Today In History: October 19, 1781: The Surrender at Yorktown


The surrender at Yorktown, which ended the American Revolutionary War.

The day before:

General Lord Charles Cornwallis to General George Washington, October 18, 1781

I agree to open a treaty of capitulation upon the basis of the garrisons of York and Gloucester, including seamen, being prisoners of war, without annexing the condition of their being sent to Europe; but I expect to receive a compensation in the articles of capitulation for the surrender of Gloucester in its present state of defence.

I shall, in particular, desire, that the Bonetta sloop of war may be left entirely at my disposal, from the hour that the capitulation is signed, to receive an aid-de-camp to carry my dispatches to Sir Henry Clinton. Such soldiers as I may think proper to send as passengers in her, to be manned with fifty men of her own crew, and to be permitted to sail without examination, when my dispatches are ready: engaging, on my part, that the ship shall be brought back and delivered to you, if she escapes the dangers of the sea, that the crew and soldiers shall be accounted for in future exchanges, that she shall carry off no officer without your consent, nor public property of any kind; and I shall likewise desire, that the traders and inhabitants may preserve their property, and that no person may be punished or molested for having joined the British troops.

If you choose to proceed to negociation on these grounds, I shall appoint two field officers of my army to meet two officers from you, at any time and place that you think proper, to digest the articles of capitulation.

(Check out the full correspondence in the days leading up to the 19th)

Cornwallis realized that aid would not come in time, and after two days of bombardment he sent a drummer out into view, who apparently was beating the rhythm of: “STOP! LET’S TALK!!!” A British officer high in rank came forward, was blindfolded and taken to George Washington (who was on his last legs himself).

The surrender document had already been drawn up, with Washington dictating the terms. Here are the Articles of Capitulation.

Over 7,000 soldiers surrendered at Yorktown.


The story goes that as the defeated army marched away, the band played “The World Turned Upside Down”. I did a quick Google search and found a lot of defensive impassioned people out there who feel the need to shout out into the wilds of the Internet with such comments as: “There is NO evidence that ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ was played …” I love nerds who take sides in meaningless historical debates like this. I adore them. I’m a nerd like that. But still. Whether or not it happened, it’s a good story. There are a couple of versions of said song (which has, by itself, a long interesting history). Here is one of the versions:

If buttercups buzz’d after the bee,
If boats were on land, churches on sea,
If ponies rode men and if grass ate the cows,
And cats should be chased into holes by the mouse,
If the mamas sold their babies
To the gypsies for half a crown;
If summer were spring and the other way round,
Then all the world would be upside down.

Dr. James Thacher, who served in the Continental Army, is one of our eyewitnesses of the capitulation, and he published his version of events a couple of years later, the relevant passage being:

“At about twelve o’clock, the combined army was arranged and drawn up in two lines extending more than a mile in length. The Americans were drawn up in a line on the right side of the road, and the French occupied the left. At the head of the former, the great American commander [George Washington], mounted on his noble courser, took his station, attended by his aides. At the head of the latter was posted the excellent Count Rochambeau and his suite. The French troops, in complete uniform, displayed a martial and noble appearance; their bands of music, of which the timbrel formed a part, is a delightful novelty, and produced while marching to the ground a most enchanting effect.

The Americans, though not all in uniform, nor their dress so neat, yet exhibited an erect, soldierly air, and every countenance beamed with satisfaction and joy. The concourse of spectators from the country was prodigious, in point of numbers was probably equal to the military, but universal silence and order prevailed.

It was about two o’clock when the captive army advanced through the line formed for their reception. Every eye was prepared to gaze on Lord Cornwallis, the object of peculiar interest and solicitude; but he disappointed our anxious expectations; pretending indisposition, he made General O’Hara his substitute as the leader of his army. This officer was followed by the conquered troops in a slow and solemn step, with shouldered arms, colors cased and drums beating a British march. Having arrived at the head of the line, General O’Hara, elegantly mounted, advanced to his excellency the commander-in-chief, taking off his hat, and apologized for the non-appearance of Earl Cornwallis. With his usual dignity and politeness, his excellency pointed to Major-General Lincoln for directions, by whom the British army was conducted into a spacious field, where it was intended they should ground their arms.

The royal troops, while marching through the line formed by the allied army, exhibited a decent and neat appearance, as respects arms and clothing, for their commander opened his store and directed every soldier to be furnished with a new suit complete, prior to the capitulation. But in their line of march we remarked a disorderly and unsoldierly conduct, their step was irregular, and their ranks frequently broken.

But it was in the field, when they came to the last act of the drama, that the spirit and pride of the British soldier was put to the severest test: here their mortification could not be concealed. Some of the platoon officers appeared to be exceedingly chagrined when giving the word “ground arms,” and I am a witness that they performed this duty in a very unofficer-like manner; and that many of the soldiers manifested a sullen temper, throwing their arms on the pile with violence, as if determined to render them useless. This irregularity, however, was checked by the authority of General Lincoln. After having grounded their arms and divested themselves of their accoutrements, the captive troops were conducted back to Yorktown and guarded by our troops till they could be removed to the place of their destination.”

One of my favorite sites, Boston 1775, describes the blame-game that ensued, following the capitulation, between the British generals.

Here is a strategic military map from 1781.


Map found here in this awesome collection (I could get lost in there forever.)

On the map you can see the positions of the British Army commanded by Cornwallis, and you can see the American and French forces commanded by Washington. And check out the French fleet (under Count de Grasse) comin’ down the pike!

And finally: here is a story I love. Again, perhaps it’s apocryphal, or even an out-and-out fabrication, but I love it nonetheless.

Benjamin Franklin was in Paris at the time of the surrender at Yorktown. He was there as a diplomat, and a walking-talking advertisement of Teh Awesome Colonies. He played chess, he drank, he socialized, he wore fur-lined hats, he was a great storyteller, and France went wild for him. One of the first international celebrities.

Word came to France of the decisive American victory, and the complete surrender to George Washington in Yorktown. Franklin attended a diplomatic dinner shortly thereafter where everyone was discussing the British defeat.

The French foreign minister stood, and toasted Louis XVI: “To his Majesty, Louis the Sixteenth, who, like the moon, fills the earth with a soft, benevolent glow.”

The British ambassador rose and said, “To George the Third, who, like the sun at noonday, spreads his light and illumines the world.”

Franklin rose and countered, “I cannot give you the sun or the moon, but I give you George Washington, General of the armies of the United States, who, like Joshua of old, commanded both the sun and the moon to stand still, and both obeyed.”


I would like to point out that I first wrote this piece in 2008, long before Hamilton came along. I’ve been an American Revolutionary War buff since … well, I was born into it. My family is a Boston family. It’s the air we breathed. But also my Irish immigrant family had absorbed the story into their bones and hearts. “John and Abigail” (no last names) were discussed in such a casual familiar way that when I was a kid I thought they were members of our family. So I just need to point this out. When I sat there in the audience at Hamilton (hands down, the most exciting night I’ve ever had in the theatre), and the Battle of Yorktown commenced, I felt a thrill of connection. I loved so much that Lin Manuel Miranda had incorporated the legend/myth/apocryphal-who-cares story about the British soldiers singing the old drinking song “The World Turned Upside Down,” as they marched off. The end of the song, the end of the war.

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“Am I Too Loud For You?” Happy Birthday, Eminem

A re-post for Marshall Mathers’ birthday, which is today. So psyched I finally got to see him perform.

WARNING: If, by some amazing circumstance, you have never heard “Kim” before, please know that it is completely unsafe for work, frankly psychotic, horrifying, awful, and contains more triggers than a gun-range.

Eminem gives one of the all-time great acting performances in this blistering screed named after his two-time (and two-timing) wife, “Kim”. Consider the creation of this song: He stands alone in the studio, and – like all great actors – imagines himself into a fictional circumstance, and – and this is key – he believes in it 100%. He’s not acting. He’s living it out. There it is: that’s the job of the actor. There are some A-List actors who haven’t gone as far as MM does here. It’s one of the most honest love songs ever written/performed. And with that comment, many people recoil from me in disgust. (‘Sokay. I’m used to it.)

Eminem creates the fantasy and then throws himself into all aspects of the fantasy, which is what makes the song unique and terrifying. He does not leave anything out. He does not only fantasize about anger and violence (which would be self-congratulatory, making him look righteous and tough), but he also fantasizes about other emotional elements that would also be present in such a situation, elements like adrenaline and insecurity, wild mood swings (“I hate you! I swear to God, I hate you!” – starting to sob – “Oh my God, I love you …”), attempts to stop the event (“Get a grip, Marshall!”), pathos and terror. “Kim” feels, actually, like: this is how such a horrible event often goes. That’s why it makes for such unbearable listening.

Listen to how he screams, “You can’t run from me, Kim!” A million things are going on in that moment. But more than the emotion, what I hear is his objective: Don’t let her get away from me. When he screams like that, I see that moment unfurling before me, her crawling away, him erupting after her, and the reason I can see it is because of the strength of his belief in the objective. And again: he the artist is standing alone in a studio, living it out, and it’s as real to him as if it were actually happening in the moment. All good acting has a strong objective as its engine. That’s why the moment is so bone-chilling: not because of what he is feeling, but because of his OBJECTIVE. You want her to get away. You know she won’t. It’s phenomenal acting.

Other people writing/performing such a song would have chosen to highlight the rage, because then they would seem like a tough guy, he’s getting imaginary revenge, he’s really “showing her”, isn’t he.

Eminem doesn’t go that route. Throughout the course of the song, he sobs, he pleads, he pulls himself together again, he goes snively pathetic (“You think I’m ugly, don’t you?”), he feverishly reminisces, trying to call back the good times, and then snaps again. The rage fights with a panic-filled sorrow.

In the midst of the emotional maelstrom, he keeps it specific: it’s not just one-note constant screaming. There’s a lot of subtlety in what he is doing. The way he yells at the other car on the highway, for example, is completely different from how he yells at his wife. What he does with his voice there is perfectly evocative of free-floating road rage. The roar of a helpless beaten man. Asserting himself, but totally impotent. Again: this is how such things often go … in real life. He also plays his wife Kim in the song, he plays her screaming for her life, begging for mercy, giving the performance a psychotic glee that is completely deranged.

There’s never been anything else like this performance.

I think what many people mostly remember about “Kim” is the rage (and, perhaps, how “inappropriate” the song is in the first place. I know it’s rude but my response to that is, seriously, “Whatever. Take it up with the PTA.”) There is a hell of a lot more going on in the song than rage, or anger at women, or whatever else. People call it misogynistic. I suppose. Anger at women has been the source of a lot of great art. (The same goes for every ugly emotion.) I wouldn’t want to be MARRIED to August Strindberg, but I love his plays. Besides, “Kim” is not free-floating unspecified MRA rage. It is rage and hurt at one very specific woman: Kim Mathers. “HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO MEEEEEEEEE?” screams Marshall. It’s HER he has the beef with. (Eminem long ago renounced the song. He rarely tours, but when he does, he never performs “Kim.” He and Kim get along fine now, rather incredible considering …. this song.)

The song is a fantasy. Last time I checked Kim Mathers is still walking among the living. Fantasies aren’t just unicorns and rainbows. Fantasies are often ugly and pathetic, which is why we hesitate to share them. We will be judged for our inner lives, our private dreamspaces. A lot of great art involves the artist attempting to live out a personal fantasy. And if you’re GONNA live out a fantasy, you might as well REALLY live it, in all its complexity, like MM does here. Who wants to fantasize about sobbing “I love you, God, I love you …” at your wife as you careen your car along a highway? Why would you willingly put yourself into a position where you imagine yourself in such circumstances and then decide to share it? Well, that’s art. That’s Eminem. That’s what it’s about. This is not a wish-fulfillment song. If it were only about wish-fulfillment it would involve more self-righteousness, a little bit more “Watch how I showed this bitch who’s boss.” That is NOT what is happening in “Kim” at all.

Eminem is interested in how this would go if it were actually to happen. It’s a work of imagination, a perfect example of Stanislavsky’s “magic What if”. What IF this were true, what IF something like this happened … Asking “what if” is the start of all imaginative and creative work. “What If” doesn’t just lead to pretty sunsets and Happily Ever After. “What If” leads you into the darkness, too.

And so Eminem’s imagination takes him into the personal, the traumatic, his whiny yet dangerous sense of victimization, his complete and utter instability as a man, his course-corrections back to ugly rage because the pain is too much, his childish begging/pleading … why why why would you do this to me? Whyyy would you do this to meeeee?

The song insists that I go where he goes. It is a prison for the listener. You are put in a tiny dark box with this screaming lunatic, nowhere to escape. Cramped, trapped, forced to listen to this man lose his fucking mind.

Is “Kim” sick? Yes. Is it deranged? Yes.

It is also a work of art.

Posted in Actors, Music, On This Day | Tagged | 9 Comments

“It Is Absurd To Divide People Into Good and Bad. People Are Either Charming or Tedious.”

So said Oscar Wilde, whose birthday it is today.


His mother, Jane Speranza Francesca Wilde (aka Lady Wilde, aka “Speranza”) was an incredible woman in the canon of Irish literary history certainly, not to mention its politics and social upheaval. My father knew a lot about Speranza, of course. She was a poet, a radical, a firebrand, an Irish nationalist, a revolutionary. In 1864, a new edition of her poems came out, and she dedicated it to her two sons:

Dedicated to my sons Willie and Oscar Wilde

‘I made them indeed
Speak plain the word country. I taught them, no doubt,
That country’s a thing one should die for at need’

That gives you a taste of the feeling of the household Wilde grew up in.

His father was a fascinating man as well, a physician who specialized in the eye and ear; to this day there are procedures referred to as “Wilde’s incision”, for example, or “Wilde’s cone of light”, dating back to the mid-1860s, when William Wilde was practicing in Ireland. He was also a writer, and published books on all kinds of things: one of his main interests was the archeology in Ireland, and he published a catalog of antiquities from one particular archeological site, and the book now sits in the National Museum of Ireland. He also published books on folklore, legends, wives’ tales – all of the things that his patients told him, their own received history and “cures” for their ills.

Oscar Wilde’s parents were, frankly, powerhouses.

He went to Oxford, starting in the year he was 20 years old. Oxford was his beginning. The beginning, certainly, of his notoreity (he was quoted as saying “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.” while at Oxford, and it caused a stir. People wrote horrified op-ed columns about the decadence of today’s youth, using Oscar Wilde’s comment as the ultimate example). Wilde consciously lost his Irish accent, and created a persona: he wore formal wear, he was obsessed with decorating his room, he had an “outfit” for everything. Wilde was testing the boundaries, interested in aesthetics and what that might have to do not only with art but also character, how a man lived.

Wilde distinguished himself at Oxford. He encountered many of the writers and philosophers that would make the deepest imprint on him, and leave him forever changed.

One of the things I love about Wilde is how suggestible he was. “Suggestible” meaning: openness, receptivity. He took everything on, tried it out for a bit, and then was willing to put it aside if it didn’t work for him. Or, if he realized, “That worked for me when I was 20, but now that I am older, it doesn’t have the same impact” he was able to let go. He really wrestled with his literary and philosophical influences. He argued with them in his papers at Oxford, he took them on, examined the implications, and tried to see what he could take from it for his own work (which was still in its infant stage at that point).

Pater, Swinburne were major influences. Many of his influences were very controversial at the time, the New Romantics, the aesthetes, not seen as particularly Christian, as a matter of fact, they were viewed as demonic, living only for pleasure and effete sensuality. Wilde, while obviously a funny man who liked hanging out with friends, was not really a decadent aesthete (as many of his ‘buddies” actually were). Wilde was more refined: He enjoyed art and beauty and the surface appearance of things, but he was too hard a worker, too intelligent and rigorous with his work ethic, to be a true decadent. That is why HE had to take the fall. Who cares if some nobody poet-wannabe gets convicted of sodomy? Nobody cares about that. But Oscar Wilde? That’ll send a real message.

When Wilde visited America for his whirlwind tour, he made it a point to make a pit-stop to visit (and bow down before) Walt Whitman. Richard Ellmann describes the meeting in his biography of Oscar Wilde:

Wilde initiated the conversation by saying, ‘I come as a poet to call upon a poet.’ Whitman replied, ‘Go ahead.’ Wilde went on, ‘I have come to you as one with whom I have been acquainted almost from the cradle.’ He explained that his mother had purchased a copy of Leaves of Grass when it was published; presumably this was in 1868 (Wilde put it two years earlier), when William Michael Rossetti edited a selection of Whitman’s poems. Lady Wilde read out the poems to her son, and later, when Wilde had gone up to Oxford, he and his friends carried Leaves of Grass to read on their walks. Whitman, in pleased response, went to the cupboard and took out his sister-in-law’s bottle of homemade elderberry wine. Wilde drained without wincing the glass Whitman had filled, and they settled down to consume the rest of the bottle. ‘I will call you Oscar,’ said Whitman, and Wilde, laying his hand on the poet’s knee, replied, ‘I like that so much.’ To Whitman, Wilde was a ‘fine handsome youngster.’ Wilde was too big to take on his lap like other youngsters who visited the sage, but could be coddled if not cuddled.

The encounter goes on. It was not all smiles and adoration. There were disturbing undertones.

The den was filled with dusty newspapers preserved because they mentioned Whitman’s name, and Wilde would complain later to Sherard of the squalid scene in which the poet had to write. It was hard to find a place to sit down, but by removing a stack of newspapers from a chair, Wilde managed to. They had much to talk about. Whitman was eager to know about Swinburne, who had long ago been his English advocate and had written the tribute ‘To Walt Whitman Across the Sea’. Wilde knew Swinburne well enough to promise to relay Whitman’s message of friendship to him. …

Wilde pressed his advantage to ask what Whitman made of the new aesthetic school. Whitman replied with an indulgent smile befitting his sixty-three years, ‘I wish well to you, Oscar, and as to the aesthetes, I can only say that you are young and ardent, and the field is wide, and if you want my advice, go ahead.’ With comparable politeness Wilde questioned Whitman about his theories of poetry and competition. Prosody was not a subject on which Whitman had ever been articulate, except in relentlessly extolling free verse. He responded with wonderful ingenuousness, ‘Well, you know, I was at one time of my life a compositor and when a compositor gets to the end of his stick he stops short and goes ahead on the next line.’ He went on unabashed, ‘I aim at making my verse look all neat and pretty on the pages, like the epitaph on a square tombstone.’ To illustrate, h e outlined such a tombstone with his hands in the air. Wilde treasured the remark and the gesture, and re-enacted them to Douglas Ainslie some years later. But Whitman concluded with impressive simplicity, ‘There are problems I am always seeking to solve.’

After this encounter, Wilde had this to say about Whitman:

He is the grandest man I have ever met in my life. I regard him as one of those wonderful, large, entire men who might have lived in any age and is not peculiar to any people. Strong, true, and perfectly sane: the closest approach to the Greek we have yet had in modern times.

A bit of code there (“Greek”), and everyone would have known to what he had referred. Wilde also said something like, “The kiss of Walt Whitman is still on my lips”. Whitman, while troubled by some of the aesthetes’ poses, defended Wilde from criticism. I am not sure if the two men, both homosexuals, admitted such a thing openly to one another. I don’t know if those words would have even been necessary.

Wilde, granted, was extremely careless near the end, and he allowed into his life the Marquess of Queensberry who would be his ruin.

I read about this dreadful gentleman, and what happened to all of his sons, not to mention his own terrible personality, and I can’t help but think: Dude? You’re totally gay, okay? Just admit it. Nobody is THAT angry without having some tendencies in that direction, not even back then.

Wilde, in love with the Marquess’ son, could not perceive the danger, could not understand what exactly he was inviting into his life. When we’re in love, we obviously aren’t always careful. But you read the slow clang of events in Wilde’s life, and you can feel the increasing danger, you can feel how much Wilde and Lord Douglas wanted to ‘get’ the Marquess. Lord Douglas (the Marquess’ son) was no great shakes himself, and basically saw a way to “stick it to dear old Dad”, by using the famous Oscar.

There is a kindness in Wilde which cannot be denied. I think people often characterize him as a witty dandy who was “brought down” into the muck, but I don’t find that to be accurate. Yes, he was the promoter of the aesthetic movement, and counseled people on what books to read and how to dress and interior decorate, but it was always for a deeper purpose. Also, anyone that funny could not be shallow. It is the people who are serious all the time who are the real shallow ones.

Wilde handled the insults with good humor, skewering his opponents, until he finally came across someone who could not be stopped, who had a chip on his shoulder the size of the entire British Empire, and who was determined to “save” his fairy son from further corruption. (Meanwhile, one of the Marquess’ OTHER sons had also been caught in a compromising relationship with another male, and had killed himself, right around the time that Queensberry started harassing Oscar Wilde. So. Imagine. This short angry little man had two gay sons, both of whom were living in an openly gay manner, in 1895. It had to have pushed all this guy’s gay buttons. Not to mention the fact that also right around this time, his second wife had divorced him, claiming publicly that his penis was too small for effective intercourse, and also that he was impotent, that the marriage had remained unconsummated. Make of that what you will. A tinder box of problems. His unresolved issues ruined another man’s life, so I’ve got zero sympathy for the guy.)

Illustration for Oscar Wilde’s “Salome”, done by Aubrey Beardsley

And so Wilde found himself a pawn in a family struggle between father (Marquess of Queensberry) and son (Lord Alfred Douglas). Lord Douglas was the main instigator, pushing Wilde further and further into it, forcing the confrontation. Wilde had two extraordinary people as parents, and did not approve of how the Douglas family treated one another. Lord Douglas would send telegrams to his father, saying stuff like, “You are a silly stupid man” and Wilde would just shake his head and remark, “You shouldn’t talk to a parent like that.”

Here he was talking about a man who was threatening to ruin him, who left notes under his front door calling him a “sodomite”, who staged protests outside productions of plays Wilde has written – who was doing everything possible to make Wilde miserable as well as criminal – and here was Wilde, chiding the son for talking to his father in a disrespectful manner. Wilde had class. Real class.

He, a man of exquisite manners and taste, who loved his parents and remained close to his mother all the days of his life (his father passed away much earlier) found himself embroiled in a brou-haha that would ruin him. Wilde had invited Lord Douglas into his life and, therefore, invited the Marquess into his life who would ruin everything, but Wilde (unlike Douglas) was not a vindictive person. Wilde knew Douglas could ruin him. Perhaps that was part of the thrill. The beautiful dangerous boy and all that. In reading about Wilde, in reading about all of the literary spats he got into, all of the verbal sparring with current authors of the day, I never feel that he is vindictive. Or cruel. He is clever, and intelligent, and often merciless, but never cruel.

The Marquess accused Wilde of sodomy. Wilde, angry, Lord Douglas egging him on, sued him for libel. This was the defining moment. Wilde’s fate was sealed the second he sued. The entire thing might, might, have gone away if Wilde had not sued. His suing meant there would be a trial, a highly public trial which would reveal WHY he had sued, and WHAT the Marquess had accused him of.

In the 1895 trial, Charles Gill, the prosecutor, asked Wilde about the “love that dare not speak its name”, a quote which came from a poem by Lord Douglas. Wilde, a broken man already by this point, answered, in a passage that brings tears to my eyes:

The ‘Love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a young man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michaelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michaelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may described as the ‘Love that dare not speak its name,’ and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.

Caricature of Oscar Wilde, by Max Beerbohm

Max Beerbohm, writer/drama critic/caricaturist and an old friend of Wilde’s was there that day and wrote to a friend afterwards:

Oscar has been quite superb. His speech about the Love that dares not tell his name was simply wonderful and carried the whole court right away, quite a tremendous burst of applause. Here was this man, who had been for a month in prison, and loaded with insults and crushed and buffeted, perfectly self-possessed, dominating the Old Bailey with his fine presence and musical voice. He has never had so great a triumph, I am sure, as when the gallery burst into applause – I am sure it affected the jury.

It did not.

Wilde was given a sentence of two years hard labor.

Wilde wrote about his passage to prison:

On November 13th 1895 I was brought down here from London. From two o’clock till half-past two on that day I had to stand on the centre platform of Clapham Junction in convict dress and handcuffed, for the world to look at … When people saw me they laughed. Each train as it came up swelled the audience. Nothing could exceed their amusement. That was of course before they knew who I was. As soon as they had been informed, they laughed still more. For half an hour I stood there in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob. For a year after that was done to me I wept every day at the same hour and for the same space of time.

On today, Oscar Wilde’s birthday, a man who has given me so much pleasure, has made me laugh until my stomach hurts, I didn’t mean to write about all his pain and suffering, but I found I couldn’t help it. His suffering had an air of the sacrificial lamb about it. It was excessive. While in prison, he wrote the blisteringly painful De Profundis, a long letter to Alfred Douglas, a wail of pain and betrayal.

Of late I have been studying with diligence the four prose poems about Christ. At Christmas I managed to get hold of a Greek Testament, and every morning, after I had cleaned my cell and polished my tins, I read a little of the Gospels, a dozen verses taken by chance anywhere. It is a delightful way of opening the day. Every one, even in a turbulent, ill-disciplined life, should do the same. Endless repetition, in and out of season, has spoiled for us the freshness, the naivete, the simple romantic charm of the Gospels. We hear them read far too often and far too badly, and all repetition is anti-spiritual. When one returns to the Greek; it is like going into a garden of lilies out of some, narrow and dark house.

— Oscar Wilde, “De Profundis”, written in prison, 1897

“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” is, of course, Wilde’s long poem about his experiences in prison (full text here).

Those only familiar with his plays will immediate recognize the radical alteration of his style. Those familiar with Oscar Wilde’s other poems will also immediately see (just by looking at the thing) that he is up to something different. His poems were usually lush, intricate, with long lines on the page. Here, this LOOKS like Kipling. It is a ballad.

In one of his published lectures, “Speranza in Reading: On ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol'”, Irish poet and Nobel prize winner Seamus Heaney makes a case that Wilde, by “coming back” to the ballad form (and its propagandistic purposes), was “coming back” to the example led by his mother, Speranza, who also had her trials and tribulations in the public court (although not as literal as Wilde’s.) She was in the center of a couple of major scandals, some involving her husband, and she behaved with fierce loyalty and grace. Heaney uses Speranza as the jumping-off point to talk about the various versions of “Ballad of Reading Gaol” that had been published – not to mention Yeats’s inclusion of it in the 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse, a version with some very interesting edits by Yeats himself. Yeats was trying to protect Wilde, even after his death, from his own rhetorical excesses. You can read more about Heaney’s essay here.

Here is an excerpt from Heaney’s essay.

‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ is Wilde’s poem of human solidarity, his attempt to produce, in Kafka’s great phrase, a book that would be an axe to break the frozen sea in each of us. Bu the literary fact of the matter is that the axe which is still capable of shattering the surfaces of convention is neither the realistic ballad which Yeats fashioned nor the original romantic plea from which he extracted it; it is rather the hard-edged, unpathetic prose that Wilde created in dialogues like ‘The Decay of Lying’ and dramas like The Importance of Being Earnest. His brilliant paradoxes, his over-the-topness at knocking the bottom out of things, the rightness of his wrong-footing, all that exhilarated high-wire word-play, all that freedom to affront and exult in his own uniqueness – that was Wilde’s true path towards solidarity. The lighter his touch, the more devastating his effect. When he walked on air, he was on solid ground. But when he stepped on earth to help the plight of lesser mortals, he became Oisin rather than Oscar. His strength dwindled and his distinction vanished. He became like other men. He became one of the chain-gang poets, a broken shadow of the brilliant litterateur who had once written that ‘Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.’ By the time he wrote the ballad, however, his aim had come to be the telling of the ugly true things:

The vilest deeds like poison weeds
Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
And the Warder is Despair

For they starve the little frightened child
Till it weeps both night and day:
And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,
And gibe the old and grey,
And some grow mad, and all grow bad,
And none a word may say.

Each narrow cell in which we dwell
Is foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
In Humanity’s machine.

All the same, if the propagandist ballad is not Oscar Wilde’s proper genre, it is still a kind of writing which was naturally available to him from the start. His mother, Jane Francesca Elgee, had begun her writing career in Dublin in the 1840s with a series of fiery patriotic poems published in the Dublin Magazine. Writing under the pseudonym of ‘Speranza’ and under the impression that her family name, Elgee, meant that she was descended from the Alighieri family – as in Dante Alighieri – the future Lady Wilde composed poems that proclaimed a heartfelt sympathy for the plight of the famine victims in Ireland and a firebrand’s enthusiasm for the cause of rebellion against British rule. Speranza herself, of course, was from a well-to-do Dublin Unionist background, so her association with Charles Gavan Duffy and other activists and intellectuals in the circle was already an act of rebellion, an embrace of the forbidden other which foreshadowed her son’s more extreme rejection of the conventional pieties. And Oscar in his turn was very much in favour of the company she had kept.

Wilde did not last long once he was released from prison. He had lost everything, most of his friends (who turned out to be the fair-weather brand), his entire library, his social standing, his health.

In 2009, a new book came out by Thomas Wright called Oscar’s Books, an examination of how reading formed Oscar Wilde’s life. I read it, and it’s wonderful. (A personal story about this book here.) Brenda Maddox, who wrote Nora, a biography of James Joyce’s wife, in her review of the book, wrote:

Among the humiliations Wilde suffered after being sent to prison were not only compulsory silence – prisoners were forbidden to speak to one another – but deprivation of books. All he had in his cell at Pentonville, apart from his bed (a plank laid across two trestles), were a Bible, a prayer book and a hymnal. When at last his sympathetic MP won him permission to have more books, Wilde nominated Pater’s The Renaissance along with the works of Flaubert and some by Cardinal Newman. These were allowed, but only at the rate of one a week. Moved to Reading Gaol, he found himself under a more sympathetic prison governor. His book request lists after July 1896 show him developing an interest in more recently published titles, including novels by George Meredith and Thomas Hardy. Wilde later said that he also read Dante every day in prison and that Dante had saved his reason.

There was a giant auction at his house to pay off his debts, and his books were sold off. It was a circus, many people there just to get a ghoulish view of the sodomite’s lodgings. A couple of his remaining friends actually went out and tracked down many of those books sold that day, buying them back for Oscar when he got out of prison. Now those are real friends.

At first, he was denied any books while incarcerated. But eventually, the milder warden (mentioned by Maddox) asked if Mr. Wilde could write out a list of the books he would like, and he would see what he could do. The warden would look over the list, catch sight of one controversial title, and scold Mr. Wilde (“This book helped cause all of your troubles, Mr. Wilde …”), but in general, the warden did his best to provide Wilde with a makeshift library. Friends began to send books to the prison. The nice warden would bring them to Wilde’s cell, and Wilde would break down in tears at the sight.

In Wilde’s prison file, there is a letter from an anonymous “Irishwoman”, written in 1895. It brings tears to my eyes, and makes me feel that yes, there is good, there is mercy on this planet. Listen:

Please give Mr. Wilde the book. I have never ever seen him but it must indeed be a hard heart utterly unacquainted with God’s love that does not bleed for such a shipwrecked life … I feel this book which I send, may be helpful. Faithfully yours, an Irishwoman.

The greatest gift we can give to others is kindness and understanding. I wish I knew what book she had sent him. I imagine a prayer book. Across the century, I love this anonymous Irishwoman as someone who represents the best in all of us.

After his release, Oscar moved to a small village in France. On Nov. 16, 1897, he wrote to a friend:

It is curious how vanity helps keep the successful man and wrecks the failure. In old days half of my strength was my vanity.

Maddox writes in her review:

When he was discharged in May 1897, he was not allowed to take his accumulated books with him and faced what he called the horror of ‘going out into the world without a single book’. But friends rallied round. Entering the hotel room in Dieppe where he was to begin his exile, he found it full of books furnished by his friends and he broke down and wept.

During his exile, he reconnected with Lord Douglas, something many of his friends warned him against, but by that point, Wilde was on his way out. Life had broken him. He converted to Catholicism on his death-bed, something he had wanted to do for years. His father had not let him convert back when he was younger. Catholicism was way beyond the pale for people of their class and standing, but Wilde never got over yearning for it. A local Catholic priest was found in the middle of the night, and baptized Oscar Wilde on his death bed.

I came to him first the way I think it is best to come to him: as an actor, working on his plays in college.

There is a stark tragedy in the life of Oscar Wilde, and yet his work is the opposite of tragic. He is one of the only playwrights who makes me laugh out loud just reading his words on the page (Shakespeare is the other one). To me, his major life’s work was not his own life (although he did try to create an artistic life, an aesthetic life), or his prose works, his essays, his poetry (all formidable stuff) – and neither do I see his major life’s work as his sacrifice at the end, a martyr to future gay generations, an example of a dignified man who paid the ultimate price. A hero, essentially. Which I believe he is. All of these things are extremely important, and you cannot understand Oscar Wilde without understanding all of these elements.

But for me, it’s about the plays: A Woman of No Importance (my thoughts here), The Importance of Being Earnest (my thoughts here), An Ideal Husband (my thoughts here). That’s the legacy.

The epigrams leave a huge mark as well. It is quite unsettling what he does within them, and it is easy to understand why the powers-that-be found him disturbing. His epigrams are not just clever (that is the greatest misunderstanding about Wilde, that he was “clever.” The man was a radical.) Wilde’s epigrams have as their goal to up-end the status quo. To turn society upside down. You think you’re going one way when he starts out, it feels good and right that you are going that way, and then the second half of the epigram scrambles everything up, leaving you in a state of chaos.

Hopefully you’re laughing, throughout, as well, that’s the beauty of Wilde, he was not a scold.

Here’s an excerpt from one of the scenes in The Importance of Being Earnest, a perfect scene, a classic example of two objectives doing battle.

GWENDOLEN. Are there many interesting walks in the vicinity, Miss Cardew?

CECILY. Oh! yes! a great many. From the top of one of the hills quite close one can see five counties.

GWENDOLEN. Five counties! I don’t think I should like that; I hate crowds.

CECILY. [Sweetly.] I suppose that is why you live in town? [Gwendolen bites her lip, and beats her foot nervously with her parasol.]

GWENDOLEN. [Looking round.] Quite a well-kept garden this is, Miss Cardew.

CECILY. So glad you like it, Miss Fairfax.

GWENDOLEN. I had no idea there were any flowers in the country.

CECILY. Oh, flowers are as common here, Miss Fairfax, as people are in London.

GWENDOLEN. Personally I cannot understand how anybody manages to exist in the country, if anybody who is anybody does. The country always bores me to death.

CECILY. Ah! This is what the newspapers call agricultural depression, is it not? I believe the aristocracy are suffering very much from it just at present. It is almost an epidemic amongst them, I have been told. May I offer you some tea, Miss Fairfax?

GWENDOLEN. [With elaborate politeness.] Thank you. [Aside.] Detestable girl! But I require tea!

CECILY. [Sweetly.] Sugar?

GWENDOLEN. [Superciliously.] No, thank you. Sugar is not fashionable any more. [Cecily looks angrily at her, takes up the tongs and puts four lumps of sugar into the cup.]

CECILY. [Severely.] Cake or bread and butter?

GWENDOLEN. [In a bored manner.] Bread and butter, please. Cake is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays.

CECILY. [Cuts a very large slice of cake, and puts it on the tray.] Hand that to Miss Fairfax.

[Merriman does so, and goes out with footman. Gwendolen drinks the tea and makes a grimace. Puts down cup at once, reaches out her hand to the bread and butter, looks at it, and finds it is cake. Rises in indignation.]

GWENDOLEN. You have filled my tea with lumps of sugar, and though I asked most distinctly for bread and butter, you have given me cake. I am known for the gentleness of my disposition, and the extraordinary sweetness of my nature, but I warn you, Miss Cardew, you may go too far.

CECILY. [Rising.] To save my poor, innocent, trusting boy from the machinations of any other girl there are no lengths to which I would not go.

GWENDOLEN. From the moment I saw you I distrusted you. I felt that you were false and deceitful. I am never deceived in such matters. My first impressions of people are invariably right.

CECILY. It seems to me, Miss Fairfax, that I am trespassing on your valuable time. No doubt you have many other calls of a similar character to make in the neighbourhood.

One of the most satisfying scenes ever written, which is why it is done so often in acting classes. A perfect lesson for young actors on how to play your objective, while trying desperately to look like you are NOT playing an objective, which is how most people live their lives in real life. Easier said than done, but that’s a great scene to practice with.

Some quotes from (and about) Wilde below.

Mankind has been continually entering the prisons of Puritanism, Philistinism, Sensualism, Fanaticism, and turning the key on his own spirit: But after a time there is an enormous desire for higher freedom – for self-preservation.


The mind of a thoroughly well-informed man is a dreadful thing. It is like a bric-a-brac shop, all monsters and dust, with everything priced above its proper value.


To win back my youth … there is nothing I wouldn’t do – except take exercise, get up early, or be a useful member of the community.


Miss Morris is the greatest actress I ever saw, if it be fair to form an opinion of her from her rendition of this one role. We have no such powerfully intense actress in England. She is a great artist, in my sense of the word, because all she does, all she says, in the manner of the doing and the saying, constantly evoke the imagination to supplement it. That is what I mean by art.


To disagree with three-fourths of the British public on all points is one of the first elements of sanity.


from a letter Wilde wrote to Walt Whitman:

Tennyson’s rank is too well fixed and we love him too much. But he has not allowed himself to be a part of the living world and of the great currents of interest and action. He is of priceless value and yet he lives apart from his time. He lives in a dream of the unreal. We, on the other hand, move in the very heart of today.


Wilde on Walt Whitman:

He is the grandest man I have ever seen, the simplest, most natural, and strongest character I have ever met in my life. I regard him as one of those wonderful, large, entire men who might have lived in any age and is not peculiar to any people. Strong, true, and perfectly sane: the closest approach to the Greek we have yet had in modern times.


To be either a Puritan, a prig or a preacher is a bad thing. To be all three at once reminds me of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.


The most graceful thing I ever beheld was a miner in a Colorado silver mine driving a new shaft with a hammer; at any moment he might have been transformed into marble or bronze and become noble in art forever.


“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”


Praise makes me humble. But when I am abused I know I have touched the stars.


1883, letter of Oscar Wilde to Marie Prescott:

All the great men of France were cuckolds. Haven’t you observed this? All! In every period. By their wives or their mistresses. Villon, Moliere, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Victor Hugo, Musset, Balzac, kings, generals, poets! Those I mention, a thousand more that I could name, were all cuckolds. Do you know what that means? I will tell you. Great men, in France, have loved women too much. Women don’t like that. They take advantage of this weakness. In England, great men love nothing, neither art, nor wealth, nor glory … nor women. It’s an advantage, you can be sure.


1883, letter of Oscar Wilde to Marie Prescott:

Now, one of the facts of physiology is the desire of any very intensified emotion to be relieved by some emotion that is its opposite. Nature’s example of dramatic effect is the laughter of hysteria or the tears of joy. So I cannot cut my comedy lines. Besides, the essence of good dialogue is interruption.


1885, letter of Oscar Wilde to Marillier

There is an unknown land full of strange flowers and subtle perfumes, a land of which it is joy of all joys to dream, a land where all things are perfect and poisonous.


1885, letter of Oscar Wilde to James Whistler

Be warned in time, James; and remain, as I do, incomprehensible: to be great is to be misunderstood.


To be at one with the elements seems to be Mr. Swinburne’s aim. He seeks to speak with the breath of wind and wave … He is the first lyric poet who has tried to make an absolute surrender of his personality, and he has succeeded. We have the song, but we never know the singer … Out of the thunder and splendour of words, he himself says nothing. We have often heard man’s interpretation of Nature; now we know Nature’s interpretation of man, and she has curiously little to say. Force and Freedom form her vague message. She deafens us with her clangours.


As for George Meredith, who could hope to reproduce him? His style is chaos illumined by brilliant flashes of lightning. As a writer he has mastered everything, except language; as a novelist he can do everything, except tell a story.


How much truer Imagination is than Observation.


The amount of pleasure one gets out of dialect is a matter entirely of temperament. To say “mither” instead of “mother” seems to many the acme of romance. There are others who are not quite so ready to believe in the pathos of provincialism.


Actors are so fortunate. They can choose whether they will appear in tragedy or comedy … But in real life it is different. Most men and women are forced to perform parts for which they have no qualifications.


It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.


We Irish are too poetical to be poets; we are a nation of brilliant failures, but we are the greatest talkers since the Greeks.


letter of Oscar Wilde to W.B. Maxwell

You mustn’t take a story that I told you of a man and a picture. No, absolutely, I want that for myself. I fully mean to write it, and I should be terribly upset if I were forestalled.


Oscar Wilde, responding to a critic who balked at all of the literary references in “Dorian Gray”:

I cannot imagine how a casual reference to Suetonius and Petronius Arbiter can be construed into evidence of a desire to impress by an assumption of superior knowledge. I should fancy that the most ordinary of scholars is perfectly well acquainted with the Lives of the Caesars and with The Satyricon. The Lives of the Caesars, at any rate, forms part of the curriculum at Oxford for those who take the Honour School of Literae Humaniores; and as for The Satyricon, it is popular even among passmen, though I suppose they have to read it in translations.


George Bernard Shaw to R.E. Golding Bright, Nov. 19, 1894

You must give up detesting everything appertaining to Oscar Wilde or to anyone else. The critic’s first duty is to admit, with absolute respect, the right of every man to his own style.


Anyone can sympathise with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature – it requires, in fact, the nature of a true Individualist to sympathise with a friend’s success.


Mallarme is a poet, a true poet. But I prefer him when he writes in French, because in that language he is incomprehensible, while in English, unfortunately, he is not. Incomprehensibility is a gift, not everyone has it.


1891 letter from Stephen Mallarme to James Whistler

No O.W. —! just like him! He pushes ingratitude to the point of indecency, then? — And all the old chestnuts — he dares offer them in Paris like new ones! — the tales of the sunflower — his walks with the lily — his knee breeches — his rose-colored stiff shirts — and all that! — And then ‘Art’ here — ‘Art’ there — It’s really obscene — and will come to a bad end — As we shall see — and you will tell me how it happens —


I detest nature where man has not intervened with his artifice.


1891 letter of Oscar Wilde to Edmond de Goncourt

One can adore a language without speaking it well, as one can love a woman without understanding her. French by sympathy, I am Irish by race, and the English have condemned me to speak the language of Shakespeare.


I have equally recognised that humility is for the hypocrite, modesty for the incompetent.


1891, letter of Andre Gide to Paul Valery

Forgive my being silent: after Wilde I only exist a little.


“Know thyself!” was written over the portal of the ancient world … the message of Christ to man was simply, “Be thyself.”


I can see they are servants by their perfect manners.


For do you know, all my life I have been looking for twelve men who didn’t believe in me …. and so far I have only found eleven.


Poem by Dorothy Parker:

Oscar Wilde

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

Happy birthday, to Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. You were the pioneer in a cruel and vicious world. You made the ultimate sacrifice for being who you were.

Although I have focused much today on your tragedy, it is your humor and your plays that ring across centuries, not just your martyrdom. Your works will live forever.

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Announcement: Something Wild (1961): Criterion Collection DVD-Blu-Ray release, January 17, 2017


So honored to have been asked to write the essay for Criterion’s release of Jack Garfein’s forgotten 1961 masterpiece, Something Wild. Developed independently, using Actors Studio people in the lead roles (Carroll Baker, Ralph Meeker, and Mildred Dunnock), Something Wild is one of the first truly independent films in America, and pioneering not only in its subject matter (rape and PTSD), but pioneering in its treatment of these subjects.

The film was not a success and for decades it has been unavailable, not on VHS, not on DVD. It was a Holy Grail to those of us who wanted to see it but could not. A couple of years ago, it was released in a bare-bones edition on DVD. But now, FINALLY, Something Wild is being given the treatment it deserves, with a ton of special features, and interviews (beautifully: both director AND lead actress are still alive to see this day!) There will be an interview with the director by Kim Morgan – whose championing of the film over the years has been essential in raising awareness that the film even exists – an interview with Carroll Baker, and an interview with Foster Hirsch about the Actors Studio and its legacy. (Just last week, at the Film Forum’s 60th anniversary screening of Giant, I attended a pre-screening QA with Carroll Baker and George Stevens Jr. moderated by Foster Hirsch.)

More information – plus link to pre-order Something Wildhere.


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Review: Christine (2016)


The SECOND film in 2016 dealing with Christine Chubbuck, the news reporter who committed suicide on-air in 1974. This one stars Rebecca Hall. It’s not perfect, and I’m not sure what the POINT is, but Hall is great. (Everyone is great.)

My review of Christine is up at

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Review: Little Sister (2016)


What an interesting film! Nary a cliche in sight! You keep thinking one will show up, but nope. Little Sister determinedly remains recognizably human, individualistic.

My review of Little Sister is now up at

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Happy Birthday, e.e. cummings!


I responded to e.e. cummings in a visceral way when I first had to read his stuff in high school. I didn’t know what it was all about, but I loved the syntax, the unmistakable look of his poem on the page. (You could tell a poem was his without reading a word of it.) I liked puzzling the poems out. Thinking about them. I still do.

Speaking of the “syntax of things”:

since feeling is first

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

Former poet laureate Billy Collins wrote:

In the long revolt against inherited forms that has by now become the narrative of 20th-century poetry in English, no poet was more flamboyant or more recognizable in his iconoclasm than Cummings. By erasing the sacred left margin, breaking down words into syllables and letters, employing eccentric punctuation, and indulging in all kinds of print-based shenanigans, Cummings brought into question some of our basic assumptions about poetry, grammar, sign, and language itself, and he also succeeded in giving many a typesetter a headache. Like Pound, who never wrote an obedient line, Cummings reveled in breaking the rules of grammar, punctuation, orthography, and lineation. Measured by sheer boldness of experiment, no American poet compares to him, for he slipped Houdini-like out of the locked box of the stanza, then leaped from the platform of the poetic line into an unheard-of way of writing poetry.

One of the poems we read in high school was “next to of course god america i”. The last line: “He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water” freaked me out. I didn’t understand it, but somehow I knew it. Again, I liked thinking about it, wondering about it.

next to of course god america i

“next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?”

He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

Perhaps the most famous of his poems is “somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond”, the one woven into the plot and emotional themes of Woody Allen’s Hannah and her Sisters.

I know a lot of people who count it as one of their favorite poems of all time, and I would rank it with some of Shakespeare’s sonnets as great love poetry. Stanley Edgar Hyman wrote of Cummings: “Cummings has written at least a dozen poems that seem to me matchless. Three are among the great love poems of our time or any time.” Some guy I fell in love with (love at – almost – first sight, an experience I cannot recommend) sent me an email long after we left each other’s lives. He didn’t put a personal message in the email, or even a personal greeting. He just sent me the poem. Maybe he should have thought twice before pressing Send.

The poem has power in different contexts. In the midst of a love affair, or during the falling-in-love process, it would be a beautiful valediction and tribute. Post-love-affair, it takes on the mantle of unbearable loss.

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

e.e. cummings

e.e. cummings

Cummings was doing stuff with language that had been done before, all that fracturing that made up the modernist “movement”, the shattering of certainty brought about by the first world war, the despair of realizing that language was not up to the task of describing the current world and situation. Disorientation. Alienation. Gertrude Stein and others had been obsessed with how things LOOKED on the page. Even in Cummings’ own generation, though, he stood apart. Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine, and midwife to lots of the modernists, loved his stuff, but she said, “Beware his imitators!”

Michael Schmidt in Lives of the Poets writes:

He split himself between Paris and Greenwich Village, and later in life between the Village and his New Hampshire farm. He died in 1962. Never happy in a single form, cummings dabbled in painting and drawing, based a satirical ballet on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, wrote plays, and a travel diary about his trip to the Soviet Union, Eimi (1933), because he was fascinated with the human experiment of communism. Poems were his primary activity, but set against those of Moore and Loy, Williams and Stevens, his verse is soft-centered. It is often said that dialect poetry, translated into standard English, can prove standard-sentimental, the charm imparted only by the distortions of language: cummings is a dialect poet in this sense. His belief in the Individual, the sacred unit, the anarchic “I” in tension or conflict with the world and its institutions, issues in inventive distortions of language, but not the radical vision of a Loy or the bleakness of Jeffers. The experimentalist and iconoclast takes his place in the Elysian Fields among the conservatives.

i carry your heart with me

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go, my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart)

One of the driving engines of his poetry was a hatred of phoniness, officiousness and pettiness (ironic considering his love affair with Communism, a political system that turned bureaucracy into a God. I have not read EIMI: A Journey Through Soviet Russia, his impressionistic travelogue of his time in the Soviet Union, although I own it. I’ll get to it some day. The veil dropped from his eyes, and he compared his trip to Dante’s Inferno). He was brutal when it came to bureaucrats (that image of the guy giving a patriotic bureaucratic speech and then drinking “rapidly” a glass of water). Bureaucrats represented to him inhumanity, a mechanistic approach to life. It was inhuman. (I think many people who had started out as frank Socialists who wanted to create a better world and lighten the load of the masses who did the majority of the work were shocked/heartbroken/disappointed/betrayed by what that end result looked like in Russia. Folks like Orwell, Rebecca West, Arthur Koestler, etc.)

Cummings could be very very judgmental. There were those who “got it”, and that was a small number, according to Cummings, and outside of that charmed circle, was vast ignorance. He wanted no part of convention. He was of that generation (born in 1894, died in 1962) who saw two World Wars, with carnage on an industrialized level never seen before on the planet. Those wars changed how writers dealt with language. He was grappling with the same issues as TS Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound. His use of language felt organic, not like a trick or a gimmick (as was the case with some of his contemporaries): the strange and startling form of his poems, the way he arranged words, ended up being a vehicle for his emotions. You can feel both in his poems: the necessity of form, as well as the strong passions contained in that form.

And Harriet Monroe was right. Beware his imitators! They may have the mannerisms, but lack the heart.

We all can probably name a few writers who think if they

just break up

the lines
on (the
in a seeeeeeemingly r-a-n-d-o-m
then that means
it must be


e.e. cummings knew the traditional forms of poetry well, and so when he threw them away, he replaced it with an underlying structure of his own.

He’s also one of the few poets of that period who was truly funny. I love the following poem. Sexy.

may i feel said he

may i feel said he
(i’ll squeal said she
just once said he)
it’s fun said she

(may i touch said he
how much said she
a lot said he)
why not said she

(let’s go said he
not too far said she
what’s too far said he
where you are said she)

may i stay said he
(which way said she
like this said he
if you kiss said she

may i move said he
is it love said she)
if you’re willing said he
(but you’re killing said she

but it’s life said he
but your wife said she
now said he)
ow said she

(tiptop said he
don’t stop said she
oh no said he)
go slow said she

(cccome? said he
ummm said she)
you’re divine! said he
(you are Mine said she)


“No one else has ever made avant-garde, experimental poems so attractive to the general and the special reader.” — Randall Jarrell

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Supernatural, Season 12 (WTH???) Premiere


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Chicago International Film Festival: One Day Since Yesterday


I’m VERY proud to have been interviewed for Bill Teck’s documentary One Day Since Yesterday, a doc about a lost American film, They All Laughed (1981), directed by Peter Bogdanovich. The film has been re-discovered, slowly, especially with a release on DVD with a commentary track by Bogdanovich. It deserves to stand toe-to-toe with Last Picture Show and Paper Moon – although, in my opinion, it’s a masterpiece, and Bogdanovich’s best (considering he directed one of my favorite movies, What’s Up, Doc?, which I literally can recite beginning to end).

One Day Since Yesterday is screening at the Chicago International Film Festival on October 16, at 5 p.m. Bill Teck will be there. Peter Bogdanovich will be there. Louise Stratten – sister of the lovely Dorothy Stratten, one of the stars of They All Laughed (murdered by her estranged husband a week after the end of shooting the film. She was only 20 years old).

They All Laughed is a must-see. Very honored to have been asked to weigh in on this masterpiece for the documentary.

You can buy tickets for the screening here.

Here’s the trailer:

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Supernatural: Season 2, Episode 22: “All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 2″


Directed by Kim Manners
Written by Eric Kripke

“There is no excellent beauty, that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” – Francis Bacon

For this episode, I’ll be going over ground I’ve covered – extensively? – in two other re-caps mainly, although it’s everywhere: Season 1’s “Shadow” and “Devil’s Trap. It has to do with Beauty. Are y’all bored yet? In the best films, beauty is not set-dressing or superficial. It is thematic, which is why you hear film critics talk about it so much. In the right hands, style IS story (or a huge part of HOW the story is told.)

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