Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Please Attend to John Pudney

Because the charming secretary of my primary physician is called Althea, I read her the last stanza of Richard Lovelace’s “To Althea, from Prison.” I quoted from the old Everyman Library’s Minor Poets of the Seventeenth Century, though I could have from several other of my anthologies. It contains, after all, the famous lines, “Stone walls do not a prison make,/ Nor iron bars a cage,” and what gloriously follows. But that “minor poets” set me thinking: What exactly is a minor poet? What significance, if any, have the epithets minor and major outside musical scales? Do those presumptive categories have any real meaning in the arts?

Well, in some places, alas, they do. When I was teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle, I casually remarked to someone that Theodore Roethke was a good minor poet. MINOR?! All hell broke loose. Roethke, in those days, was the English department's, the university's, perhaps the entire state's, superstar. He taught the celebrity course that yielded some well-known poets, my favorite among them the sadly underrated James Wright. Roethke, who had at times been quite condescending, wrote me an enthusiastic fan letter about a villanelle of mine published in the Paris Review. But, at that time, he was in the elegant loony bin where he periodically, self-depreciatingly stayed.

So what makes a so-called minor artist in poetry? Who determines the classification? If we stick to English poetry, Auden, Eliot, Yeats, Pound, and my favorite Robert Graves have, or ought to have, major status. Many would argue for Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams, not on my list, though nowadays even such an obvious phony as John Ashbery may pass for major. On the other hand, many of my choices--E.E. Cummings, John Crowe Ransom and Louis MacNeice--may be considered minor. I think Richard Wilbur ought to make major as well, but not Robert Lowell.

Let's examine some criteria. Quantity surely is not it. Eliot's main oeuvre can fit into a very slim plaquette, yet clearly registers major. Conversely, such esteemed polygraphers as John Ashbery, who never wrote anything I would call a poem, or Allen Ginsberg, who wrote at best one dubious rant, would probably get enough votes for major.

Innovation may make majors. But only backed up by poetic quality. Otherwise Louis Zukofsky and H.D. might pass for major poets. Surely not. Others may be teetering on the edge. I would seriously consider Dylan Thomas; but what about a poet like Geoffrey Hill, adored by the academy and many fellow poets, but, except for his earliest poems, most obdurately obscure and esoteric, and incomprehensible even to intelligent readers--can that be a major poet? Yet innovative he certainly is.

Popularity might be a criterion, but is it truly? I myself, like thousands of others, cherish the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, but does that make her a major poet? Hers is essentially love poetry or nature poetry (another kind of love poetry), or elegies for transience and mortality. All perfectly good subjects, but perhaps the least bit too facile, too heart-on-the-sleeve, too modest in scope, too--damn it--accessible. Does speaking simply and directly and without any innovation downgrade the work? I confess I'd rather reread a Millay sonnet than an Eliot "Quartet."

I think it would make much more sense to speak of major poems rather than major poets. Individual poems by so-called minor poets can be every bit as good as the best of a major poet, only probably fewer. Take the case of John Pudney. When I was associate editor of the Mid-century Book Society, whose editors were W.H. Auden, Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling, I happened to bring up Pudney in an editorial meeting. "Great guy," exclaimed Auden, who had been friends with the slightly younger Pudney since their school days. "He stood for Parliament while he was drunk." He may indeed have been a helluva fellow, although that may not show clearly from his rather too modest memoir, "Home & Away," subtitled, even more unassumingly, "an autobiographical gambit" in lower case. Yet the man has written at the very least one major poem.

Pudney (1909-77) had a rich and varied life, and published a slew of assorted verse and prose; and, also, as publisher, the verse and prose of many others. In the Royal Air Force during World War II, he held diverse positions. (Google him!) While squadron intelligence officer in Cornwall in 1941, during an air raid, he wrote his most famous poem, "For Johnny." I would group it with a somewhat later trilogy--as I would call it--"Smith," "Missing in Action" and"One Country-Bred," similar RAF poems. Johnny and Smith, after all, could have been the same person. Here is "For Johnny", immensely popular in wartime Britain:

Do not despair
For Johnny-head-in-air;
He sleeps as sound
As Johnny underground.

Fetch out no shroud
For Johnny-in the-cloud;
And keep your tears
For him in after years.

Better by far
For Johnny-the-bright-star
To keep your head,
And see his children fed.

I won't quote here the abovementioned trilogy, though it too is splendid. But just look how fine this poem is, of which I'll point to only one superb feature. Note how the dead flyer first appears in-the-air, which is rather generalized. But presently he is in-the-cloud, which is much more specific: every time we look at clouds, we may lovingly summon up Johnny flying in them. Finally, he becomes the-bright-star: a permanent, shining memory.

If this isn't a major poem, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


I logged on this morning to write about the Spiderman delay--one last time--but before doing so, thought I’d read up on what some of my colleagues posted on the topic this week.  We have a meeting of the Drama Critics Circle coming up and one of the topics is whether one should go ahead and review Spiderman in advance of the rescheduled March 15 opening.

I see that Michael Riedel--the gossip columnist for the New York Post--is clamoring for critics to purchase their own tickets for the February 7 performance--which was to have been the opening.  He suggests that the Spiderman folk are hoping the critics will purchase their own tickets on various dates and the reviews will trickle in having no impact.  He also suggests that the only review that will count is Ben Brantley’s NY Times notice.

Adam Feldman of Time Out New York said in his January 15 blog post:

exactly what I was going to say in my post today--and that is that we should leave Spidey and the creative team alone to do their work due to the fact that musicals are complicated of themselves let alone trying to coordinate all the never before seen technical elements that are being attempted in this show.

Looking at the line up of musicals slated to open this spring, most of the new shows have tried-out out of town (Catch Me if You Can, Wonderland) or been successful in London (Sister Act, Priscilla Queen of the Desert). Only the Book of Mormon has had a workshop and a reading but will also be in previews in New York City. The other musicals are revivals (Anything Goes and How to Succeed.)

Adam mentions Hello, Dolly! and the preview period out of town as an example of what can be won in an extended preview period.  Back in 1952, the so called glory days of musical theatre, the great director Joshua Logan was faced with having to preview the musical Wish You Were Here in New York City for a similar reason as Spiderman’s--the complicated set.  Wish You Were Here had a swimming pool onstage. 

The show opened to bad notices.  Logan greeted the cast the next day beaming, “It looks like we’ve got a hit!”  He then put the show back in rehearsals and with the aid of Jerome Robbins and Donald Saddler made necessary changes. (This was in the days before Actors’ Equity controlled how many hours a cast could rehearse while in performance mode.) Logan used to stand to the side of the house and watch the audience during the performance of the show.  When he saw faces looking bored he knew something was wrong on stage and set about to remedy that. He then invited the critics to return for another look.  The show became a smash hit introducing young Phyllis Newman and Florence Henderson to New York audiences.

Another example of a show that was changed after it opened in NYC was Camelot.  Camelot was overlong in the extended out of town tryout (“Camelot, cost-a-lot, cut-a lot” was the saying.)  Moss Hart, Alan Jay Lerner and Fritz Loewe all become so ill out of town they had to be hospitalized.  The show opened in New York without Moss Hart’s magic touch.  When he had recovered from his illness, he came to see the show and made some cuts that tightened and improved it.

The musical Merrily We Roll Along tried out in New York City and suffered at the hands of the gossip columnist Liz Smith who kept reporting how many people were leaving the theatre night after night as changes were put in effect.  How dispiriting that must have been for Hal Prince, Steve Sondheim, Larry Fuller and the young cast. Years later I attended a one night concert of the show and remarked to my companion at intermission, “I don’t understand why this show wasn’t a hit.”

These tales are now part of theatre lore. Who knows what will happen when the reviews of Spiderman come out--whenever they come out-- as far as issues of quality of the songwriting and storytelling.  I applaud the creative team for taking the time they feel they need to rehearse the new cast members safely and insert rewrites to enhance the show.

I agree with Adam Feldman that this may well change the nature of previews in New York for technically complicated musicals and plays and I applaud that idea.  To not acknowledge the time needed to accommodate technical advances is absurd.  We are no longer in the time of rolling wagons and painted backdrops after all!

The extended delay may also cause Actors’ Equity to reconsider how many hours a week an expensive show in trouble can rehearse without overtaxing the cast and crew.

Perhaps even the pricing of previews will change.  If I have any “issue” with extended previews, it’s that they used to be advertised as “low priced previews” and now they are charging regular prices and beyond. 

The next time you’ll hear from me on the topic of Spiderman will be midnight of March 15, 2011 when my review in the Yonkers Tribune and Westchester Guardian will appear.  That is--unless there is another delay.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Festina Lente (Hurry Slowly)

            The road to hell is, as we know, paved with good intentions. But there is a less well-known road that also leads to hell, or some lesser hells. It is the speedway, an asphalt express transport to tarnation. Speed, which is the curse of our civilization.
            I was thinking of this today when I was looking up the etymology of “impend,” which has two meanings, both, of course, derived from the Latin. Ah, Latin! That reminded me of the College Boards, as a former college entrance exam was called. In it, as my headmaster apprised me, I had achieved the highest score in Latin in the country.
            Now, I was pretty good at Latin, sure. But the highest scorer, surely not. Then it occurred to me: It wasn’t knowledge; it was speed. The written examination for Latin was in two sections, one for prose, one for poetry, and you were to choose one or the other. Since I finished the prose section quickly, I thought “What the hell!” and went on to the verse. So it was on the quantity, which is to say speed, of my answers that I really made it.
            Ah, speed! It occurs to me that so much in our lives is counterproductively geared to speed: the maximum we can squeeze into the minimum of time. This impended on me on a half-hour phone in radio show on which I was a guest along with another interviewee. We were to make useful pronouncements--in just how much time? Advertising took up easily half of that half hour; the other half, involving a slew of questions (which also took their time) was split up between the two of us. How smart can you be in a sound bite of a few seconds?
            It is pretty sad that even on radio, television’s poor cousin, there should be no chance for a little leisureliness--that even there the sound bite should rule. And just how much good are the soundest opinions spouted in sound bites? Do rattled-off statements make much of an impression?
            The only place where an interviewee is given a little time is a television talk show, and it had better be a major one if it is to reach more than a handful of fanatics. But for that, you have to be a major celebrity, a movie or sports star or sex kitten, and blurt out chitchat, or at the very least a politician dispensing a prefabricated party line.
            It occurs to me that success on every kind of test or examination hinges on speed rather than real aptitude. Thought takes time. Even if you are good at thinking on your feet, it behooves those feet to be running rather than firmly planted.
            And speed is indirectly guilty even of crimes against language, against pleasing expression. Why do you suppose the deadly contamination of “like” has infected our language? Speakers who needed a little crutch when talking speedily, as most people do, used to rely on the “er.” It was a filler, as in “It happened on Saturday, or was it on . . . er. . . Friday or Sunday?” Now the “er” has been retired and replaced by “you know” and “I mean” and, most often, “like,” pressed into the service of besmirching speech, even if to “er” was more human.
            The one speed-thing I used to be interested in was speed-reading. To a fairly slow reader it seemed like a good idea. Upon investigation, however, that proved illusory. Anything worth reading and absorbing—anything worth retaining—calls for “slowreading.” After all, doesn’t the very word “speed,” as the pseudonym of amphetamines, contain an implicit warning?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dracula Yesterday, Vampires Forever

Four rehearsals before the opening of the recent revival of the stage Dracula, director Paul Alexander fired leading actress Thora Birch. Four performances after opening, the revival of the play about the undead was dead as a doornail. Why was this creaky vehicle revived in the first place?

Vampires exercise a tremendous fascination on mere mortals, not only because they beget thrillers on page, stage and screen, but also, perhaps even more, because of their promise of an afterlife. If there can be creatures that survive death—however somberly, and even in godforsaken Transylvania—there is hope. If there are vampires, there may also be angels.

Important, too, is the sexual angle. The vampire is usually an aristocrat, Count Dracula, with whom, despite his creepy Hungarian accent, men want to identify, and by whom women want to be bitten. After all, the sucking of blood is sexy, the spilling of semen in reverse, fluid for fluid. It is a symbolic, uncensorable but equally orgasmic representation of the sexual act. And when the victim herself becomes a vampire, the union is perfect and, what is more, everlasting.

Some such things account for the current renaissance—more properly recrudescence—of the vampire novel, movie and, presumptively, stage play. But the advantages of the movie (sexy young actors, detailed sex scenes, endless special effects, spectacular locales) and the novel (if skillfully written, steady stimulus for the imagination) are enormous. The resources of the stage, mostly live actors, are considerably more limited. And what happens if even the actors fail you?

However, I am most concerned here with the grotesque aspects of the vampire story. I chortle recalling a long-ago movie—Danish, I believe, but dubbed into English—in which the word “vampire” was pronounced as “vompire.” What follows may be called vompire stories.

There is more than one vampire opera, the best known being Marschner’s Der Vampyr. The Grove Dictionary of Opera entry about it opens with the subtitle Grosse romantische Oper and continues “in two acts by Heinrich August Marschner to a libretto by Wilhelm August Wohlbrueck after plays based on John W. Polidori’s story The Vampyre, itself a revision of Lord Byron’s Fragment of a Novel, sometimes called Augustus Dowell.

From so many Augustuses, or Augusts, involved, you would expect something more august; but though the music is not without some merit, the libretto is. Based like so much later stuff on he novel by Byron’s ludicrous personal physician, Dr. Polidori the first act has the non-singing Vampire Master granting Lord Ruthven, a novice vampire, a begged-for further year on earth, on condition that he suck to death three maidens by next midnight. Ruthven sings the aria “Ha! welche Lust!” (with the German Lust unfortunately joy rather than lust) and manages to dispatch only two maidens. Failing with the third, he is dragged to hell without so much as a memorable farewell aria.

Pretty vompirish, too, are these lines from The Gioaour by Lord Byron: “But first on earth, as vampire sent,/ Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent,/ Then ghastly haunt thy native place/ And suck the blood of all thy race.” That the entire race can be conveniently sucked in one place, suggests overcrowding that might welcome vampiric decimation. In Polidori’s novel we read, “He had been tormented by a vampyre, but had found a way to rid himself of the evil, by eating some of the earth out of the vampyre’s grave.” Which gives the sinister command “Bite the dust!” a therapeutic aspect.

Amusingly, the Oxford English Dictionary adduces the word “vampirarchy” from 1823 as referring to “a set of ruling persons comparable to vampires.” Sound familiar? From the year 1855, we read about “instances of vampirism, which chiefly occurred in Hungary,” a justification of Bela Lugosi’s ripe Hungarian accent

The word “vamp,” immortalized by Theda Bara, is derived from “vampire.” It is a relief, though, to read in The Listener of January 24, 1963, that “Marilyn Monroe had all the physical equipment of the vamp, but the spirit of the girl next door,” and that she was “never truly vampiric on screen.” Nevertheless, no thanks to the ERA, female vampires in literature were even commoner than male ones, with Keats’s Lamia perhaps the most famous

But let us not forget the vampire wife in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Die Serapionsbrueder (1819), who leaves her husband’s bed for a graveyard snack from a cadaver. Hubby throws her to the ground, she dies, but he, alas, loses his marbles. From 1823, we get E. Raupach’s (I translate) Let the Dead Rest, wherein a husband carries on amorously with his dead wife, who feeds on his and the children’s blood.

Most noteworthy is Theophile Gautier’s novella La Morte amoureuse (1836), with the priest Romuald enamored of a female corpse, kissing it (her?) and so getting a nightly concubine sustained by his sucked blood. A priestly colleague undertakes to dig up the moldering corpse while Romuald is watching, which pouts paid to his insalubrious addiction.

Beside all this, the Twilight novels and movies made from them seem downright epigonic—or perhaps vompiric. Even more so is the entry on “vampire” in the Petit Larousse Illustre. An illustrated text informs us about the giant bats and concludes: “Ils vivent de fruits, d’insectes et sucent le sang des animaux et des homes endormis.” Sucking the blood of sleeping humans? Rubbish. It is the editors of that French dictionary who were asleep, though, admittedly, mine is the 1946 edition. I haven’t checked whether the last sixty years were enough to wake them up. 

Friday, January 7, 2011

NY Times Arts Beat Blog--Why Waiting To Review Makes Sense


Above is a link to an Arts Beat blog post by Charles Isherwood which mentions the fact that I took issue with Jeremy Gerard covering Spiderman and noting that Jeremy has succeeded me at Bloomberg after having been my editor. Here is my feeling about that:

            I don’t enjoy unfinished things. I don’t want to see unfinished shows for review. I can patiently wait for the designated time to review, whenever the invitation comes. If a show draws attention to itself by huge cost, injured cast members, and repeatedly delayed openings, so be it. The papers can publish articles about that, and so discharge their reportorial duties and cater to public curiosity. There are always plenty of other shows ready for review. And if some modest, three-performance-apiece experimental series doesn’t want critics at all, fine; the audience who are interested can buy the cheap tickets and be their own critics.
            These are my views, quite irrespective of those of Jeremy Gerard, my former editor and now successor at Bloomberg News. If Bloomberg News wants to spend the money saved by firing me on buying tickets for shows, however distant, expensive or inexpensive, to be pre-reviewed by him, so be that too. I may judge it, but certainly not begrudge it.

I'm enjoying looking out the window on this snowy day.  

Tonight I appear on Theater Talk with Jacques Le Sourd and Terry Teachout.  The episode will be shown 30 minutes after midnight on Channel 13 and then be repeated several times over the weekend on CUNY.

I'll post an essay soon--- on vampires!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Resist the List

            Under the title “List! List! O, List!” a quotation from Hamlet (as what isn’t?),  I checked in at New York magazine December 22, 1975,  against Ten Best Lists, which I abhor.  Here goes again, more compellingly I hope.
            Reviewers at year’s end are necessarily less clear about what they wrote early on in the year. This may work to a play’s or film’s advantage if memory embellishes, or disadvantage if it fails. But that is the least of it.
            First of all, why ten best? Why not five (more realistic) or twelve if it was a good year. I myself think that the tally is seldom that high; how often is there an exceptional year?
            But there is an obsession with the number ten, whether from the biblical Decalogue, the metric system, the decimal system, or the fingers of one’s hands, even if they are all thumbs. We have a sentimental attachment to ten. A smashing woman is a perfect ten. A common reprimand is, “I’ve told you ten times!” There are, or were, such things as "Ten Cents a Dance" and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” And surely many more. But there is no earthly reason for there to be ten best films or plays. By the time you reach six, things become very questionable.
            Still, the problem goes deeper than that. Let us assume that #1 is clearly tops. Yet how sure can we be about  #2 being better than #3? How does one calibrate these things? In a horse race or in football scores you know exactly the order or ranking. But shows or movies? If anyone confronted the list-maker with exactly why that order, he would quite likely be at a loss, or forced to come up with some highly specious criteria.
            Then there may be readers with long memories or ample files who will protest, “But you gave X a much better review than you did Y, so how come it’s lower on the list?” Furthermore, some readers may be incensed by finding something on every other list but yours. Even though you may tell yourself you don’t care, you might want to reconsider when it is already too late.
            Let us, however, look closer yet. Something on a ten-best list assumes a special status. It is, as it were, on the books, as a mere review is not. Here the Decalogue comes in again. You are, so to speak, decreeing respect, in a way a mere review does not. (Or if it is a ten worst list, the same thing applies in reverse.) The list cannot be amended, as a review can elicit a re-review.
            And heaven help you if, out of an excess of fairness, you offer a runner-up list. Then any number of readers will be reminded of movies or shows that strike them as surely worthy of the top ten, and they might have a point.  Or are you to make it, like the wretched Oscars, the top twenty? Again, you may not care for anyone else’s opinion, but just perhaps you should.
            All this applies more if you and your editors perceive you as a reviewer and may seek mass appeal. If they and you see you as a critic, full speed ahead without looking over your shoulder. Yet if you are a critic, it should be part of your mentality and mandate to have no use for lists in the first place.
            Such matters, however, may have become academic in our age of dumbing-down, which sees to it that criticism—especially of theater and classical music—is irrelevant and discontinued as critics are fired almost wherever you look. And a good deal of so-called criticism that remains could pass for advertising. It may be a way of ridding us of the ten best lists, but hardly the desiderated one.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

By Way of Resolutions

It is New Year’s Day 2011 and what thoughts does this generate in my 85- year-old head?  Another tooth has broken and fallen out; it will have to be replaced, however expensively.  Thanks to my shrinking spine, I’ve gone from five feet ten and two-thirds to slightly under five seven.  My trousers will have to be shortened.  I have lost a well-paid job and have not been able to financially replace it.  Well, there are enough holes on my belts for tightening. I have sold my beautiful three bedroom home near Lincoln Center and am looking for less expensive quarters. 

What’s to be done against such diminishments?  Fighting back.  Finding good things that will accompany you into decrease, the way Everyman is accompanied into death by Good Deeds.  A lovely piece of symbolism, but my good deeds, if any, won’t come walking through the door. Fight back how?

Well, first there is work.  There is this blog with which to reach out to the others who can be talked to, befriended, and lose some of their otherness.  Perhaps their problems, concerns, pleasures, can fit in with yours like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and together yield the picture of some smiling prospect.

Then there are books, books that can be read or reread and offer consolation. When I was very young, I thrilled to Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer; an autographed copy sits on my shelf.  The print is devilishly fine, but I have my trusty glasses.  It is a novel about young people growing up—but perhaps old people, too, can still do some growing up.

Or poetry.  Here are the collected poems of Robert Graves that can bear repeated rereading.  He knew all there is to know about love.  Or E.E. Cummings, whose Complete Poems need considerable effort in hefting, but why not, since I don’t do any other kind of exercise?  He too is witty and romantic like Graves, plus amusingly experimental.

Essays are always good; they challenge the mind into thinking rather than complaining . Before me is Isak Dinesen’s collection, Daguerreotypes and Other Essays. I have greatly enjoyed her stories, but these essays I have never touched—isn’t it time?

And there is music—my huge collection of classical CDs.  How about a Samuel Barber concerto, to set me dreaming?  Or some Janacek?  His string quartets?  Or an opera?  There is wonderful tamed wildness in his music that can break out into colorful indignation or subside into jocular intimacy in a trice.  Or for amusement, but amusement tinged with exquisite sentimentality, a little Poulenc?  The ravishing Sextet, or a ballet, or any of the sonatas?

Well, already at the thought of it, one feels a little better.  Then the phone.  Isn’t there a conversation with an old pal that wasn’t properly concluded?  Let the familiar voice blend with your own even more familiar one, and spontaneous dialogue yield some unexplored diversion.

Finally there is bed, sleep and dreams.  This is where you can truly surprise yourself if you can transport your dream scenarios into your waking memory.  The other night I had a long dream that, if I could have fully captured it and written it down, would have—damn it—made a terrific short story.  But forgetting also has its rewards: dreams are like a collection of stories in a book especially written for you, and you want to get on to the next one.  I say “for you” rather than “by you” because they are written by another self astonishingly lodged inside you.  Close as a twin yet different.  And you can be your own Dr. Freud.

Last night it was New Year's Eve, and waking up this morning it’s a whole new year.  What will it bring you—or what will you contribute to it?  Like seven new tiles in a Scrabble game: What word can you make out of them?  “Renewal” would be nice.