2 Good 2 Be 4-Gotten: Lucinda Williams and the Country Music Tradition

This week, Lit Hub reprinted the introduction to Gone Country, a collection of interviews with country artists edited by Jesse Montgomery, Peter Nowogrodzki, and Alex Spoto. Given the title “On the Complicated Legacy of American Country Music,” it’s an essay that I had to read the moment I got the chance, because I’ve got some complicated thoughts on the genre. On the one hand, I adore country music, broadly construed. When I was living in Pittsburgh, listening to WYEP’s “Roots and Rhythm Mix” was my Sunday afternoon tradition, and most of my favorite artists are a least a little rootsy. On the other hand, I rarely call myself a fan of the genre in conversation, and I find contemporary Nashville country to be borderline unlistenable. So, yeah: right up my alley.

Montgomery, Nowogrodzki, and Spoto hit a lot of interesting points in their piece, so you should definitely read it for yourself. But one paragraph towards the middle of the essay caught my attention more than anything else. The authors argue that country music is

in the running for the most secretly self-obsessed, borderline neurotic form of popular American music. It turns history over and over in its head, venerating heroes, commenting again and again on progressions and digressions, berating itself for a failure to live up to the myths the tradition has created, and never getting to the bottom of any of this. As a genre, it’s rivaled only by rap for a tendency to sing about itself and evolution, to take itself as its own subject and find the emotional resonance of something like a style or a tradition.

It’s not that other genres don’t value their traditions and lineages; I wrote a whole post on how latter-day folk music has rewritten a 16th-century murder ballad. But country music is especially overt about it, with songs that name-check the genre’s greats as though they were figures from Scripture. And all of that got me thinking more critically about an all-time favorite of mine: Lucinda Williams’s “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten.”

Released as part of her 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” is a song soaked in country music’s evolution. The instrumentation features both plucked and strummed guitar strings, light hints of accordion that whisper of the genre’s distant past, and an almost mechanical drum beat to kick-off the track. (And that’s to say nothing of the title, whose spelling is incredibly of the 1990s.) The song is so many different kinds of dated that the track actually ends up being timeless, a quality that the best country music strives for.

Lyrically, the song is equally beholden to the past, and I find this song’s particular reference to tradition especially compelling. Now, Lucinda Williams has never shied away from invoking the musicians who have come before her, and she has an uncanny ability to select the right artist for the song’s mood. For example, the depressed speaker of “Ventura” listens to Neil Young, in a song that sounds like it belongs on side two of On the Beach. By contrast you have a song like “Metal Firecracker,” a warm yet bittersweet reminiscence on a former relationship, which has the speaker and her partner “put on ZZ Top and turn ’em up real loud.” She’s got tunes, and she knows how to use them.

Still, the context of Williams’s musical references tends to be pretty straightforward: the speaker is listening to a recording of a song. “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” on the other hand, presents something more complicated. The first verse ends by mentioning how “Mr. Johnson sings over in a corner by the bar,” and that he “[s]old his soul to the devil so he could play guitar.” These lines refer to blues musician Robert Johnson, and like the Neil Young and ZZ Top examples I’ve mentioned above, his music fits the mood of the song well. “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” is a song of heartbreak, so the writer of “Love in Vain” is the perfect choice to underscore the sentiment. But I think this reference does even more than that, because the speaker seems less interested in the music itself than she is in the music’s context.

The speaker opts to close the couplet that references Johnson not by describing his performance, but by invoking the legend that surrounds him. Tradition holds that Robert Johnson met the devil at a crossroads one night, whereupon he sold his soul to become a blues virtuoso. It’s well-trod ground, invoking this myth; I dare say the story overshadows Johnson’s music in the public imagination. But I like how Williams treats the legend with some understatement. She doesn’t make it out to be a monumental event, even though she could totally cast it as the origin story of the blues. Instead, it’s an interesting bit of trivia, just a background detail to help paint the scene.

And just what scene is that? “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” takes place at the “Rosedale, Mississippi, Magic City Juke Joint,” with “juke joint” meaning a kind of establishment that catered to African American patrons in the Jim Crow–era South. It is the exact sort of place where the real-life Robert Johnson would play his blues songs, so it’s no surprise to find him “over in a corner by the bar.” And it’s also the exact sort of place that country music has had a tendency to erase from its history.

Country music, as Montgomery, Nowogrodzki, and Spoto note, is the product of artistic and commercial forces that have combined and flattened a wide variety of influences, from the ballad tradition to gospel music to zydeco. But if you were to judge from the demographics of country music’s fanbase and most of its prominent artists, you would assume the genre’s origins were entirely of white America. This state of affairs is not the result of happenstance, but of calculated decisions from within the industry. “We might say country forgot its debt to the blues,” they write, “when executives drew a color line between hillbilly and race records for ease of sale to white audiences in the 1920s.” By writing a country song that breathes in the origins of commercial blues music, Williams offers up something of a corrective to that history.

Of course, I’m making that effort sound like an intellectual exercise. In Williams’s hands, the world of the Magic City Juke Joint is lively and personal. It’s a place that is always on the verge of a little anarchy, where “[t]here’s no good, there’s no bad.” (Not for nothing, the speaker keeps listing off the establishment’s countless rules for behavior.) It’s a place of religious devotion, where a Pentecostal man “says he wants to take up serpents” and the “[b]athroom wall reads, ‘Is God the answer? Yes.'” But most importantly, it’s a place where the speaker can find solace.

After all, the speaker enters the song with a very bleak assessment of life: “You can’t depend on anything, really / There’s no promises, there’s no point.” But for the first two verses, the speaker keeps the source of this despondency to herself. Montgomery, Nowogrodzki, and Spoto mention the tradition of country songs “about struggling to articulate heartbreak,” and “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” belongs in that conversation. Williams’s breathy delivery in the final verse, where the speaker reveals her dramatic break-up, sounds exactly like someone finally getting something off her chest. Just listen to how that accordion soars after that last verse; it’s the sound of someone having an epiphany. It’s a wonderful moment. And it took a “dirty little joint” and the music of Robert Johnson to let her reach it.

Thanks for reading! If you’re looking more of my music writing…well, I don’t have all that much, but I do have a post about Steven Hyden’s Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock that I’m fairly proud of. You can check it out here if you’d like.

Searching for Bobby Fischer’s Soul: A Reflection

EndgameThere’s a moment near the end of Frank Brady’s 2011 biography Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall—from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness which both caught me off guard and,did not surprise me in the slightest. In late 2007, as Fischer was slowly dying in an Icelandic hospital, Dr. Magnus Skulasson, a psychiatrist (though not Fischer’s psychiatrist), frequently came to visit him, just to give Fischer some friendly company in his last weeks.

I’ll let Brady pick up the moment from there:

Bobby asked him to bring foods and juices to the hospital, which he did, and often Skulasson just sat at the bedside, both men not speaking. When Bobby was experiencing severe pain in his legs, Skulasson began to massage them, using the back of his hand. Bobby looked at him and said, “Nothing soothes as much as the human touch.” Once Bobby woke and said: “Why are you so kind to me?” Of course, Skulasson had no answer. (p. 318)

Just in terms of the prose, it’s clear that Brady finds this moment arresting, too. There’s that colon right before Bobby’s question, which signals that whatever follows is going to be significant. And that tossed-off “Of course” right before the last clause just underscores how difficult answering that question is. Why should Skulasson be kind to Bobby Fischer? Or rather, why should anyone be kind to him?

And if we’re going to hope to answer that question, then we’re going to need some context.

Bobby Fischer, at the very least in the United States, is history’s most famous chess player. His 1956 “Game of the Century” against Donald Byrne is one of the most celebrated games ever played; his triumph over Boris Spassky in the World Chess Championship 1972 represents the height of chess’s cultural and political relevance. Every rising American player from Joshua Waitzkin to Fabiano Caruana is heralded as “the next Bobby Fischer.” His name may as well be synonymous with chess.

Fischer was also a wretched human being. Even in our current political moment, when antisemitism and violent rhetoric are once again on the rise, his comments on Jewish people and September 11th are still shocking in their virulence. I had long known Fischer was “politically incorrect,” to dress things up politely, but reading excerpts from his press conferences and radio interviews made my eyes bulge. And that’s to say nothing of his day-to-day interactions with people. Fischer was consistently petulant, dismissive, ungrateful, and paranoid. The fact that anyone could stand to be in his presence for more than three minutes is itself a revelation.

Reading Endgame, I kept waiting for the moment when people would finally give up on Bobby Fischer. But no matter how many paranoid and hateful rants he’d subject his friends and colleagues to, no matter how often he’d respond to generosity with bile, people kept reaching out to him, kept giving him second chances. Chess masters would give him companionship and a place to stay while he was a fugitive. Admirers would write him letters and plead for his picture. A whole consortium of Icelandic public figures spent godless amounts of time and effort to extract him from his imprisonment in Japan. All that attention and affection, given to someone manifestly unworthy of it. Why?

Part of the answer, undoubtedly, lies in Fischer’s celebrity status. Fame invariably will grant one the benefit of the doubt in the eyes of the public. After all, one might argue, Fischer’s accomplishments in chess are undeniable: aesthetically, theoretically, technologically and economically, he did so much for the game. His victory in the World Chess Championship 1972 more or less put the city of Reykjavík on the map. It’s disappointing that so many people were willing to overlook or excuse his behavior, but I can’t say it’s too shocking, either. It’s not like the world is free of Cosby and Polanski apologists.

Second, especially in his earlier years, it’s not as though Fischer the person was wholly undeserving of sympathy. His childhood was far from idyllic: his family struggled financially for many years, and his mother was under government surveillance due to her left-wing political activities. And he seems to have been searching for purpose in his life for decades. Before he really embraced antisemitism as a guiding ethos—the same way, I suppose, one might try embracing a cactus for comfort—Fischer was an unofficial member of the Worldwide Church of God, an apocalyptic Christian denomination to which he tithed a good chunk of his world championship winnings. However, there’s only so much that a difficult life can account for, and calling for the mass murder of Jews is way, way beyond that.

That’s why, to bring this back to the beginning, Magnus cannot possibly have an answer to the question, “Why are you so kind to me?” It’s a level of kindness that defies reason, perhaps even rejects it. We can say, as Brady does off-handedly a few paragraphs earlier, that Magnus “had a great reverence for the accomplishments of Bobby Fischer and an affection for him as a man” (p. 318). But that’s not really an explanation; at most, it just pushes the question back down a level: “Why do you have affection for me as a man?” I mean, I still get chills watching Fischer’s mating combination in the Game of the Century, and I wouldn’t want to be in the same country as him.

Still, whereas every other time someone helped Fischer out filled me with frustration, Magnus’s leg-stroking inspired some more ambiguous feeling in me. The end of Fischer’s life is the rare spot in Endgame where he seems truly helpless. Yes, he’d been facing the threat of extradition to the United States for 15 years, but he also had the resources and stature to evade that threat for just as long. Yes, he’d gotten roughed up while in custody at Narita International Airport for traveling with an invalid passport, but that felt like perverted justice rather than injustice per se. But Fischer lying prone, vulnerable, in a hospital bed? That was something almost pitiable.

Tony Hoagland has a poem called “Lucky,” whose opening stanza has stuck with me ever since I first read it back in 2013:

If you are lucky in this life,
you will get to help your enemy
the way I got to help my mother
when she was weakened past the point of saying no. (lines 1-4)

I’ve never been certain what Hoagland means here. Is this a wish that we treat our enemy with pity, that we find a way to be a better person? Or is helping someone when they are “weakened past the point of saying no” a sort of cruelty, an act of revenge we’d be dying to enact?

And, however you answer that question, is that the sort of thing that you would want to do to someone like Bobby Fischer?


What Can We Learn from Erasmus’s and Chaucer’s Friars?

I can’t say I was enthralled with Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly (also called In Praise of Folly), a 1509 satirical essay in which the figure of Folly expounds on her role in early modern European society. Maybe it was the translation I was reading from: John Wilson’s 17th-century English syntax, I feel, tends to muffle whatever humor Erasmus wants to find in people’s foibles.

That’s a shame, because Erasmus’s satire is the sort that ought to have a longer-than-normal shelf-life. This isn’t something like John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, a poem satirizing Restoration-era politics, which lost a good chunk of its relevance and bite the moment Charles II died. No, the sort of superstition, short-sightedness and self-interest that Erasmus writes about has, alas, never left us.

And there was one section of The Praise of Folly in particular that I felt spoke to universal concerns very well, and it was about an absolutely timeless feature of Western society: begging, itinerant friars. Hear me out.

For some quick context: “friar” is the broad term for certain orders of Christian clerics. In contrast to monks, who live their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in cloistered settings, friars take those orders on the road, serving the faithful and spreading the gospel out in the world. They travel from town to town, subsisting on whatever donations they can muster from the common folk. It’s that last bit, the need for friars to beg, which tends to draw people’s ire, and which tends to inspire criticism of mendicant orders. (Then as now, no one enjoys being asked for money.)

Thus, in Erasmus’s telling, friars need to get creative if they want to secure funding. And what tools does a friar have aside from his preaching? The use of language comes up time and again in this section of The Praise of Folly, and it’s fascinating to see how many ways friars employ language to achieve their ends. My personal favorite tactic is their tendency to support the precepts of Christianity by citing literally everything but Christian doctrine:

How they shift their voice, sing out their words, skip up and down, and are ever and anon making such new faces, that they confound all things with noise! and yet this Knack of theirs is no less than a Mystery that runs in succession from one brother to another; which though it be not lawful for me to know, however I’ll venture at it by conjectures. First they invoke what ever they have scrapt from the Poets; and in the next place, if they are to discourse of Charity, they take their rise from the river Nilus; or to set out the Mystery of the Cross, from Bell and the Dragon; or to dispute of Fasting, from the twelve signs of the Zodiack; or, being to preach of Faith, ground their matter on the square of a Circle. (pp. 204-205)

All these rhetorical maneuvers, all these allusions to astrology and mathematics and such, are flashy and sound impressive to the audience—the speaker must be quite learned in the ways of the divine to understand all of this, no? Except, of course, that none of the above has anything to do with the divine, let alone justifies why the listeners should scrape the bottoms of their money pouches.

More than anything, Erasmus’s depiction of friars reminds me of Geoffrey Chaucer, who like Erasmus spends a lot of The Canterbury Tales poking fun at various clerical figures, particularly with regards to how they use language. The Pardoner, for instance, famously brags about all his scams—his fraudulent relics, his insincere sermons—and then delivers a persuasive fable against greed. The Monk, on the other hand, attempts to win the story-telling contest through sheer quantity, recounting tragic fall after tragic fall until the Knight  finally begs him to stop.

And then, of course, there’s the Friar. Chaucer devotes most of the Friar’s description in the General Prologue to his quest for money (e.g., spurning the poor and sick for the wealthy and well), but towards the end he inserts some quick details on the Friar’s rhetorical skills. For one thing, he’s able to move his audience to action through his preaching: “[T]hogh a widwe hadde noght a sho,” Chaucer tells us, “So plesaunt was his ‘In principio,’ [‘In the beginning’]/ Yet wolde he have a ferthing, er he wente” (Fragment I, lines 255-257). For another, he’s aware of the power of delivery: “Somwhat he lipsed, for his wantownesse, / To make his English swete upon his tonge” (I.267-268). If he were in modern day America, he’d be putting on a posh English accent.

But the most biting depiction of friars comes not from Chaucer the narrator, but rather from the Summoner (another of the countless churchmen in The Canterbury Tales). The Summoner, who has just been the target of “The Friar’s Tale,” makes friars the butt end of his little joke. Literally: long story short, the friar in the tale gets farted on. (This is Chaucer, after all.) It’s some foul comeuppance, sure, but the way that the Summoner’s friar describes his approach to preaching is just as memorable:

“I have to day been at your chirche at messe,
And seyd a sermon after my symple wit—
Nat al after the text of hooly writ,
For it is hard to yow, as I suppose,
And therefore I wol teche yow al the glosse.
Glosynge is a glorious thyng, certeyn,
For lettre sleeth, so as we clerkes seyn” (III.1788-1794)

When “hooly writ” does not suit this friar’s conclusion (normally, “Give me money”), he will gladly preach from “the glosse,” that is, an interpretation of the text. “Glosynge is a glorious thyng” because it allows one to support any position, no matter what “hooly writ” actually demands. At least the Pardoner is up front with his dissembling; the Summoner’s friar is both dishonest and sneaky. One indeed might as well cite the zodiac if the plain truth is so inconvenient. Really, why not fart on this guy?

Okay, talking about early modern clerical satire is all fine and dandy, but why should anyone care? Do these slick-tongued mendicants have any relevance to contemporary life?

There’s a recent piece by Nathan J. Robinson on the Current Affairs website called “You Can Make an Argument for Anything.” I think this paragraph gets right to the heart of it:

When I say there are justifications for everything, I truly mean everythingYou can make an argument against democracy or against empathy. (“People don’t know what’s in their best interests,” and “Excess compassion impedes rational decision-making,” respectively.) If I want to seize the land of native peoples, destroy their property and force them into exile, I might say: “Land should be put to its most efficient and productive use, and while we respect the ancestral rights of all people to their homes, all benefit alike from the development of resources toward their optimal functions.” In fact, even today there are those who defend colonialism, saying something like “colonialism improved living standards in the aggregate and was therefore more beneficial than detrimental.” Even slaveowners had arguments: In addition to their crackpot racial theories, they said that dominance of man over man was the natural way of things, and that slaveowners treated their slaves better than industrialists treated factory workers. (If your defense of your actions is “I’m not as bad as the capitalists,” your actions are probably indefensible.) [Emphasis in original]

In these contexts, it’s wholly irrelevant whether the argument is sound, or whether it’s even based on true premises. The speaker only needs the trappings of reason to make a persuasive case for horrific causes. And as Robinson would probably remind us, the stakes involved here are much greater than, “Should I give this friar another hand-out?”

Glosynge is a glorious thyng, certeyn…

Dictionary Marketing and the Love of Language

A few weeks ago, in an effort to stave off the ever-looming threat of student loan collectors, I started working for the editorial department of a company that does consulting and advertising for pharmaceutical firms. Most of my job consists of proofreading, but every once in a while I’ll be tasked with ensuring that certain documents aimed at international audiences use British spellings of words rather than American ones. I have to make certain that, say, a program on tumors and leukemia is really a programme on tumours and leukaemia.

Being an American, it can’t be too surprising that British spellings don’t quite come naturally to me. I doubt that, if I weren’t looking for deviations from a pattern, I would even notice if someone wrote “traveled” (American spelling) instead of “travelled” (British spelling). As such, I find it useful to consult the list of British/American spelling differences on the Oxford Dictionaries website, using it as a sort of checklist when working on a file. I ask myself, have I accounted for every cancer centre, every licenced physician, every adverse event of diarrhoea?

The other day, once I’d gotten to the end of that checklist, I saw a link to a blog post by Lynne Murphy, asking “How do British and American attitudes to dictionaries differ?” That’s the exact sort of question that catches my attention: I hang out with language all day, I fashion myself a poet, and I spent an entire blog post here exploring my fascination with the word “paratext.” So, when I had some downtime, I gave it read.

It’s a short piece, but it hits on some intriguing cultural differences between British and American readers. For instance, American judges cite dictionary definitions in their decisions orders of magnitude more often that their British counterparts. I’d always assumed, from reading Supreme Court jurisprudence, that referencing nineteenth-century dictionaries was just part of the judge’s job description.

But the difference that I found most illuminating was in how dictionaries market themselves (and not just because it’s another example of paratext). To quote Murphy:

[A] look at the way dictionaries are marketed betrays their local histories, the local attitudes toward dictionaries, and assumptions about who is using them. One big general-purpose British dictionary’s cover tells us it is ‘The Language Lover’s Dictionary’. Another is ‘The unrivalled dictionary for word lovers’.

Now compare some hefty American dictionaries, whose covers advertise ‘expert guidance on correct usage’ and ‘The Clearest Advice on Avoiding Offensive Language; The Best Guidance on Grammar and Usage’. One has a badge telling us it is ‘The Official Dictionary of the ASSOCIATED PRESS’. Not one of the British dictionaries comes close to such claims of authority…None of the American dictionary marketers talk about loving words.

I think I’ve been subconsciously aware of these divergent tendencies in British and American dictionaries for some time now. If I wanted to know about a word’s etymology, or to look up the myriad meanings of a word in Middle English, I knew that I needed to consult the Oxford English Dictionary to do so; Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary was going to be of little help. And I’ve been in that position fairly often, needing to research the intricacies of a word’s history. In undergrad, for example, I was inspired to write an essay based on playwright Thomas Middleton’s use of “blame” as an adjective, roughly meaning “blameworthy.” The OED would see that usage as a interesting feature of 17th-century English; Merriam-Webster’s would suggest it’s merely wrong by not even acknowledging it.

On the other hand, I understand there’s a need for clear standards for a language in certain contexts, where confusion and ambiguity can have negative consequences. I work tangential to the medical industry, where unclear communications between drug manufacturers and doctors, or doctors and patients, may seriously harm or kill someone. Having an agreed-upon standard, even an arbitrary one, helps reduce that risk. In that case, the curiosities and trivia in the OED are at best distractions; give me the dry definitions and spellings of Merriam-Webster’s.

Even if I sort of knew about it already, it was still enlightening to see that division between American and British dictionaries laid out like that. And I was happy to come across a piece written by Lynne Murphy, who is the author behind the blog Separated by a Common Language, which is dedicated to exploring differences between American and British English. But I best remembered her for the time she was on the YouTube channel Numberphile, talking about how Americans and Brits abbreviate “mathematics”:

Most of the video is dedicated to debunking arguments for why “math” or “maths” is the correct or more logical abbreviation for “mathematics,” but the part of the video that interests me most is the brief history of how those abbreviations came to be. Namely, both the American and British abbreviations derive from print sources, and only later entered the spoken language. Prior to those written abbreviations, there’s little evidence that people abbreviated the word “mathematics” at all.

That brief bit of context is a demonstration of how language can evolve from the most mundane sources. I’m reminded of a line from Marianne Moore’s “Poetry”: “nor is it valid / to discriminate against ‘business documents and // school books’; all these phenomena are important” (lines 17-19). It’s the sort of history that one would completely miss if all one cared about was utilitarian usage. So if British dictionary marketers are representative of the country, count me an Anglophile in that regard.

But what do you think? Do you consult dictionaries for linguistic trivia or practical guidance? Are there any words or etymologies you find especially interesting? Let me know in the comments! And as always, thanks for reading.

Seeing the Beating Heart: Adapting Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” for Film

As as adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Tell-Tale Heart (dir. Jules Dassin, 1941) strays a fair bit from its source material’s plot, mostly in terms of resolving ambiguities. Notably, whereas Poe’s story (which you can read here) leaves both the narrator’s motive and his relationship to the old man ambiguous, Dassin’s short film casts the protagonist (played by Joseph Schildkraut) as a decades-long victim of abuse who is suddenly driven to kill his alleged caretaker (Roman Bohnen). And I will say up front that I believe that additional information ultimately weakens Dassin’s The Tell-Tale Heart as a work. The uncertainty that surrounds the narrator’s account of the crime, so central to the original story, is lost in the process and replaced with a fairly mundane tale of revenge.

However, while the short film is not the best translation of Poe’s plot, I think Dassin and his crew capture something far more important about the source material. They find ways to bring the narrator’s mental state to the screen.

Before we can talk about how the filmmakers accomplish that task, we need to talk about Poe’s story. The opening lines of “The Tell-Tale Heart” give the reader an immediate sense of how the narrator perceives the events he’s lived through. And when I say “perceive,” I mean that in a literal sense, for the narrator is keenly aware of his senses:

True! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses  –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?

For those of you who have read the story, you know why that fine sense of hearing is significant: the narrator would have gotten away with the old man’s murder if he hadn’t heard the sound of the old man’s beating heart beneath the floorboards. That heartbeat from beyond the grave is almost certainly a manifestation of the narrator’s guilty conscience, but what makes the narrator’s breakdown palpable is the possibility that what he’s hearing is real. And if there’s one type of sensation which language is best able to convey to the reader, it’s sound.

“The Tell-Tale Heart” is remarkably vague on the visual aspects of the story, with the old man’s eye (“the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it”) being the one standout detail. The rest of the story’s world is sketchy, with some floorboards here, a bathtub there, but nothing too evocative. By contrast, the story’s soundscape is incredibly vivid. The beating heart is likened to “such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton” (incessant, but muffled), while the old man tries to pass off the creaking in his room as “the wind in the chimney,” “a mouse crossing the floor,” and “a cricket which has made a single chirp.” There’s nothing vague about this material; Poe’s imagery is detailed and specific.

Still, all the above devices work on the level of labeling, rather than evoking. Intellectually, I can understand what a muffled watch or a scurrying mouse sounds like, but the phrases used to describe them don’t necessarily make one feel those sounds. No, Poe achieves that feat through the rhythm of his prose and the repetition of words and phrases. Much of the story relies on short, staccato sentences and parallel syntax, which suggest the regular beat of the human heart. The block quote above provides some obvious examples: “very, very dreadfully,” “not destroyed…not dulled…,” “I heard…I heard…,” etc. But this dark music works in more subtle ways, too. Consider the start of the third paragraph. The short, even sentences are readily apparent, but note the driving meter as well: “Now this is the point. You fancy me madMadmen know nothing. But you should have seen me.” Read aloud, this stretch of two-beat sentences is, well, maddening. Imagine, then, what reciting the whole story must feel like.

That ceaseless rhythm is, I think, central to feeling the narrator’s mental state, and not merely to understanding it. Just as the narrator becomes fixated on the beating heart, on his guilty conscience, so the reader becomes fixated on the beating heart of the prose. More than the murderous act or the narrator’s madness, that is the true horror of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” So how do the filmmakers preserve that rhythm through the adaptation process?

Let’s get the obvious techniques out of the way. The sound mix emphasizes such auditory elements as the old man’s footsteps and the ticking clock, sounds which are short and regular. They of course prefigure the beating heart which will take prominence after the murder. Also, the film’s score tends to highlight the percussion instruments and uses short, repeating phrases to underline the tension during the police interrogation scene. These are approaches I expected to see (hear?) coming into the film, and they’re also the ones I’m least interested in.

No, film is a visual medium, and I wanted to see, actually see, the story’s rhythm rendered in visual terms, whether through acting, editing, set design, or what have you. I’m not going to say it’s easy, mind, but it’s what I was looking for.

From the film’s opening shot, I knew they’d nailed it.


We first see our protagonist working at a weaver’s loom, mechanically moving and adjusting the various parts, the shuttle and the batten, back and forth as the camera slowly zooms in on him. That particular prop on its own would be enough to start with, but the protagonist’s relationship to the device finishes the job. He’s focused on his task, almost emotionless, until the camera reaches that all-important instrument: his ear. In a single shot lasting about 25 seconds, the filmmakers key the viewer into the physical rhythms of the picture, telling them to “listen” for those patterns.

As the film progresses, we see similar visual rhythms, such the robotic process by which the protagonist oils the hinges on the old man’s bedroom door, or in a scene borrowed from the source material, the way he drags the chair back and forth over the floorboards concealing the old man’s corpse. It’s so pervasive a technique that when the filmmakers break from the pattern, the effect is unsettling. There’s a sequence in which the protagonist, while speaking to the police, hears that tell-tale beating sound. He looks around the room and finds that the clock’s pendulum is motionless and the faucet is no longer dripping. In that moment, he knows every mundane explanation for the sound—every proverbial mouse, cricket, and chimney gust—is untenable. We the audience see the instant where his conscience becomes too much to bear. That, right there, is solid film-craft.

So, if you’re looking to watch some Poe adaptations this Halloween, give this one a chance in between your Vincent Price and Bela Lugosi vehicles. Like the best adaptations of his work, while it plays loose with some plot elements, it captures the experience of reading the story exceptionally well.

Also, it’s only 20 minutes long. You have time to watch it this month, trust me.

*          *          *

Thank you for reading! If you’re in the mood for some more unsettling cinema, a while ago I dedicated a post on this blog to celebrating the “inspired unpleasantness” of Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M. Or, if you’d prefer something (marginally) lighter, here’s a short reflection on why I find murder mysteries relaxing. Happy Halloween!

James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”: An Analysis

James WrightHere in the United States, we’re currently in the midst of American football season, which means it’s historically a fallow time for poetry. Unlike with baseball or basketball, there isn’t really a long tradition of poetry about football. As a sport, it lacks the aura of pastoral myth that surrounds baseball and the graceful control of the body that defines basketball. No, football is kind of an ugly sport: violent and dangerous, cloaked in concealing equipment, and overly complicated to describe. It just doesn’t lend itself to poetry.

There are, however, some noteworthy poems on the sport, like the one I’d like to talk about today: James Wright’s “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” Unlike every other poem I’ve previously given a close reading for, this poem is still protected by copyright, but you can read it over at poets.org, where they also have a recording of Wright reading the poem aloud.

Let’s start with the title, because titles are something that James Wright is especially famous for. I’ve sometimes talked about poem titles as though they were sluglines in a screenplay, in that they can ground the reader in the poem’s situation before it actually begins. This way of viewing titles holds especially true in Wright’s poetry, which are very explicit (and lengthy) in laying out the occasion of the work. This is a man who titles his poems “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” or “In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned.”

Compared to those examples, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” is relatively restrained, simply giving us the time and place. The first line of the poem then narrows the focus even further, placing us in “the Shreve High football stadium” (line 1). With a little knowledge of American sports schedules, one can piece together that it’s the start of the high school football season. So there’s our subject: a high school football game.

Except, the speaker then immediately moves the poem outside the football stadium, outside the bounds of Martins Ferry. Rather than talking about the game in front of him, he turns to the lives of working class people in the surrounding towns:

I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes. (2-5)

There’s a Whitmanesque quality to these lines, listing off the laborers who make the Ohio River region what it is. But where Whitman might celebrate the image of the American worker, Wright takes a more subdued approach. People are “nursing” their drinks; they’re “ruptured” or have “gray faces.” When he ends the stanza by claiming that they’re “[d]reaming of heroes,” it sounds less aspirational and more hopelessly escapist. Life in the Wheeling area is drudgery, and the most that people can do is to imagine something better.

The landscape of the post-industrial Midwest is a recurring feature of Wright’s poetry. “Outside Fargo, North Dakota” opens with the image of “the sprawled body of the derailed Great Northern freight car,” while “In Response to a Rumor…” is actually about women leaving a vinegar factory and appearing to disappear into the Ohio River. A sense of isolation and unease often overwhelms the speaker’s thoughts in these works: he is “lonely / And sick for home” in Fargo, and “will grieve alone” in Wheeling. Finding a similar malaise hanging over small towns in Ohio and West Virginia, then, is of a piece with the rest of Wright’s work.

Still, I detect something more personal in “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” In most of what I call his Midwest Hellscape poems, the speaker is an interloper, a visitor to vast decay, one who may interact with the people around him but only on a surface level. There’s no intimacy with the man in the train in “Outside Fargo, North Dakota” or the factory workers of “In Response to a Rumor…,” just a fearful fascination. But here, if only in the speaker’s mind, we follow the crowd back home.

There’s some initial ambiguity in just who the “proud fathers…ashamed to go home” refer to (6). Are they the various workers mentioned in lines 2-5, or the people joining the speaker in the stands of the football stadium. Of course, that ambiguity may well be meaningless, and I feel the poem is richer if one supposes that they’re both: steel workers on aluminum bleachers. Yes, they’ve come to watch their kids, but also to avoid a home life that they’ve long neglected—their wives are likened to “starved pullets,” i.e., young hens (7). And what are they starving from? They’re “[d]ying for love” (8). The struggles of the industrial working class don’t stop at the factory gates. They follow them into the house.

It is perhaps more than a coincidence that James Wright’s hometown is Martins Ferry, Ohio.

The final stanza, though, is where I think this poem truly becomes something special, which is interesting because it opens with one of the least poetic words in the language. Line 9 is the only one-word line in the poem, and that word is: “Therefore.”

Up until this point, you’d be forgiven for thinking this poem wasn’t making an argument, but just presenting a landscape. This sudden introduction of rhetorical logic is a little disorienting at first. The reader must readjust their expectations, and understand that the preceding stanzas are in fact the premises for the conclusion which is to follow:

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each others bodies. (9-12)

I adore this last stanza for two reasons. First, it perfectly captures the contradictions at the heart of watching football. The game is both a showcase of humanity’s physical potential and an exercise in self-destruction. Look at the language Wright uses here: “suicidally beautiful,” “gallop terribly.” The sons of Martins Ferry embody both these aspects of football in two strange yet powerful word pairs.

Second, as a final stanza and a conclusion to an argument, these four lines offer something of a twist. Introducing this wholly mundane scene—beautifully described, yes, but mundane as a scene—with such a heavy “Therefore” is the exact sort of surprise I look for in a poem. It’s attempting to justify something that we take for granted: why do kids play football? In Wright’s poem, the answer lies in everything that came before. What good does it do the sons of Martins Ferry? Lord knows, but then again, they are “suicidally beautiful.” The endgame may well not be the point. All that matters is the feeling that comes from “galloping terribly against each other’s bodies.”

What do you all think about “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio?” Are there any other poems (or stories, etc.) that you think do well in tackling the reasons we play sports? Let me know in the comments!

And as always, thank you for reading.

On Paying to See Free Shakespeare

I was already aware of the line-standing business—people getting hired to stand in lines on behalf of others—before I picked up Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. But I had only heard about it in the context of American government, mostly in the form of lobbyists hiring homeless people to wait in line for seating at the Supreme Court or Congress. Sandel brought another place where the business has bloomed to my attention: getting tickets to Free Shakespeare in the Park.

Free Shakespeare in the Park is a New York City civic tradition dating back to the 1950s. It is, as the name suggests, free to the public, but because Central Park’s Delacorte Theater has a finite number of seats, tickets are given out on a first come, first served basis. Some folks, who either can’t or don’t want to stand in line to get tickets, have taken to employing line-standers to do the waiting for them. According to Sandel, the price for a line-stander in 2010 was “as much as $125 per ticket for the free performances” (p. 21). A lot of people, including the festival organizers and New York governor Andrew Cuomo, have criticized the trend. So why don’t we talk about it some? Why does paying someone to wait in line for free Shakespeare tickets strike so many people as wrong?

On their website The Public Theater, the organization that produces Free Shakespeare in the Park, puts forth their dedication to “to developing an American theater that is accessible and relevant to all people.” The fact that tickets are free is vital for both of those goals.

Accessibility is obvious: not charging for admittance removes one of the biggest material barriers to seeing live theater. So long as one has the time and the ability to go, anyone from the richest to the poorest can attend. In terms of making theater relevant: how relevant can theater possibly be if the great majority people are, for practical purposes, barred from seeing it? You could put on the most perceptive, challenging, socially-conscious production of The Taming of the Shrew, a production that would meaningfully contribute to conversations on gender relations in modern and period societies, but its impact will be limited if only the most elite members of society can afford a ticket.

On top of all that, Sandel would add that charging money for public theater not only thwarts the festival’s goal of making theater accessible and relevant, it fundamentally corrupts the whole enterprise:

The Public Theater sees its free outdoor performances as a public festival, a kind of civic celebration. It is, so to speak, a gift the city gives itself. Of course, seating is not unlimited; the entire city cannot attend on any given evening. But the idea is to make Shakespeare freely available to everyone, without regard to the ability to pay. Charging for admission, or allowing scalpers to profit from what is meant to be a gift, is at odds with this end. It changes a public festival into a business, a tool for private gain. It would be as if the city made people pay to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July. (p. 33)

(Upon reading that last sentence, I said aloud to myself: “Sandel, don’t give people ideas!”)

Moving past the ethical implications of paying people to stand in line for Shakespeare in the Park, which I find distasteful, I find myself wondering what this phenomenon says about our attitudes towards Shakespeare.

On the one hand, I’m absolutely heartened that Shakespeare is still popular enough that people are willing to pay actual money for a chance to see a free performance of his work. There’s still a demand for his alchemical mixtures of drama, humor, character and poetry. There are still plenty of people who want to see his plays put on stage, who may find themselves inspired to delve deeper into his work, to further adapt it, to challenge or rebut it, and to spread it to subsequent generations. That a public festival for Shakespeare draws such interest warms me further: in an era of infinitely many niche audiences, it’s nice to hang on to the few common touchstones in English literature.

On the other hand, the fact that some people are willing to pay to see free Shakespeare doesn’t mean that those people necessarily value it more than those who aren’t. One suspects that the wealthy are most likely to pay for this sort of service, and the marginal value of a dollar is just so much lower for them. Sandel hints at this point when he draws an analogy to another gathering of the masses, a baseball game:

[T]he people sitting in the expensive seats at the ballpark often show up late and leave early. This makes me wonder how much they care about baseball. Their ability to afford seats behind home plate may have more to do with the depth of their pockets than their passion for the game. They certainly don’t care as much as some fans, especially young ones, who can’t afford box seats but who can tell you the batting average of every player in the starting lineup. Since market prices reflect the ability as well as the willingness to pay, they are imperfect indicators of who most values a particular good. (pp. 31-32)

For the people in the luxury boxes and the seats behind home plate, going to a baseball game is more of a status symbol or a networking opportunity than an expression of actual interest in the sport. I’m not sure theater works in quite the same way. But now I’m thinking of the first episode of Slings & Arrows, in which the VIPs in the crowd are listening to a hockey game during a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I’m starting to see that scene as less comically absurd than I’d first taken it.

But what do y’all think? What does the line-standing trade for Free Shakespeare in the Park tell us about our relationship to Shakespeare? Is it good or bad, both or neither, or at least interesting? Let me know in the comments!