix Potter, but its ferocity is conditioned by an almost shocking — in the context — mildness of tone. The poem is not fundamentally about “remorse — / The good not done, the love not given,” but it includes those things, and if despair is inherently solipsistic, that too is conditioned by a recognition of a very special horror: at death there is “Nothing to love or link with.” It’s in the final stanza, however, that Larkin opposed, albeit gingerly, a rather surprising counterforce — life:
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
Life, be not proud. It and we are going to lose this battle — forever — but on the way to defeat, people love and link, work gets done, responsibilities are met. It’s a sunless day to be sure; how much cheer can you reasonably expect from Philip Larkin? But ringing telephones, regular mail delivery, and relatively engaging office work were no small matters to him. The assertion of continuity that they represent gets the last word. One way to regard this tenuous and temporary victory for the human is as a hollow joke; another way is to regard it as a tenuous and temporary victory.

In a similar vein, many readers find the last stanza of “High Windows” blankly nihilistic. Here, I think I can be more assertive: they’re wrong. It’s as if the poem argues against itself, the first four quatrains rationally putting the case for the absurdity of our delusions, and the last quatrain triumphantly ignoring those very same arguments:
                                                         And immediately

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
There’s much to be said for nothing and nowhere and endlessness. What strikes some readers as an ice-cold vision of the Void strikes me as a nearly Zen-like apprehension of emptiness in fullness and fullness in emptiness, rather like Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man,” but without all the difficulty.

O.K., so maybe some of Larkin’s poems give in a little too easily to his predisposition to desolation. Martin Amis, who as a boy received grudging “tips” from his parents’ frequent and melancholy houseguest, wrote in The War against Cliché, “For his generation, you were what you were, and that was that. It made you unswervable and adamantine.” Although I want and maybe need to believe that Larkin’s dauntless pessimism represents a valid and responsible ethics, I don’t really care if his views are unbalanced, unhealthy, unsound, and unheroic. He turned them into something human, something I can use. I happen to believe that the light that seeps into the last stanza of “Aubade” redeems the poem for its mortal readers, but no such redemption touches the earlier and starker “Next, Please.” This is a poem that insists with an almost perverse satisfaction on the absoluteness of death and the folly of our pathetic fantasies. I ought to be appalled. That I admire, even love these lines is partly an effect of Larkin’s usual mastery — in this case the way the poem builds to the apocalyptic from the banal, using the controlling metaphor of an approaching ship of death, like some nightmare out of Bram Stoker’s Dracula:
Right to the last

We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.
I could say that qualities of courage, honesty, and resolution inhere in “Next, Please,” but so do some other qualities — fatalism, perverseness, and morbidity, for example. Yet against these less ennobling qualities is a human sympathy that more than anything explains Larkin’s hold on his audience. To begin with, “Next, Please” is utterly accessible to the common reader. Nothing could be less esoteric than its form (couplets in quatrains) and nothing more straightforward than its argument — that we necessarily delude ourselves again and again until, finally, there’s no more life left to delude. The operative word is “we.” The poet clings to the same illusions that his readers do. After the poem is written and read, all of us will go back to the same “bad habits of expectancy / …Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear, / Sparkling armada of promises draw near.” I would like not to face death or even life the way Philip Larkin does in “Next, Please,” and I think I more or less succeed in doing so. But while I wait to achieve a heroic control over my fate that is never going to happen, I turn to Larkin’s poetry for companionship in my loneliness.

Dream a Little Dream of Me: John Berryman

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If poetry is going to be tortured, agonized, and morbidly introspective, it might as well be funny too. John Berryman’s The Dream Songs are all that and more. Half elegiac lyricism and half lowdown buffoonery, they’re like nothing else in American literature, though they owe a debt to Saul Bellow’s breakthrough mixture of high and low in The Adventures of Auggie March. (The two men shared an office at the University of Minnesota in the 1950s. Can you imagine being an undergraduate there and making a routine appointment to discuss your C+ with Mr. Bellow or Mr. Berryman?) Although I can’t claim to understand The Dream Songs fully, I’m not required to. No one said it better than Berryman himself: “These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand./They are only meant to terrify & comfort.” Reading all 385 of them at a stretch (not recommended), I sometimes find myself bored as well as baffled. This too is allowed:

Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles.

Perhaps the first thing to be said about The Dream Songs is that there are too many of them. By my reckoning (every reader’s will differ), fewer than half are truly first-rate or even intelligible, yet the good ones wouldn’t be so good if not set off by the messiness and prolixity of the others — and even the good ones are pretty messy too. It took Berryman years to break through to the mess that allowed life in. He served his apprenticeship under the ideal of formal severity and impersonality bequeathed by the gods of modernism. Not that he ever surrendered the modernist ideal of difficulty. Them Dream Songs isn’t easy, pal. But although their elisions and allusions seem to invite the sort of interpretive ingenuity that used to make academic careers, they succeed best when speaking more or less clearly about the elemental things: love, lust, friendship, death, despair, memory, and John Berryman.

John Berryman isn’t exactly a veiled presence in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1953), the major work that preceded The Dream Songs, but that strange narrative poem of 57 stanzas does give us something rarely encountered in his work thereafter: other consciousnesses. It’s true that friends, lovers, wives, children, students, rivals, doctors, nurses, mothers, and murderers populate The Dream Songs, but their appearances are always and openly grist for “Henry’s” — that is, Berryman’s — mill, objects in his psychic landscape. It’s also true that the Anne Bradstreet he brings into being is as much Berryman’s alter-ego or freely imaged object of desire as the actual Puritan poet who married at 16, crossed the Atlantic in 1630, bore eight children, wrote some of the earliest verse in America, and died at the age of 60 in 1672. Nevertheless, he was too much a scholar not to give a convincing sense of Puritan culture and the people who inhabited it. No scholar alone, however, would have dared to create an interior life for his protagonist the way that Berryman does. It’s hard to imagine the Harvard historian Perry Miller, for example, whose studies of Puritan thought and culture Berryman drew on heavily, trying to get inside the head of a woman in labor, as Berryman does in the stanzas describing the birth of Anne’s first child. (Another part of his research consisted of asking extremely intimate questions of mothers that he knew, including his own.) Magnificent in itself, this celebrated sequence is also a useful corrective to those who believe that the adulterous, alcoholic, sexist, self-involved male poet couldn’t write about anything but his own consciousness:

Monster you are killing me Be sure
I’ll have you later Women do endure
I can can no longer
and it passes the wretched trap whelming and I am me

drencht & powerful, I did it with my body!
One proud tug greens Heaven. Marvellous,
unforbidding Majesty.
Swell, imperious bells. I fly.

Nevertheless, the adulterous, alcoholic, sexist, self-involved male poet did write primarily about his own consciousness, and in The Dream Songs, to return to his signature work, he did so over the course of about 400 pages and 7,000 lines. The question almost asks itself: Why should any of us struggle with 400 pages of fractured, nonlinear verse describing one mid-20th-century white academic’s private torments, not excluding details of a hemorrhage in his left ear and much grousing about the weather? Well, if you think The Dream Songs are excessively self-involved, try Love & Fame (1971), which goes on and on and on about insanely trivial matters, as if daring the reader to find the poetry in this mass of congealed autobiography. It’s there if you look hard enough, but some of the verse is so hilariously awful it must be intentional, as in this reminiscence about Berryman’s college years:

I must further explain: I needed a B,
I didn’t need an A, as in my other six courses,

but the extra credits accruing from those A’s
would fail to accrue if I’d any mark under B.
The bastard knew this,
as indeed my predicament was well known

through both my major Departments.

Unlike The Dream Songs, Love & Fame is meant all too clearly to be understood. It’s so lucid, in fact — a scrupulously detailed bildungsroman in verse — that most of the poetry gets lost in the glare. No one ever accused The Dream Songs of being too lucid. At their frequent worst, they are so clotted with private reference as to be impenetrable. Any poem that requires an annotation like the following (from John Berryman: A Critical Commentary by John Haffenden) plainly doesn’t give a damn whether it’s penetrable or not:

The ‘Little Baby’ is Berryman’s daughter Martha; Diana, the daughter of Kate Berryman’s friend, Eugenia Foster. ‘The Beast’ is the nickname given to the boy who lived next door to them in Lansdowne Park, Ballsbridge, Dublin. ‘Mir’ is the family name for Berryman’s mother.

Furthermore — to get the bad stuff out of the way — even if Songs were consistently successful, they would still suffer from the defect of most uniform poetic sequences: too much of a good thing. If Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets begin ever so slightly to pall, Berryman’s 385 sonnet-like Songs — 18 iambic lines divided into stanzas of six, six, and six, with varying rhymes and half lines, usually in the middle and end of each strophe — can hardly escape a similar but much heavier numbing effect. There is, of course, a fairly simple solution to this problem — don’t read them straight through. Although there are sequences within the sequence, the ordering has no organizational principle that holds for long. You could read them backwards and do almost as well.

Another difficulty is the minstrel dialect that Berryman mixes with the slang, jokes, baby talk, impossible grammar, and syntactic inversions. Readers of modern poetry are accustomed to such unstable compounds, but the appropriation of an idiom associated with racial oppression induces squirms, and is meant to. At least I hope it’s meant to. Sometimes I’m not so sure. I feel a little better knowing that Berryman’s friend Ralph Ellison had no problem with the blackface dialect and especially admired Song 68, which deals in part with the death of Bessie Smith. I guess I’ll always have some qualms, but would anyone really prefer The Dream Songs to be shorn of their outrages to decorum and taste? Don’t we read them partly because they’re so unlike what “great” poetry is supposed to be? The half-lunatic syntax serves many purposes — chiefly, the subversion of psychological defenses preventing access to primal guilts, fears, needs, and shames, or as Kafka might have said, the taking of an ax to the frozen sea within. The Songs are, after all, inspired by dreams, where we take our clothes off and don’t speak or think the King’s English, but Henry’s language is also extremely funny, an all-American music of boisterous vulgarity. Troubled and troubling as they are, The Dream Songs give back in delighted sound what they darkly ruminate on sense. The overall tenor of the book might be roughly stated as follows: Just because we’re buffoons, it doesn’t mean our lives aren’t tragic.

In the preface Berryman explains, somewhat misleadingly, that the poem “is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr Bones and variants thereof.” Although just enough distance exists between character and creator to allow for the writing of the book, few people believe Berryman’s disclaimer. Berryman is Henry, and Henry is, to a greater or — let us hope — lesser degree, us. More useful, I think, is Berryman’s statement to The Paris Review: “Henry to some extent was in the situation that we are all in in actual life — namely, he didn’t know and I didn’t know what the bloody fucking hell was going to happen next.” This barroom wisdom underwrites every line of the book. (“Parm me, lady,” drunken Henry says to his seatmate on an airplane in Song 5. “Orright” she replies.) I might add, before I look at a few Songs, that the principle of chaos and disorder to which this wisdom attests found spectacular expression in the poet’s everyday life. According to Bellow, Berryman “knocked himself out to be like everybody else,” but despite his efforts to be a responsible husband, father, citizen, and colleague, he failed in every respect. In Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman Paul Mariani describes a fairly typical night in the life of the poet when, drunk as usual and declining out of envious pique to attend a poetry reading at Berkeley, where we was then teaching:

Berryman came over to see Miriam [Ostroff, a faculty wife], chatted with her, read her some of his Dream Songs, and was soon boasting of his sexual prowess. In spite of her protests, he began chasing her around the room. When she told him to get out, he suddenly became contrite and downcast and promised to be good if only he could stay. After a short while, however, he started again, until he finally browbeat her into letting him spend “ten or fifteen minutes reverently caressing her feet, while reciting poetry.” Then, realizing that the house had windows and that someone might be watching, Berryman recovered himself, hailed a taxi, and went home.

Mariani’s biography is not edifying. Out of such squalor, however, Berryman created masterpieces like Dream Song 4, Henry’s appallingly believable version of “lust in action”:

Filling her compact & delicious body
with chicken paprika, she glanced at me
Fainting with interest, I hungered back
and only the fact of her husband & four other people
kept me from springing on her

or falling at her little feet and crying
‘You are the hottest one for years of night
Henry’s dazed eyes
have enjoyed, Brilliance.’ I advanced upon
(despairing) my spumoni. – Sir Bones: is stuffed,
de world, wif feeding girls.

— Black hair, complexion Latin, jeweled eyes
downcast . . .  The slob beside her     feasts . . . What wonders is
she sitting on, over there?
The restaurant buzzes. She might as well be on Mars.
Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.
— Mr. Bones: there is.

The self-disgust is palpable and — who can doubt it? — thoroughly earned. Why then is this poem so exceedingly funny? Perhaps because like the best of the Songs it manages to be so many things at once. There ought to be a law against Henry, but his raging sexuality doesn’t stop him from idealizing both the object of his desire and his desire itself. The funniest thing about the Song is that it exists — a gross parody of poetic adoration that is touched with the lyricism of jeweled eyes and an apostrophized “Brilliance.” Helen Vendler writes in The Given and the Made, “We become marginally convinced, by such a poem, that the troubadours were Henrys too, and that Berryman is merely uncovering the unsalubrious, but oddly solacing, layer of psychic squalor beneath high artistic convention.” Nicely put, but somehow it sounds funnier when Henry says it.

Among the adjectives Vendler applies to Henry are “regressive, petulant, hysterical, childish, cunning, hypersexual, boastful, frightened, shameless, and revengeful.” Also, “complaining, greedy, lustful, and polymorphously perverse.” Did we miss anything? How about self-pitying, irresponsible, envious, and grandiose? Vendler, who notes that Henry is simultaneously “imaginative, hilarious, mocking, and full of Joycean music,” is making an important point about the intrusion of the Freudian Id into the august precincts of lyric poetry. If Henry’s worse than we are, it’s only by a matter of degree. Why shouldn’t self-portraiture, in poetry as well as prose, allow for the base and ignoble as well as the socially approved? Maybe because I’ve written a few myself, I’ve never understood the knock on memoirs as pointless exercises in narcissism. Until we all live lives of wholly integrated personhood, there will be much to learn from the microscopic examinations of the self performed by Mary Karr or Tobias Wolff or Henry Adams or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Because The Dream Songs derive so much from the model of self-examination provided by psychotherapy (and from Berryman’s long hours in group and private sessions), they’re more uncensored than most such memoiristic exercises but are unique only in their peculiar combination of hilarity and despair.

I’ve mentioned self-pity as one of the characteristic modes of Henry and his Songs. Since this particular vice isn’t going away any time soon and is, in fact, more ubiquitous than the alcoholism and lust for fame that the Songs also relate at inordinate length, I consider it wholly to Berryman’s credit that he presents Henry, in the midst of all his tribulations, feeling genuinely and unrepentantly sorry for himself. Instances aren’t hard to find: “Henry hates the world. What the world to Henry/did will not bear thought” (DS 74); “This world is gradually becoming a place/where I do not care to be any more” (DS 149); “The only happy people in the world/are those who do not have    to write long poems” (DS 354); “Mr Bones,/stop that damn dismal” (DS 98). Mr Bones never did stop that damn dismal. Berryman, who regularly assigned Miguel de Unamuno to his students, must have learned something from the Spaniard’s metaphysics of pity. In the Tragic Sense of Life, Unamuno writes, “Man yearns to be loved, or, what is the same thing, to be pitied. Man wishes others to feel and share his hardships and sorrows. The roadside beggar’s exhibition of his sores and gangrened mutilations is something more than a device to extort alms from the passer-by. True alms is pity rather than the pittance that alleviates the material hardships of life.” For Unamuno the next step in the progression is turning the pity for the self outwards, towards a universal compassion for all suffering beings. Berryman never got that far. He occupied the huge gray area where self-pity and genuine pathos blur their edges. Song 149, for instance, sounds outrageously petulant — because Henry’s friends have died, he hates the world. Yet this petulance frames an elegy for a man whose sufferings easily surpassed Henry’s (or Berryman’s), his great friend Delmore Schwartz. A sober, chastened acceptance of death is precisely what Berryman does not provide. Henry’s refusal or inability to come to terms with necessity makes the Song doubly true — true to the intractability of grief, and true to the memory (half solace, half torment) of a loved friend:

This world is gradually becoming a place
where I do not care to be any more. Can Delmore die?
I don’t suppose
in all them years a day went ever by
without a loving thought for him. Welladay.

I imagine you have heard the terrible news,
that Delmore Schwartz is dead, miserably & alone,
in New York: he sang me a song
‘I am the Brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz
Harms & the child I sing, two parents’ torts’
when he was young & gift-strong.

Berryman had a lot of grieving to do in The Dream Songs — for “Delmore,” “Randall” (Jarrell), “Richard” (Blackmur), “Louis” (MacNeice), and other friends, but mostly for himself. He too sang “Harms & the child”: his father’s suicide occurred when Berryman was 12. His unseemly bewailing of this primal wound is one of the glories of The Dream Songs. If you don’t feel sorry for yourself after a trauma like that, you’re probably damaged beyond redemption. I remember reading reviews of Flannery O’Connor’s posthumously published letters, The Habit of Being (1979), in which critic after critic marveled at her complete lack of self-pity in the face of rural isolation, degenerative illness, and overwhelming household cares. My response was more like Henry’s: What was wrong with this woman? On the other hand, who was I to judge this brave, unassuming, Roman Catholic stoic who virtually re-invented the American short story? Yet the feeling remains with me still — if Flannery O’Connor had ever permitted herself an occasional howl of self-pity, she might have extended a similar sympathy to the freaks, half-wits, criminals, con artists, and fanatics she depicted with such icy detachment. However brilliant, she was also, in my opinion, the coldest and cruelest of all major American writers. What Berryman says about Wallace Stevens is Song 219 is partly right; he just applies it to the wrong writer. Substitute “O’Connor” for “Stevens” and it makes perfect sense:

He mutter spiffy. He make wonder Henry’s
wits, though, with a odd

. . . something . . . something . . . not there in his flourishing art.

“Better than us; less wide” is Berryman’s final and misapplied verdict on Stevens. John Berryman was emphatically not better than us (though he’s speaking here as a poet to a poet), and there was nothing narrow or “less wide” about his emotional devastations. I’ve got my own Henry-like traumas to deal with. “Get over it,” people tell me. I can’t; that’s one of the reasons why I read poetry. Since all of us are damaged to one degree or another, I regard the shameless exhibitionism of The Dream Songs as not only essential to their success but a public service. But note: the Songs are art, not therapeutic transcripts. In 384, the penultimate Song, Berryman/Henry returns to the primal scene, his father’s suicide by shotgun. After all those years, after all those Songs, no resolution or catharsis is to be hoped for. There is only the consolation of expression through form:

The marker slants, flowerless, day’s almost done,
I stand above my father’s grave with rage,
often, often before
I’ve made this awful pilgrimage to one
who cannot visit me, who tore his page
out: I come back for more,

I spit upon this dreadful banker’s grave
who shot his heart out in a Florida dawn
O ho alas alas
When will indifference come, I moan & rave
I’d like to scrabble till I got right down
away down under the grass

and ax the casket open ha to see
just how he’s taking it, which he sought so hard
we’ll tear apart
the mouldering grave clothes ha then Henry
will heft the ax once more, his final card,
and fell it on the start.

It’s no accident that this poem of violent rage and hatred adheres with strictest discipline to a rhyme scheme of abc/abc and a metric of 5-5-3/5-5-3. The visionary power so overwhelms that the regularity passes almost unnoticed, but without the regularity controlling the passion, the Song wouldn’t be nearly so overwhelming. To offer any explication of a poem so primal in its address would almost seem an impertinence. The only analogue I can think of is the climax of Luis Buñuel’s Mexican B-movie version of Wuthering Heights — fabulously titled Abismos de Pasión — in which Heathcliff breaks into Cathy’s crypt with an ax and is shot while holding the decomposing corpse in his arms. Out of such subterranean currents of rage and despair are our ordinary lives made.

“When will indifference come?” If it had come, Berryman wouldn’t have needed to write the Songs and especially not 29, a nightmare of guilt and horror at the furthest extremity from indifference. I surely don’t understand this one fully, though it all feels sickeningly right, down to the unexplained “little cough” of the first stanza and the tantalizing/tormenting serenity of the Giotto-like figure that looms up in the second. That little cough may emanate from an imagined victim of Henry’s murderous fantasies. I myself am not bedeviled by recurring nightmares of committing violence against women, but I know how desolation and despair feel. Like this:

There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.

And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;

But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.

The third stanza presents a mind so disturbed as to risk foreclosing the possibility of any sympathetic response. For a moment it makes me think of all those pictures of naked little girls with penises by the “outsider” artist Henry Darger; if he hadn’t been drawing little girls, he might have been raping and murdering them. But there’s a reason Berryman called them “Dream Songs.” Their flashes of nightmarish, hallucinogenic imagery light up the darker recesses of the mind. John Berryman never hurt a fly (neither did Henry Darger), and The Dream Songs do what folk art cannot — they illuminate rather than exemplify pathologies of the soul. They’re also pretty good at illuminating ordinary experience. John Berryman lived in the world we live in, and when he wasn’t drunk or in detox or suicidal (or even when he was), he could describe the world and his place in it with grace and wit. After all this Sturm und Drang, I’d like to close with a lovely little poem (not a Dream Song) occasioned by the birth of his son Paul in 1957. Berryman of course turned out to be a negligent and mostly absent father to the boy, but he did leave him with “A Sympathy, A Welcome” — which excuses nothing. Whatever his feelings about his catastrophic father, I hope Paul Berryman had a happy life and that “loverhood” swung his soul like a broken bell.

Feel for your bad fall how could I fail,
poor Paul, who had it so good.
I can offer you only: this world like a knife.
Yet you’ll get to know your mother
and humourless as you do look you will laugh
and all the others
will NOT be fierce to you, and loverhood
will swing your soul like a broken bell
deep in a forsaken wood, poor Paul,
whose wild bad father loves you well.