Happy Birthday, Wilfred Owen

“My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”

Wilfred Owen (now known as one of the best “war poets” of World War I) was born on this day in 1893. He was killed in battle in 1918 just seven days before the Armistice. He was 25 years old.

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Owen was unpublished during his lifetime. Along with Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon, he is one of those rare poets who can express the horror of war not from an abstract point of view but from first-hand participation. (Yeats disagreed. He did not include Owen, or any of the WWI “war poets”, in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935. Yeats wrote that Owen’s poems were “unworthy of the poet’s corner of a country newspaper”.)

One of the most amazing things about these poems is the specific dates jotted on them, noting when they were written: September-October, 1917 / January 1918, etc. Those dates alone tell you everything. Mud. Trenches. Trenches since 1914. Horror. Horror horizontally horror from above. Those dates mean that Owen was crouching in a trench scribbling out these poems. There was nowhere else anyone was going at that point. Everyone saw the slaughter. Everyone experienced the unremitting terror. Owen was not unique. What made him unique was his ability to put it into words, words that still have reverb today. His main burst of creativity was from August 1917 to September 1918.

Owen wrote a poem criticizing Jessie Pope, a poet who wrote motivational patriotic poems urging young men to enlist. Owen’s poems are Romantic, full of grief at the waste. His sounds and rhythm are filled with his influences: Shakespeare, Shelley, the Bible, Keats. He wrote in older forms (one of the reasons why his poems feel so timeless). World War I was shattering, psychologically, in some ways more so than World War II, due to the newness of technologically advanced warfare, the newness of horror coming from the skies, and the intractability of those trenches. The shattering of the confidence of a generation was one of the driving forces of Modernism, as we know it, with poets like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens and Yeats struggling to find language that would be able to HANDLE the new universe. James Joyce and Marcel Proust. Owen was involved in the first “modern” war, but his poetic forms were archaic: those forms give his poems the sound of an elegy to a lost world.

Some of Owen’s earlier poems deal with having sexual urges towards other men; it’s hard to predict what would have happened to him should he have survived World War I.

He grew up in a small town in England near the Welsh border. He drifted a bit. His schooling was intermittent due to his family’s financial constraints. He considered becoming a priest, but had disturbing feelings about God’s inability to deal with human problems. He was a tutor for a while. When World War I broke out, he enlisted. In January, 1917, he was sent to the front. He found war glorious and exciting, similar to George Washington’s famous remark in a letter to his brother after his first experience with a battle in the French and Indian War: “I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound.”

Wilfred Owen wrote home to his parents from the front:

This morning I was hit! We were bombing and a fragment from somewhere hit my thumb knuckle. I coaxed out 1 drop of blood. Alas! No more!

The following June, he was moved to a hospital because he was suffering from shell-shock. (His heartwrenching poem “Mental Cases” is about shell-shock). He was transported back to England and then Edinburgh. It was in the hospital in Edinburgh that he met Siegfried Sassoon, and this was the event that would change his short life. Sassoon was a captain in the army as well as a well-known poet. Sassoon encouraged Owen.

Owen wrote to Sassoon in November 1917:

I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me.

Thus began Owen’s poetic output. He returned to the war in France in August 1918. He would be dead by November.

In 1920, Sassoon brought out a volume of all of Owen’s poems posthumously.

Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother on December 31, 1917:

I go out of this year a poet, my dear mother, as which I did not enter it. I am held peer by the Georgians; I am a poet’s poet. I am started. The tugs have left me; I feel the great swelling of the open sea taking my galleon.

Owen said, in regards to his war poems:

These elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.

It seems to me that his lack of interest in consoling his own generation is one of the reasons why his poems have lasted, are anthologized. They rise up out of their own time into the universal. They continue to stand as warnings.

Here are some of Wilfred Owen’s poems.

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,–
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Futility

Move him into the sun–
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds,–
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved– still warm,– too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
— O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

Mental Cases

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ tongues wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain, — but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hand palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

– These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.
Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a bloodsmear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh
– Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
– Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.

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Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig!

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My sister Jean and me, in Dublin, the night the fuse blew at the disco, and all the lights went out, and all of the disco patrons had to stand out on the street while Irish firemen and garda ran about in all their hot-ness.

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Siobhan, Jean, Me, in Dublin, same night. Here we are by the firetruck in the street, with our new best friend who had fallen in love with Jean about 10 minutes before, and was ready to beat people up on her behalf within 2 seconds of meeting her. And look at the random arms sticking up behind us. I have no idea who that is.

Now onto Elvis. Who never stepped foot in Ireland.

Or … did he??

I present to you an alternate-history story entitled: The Night Elvis Sang at the Theatre Royal in Dublin, by Éanna Brophy, a retired journalist from Dublin. I so thank Mr. Brophy for sending it to me to post on my site. I wish it were true! If it DID happen, you know that Elvis would indeed keep sending postcards throughout his life signed “Seamus”. Thank you, Mr. Brophy!

And, finally, for today, Elvis sings “Danny Boy”, a song he loved for years.

He eventually recorded the song for real in the Jungle Room in 1976 when things were not going well. The recorded version is slowed down, way down, and is beautiful (it’s a tough song to sing, daunting high notes launching out of nowhere) but I prefer the home recording of Elvis singing the song in 1959, while he was stationed in Germany.

His guitar playing is energetic and adorable, his voice is young, free, untrammeled, and passionate.

The song is important to me, and I feel so lucky that Elvis recorded it.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day. And don’t be a douchebag out there.

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Sláinte! Metallica “Whiskey in the Jar,” Dublin, 2006: “Hear Dublin Roar!”

An exhilarating performance of the unofficial Irish national anthem.

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The Night Elvis Sang at the Theatre Royal in Dublin


March 3, 1960, Prestwick Airport, Scotland. Elvis Presley signing autographs. The plane had stopped to refuel on its way back to the United States. This was the only time Elvis set foot on the British Isles.

Éanna Brophy, a retired journalist from Dublin, sent me the following piece he wrote, a “piece of whimsy” purported to be found in a copybook at a building site – in which we hear a tale of Elvis Presley actually performing in Dublin, while stationed overseas. It’s common knowledge that Elvis Presley never performed in Europe, but Brophy imagines a night when he … did.

Except for his time in the Army, Elvis never left the United States. Well, he played Canada once in 1957. But other than that, that was it. He always wanted to go tour Europe and Japan as a performer. It wasn’t meant to be.

Anyway, Brophy’s piece imagines a different scenario entirely and I am so pleased to share it here. It’s a bit of magic you’ve created, Mr. Brophy.

The Night Elvis Sang at the Theatre Royal in Dublin

The intriguing tale below was found in a builder’s skip outside an old house undergoing renovations in Dublin, Ireland. It was handwritten in pencil in a battered old school copybook. Can it possibly be true? Elvis Presley, we’re told, never performed in public outside of the American continent …

Or did he?

This is going to come as a shock to the wife. It’s something I haven’t been able to tell her in all the years we’ve been married. I hope she won’t be too cross with me. It will surprise a lot of other people too, but I suppose it’s all right to talk about it now that poor Jack – that’s the brother-in-law – has passed on to his reward. He always made me keep quiet about it. I had to swear not to tell anybody, because he was afraid it might call attention to himself even years and years after that peculiar night. The night I proposed to the wife – and Elvis Presley sang in the Theatre Royal.

Fit for a king the old Royal was; gone a long time now, like the King himself, sure God be good to him.

I always used to tell Jack no-one would believe it happened, but he never stopped worrying that the American army would come lookin’ for him for being a deserter. Which he wasn’t of course. He just kind-of forgot to go back.

Jack lived on the same road as me in Cabra West. A working class area they called it, although most of the people were unemployed. Either that or the kids’ da’s were gone to look for jobs in England. Jack was the same age as me, a bit of a harum-scarum me mother always called him. When he couldn’t get a regular job as a mechanic in Dublin he emigrated to America. He wasn’t long over there before he signed up with the army, and in next to no time didn’t he find himself being sent back across the Atlantic – to be stationed with the American Forces in Germany, lookin’ after their transport. And that’s how he met Elvis, who was after being sent there, too, by the army.

Elvis was very shy behind it all, Jack told me. He just wanted a quiet life most of the time, away from the mobs of fans that always followed him everywhere he went. He never got a minute’s peace from them. It was the same even in Germany. Whenever he got leave from the army, he couldn’t step outside the barracks for fear of being chased by a gang of frauleins wanting to tear his clothes off. Or to pull his hair, what little he had left after the army barbers giving him the bowl cut.

And that’s how he came to stay with Jack’s family in Cabra West. Twice, I think it was. Himself and Jack had army leave at the same time, and Jack invited him to come home with him, promising him that nobody would bother him in Ireland. Hardly anyone here would recognise him anyway, he told him, especially since he got all the hair chopped off. Once he’d gone into the army, he more or less vanished. There was no new pictures of him in magazines, and there was no television like nowadays. People still thought of Elvis with the long sideburns and the greasy hair-oil.

Elvis wasn’t sure at first about coming over. He didn’t even know exactly where Ireland was, but he decided he might as well chance it; anything was better than hanging around the barracks all day. Jack never told the family it was Elvis. His ma and da were old anyway – nearly fifty, God bless the mark! So as far as they were concerned he was just another one of Jack’s Yankee pals, not the first one he’d brought home. And with better manners than some of them, his ma said.

I was doing a strong line with Mary at the time. Jack’s little sister: that’s what he called her even though there was only a few years between them. She was, of all things, a Cliff Richard fan. I thought he was brutal (apart from being English), but she had pictures of Cliff all over her bedroom and wasn’t interested in Elvis at all. It was only years later that she came to appreciate him – when he was well past his best, I always said. So she hardly looked twice at this soldier with the crew cut that was sharing Jack’s bedroom.

I was the only one to recognise him. Even though he wore tinted glasses, I knew it was him, because I had every one of his records and I’d seen all his films. Some of them twice or three times, especially Jailhouse Rock. Jack tried at first to persuade me it wasn’t him. He said his name was Hank Something, but that just made me laugh, until he finally gave up and admitted it. But himself and Elvis made me swear on me mother’s grave to keep it secret, so I did. My mother was still alive at the time, but it still counted.

None of the neighbours recognised him either, even when him and Jack played a bit of soccer on the green near the houses. He would’ve made a good goalie for Bohemians, Jack always said.

Elvis always made sure not to wear his own fancy clothes when he went out. So there was no sign of his famous gold lamé suits! No, he’d borrow some of Jack’s clothes; they were roughly the same build, though of course poor ould Elvis got desperate fat later on. One or two of the mammies, mind you, asked Jack who’s the good-lookin’ young fella you have staying with you this time , but none of them would ever have imagined it was Elvis the Pelvis as he used to be called. So even though he’d been a bit nervous about coming to Dublin, he began to enjoy himself. Him and Jack used to go to the pictures in town, and they went to Dalymount and even Croke Park.

And then they went to the Theatre Royal and I went with them. It was still going strong in those days, and you got great value for your half a crown, because they had a stage show and the pictures as well. But we always got in for free because Mary was an usherette and got complimentary tickets. Even if she didn’t get them, she’d let us sneak in anyway. So there we were on the Friday night, me and Jack and Elvis, sitting in the good seats near the front, when the curtains went back for the variety show to start. But there was something wrong. The orchestra was up on stage all right, and the Royalette girls did one of their dances, but then the conductor, a man with a moustache called Jimmy Campbell, turned around and apologised that the show would have to be cut short that night because their vocalist – that’s what they called singers in them days – their vocalist, Mr Frankie Blowers, was indisposed.

Someone started booing, and fellas up in the gods were stamping their feet and shouting we want our money back. That was when Jack had the rush of blood to the head. Didn’t he stand up and roar, “Mr Campbell, Mr Campbell, I have someone here who can sing for you!” And with that, he starts to shove poor Elvis out into the aisle an up onto the stage. He was very embarrassed and mumbled something about not having his guitar. But the orchestra was just after getting its very first electric guitar a few weeks earlier, and someone put it into Elvis’s hands.

That was that; he couldn’t resist the urge, and started strumming it straight away, and even moving his hips a bit. A few girls down the back gave a scream, but Jimmy Campbell said “Hold on a minute, I have to introduce you. What’s your name?” And while Elvis was still mumbling, Jack shouted “Seamus Murphy”.

That’s how he was introduced to the audience, and then he was off and you couldn’t stop him. He sang “Hound Dog”, and “Don’t Be Cruel” and a whole lot of his other songs. When he did “Jailhouse Rock” it nearly brought the house down, but then Mr Campbell had to call a halt because the film had to start on time. I forget what they showed that night; it might have been The Magnificent Seven. All I can remember is the buzz of excitement after he sang. People were still whispering long after the film started and other people were telling them to “shush”.

But when Elvis got back to his seat he was ragin’ with Jack for shoving him up on the stage like that. He was very worried that the Colonel would get to hear about it. Not an army colonel, mind you, but his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Poor Elvis was afraid he’d probably accuse him of breach of contract or something. Anyway, he borrowed Jack’s woolly hat as a disguise when they were leaving the Royal, but it was lashing rain outside, so if anyone had been still wondering who the singer was, they didn’t hang around getting soaked trying to find out.

Elvis went back to Germany the very next day, a bit sudden, and never came back to Cabra. I think he probably met Priscilla then, so that was that.

Jack didn’t exactly desert from the American army. It was peacetime anyway, so when he met a nice-looking “mot” here in Dublin, he decided to stay here, and he figured sure the Yanks wouldn’t miss him all that much. But it meant that he could never go to America. Even years later, he was still afraid to chance it, although he regularly got cards in the post, inviting him to Las Vegas, or even to visit Graceland. They were always signed Seamus Murphy.

But I nearly forgot to tell you the other important thing about that night. That was when I proposed to Mary, and we got married eight weeks later. But she’s going to be embarrassed now when I tell her who the singer really was. Maybe I won’t tell her at all. I had the ring in my pocket, and after Elvis and Jack left I waited in the foyer to surprise her with it when she came off duty. Although it wasn’t really a surprise: sure she was after giving me a few broad hints that we’d been doing a line for over a year, and stopping and looking at the rings every time we passed McDowells the jewellers in O’Connell Street.

The hints had got very strong lately. In fact she’d nearly started cryin’ a few nights earlier when I said we should maybe wait until we could afford a house of our own. We nearly had a fight about it, but I gave in of course, and next day I sneaked out and bought the ring without telling her. I’d decided to bring her over to the Red Bank restaurant, across the road from the Royal – a very posh place I couldn’t really afford – and ask her to marry me. Which I did, and she said yes straight away. But janey mack, she’ll be raging now when I tell her the truth about Elvis in the Royal, and remind her of what she said. Because before I took out the ring, I asked her what she thought of Jack’s pal’s performance. And do you know what she said? “Brutal!”

I had to bite me tongue. But I married her anyway! And in spite of our musical differences we’ve had a good marriage compared to what you see these days. Sure I don’t know why they bother getting married at all, the way they jump into bed with each other!

Our own kids are all grown up and married now. Two boys and two girls. Good singers, too, by the way – except the first lad, who was born premature seven months after we got married. The funny thing is, I often thought he had a look of Elvis about him.

But he can’t sing a note!

Éanna Brophy
2008

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Happy Birthday, Rudolf Nureyev

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Joan Acocella, dance critic for The New Yorker:

Almost everyone who describes Nureyev eventually compares him to an animal. They bore you to death with this, but it was true.


Rudolf Nureyev’s solo debut on American TV, 1963

All quotes below come from Nureyev, by Julie Kavanagh, a wonderful biography.

But first: Here was MY introduction to Nureyev.

Excerpt from Kavanagh’s book:

We have to remember what Rudolf looked like back then on a staid British stage,” says writer and photographer Keith Money: “The bare midriff and all that glitzy Soviet campery were to some the absolute height of bad taste.” Most people, however, were transported by the sight of this exquisite youth yearning up toward Margot as the curtain fell, his fingers splayed, his back arched and pelvis thrust forward – “like a great Moslem whore”. And it was not only his passion and animality that were so stirring, but the speculation their union prompted about the ballerina’s own sexual depths. It made Verdy think of the King Kong legend – a “scene of seduction and cruelty … like the whole thing really was a bedroom … and you were watching through the keyhole.”

On Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn

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“They seemed aware of each other even when their backs were turned. When their eye met, a message was passed.” — Alexander Bland

“To see Fonteyn was one thing. To see Nureyev was another thing. But to see Fonteyn and Nureyev together, on the same stage, with their particular love and assurance, was almost indescribably special.” — NY Times, 1979

“Combine the smolder, the mystery, the dynamic presence, the great streaks of vivid movement which Nureyev gives us with the beauty, the radiance, the womanliness, the queenliness and the shining movements of Dame Margot…” — Walter Terry, ballet critic

“You couldn’t believe they both hadn’t sprung from the same school.” — Ninette de Valois, director of Royal Ballet

“… two ends meeting together and making a whole.” — Ninette de Valois

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Nureyev and Fonteyn

“My husband called [the partnership] a celestial accident. To probe into its componenets is like trying to analyze a moonbeam.” — Maude Gosling, (ballerina wife of writer Nigel Gosling – good friends of Nureyev – and the two wrote a dance column together, under a joint pseudonym, Alexander Bland, see first quote above)

“Emotionally, technically, physically – in every way. They were just meant to meet on this earth and dance together.” — Ninette de Valois


Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, “Romeo and Juliet,” 1966

“I’ve found the perfect partner.” — Margot Fonteyn

“We become one body. One soul. We moved in one way. It was very complementary, every arm movement, every head movement. There were no more cultural gaps; age difference; we’ve been absorbed in characterization. We became the part. And public was enthralled.” — Rudolf Nureyev

“In many ways they were very bad for each other. Margot had always been so serious and professional, but she changed entirely when Rudolf was around. They were never on time, and we’d sit in the bus waiting to go to rehearsal until finally they would roll up giggling and joking like a couple of children.” — Annette Page, a Royal Ballet principal

“I never saw her so liberated. The confidence it gave her was incredible. It was a development of somebody who suddenly had about ten years taken off her.” — Ninette de Valois on the 1962 production of Le Corsaire (their debut)

“He brought her to a higher pitch of approach. He came at a period when she had lost Michael [Somes – Fonteyn’s dance partner for 14 years] and it was all rather run of the mill. Suddenly this enormous impulse came, and she just responded to him.” — Frederick Ashton

“Had I been younger, I would have found it extremely difficult to accommodate Rudolf’s very fixed ideas and his, shall we say, outspoken way of expressing them. Quite simply, we were so far apart that we could come together.” — Margot Fonteyn

“He was transfigured when he danced. I’d never seen such unearthly beauty. He seemed unreal; not of this world – like an archangel.” — Ballet fan on Nureyev

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Tonight: The Core Club: Screening of Something Wild (1961)

I’m honored to moderate a QA session tonight at the Core Club with director Jack Garfein after a screening of his long-forgotten (but not anymore) masterpiece Something Wild, starring Carroll Baker and Ralph Meeker (with Mildred Dunnock in a small but important role). The Criterion Collection released Something Wild in January – a long over-due release – with wonderful special features, including the booklet essay by yours truly (now online). If you haven’t seen the film yet, what are you waiting for?

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“A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.”

In the current climate in the United States (which … you honestly have to be here to experience the full effect) … the time is ripe for a soothsayer, whispering into the ears of paranoid men, launching rumors that fly through the air, hoping to hit their mark. Things are pretty damn spooky.

The Ides of March.

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Let’s read the scene in Shakespeare’s play where Caesar ignores the warning from the soothsayer. Because wouldn’t we all ignore a warning from a random-crazy-person in the street? I mean, I HAVE ignored such warnings. Some shuffling nut-bag screams at me I’m going to die if I don’t repent? What, I’m gonna ask to hear MORE? No. And neither does Caesar and therein lies his ruin.

(I have to add that it must be hard to listen to anything anyone says when you are constantly bombarded by “flourishes”.)

SCENE II. A public place

Flourish.

Enter CAESAR; ANTONY, CALPURNIA, PORTIA, DECIUS BRUTUS, CICERO, BRUTUS, CASSIUS, and CASCA; a great crowd following, among them a SOOTHSAYER

CAESAR
Calpurnia!

CASCA
Peace, ho! Caesar speaks.

CAESAR
Calpurnia!

CALPURNIA
Here, my lord.

CAESAR
Stand you directly in Antonius’ way,
When he doth run his course. Antonius!

ANTONY
Caesar, my lord?

CAESAR
Forget not, in your speed, Antonius,
To touch Calpurnia; for our elders say,
The barren, touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.

ANTONY
I shall remember:
When Caesar says ‘do this,’ it is perform’d.

CAESAR
Set on; and leave no ceremony out.

Flourish

SOOTHSAYER
Caesar!

CAESAR
Ha! who calls?

CASCA
Bid every noise be still: peace yet again!

CAESAR
Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music,
Cry ‘Caesar!’ Speak; Caesar is turn’d to hear.

SOOTHSAYER
Beware the ides of March.

CAESAR
What man is that?

BRUTUS
A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.

CAESAR
Set him before me; let me see his face.

CASSIUS
Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.

CAESAR
What say’st thou to me now? speak once again.

SOOTHSAYER
Beware the ides of March.

CAESAR
He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass.

A psychic told me some years ago that I would meet my future husband the following year, and that he would be blonde. In general, I don’t go for blondes, but I listened to what she had to say, paid my money, went on my way. Strangely enough, I ended up dating someone that following year who happened to be blonde – I didn’t remember the psychic’s prediction until after it was over. It ended pretty quickly. And weirdly. In fact, I refer to him as Jackass McGee. After that, I thought, “1. That psychic was full of it. and 2. I KNEW I should have stayed away from blondes.” Caesar writing The Soothsayer off is understandable.

I just re-read Julius Caesar, in my ongoing Shakespeare Chronological Reading project last year. The conspiracy scene (Act II, scene 1) is one of my favorites in the play.

The conspirators visit Brutus at his house. They all stand in the orchard, and decide to do the deed on the morrow.

Here’s a fun exercise (this came straight from a classics class I took in grad school): read it out loud and notice how often Shakespeare uses the letter “s” in the scene, or an “s” sound. First of all, all of their names have “s”s in them, so automatically there’s an “s” sound in almost every sentence. When you hear the language (and it only becomes perceivable when you hear it out loud), just the sound of the scene, never mind the words they’re actually saying, it sounds like a bunch of snakes hissing. It SOUNDS like whispered gossip. “Psst.” “Psst.” “Psst. Secrets secrets secrets …” “Whissssper …” “Whisssper” “Psst …” “Psst.”

“S” is a sound that carries. If people whisper over the water cooler about the layoffs coming down, they’re pretty safe in not being overheard if they say vowel sounds: “o” or “e” don’t really carry, but an “S” will ricochet across an office as though there is a megaphone attached to it.

That’s the effect that Shakespeare has achieved in the sounds in this scene. The ACTION of the scene is IN the language itself. Ssssssssss gives an impression of a crowd of men whispering “psst”, the hissing “psst” whisper of conspiracy.

Re-enter LUCIUS.

LUCIUS.
Sir, ’tis your brother Cassius at the
door,
Who doth desire to see you.

BRUTUS.
Is he alone?

LUCIUS.
No, sir, there are more with him.

BRUTUS. Do you know them?

LUCIUS.
No, sir; their hats are pluck’d about
their ears,
And half their faces buried in their cloaks,
That by no means I may discover them
By any mark of favour.

BRUTUS. Let ’em enter.

[Exit LUCIUS.

They are the faction. O conspiracy!
Sham’st thou to show thy dangerous brow by
night,
When evils are most free? O! then by day
Where wilt thou find a cavern dark enough
To mask thy monstrous visage? Seek none, con-
spiracy;
Hide it in smiles and affability:
For if thou path, thy native semblance on,
Not Erebus itself were dim enough
To hide thee from prevention.

Enter the Conspirators, CASSIUS, CASCA,
DECIUS,CINNA, METELLUS CIMBER,
and TREBONIUS.

CASSIUS.
I think we are too bold upon your rest:
Good morrow, Brutus; do we trouble you?

BRUTUS.
I have been up this hour, awake all
night.
Know I these men that come along with you?

CASSIUS.
Yes, every man of them; and no man
here
But honours you; and every one doth wish
You had but that opinion of yourself
Which every noble Roman bears of you.
This is Trebonius.

BRUTUS.
He is welcome hither.

CASSIUS.
This, Decius Brutus.

BRUTUS. He is welcome too.

CASSIUS.
This, Casca; this, Cinna;
And this, Metellus Cimber.

BRUTUS.
They are all welcome.
What watchful cares do interpose themselves
Betwixt your eyes and night?

CASSIUS.
Shall I entreat a word?

[BRUTUS and CASSIUS whisper.

DECIUS.
Here lies the east: doth not the day
break here?

CASCA.
No.

CINNA.
O! pardon, sir, it doth; and yon grey
lines
That fret the clouds are messengers of day.

CASCA.
You shall confess that you are both
deceiv’d.
Here, as I point my sword, the sun arises;
Which is a great way growing on the south,
Weighing the youthful season of the year.
Some two months hence up higher toward the
north
He first presents his fire; and the high east
Stands, as the Capitol, directly here.

BRUTUS.
Give me your hands all over, one by
one.

CASSIUS.
And let us swear our resolution.

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And so, in honor of the Ides of March, here’s the “moment before” the poor ignored SOOTHSAYER comes back into the picture: Act II, scene iv. The sense of foreboding grows. Portia can feel the wrongness in the air.

PORTIA
Come hither, fellow: which way hast thou been?

SOOTHSAYER
At mine own house, good lady.

PORTIA
What is’t o’clock?

SOOTHSAYER
About the ninth hour, lady.

PORTIA
Is Caesar yet gone to the Capitol?

SOOTHSAYER
Madam, not yet: I go to take my stand,
To see him pass on to the Capitol.

PORTIA
Thou hast some suit to Caesar, hast thou not?

SOOTHSAYER
That I have, lady: if it will please Caesar
To be so good to Caesar as to hear me,
I shall beseech him to befriend himself.

PORTIA
Why, know’st thou any harm’s intended towards him?

SOOTHSAYER
None that I know will be, much that I fear may chance.
Good morrow to you. Here the street is narrow:
The throng that follows Caesar at the heels,
Of senators, of praetors, common suitors,
Will crowd a feeble man almost to death:
I’ll get me to a place more void, and there
Speak to great Caesar as he comes along.

Exit

PORTIA
I must go in. Ay me, how weak a thing
The heart of woman is! O Brutus,
The heavens speed thee in thine enterprise!
Sure, the boy heard me: Brutus hath a suit
That Caesar will not grant. O, I grow faint.
Run, Lucius, and commend me to my lord;
Say I am merry: come to me again,
And bring me word what he doth say to thee.

Vincenzo Camuccini, "Morte di Cesare", 1798,

Posted in On This Day | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Happy Birthday to Sylvia Beach, the “Midwife of Modernism”

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Sylvia Beach is one of my heroes due to her influential bookshop in Paris (Shakespeare & Co.), and her nurturing of the writers of that time. You know, minor writers like James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein. When nobody would publish Joyce’s Ulysses due to its already-controversial nature, she decided that Shakespeare & Co. would put the book out (her first foray into publishing – not too shabby, to start with Ulysses). She got in big trouble for that, as books were confiscated at customs houses in England and America, and obscenity trials heated up over the next decade. This small unassuming woman, born in Baltimore, grew up in New Jersey, was at the center of the literary event of the century.

I’ve written a lot about Sylvia Beach, and I have known about her from my reading on all of the literary giants of the day. She was one of those people who intersected with everyone.

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Shakespeare & Co. reunion: James Jones, Sylvia Beach, Thornton Wilder, Alice B. Toklas

She was the daughter of a minister, and during WWI, she served with the Red Cross in Serbia. Afterwards, her mother helped her finance a little bookshop in Paris, which had always been Beach’s dream, and over the next 2 decades, the shop became a smashing success, and a hub for all of the famous literary ex-pats in Paris at that time. Oh, for a time machine. My #1 destination would be Shakespeare & Co. in Paris in, oh, 1925. That’s where I want to go, please. When the Nazis marched into Paris, Beach repeatedly refused to leave her books, although she was ordered to.

James Campbell, at the Times Literary Supplement, calls Sylvia Beach the “midwife of Modernism”, a wonderful turn-of-phrase. The events of Sylvia Beach’s life are fascinating in and of themselves (who WAS this woman?), and I mainly know her through her intersections with the literary giants of the day. A couple of years ago a collection of her letters was published, The Letters of Sylvia Beach (amazing that they hadn’t already been published in full), and it was quite an event. It’s a lovely volume.

Here is a really interesting anecdote (which gives you some background of just ONE aspect of her life, and, of course, of course, James Joyce is peripherally involved):

When the Nazis entered Paris, Beach, who had lately made a visit home to the United States where she underwent a hysterectomy (she was also “knocked out by headaches”€ all her life), declined to leave rue de l’Odeon a second time. In her memoir, she told the almost too-cinematic story of how a “€œhigh-ranking German officer”€ entered her shop one day and, “€œspeaking perfect English”€, asked to buy the single copy of Finnegans Wake (published by Faber and Faber) displayed in the window. Beach told him it was not for sale, and duly removed it.

A fortnight later, the same officer strode into the bookshop. Where was Finnegans Wake? I had put it away. Fairly trembling with rage, he said, “€œWe’re coming to confiscate all your goods today.”€ “All right.”€ He drove off.

Within a few hours, she had boxed up the stock, removed the sign and painted over the patron’€™s name. The Germans did not get Finnegans Wake, but they did get Beach. She spent six months in an internment camp at Vittel, alongside Jewish prisoners who would later be removed to Auschwitz.

There’s another great anecdote about Ernest Hemingway, who was with the Allied army when they liberated Paris – and Hemingway went PERSONALLY to “liberate” Shakespeare & Co.

All of this can be read about in Beach’s own memoir (Shakespeare and Company) – but in the collection of her letters, edited by Keri Walsh, we actually get to hear Beach’s unedited voice.

That was one of the best things about the volume: getting to know her unselfconscious in-the-moment voice, the voice one uses when dashing off a letter (as opposed to something more official or formal). I always knew that Beach was a homey regular kind of person, not an obvious intellectual, but more of a can-do fix-it “I’ve got a barn, let’s do a show” kind of person. She was part of a family of daughters, and all of them were strong autonomous interesting women. None of them seemed to have a sense that there was anything they couldn’t do, being women. Sylvia Beach, who loved books, had a dream of opening a bookshop. That’s all. She didn’t have a dream of attaching herself to a writer, or publishing books, or being a writer herself. She wanted to create a gathering-place for book lovers. She happened to be in the right place at the right time, AND she was a canny businesswoman who knew how to make important connections (and, judging from her correspondence, KEEP those connections). She was, to use a well-trod phrase, a “people person”. She was not embarrassed to ask for things. She often needed help, either financial or otherwise, and she, like all talented people of business, knew who to go to to get things done, and knew to ask at the right time.

The publication of Ulysses obviously put her on the map (for better and worse), and she had an awareness of that at the time, writing to her sister, “Ulysses is going to make my place famous.”

As I got to know her chatty friendly voice, full of misspellings and multiple exclamation marks, I fell in love with her. She was so enthusiastic, such a champion. Let the artists do their work, let them be eccentric and strange, she was there to usher them into the limelight where they belonged.

Sylvia Beach had a lifelong relationship with Adrienne Monnier, a French book-store owner. They were business partners and life partners.

Sylvia Beach
Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier

The relationship was so much just a fact of Beach’s life that it is barely mentioned in her letters, and the acceptance of it (by her friends, family, and colleagues) is one of those things that makes you realize that life on the ground is often very different from how it is up in the stratosphere where ideologues argue things out on an abstract level. There is no feeling at all that Beach had to hide her sexual orientation. None whatsoever. She lived with Adrienne Monnier for decades. When Monnier passed away, people from all over the world sent Beach consolation letters. Beach was now a widow, regardless of the “legality” of her relationship. It’s a beautiful example of the individual doing what the individual wants to do, regardless of the prejudice that exists in limited little minds.

Beach goes about her life with very little fanfare, ironic considering how famous (and infamous) she became for publishing a “dirty book”.

Here is a review of the letters. This is all well-trod ground for me, having read many biographies of Joyce (and other literary giants of the day), where she plays a prominent role. But there’s something about reading someone’s letters … the un-cleaned-up un-edited thought process and syntax revealed. Relationships made clear, without an editorial voice inserting itself. For example:

More and better literary gossip is spilled in Beach’s 1959 memoir, but these letters have tart moments on nearly every page. Beach introduced Sherwood Anderson to Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald to James Joyce, and knew everyone. She describes a reading in her bookstore, given by Hemingway and Stephen Spender, during which beer and whiskey were “displayed on the table in front of the boys, of which they were partaking freely.€ The sight of this made Joyce stand up and leave. It “€œmade him too thirsty,”€ she writes, “to stand it any longer.”€ Beach, a popular giver of dinner parties and a bohemian cult hero, was unpretentious. Inviting the writer Bryher to a reception, she wrote: “€œYou know it won’€™t be at all formal, never is in our house, and people don’€™t dress up here. I never wear an evening gown no matter what they invite me too – haint got none.€”

Sylvia Beach wrote of her first meeting with James Joyce in her memoirs. He walked into Shakespeare & Co. in Paris. She describes his behavior thus:

He stepped into my bookshop . . . he inspected my two photographs of Oscar Wilde. Then he sat down beside my table.

Marvelous. I wonder what he was thinking.

Sylvia said of Joyce: “As for Joyce, he treated people invariably as his equals, whether they were writers, children, waiters, princesses, or charladies. What anybody had to say interested him; he told me that he had never met a bore.”

(As far as I’m concerned – anyone who can say that he has “never met a bore” is a genius of the human spirit.)

When she met James Joyce, he had already finished Ulysses (or as finished as any Joycean manuscript ever would be) but essentially unpublishable. It had already been deemed “obscene”. The funny thing about all of this is that – as Joyce said later, “The pity is that the public will demand and find a moral in my book, or worse they may take it in some serious way, and on the honour of a gentleman, there is not one single serious word in it.”

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But Sylvia Beach – who had never published a book before – took a risk and said that Shakespeare & Co. would put out the book. This was an act of courage. Perhaps she went into it recklessly, thinking that giving a space for genius would be its own reward – perhaps she went into it knowing the eventual fallout that would crash down upon her head – But whatever her interior process, she moved forward boldly.

And the shit hit the fan.

Once it was published, the obscenity controversies heated up, the book was banned (Joyce said later, “I have come to the conclusion that I cannot write without offending people.”) everybody was talking about it, who had actually read it? – you could be arrested for trying to smuggle it into certain countries – and there were a couple of years where the only place on the planet you could get a copy of Ulysses was through Beach’s bookshop in Paris. And so the orders flew in from folks around the world. People who were book readers, people who were collectors, people who sensed the historic moment and just wanted a copy.

Joyce and Sylvia Beach

The comments of other great writers on this book are, of course, great interest to me. They run the gamut of disgust, elation, despair, awe, humility, and I love it, too, that Yeats (an early supporter of Joyce) changed his mind. His first response on reading it? “A mad book!” Then later, as it percolated, Yeats said: “I have made a terrible mistake. It is a work perhaps of genius. I now perceive its coherence … It is an entirely new thing — neither what the eye sees nor the ear hears, but what the rambling mind thinks and imagines from moment to moment. He has certainly surpassed in intensity any novelist of our time.”

Hart Crane had this to say (or shout): “I feel like shouting EUREKA! Easily the epic of the age.”

George Bernard Shaw was disturbed by Ulysses, and its view of Ireland – so much so that it tormented him a bit. He saw it as an indictment (and, in a way, it was). He said, however: “If a man holds up a mirror to your nature and shows you that it needs washing — not whitewashing — it is no use breaking the mirror. Go for soap and water.”

T.S. Eliot was especially devastated by the book, and his comments on it are numerous. Examples: “How could anyone write again after achieving the immense prodigy of the last chapter?” And also – this quote really touches me, because as a writer, Eliot wasn’t half-bad himself: “I wish, for my own sake, that I had not read it.” And lastly (and I think this pretty much gets at the root of what was so disturbing to Eliot): “I hold Ulysses to be the most important expression which the present age has found; it is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.”

And here is the lady who first made this “epic of the age” available to the world, at great financial and personal risk:

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Joyce eventually moved to another publisher – for later editions – which left Beach financially stranded (along with the Great Depression which really hit Shakespeare & Co. hard.) But Beach had rich influential literary friends – many of whom came to her rescue during this difficult time. Famous writers did readings at Shakespeare & Co., admission was charged, people paid subscription fees – and in this way the bookstore made it through. Beach died in 1962. She is widely revered for her courageous independent move to publish Ulysses – the book that T.S. Eliot said “destroyed the 19th century”.

She said:

I was on the platform, my heart going like the locomotive, as the train from Dijon came slowly to a standstill and I saw the conductor getting off, holding a parcel and looking around for someone — me. In a few minutes, I was ringing the doorbell at the Joyces’ and handing them Copy No. 1 of Ulysses. It was February 2, 1922.

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Sylvia Beach and James Joyce, in the doorway of Shakespeare & Co.

Posted in Books, James Joyce, On This Day | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

Happy Π Day

It’s 3/14, which is Π Day (naturally). A couple of things:

I’d like to direct you to one of the most fascinating New Yorker profiles I’ve ever read: It’s called “The Mountains of Pi”, and it’s from 1992, a profile of the Chudnovsky brothers on their quest for Pi. It is a profile of shared obsession, two men driven to extremes by their desire to understand Pi. It’s also from a time when something like a “computer” in your house was a novelty, let alone a “supercomputer”, built to serve Pi and Pi alone.

The Chudnovsky brothers claim that the digits of pi form the most nearly perfect random sequence of digits that has ever been discovered. They say that nothing known to humanity appears to be more deeply unpredictable than the succession of digits in pi, except, perhaps, the haphazard clicks of a Geiger counter as it detects the decay of radioactive nuclei. But pi is not random. The fact that pi can be produced by a relatively simple formula means that pi is orderly. Pi looks random only because the pattern in the digits is fantastically complex. The Ludolphian number is fixed in eternity – not a digit out of place, all characters in their proper order, an endless sentence written to the end of the world by the division of the circle’s diameter into its circumference. Various simple methods of approximation will always yield the same succession of digits in the same order. If a single digit in pi were to be changed anywhere between here and infinity, the resulting number would no longer be pi; it would be “garbage”, in David’s word, because to change a single digit in pi is to throw all the following digits out of whack and miles from pi.

“Pi is a damned good fake of a random number,” Gregory said. “I just wish it were not as good a fake. It would make our lives a lot easier.”

Around the three-hundred-millionth decimal place of pi, the digits go 88888888 – eight eights pop up in a row. Does this mean anything? It appears to be random noise. Later, ten sixes erupt: 6666666666. What does this mean? Apparently nothing, only more noise. Somewhere past the half-billion mark appears the string 123456789. It’s an accident, as it were. “We do not have a good, clear, crystallized idea of randomness,” Gregory said. “It cannot be that pi is truly random. Actually, truly random sequence of numbers has not yet been discovered.”

Second thing: I have Jessie to thank for pointing me in the direction of Kate Bush’s song about Pi.

Third thing: I have seen Lucy Kaplansky perform numerous times. Her father was a mathematician, as well as a musician/composer, and he wrote “a song about Pi”, where the notes of the song correspond to the starting digits of Pi. At every Kaplansky show I’ve been to, some audience member requests “song about Pi.”

So, in honor of Pi Day, here is Lucy Kaplansky singing her dad’s song “Song About Pi”. So glad it’s on Youtube. Great introduction too.

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Feud: Bette and Joan: Episode 2 re-cap for The NY Times

My re-cap for Episode 2 of Feud is now up at the NY Times.

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