Wednesday, December 27, 2017


Names are more significant than one might offhand assume.  I am thinking of first (or given, or Christian names) names, whose bearers may or may not be concerned with, or even aware of, their derivation and meaning.

Take, for instance, a woman named Chloe, which comes from the Greek for a green or tender shoot. Is she even cognizant of the etiology or epistemology involved, and even if she is, I wonder whether she makes anything of it. Whether it influences her personality and, possibly, even her behavior.

To be sure there is little evidence that a woman would think of herself as a green or tender shoot, or if she did, what that would result in. But what if her name was Spring or a man’s first name were Gardner, would that produce joyous effusions or a green thumb?

What complicates matters is that our English names have foreign or obscure derivations, coming from ancient Greek or Latin, Welsh or Scottish, Romance or Teuton, Hebrew or Arabic or Aramaean? Or when they are so commonplace that neither parents nor children would attribute any individual characteristic to them. When there are millions of Peters and Janes around, they become impersonal by their very ubiquity.

In other words, the more widespread a name is, the less it matters where it comes from and what it means. And heaven knows there are fashions in names. Right now there are Ryans and Jennifers in every bush, and minor variations (Kristin, Kirstin, Kirsten etc.) which only seem desperate measures to improve on Christine or Christina. None of them has that hint of originality that might mold a character—say, Maximilian or Isadora.

I cannot help lodging a complaint against Rachael, made current by that obnoxious TV food guru. This is based on a nonsensical analogy with Michael, which comes from the Hebrew “who (is) like a god,“ complete with the “ae.” that makes the “ch” hard. Whereas Rachel, likewise from the Hebrew, but with no “ae” in it, and thus a soft “ch, ”means “like a ewe,” i.e., gentle. (Years ago, there was a short-lived play that featured an eponymous Rachael.) This is what happens when illiteracy takes over, comparable to pronouncing groceries as “grosheries.”

I am not in the position to start a scientific inquiry into whether the imperial name of Maximilian (from Latin, maximus, the greatest, and long a favorite with European royalty and aristocracy) confers nobility on its bearer. but in “Rebecca,” the novel and movie, it seems to do so on its autocratic protagonist.

German, by the way, appears to have more meaningful names. Take Gottfried, for example, which derives from Gott and Frieden, God and peace, and, appropriately, we don’t find it much among the Nazis. The poet Gottfried Benn may have started out truculent, but ended up very much becalmed. The Swiss poet and prose writer Gottfried Keller was certainly much of a bourgeois naturalist, sometimes of a humorous, god-given kind. Better named yet was the German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the Gotthold meaning attached to God; the Ephraim, from the Hebrew, doubly fruitful. And, of course, Mozart, whose God-loving Amadeus seems applicable enough.

But to get closer to home, what about Aaron? It seems to come from the Hebrew for “(a) light.” The only Aaron I have ever known was the publishing star Aaron Asher, who was indeed a bright light. But would he have been any less so if, for instance, he had been named Claude? It comes from the Latin Claudius, a name very important throughout Roman history and to Robert Graves. It means in Latin lame, and may well have been initially the name of someone lame. The only Claude I have ever known is Claude Fredricks with whom I was good friends for quite a while. He was or is a charming gay guy, extremely learned (the only person I know to peruse a Latin text as airplane reading,) and when I mounted a play of mine at Harvard, he would call people to invite them to it under the assumed name of Dimitri Merezhkovsky, that of a well-known writer. Claude ended up as a beloved prof at Bennington, and the protagonist of a novel by Donna Tartt, but fame made him drop me. Could he have accomplished as much if named Gus?

I do persist in believing that, as the Latin adage “nomen est omen” has it, a name somehow rubs off on its bearer, or should I say wearer? How about my own John, recently aped by the annoying Jon? As Eric Partridge (my favorite lexicographer) puts it in his delightful booklet “Name This Child,” without which this essay could not have been written, “The name owes most of its vast European popularity to the Evangelist; its brevity and strength have contributed  to make it, in the minds of the majority, the finest of all. m[asculine] ‘Christians.’ From Hebrew: ‘God is gracious.’”

Now I don’t know how gracious God is, or would be if he existed (think Holocaust). but, regretably, I don’t see myself as particularly gracious as a result. What is interesting here, though, is that the names of the three other Evangelists are nowhere near as popular, even if Mark, at any rate, is just as brief and strong. Besides, in many languages John is not all that snappy: Jovan in Serbian, Janos in Hungarian, Janusz in Polish. Giovanni in Italian, Jean in French, and Johannes in German (though usually in abridged forms, Johann or Hans) are all reasonably euphonious. But do they charaterize?

As for me, the only effect I can think of is exercise of my neck muscles, because often in the street behind me someone yells “John!” and I am optimistic or naïve enough to assume it meant for me, which it usually isn’t, and turn my head. But it is true that John sounds good in certain languages, like the Spanish Juan, the Portuguese Joao, Jannis in modern Greek, Jokanaan in Hebrew if the opera “Salome” has it right, and several others.

Spanish aristocrats have the most impressive names, because they come in bunches.
A recent Times obituary for Mary Aline Griffith informs that she became a countess by marrying Luis Figueroa y Perez de Guzman el Bueno, Conte de Quintanilla (and later) Romanones. Which reminds me of a true story.

A Hungarian fencing team once came to Madrid to fight a Spanish one. At a reception, they were to get to know one another. A Spanish caballero introduced  himself to a Hungarian with his full complement of a dozen names. The Hungarian was ashamed of having a measly single last name. Not to be outdone, however, he appended in his introduction to the next fellow every Hungarian swearword and obscene insult he could think of by way of self-presentation. “Delighted to meet you” responded the man in perfect Hungarian, “I am the Hungarian ambassador to Spain.”

Spaniards, by the way, are not the only ones with such elaborate nomenclature. Consider the recent Times obituary for a distinguished French writer, academician and aristocrat, Jean d’Ormesson. His full name was Jean Bruno Wladimir Francois de Paule LeFevre d’Ormesson. There is method to it. His diplomat father wanted him to appeal to various nations. Bruno, a name popular In Germany, was a bow to that nation. Wladimir (note the un-French W) was to appeal to several Slavonic nations.
 Francois de Paule is the French version of the name of an Italian saint. Le Fevre, sometimes spelled Le Febvre, was the name of several illustrious Frenchmen, one of them a victorious Marshal of France. Since d’Ormesson  pere was posted to Bavaria, Romania and Brazil, it is surprising that the son had not also Romanian and Portuguese names bequeathed on him.

Names are a fascinating thing. My father, a good Yugoslav, observed that I had only one given name, whereas Americans often had more, so he decided to provide me with the middle name Ivan. This is a tautology, being the Croatian form of the Serbian Jovan, and indeed, my savvy friend Dona Vaughn calls me, as if I were a Kennedy, John John. A favorite chemistry teacher of mine at Horace Mann School uniquely called me Jack, on the basis of which I could have been, like Rousseau, Jean Jacques, or John James.

But what about Simon? Partridge says, “Simeon, Hebrew for obedient, hearkening. Already in the first century A.D. Simeon had been confused with Simon. In Greek, Simon is ‘the snub-nose.’ But as a New Testament name it seems to have been a mere Grecism for Simeon. Diminutive: Si.” Well, I am neither snub-nosed nor particularly obedient, and, thank heaven, no one has ever called me Si.

So I am John Simon, which once earned me a packet of letters intended for John Simon Guggenheim, and I forwarded to that Foundation. It did not earn me so much as a thank you, let alone a grant. But for many years, Yoko Ono generously sponsored my website with a monthly $500, which just now stopped. I wonder whether you blog readers could help support the site with a monthly $50? Yet do I even have ten regulars?

Saturday, December 9, 2017


There is a salient aspect of language that I haven’t handled hitherto--not alliteration, as in these consecutive h-words, but onomatopoeia, Greek for name-making. What it really means is what occurs when a word’s sound echoes or represents the thing that it denotes. I recur to the examples given by J. H. Cuddon in his excellent “Literary Terms and Literary Theory” from Penguin Books, which I strongly recommend to one and all. In it, he offers examples of onomatopoeia that I intend to look closely at. They are: “dong, crackle, moo, pop, whizz, whoosh, zoom,” all well chosen.

Somewhat puzzling is the first one, “dong,” perhaps even embarrassing at first sight. My Heritage Dictionary gives as its first, nononomatopoeic definition, a Vietnamese currency. Pretty obscure, that; but not so the second definition, “a penis, vulgar slang. (Origin obscure.)” The Random House Dictionary, on the other hand (pun not intended), lists also “the deep sound like that of a large bell. (Origin unknown.)” This latter definition, curiously, does not appear in the Heritage. The reason, I would guess, being that in overwhelmingly most cases it is not the intended one. In more recent versions of the OED (the important Oxford English Dictionary), it is part of “ding-dong,” as the imputed alternating sound of a ringing bell..

In “Alice in Wonderland” we get also a person’s nose “with a luminous dong,” and in Australia, a dong may signify a heavy blow. The newer OED also cites Philip Roth’s Portnoy handling his dong. In the penis sense, to be sure, there is no immediate onomatopoeia, so let us stick with the bell sound.

Cuddon next cites “crackle.” This the Heritage defines as making “a succession of short snapping noises as of a fire in a wood stove.” Or, in the verb version, “to show liveliness, energy or intensity as in a book that crackles with good humor.” The first example is clearly auditory, the second more figurative. Either way, a sound or potential sound is implied.

Next comes “moo,” the sound of a cow, which various languages describe thus or in  some similar way. So the verb in French is transformed into the more melodious “mugir.” In German, we get the verb “muhen,” and the noun “Muh.” The M needed to clinch the onomatopoeia, is perhaps a trifle arbitrary.

Next comes “pop,” for which the dictionaries give a number of definitions, some of them visual but enough of them auditory, for a sudden snappy noise. Notable among the many definitions is the one for a male orgasm elicited manually. This so-called “hand job” I had experienced from a Bennington girl specializing in the operation to avoid total commitment, and not generally auditory. (Vide also Bill and Monica.) The sound is largely associated with the uncorking of champagne bottles.

Cubbon’s next is “whizz” or “whiz.” This is defined as “making a whirring or hissing sound” with the descriptive adjectives themselves onomatopoeic. It is often defined as the sound of an object speeding through the air, or, nonauditorily, as any quick movement by a person. Related is the “whizz-bang,” suggestive of the rustling of a fuse leading to an explosion. Notable, too, is the meaning, not always auditory, of something conspicuously effective, successful, or skilled, as, for instance, a good speech, with the onomatopoeia only remotely applicable.

“Whoosh,” next, is defined as “a sibilant sound,” like the whoosh of a high-speed elevator. It is also an onomatopoeia for the darker sound of some liquid violently tossed from a bottle, perhaps at a hostile person’s face.  The “oo” sound is also used for wind, as in the title of “Gone With the Wind,” in translations usually grabbing the U diphthongized as “ui,” thus the Hungarian “Elfujta a szel” (I lack the needed acute accent), or the Serbian “Prohujalo kao vihor.” Oddly enough, the English title has no U in it. which can come either as an “oo” in “room”, or in a diphthong like the English “you,”  or “oui, ” like the French for yes.

“Zoom,” serves similar purposes as whoosh, but it is grander, perhaps referring to an astronomical movement of comets or meteors. It is less likely to denote sound then, alhough it does so, a bit lower, for the buzz of a plane overhead.

So much for Coddon’s examples. But what for other onomatopoeias? How about the song, or the very name of, the nightingale? That name, in English, is not onomatopoeic, merely visual as in “night,” when the nightingale sings, to be replaced by the morning lark. (See “Romeo  and Juliet,” in the bedroom scene.) No word this for onomatopoeia. More so in German, as “Nachtigall,” with the two A’s suggesting a staccato in the song. Hence also the German name for these birds’ singing, “schlagen,” i.e., to beat (a s in Heine’s famous poem), for, to be sure, a rather delicate kind of hammering. But does onomatopoeia lurk in these avians’ very names?

Not much in the unaccented U of the Serbian “slavuj,” But quite a bit in Hungarian, where the bird has two names, the poetic “cselegeny,” with the rising, accented E in the third syllable, and more so in the common name, “fulemule,” with  a treble-making diacritic mark on both U’s, and the internal rhyming repetition making it more avian. This is curiously like the modern Persian or Turkish nightingale, “bulbul,” again with the treble-inducing diacritic mark (or umlaut) on both U’s, and again with the duplication in the name, probably to indicate an aural onomatopoeic flow. But what about “cselegeny”? Here the open E’s of the first two syllables have the same duplicating effect, perhaps all these devices conveying a lyrical, onomatopoeic continuity.

There is, incidentally, a kind of onomatopoeia even in the French term “rossignol,” maybe as a derivative from the Spanish “ruisenor,” with a tilda on the N. The “senor” part confers seigneurial nobility on the bird, while the “rui” may well be a corruption of “rey,” which confers actual avian royalty—all very euphonious as well.

So much from me. But the reader is encouraged to come up with his or her own onomatopoeias. That brings me to the point of this essay: the onomatopoeic musicality of the language the reader may seek out in his or her own verse. For, let’s face it, many people, clandestinely or not, write verse, a charming trait, regardless of whether transparent. Onomatopoeia makes for euphony.

Here then is a spur toward, or a desirable delight in, onomatopoeia--all for your participatory enjoyment or actual active exploration.

Friday, December 1, 2017


Be prepared for vehement disagreement with what follows, but mind that I am not proposing it as a binding universal truth, only as my own certainly arguable private views. What I am asserting, skewed or not, is a sense of the beauty or lack thereof of certain languages, with a considerable middle ground between extremes that I would call the in-betweens.

I am thinking of so-called Western. i.e., European and American languages, for no better reason than acquaintance with them, thus excluding Asian and African languages about which I know nothing. So let me designate Italian, French, and educated British as beautiful, Polish, Czech, Portuguese, Yiddish and Swiss German as unattractive, positing the presence or absence of melody in them as the determining factor.

So lets start with Italian as spoken in Italy, not Brooklyn. Not for nothing are there Italian composers, musicians, opera lovers in superabundance. Clearly a two-way relationship between music and language exists, whichever you consider the chicken and which the egg. I am asking you not to be swayed by dialects or the speech of the uneducated, whom I don’t consider inferior morally or mentally, only wanting aesthetically. But independently from what they mean, I aurally prefer “fa in culo” to “fangul.” Note that I am not thinking Dante, except where it may coincide with the speech of ordinary middle-class people as apprehended by an unprejudiced ear.

To be sure, there may be disagreement as to what is melody, or at least speech melody, but not so much about what is pleasurable. Consider the well-known story, true albeit attributed to different protagonists, whereby a foreigner being transported by truck to a concentration camp, recited some of ‘The Divine Comedy” in such exquisite Italian as to be released by his enchanted Fascist captors.

The basic musicality of a language depends on its presence in everyday speech, much as the melodiousness affects someone listening to music  (please, no rap or hip-hop) and being spellbound by Verdi or Puccini even if unable to read music or recognize a sung high C. This presumes neutrality in the listener and absence of any particular agenda from his or her upbringing in a family awash in music of a particular kind. But to anyone hearing, say, the last line of ‘The Divine Comedy, “ which runs “L’amor che muove il sole e l’altre stelle,” and is not that different from everyday educated Italian, melody ought to be apparent.

It has to do with the large number of vowels of every kind, and also with the frequency of flowing disyllables, whereas in the English translation, “The love that moves the sun and the other stars,” you get heavily accented monosyllables comparable at best to a drumbeat. Even “vietato fumare, “ for “no smoking,” is more melodious, to say nothing of “ti voglio bene,” for “I love you.” And so on, for even the music of ordinary conversational prose.

Now for no lesser melodiousness, though of a different kind, in French. There is a sort of fascinating singsong built into the language that all educated, and even many uneducated, speakers somehow spontaneously fall into. Some of it has to do with nasalization of the an, on. un, in, en variety; some of it with all those endings in mute e’s; some of it with diphthongs in oi or ie, e.g., moi or oie (goose), and hier or pied. Note the diverse e’s, as in ete (I can’t do accents), a kind of soprano, mezzo as in geste, and contralto, as in etre--the latter two with also the mute e ending. But even the mute e is often not really mute, as it follows the preceding consonant in, say, je.

Take a sentence like “Moi, j’ai toujours ete tres fier et meme entete,” and you have a whole gallery of various e’s making music. Then the pretty eu sound as doubled in
 heureux or as diphthong in lieu; and the echoing ou of toujours. Further, the high u, in words like nue, or diphtongized as in pluie. Again, the rhyming repetition of nasals in enfant or the progressively lightening sequence o, i, i in colibri. And bear in mind that such effects come at you full throat in clusters, not just in fortuitously fortunate isolation. Or consider the sequence of vowels in the title of a ballet by Jacques Ibert: “Les Amours de Jupiter,” with even a rhyme on Ibert-Jupiter.

All this does have a lot to do with who is speaking, because the most beautiful languages benefit from a well-spoken exponent. This is where France has produced some exquisite speakers, either from the Academie Francaise, or from the theater (somewhat fewer from the cinema). Gerard Philipe comes to mind, and Louis Jouvet, Pierre Fresnay, Jean Desailly-- even in his exaggerated way, Sacha Guitry. Also Marcel Herrand, Louis Salou, Pierre Brasseur, Pierre Dux, Jean-Louis Barrault, and Jean Marais. I remember the fabulous Iago at the Comedie of Aime Clariond, prematurely deceased like Philipe.. And then the women: Edwige Feuillere.  Maria Casares. Micheline Presle, Renee Faure, Arletty. Berthe Bovy, Germaine Dervoz, Gabriele Dorziat, Valentine Tessier. Danielle Darrieux. and perhaps also Marie Bell and Gaby Morlay. Even merely reciting their names proves melodious.

But melodious too are even the most commonplace utterances casually uttered, take “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” This with the sequence of three ous, interlarded by the three e’s, albeit one differently voiced in “avec.” Or compare the prosaic English “Pull he handle only in case of danger” with “Tirer la manivelle seulement en cas de danger,” where I leave it to you to parse the sundry beauties.

All of which brings me to my third melodiousness, well-spoken British English. I recall, quoted from memory, Bernard Shaw’s brilliant “America and Britain, two countries separated by the same language.” Let’s face it: American English has no discernible melody, whereas upper-class or theatrical British English very much does. Just listen to a recording featuring such actors as, for instance, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Trevor Howard, Paul Scofield, Michael Redgrave. Or women, such as Judi Dench, Celia Johnson, Edith Evans. Sybil.Thorndike, Joan Plowright, Joan Greenwood, Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Bown.
And still others I can’t think of at the moment.
The extreme form of the British accent, a sort of flute melody rollercoasting up and down,the scales is that of Oxford dons sand some students, called Oxonian. It was most imperiously (or imperially) exhibited by Professor Garrod, and required utmost concentration to comprehend. (Isaiah Berlin also had it.)  I experienced it in a milder form from Professor (later Sir) Maurice Bowra, when he was guest lecturer at Harvard.

He seemed to like me, because he chatted with me in his office. I recall his having experienced Kenneth Burke, and not having understood him (although that may have been less a matter of an American accent than of certain weird neologisms invented by Burke), asked me to provide interpretations. I mostly couldn’t. This is a good, though perhaps extreme, example of how some accents may become problematic.

We come now to what I call the in-between languages, not quite ugly but not quite beautiful. There is, for example, Spanish, where I fund the purest, i.e., Castilian, most accessible, although still not without a certain harshness. The most interesting are the Scandinavian ones, notably Danish, which, though not lovely, have a certain likable droll quality, what with profuse glottal stops and other idiosyncrasies.

I myself first learned as a toddler German, because that was the language of my beloved nanny, Mia, who came from Austro-Hungarian Bielitz, which is now, Bialistok in Poland, as well as in the Broadway musical, “The Producers.” Those speakers are largely Jewish, and subjects of numerous anecdotes, some jovial, some hostile.

I soon added Hungarian, which we spoke at home, my father being Hungarian but, as we lived in the capital of Yugoslavia, Belgrade, a nationalized Yugoslav. My mother came from a Yugoslav minority of Hungarians, and never even learned proper Serbo-Croat, later Serbian, which was the language of that capital where we ended up. It is from that dominant Serbia that, first Slovenia (whence Mrs. Trump), and later Croatia, seceded.

So my next language, which I picked up in the streets, was Serbian, as I preferred to call Serbo-Croat, which was ever so slightly different in Croatian Raciat. So already trilingual, I proceeded to French, the language of most of the intelligentsia. This I learned in private lessons from a charming lady French teacher, the popular Marcelle Raciat. At 13, I was starting English lessons from an Englishman who may well have been a spy, and who regaled me with stories of his female conquests. Then I was sent to public school in Cambridge, England, about which I have already written.

My great regret is that I never properly learned Italian, except from what I picked up in treasured Italian movies, and much, much later from frequent Roman visits to Lina Wertmuller, whose American champion I became. It was her reception on American screens that finally led to Italian critics granting her the well-deserved acclaim they previously withheld for specious reasons.

What I would like to convey is that multilingualism is a wonderful thing, not only because the polyglots get to enjoy and learn from so many more people, but also because certain differences and similarities teach them greater command of the native language. Thus, perhaps, it is that I have no difficulties with “lie” and “lay,” which, largely with the collusion of TV and social media devastates the speech of so many native speakers knowing and using only “lay.”

Or take my avoidance of such pleonasms as “old crone,” or tautologies like “cannot help but,” redundant for either “cannot help” plus a participle, or “cannot but” plus an infinitive. It may also account for proper pronunciation, such as EXquisite rather than exQUIsite, which one hears all over the place and is gaining acceptance from dictionaries. I can see no good reason for it, except that lazy speakers prefer medial accents, easier to handle than initial ones followed by more than one unaccented trailing syllable..

I suppose that in the end the purist or traditionalist cannot win, but I think there is a certain glory in fighting even a losing battle for what one believes to be right. Which brings me to my conclusion: German.

German is basically an in-between language. In its vulgar, Southern form, known as Plattdeutsch, it is downright ugly. But in its well-spoken Northern form, known as Hochdeutsch, it can be very lovely indeed. Consider a fine actor reading out loud a poem by Goethe. Rilke, or Stefan George (or many others), and you can have a musical feast. When I assisted  Archibald MacLeish in a Harvard poetry course, he asked me to recite a Rilke poem to his large class. I did, and was well received. Later MacLeish summoned me to his office and I wondered what did I do wrong this time?  Well, he merely wanted to know the name of the beautiful Radcliffe girl who came just to hear me. It was Christine Bosshard , and though she was impressed, I never even got to first base with her—and neither, I imagine, would have Archie.

I conclude with a favorite passage from Rilke that I may have quoted before, but that can bear repeating. The scene is a riverside afternoon in a Grande Jatte or Sunday in the Park With George setting, with the poet and his mistress present.

Befriedigungen ungezaelter Jahre
Sind in der Luft. Voll Blumen liegt dein Hut.
Und ein Geruch aus deinem reinen Haare
Mischt sich mit Welt als waere alles gut.

Hear this and feel it, and its music and meaning may well leave you with tears in your eyes.

Monday, November 6, 2017


Some stories are, or ought to be, mythic. I may have already adduced them before and will try not to repeat myself, though these days my memory Is far from reliable. Now does it much matter whether some toothsome anecdotes are factual or merely fictional, when either kind manages to turn mythical? By which I mean an existential road sign.

Take the one about Washington and the cherry tree. Though clearly fictitious, it served, and continues to serve, as a useful moral exemplar to our schoolchildren. Similarly, some popular fairytales have attained mythic status. Take the one about the boy who kept falsely crying wolf when there wasn’t one, and what happened when finally there was. “Myth” comes from the Greek muthos, and you may check out its various meanings in your dictionary if, as I hope, you own one.

Many myths, like the ancient Greek ones, served to explain natural phenomena before there were scientific explanations. The Greeks were expert mythmakers, who, I regret to say, were also expert fabricators of quasi-truths, i.e., also liars, and,   related to that, thieves. A Serbian adage has it, after shaking hands with a Greek, count your fingers. That is, of course, a myth.  True, however, is that my father, waiting for a train on a Greek railway platform, had his attaché case close to his feet.. For a few seconds, he looked away whether the train was coming, which proved sufficient for the case to be stolen. To be sure, something only barely less dramatic happened to me at Penn Station.

Now I have always assumed the veracity of the story about Napoleon and his invading army stopping off at an Italian monastery, and his warning the doorkeeper monk with his awareness that all monks were liars. Said the monk, “Non tutti, ma buona parte.” Wit as a mythic power to stand up to inimical authority.

But to get back to the Greeks. Frank Harris tells in his memoirs about an important political dinner at which a proud owner, to display his splendid watch, had it circulate around the table. Unhappily, it did not come back full circle. The embarrassed host announced that he would turn off the light and let the perpetrator deposit the watch unnoticed next to a clock on the mantel. When the light came on, the watch was still missing and so was the clock.

A true story this, though one that did not achieve mythic status. But remember Oscar Wilde’s upending Alexander Pope’s “An honest man’s the noblest work of God” into “An honest God’s the noblest work of man,” and then consider that the Greek and corresponding Roman lots were a pretty hedonistic bunch.. And not only hedonistic but also cynical and a good deal more fun than the Judeo-Christian God. Why, they even had a rogue god, Hermes, of whom we read that he was the patron of merchants and thieves, a mythical paradox.
                                                                                                                                                                 But are there no more polytheist gods today, no more models, for instance, for human erotic behavior; gods moreover like the Greek ones who cheerfully meddled in human affairs—as in the Iliad Athena for the Greeks and the less helpful Aphrodite for the Trojans-- not to mention Zeus’s carryings on with human women and the like. All of it more engaging than the God of Abraham and Isaac with his shenanigans (speaking out of bushes, if you please), including those tablets with ten mostly draconian commandments, which to follow would make you a very self-righteous, boring character. Significantly, there are plenty of books on Greek myths, but, for good reason, few if any on Hebrew ones.

What are some of the non-Greco-Roman myths that have bedeviled human behavior since? The gold of El Dorado for one, whose reckless, destructive seekers were far worse than the mere adherents of Mammon, who did not believe in streets paved in gold, and were not ready to die in a bootless search.

Geography, or rather pseudo-geography, proved a costly myth for the deluded  believers in the Northwest Passage, or even for many of the California Dreamers. There are, however, more recent, hardly less stultifying myths, such as the still prevalent one of Hollywood, both real and unreal, going also by the names Tinseltown and La La Land, as in the recent abominable movie. Misleading even the venerable Academy of Motion Picture Art and Science, which wields a greater power than the worthy French Academy, merely adjudging language and literature.

Think of Cocteau’s epigram “Victor Hugo was a madman who believed he was Victor Hugo.” Wonderful mockery of mythic self-inflation. Or think of the Messiah, whom multitudes of the religious await with mythic endurance. Think also of the perennial American myth that anyone can become President, which had the disastrous result of for once becoming  true. Think also of what ought to become a myth, Anatole France’s story about the unhappy potentate told to become happy by donning a happy man’s shirt. and vainly finding among the one percent nothing but dissatisfaction and unhappiness. After a prolonged, fruitless search, he finally found a happy man, a cheerful shepherd with his herd, whom the servants of the seeker dragged before him, but who, as it turned out, did not own a shirt.

And then there is the myth of the world’s most beautiful woman, Helen of Troy (the Greeks again), but who caused nothing but trouble for herself and others. Today we have Angelina Jolie, who may be beautiful enough for a myth, but who is also trouble enough, even without causing a ten-year Trojan war. Myths, in other words, don’t come cheap.

Our supreme myth remains that of Paradise Lost, which elicited from John Milton one of the most grandiose poems in the English, or any, language. (I rather prefer George Meredith’s wonderful and very much shorter poem “Lucifer at Midnight.”)
We gather that the supposedly foolish couple of Adam and Eve forfeited eternal blissful, naked, prelapsarian frolicking in God’s pleasure garden, and were condemned to  mortal sojourn on a not all that hospitable earth.

All that for tasting that fateful, Satan-promulgated apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Why should such knowledge have been so illicit, so punishable? Or was it simply the best tree in the Garden that God was reserving for his own snacks? Or was it that God on principle wanted to keep humans on a lower cognitive rung, less competition for himself?

So was that catastrophic Fall from Grace merely a consequence of insubordination, a matter not of grasping special knowledge but of a greater power keeping a lesser one in an inferior position? Instead of a poetic apple to pluck, could it have just as well been a pedestrian potato to dig up? 

There it is then, the myth of Paradise Lost made more mundane than heavenly, almost laughable, on the assumption that a myth is as good as a smile. Conclusion:
Some myths are good, or at least defensible; others are dour and dislikable. Like so much else.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Danielle Darrieux

A very smart ex-girlfriend of mine always began reading the Times with the obituaries. The obits, to give them their nickname, are the important epilogue to a life, a summing-up that may slightly embellish it in retrospect, but that may also be perfectly objective. This is, for many people, what, if anything, will survive..

So it was fascinating to read the Times obits on a late October day (20th) when, surely for the first time, it comprised two centenarians: Danielle Darrieux, dead at 100, and (I hope not eclipsing her importance) Marion Schlesinger, dead at 105. Ms. S. emerges as a significant and charming person, mostly in Cambridge, Mass.,which I, as a former Cantabrigian myself, can readily respect. But to her life in politics I have nothing to add. Not so about Danielle Darrieux.

As a youth in Belgrade, I was in love with the universally beloved French movie star, Danielle Darrieux, as much as a teenager could be, and just possibly more so. I saw all her movies, and cherished them all. Naughty fellow that I was, I especially relished a film not mentioned in an otherwise thorough obit, “Club de Femmes” (Women’s Club). That, because it showed her in a shower scene, although one that had only minimal, dorsal nudity, with not even my revisits able to coax forth more.

It was in another of her films, “Un mauvais Garcon,” (A Bad Boy) that she delightfully sang, along with her charming co-star, Albert Prejean, “Je n’ donnerais pas ma place pour un boulet d’ canon’ (I wouldn’t trade my place for a cannon ball), which, however preposterous, made perfect sense when she sang it, becoming a place in our hearts. In fact, D.D. would not have been faulted by us no matter for whom or for what she had traded her place.

As the Times obit made plain, Danielle was in more than a hundred movies, and heaven knows how many stage productions over her very long performing career.
starting as a teenager and continuing very nearly to her demise. Once I even met her in the flesh, though it wasn’t quite the happiest occasion.

This was in 1969 or 70, when she succeeded Katharine Hepburn in the lead of “Coco,” the musical about Coco Chanel, which opened with Hepburn in the lead, although (in the words of theater historian Thomas Hischak) she “could barely croak out her few songs,”  I had some use for the show to begin with, but really loved it when Darrieux took over the role. I wrote a three-page encomium that you can check out on pages 272-74 of my book, “Uneasy Stages.” In it, I wrote, along with much else, that D.D. was as good as a trip to Paris, and concluded my extensive paean with “Hepburn played it indomitable, Danielle plays it adorable.” The show would have garnered better reviews if D.D. had opened it.

I can’t here reproduce that whole lengthy rave, which D.D. obviously could not have read when I called on her backstage. She was surrounded by progeny and her current husband or partner, who might have had misgivings had she responded more warmly to my adulation. But no matter, the brief meeting remains one of my happiest recollections, even if by then Darrieux was well into her fifties. Yet, as I wrote, “Other women grow older; she only grows womanlier.”

Anita Gates’s obit does justice to the actress, who was as beautiful as she was talented, could sing and dance as well as she could act, and was indeed ageless, I believe, to her dying day. You should read this obit if you possibly can, which includes three pictures, and from which I quote.

“She continued acting well into her 90s, making nine films in the first decades of the 21st century. Her last big-screen appearance was in ‘Piece Montee’ (2010), a comedy about a family wedding. She also appeared in a 2011 television movie, ‘C’est Toi, ‘C’est Tout,’ playing an American grandmother.”

Apropos Anerican, Danielle made several excursions (or incursions?) into Hollywood cinema, but American movies never rose to the occasions. They were never in adequate vehicles--champagne in Coca Cola bottles. The still from a French movie of 1960 makes her look 25, not 43, and the portrait from 1987 at 70 makes her look 40. There is a picture of her in her favorite movie role, a French film adaptation of Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black” (1954), in which she co-starred with the brilliant Gerard Philipe.

Of her three marriages, the one to Dominican-born playboy Porfirio Rubirosa may constitute one blot on her scutchon, the other being continued acting in Nazi-occupied France. According to Oliver Goldsmith, when lovely woman stoops to folly, the only expiation is to die. But that was three centuries ago, and in a few respects we have progressed since then. Rubirosa was apparently a great lover, and I should have jumped at the offer by Norman Mailer to portray him in his play, “The Deer Park.” But, as I explained to Norman, a critic reviews plays in the evenings and thus cannot be also acting in them. I had to turn down his flattering invitation, earning me a swift punch in the plexus.

Most American moviegoers are likely to recall Darrieux in at last two of her three films directed by Max Ophuls: ”La Ronde,” “Le Plaisir,” and “The Earrings of Madame de .…” Possibly also in Anatol Litvak’s “Mayerling,” at age 19, based on the deeply touching  murder suicide by Crown Prince Rudolf, Rodolfo in the Times and presumably in the film, portrayed by Charles Boyer, which I loved.

I am reminded that Darrieux’s only other Broadway appearance was opposite Howard Keel, in the short-lived musical “Ambassador,” based on Henry James, which didn’t help much. I am also reminded that whereas Brigitte Bardot was lucky in her initials, which spelled out Bebe, French for everybody’s baby.  But Dede doesn’t spell anything, unless in the unlikely case that you count “Dedee, d’Anvers,” a film by Yves Allegret, starring another talented beauty, Simone Signoret.

As also a charming singer, Dede managed to be in more shows and films than many another, except perhaps Marlene Dietrich, but she was an altogether different kettle of fish. In my memories, I see Darrieux as a Grown-up Miss Sunshine, lighting up whatever she touched, as I wish I could say to her right now. “Never less than beautiful, and always in good humor,” is how the film historian David Thomson has described her. That would make a very nice epitaph, if immortals required an epitaph, other than the one we carry with us in our grateful remembrance.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


Sooner or later the question of God raises its troubling head for most of us. Does he exist or doesn’t he? Or has he died, as Nietzsche postulated? And if he exists, where exactly does he? In the old days, one could, as Browning did, aver “in his Heaven,” i.e., in the sky. But nowadays, as we have crisscrossed the heavens in any number of directions, either in person or by NASA contraptions, even photographed Mars from up close, we would  have been likely to bump into him if he existed, and wasted our time looking for him if he didn’t..

Atheists have some potent arguments for his nonexistence. All-merciful his believers declare him, but could even a moderately merciful God have condoned the Holocaust? Could all those Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals deserve it all? Among  those millions of victims, would there not have been some innocent ones?

Forget about all-merciful, but how about at least communicative? If only there were some consistency about his nature, never mind unanimity. Let us assume that there are or were three hundred different religions, including varieties among Christians, should there not still be some, if only unintentional, overlapping or coinciding? The portrayal by Renaissance or Byzantine artists would have us believe in a white-haired, bearded, patriarchal, enthroned figure, but that version has by now been sufficiently ridiculed and scuttled. And why if he had talked to some believers in biblical times, would he have stopped to even though need for his guidance has nowise decreased? Or could there have been a first and a second God, equitably one for each Testament, one conversational and one not?

The Virgin Mary has made some appearances—admittedly in out-of-the-way venues and mostly to children--but from God the father or son Jesus there is not even that much. From Jesus, only a shroud, and that, like all relics, uncertifiable. Personally, I have more sympathy for (as opposed to belief in) the Greco-Roman polytheist divinities, whose myths have charm and even some humor, scant if not unheard ot commodities in monasteries and convents. Excepting the vagantes, the wandering, drinking and wenching monks, also making up songs like the Carmina Burana.

What I find especially baffling is the belief of even intellectuals in an afterlife, as when, for instance, Bill Buckley, my onetime boss, declared that if he did not believe in someday rejoining his predeceased wife, he could not go on. I am not sure whether that meant suicide, disallowed by his Christianity, or total collapse. Nancy Regan, smart but admittedly no intellectual, was identically confident of reunion in Heaven with her Ronald. I am sure that one could easily find similar convictions in any number of artists, sages, even scientists and, apparently, Republicans--Buckley, Regan, etc. Yet not even the innards of the earth, despite volcanic emissions, would have enough space to accommodate the remains of all the sinners who have trodden its surface. The other, upper place for the righteous would have fewer dwellers, but even it, since time immemorial, would have ended up overflowing.

There are some who try to validate the Scriptures by arguing that most of them are to be understood as symbolic rather than realistic. But what can symbols do if there are no verities for them to symbolize? Because there are such things, say, as good marriages, we can believe that a tale of unending love can symbolize something potential. But how do you symbolize something that exists exclusively as a concept?

Yet just because there have been, and still are, saintly people around, to conclude from that that their God exists, is a leap of faith of fantastic proportions. Mother Teresas are one thing, evidence of God the Father quite another. Can the dragging to Hell of Don Juan or Giovanni at his death by emerging demons be credited just because a genius composer has envisioned it?

Now, can a God who is supposedly all-seeing and all-hearing of billions of mortals--masses of them simultaneously praying--no matter how divine he is, manage such ubiquity and undivided attention? It does not make sense, and without sense there is chaos—surely not a good thing and not created by God. In fact, how the universe was created, and how it evolved, does remain incomprehensible, especially given such illogical diversity and glaring inconsistencies.

That is the one great mystery, and calling it God or any other complaisant name does not make it any less mysterious. The Apostle Paul was shrewd. The wary Greeks, to keep themselves covered, maintained a shrine to the Unknown God, and Paul simply proclaimed him the Christian God for whom he was proselytizing. And when you come down to it, God is a flexible concept, and all Gods are really unknown, whether they exist or not.

Saturday, October 7, 2017


A popular miscalculation in my view is the notion of a first and last in literature. Presumably to enhance their subject’s importance, scholars and critics have made out a writer to be the first or last of a kind. The problem is that no sooner is someone proclaimed the first, someone else comes up with an earlier specimen; and hardly has someone been pronounced a last, than somebody produces a later specimen. But what exactly is the benefit of being proclaimed a first or a last

Of course both can be claimed by groups or coteries such as, for example, the Romantics or the Moderns, in which situation a case may be made out for one or another member. But what if, say in a poet, though someone comes early but harks back to a remote precursor, can he or she be fully first? Could not the Pre-Raphaelites be made out a last or a first?  Where exactly would you fit in Dante Gabriel Rossetti, both as poet and as painter? Even harder is picking the last, as nobody knows what the future may bring.

Still, what good precisely is the belonging to either of those categories? Does being an earlier writer make one a better one? Or does being a last achieve that? It may come from dubious analogy with sports, where the fastest runner or the last man or woman standing is winner of a special laurel and plaudits. But to go back to poetry, is Chaucer better than Shakespeare because his “Troilus and Criseyde” comes before Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida”? Why should art be comparable to sport? Physical skill or strength is nowise comparable to spiritual and artistic preeminence.

So I think we should forget about making too much of tracking down firsts or predicting lasts. At the utmost, we may designate someone as early or late, but please, no superlatives, as they don’t represent value judgments.

Now onto another subject that we may call exclusivism—making someone’s name notable for departing from the norm. By which I mean a Megan calling herself Meghan or Megyn, as some of them, still not necessarily unique, will do. It catches the attention when read, but matters not a whit in pronunciation. To be different, you must almost be African American—they come up with often ingenious or amusing first names, but these do not automatically make the bearer more interesting, let alone worthier.

But for vanity, nothing seems to register as more prestigious than an unusual spelling. For me, perhaps the worst offender is Rachael for the good, traditional Rachel. It is clearly derived from the second syllable in Hebrew Michael (godlike) whose pronounced diphthong shifted to the first syllable in English, yet retained the spelled difthong, unpronounced as such, in the second syllable. But Rachel (Hebrew for a ewe, i.e. gentle as) never had a diphthong either in Hebrew or in English.

Of course, the peculiarity stems usually from what was chosen by the parents, out of pretension or ignorance, but a sensible daughter ought to legalize and espouse Rachel, the established, traditional spelling. Is a zebra going to subtract a stripe or a cat going to adopt an additional whisker. Even if born with a sixth toe? These things are not like cars or sewing machines, where a newer model is likely to be superior to an older one.

Next, critical overpraise. Why do so many reviews approve of, or even rave about, shows that I find despicable? Is it that they cater to their editors’ stated or unstated wishes, in order to get more lucrative advertising? Or is it simply a matter of bad taste or low expectations? To be sure, positive reviews appeal to hoi polloi, whereas my allegedly elitist discriminations merely exclude and annoy them. Well, I can’t help being a minority voice, but why shouldn’t that minority earn a place among all the other minorities that are welcomed under our multicultural auspices?
What if we blend in with Toms and Dicks, but not with Harrys? Or not even with all the Toms? Somewhere or other lurk our semblables, our frères.

Finally, let us consider “Death and the Maiden,” the popular name of one of Schubert’s quartets, whose second movement is variations on an earlier Schubert song of that title, to a poem by Matthias Claudius? Think of all the versions of “Death and the Maiden” in the theater and on the big screen, most recently the 1990 drama by the Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman, as political as it is psychological.

What I am after is why the maiden? Why not death and the young man or boy or male infant? What is so special about the maiden? Well, something is: her beauty, her fragility, her tenderness, her vulnerability--why should they be doomed? She ought to be the most precious, the most protected form of humankind, and thus in loss the most tragical. Thus also with other dangers, such as that of the damsel in distress, lost, for instance, in the London fog in a Gershwin musical.

Granted all that is changed now, what with feminism and ERA, shattering of glass ceilings, enlistment of women even for combat, same sex marriage and legalization of every form of consensual sex?  If chivalry is no longer, independent of questions of first and last, considered by most women as patronizing or condescending, there will no longer be a seat on a crowded bus or subway offered to a woman, or a door held open for her, we will find we can live not only without it, but also without overwhelming  interest in where and when it began, and none whatever in when and where it may end. We will have yet another example of the rather supererogatory nature of the quest for the first and the last.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Who Killed Poetry?

I write as an occasional verse writer and constant poetry lover. Also one-time teacher of poetry in a writing course. Further, poetry reciter of great distinction according to my wife, though not given sufficient opportunity to display it. But what I am most concerned with is the state of poetry at present and the future it may or may not have.

And what exactly is its current state? Very sick, if you ask me. You see, I don’t believe
in free verse, too freely practiced in indiscriminate fashion as it nowadays is. I realize that mine may not be a majority position, but as a former film critic and persistent drama critic, I am used to being a minority voice.

What for me killed poetry is the reckless use of free verse, sometimes even written out as prose. But don’t get me wrong, I freely concede the rare but genuine ability of some to make poetry of free verse, and that in the theater, in good hands, it may prosper. My further point is that although many poetasters mistakenly think that anything in rhyme and meter is automatically poetry, and still more misguided souls think that their free verse is, as self-proclaimed, poetry. Most, though not
all, real poetry makes use of those wonderful devices, meter and rhyme.

Let me state who some of my favorite poets are. In Britain, Robert Graves, Louis MacNeice, Dylan Thomas, Edward Thomas, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, William Butler Yeats, Ernest Dowson, D. H. Lawrence, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney,  Harold Monro, Hilaire Belloc (with his splendid “Tarantella” and books of verse for bad children). Also the unjustly neglected Humbert Wolfe, John Pudney and A. S. J. Tessimond.  In America, it is Richard Wilbur, E.E. Cummings, John Crowe Ransom, Ezra Pound, Robinson Jeffers, Robert Frost, James Dickey, James Wright, W,D. Snodgrass, plus an amazing array of women including Emily Dickinson, Elinor Wylie, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sara Teasdale, Louise Bogan and Elisabeth Bishop. Also the unjustly neglected Kenneth Patchen.

There may be others who do not leap to my mind; may they or their ghosts forgive me. Some of the above wrote very good free verse when it pleased them, but most wrote formal verse as a rule. Ah, yes, rules. Whence my preference for formal verse? It’s like tonal versus atonal music. You probably know Frost’s famous definition of free verse as playing tennis without a net. It is true that some types of constraint benefit poetry, namely rhyme and meter. I could also compare formal verse versus free verse with elegant conservative clothes versus the kind of play or gym clothes that most people nowadays wear even in places where one didn’t use to.

Let me add that formal verse has the advantage of being easier to memorize, and certainly more fit for public declamation such as many  Russian poets lustily go in for. Think also of how many English poems are memorized and on occasion recited thanks to those aide memoires, rhyme and meter. I recall how during my brief military stint in the wartime barracks, after lights out, I was able to recite and hold the attention with poems by James Joyce and Sara Teasdale (interesting collocation). But, I can’t repeat it often enough, doggerel is doggerel, no matter how much meter and rhyme it flaunts, whereas at its best, free verse can score, as I have scored with two masterpieces.

One is Kenneth Patchen’s “Do the Dead Know What Time It Is?” A barroom scene in which the poet fantasizes his dead mother being welcomed by God, while  a homeless girl approaches him and wants to be taken home by him, but he himself doesn’t own a place he could take her to. The mastery of the poem lies in the way the two story lines interplay to form something bigger than the sum of the two individually touching parts.

The other is Tennessee Williams’s “Life Story,” about two gay guys on a one-night stand in a hotel, each obviously craving solace in sex, but each getting mostly a self-indulgent monologue from the other telling his boring life story, about which the hearer couldn’t care less. It is both grotesque and pathetic, and it’s all there, down to the wheezing elevator just outside.

But two  poems don’t make a spring, not even if I throw in a third, James Dickey’s “Falling,” based on a true event, a stewardess falling out of an airplane. Let me however come now to my real subject: Who Killed Poetry?

It all begins with the ‘’good gray poet” Walt Whitman, somewhat fewer than at most twenty shades of gray. He more or less invented free verse, with French poets called vers-libristes, such as Gustave Kahn and Francis Viele-Griffin,  emulating him even before Americans like Vachel Lindsay and Carl Sandburg climbed on the bandwagon. Sometimes Walt does hit it, though, notably with a couple of anthology pieces , “O Captain! My Captain!’” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” but there are not that many lilacs among all those endless wilted leaves of grass. Yet it was enough for his form—or formlessness—to engender countless stillborn—or boisterous—progeny still with us. Just open “Leaves of Grass” at random and read a few pieces, and see where it gets you.

And now here comes the major modern poetry killer, John Ashbery, hailed, worshiped and emulated the world over. I knew him, reader, back at Harvard, if only slightly. The closest I came was years later, when I ran into a common friend of ours who was off to visit John in the hospital and persuaded me to tag along. I forget what Ashbery was ailing from that had bedded him, as well as what may have been said in that threesome.

More perpendicularly, he proved amiable but distant the rare times we may have crossed paths, as amiable, I imagine, as when he smilingly murdered poetry. This September 4, it was his turn to check out, and the Times obituary began on the front page and continued inside, with a full page and pictures on both. The headline read “Pulitzer-Winning Poetic Voice Often Echoed , Never Matched,” and the glowing text by David Orr and Dinitia Smith quoted some of his poetry as follows:

All things seem mention of themselves
And the names which stem from them branch out to other referents.
Hugely spring exists again. The weigela does its dusty thing
In fire-hammered air. And garbage cans are heaved against
The railing as the tulips yawn and crack open and fall apart.
And today is Monday. Today’s lunch is: Spanish omelet, lettuce and tomato salad,
Jell-O, milk and cookies. Tomorrow’s: sloppy joe on bun,
Scalloped corn, stewed tomatoes, rice pudding and milk.
The names we stole don’t remove us:
We have moved on a little ahead of them
And now it is time to wait again.

Which is worse: the menu or the poetry? No wonder Ashbery has told us he would be writing a poem when getting a phone call for some gossip, whose content he would blithely insert into the poem. So what do we have here?

Of course all things seem mention of themselves, what else can they seem? But their names branch out to other things. How do they branch out and what are these other referents? So spring is hugely here, but is it so in space or in time?? And why the dust on the weigela, a deciduous shrub, and just what is its thing? Holding up the dust? And what is fire-hammered air? Perhaps hot air, of which this poem is full? And who heaves the garbage cans against what railing, and why? Is it the railing around the tulips? And why are they already shedding just when the weigela is doing its thing? Have they been whacked by the heavy garbage that perhaps was partly heaved over the railing?

And what is the significance of Monday and Monday’s meal?  Hardly digested, must we already also get the Tuesday menu? Not very appetizing. What names have we (we?) stolen and why? Stolen from whom?  And how could any names, stolen or not, remove us?  Then how could we have managed to move ahead,  past them, even a little? And how long will we have to wait for those slowpokes to catch up? Or for whom the hell else?

So this, you see, is great poetry. And what do reviewers say? In the Times Book Review, Steven Koch calls Ashbery’s work “a hushed, simultaneously incomprehensible and intelligent whisper with a weird pulsating rhythm that fluctuates like a wave between peaks of sharp clarity and watery droughts of obscurity and languor.” Try to visualize, never mind comprehend, that. How is the incomprehensible intelligent, and how is a watery drink (drought) made up of  obscurity and languor, two irreconcilables and neither of them potable. The reviewer as disciple and imitator?

Gibberish, I say. And on goes the obituary: “It is often easier to say what an Ashbery poem feels like than what it is about," i.e., it feels terrific but I have no idea what it means.  “And Mr. Ashbery relishes that uncertainty,” i.e., leading us by the nose. A British poet and reviewer, James Fenton, speaks of times when “I actually thought  I was going to burst into tears of boredom [does boredom produce bursting tears?]” and, while respecting the talent, “not the resort to sad shadows,” so shadows have feelings, too. These reviewers sure sound influenced by the reviewee.

Another poet, Louis Simpson, was not amused  “to see a poet sneering [apropo their concern with the Vietnam War] at the conscience of others,” to which Ashbery replied that he didn’t. But obscurity risks painful misunderstanding. He said he was “ always trying to get back to this [which?] mystical kingdom.” But don’t expect much lucidity from a poet on whom the atonal compositions of John Cage “had a lasting influence.” Also one according to whom “the ocean makes grasses, and in doing so refurbishes a lighthouse.” What some oceans will do!

Two days later, on September 6, the Times published an Op-Ed tribute to Ashbery by Rae Armantrout, a poet and professor. Ashbery’s poems, she writes , “are like involved daydreams from which, as with real dreams, there is no obvious exit.” Awakening, I would say, is a pretty obvious exit from both dreams and daydreams.  “Ashbery is the one poet who can somehow be simultaneously elegiac and playful, even goofy. . . . If you could find the impossible space where Franz Kafka overlapped with the Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, John would be sitting there happily grinning like the Cheshire cat.” Aren’t these words something that could come directly from an Ashbery poem? There “the action is always in transit, always hovering somewhere between the last line and the next in a sort of quantum superposition.”

Well, isn’t that space between lines exactly where John could sit and grin? A quantum superposition, to put it a bit more obscurely. And Rae quotes something that she avers could be a fitting epitaph.

I still remember
How they found you, after a dream, in your thimble hat,
Studious as a butterfly in a parking lot.
The road home was nicer then.
Dispersing each of of the Troubadours had something to say about  how charity
Had run its course and won, leaving you the ex-president
Of the event . . .

This could be an epitaph? It may be that the stuff would make more sense in context, if a context weird enough could be found. Who is wearing the thimble hat and is studious as a butterfly? And how studious can a butterfly get if it seeks enlightenment in a parking lot?  And who were these dispersing troubadours on a  nicer road? When and to what home? Each of them had something to say about what race that charity had won? Since when was charity a racer? And what race has a presidency, of which one can be left the ex-incumbent? Perhaps it would make more sense on a tombstone if only it could fit on it.

To quote Professor Armantrout [what a Wagnerian moniker!]: as also for Whitman, “nothing was too incongruous” for John. I could suggest something: one of his poems. Or what poetry has brcome,  nonsense being as good as death,

Wednesday, September 6, 2017


In Brecht’s “Galileo” we read, “Unhappy the land that has no heroes . . . No.  Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.” An amusing paradox, but coming from Brecht, a coward and opportunist, not surprising. Brecht’s personal meanness can be matched only by that of another theatrical genius, Richard Wagner, a fellow German. Isn’t it wonderful that two of the greatest wizards of the musical theater should both have been nasty Germans?

But it is perfectly understandable why Brecht considered heroes de trop. He would have preferred a country of mediocrities from which he could stand out with all his imperfections to one that had heroes to eclipse him. Look at what even one hero or heroine could do for a country—the way Joan of Arc still provides a kind of lodestar to Frenchmen (and women), fifty million of whom cannot be wrong.

Poor burned Joan—could it mean that to be a hero (or heroine) you had to die, preferably in a grandiose way, on the battlefield or at the stake? Is Lord Byron, who came to the aid of the embattled Greeks, but had to die far from the fighting, ill and in bed less heroic? And is there not something louche about Lord Nelson’s last words, “Kiss me, Hardy,” which might seem more appropriate to Stan Laurel? Ah, those British grandees, all with their homoerotic Achilles heels. Le vice anglais, as the French, homies of Verlaine and Rimbaud, would sneeringly call it.

Apropos the French, their greatest hero, greater even than Marshal Foch, was Pierre du Terrail, seigneur de Bayard. His bravura, the Larousse dictionary tells us, earned him the title Chevalier sans peur et sans reproche , knight above fear and blame. Yet that was in the early sixteenth century, when knighthood was in flower, and the prevailing type of combat lent itself to heroism. Even so, Bayard was outstanding, and could only be killed from afar by a dastardly shot of harquebus. Heroism, to some extent, thrives on distance in the past and on epics such as the Iliad, which of course is fiction.

What, however, of those heroes of modern battle, Americans who earned the Congressional Medal of Honor? Surely their survival doesn’t diminish their acts of heroism. Somehow, though, medieval armor is more heroic than contemporary armament. The past, a.k.a. history, burnishes the achievement. The Roman heroes of Virgil’s day would have had scant use for Shaw’s “Arms and the Man,” in which the pragmatic Swiss antihero has it all over the heroics of the swaggering Bulgarian officer, however dashing.

Without being Shavian, we tend to be suspicious of heroism. Already in 1340 the Oxford English Dictionary locates the first use of the word foolhardiness, for which Greek or Latin, I dare say, has no equivalent. “Hero worship,” too, is a modern, belittling concept, dating from the ascendancy of latterday skepticism, which views much, but not all, heroism with suspicion.

It may be that the name of Nathan Hale and his famous alleged dying words are even now drilled into our elite schoolchildren, but who, young or old, can cite the parting words of a twentieth- or twenty-first-century patriot? Or have modern heroes become tongue-tied?

Execution, to be sure, elicits heroism and heroic last utterances, but we no longer execute heroes, or, if we do, are careful not to record their final words. A Raleigh or Essex no longer ends with his head on the block, or if he does in some third-world country, no one hears, let alone records, his farewell. The gas chambers, at any rate, are not supplied with sound equipment, and death rows seem not to harbor verbal artists.

Still, best is the military death. Even if by friendly fire, as in the case of Stonewall Jackson. And we may celebrate it even if it is that of a heroic enemy, as in World War Two Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, a great German general, who, earning Hitler’s undeserved disapproval, chose to commit suicide. And perhaps the best exemplar of surviving heroism and postwar triumph is General and subsequent President Charles de Gaulle, while there are many such a questionable examples as that of William Frederick Cody, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill.

Meanwhile every country seems to have its favorite hero: Andreas Hofer for Austria, Miklos Toldi for Hungary, Emperor Dusan for Serbia, Admiral Nelson for England, William Wallace (a.k.a. Braveheart, as in his movie by Mel Gibson) for Scotland Skanderbeg fo0r Albania, and so on. Persia’s heroes, as far as I know, were its rulers (Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes), even if they were the oppressors of conquered nations. Thus it was King Leonidas of Sparta who, in 480 B.C., with a mere 300 Spartans (his allies having deserted) opposed the huge Persian army at Thermopylae for a couple of days, afterwards slaughtered along with his soldiers. He, too, has had his cinematic tribute.

Modern Persia, i.e., Iran has also occasioned heroes, mostly filmmakers who have made movies that condemned them to exile, which, to be sure is rather better than execution, only I don’t recall their names. As for pre-Revolutionary Russia, Emperor Vladimir, who defeated the Teuton knights (memorialized by Prokofiev) was its supreme hero, until the Revolution spawned several others too numerous to mention. The same must be true of various countries of the Near and Far East, as well as Africa, about which I know little or nothing.

Fame, in any case, is whimsical enough. Take the antithetical destinies of two British nurses. In World War One, the Germans executed Nurse Edith Cavell as an English spy; surviving was Nurse Florence Nightingale, heroine of the Crimean War, and the mother of modern nursing. Why does nobody remember Cavell, but  most people know who was Nightingale. Could it be merely her avian moniker?

There have been countless heroes in the various arts who resisted and overcame intense adversity. Take the great painter Vincent van Gogh, who never sold a single painting during his lifetime, save one that his brother bought for a pittance, yet Vincent persisted until his ultimate suicide. Here I must mention Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the fearless novelist steadily persecuted, and the poet Anna Akhmatova (whose ex-husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, was indeed executed),  whose own poetry did not seem quite so threatening to Stalin, and who in 1960  published the ironically titled volume “Poem Without a Hero.” Her brave life was  heroic enough.

In Hungary, I note the poet Miklos Radnoti, whose collection, “Keep Marching, You Who are Condemned to Death,” speaks loud through its mere title, and the somewhat less engaged but valiantly struggling poet Janos Pilinszky. There are several Czech, Slovak and Polish writers who defied their governments, but about whose identities I leave the word to Philip Roth. I would also argue for the heroism of some sports figures, notably Arthur Ashe, and a good many others, about whom I am insufficiently knowledgeable. But I do know about writers who assumed the burden of being ahead of their time, such as Franz Kafka (although he wanted his executor, Max Brod, to destroy his manuscripts, which Brod smartly didn’t) and James Joyce (although he had the insolence of claiming it should take the reader of “Finegans Wake” as long as it took him to write it).

And now, though I clearly realize that my two tiny acts of courage do not qualify as heroism, but upon which I look back with a modicum of pride. First, as a small boy in Abbazia, an Italian resort on the Mediterranean, where my family would vacation each Easter. A little girl who had a butterfly net tried to fish with it, only to have the Adriatic wrest it from her hand. She was desolate, and I, who was smitten with her  but not yet knowing how to swim, lept into the water fully dressed to retrieve it. I did not take note of how deep the sea was there, and it did indeed reach my chin, but the girl got her net back. My parents were absent, but a friendly lady, terrified, carried me off to her hotel room for a good dressing down, both literal and figurative. I can’t remember what dry things she wrapped me in.

More recently, in middle age, my then girlfriend and I were attending one afternoon a movie near Times Square. It was called “Theatre of Blood,” and concerned an actor avenging his adverse reviews on a series of critics by murdering them. As if that were not enough, there were in that otherwise empty theater, at the other end of our long row, a black pimp with his white hooker. They were, loudly talking, having a late lunch, noisily unpacking and variously rattling their victuals. Which even at some distance was disturbing.

So I made my way halfway through the row, called to the noisemakers to desist, and returned to my seat. Next thing I knew, there was this huge, threatening black man, towering over me, and accusing me of interfering with the lunch of two hungry people. I, though shaken, kept my cool, and responded that they could eat all they want so long as it wasn’t noisy. With a final furious remark (I forget exactly what) the man went back to whence he came. To make matters worse, as we were leaving, my friend whose nickname for me was Raccoon, audibly congratulated me with “Brave coon!” I did not stop to verify any possible reaction from the pimp.

I still feel that Brecht was wrong. I still believe that acts of courage, especially those of major heroism of whatever kind, have a beneficial effect on a society, if not an entire country, this even if recognition was considerably delayed, as Shaw’s “Saint Joan” powerfully reminds us. When the heroine, now sainted, posthumously exclaims, “O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints [and, I would add, acknowledge Thy heroes]? How long, O Lord, how long?”