Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Soap Opera of the Pair Who Forgot Themselves, but only Temporarily

texts of arias from The Soap Opera of the Pair Who Forgot Themselves, but only Temporarily

(Images from an old French textbook accompanied these words, but as of yet I have not succeeded in including them in this format.)

1. [sigh]

2. I loved and didn’t think until I saw that I had spilled my joy and thus had marred my dress. The tea that should sustain me now cannot do enough.

3. On the first I had felt on the brink of what had seemed my pool of joy. On the second my knees began to ache. And today . . .!

4. Hello, my lover, my ladder into air, my jive cell-mate, my fruitbasket, my goose, my cave, my answer. My love, hello, are you there?

5. Oh, how milk and coffee flowed, like stone come live and lively! What fawn-tone! What hazel cream! What body can match this complexion?

6. [stricken pause]

7. I struggled hard to say the truth but couldn’t stretch my mouth so far; I tried to cry, but sudden music came.

8. Diverted and intent, the card-players never looked up. For them the game held fond hopes, petty aggressions aplenty, uncomplicated alliances of Realpolitik across a globe around which any of them could stretch and arm. Leave love and music to those whom they have not yet disappointed, each thought, and tonight, tonight, I shall score. And then, then I can bid my host good-night and go home knowing for once, when all is added up at day’s end, I have come out ahead.

Notes on Recent Reading 11 [Wright, Kerouac & Burroughs, Gilbert]

The Long Dream [Wright]

Wright’s last novel, another coming-of-age account from The Jim Crow South, is rich in factual detail and convincing dialect. Fortunately, it has become necessary for Americans to acquire from written records a knowledge of what the relation between the races was like in the days before the sixties. Wright delineates the Southern variant of this fundamental American ratio with subtlety and accuracy. Like Mailer, he points his finger on the sexual element in American racism.

Though dreams, visions, and fantasies are most often the heart of the stories in which they appear, I found the dream sequences of Wright’s novel distracting ornamentation reflecting little beyond the decay of Freudianism. Further, the conclusion of the plot is unlikely, loosing the thematic knots with Fish’s sudden flight to France (he would surely have had no passport), but then all is redeemed with a final sentence nothing short of luxurious.

And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks [Kerouac and Burroughs]

This fictionalized account of the New York Beat scene in the middle forties including Lucien Carr’s killing of David Kammerer remained unpublished at Carr’s request until his death in 2005. Literary judgment might, however, have concurred. It’s loose as can be, but much of the book is dialogue, doubtless preserving the tone of conversation of that earlier time in this particular subculture. It has the same fascination of the tape transcript in Visions of Cody. It’s striking how much the people drink. Fancy drinks, often, like Pernod. Somehow I would have imagined this bunch, even with Carr among them, as more bookish than the story suggests. But maybe I’m thinking of me. The book is an entertainment, though it may have been an exorcism of the horrific incident for the people involved.

Other versions of the murder appear in Kerouac’s The Town and the Country and Vanity of Duluoz as well as in Holmes’ Go, in Edie Parker’s memoir, a number of biographies, a much-read 1976 New Yorker article by Aaron Latham, and a story by John Hollander.

H. M. S. Pinafore [Gilbert]

Reading Gilbert’s libretto for H. M. S. Pinafore I felt even more strongly than when I see the work performed that its pleasures are largely formal. What one enjoys are the Gilbertian chops that had been evident in the Bab Ballads, the marvelous melodious play of sound that all relish in nursery school, (but so many neglect afterwards) and the romance plot, proceeding so delightfully, seeming inevitable like a fugue.

The social themes reflect upper middle class concerns, but rarely do they imply political positions. For all the stress on marriages impossible because of the social hierarchy, it turns out that Ralph Rackstraw, the ideal of the British sailor, is such an impressive figure because he is, in fact, of upper class birth. His marriage is conventional after all. The enthusiastic nationalism that has led to so much suffering is celebrated every bit as much as it is mocked. Some things cannot be exaggerated. The unusually pointed song about the “ruler of the Queen’s Na-vee” is devastating and clearly directed at First Lord of the Admirality W. H. Smith despite Gilbert’s disclaimer, but, then, in the play at any rate, he doesn’t seem somehow to do much harm.

And meanwhile the plot proceeds like very satisfying clockwork.

A Glimpse of Robert Bly

In the very early seventies, when the world was younger, I was living in the center of the United States and of one strain at least of American poetry in Iowa City. Robert Bly came to town to read, not at the world-renowned writers’ workshop but off-campus for Lamp in the Spine, a little magazine produced if I remember rightly, by Lew Hyde, who has since gone on to a Harvard professorship, a MacArthur Fellowship, and books at once best-selling and intelligent.

Bly did not at the time care to read for the university; despite his Harvard degree his anti-academic bias had been pronounced from the start. In the second issue of his journal The Fifties, he quotes Jules Laforgue: “The only remedy is to break everything.” I admired his rebellious stance and his clean, hard-edged images and found his Midwestern identity a salutary contrast to America’s usual bicoastal interests. I appreciated his partisanship against the war in Vietnam and managed to attend his first anti-war reading in Minneapolis. In spite of the regional loyalty that brought him back from New York to live in rural Minnesota, he published important translations of poets whose work had been unknown in the United States, much of the work animated by a sort of well-digested Surrealism.

Bly having not cared to come to the university, the university came to him. In the audience at Bly’s reading that night the Workshop professors were seated in a group. Bly had only just begun his presentation when he suddenly addressed them.
“Such greed and waste! It’s ridiculous! How much money do they pay you, Donald.” He pointed to Donald Justice, poetry chair of the Workshop. “Twenty-four thousand maybe? What sense does that make? They could get four poets who could live well on six thousand each. How about you, Marvin? [speaking to Marvin Bell] What do you need that big money for?”

The professors said nothing, then muttered a bit among themselves, rose and exited as a body. Bly had purged the hall. I wondered in later years, as his poetry became steadily worse and his popularity grew, as he emerged as a mythological code-breaker and a busy advocate of something called the Men’s Movement, as Iron John lingered for months on the bestseller list and the royalties rolled in, as his literary work was in my view compromised by his fans, whether Bly ever found it necessary to recalibrate his relation to money.

Courtly Love in Romance of the Rose

The thirteenth century allegory Romance of the Rose was immensely popular. Over three hundred manuscripts exist, and other authors frequently allude to the poem. A reading of this poem cannot fail to bear on the most fundamental discussions of the nature of courtly love, still in dispute after almost a millennium. The combination of sensual, spiritual, aesthetic, social, and political ideals produces a fascinating play of tensions in the poem, as indeed in lived experience.
To limit the scope of this consideration, I will discuss only the first 4058 lines, those by Guillaume de Lorris. [1] This decision is, I know, reductive. The poem, including the more than 17,000 lines added by Jean de Meun, was read as a single work for hundreds of years and I believe that produces the best results, just as it does with the Bible (and Huizinga called the Romance the “breviary of the aristocracy”).

The physical, erotic element is central. Unlike Jaufre Rudel’s love from afar or the dolce stil novisti, physical consummation is the explicit goal. At the conclusion of his part of the poem, Guillaume’s speaker makes love to the rose and expects her to be available in future despite their temporary separation. (anonymous conclusion, l. 34) Initially he had been attracted by her scent (VII, 48) and, when the companions of Mirth abandon their dance, it is to make love “beneath the secret-keeping boughs” (V, 11). How could it be otherwise when, as the poet says,

. . .there’s no better paradise on earth
than any place where lover finds a maid
responding freely to his heart’s desire.
(V, 16-18)

Even the artificial convention of love’s entering by the eyes accurately conveys the role of visual stimuli in people’s eroticism and the wounding by love’s dart implies a real life passivity and a “bittersweet” experience. (VIII, 10) This realistic biological focus provides the libidinous energy to support the elaborate structure of courtly love.

Though contemplation of Ultimate Reality may seem far removed from sex, the two have been linked in many cultures. One reads in Frazer of traditional people having ceremonial intercourse on their fields to ensure their fertility. Daoist and Tantric adepts have sought to integrate the physical here-and-now with the eternal. For Plato the beloved leads naturally to the Perfect. Even in Christianity, with its deep suspicion of the body, the rhetoric of St. Bernard on the Song of Songs and of the Victorines, the poetry of Mechthild von Magdeburg and St. John of the Cross, to mention only a few names, all indicate deep and significant links between sexuality and worship. Indeed the whole approach of the devotional sensibility to the divine is susceptible to expression in the imagery of human love.

The relationship may vary. The physical can present a comic or bathetic debunking of the pretensions of the holy. For Chaucer’s Prioress “amor vincit omnia,” yet for all the pious anti-Semitism of her tale, she is clearly no exemplar of the religious life. The love imagery may simply be the best worldly analogy for the devotional emotion of some devotees as in Hildegard of Bingen’s “Columba aspexit.” In such medieval lyrics as “Maiden in the mor lay” the two are so intimately commingled that critics debate whether the poems are secular or religious.

Section XVI, in which Franchise and Pity intercede for the lover, features much religious terminology. They plead his case “for God’s love.” (6) When Danger (who had herself earlier sworn by Christ, XIII, 74) relents, he is “raised from Hell to Paradise” (72) as Fair Welcome leads in a recitation of the rosary. (74) Far from satire, the poet here emphasizes his case with the strongest language possible, rather like one saying his lover is most beautiful in the world or that their relationship is a unique marvel. The psychological reality may be that one feels such conviction at times, but these hyperboles are cultivated figures of speech as well, admired as elegant and artistic.

In fact aesthetic criteria enter here no less than in the cast of unpleasant allegorical figures outside the wall. Obdurate rejection of the lover would be culpable “discourtesy” (50), a violation of taste and a lapse from the standards of one’s class. Danger is scolded, not for causing pain or doing wrong, but because “You dishonour but yourself .” (9)
In a clever dodge of the moral implications of love, the lover’s particular infatuation in the Romance of the Rose arises not from the extraordinary qualities of the rose, but rather from a charm, rather like that in Tristan and Iseult. The lover is thus helpless, bound after a glance in the marvelous Mirror Perilous. [2] While this may convey the potent sense of compulsion felt by a lover, it also frees him from any responsibility for his actions.

The aesthetic and the social meanings of courtly love are closely linked. Refinement and sophistication became important signifiers of high social position, a position they retain to some extent yet today. The earliest narratives about King Arthur focus almost exclusively on the king’s strength and martial valor, whereas the later ones dwell on the love-exploits of Galahad and Lancelot.

Skill at love became another indicator of nobility (and treatment of women still provided the measure of the gentleman in Victorian times), but it was hardly the sole aristocratic skill. When King Mark’s huntsman first encounters Tristan in the woods, he shows them a more elegant way of butchering their prey, and then prescribes a ceremonious protocol for transporting it, impressing everyone including the king with his accomplished taste. From the quasi-martial tourneys, sports, and hunting to poetry, music, and wit, the courtly man sought to master each so that he might practice each with grace and ease. [3]

The cultivated man, just like the man of sensibility in the eighteenth century (who survives today in etiolated form as the “sensitive” man) was necessarily a man of property. In fact, his aesthetic and cultural acquisitions imply wealth and may at least partly compensate for its lack. Tristan himself seemed a lost wanderer, but gained acceptance because of his sophistication. The same quality, however, made him a lover, and thus a threat to his patron the king.

The first section of the Romance describes the ugly figures on the outside of the garden wall (which express in negative the glories within). Many are conventional moral failings such as hatred, anger, and covetousness, but others are purely aesthetic. Old Age, for instance, appears as hideous and apparently demented (II, 142 ff.), inspiring a wholly pagan riff on Time. Poverty is there as well, and the poet curses “the hour in which poor men are conceived” without any regard for their role in producing the wealth that supports the genteel.

He does, however, recognize the essential characteristic of the ruling class when the dreamer is admitted to the exclusive garden by Idleness (III, 40), and in Part VIII (11 ff.) Love approaches the dreamer as a feudal vassal, reproducing even in the realm of desire the structures of society and thus reinforcing them.

Surely, then, the most reasonable and productive concept of courtly love is pluralistic, recognizing a group of characteristics that may be selected and used by different writers over a number of centuries and over an entire continent (and beyond) [4] in a variety of ways and yet share enough elements to justify the common term. The continua I have suggested -- sensual, spiritual, aesthetic, and social -- may be useful for distinguishing one use of the concept from another while maintaining at the same time a clear view of the significant shared elements. Works that tend toward the encyclopedic (such as the entire Romance of the Rose, the Canterbury Tales, Confessio Amantis, the corpus of troubadour poetry or of romances) will be likely to vary considerably, even to the point of self-contradiction.

In the Romance of the Rose the outright opponent of Love is Reason (XIV) which might imply an element of arbitrariness to all of those definitive social values for the upper class of the Middle Ages. One’s love, one’s god, one’s taste, one’s place in the structure of society – all of these perhaps would be equally liable to the assault of Reason, but the poet makes the human choice, rejecting logic for the endlessly absorbing pastime of elaborating the relations between men and women.

1. Some critics would have it that Guillaume’s section is less problematized than Jean’s. My partial reading here will make it clear that I cannot agree.

2. The incestuous father in EmarĂ© is similarly under a spell. For a more extreme version of the Mirror Perilous, see Borges’ “Aleph.”

3. Castiglione’s The Courtier provides a full curriculum “to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.” 32

4. The partially Arab origins of Europeans’ courtly love has been demonstrated by Nykl and others. Beyond that rich evidence exists in Persian and Indian poetry, in Li Shang Yin, and elsewhere. Peter Dronke provides a nice collection of passages in Medieval Latin and the Rise of the European Love-Lyric. See also Discourses of Power, Grammar, and Rhetoric in the Middle Ages by Carol Poster and Richard J. Utz

Rereading the Classics [Gogol]

One comes upon Gogol at a considerable distance from the metaphysical rumination of Dostoyevsky, the grand plenitude of Tolstoy, or the reserve of Chekhov. Though his reach may be not so high as the one, as broad as the other, or as tight as the third, though he exiled himself for years and eventually recoiled from his own vision and, under the influence of Father Matthew Konstantinovsky, burned his continuation of Dead Souls, his narratives remain potent in this twenty-first century. Yet, from the very start, his plots are seem either all-but-nonexistent or impossibly bizarre. His characters are often formulaic, like those of Theophrastus or Ben Jonson. It is little wonder that he has been misread so often, not least of all by himself.

Categorized as a regional writer after Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka and Taras Bulba, he was later regarded as a realist. Soviet critics liked to claim him as a satirist of decadent Czarist society in spite of his reactionary views in support of the serf system, paternalistic landowners, and an all-knowing Orthodox Church. In fact his portrait of Russian bureaucracy has more in common with Kafka’s metaphysical uses of the Austro-Hungarian administration than with, say, Trollope on what seem in his novels the victimless foibles of the Church of England and the parliamentary system. Gogol’s characters suffer.

Yet his sentimental love for Russia is manifest. Those who call Gogol’s rhapsodies to Russia ironic or burlesque are quite right, yet they miss the genuine enthusiasm, the afflatus that launched his paragraphs to soaring heights. In fact his backward political views reflect the conviction that the system is perfect, however often its agents fail. That passionate love of his country lies beneath his work with Ukrainian materials and his later exploration of the underside of Russia, where most estates are seedy and most landowners twisted enough with self-interest to see neither themselves nor their surroundings. Both within and apart from the text he refers to the novel as a poem and an epic. Belated it may be, but very deeply Russian. The weak and flawed, often morally diseased characters are the rotted fruit, the bitter, ironic reflection of the highest aspirations to spirituality. Gogol is altogether sincere in both his love and his denunciation when he releases a marvelous montage, an out-the-coach-window series of sights, and then declares, “Russia! Russia! I see you, from my wondrous beautiful afar: I see you now. Everything in you is poor, straggling, and uncomfortable . . .” [231]

At pains to define Chichikov as altogether ordinary at the outset of Dead Souls, our hero turns out to be vain, selfish, dishonest, cowardly, a virtual catalogue of weakness and sin. Yet he blends in well -- so very unremarkable is he that that he produces no reaction when he appears in a remote provincial town. His semi-respectable Civil Service title, his acceptable clothing, all the social clues lead to his acceptance, particularly when he plays to the worse instincts of those he meets.
Though they do not share his shifty character, the feckless heroes of “The Overcoat” and “The Nose” are equally anonymous. They are the invisible people of the modern age. Most are vitally concerned about their reception by others, so the category of poshlust (which might most succinctly be translated “false taste” though it extends even to morality) of which Nabokov makes so much in his excellent book on Gogol. A pioneer of the modern age, he writes “The Diary of a Madman” with total the assumption that we are better than half mad already. When he tries to portray a virtuous character in Murazov, he seems lost, out-of-place, ineffectual.

Gogol practices the low-mimetic as its lover, conveying the secret inner marvels of the ephemeral in spite of its sordidness and arbitrariness. He is himself his “twenty-year-old youth returning from the theatre with his head full of a street in Spain,” who hears vulgar quarrels in the street and “sees that he is back on earth, and even in the haymarket and near a pub, and once more life in its workaday clothes goes flaunting itself before him.” [140] Note that the everyday has spirit enough to “flaunt,” and so it does in these pages. Gogol ironically praises the traveler who “after a long and wearisome journey with its cold and slush and mud, sleepy station-masters, jingling bells, repairs, altercations, drivers, blacksmiths, and all sorts of villains of the road, at last beholds the familiar roof and the lights rushing to meet him.” [142], but this is not our author. To him such a sense of secure grounding in place is elusive. It reminds him of those who are praised for their descriptions of moral exemplars, while less successful authors, he among them, dare to “bring into the open everything that is every moment before men’s eyes and that remains unseen by unobservant eyes – all the terrible shocking morass of trivial things in which our life is entangled.” He declares that he is “destined by the mysterious powers to walk hand in hand with my strange heroes, viewing life in all its immensity as it rushes past me, viewing it through laughter seen by the world and tears unseen and unknown by it.” “Let us plunge all at once into life with all its muffled rattle and jingling bells.” [142-3]

The plunge can be exhilarating. Studying the garden of the hoarder Plyushkin, he observes “In short, it was all beautiful, as neither nature nor art could contrive, but as only happens when they unite together, when nature’s chisel puts its final touch to the often unintelligently heaped up labour of man, relieves the heavy masses, destroys the all to crudely palpable symmetry and the clumsily conceived gaps through which the unconcealed plan reveals itself so nakedly, and imparts a wonderful warmth to everything that has been created by the cold and carefully measured neatness and accuracy of human reason.” [122]

Gogol’s natural ebullience, his celebration of the world, is expressed in his catalogues. His description of the various voices of the village dogs mounts to a grand height, only toward the end to sprout a simile of human singers which gains sudden details only to conclude with an earth-shaking crescendo. [53]

Such rhetorical thrills can sneak up upon the reader. One is told that a crowd of “black frock-coats” resembles “so many flies,” a potent suggestive image already, but immensely enriched by the set-piece that follows in which figure an “old housekeeper,” a swarm of children, and the flies themselves “already satiated” but unable to resist pestering the servant over the sugar and preening themselves only to exit, “fly out again,, and again fly in with new tiresome squadrons.” [24] It is no less than a poem embedded in prose.

But, of course, the appeal of Plyushkin’s estate is nothing but the bizarre “beauty” of the individual personality, just as in general, the real delight of the strange spectacle of the world is regularly its characters, however briefly glimpsed: “Before, long ago, in the days of my childhood, which have passed away like a dream never to return, I felt happy whenever I happened to drive up for the first time to an unfamiliar place . . . I stared, too, at some infantry officer, walking by himself, who had been cast into this dull provincial hole from goodness knows what province or at a merchant in his close-fitting, pleated Siberian coat . . . and I was carried away in my thoughts after them, into their poor lives.” [119]

The intoxication with the ordinary, even the somewhat substandard, is capable of achieving a sort of Zen-like fugue state in Chichikov. When he is unexpectedly delayed due to damage to his carriage “he had the satisfaction of experiencing those agreeable moments which are so well known to every traveler,” and the reader is off considering rubbish on the floor and the stupid curiosity of passers-by. He is sickened, but transfixed. He focuses on killing a fly, and the spell is soon past.

Well aware of the inadequacy of even language, our most subtle instrument, Gogol knows that he, like Sobakevich praising the [112] powers of his deceased serfs, addresses his reader indirectly. Communication is always under suspicion, and the sense of being slightly pixilated and very likely misled is pervasive. When the whole town is on to Chichikov accusing him of deeds of their own invention as well as those he did indeed cook up, they resemble “a schoolboy who wakes up to find that his classmates, who were awake before him, have stuffed a hussar, a piece of paper filled with snuff, into his nose while he was asleep. Having inhaled the snuff with all the force of a sleeping person, he wakes, jumps out of bed, looks round him like a fool with eyes popping out of his head, and cannot grasp where he is or what has happened to him.” [198] Gogol’s readers may know the feeling.

After reading him, step into the streets of your neighborhood. “ Seeing the whirligig of men – say what you like, it’s like a living book, a second science.” [II, 309, repeated at 348] You are less susceptible than I if everyone, not to mention the plants and paving stones, doesn’t look both exceedingly odd and ruinously mundane.