Wednesday, February 17, 2021

"The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" by Randall Jarrell: A Close Reading

Here's my close reading of a very short poem that has long impressed me, Randall Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." Its brief five lines are as packed with meaning as... well, as the small machine-gun turret on the belly of a B-17 was stuffed with its gunner and guns.
WWII-era photo of ball turret with gunner inside

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,

Since Jarrell's title states the poem's topic in straightforward prose, like a newspaper headline or the title of an old Life magazine article, this opening line dramatically disorients us. What is going on here? What are we supposed to see?... This initial uncertainty is our introduction to how this poem makes its meanings, for "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," must be understood not only in its world-historical context but in its literary critical one. It's a poem of the New Critical moment in American literature, and the New Critics privileged the tension created by the paradoxical yoking together of opposites. Here, the naturalism of the title is set into tension with the symbolism of the opening line. (It's surely not coincidental that Edmund Wilson, in his early and influential book Axel's Castle, defined literary Modernism as a synthesis of Naturalism and Symbolism. Jarrell's poem is critically au courant in multiple ways.) And while naturalism/symbolism is just one of the many dualities that, as we will see, work their way through the poem, it is arguably the most important, for this tension's ultimate resolution underlies the poem's most terrifying and unnerving moment.

So we begin with this 'fall' into the dreamworld of symbolism, disconcertingly distanced from the announced war poem. The first image is archaic, primal, primary: the mother, the First Image of every life, the "mother's face" that Wallace Stevens called, "the purpose of the poem." (I referenced this same Stevens poem in my last close reading, so I guess "The Auroras of Autumn" is something of a touchstone for me.) Our desires for union with or escape from the Mother, equally impossible, become our primary unconscious motivations in life and art. And we begin in this mother's sleep--perchance the mother's dream, and therefore the son's, of pre-Oedipal union, that master-image of all Edens from which the child falls into the Law of the Father, the capitalized 'State' of castration and prohibition. Yes, we could go full Lacan here ("You here me, hillbilly boy?" an academic Ving Rhames might call to the Nashville-born Jarrell, "I'm gonna get Lacanian on your ass!"), but such a reading, tricked out in meretricious jargon, would be the merest allegorization of the poem. It would cut not even a scratch upon the surface of the work. It would remain trapped in the relative safety of the Lacanian Symbolic order, while the trajectory of the poem takes us toward the horror of the Real.

So let us read this line properly, moving toward the reality it so vaguely evokes. In addition to the symbolism/naturalism stylistic duality already mentioned, at least five thematic dualities wind their way through Jarrell's imagery--birth/death, sleeping/waking, dream/nightmare, female/male, spirit/matter--and all are sounded in this first line. (All of the dualities might arguably be subsumed under 'life/death,' but I'm deliberately resisting such a reduction of the poem.) We should think of them not as levels of interpretation but as a superimposition of meanings that allows us to simultaneously see: the birth--perhaps Caesarian, perhaps drowsily anesthetized--just bloodily traumatic enough to be redolent of death, from which a baby falls into the state of legal existence, recorded and named; a paradoxical fall from sleep into a different state, a waking into which we fall like sleep; the aforementioned Lacanian fall from the dream of perfect union with the mother into the nightmare of the Nom du Pere with its laws and punishments; the simultaneous appearance and disappearance of the mother (She vanishes as completely as Barbara Bel Geddes in Hitchcock's Vertigo.), which occurs, interestingly, just as she is placed into a language that constructs an all-male world of war (a feminist reading might seize upon this as interpretive crux); the union of the spiritual dreamlife of mother-sleep with the material image of a falling object. There is a hint of scatology in this last theme, for the things that most commonly "fall" from mothers' bodies are not babies but turds, and this faintly-sounded scatological note will return loudly and horrifyingly at poem's end. Finally, we can see, dimly behind the symbols, an image of the ball turret gunner climbing from the fuselage of an airplane gendered female (as WWII planes were), its engines mechanically purring like a sleeping cat (a pussy, of course), into the retracted or rotated turret, bending himself fetally inside, and awaiting the turret's lowering into battle position.

And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.

The gunner, still waiting, crouched in fetal position inside the turret, is likened to a baby awaiting birth, stalled in a liminal state. I think Jarrell here intends a typically Modernist reference to the classical legend of the infant of Seguntum, a baby from that Spanish city who remained in the womb long past term because it refused to be born into the violence of the Second Punic War. (It's an odd legend, but familiar to English majors like Jarrell (and me) from Ben Jonson's use of it in the "Cary-Morrison Ode.") The freezing at the end of the line yokes to an image of stalled birth a powerfully contrary image of death, figuring the plane as a frozen womb, a dead mother. Or not a mother at all, in this line, because the plane is now an 'it,' neutered and dehumanized (a strictly Lacanian reading might see this as a sign of castration after the 'fall') in this war-world of technologized maleness. Further dehumanization is obviously signaled by the incongruous fur, which might be the trim on a bomber jacket--and the layer of hair that covers human infants in the womb and sometimes persists after birth--and the beginning of the gunner's evolutionary regression from human to some furrier animal existing beyond human law, out of (rather than into) the State.

Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,

The Real enters this text under the guise of number and measurement--ratiocination serving, like the plexiglass of the turret, like the Symbolist rhetoric of the first line, as a too-thin shield against reality. Reading this line we must recover, in our time of mundane air travel and overbooked flights, a sense of the exhilaration of flying in the 1940s, when air travel was still relatively new. To soar like thought to 30,000 feet was an act of spiritual exaltation--not, as in our time, an irritating interval during which we cannot 'engage' with our electronic devices. This emotional climax continues after the caesura, but darker ambiguities also appear. The 'its' here carries the force of two antecedents, primarily 'earth' and secondarily 'mother.' The gunner, as the turret descends, is loosed from both: from the earth with its Eliotic "unreal cities," its shielding symbols, and from the mother-plane, like a loosened stool. He falls from the dream into the next line's universe of death.

I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.

The rhetoric of the poem now 'wakes' from symbolism, that prophylactic protecting us from reality, into the harsh, naturalistic language of war. And it does so upon a verb that swings pendulum-like between life and death, denoting both 'coming to consciousness' (the birth theme again) and being the guest of honor at an Irish funeral--a pun upon which one notable nearsighted Irishman based his final book, Finnegans Wake. This rough new war-tone is initiated by two adjacent, heavily emphasized, rhyming, dissonantly crackling monosyllables: "black flak." (Say it aloud to hear its throaty ugliness.) The phrase rhymes with 'ack-ack,' which was aviator's slang for the same thing, antiaircraft fire. And it also contain the poem's only color word: black. As the gunner wakes to a nightmare of aerial combat, is born(e) into death, he enters a world best represented by Malevich's Black Square or Rothko at his darkest. There may be color and light in Jarrell's war, but there's no illumination, and absolutely no enlightenment.
Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915

When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Multiple shocks come simultaneously in the poem's final line, and in this the line epitomizes the entire poem's simultaneity and multiplicity of meaning. There's the shocking abruptness of the gunner's death, occurring in the thin white space between lines 4 and 5. That Jarrell can still achieve a death-shock in a poem with this title is an indication of his masterful craftsmanship. Another shock inside this one is what I will call the Dead Narrator Paradox: the logical impossibility of Jarrell's narrative voice violates the realism toward which the poem moves. (A deconstructive reading might hang upon this contradiction.) There is the shock in discovering that, like Hamlet, we have been listening to a ghost describing the circumstances of his death. And the implicit injunction such a ghost as Jarrell's would lay upon us--Avenge my foul and most unnatural murder--makes as bitter an anti-recruitment poster as Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est." (Indeed, we might understand Jarrell's poem as a World War Two rewriting of Owen's, efficiently condensed by advances in literary technology. Owen's poem seems a lumbering WWI-era tank next to Jarrell's sleek art deco fighter plane.)  There's also the stylistic shock of this final line, as journalistic as the title and prosier than the rest of the poem. And of course, unignorable, is the shock of what it describes: the dehumanization of the gunner is completed by his Ovidian metamorphosis, under the force of technoscientific warfare, into a waste product, feces, shit to be flushed away. Inter faeces et urinam nascimur--"we are born between shit and piss," said that noted genital geographer Saint Augustine; and Jarrell's contemporary Robert Penn Warren allowed Boss Willie Stark to remind us, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption, and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something." But proximity is one thing, and transformation is quite another. Here is the end of the poem's scatological theme and its culminating union of naturalism and symbolism. To figure death as the transformation of a human being into pieces of shit is to enact in the most shocking manner warfare's ultimate Real: the fact that life in wartime is but an eyeblink away from the utter abjection and obscenity of death.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021


Too much disposable income.... Hollywood dreams and money to burn.... 

Those were my two likeliest answers when, upon finishing Robert McKee's Story, I asked myself why anyone would fork over hundreds of dollars to attend one of McKee's screenwriting seminars when they can read this book, which appears to be a transcript of the seminar, for a relatively paltry twenty-five bucks.

Alas, the price still isn't right. (If you must read Story, borrow a library copy. That way, you'll only waste time.) While reading this Holy Scripture of McKee's weird screenwriting cult (so ably and deservedly satirized by Charlie Kaufman in the film Adaptation), I frequently broke into laughter at the author's odd combination of ignorance and grandiosity. He presents himself as an oracle communicating the  supersensible secrets of the Platonic Form of 'Story,' but his knowledge doesn't extend to any narrative or literary or film theory of the last 50 years, and the few outdated notions he has gleaned from Aristotle, early Wayne Booth and a few others are treated with risible ahistoricism. His embrace of a ridiculously hardline formalism, along with a distaste for any mention of politics in reference to art, leads to an untenable formalist essentialism that he attempts to support with weak ad verecundiam arguments. Granted, these are theoretical issues, and McKee is on somewhat firmer ground when he turns to the craft of screenwriting, presenting detailed analyses of scenes from films as diverse as Casablanca, Chinatown and Through a Glass Darkly. But even his discussions of craft are marred by arbitrary prescriptions (against voice-over, for example) that simple-mindedly elevate McKee's personal preferences into artistic laws. (We're lucky that Jules and Jim and Goodfellas were in the can long before Truffaut and Scorsese could 'benefit' from Platonic Bob's infinite wisdom.) Since this book isn't worth any more of my time, I'll end by quoting Gore Vidal quoting an old Hollywood screenwriter he called the Wise Hack: "Shit has its own integrity." McKee's book is an odorous monument to this notion, and my best response to it was written many years ago by ee cummings: "There is some shit I will not eat."

Postscript: The worse news is that Blake Snyder's even more influential Save the Cat! screenwriting education franchise makes McKee's look positively highbrow. With gurus like these forming our nextgen moviemakers, we can expect no end of formulaic feces from the Hollywood pipeline.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

"The Haw Lantern" by Seamus Heaney: A Close Reading

Having written a kind of manifesto for 'authentic reading' in my last post, I've decided to put my mind where my mouth is and demonstrate this idea by performing line-by-line, image-by-image close readings of great and good works of art. First up is Seamus Heaney's 1987 poem "The Haw Lantern." It begins:

The wintry haw is burning out of season

Wordsworth once famously demanded, "Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour..." Heaney's opening achieves the same effect without directly apostrophizing the elder poet. For here is a line of modern poetry that moves in classic English iambic pentameter, a line that might have been written by Milton or Wordsworth and that echoes back through centuries of English-language verse. In this poem, the form of which suggests an analogy to music theory, iambic pentameter functions as a 'tonic' meter to which the poem always returns after its excursions into irregularity. Here Heaney follows the traditional meter strictly until the so-called feminine ending of 'season,' its extra syllable both portending rhythmic irregularities to come and demonstrating on a formal level the out-of-place quality evoked by Heaney's image. That is, the red hawthorn berry surviving on the bough into winter is formally mirrored by the last syllable's persisting beyond the expected ending of the pentameter line. (In this poem, as I intend to repeatedly show, form is meaning.)

Turning to that image, we see Heaney's 'wintry haw': a hawthorn tree, its skeletal bare branches bristling with spiky thorns and outlined against winter's blank white page. And on those branches hang the pinpricks of tiny red berries that Heaney figures initially as 'burning' things, burning like a torch, a lamp, a bulb--or, to lower our register a bit, like chintzy red Christmas lights. The image is as yet uncertain, but Heaney communicates the incongruousness of a bright color amidst winter's bleakness, an image of survival, of life amidst death. And at the same time, because the word haw can refer both to the berry and the tree, we are permitted, only in this line, a brief image of the entire tree burning, the hawthorn aflame, a converse image of death in the midst of life. This interpretive double image effect, life-in-death and death-in-life like a photo and its negative, is, as we will quickly see, a primary way in which this poem constructs its meanings.

We might also mention (because about great art there is always more to say...) that this image of a tree aflame parallels the archaizing iambic pentameter by bringing to mind works of the literary past, specifically the second stanza of Yeats's "Vacillation": "A tree there is that from its topmost bough / Is half all glittering flame and half all green / Abounding foliage moistened with the dew..." And this image stretches even further back down the centuries, for Yeats (according to the editors of the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry) borrowed it from the Mabinogion, exactly the sort of Yeatsian Celtic appropriation satirized by Buck Mulligan in the first chapter of Joyce's Ulysses: "--Can you recall, brother, is mother Grogan's tea and water spoken of in the Mabinogion or is it in the Upanishads?"... But let us move on.

crab of the thorn, a small light for small people,

From the first line's mildly incongruous feminine ending, we move swiftly into rough irregularity. This line can be scanned as a trochee, an iamb, a strong caesura, and two anapests; only a sole foot and the feminine ending follow the opening line's precedent. And this formal disunity powerfully reinforces the disjunctive meanings on either side of the comma. The phrase "crab of the thorn," with its harsh, forceful, Anglo-Saxon monosyllables, is a typical Heaneyism for 'crab apple of the hawthorn tree' and on a literal level describes the small, blood-red fruits, no larger than a fingertip, 'burning' on the branches. But if we consider more deeply those two emphatic nouns, some very interesting implications can be teased out of the phrase. The crab is of course the zodiacal symbol for Cancer, a summer sign in astrology and therefore "out of season" in this wintry poem. But more importantly, it signifies the disease of the same name. Cancer, the living death, the death that kills with life, via mad multiplication of cells, sounds yet again the death-in-life / life-in-death theme. Furthermore, the text allows us to make a specific diagnosis: in conjunction with the 'thorn' the length and shape of a syringe needle and the nearby fruit resembling blood drops, we can interpret the crab as a symbol of blood cancer, leukemia. And, as it is wont to do in our hors texte reality, this disease will return, with impressive symmetry (Joycean Irish for 'cemetery'), in the poem's penultimate line.
Moving to the 'thorn' now, most interpreter's minds will rush to the nearest baroque church and embrace the crown of the crucified Christ--and my mind is no exception. The crown of thorns pressed down to draw the blood of Christ, symbol of redemption from eternal death and rebirth to eternal life, obviously adheres to the general life-death pattern of imagery established thus far. Thinking along these lines, we might recall the noncanonical Christian legend that Christ was crucified on a tree (in one version, the Edenic Tree of Knowledge). So the red berries on the winter-dead tree, color of life in the time of Christ's nativity, might be read not only as a eucharistic symbol but as symbol for the savior HimSelf, the conqueror of death. And when to this complex of associations we add the conjoined 'crab,' something outrageously blasphemous occurs. The 'crab of the thorn' becomes the 'cancerous blood of Christ.' And Catholicism, it follows, would be the cancer of Ireland--not a light to the world, but "a small light for small people."

If that pair of anapests is interpreted less controversially, as simply yet another visual metaphor for the berries, then the poem descends sharply into sentimentality. A Small Light for Small People could be the caption to a kitschy magazine illustration by some weepy Irish Norman Rockwell. Can't you almost see it? See the pious common folk filing into the humble wooden church in their humble Sunday clothes. Entering among them and doffing his ragged hat, Tommy O'Herlihy removes wellbitten pipe from mouth and remarks in heavy brogue, "Aye, the 'oly Roman Catolick and Alcoholic Church, it's a small light for small people." Such a reading, so easily mocked, is nonetheless possible and probably even valid. It would be a populist political reading of the poem that interprets the berries as symbols of the Irish people, specifically of their persistence under English and Protestant domination, the domination under and against which Irish Catholic identity, in all its provincial sectarian narrowness, was defined. So even the sentimental reading eventually becomes indistinguishable from the blasphemous one. The entire line might be paraphrased, "the cancerous blood of Christ, a small light that keeps the people small."

wanting no more from them but that they keep
the wick of self-respect from dying out,

Aesthetically, the third line seems the poem's weakest and worst: nine words without a single image and not much meaning to communicate--certainly not enough meaning to justify all those marching monosyllables. The line seems to exist mostly to modulate the rhythm into the strict iambic pentameter of the next line. Otherwise there is no justification for not substituting 'only' in place of the clunky 'no more for them but.' But we must remember that we are still in the "small people" part of the poem, hearing the degraded thought-voice of brains drained by religiosity. This is deliberately 'bad' verse, the kind produced by a culture that privileges a narrow, moralistic 'self-respect' above all else. And it's a poor, pitiful self-respect, figured as a wick without a flame that must be paradoxically kept from 'dying out.' For a people as dominated and powerless as the Irish of this poem, even self-respect, the only respect available to these Celtic Rodney Dangerfields, is a candle already dead--or never lighted.

not having to blind them with illumination.

This line is bitterly ironic to the point of sarcasm. Heaney's Irish are no Platonic prisoners released from their cave of shadows to gaze upon the blinding sun. They are in no danger of being blinded by the light of a Church built to the specifications of William H. Gass's description of religion and its allies: "War, work, poverty, disease, religion: these, in the past, have kept men's minds full, small, and careful. Religion gave men hope who otherwise could have none. Even  a mechanical rabbit can make the greyhounds run" (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 272). No illumination is on offer. And there are no recorded cases of blindness caused by light reflected from a hawthorn berry. The only blindness here is formal, deliberate and ironic: note the anapest dropped into the second foot to blind and bewilder the goosestepping iambs.

But sometimes when your breath plumes in the frost

The first word signals a turning, and the change here is fairly momentous. The poem has grown a protagonist--or at least a possessive pronoun implying a protagonist--and the context suggests a stereotypical Romantic nature scenario: a poetic persona (presumed to be male) stands before a natural object, observes it, meditates upon it, and calls upon it to alter his subjectivity, that privileged locus of Romanticism. But before we stuff this poem into our Romantic Criticism trickbag and pull taut the drawstring, we must note the reversal of tradition in that pluming breath. Our 'hero' is breathing out, not in. He is expiring (the death note sounds again), not inspiring the inspirational wind.

it takes the roaming shape of Diogenes
with his lantern, seeking one just man;

The reversal continues. In an act of creation that improves upon Genesis--where Yahweh needed breath and clay to create humble Adam--the second-person persona's expired breath is magically transformed into Diogenes the Cynic doing his proto-performance art shtick. (One of three well-known legends about him. The other two concern his living in a tub and telling Alexander the Great to get out of his light. But he's considerably more than the Jeff Lebowski of post-Platonic philosophy, and the Cynical school he founded is more interesting and important than our modern appropriation of the word as a term of derision would suggest.) These lines argue that Romantic nature, like religion, is a projection of the human mind. Just as the inventors of religions (Abraham, Mohammed, Hubbard) imagine gods, project them outward, suppress the act of projection, then subject themselves to them (I presume the founders acted in good faith, a highly dubious presumption in at least one of those three cases), the Romantics projected their anxieties and fantasies upon the natural world and then congratulated themselves for finding them there. (In my opinion, this is a solid critique of religion but a caricature of Romanticism.)

The poem has also now, importantly, transported us far from Ireland, way beyond Romanticism, centuries before Christianity, to the world of ancient Greek philosophy. Heaney, whose poetry is replete with images of excavation, is digging down to the foundations of the Western mind and finding them as insubstantial as a cloud of breath.

so you end up scrutinized from behind the haw
he holds up at eye-level on its twig,

And yet this breath cloud intimidates. The anything-but-regular rhythm of these lines registers the force of its intimidation. It intimidates 'you,' that is, you and I, the readers. Only now, in the ninth of this poem's thirteen unlucky lines, do we come upon a personal pronoun. And it strikes us like a needle, a thorn. It fixes us, like the scrutinizing eye of Diogenes, ascetic judge of his foolish fellow men. We, not some Heaneyish persona, are the targets of his gaze. We--no, let's cut the self-protective plural pronoun bullshit and say what 'we' mean(s)--I, I am shaken by the thought that all my best ideas, all my intellectual constructs, all my close readings of poetry, are but anxious projections designed to protect my mind from the reality of a world of wintry death. I am the berry that persists on the tree, unaware that winter is all around me.

and you flinch before its bonded pith and stone,

Heaney's reversal of Romanticism is now complete: the gazed-upon object has become the gazing subject, the Romantic subject its gazed-upon object. This is the signature movement in artworks typical of the period that I, in an earlier post, have called "fifth wave" or anarchist modernism (1960-1996). (This period is more commonly and less rigorously referred to as 'postmodern.') In works of anarchist modernism, the object strikes back, heretofore repressed and objectified voices capture the means of narrative production and twist them back upon themselves. All hierarchies dissolve, all rules are broken, anything can happen. Think of the works of Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Robert Crumb, Samuel Delany, Ursula Le Guin, Julio Cortazar, Thomas Pynchon, Raymond Carver, Kenneth Anger, Robert Altman, so many others... Back to the text: At this point in the poem, I react fearfully to the material reality of the berry, its sour chewable pith, its toothbreaking stone. Here is a hard reality my mind cannot pass beyond, cannot project into airy abstraction. The image is so solid that it draws the rhythm back to its iambic tonic. This is the poem's crisis point, its equivalent of the moment in Wallace Stevens's "Auroras of Autumn" when the poet opens his door upon the flaming Northern Lights. I see the burning berry, this Romantic lamp that has turned around to blast my eyes, and I am afraid.

its blood-prick that you wish would test and clear you,

The poem (or is it my mind?) here retreats from material reality back into symbolism. I fear this, too, and it is an interestingly multivalent fear. On one level, I am anxiously hoping for Diogenes' approval and fearing its opposite. A little lower, this is the relapse of cancer in the life of the text, the bloody prick of the needle for the blood test that determines life or death. Even deeper, the "blood-prick" is Heaney's mock-Anglo-Saxon kenning for an erection, and its association with a test in this 1980s poem, brings inescapably to mind the reality of AIDS, a disease that turned semen, fluid of life and ecstasy, into an agent of death.

its pecked-at ripeness that scans you, then moves on.

Animals have fed here, birds have pecked at the berry, taken ripeness from ripeness. But it offers me no nourishment. My blood-prick / pecker, plunged into the ripe pith, would strike only testicular stone--a fruitless mating. (Would a reading that presumes a female 'you' end differently? Is such a reading even possible?) At this endpoint of anti-Romantic reversal, the former object has so fixed the Romantic subject that the subject remains motionless and the object moves. Imagine Wordsworth standing fixed in midair while Mount Snowdon traipses off to the local pub, and you can appreciate the outrageousness of Heaney's image. To use an archaic word the poet would have liked, the end of the poem leaves me 'astonied.'

And this, again, is an image of death. Human beings die, decay, petrify to stony bones, but the natural world moves on. Heaney's poem reverses the Romantic reification of nature by emptying out human subjectivity and granting nature the privileged agency that it has always, in reality, possessed. In so doing, he leaves the reader ('you' and I) in that world of death in which we have always obliviously existed.

This is a deeply disillusioning poem, much stronger medicine than it initially seems. Beginning with an image of stubbornly persistent life, it ends in the omnipresence of death. A Hegelian-minded totalizing interpreter might see a classic triad underlying the work: life as thesis, death as antithesis, and the synthesis not Christ but cancer. Sickness (leukemia, AIDS) is the death in life, the life in death. Such a reading might even convincingly argue that the berries symbolize, say, cancer patients persisting in life while disease gestates death within them. A different, more immanent or intrinsic reading might interpret the 'you' as the poem's reader and the poem as a demonstration of the impossibility of its own interpretation. But I think we should resist these hermeneutics. They are too neat, even antiseptic, and, because they are academically authorized readings, they violate the spirit of a  poem so burningly 'out of season,' a work that anarchically overturns traditional hierarchies, that breaks through our carefully constructed intellectual illusions. We should respect the spirit of the poem and leave it where it leaves us (and where it begins), in that world of death. Death as a consciousness of nothingness that drains the meaning from all human action. And death as Wallace Stevens's "mother of beauty"; death as the only ground against which the figures of life become visible.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Reading Out of School

When, in casual conversation, the mention of a title elicits the reply, "Oh yes, I read that in school," we can assume that the speaker has not deeply read the work. He may have scanned all the words; summed them to sentences, paragraphs, chapters; answered correctly a few elementary questions on a 'pop quiz' (e.g., "In the Iliad, what was Hector's wife's name?"; "To whom does Celie write her letters at the beginning of The Color Purple?"), and perhaps even repeated a standard interpretation on the midterm exam. But has he actually read the work--read it, that is, deeply enough to justify the objective noun in that question, to allow the novel, the story, the poem, the play to "work" upon him, to alter him in some fundamental way?

Likely not.

Because that kind of reading--deep reading, close reading, slow reading--reading in which the text can overcome our various resistances and alter our selves, reading that destroys and by that destruction opens a space in which we might change our lives... no, that kind of reading doesn't happen in Mr. Horseradish's junior English class. Nor in virtually any college or graduate literature courses. In general, the techniques of reading and interpretation fostered in our educational systems serve to tame and stabilize even the wildest works of art. While speechifying against 'objectification,' we treat artworks as objects for analysis and exploitation, reducing them to the level of that Eliotic patient etherized upon a table. 

For an example of a work commonly assigned at all three educational levels, let us consider Hamlet. High school readings of the play are necessarily superficial. Students still novices at Shakespearean English can hardly be expected to deconstruct Polonius's advice to Laertes or hear the key changes in the "rogue and peasant slave" soliloquy. And as for interpretation, most English classes practice what might be called 'vulgar humanism,' implicitly treating the characters as actual--albeit cardboard-thin--persons to be judged "good," "bad," "tragic," "foolish," etc. "Do you like Hamlet?" teachers might ask. Or, "What do you think of Ophelia?" To which some (refreshingly honest) students might answer, "He talks too much" and "Bitch be cray." No high school student has probably ever replied, "I think 'Hamlet' is nothing but a label for a set of characteristics constructed by the author, himself (a pronoun we must place sous rature) a socially constructed intersection of Early Modern energies; and Ophelia's madness is due to her closure in phallocentric language and her consequent failure to apprehend the aporia designated by the signifier 'Hamlet.'..." Like Yorick, I jest... 

Reading rarely goes much deeper in most undergraduate English courses. Even the best college students can merely apply to the text (as safely objectified 'other') a shallow knowledge of critical theory gleaned from introductory surveys. This enables them to produce term papers with titles like "Queering Hamlet: An Osrician Decentering" or "Who Killed Ophelia? : A Radical Feminist Intervention" (Spoiler alert: the patriarchal butler did it.) What such instrumental application of theory to text really achieves is the reification of the writer as 'queer critic' or 'feminist critic' and the extrusion of a chitinous layer of jargon around that (un)critical self to ensure that the text never deeply touches it. In graduate school, that multi-year, cavernously indebting endeavor in which mature adults learn to think and speak like the imaginary genius high schooler in the paragraph above, the situation is even worse. When graduate reading is not a hermetically-sealed indulgence in the Alexandrian pastime of criticizing critical theorists--a chess game in which artworks are barely pawns--it exhibits the same self-protective distancing strategies as undergraduate reading, but with a deeper, more rigorous understanding of the theories in play. Graduate reading, like the professional academic reading it precurses, tends to interpret artworks as allegories of the critic's theory of choice, thereby interposing the prophylactic text of critical theory between the work under discussion and the critic's self. Thus Hamlet, after mortgaging Elsinore to pay for grad school, finds himself there bound, gagged and scalpeled, forced to watch as trainee doctors (Ph) carve away the parts of him useful for their Greenblattian or Foucaultian or Lacanian or Butlerian interpretations and lug the excess guts into the neighbor room, where only the ghost of Harold Bloom might nose them as he drifts up the stair. When it comes to art, we don't murder to dissect; we dissect to murder.

So, what is the alternative?

First, we must strip off that crit-theory condom and learn to read dangerously. By which I do not mean we should ignore critical theory and all the challenging deconstructive, psychoanalytic, political, sociological, etc. interpretations it has produced. Rather, we should study theory and take anything from it that enlightens, deepens or complicates our experience of a given work--the way Barbara Johnson's deconstructive reading illuminates Billy Budd, for example; or the way Lacan and Derrida respectively complicate "The Purloined Letter"; or the way Bloom's influence theory deepens Wallace Stevens with Whitmanian echoes--while jettisoning all that is dogmatic, reductive, and conducive to readings that sound like prosecutors' closing arguments. To read dangerously means, on one level, to read closely and deeply and allow the work to suggest the hermeneutic. Let the poem, not Helen Vendler, tell you how to interpret the poem. Let the novel, not Rene Girard, teach you the interpretation of the novel. Authentic reading is always reading 'out of school,' in every sense of the phrase. It is extracurricular, unsupervised, independent, free, outside the disciplinary structures (Merci, Monsieur Foucault) of high school or university. And also, in the now-archaic sense of 'telling tales out of school,' reading out of school tells secrets, reveals parts of ourselves we would rather not see. It speaks the blunt, complex, contradictory truths about us. When we read The Great Gatsby in high school, our teachers didn't introduce the book by saying, "Here's a little novel that will show you how everything you think you know about your country and yourself is a damned lie." But if we read the book out of school and arrive at a milder understanding, we are not reading it independently enough. For Gatsby depicts--during the Charleston-stepping boomtime of the Roaring Twenties, no less--a country of unrelieved failure and futility, and it reveals the charismatic, romantic American self (which D. H. Lawrence during these same years described as "hard, stoic, isolate, and a killer") to be a construction as artificial and ridiculous as a Mr. Potato Head. If we can read Gatsby and reach the end without once seeming to feel the ground shifting under our feet, if we can return the book to the shelf nodding our head and saying to ourselves, "Oh yes, Great Gatsby, great novel, American classic, tragic tale of the American Dream," we have not understood the novel at all. The mental Maginot Line we have built around our Potato Heads has resisted the incursions even of Fitzgerald's bulldozing little book.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

From Wanking Willie to Soliloquizing Stevens: I read seven more great poems about sex, death and that whole 'life' thing (which, contra Axel of the Wilsonian castle, we shouldn't let our servants do for us)

 Here's the last batch (for now) of videos in which I (try to) read great poems: "Love Song" (a self-love song, actually) and "To Elsie" by William Carlos Williams; "Port of Spain" by Derek Walcott (a poem new to me); "No worst, there is none..." by Gerard Manley Hopkins (my favorite Jesuit); "Ode to the West Wind" by Percy Bysshe Shelley (near the end there's a bit of crackle when my prophetic trumpet overwhelms my laptop's microphone); "Soonest Mended" by John Ashbery (with a special appearance by Max the Meddling Cat); and "Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour" by Wallace Stevens.

Friday, February 5, 2021

I read two Romantics, two High Modernists, and the Hardy who rises and falls between them...

In these videos from the Mindful Pleasures YouTube channel, I read: "Kubla Khan" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge; "Ode to a Nightingale" by John Keats; "If It's Ever Spring Again" by Thomas Hardy; "The Broken Tower" by Hart Crane; and "The American Sublime" by Wallace Stevens.

I do Anne Sexton, John Donne and Philip Larkin (It's a veritable poetic orgy...)

Even more videos from my Mindful Pleasures YouTube channel, in which I read five more of my favorite poems: "Red Riding Hood" by Anne Sexton; "The Sun Rising" and "The Canonization" by John Donne (read, appropriately, from my bed); and "This Be The Verse" and "Aubade" by Philip Larkin.

And Even More Videos of Some of My Favorite Poems

Here are five more videos from the Mindful Pleasures YouTube channel in which I read: "Among School Children" by William Butler Yeats, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" by Randall Jarrell, "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell, "Ode: Intimations of Immortality" by William Wordsworth, and "Punishment" by Seamus Heaney.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

And even more MINDFUL PLEASURES videos

 ...Yes, I'm having a busy and enjoyable day making hostage video-quality recordings of myself reading some favorite poems. Here's the rest of what I recorded this morning: "Desert Places" by Robert Frost; "In a Station of the Metro" by Ezra Pound (fascist asshole...lovely poem); "Preludes" by T. S. Eliot; "Ariel" by Sylvia Plath; and "Death News" by Allen Ginsberg.

More videos from the MINDFUL PLEASURES YouTube channel

Here are five brief YouTube videos, recorded this morning, in which I read a few favorite poems: "The Haw Lantern" by Seamus Heaney; "Flaubert in Egypt" by Robert Penn Warren; "I cannot live with you..." by Emily Dickinson; "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London" by Dylan Thomas; and Emily Dickinson's "After great pain...." Soon, I'm going to write line-by-line close readings of these poems, publish those interpretations here, and use these video readings to supplement those essays--with all the Derridean masturbatory connotations put into play by my use of the word "supplement" (of course)...

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

My Desert Island Books

Yet another YouTube video. In this one, I talk about the ten books I would take to a desert island. I hope you have as much fun watching these videos as I'm having making them.


A Perfect Simile (from REVOLUTIONARY ROAD by Richard Yates)

Another YouTube video in which I discuss a perfect simile that occurs in the third chapter of Yates's now-classic novel.

"Opinions and Informed Opinions": A new video on the MINDFUL PLEASURES YouTube channel

 A very short YouTube video in which I vid-rant about our culture's loss of the distinction between informed and uninformed opinions--and what we as individuals can do about it.

Hamlet's "To Be or Not To Be" on the MINDFUL PLEASURES YouTube channel

I have just 'dropped,' as they say, my second video on the new Mindful Pleasures YouTube channel. In this one I read and discuss the 'to be or not to be' soliloquy from Shakespeare's Hamlet. How's that for starting at the top?

The new MINDFUL PLEASURES YouTube channel

Mindful Pleasures has just birthed its first spin-off, a YouTube channel where I will read, talk about, and sometimes even perform great works of art, literary and otherwise. The first video, consisting of a very brief introduction followed by a reading from the opening pages of Ulysses, has just gone live. I'm using my laptop's webcam and built-in microphone, so video and audio are primitive compared to, say, Rick Beato's Everything Music channel, but the quality is stunningly good relative to that Edison wax cylinder onto which Walt Whitman read one of his short poems.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

I Read the 'Updated and Expanded' second edition of James Wood's HOW FICTION WORKS, so you don't have to...

If any readers of the first edition of James Wood's How Fiction Works are wondering whether to check out the new(er) enlarged revision, I would tell them not to bother. The book has not been noticeably improved by revision. Wood has added a brief, forgettable chapter on 'form,' updated a few references and examples, dropped some passages that I thought interesting and valuable (a long footnote on character names, and the long pastiche of average 20th century English prose, for example), trendied-up other sections with examples from Knausgaard, Ali Smith, and the egregiously overrated David Shields, and toned-down (almost to the point of reversal) the first edition's criticism of David Foster Wallace. None of this greatly impressed me. In fact, I preferred Wood as a harsher critic of DFW, for that stance gave his genuine insights into Wallace's work a penetrating authority missing from his more fanboyish current position, which inevitably resembles bandwagon-jumping.

BTW, I read Wood's most recent novel, Upstate, last summer and found it entirely forgettable. Don't remember a damn thing about it.

Gass on Stein

William H. Gass's 1958 essay "Gertrude Stein: Her Escape from Protective Language" (reprinted in Fiction and the Figures of Life, 1971) is probably the best--and surely the best-written--aesthetic defense of Stein's style. I must demur from Gass's defense, however, because I have actually read Gertrude Stein. Gass's essay might convince if it were a Borgesian fictional criticism of an imaginary oeuvre, but unfortunately Stein's turgid texts stumble and stammer forth to sabotage all defenses. And even Gass must finally allow that the actual work tends toward unreadability, calling it "some of the dullest, flattest and longest literature perhaps in history"(95). (Even when I disagree with Big Bad Bill, I can still find something to agree with. (Does he contradict himself? So he contradicts himself. He was fat. He contained multitudes.)) In defending Modernist experimentation, stony Mount Stein is not the hill I would choose to die on. Instead, I would prefer to live--in the "doublends jined" of Finnegans Wake, say. Gass makes a valiant effort, but in the end, all aesthetic defenses of Stein are suicide missions.

Unlike Gertrude's dubiously musical medium, Gass's prose is a great tuning fork. Strike it anywhere and it will sensibly sound. It can tune a reader's ear to the music of prose, of Modernist prose, that great post-Paterian synthesis of sense and sound, music and word. Not 'words and music' but word as music--that's Gass's tune.

Monday, February 1, 2021


In his theoretical book The Role of the Reader, Umberto Eco (his very name an intertextual Nabokovian ec(h)o) quotes Mallarme:

Le monde existe pour aboutir a un livre.

"The world exists to end up in a novel." This is an ironic, sardonic aesthete's answer to the fundamental question of philosophy, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" Mallarme's mocking irony points toward the fallacious structure of the question, implicitly presupposing its answer (supernatural causation) by assuming that "why" is meaningful in this case. If the devil's in the details, 'intelligent design' is in the interrogatives. Of course, there's no need to leap like a dead Dane (he of the churchyard name), because those fundamental why's point merely to murkier and murkier material causes--murky not from theological mystery, but because we haven't properly lighted them yet. (See Lawrence M. Krauss's A Universe From Nothing for a scientifically informed discussion of this issue.) A present lack of knowledge is evidence of nothing but itself; it certainly doesn't justify a jump into extramaterial causation.

About Eco's critical theory / scholarly writing I have the same reservations I've expressed toward Toni Morrison's academic work: the dry, passionless, uninteresting, undistinguished prose pales by comparison with the prose artistry of the authors' better-known fictional works. In the light of their artistic accomplishments--in Morrison's case, a blazing light--their scholarly books read almost like unintentional parodies of English Department technocracy--something that deserves a killing intentional parody.


The high points of Fragments of the Artwork, a thin posthumous selection of Jean Genet's writings on art--culled and Englished from the French and padded with a long interview--are the essays on Giacometti and Rembrandt. The lesser-known of the latter two, "Rembrandt's Secret," contains a passage that strikes me with the force of truth. Genet is differentiating between his impressions of Rembrandt's self-portraits and of the other figures in the artist's oeuvre:

His [non self-portrait] figures, all of them, are aware of the existence of a wound, and they are taking refuge from it. Rembrandt [in the self-portraits] knows he is wounded, but he wants to be cured. From that knowledge comes the impression of vulnerability we get when we look at his self-portraits and the expression of confident strength when we are faced with the other paintings.(86)

Genet likewise speaks of this 'wound' in the Giacometti essay:

Beauty has no other origin than a wound, unique, different for each person, hidden or visible, that everyone keeps in himself, that he preserves and to which he withdraws when he wants to leave the world for a temporary but profound solitude... Giacometti's art seems to me to want to discover that secret wound of every being, and even of every object, so that it can illumine them.(42)

(Now, as I transcribe this passage, I'm reminded of Hemingway's great letter to Fitzgerald upon reading Tender is the Night: "We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it...")

As I stated, the Rembrandt passage impressed me deeply, leapt off the page, exemplifying Emerson's aphorism on genius: In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts. They come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Substitute "unconscious apprehensions" for "rejected thoughts" and you'll get a flavor of the "alienated majesty" I find in Genet's lines.

A brief note on the blogger's health...

Because readers have asked for an update on my health, and because, unlike most authors of memoirs, I hate to write about myself, I'll keep this note short:

It's OK.


Alright, I suppose I can be somewhat more expansive:

It's no news to anyone that 2020 was a terrible year. It will likely go down as the worst year of many of our lives. In my life (cue the Beatles tune), the year began with blinding cataracts in both eyes that reduced my zone of clarity, even through monstrously powerful glasses, to a few inches in front of my face. The necessary surgery was delayed due to the pandemic, but by the beginning of summer I had undergone cataract extraction and lens implant surgeries in both eyes. Immediate results were positive--indeed, from my point of view, pretty fucking miraculous. My vision cleared and improved to the point that I could read without glasses for the first time since childhood. But then the Shit Year did its shitty thing. Because the implanted artificial lens is slightly smaller than the natural one, the vitreous gel inside the eye sometimes pushes forward after surgery, a phenomenon known as posterior vitreous detachment (PVD). In my case the PVD was particularly violent, tearing the retina and causing retinal detachment and blindness in one eye. During the month of August I suffered three separate retinal detachments and underwent three surgical procedures to repair them. The final surgery lasted three hours and left me with an eye filled with silicone gel, the only option for my multiply recidivistic retina. This repair has held--so far--and the world I now see consists of an occasionally annoying double exposure: the relative clarity of my undamaged eye superimposed upon the severely tunnel-visioned blurriness of its vitrectomied and siliconed twin. My next visit is to an optometrist for the eyeglasses that should help even things out. Bottom line: after a hellish 2020, I'm looking up.


There are writers who drink and drinkers who write, and then there's Richard Yates, who spent a lifetime blurring the distinction. Habitues of Boston's Crossroads Irish Pub in the 1980s might've been shocked to learn that the skinny old barfly who seemed to live in one of the booths was in fact 'America's least known great writer,' the author of at least three undeniably superlative works of fiction: his first novel, Revolutionary Road, the follow-up story collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (great title too), and his 1976 Bicentennial fireworks display, The Easter Parade. That he was also a chronic alcoholic and frequent mental patient who once, in the grips of manic psychosis, stripped naked and ran around a friend's house urinating on the walls... well, that might have surprised the Crossroaders not at all.

Biographer Blake Bailey (whose life of Yates I've just read while awaiting the spring publication of his expected-to-be-definitive biography of Philip Roth) here demonstrates a near-Yatesian eye for the telling detail, the kind of symbolic image Yates eliotically referred to as an "objective correlative":

Work on his war novel had come to a dead end, and at one point he became so desperate that he blamed it on his table. "It's too high," he told Grace Schulman. "I need to get over my writing...." So he sawed the legs down, to no avail. (256)

He sawed the legs down, to no avail. Richard Yates's tombstone--if he had one; as of 2003, he didn't--might have worn that sentence as an epitaph. For Bailey's Yates is a physical and psychological basket case who spent much of his life sawing off his own legs. Given the drinking, the smoking, the tuberculosis, the accidental incineration of his New York apartment, and the long, dreary catalog of hospitalizations and relapses, it seems nearly miraculous that Yates could write his name on a check. That he produced nine estimable works of fiction almost beggars credulity.

Until, that is, one reflects that his always autobiographical fiction might have functioned for Yates in the way psychotherapy works for the less talented. He spent most of his life angrily deriding and avoiding psychotherapy, preferring to gobble psychotropics and neutralize their effects with a whiskey chaser (that old leg-saw buzzing again...). (He did finally undergo analysis in the 1970s, but it was fruitless--a failure the doctor attributed to his drinking.) In his fiction, however, he returned to his earlier years, his childhood, youth, early adulthood, and examined them, through the protective screen of fictionality, with the coldest of eyes. Bailey is anything but a 'psychobiographer,' but his book portrays a Yates in perpetual psychological flight from his grandiose, deluded, Bohemian mother. And as is the entirely predictable nature of such things--a tragic trajectory older than Sophocles--the thing he flees is exactly the thing he becomes. This son of an unappreciated, itinerant artist with money woes and mental problems becomes exactly an unappreciated itinerant artist with money problems and mental woes. Determined to avoid his mother's life, he repeats it as exactly as he can. Although Bailey's biography is not nearly so good as a novel by Richard Yates, it is every bit as sadly fucking tragic.