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…

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:

Therefore,
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.

Exceeding Weary: A Look at “2 Henry IV,” Act II, Scene 2

When I was a sophomore in undergrad, I took a course on William Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies, in which we read most of the Henriad, the series of plays that follow Prince Hal (the future Henry V) through his wayward youth, maturation, and eventual triumph in battle. The plays of the Henriad feature some of my favorite bits of Shakespeare: the poetry of Richard II is a delight from start to finish, the character dynamics in 1 Henry IV are sharp and nuanced, and even my least favorite of the bunch, Henry V, includes some inspired comic relief.

However, the class skipped over actually reading 2 Henry IV. Instead, the professor condensed the major plot points down to single PowerPoint slide: Prince Hal takes the crown upon his father’s death and coldly turns asides his tavern buddy, Sir John Falstaff. Notably, all these events happen in the play’s final two acts, which only made me wonder: “What exactly happens in Acts I–III?”

This past week, I finally read 2 Henry IV, and to respond to my past self’s question, the answer is, “Not very much.” The play must arrive at the ending described above so as to set up the events of Henry V, but that ending is so short on paper that the play must bide its time before getting there. Throughout the first three acts, the characters are generally stuck for things to do: Henry IV is ill and still worried about Prince Hal’s imminent succession; the rebellion against the king has stalled out from indecision; and even joyous Falstaff, grown older and full of gout, can’t muster the same energy for his crimes and antics. All at once, so much fails to happen.

This meandering, holding-pattern quality of the first three acts makes it difficult to talk about them as a whole, so instead, I’ll look at once sequence in particular: Act II, Scene 2, lines 1–65, in which Prince Hal, the central figure of the whole tetralogy, finally appears on stage.

Prince Hal and Poins
Source: Wikimedia Commons. [Note: this image actually depicts a scene from 1 Henry IV, but the characters are the same.]

The scene, set in the prince’s quarters in London, is primarily a dialogue between the prince and Poins, one of the commoners the prince has spent years running wild with. Just from that set up, we see the prince stuck between two phases of his life: hanging out with his Eastcheap drinking buddy, but in the halls of royal power. On top of all that, his father is ill and he’s coming off an exhausting victory at the Battle of Shrewsbury. Little wonder, then, that he enters the scene by saying,  “Before God, I am exceeding weary” (II.2.1) Poins, for his part, has a hard time believing that “weariness … attached one of so high blood,” but while the prince indeed says that “it discolors the complexion of my greatness to acknowledge it,” he cannot help but desire the base salve of “small beer” (2–6).

Up to this point, the conversation between the prince and Poins is fairly genial, but it takes a sharp turn when the prince moves the discussion from his thirst to his companion:

What a disgrace is it to me to remember thy name! Or to know thy face tomorrow! Or to take note of how many pair of silk stockings thou hast, viz. these, and those that were thy peach colored ones! Or to bear the inventory of thy shirts, as, one for superfluity, and another for use! But that the tennis-court keeper knows better than I; for it is a low ebb of linen with thee when thou keepest not racket there, as thou hast not done a great while, because the rest of the low countries have made a shift to eat up thy holland. (12–22)

On a superficial level, this little speech recalls Prince Hal’s banter with Falstaff from 1 Henry IV, but there’s a noticeable lack of verve to it. The barbs are longer, and thus limper; more generic, and thus less biting. There’s nothing so driving as Falstaff’s litany of “you starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, you bull’s-pizzle, you stockfish” (1 Henry IV, II.iv.235–236). And while the “tennis-court keeper” bit sets up a half-clever play on “holland” (Netherlands / nether regions), more than anything it makes me long for the tennis ball monologue from Henry V.

Prince Hal, it would seem, is not really in the mood for jesting. No, it’s easier to read this halfhearted series of insults as a genuine display of frustration. The tavern scene no longer enlivens him like it used to; people like Poins and Falstaff and so forth are more tiring than they may be worth. In theory, this isn’t exactly bad news for the prince. It may be the perfect time to cast aside the Eastcheap crowd and start his premeditated reformation. The goal, after all, is to make his countrymen admire him for his conversion; as he says in 1 Henry IV,  “My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault, / Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes / Than that which hath no foil to set it off” (I.2.206–208). So what’s the hold up? Why is the prince so “exceeding weary” that even shedding what wearies him proves difficult?

For one thing, the scheme he mentions in the previous play conveniently elides the emotional reality of succession: his father must die for Prince Hal to become king. It’s a fact that the prince seems reluctant to admit, saying “it is not meet that I should be sad, now my father is sick” (37–38). It takes a good deal of throat-clearing for him to say even that much; he prefaces that statement three different times (“Shall I tell thee one thing, Poins?” [31]; “It shall serve among wits of no higher breeding than thine” [33-34]; “Marry, I tell thee” [37]). There are many reasons why Prince Hal might find his own sadness unbecoming: he’s a man, a royal, and someone about to receive a great fortune. Hence why Poins judges it “[v]ery hardly” to weep in such circumstances (41).

This leads to the second problem Prince Hal faces: he’s perhaps played the part of ne’er-do-well too convincingly. “By this hand,” he tells Poins, “thou thinkest me as far in the devil’s book as thou and Falstaff for obduracy and persistency” (42–44). But given how thoroughly Hal sunk himself into the tavern crowd in the previous play, why wouldn’t Poins or his father or anyone else in England think his behavior to be genuine, and genuinely revolting? He knows that Poins would believe him to be “a most princely hypocrite” if he were to weep for his father’s illness out in the open, for outwardly he has cared little for his father up to this point (51). Instead, as Poins says, Prince Hal has “been so lewd and so much engraffed to Falstaff” (58–59). The prince therefore has reason to doubt his prodigal son routine will even work, now that he has the chance to finally enact it.

Like just about everyone else in the play, then, the prince appears to just be going through the motions, continuing in his bar-crawling ways without much purpose. That, at least, is how I make sense of the way Act II, Scene 2 ends, with Prince Hal and Poins plotting to spy on Falstaff in disguise. Their little prank reads like a lesser version of the robbery ruse in 1 Henry IV, in the same way that Prince Hal’s insult speech here is a wearier rehash of the earlier play’s banter. The prince ends the scene by claiming that “in everything the purpose must weigh with the folly” (166–167). That claim, I think, holds true. In this scene, and in this play, there’s often very little of either.

*          *          *

Thanks for reading! If you’re in the mood for more literary analyses, perhaps you would be interested in my discussion of how section breaks are used in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and John Hersey’s Hiroshima.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s “A Receipt to Cure the Vapors”: An Analysis

Lady Mary Wortley MontaguWriting these close readings as a regular feature for the blog has given me many things: a chance to sort out my own, disordered thoughts; a venue to practice my critical reading skills; even a microscopic audience for my writing. But one benefit I’ve just started to appreciate is that, in writing up these pieces, I’ve introduced myself to some interesting historical figures. I wasn’t much aware of Charlotte Smith’s role in the early Romantic movement, or Thomas Moore’s involvement in revolutionary Irish politics. But I think, in terms of having a fascinating biography, no one I’ve covered quite stacks up to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

We’ll hit some of those notes along the way, but for now, let’s take a look at one of her poems: “A Receipt to Cure the Vapors.” The title alone got my attention, we’ll give the whole text a read-through.

A Receipt to Cure the Vapors

I.
Why will Delia thus retire,
And idly languish life away?
While the sighing crowd admire,
‘Tis too soon for hartshorn tea:

II.
All those dismal looks and fretting
Cannot Damon’s life restore;
Long ago the worms have eat him,
You can never see him more.

III.
Once again consult your toilette,
In the glass your face review:
So much weeping soon will spoil it,
And no spring your charms renew.

IV.
I, like you, was born a woman,
Well I know what vapors mean:
The disease, alas, is common;
Single, we have all the spleen.

V.
All the morals that they tell us,
Never cured the sorrow yet:
Chuse, among the pretty fellows,
One of honor, youth, and wit.

VI.
Prithee hear him every morning
At the least an hour or two;
Once again at night returning—
I believe the dose will do.

We might as well begin with the title, which promises the reader something useful: “A Receipt [i.e., a formula] to Cure the Vapors.” The “vapors,” as the term was used in the 18th century, refers to a nebulous mental disorder primarily diagnosed in women and characterized by depression, hypochondria, fainting, and so forth. (The name comes from its supposed cause: gaseous emanations from the internal organs. This condition was also known as “spleen,” as we see in the fourth stanza.) Thus, the poem presents itself as a remedy for something that resembles depression.

That Lady Mary would write a poem of medical advice is not surprising when you consider her biography. In addition to her career in letters, Lady Mary was England’s leading advocate for small inoculation, which she learned about during her husband’s tenure as an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Reading this “Receipt,” one gets the sense that the speaker’s medical knowledge covers more than smallpox; she says it is “too soon for hartshorn tea” (line 4), an ammonia-based brew related to smelling salts that was commonly used to treat the vapors.

In addition to any public-minded goals, Lady Anne may have had a personal impetus to write this remedy down. The footnotes to the poem in The Norton Anthology of Poetry say that the “Receipt” was “apparently written to Lady Anne Irwin, widowed eight or nine years previously,” though she is not referred to by name here. Rather, the speaker gives her the generic poetic name of Delia, and so one can reverse engineer that Damon in stanza 2 is Lady Anne’s deceased husband. These pseudonyms allow Lady Mary to respect her friend’s privacy while still using her situation to address a social concern.

So what is this promised cure for the vapors? Well, it takes the speaker the length of the poem to actually get to it. Indeed, the speaker spends much more time detailing the symptoms of Delia’s condition. Delia is inclined to “retire, / And idly languish life away” (1-2), suffers from “dismal looks and fretting” (5), and is given to “So much weeping” that she may “spoil” her appearance permanently (11). Whether or not “a case of the vapors” is the best way to describe her condition, it certainly seems that Delia is severely despondent.

To go off on a slight tangent: the poem’s musicality tends to underscore the uneasy feeling associated with the vapors. The poem’s base rhythm is alternating lines of trochaic tetrameter (eight syllables, alternating stressed and unstressed: “All those | dismal | looks and | fretting”) and trochaic tetrameter catalectic (same as before, but with the last unstressed syllable dropped: Cannot | Damon’s | life re | store“). Trochaic rhythms are particular incessant, always pushing forward, yet the stress pattern means one tends to end on the unstressed, weaker syllables. One leaves a trochaic line feeling incomplete, as though one more syllable is needed to round things out. That seems fitting for the vapors, doesn’t it? (One could say the same of the poem’s use of slant rhymes.)

Not only does the speaker linger over the symptoms of the vapors, but also she deploys some misdirection in prescribing her cure. From the first two-thirds of the poem, one would get the impression that what Delia really needs is a stern lecture. In the second stanza, the speaker tells her in no uncertain terms that her beloved Damon is gone: “Long ago the worms have eat him, / You can never see him more” (7-8). In the third, she commands her to “consult [her] toilette,” her “face review,” with the warning that “no spring [her] charms [will] renew” if she keeps on weeping (9-10, 12). And in fourth, she says the vapors are just a common problem for women: “Single, we have all the spleen” (16). The speaker doesn’t quite say, “Just get over it,” but the sentiment creeps close to it.

Yet right as the speaker got me scratching my head, the fifth stanza offers a bit of a swerve. “All the morals that they tell us,” the speaker says, “Never cured the sorrow yet” (17-18). In other words, the sort of lecturing the speaker has indulged in up to this point is of no use in bringing Delia out of her despondency. That’s an unexpectedly comforting thought coming from 1730. Further, rather than offering a universal cure for the vapors, the speaker suggests something more specific to her friend’s case.

And that cure is: another man. She tells Delia to “Chuse, among the pretty fellows, / One of honor, youth, and wit” (19-20). If the death of Damon is the cause of her condition, the thinking goes, then finding a new man to love should remedy it. It’s a little disappointing that the speaker’s cure is so other-centered, but it’s in keeping with Lady Mary’s larger body of work. Her most famous poem, “Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to Her Husband,” is a critical look at society’s double standards regarding gender relations, particularly how “The judging world expects [women’s] constancy” (14), but will forgive men their infidelity. Viewed in this context, the “Receipt” is a cheekier variation on the same theme.

This context also brings into sharp focus an ambiguity in stanza four that I haven’t mentioned yet. The last line of that stanza, “Single, we have all the spleen,” can be taken two ways. The first way, I’ve already mentioned: women are “Single” in succumbing to the vapors, that is, they are the only ones who suffer from it. But that line can also be paraphrased as, “Women will suffer the vapors when they are single, i.e., not in a relationship.” No one would object if a man in a similar position tried out the dating scene again; why should it be any different for a woman?

Again, this is not necessarily great advice. Companionship can certainly be comforting for those in a depressed state, but those relationships can’t solve the fundamental problem. But the speaker doesn’t advise going all in with this “pretty fellow,” either. She instead recommends, as one should with any remedy, exercising moderation. Delia ought to “hear him every morning, / At the least an hour or two,” and hear him “Once again at night returning” (21-23). That, for the speaker, ought to be the sufficient “dose” to overcome the vapors (24). It’s like taking two aspirin, except it’s two rendezvous.

By the end, one gets the sense that this was never “A Receipt to Cure the Vapors” at all, but rather a critique of the whole diagnosis. Conceptually, “the vapors” is not too far removed from the clinical sense of “hysteria”: a medical-sounding term used to dismiss women’s emotional states as disordered. Such states are not diseases; they’re not like smallpox. One cannot simply administer smelling salts or devise an inoculation and have them be “cured.” One must treat those who suffer “the vapors” as fellow humans, and nothing less.

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Thanks for reading! If, like me, you’re interested in outdated medical and scientific concepts, you might want to check out a very old post on this blog, in which I analyze Stephen Jay Gould’s article “Dr. Down’s Syndrome,” which critiques some of the inaccurate and racist terminology surrounding the condition.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books That Should Be Taught in High School

Today’s post is part of Top Ten Tuesday, a project currently organized by the book blogger Jana (aka That Artsy Reader Girl). This week’s prompt is an education-themed freebie, as it’s back-to-school season here in the United States.

I was trying to think of a good topic to fit that theme when I came across an article on the New York Times website that asked a number of authors, from John Green to Yaa Gyasi, which books they would like to see added to high school curricula. I found that a difficult question to answer for myself, not because I couldn’t think of any candidates, but because there are so many directions to take that prompt. What exactly do high school reading lists miss? What are the ultimate goals of education? Which books best address such concerns?

To try to capture the whole breadth of that discussion, I’ve come up with a list of ten books that I feel would add something of value to a high school education. The only criterion for possible consideration was that I couldn’t have read the book while I personally was in high school. So, if any of these books were already required reading for you, then…well, you clearly went to a cooler school district than I did.

And so, proceeding chronologically:

 

1. Edward II, by Christopher Marlowe (c. 1592)

EdwardiiquartoEnglish classes have an odd relationship with early-modern English drama. Shakespeare is all but mandatory as part of the curriculum, but his contemporaries hardly get mentioned, let alone read: none of Ben Jonson’s intricate city comedies, none of Thomas Middleton’s tragic bloodbaths. But I feel Shakespeare’s dominance is especially a shame when it comes to Christopher Marlowe, whose work not only influenced the Bard’s but also matches it in pure, visceral pleasure. Marlowe’s characters are larger than life, always scheming, and elicit viewer sympathy despite their many, many vices.

Edward II is my favorite of his works, and I would love to see it taught for two reasons. First, as a history play, it would slot well into a discussion of Shakespeare’s Richard III or Henry IV, Part 1, as the monarchs in each play respond quite differently to the dissenting nobles threatening to take the crown. Second, teaching the play would be an excuse to show students Derek Jarman’s striking 1991 film adaptation, which turns the homoerotic subtext of Edward and Gaveston’s relationship into text. It’s the perfect demonstration of how queer themes, rather than being a recent development, have been part of the Anglophone canon for centuries.

 

2. Washington Square, by Henry James (1880)

Washington SquareThere are some writers whose works, while critically lauded and oft-studied at the university level, rarely make their way onto high school reading lists because of their perceived difficulty. I’m thinking of authors such as William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and the dean of this odd school, Henry James. Untangling James’s syntax is a true challenge that every student of literature must eventually face, but Washington Square is an exception in his bibliography. Indeed, it reads less like James and more like that mainstay of English classes, Jane Austen. (Apparently this was much to James’s chagrin, but what does he know?)

Of course, I don’t count Washington Square so highly because it’s merely approachable. Instead, I think the book, by the example of its characters, is uniquely instructive in how relationships work. Over the course of the novel, Dr. Sloper judges that his daughter Catherine’s suitor, Morris Townsend, is only interested in her inheritance. As it happens, he’s right on the money (so to speak), as Townsend leaves Catherine after Dr. Sloper disinherits her. Yet in proving himself right, in proving his concerns for his daughter’s well-being were justified, he permanently damages his relationship with Catherine. Students will learn a difficult lesson by the end, one that the educational system seems particularly ill-equipped to impart: sometimes, being correct just doesn’t matter.

 

3. Passing, by Nella Larsen (1929)

PassingOne of the best literature courses I took as an undergraduate was called Capital Fictions, which was an exploration of economic themes in late 19th- and early 20th-century American literature. I was tempted to try shoehorning half the syllabus onto this list—ooh, people should actually read The Jungle! ooh, McTeague is a masterpiece of literary naturalism! ooh, “The Tenth of January” is a fantastic short story!—but in the end, I exercised something resembling disciplined and settled on the one book that I found the most eye-opening.

I don’t think we ever used the term in Capital Fictions, but that course was basically my introduction to the concept of intersectionality, and no book on the syllabus better demonstrated the interweaving of societal oppressions quite like Nella Larsen’s Passing. The novel tells the story of two light-skinned black women, Irene and Clare, who must navigate the racial, gender, and class expectations of 1920s Chicago, forces which strain their friendship and ultimately lead to sudden tragedy. It’s also a work where the prose style, empathetic but startlingly blunt, is perfectly suited to the subject, making it worthy read for any aspiring writers.

 

4. White Noise, by Don DeLillo (1985)

White NoiseDon DeLillo writes the accessible sort of “weird” books that I’m certain would have totally blown my mind when I was in high school. White Noise isn’t “funny,” exactly, but there’s a lot in the book to quietly snort at, and unlike, for instance, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, one doesn’t need to be well versed in Jacobean revenge tragedies to get the joke. The fact that the protagonist, Jack Gladney, is a leading scholar of Hitler studies (snort) who doesn’t speak a lick of German (snort) is amusing no matter one’s stage of cultural awareness.

Hidden beneath the humor is a prescient depiction of media and advertising saturation (written before the Internet exacerbated those problems), chemical degradation of the environment, and medicinal fixes for anxiety, as well as a sympathetic meditation on the ever-present fear of death. White Noise is the sort of novel I expect (hope?) a fair number of students will want to throw back at the instructor, frustrated with the apparent pointlessness of its events. But even that reaction would be heartening—those people might just try to patch up this world before its own version of the Airborne Toxic Event.

 

5. Collected Sonnets, by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1941)

MillayPoetry tends to get short shrift in English classes, with maybe a few weeks dedicated to the entire tradition. A Brit lit class might touch on the Romantics, an American lit class on Whitman and Dickinson, but not much beyond that. Still, most students graduate with at least some understanding of what a sonnet is, or at least an understanding that they exist and that Shakespeare wrote a whole bunch of them. The sonnet has proven to be an enduring form, and if anyone’s work demonstrates the power of a well-turned sonnet, then it’s Edna St. Vincent Millay.

An often under-taught aspect of the sonnet is the volta, the turn in the poem’s argument, and Millay’s poems are perfect exemplars of such twists. The movement in poems such as “[Only until this cigarette is ended]” or “[If I should learn, in some quite casual way]” is both clear and surprising. Her poems prove that contemporary concerns and classical imagery are not mutually exclusive, and that rhyme and meter are capable of speaking modern thoughts. But most of all, her speakers are so cool and confident that I think high school students will latch onto their personas. She’s the sort of poet who might convince you to become a poet.

 

6. Dien Cai Dau, by Yusef Komunyakaa (1988)

Dien Cai DauOf course, what high school English classes really need is more contemporary poetry, and by “contemporary,” I mean “anyone after Robert Frost.” Students come away from their secondary education with the notion that poetry is a dead art that only deals with archaic subject matter and must sound like the mad ravings of a pantalooned troubadour. And, to be sure, a lot of contemporary poetry is unintelligible to the uninitiated reader. But just as much is plain-spoken, personal, and relevant to the world outside academia, like the work of Yusef Komunyakaa.

Released in 1988, Komunyakaa’s collection Dien Cai Dau is a major work in the literature of the Vietnam War, one which details the day-to-day realities for an American soldier in the conflict. Komunyakaa rarely engages in syntactical or rhetorical fireworks, the sort that drive students batty; instead, his poems are so dense with sensory imagery that they become dreamlike (from “Starlight Scope Myopia”: “Smoke-colored // Viet Cong / move under our eyelids…”). The obvious standout is the final poem, “Facing It,” wherein the speaker reflects on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but every poem is thought-provoking and worthy of classroom discussion.

 

7. Mother Love, by Rita Dove (1995)

Mother LoveTo round out this accidental trio of poetry collections, here’s a book that straddles the line between Millay’s formalist magic and Komunyakaa’s deeply detailed free verse. Rita Dove’s Mother Love is a long sequence of loose sonnets, and part of the fun of reading it is figuring out which aspects of the tradition (length, rhyme, meter, subject, volta) is Dove employing in a given poem and which she is ignoring. In purely practical terms, it’s a great way to gauge students’ understanding of the tradition’s formal requirements.

In less clinical terms, Mother Love is also great way to teach students how to take an old story and make its wholly their own. The collection is a rewriting of the myth of Persephone, with an emphasis on how she relates to her mother Demeter, played out in the present day. The mythological/fairy tale retelling is already a popular genre, but seeing how it plays out in verse could make for a fun in-class exercise. If nothing else, share the joys of the “The Bistro Styx” with everyone you meet. You could cut the mother-daughter tension in that poem with a steak knife.

 

8. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, by Svetlana Alexievich (1997)

Voices from ChernobylWhen I was first composing this list, I thought about including some more works of history, such as Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer’s Bitter Fruit or John W. Dower’s Embracing Defeat. But while books like those cover topics which often go undiscussed in high school history classes (the CIA-backed coup in Guatemala, post-WWII Japan), as texts they tend to be dry and rather conventional. The material that these writers tackle is vital to understand, but their particular expression is not necessarily as compelling.

But a book like Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl is another matter entirely. Collecting the personal accounts of scores of people affected by the 1986 nuclear disaster in modern-day Ukraine, Alexievich’s book is a testament to the power of letting people tell their own stories in their own voices. In its arrangement of the individual testimonies, Voices from Chernobyl is also a reminder that just because journalist lets their subjects do the talking, that doesn’t mean they have no power over how the final project is presented.

 

9. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, by Alice Munro (2001)

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, MarriageBefore, I said that poetry needed more presence in high school curricula, but short stories could probably make the same claim. At least in my experience, short stories were either used as supplementary material for a novel (like reading Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” alongside The Awakening), or as a means of chewing up class time after hitting all the syllabus material. And as for contemporary short stories, the sort that would fill out an issue of The New Yorker, well, those simply didn’t exist; I didn’t realize people still wrote short stories until undergrad. So why not at least give students some Alice Munro to chew over?

Munro is, I will concede, a challenging writer for students. Her stories are emotionally intense in a way high school might not immediately relate to, and her use of achronological storytelling and multiple points-of-view can take some getting used to. But at the same, the condensed short story form is a nice way of introducing students to such complications, as opposed to dropping a similarly difficult novel-length work on them. I’ve picked Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage because I’m especially fond of its contents (the title story and “Queenie” are wonderful pieces), but really, any Munro collection could fulfill this role. At any rate, she’s Canada’s first Nobel Laureate—why not put her on the syllabus?

 

10. So Much Synth, by Brenda Shaughnessy (2016)

So Much SynthI fear this list has become too academic, so let’s close things out with a book that’s a bit more fun. I’ve raved about Brenda Shaughnessy a couple of times on this blog before (e.g., my list of most read authors), and I’ve praised this book in particular. And of all the books on this list, I think Shaughnessy’s So Much Synth is the book that’s most relatable to a high school audience. The early poems in the collection concern people coming to terms with their sexuality, while the “mix tape” poems are wonderful examples of literature in conversation with pop culture.

But it’s the centerpiece of the collection, “Is There Something I Should Know?,” which would most intrigue me in a classroom setting. A sprawling, 27-page poem in which the speaker recounts the various mishaps of adolescence, “Is There Something I Should Know?” is a work which perfectly captures the way that one remembers what it was like to be a teenager, a time when we “just dumped rage and hurt, yearning / for finer feelings, not the indignities [we] suffered.” To read someone who’d survived high school express the sensation of doing so, and expressing it so well, would have been more than welcome when I was fourteen.

*          *          *

Well, there’s my list, but what do you think? Which books would you like to see added to high school reading lists? Did you in fact read any of these books in high school? Let me know in the comments!

Recent Publication: Review of “Not Elegy, But Eros” by Nausheen Eusuf (The Hopkins Review)

Eusuf Review

I’m happy to announce that my review of Nausheen Eusuf’s debut poetry collection Not Elegy, But Eros (NYQ Books, 2017) has just been published in the most recent issue (11.3) of The Hopkins Review.

Special thanks must go to David Yezzi, for encouraging me to try my hand at a poetry review; to Katherine Sharpe, for her patience as an editor; and, of course, to Nausheen Eusuf, for writing this wonderful collection.

Rather than leaving you with an excerpt of the review, I’ll quote the beginning of “Selfie,” one of my favorite pieces in Eusuf’s book that, alas, I did not have the space to talk about in the piece itself. I hope this will encourage you to give Not Elegy, But Eros a read.

excerpt from “Selfie”

If self’s the man, she’s the wife
who follows, shadow-faithful
through your twilight haunts
and midnight jaunts, who knows
your revels and your despair,
your zits and your stomach pits…

Not Elegy, But Eros is available through the publisher, NYQ Books, as well as through Barnes & Noble and Amazon. If you’d like to read my full review of it, you can subscribe to The Hopkins Review.

Oh, Where Have You Been: A Chain of Influence from “Lord Randall” to Iron & Wine

For this post, we’re going to look at three songs which I think share a pretty direct lineage. I encourage you to give all three tracks a listen if you don’t know them already. (And if you do know them, give ’em another listen anyway. They’re all good songs!) Some of the similarities and differences will likely be apparent even going in cold, while others I think become clearer after some discussion.

Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s start our deep dive.

I. “For it’s now that I’m dying…”

The first song is the early-modern English folk ballad “Lord Randall.” As with basically all folk ballads passed down through the oral tradition, there are many versions of the song that you can find. I’ve gone with Jean Ritchie’s recording because I’m fond of her voice, but what I’m about to say applies to pretty much any version of the song that you might come across.

“Lord Randall” tells the woeful tale of its title character. Our young man has been in “the wild wood” with his true love, who made him “eels boiled in broth” for dinner. This dinner appears to have had an ominous effect, because his bloodhounds “swelled and they died,” and upon returning home his mother deduces that he’s been poisoned. In his final breaths, Lord Randall wills his possessions to his parents, while to his true love: “I’ll leave her hellfire,” for she is the killer. It’s an old-fashioned murder ballad, and one that turns on a mystery to boot.

To get a good handle on the song’s form, let’s take a look at the first stanza.

“Oh, where have you been, Lord Randall my son?
Oh, where have you been, my handsome young man?”
“I’ve been to the wild wood. Mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m weary with hunting, and I fain would lie down.”

On a skeletal level, “Lord Randall” uses a loose variation of long meter, where each line of the quatrain has four strong stresses (“Oh, where have you been, Lord Randall my son?”) I say “loose,” because the third and fourth lines of each stanza arguably have five stresses each, but as Ritchie sings them the middle-most accents (“Mother” and “and,” respectively) don’t get the same emphasis as the others. Also of note: “Lord Randall” doesn’t rhyme, but rather uses consonance to link the ends of each line sonically. The constantly changing vowels may sound awkward to modern ears, but I’d argue that the lack of perfect rhymes fits the tragic subject matter.

One might also note that “Lord Randall” is dramatic in nature, by which I mean it presents itself as a dialogue between two characters. Each stanza begins with Lord Randall’s mother asking a question about her son’s recent journey, and ends with Lord Randall’s response and a plea that he’s tired and “fain would lie down.” In this song, much of the conflict is driven by an imbalance of information: the mother is in the dark, and her son is reluctant to tell her the whole truth.

A final noteworthy aspect about the song’s structure is its heavy use of refrains. The second halves of both of the mother’s lines are repeated in each stanza (“Lord Randall my son,” “my handsome young man”), as is most of the son’s dialogue with some variations. This heavy repetition makes the song’s dialogue highly stylized, if not ritualistic, but it also gives the song’s narrative an interesting progression. Even though the mystery continues to unfold in the listener’s ear, it simultaneously keeps turning back to previously stated niceties. The story is both linear and cyclical.

In terms of the narrative, what I find most compelling about “Lord Randall” is the gradual change in the title character’s attitude from start to finish. It’s easy to read the son’s responses to the mother’s questions as attempts to end the conversation. “Let’s stop talking,” he seems to say, “I want to go to bed.” Once the fact of his dying comes out, though, he stops trying to shut down the dialogue. Instead, he starts speaking performatively, his words assigning goods and fates upon his relations. At the moment of his death, he finally takes action.

II. “I’m a-goin’ back out…”

Let’s jump now from early-modern England to the mid-20th-century United States. Released in 1963 as part of the seminal album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” occupies a unique position in Dylan’s early discography. The song is a mixture of Dylan’s three primary impulses from this period: the socially-conscious songs that made him famous, like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War”; the impressionistic, more personal lyrics he would start fully exploring on Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964); and, our main focus here, the canon of English-language folk songs that drew Dylan to the Greenwich Village scene in the first place.

As we did with “Lord Randall,” let’s take a look at the opening stanza to get a sense of the form:

“Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?”
“I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains.
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways.
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests.
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans.
I’ve been ten thousands miles in the mouth of a graveyard.
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard,
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”

The influence of “Lord Randall” should be apparent. Just like the earlier folk song, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is a piece of dramatic poetry, between an unidentified parent and their “blue-eyed son” who has been out in the world and experienced a great deal. The parent’s dialogue in particular calls to mind “Lord Randall,” with the repetition of “Oh, where have you been” and the affectionate terms for their child.

When the blue-eyed son starts speaking, though, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” starts to deviate from its model. While Dylan’s song maintains the loose, four beat rhythm, it does not bother with the strict consonance of its predecessor; in fact, it forgoes similar end sounds entirely. Instead, the song’s organizing principle is parallel syntax: each line begins with the same construction of “I’ve + [verb]” (except in the final stanza, which includes “Where…” statements as well). More so than popular song, the piece resembles free verse poetry in the vein of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass or Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno. It’s an unconventional choice, but that syntactic repetition still gives the piece a strong sense of musicality.

Further, as you’ve no doubt noticed, the son’s dialogue in each stanza is far more expansive and variable than it is in “Lord Randall.” In the folk song, the son always speaks two lines at a time, and if you factor out the refrains his responses are quite curt: “I’ve been to the wild wood,” “I dined with my true love,” etc. By contrast, the son in Dylan’s song is someone given to rambling. Not counting the closing refrain (more on which later), the son’s parts in each stanza range from 5 to 12 lines. The strictures of the folk song literally cannot contain this character’s speech.

And just what does the blue-eyed song have to say? Well, as is often the case with Dylan’s lyrics, there isn’t really a coherent literal scenario. This is no murder ballad, with a clear and causal narrative. Instead, the poem is organized around a series of associative leaps. It’s not a travelogue, but a creatively arranged list of impressions. Still, one can often see links between one image and the next. The first stanza, for instance, uses number as a jumping-off point (“twelve misty mountains,” “six crooked highways,” “seven sad forests”), while in the second stanza the “black branch with blood” precedes hammers “a-bleedin’.” As with much of Dylan’s work, the point is not to pin down one true meaning, but rather to play around with what has been suggested.

Still, the song does end on one clear note: the speaker has to keep telling their story. There is some bleak event on the horizon, that “hard rain” the speaker keeps returning to in the closing refrains. What that hard rain signifies is, of course, not stated, but whatever it is, it calls for a response. Thus, in that last stanza, the conversation shifts from the past to the future. “Oh, what’ll you do now?” the parent asks, and the son says he’s “a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’.” He will return to the world, as grim as it is, and deliver his message:

And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’,
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’.

Like “Lord Randall,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” ends on an active note for the speaker, in this case, laying out a plan for the future. But the tones seem quite different. There’s no resignation present here, no reluctant acceptance of death. The son does not give into that hard rain, does not say he “fain would lie down.” Instead, it ends with optimism, so much so that the verse even indulges in some concluding slant rhyme couplets. Dylan has taken the raw materials of “Lord Randall,” and used them to tell a totally different story.

III. “I dreamt of that sound…”

The link between “Lord Randall” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is pretty : the latter directly lifts the structure of the former. The link between “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and our final song for today, on the other hand, is more speculative on my part. A quick Google search tells me that I’m not the first to make this connection, but it’s entirely possible that the similarities here unconscious rather than intentional.

With that disclaimer out of the way: let’s move up to January 2011. It’s my senior year of high school, and I’ve been conversant in Bob Dylan’s music for about two years. Sam Beam (better known as Iron & Wine), a singer I’ve just become familiar with, has released his fourth studio album, Kiss Each Other Clean. The lead-off track, “Walking Far from Home,” is an emotional power-bomb of song—one that still gives me chills—but I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve heard something like it before. A few listens later, and it hits me: it’s a rewriting of “Rain.”

Like Dylan’s song, “Walking Far from Home” strings together an associative list of images detailing a journey out in the world, with heavy use of parallel syntax to organize things. The speaker has seen everything from “children in a river” whose “lips were still dry” to “a bird fall[ing] like a hammer from the sky.” Once again, there’s no clear narrative here, but rather a series of impressions building to a climax.

Yet for all the similarities in content, there are some significant differences in structure. Take a look at the opening stanza here:

I was walking far from home,
Where the names were not burned along the wall.
Saw a building high as heaven
But the door was so small, door was so small.

First off, for the first time in our discussion we have perfect rhyme in a stanza, with “wall” and “small” helping to form an ABXB rhyme scheme. This already sets it apart from both “Lord Randall” (consonance) and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” (unrhymed). Second, while it’s possible to squeeze or expand lines into the four-beat pattern of its predecessors, that involves stressing words against the manner in which they’re sung. It’s a rhythm perhaps reminiscent of the ballad, but not committed to it. Third, the use of refrains only survives in the “echoing” final lines of each stanza, so the effect of cycling through a linear story has mostly been cut.

But the most significant structural change can only become obvious when the song is viewed in totality: there’s no dialogue. The speaker is the only one, well, speaking in the piece, and they’re not even implied to be addressing anyone in particular; there is a “you,” but the relationship between speaker and addressee is left vague. In that regard, Iron & Wine goes further than Dylan in making the “Lord Randall” narrative ambiguous. Not only is the content of their speech rendered impressionistic, as it is in Dylan’s song, but also the circumstances of their speech are left unstated.

I think this move, turning the dialogue of the previous two songs into an internal monologue, helps to explain the shift in how this song ends. The speaker in “Walking Far from Home” doesn’t conclude with a performative utterance like Lord Randall, nor does he resolve himself to a future course of action like the blue-eyed son. Instead, he uses the final verse to suggest that he’s come to a personal revelation because of his travels: he “saw a wet road form a circle / And it came like a call, came like a call / From the Lord.” What was once a movement toward external-facing action has now become the spark for inward-facing change.

IV. “Join me in song…”

To wrap this all up: why should we care about any of this? What difference does it make if we can trace contemporary indie music all the way back to early-modern folk songs? Isn’t this all just academic, all just trivia?

Well, partially. I did start writing this because I merely found it interesting. But I do think these songs offer us a lesson in how to use past works for inspiration. You’ve likely heard the expression, “Everything’s a remix,” that is, all art is a reworking of something that came before it. I think that’s true in the broad strokes, but it can miss the most important part of remixing: making what’s old into something new.

We can see that in these three songs. A 17th-century balladeer’s tale of murderous betrayal and motherly affection helped Bob Dylan to write a impressionistic call to action in politically stressful times. In turn, that song may have sparked Iron & Wine to write about an intimate form of salvation along a similar journey. These songs are, ultimately, in conversation with each other. But “in conversation with” does not mean “repeating.” There is little “remaking” here, and much more “making new.”

So, if you find yourself in a writing rut, you can look to a past work, figure out what makes it tick, and then write your own version of it. Just don’t be afraid to go unexpected places with it.

*          *          *

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this piece and would like to hear me yammer on some more about Bob Dylan, I wrote another blog post last year about the use of masculine and feminine rhyme in “Queen Jane Approximately” that you might find interesting.

On Paratext: An Essay Near Knowing

Note: This post is an imitation of the style of essay found in Brian Blanchfield’s book Proxies: Essays Near Knowing (Nightboat, 2016).

On Paratext

Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source

The first context in which I heard the word “paratext” spoken aloud was, of all things, a speedrun. For his contribution to Summer Games Done Quick 2018, FoldableHuman (a.k.a. Dan Olson) played through the notoriously bad survival-horror game Amy. Whereas most speedrunners, based on the limited sample of such runs I’ve watched, focus their commentary on the mechanical aspects of playing the game quickly, FoldableHuman made his run a presentation on the narrative and thematic aspects of the work. Notably, during a tedious-to-play-through segment of Chapter 3, he took the time to discuss how the game’s title character, a young girl who the player-character must shepherd through a sudden zombie apocalypse, is coded as being on the autism spectrum. Amy’s autism is not explicitly mentioned in the game itself, though her in-game behavior may suggest it. Rather, one finds evidence in the game’s paratext.

Paratext—that which is around the text, above and beyond it—refers to the collection of ancillary texts which frames the main text, which attracts and transitions the audience into it. Sometimes the paratext is attached to the text itself, as in the title of a poem, or a video game’s packaging. Other times it’s disconnected, obscure, even private: an advertisement, say, or the artist’s personal correspondence. In the case of the Amy speedrun, FoldableHuman cites the existence of marketing materials and interviews with the developers as evidence that the title character should be understood as being on the autism spectrum. As such, it is fair to criticize the game for how it depicts people in that community—its paratext invites that discussion.

Since watching that speedrun, the word “paratext” has been on my tongue a great deal. There are two reasons for this, I suspect. The first is that I find “paratext” to be a fun word, a word which at the same time evokes the fantastical and the mundane. On the one hand, it calls to mind such words as “paranormal” and “parapsychology,” terms which suggests worlds and ways of knowing beyond everyday experience. After all, one must often dig beyond the naked text to find the paratext. On the other hand, paratext has a certain “parenthetical” quality to it. A phrase enclosed by parentheses is implied to be digressive, expendable, interesting as trivia but not essential to the main argument. The oddity (the paradox?) of parentheses is that, by their visual appearance, they call attention to what they’re supposed to close off. We are told not to judge a book by its cover, but if covers were pointless would publishers bother including them?

The second is that I want to write an imitation of the style of essay found in Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing. Among the devices which Blanchfield uses frequently, especially at the beginning of essays, is meditating on a word, discussing its etymology and drawing out its implications. I feel that to write a successful Blanchfield imitation, I need a suitable word, and “paratext” is the best that I’ve come up with. It’s semi-obscure, and even better, I think that acknowledging paratext would have some thematic resonance with Blanchfield’s book.

To start with the title, that omnipresent example of paratext, the book is called Proxies and subtitled Essays Near Knowing, both of which suggest something that can only be approached indirectly, or partially. “This book will be exploratory,” the title tells us, and we may see the paratext surrounding it as a guidebook, a map, for that exploration. Moving to the book as a physical object, we find a rather minimalist display: the title and the author’s name in white text, printed on a black field. No cover image, no exciting typeface—this is a book where language, and by that I mean pure language, has primacy over the visual, or the visual rendered through text. (I’ve been tempted to include some visuals in this blog post—a picture of the book, an embed of the archived Amy speedrun—but to do so, I believe, would violate the spirit of Blanchfield’s work.)

Turning Proxies over to the back cover, we find the kind of paratext I most associate with poetry collections and literary prose: the blurb. Blurbs from critics or established writers are a standard part of book marketing, but my preferred genres raise the blurb to a vacuous artform. The literary blurb attempts to canonize a given book through sheer grandiosity, as though every collection were the First Folio and every friend and former teacher tasked with writing one, Ben Jonson. My senior year of undergrad, I complained to my thesis advisor about the blurb-industrial complex, and as a result he lent me a copy of Nick Demske’s self-titled collection of quasi-sonnets, whose sole blurb is a generic commendatory letter from Paul Ryan, Desmke’s representative in Congress, on winning a poetry prize. I have to assume Ryan never read the book, though most blurbs are so generic, who’s to say that’s not the case from writers as well?

Personally, I’ve stopped reading the content of blurbs. I merely skip to the attribution line now, and use my knowledge of the blurb-writers’ own works as a proxy for what the text in question will be like. If Brenda Shaughnessy likes a book, my thought process goes, I might enjoy the book; if Graham Foust likes it, I should stay away. In the case of Proxies, Blanchfield received a blurb from Claudia Rankine, the poet behind Citizen: An American Lyric, which I first read for an informal book club while at Johns Hopkins; Maggie Nelson, whom I have heard of but have never read; and two others whose names were wholly foreign to me. Not the ideal line-up of writers for me to make a judgment, but Rankine’s name may have sold me on Proxies had I come to the text naively. Whereas the cover design draws my attention to the book’s language, Rankine’s endorsement primes me for a book of social engagement, one which will be sympathetic to or in the voice of marginalized groups.

Further down the back cover, one finds the name of the publisher: Nightboat Books. For a giant publishing house, the presence of the name means very little to the reader; it’s hard to say what exactly the HarperCollins brand means. For small presses, though, there’s more often a distinct house “style.” In the case of Nightboat, the name signifies a level of formal inventiveness and academic density. I’ve had a mixed history with Nightboat’s catalog. On the one hand, I greatly admired Jill Magi’s Labor, which combined poetry with prose narratives and instruction manuals to comment on the contemporary state of the academic worker. It was a book I pulled at random from the Hopkins library stacks, and I’ve considered finding it to be among my happiest accidents. On the other hand, I found Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue to be needlessly opaque, a work whose whole text reads more like paratext. I read it for the same book club for which I read Citizen, and I contributed nothing to that particular discussion. I’m certain that had I done so, it would have come out as little more than frustrated rage.

At certain moments, in hindsight, I suspect my hostile reaction to Kapil’s work was grounded less in aesthetics than in my own insecurities. I was the youngest member of our cohort at Johns Hopkins, the one person who came straight from undergrad, and I feared at the book club that I was also the person least versed in contemporary developments in poetics. While I had read some late 20th- and 21st-century poetry in writing workshops, almost all the poetry I had studied in a critical context was early modern: Chaucer, the Renaissance dramatists. Kapil’s book demanded a fundamentally different background to understand it, perhaps, and it is so much easier for readers to blame the book than themselves.

Nightboat tends to publish authors who the Johns Hopkins English Department would invite to give poetry readings. I was a student in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, whose taste in poetry is traditional, canonical, formalist. The English Department, on the other hand, prefers that which is contemporary, subversive, experimental. At least, so go the stereotypes. I’m told that there is a rivalry, if not outright hostility, between the two departments, although just about every interaction I had with the English department, faculty and students both, was at least cordial and oftentimes friendly. Indeed, I knew one of the English doctoral candidates from my time at Carnegie Mellon. (To a certain, the grad students in both departments had to get along, as we shared a common workspace.)

It was at one of the English Department poetry readings that I first became aware of Proxies. In effect, if not in fact, this was the primary paratext that brought me to Blanchfield’s work. It was a Friday in late October 2016, right after our readings class for the week had let out. (Indeed, my colleagues and I had to hustle downstairs and down the hall to make in on time, because our class ran long.) The room was pretty packed compared to the other readings in the series, and in my opinion the crowd’s presence was more than justified. Blanchfield’s presentation was engaging, but natural, never self-consciously performative. His choice of essay to read showcased the breadth of his powers as a writer, offering something to audience members of all aesthetic stripes. I dare say it was the best reading I saw while at Hopkins, certainly the best out of the English Department.

In one crucial sense, though, the reading was a disappointment. The event was advertised as being a poetry reading—even reading the text comes with paratext—but it seems the people in charge of booking writers for the series neglected to tell Blanchfield that. He did what writers are wont to do at such events: read from the book he was trying to promote. To the extent that was his goal, it worked. In the parlance of the book blogging world, Proxies immediately went onto my TBR afterwards. Had I been a fan of his verse, I may well have been put out by that turn of events. But then again, if what is delivered is engaging, who cares about the packaging? Paratext is merely suggestion, not a contract, right?

The place where the concept of “paratext,” as I’ve been discussing it, feels most relevant to Proxies is also the place where I’m least certain the term applies: the introduction laying out the project. The conceit, or less charitably the gimmick, of Blanchfield’s book is that all the information presented in each essay is based solely on his memory. He makes no use of search engines to find facts; he doesn’t return to books to verify how he paraphrases their points. (To paraphrase, that is, to speak around what has been said.) Instead, he includes a lengthy section at the back of the book called “Correction,” where he corrects whatever mistakes he subsequently finds in the essays, for instance, how he attributes Plato’s mistrust of poets to Aristotle.

Is that introduction paratext? I’m not certain. An introduction does constitute part of a book’s front matter, alongside (para-) such elements as dedications, epigraphs, and the table of contents: all clear instances of paratext. But that page-and-a-half of preamble is so integral to understanding the essays as a collection that deeming it above, beyond or around the main text doesn’t capture its significance. Or is the correction section the truly integral part of the text, and the introduction merely the explanatory link between the essays and the corrections? I’m alas a poet, and one not especially fluent in literary theory. I’m not qualified to discuss these topics. I have just used the format of Blanchfield’s essays to give myself permission to do so.

In fairness, I’d argue that’s also what Blanchfield’s essays do for the author himself. From their titles, their paratext, one might assume his essays are technical and detached. They have names like “On Propositionizing,” “On Abstraction,” “On the Leave.” And, true, many start out that way. But those high-minded concepts are really entry points, permission, to discuss more intimate matters. “On Frottage,” the piece he read at Johns Hopkins, begins with an exploration of queer sexual terminology before transitioning to his life as a gay man in 1990s New York, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. “On Peripersonal Space,” my pick for the collection’s best essay, uses the title concept as a metaphor for Blanchfield’s formerly tight, now strained relationship with his mother.

I’ve done nothing quite so bold or naked here, though I believe thinking through this piece has allowed me to reflect on my time at Johns Hopkins. I find myself at a transitional point in my professional life, and I’m still unsure of how to process everything that has happened in the past few years. (Certainly “On Dossiers” has scared me off of pursuing academia, at least in the near term.) Perhaps I have latched onto paratext over text because it represents the point before commitment, the last experience before actual experience. It is the perfect element for someone who is only “near knowing” at time of composition.

Correction.

In FoldableHuman’s Amy commentary, he does not use the exact word “paratext,” but rather its adjectival form: “There is no direct reference to autism in the game, but there are paratextual references to it. It was used in interviews, in promotional materials for the game. The developers did highlight this aspect of it.”

In addition to the title, subtitle, and author’s name, the front cover of Proxies also includes, in small print and curly brackets, the phrase “a reckoning.” Neither the other paratextual elements nor Nightboat’s website indicate that this phrase is an additional subtitle. Rather, it appears to serve a similar function as the phrase “Poems” or “A Novel”—identifying the genre of a work while suggesting it possesses an aura of literary quality, the sort of paratext that brings not the reader, but a particular kind of reader, to the text.

According to Goodreads, I first placed Proxies on my to-read shelf on October 7, 2016, which would hardly qualify as “late” in the month.

Displacing Anxiety: Thoughts on Jill Bialosky’s “Driving Lesson”

Whenever I’m reading a poetry collection and I come across a piece that immediately captures my imagination, I like to flip to the acknowledgments page and see where that poem was originally published. Sometimes it’s out of idle curiosity, sometimes it’s because I’m looking for promising places to submit my own work, and sometimes it’s just to see if I can send someone a link to the poem without having to find a copy machine. Most often, the source is one of the usual suspects: Poetry, AGNI, The Kenyon Review. Every once in a while, though, the acknowledgements page gives an unexpected answer.

Such a surprise came to me while I was reading Jill Bialosky’s The Players (Knopf, 2015), as I learned that my favorite poem in the collection, “Driving Lesson,” was originally published in, of all places, The Chronicle of Higher Education, under the similar but more intimate title of “Teaching My Son to Drive.”

I’m not certain how the piece was originally published, but I was able to find the text of that earlier version of the poem on the Chronicle website. In what is an otherwise wholly digressive moment in her essay “Poetry and Suicide” (which, fair warning, discusses exactly that), Lisa Russ Spaar highlights “the ways in which Bialosky gives the antic world agency and displaces onto the careening trees, racing squirrels, and wild thrashers all of the mother’s anxiety about her son’s rite of passage.” On the whole, I find Spaar’s connection between the topic of suicide (which, in fairness, has touched Bialosky’s life greatly) and the argument of the poem to be rather tenuous. But that notion of displacing anxiety does, I think, fit nicely with how the poem handles ambiguous language.

Reading the poem, we understand that the speaker, a mother confronting the fact that her teenage son is growing more independent and that there is nothing she can do to prevent it, is projecting her dread onto the world around her. When she looks down at the speedometer and tells the reader, “I want him to slow down” (line 20), we understand that the speaker means two things simultaneously. First, on a literal level: she wants her son, who’s learning how to drive, to ease up on the gas. Second, on a metaphorical level: she wants her son, who’s approaching adulthood, to stop growing up.

That latter desire is, of course, impossible to satisfy; time simply doesn’t work like that. By using the external material of the speedometer as a point of reference, as a object onto which she can displace her anxiety, the speaker pulls off a nifty substitution: an impossible desire gives way to an attainable one. Her son cannot slow down the passage of time, but he can slow down the car. Perhaps, one may speculate, that would be good enough for the mother in these circumstances.

In terms of the how speaker displaces anxiety, the speedometer example is easy to pick out because the two elements of the process, the feeling and the object, come in quick succession. More interesting, however, are the places where those two elements are displaced from each other within the text of the poem. To read “Driving Lesson” involves coming across quasi-universal statements along the lines, “I want him to slow down,” without having their immediate context. There’s a consistent ambiguity at work here; the reader must keep asking themselves, “How am I supposed to take this?”

Let’s take two examples to get the idea. Consider the passage in which the speaker observes some horses as they drive past:

Horse farm on the side of the street
where we encounter a field
of young English riders with crops
preparing to mount the hurdles.
It won’t be easy. (9-13)

At first glance, this looks a lot like the speedometer example later on in the poem. After all, it certainly “won’t be easy” for the riders to leap over the hurdles. But, well, this poem isn’t called “Horse Riding Lesson.” It seems overly digressive for the speaker, who’s already using the driving lesson as a metaphor for her son growing up, to start likening her situation to the riders they happen upon. Furthermore, the riders’ situation actually seems dissimilar to the speaker’s, as their task is entirely physical, not emotional. While the horse imagery may suggest the line, “It won’t be easy,” through associative logic, what the image accomplishes is to displace the sentiment from the situation that occasioned it, namely, the driving lesson. Rendered more abstract, the thought becomes more bearable.

Let’s close things here by looking to the poem’s conclusion, which this time invokes the memory of a nature image rather than the image itself:

When I turn to look
I see the pensive boy in the backseat
strapped in his seat belt
watching two red squirrels run up a tree
and back down. (29-33)

It’s this finish that fully won me over to the poem. In terms of displacing anxiety, the speaker does so across so many dimensions. First, as in the previous examples, the speaker turns from the uncomfortable truth that her son is growing up to the youthful imagery of the frantic squirrels. But there’s so much more to this one, for the image is further displaced in terms of perspective (the son is the one watching the squirrels, not the speaker), time (he’s a “pensive boy,” not a teenager), and space (he’s in the backseat, not behind the wheel). The speaker has all but created a alternate reality of eternal motherhood within this moment.

Furthermore, the syntax of the final sentence manages to effectively displace the meaning of the poem. Look at that last line: “and back down.” The phrase “back down” can be taken two ways. In this context, the obvious way is as a parallel to “up a tree”: they run “up a tree / and back down [the tree].” They return to the start in the same way the speaker has mentally returned to an earlier state in her relationship with her son. But “back down” can also act as a verb phrase, meaning a kind of surrender—in this case, to the inevitable passage of time. That second meaning completes the speaker’s arc towards understanding and, as it happens, would fit the syntax of the sentence: if we add in the elided pronoun, then the phrase “and [I] back down” has a parallel structure with the preceding verb phrase, “I see.” “I see / … / and I back down.” The speaker understands the facts of life, however reluctant she may be to accept them.

As an exercise, read through Bialosky’s poem a few times and see if you can find any further moments of the sort of displacement that Spaar and I have discussed. Let me know your thoughts on the poem in the comments.

If you want to read more analyses of contemporary poetry, you might take a look at this post I wrote last year about the syntactical fireworks in Edward Mullany’s collection If I Falter at the Gallows.