Skin color & translating Gorman

Was just reading today that Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, a Dutch International Booker winner, will not be translating Gorman’s poetry after criticism at a site/journal called de Volkskrant. A journalist and activist named Janice Deul led the criticism, essentially expressing outrage that a young and black translator wasn’t hired—and this despite the fact that Gorman (if I’m reading the article correctly) chose Rijneveld herself. I could probably read the article at de Volkskrant (Dutch is somewhat close to German), but I refused the site’s cookies.

Deul was quoted as calling the choice “incomprehensible”; and followed that up with the ‘people-are-saying‘ fallacy. “Many others [have] expressed their pain, frustration, anger and disappointment via social media,” she wrote, and continued: “Isn’t it – to say the least – a missed opportunity to [have hired] Marieke Lucas Rijneveld for this job? They are white, nonbinary, have no experience in this field, but according to Meulenhoff are still the ‘dream translator’?”

She apparently didn’t realize that Gorman herself (again if I’m understanding this correctly) chose the translator. So she’s essentially accusing Gorman of being racist (I guess?) and that by her choice of a white-skinned (and privileged?) translator Gorman caused “others” on social media much “pain, frustration anger and disappointment.” Which is just unheard of (/s).

Gorman, who is 22, had selected the 29-year-old herself, as a fellow young writer who had also come to fame early. ~ The Guardian

This controversy is full of dragons and the wise and judicious probably sail safer bourns, but I do feel compelled to observe that if Gorman chose the author herself then all that Deul is left with is her own blatant racism. Period. What else does one call it when ones fitness for a given job (setting aside Hollywood whitewashing) is entirely predicated on the otherwise irrelevant color of one’s skin? I’d rather not live in a world where skin color decides one’s fitness to translate another writer’s work. Gorman doesn’t appear to think so and that’s good enough for me.

Rijneveld has judiciously withdrawn the offer to translate Gorman.

Review: Seth Steinzor’s In Dante’s Wake

This review is a request and a tough one for me. Steinzor sent me three full length books written as a modern parallel to Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Steinzor’s respective books are called, To Join the Lost, In Dante’s Wake, Book 1, Among the Lost, In Dante’s Wake, Book 2, and (as yet unavailable on Amazon) Once was Lost, In Dante’s Wake, Book 3. I’m at a disadvantage because it’s been years since I’ve read Dante and am forced to admit that I intensely disliked Christianity as a child and rejected the religion in my early teens. I saw it as having no relevance to me or my life as a child. The worship of the bible struck me as a bizarre obsession among adults. Why this book as opposed to any other? Why believe these nonsensical fantasies as opposed to any other? When I was assigned Dante’s Trilogy in high school and college it felt (and still does) feel like the work of an alien worldview with which I have no connection. I wish that I could read it in the original. I’ve read that Dante’s poetry has a beauty that’s similar to Shakespeare’s but unfortunately (to my knowledge) no translation has ever approached the genius of the original. All that said, Steinzor’s take has led me to order the Ciardi translation from Abebooks and have another go because it is, after all, a masterpiece of world literature.

But back to Steinzor and Dante. Here is how Ciardi’s Dante began the Inferno:

Midway in our life's journey, I went astray
   from the straight road and woke to find myself
   alone in a dark wood. How shall I say
what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
    so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
    Its very memory gives a shape to fear

Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!
    Bust since it came to good, I will recount
    all that I found revealed there by God's grace.
How I came to it I cannot rightly say,
    so drugged and loose with sleep had I become
    when I first wandered there from the True Way.

 But at the far end of that valley of evil
    whose maze had sapped many very heart with fear!
    I found myself before a little hill

 and lifted up my eyes. Its shoulders glowed
    already with the sweet rays of that planet
    whose virtue leads men straight on every road,

 and the shining strengthened me against the fright
    whose agony had wracked the lake of my heart
    through all the terrors of that piteous night.

Translated John Ciardi 

And here is Seth Steinzor:

Midway through my life’s journey, I found myself
 lost in a dark place, a tangle of hanging
 vines or cables or branches – so dark! – festooning
 larger solid looming walls or
 trunks or rocks or rubble, and strange shapes
 moving through the mist, silent or
 howling, scuffling through the uneven dirt or
 dropping from the blotchy sky like
 thicker clouds, so close sometimes I ducked in
 fright so that they never quite touched me.
Someone I had trusted had led me there.
 Perhaps it was persons, I could not remember,
 only how their words and gestures, once so
 sensible and clear, gradually grew
 obscure, how their features, once so individual
 and expressive – this lifted tuft of
 eyebrow, that kindly smile, that belly laugh –
 smoothed to nothing in the murk,
 and how at last they turned away, gibbering,
 gone. Without them was no path
that I could see. A bit ahead to the right the
 curtain seemed lighter, its patterns more
 distinct and loosely entwined and permeable,
 so I stepped over that way, stumbling
 on the occasional root or protuberance,
 until I splashed ankle deep
 into a pool of sucking mud that spread
 among the blackened boles and mounds its
 unforgiving mirror far as could be
 seen, and I could go no farther.

That might give you some flavor of Steinzor’s modern rendition: somewhat of a retelling, borrowing imagery (and some of the same Angels and demons) along with landscapes, tone and some of his punishments (all updated with more contemporary sinners and Saints). Steinzor also, like Dante, names names, some well known and some less so. Dante didn’t hesitate to exact revenge, even condemning (as far as I know) still living contemporaries with whom he was enemies. Filippo Argenti being an example. A contemporary with whom Dante clashed politically and in personal matters. Argenti reportedly even slapped Dante at one point. Dante, in revenge, had Argenti dismembered and torn to pieces in the river Styx. Steinzor, mentions Reagan indirectly twice while in Hell, but Reagan himself appears in Book 2 (Steinzor’s Purgatorio) in the “memorial cube” where Reagan, along with other Presidents, suffer disfigurements (amputated body parts) befitting their sins as leaders.

To give the reader some sense of how Steinzor continues to “retell” Dante’s original, consider one of Dante’s most famous passages from the inferno, the punishment of Francesca de Rimini (for which, frankly, I wouldn’t mind knowing which circle of hell the priggish Dante suffers in).

I came to place stripped bare of every light
     and roaring on the naked dark like seas
     wracked by a war of winds. Their hellish flight 

of storm and counterstorm through time forgone,
     sweeps the souls of the damned before its charge.
     Whirling and battering it drives them on,

 and when they pass the ruined gap of Hell 
     through which we had come, their shrieks begin new.
     There they blaspheme the power of God eternal.

 And this, I learn, was the never-ending flight
     of those who sinned in the flesh, the carnal and lusty
     who betrayed reason to their appetite.

And here is Steinzor:

We followed,
 barely able to pick our way through the
deepening dusk, uncertain always of seeing
 what our eyes were looking at.
 At last, ahead in a band of almost blackness,
 I thought I saw red lights like coals
 scattered from an upset barbecue.
 Then they seemed to gutter, and a
 sound of gusty winds – but no: they twinkled,
 as if birds or was that moths,
 huge moths fluttered at them. The lights were moving.
 Rags of breeze brought the odor of
 unwashed crotches. Then I saw what they were:
 a horde of naked men and women
 whose genitals glowed so you might read by them.
 They shuffled uneasily around
 each other, avoiding contact. Despite the blazing
 wands and clefts and globes they carried,
 their bodies – that is, their limbs and torsos and heads –
 were strangely unilluminated,
 merging chameleon-like with the rubbish and rocks
 of their crepuscular habitat.

These two are, ostensibly, the same Canto and circle of Hell—both detailing the punishment of those who gave way to lust and their carnal appetite. Steinzor makes reference to the “gusty winds”, acknowledging Dante’s inspiration, then entirely alters the scene presumably because the carnal sin being punished is entirely different than that of Dante’s Francesca de Rimini (with whom I sympathize). The condemned sinner in Steinzor’s retelling is the man who molested Steinzor’s narrator when the narrator was a youth. Steinzor’s punishment, compared to Dante’s, is positively sedate. Whereas Francesca and her lover are battered with the rage of opposing gales that violently smash the erstwhile lovers against each other like knots of bone and flesh, touching but never able to embrace, comfort or express their love, Steinzor’s carnal sinners walk in the dark with genitals seared to a glowing and untouchable coal. There’s some poetic justice in that, for sure, but nothing like the violent rage of Dante’s indignation—nothing that would inspire Tchaikovsky musical vision of the hellish wins bruising and brutalizing the former lovers.

In fact, Steinzor’s Hell does, to me, lack the sheer physical cruelty, suffering and limb-rending torment of Dante’s Hell (Steinzor’s slicing and dicing demons read like something out of fantasy novels) . Dante’s imagined Hell no doubt arises from what was generally the short, and sometimes brutal, lives of 13th and 14th century Europeans. Violence was everywhere and on display. There was no squeamishness about crime and punishment for example. Criminals were strung up, left to die, and left to rot in full view of the public’s comings and goings — children and all. While it’s easy to overstate the suffering in Dante’s day, people did have fun after all, and ate and made merry, I’m certain that many of the punishments—the howls of agony, the torture and dismemberment—were either witnessed first hand or familiar to Dante. In Elizabethan times, the dismembered arms and legs of traitors to the crown were nailed, for all to see, along the shore of the Thames. Some of Shakespeare’s descriptions, of wounds, blood and their effects on the wounded, are so accurate that scholars speculate he must have either seen the worst first hand or through first hand report. I don’t get the same sense from Steinzor. The relatively civilized 20th/21st century has put him at somewhat of a disadvantage in that respect. I don’t get the same feel for human pain and suffering, reading his Hell, as I do when reading Dante. Steinzor feels a bit more secondhand and idealized (if that’s the right word).

And that brings me to Steinzor’s poetry. I agreed to review the books on the basis of their verse form:

This is metrical poetry, in a form I invented for the project. As described at my web site, the work “consists of 100 cantos, spread over three books, written in polyrhythmic, unrhymed, ten line stanzas. Each stanza consists of alternating lines of five and four stresses: 5-4-5-4-5-4-5-4-5-4. In the third book, Once Was Lost, each line begins with a stressed syllable, an added regularity that somehow seemed appropriate to that book’s more elevated status.”

In other words, Steinzor has written an accentual meter (as opposed to a syllabic or accentual-syllabic meter like iambic pentameter). I was interested to see if it worked. At first I tried to read the lines while being conscious of the accented syllables and their count. That didn’t go very well:

Midway through my life’s journey, I found myself
 lost in a dark place, a tangle of hanging
 vines or cables or branches – so dark! – festooning

I counted 6 accented syllables in the first, 5 in the second and, 6 in the third. Two things: First, counting stress in a line isn’t a science, and so I’m not going to assert that my count is right and Steinzor’s is wrong; second, I generally write accentual-syllabic verse and so what I read as accented might be flavored by that. The problem, though, is that unlike accentual-syllabic verse, which provides a regular pattern which the poet can exploit, accentual meter doesn’t. There is a “pattern”, quote-unquote, but it’s not regular. It’s “polyrhythmic”. We know that there are supposed to be five accented syllables in the line but, in my case, I have to go back and sort out which syllables Steinzor isn’t hearing as accented. In the first line that’s probably “life’s“, in the next “dark” and in the third “so“.

But reading three books worth of stanzas like this is exhausting.

So I quit trying. A reader will no doubt assert that the effect works at a subconscious level. Possibly. Being subconscious though, I’m not remotely aware of it—nothing like when reading accentual syllabic verse. (Also, there’s little to no evidence that the subconscious mind actually exists but we won’t go there.) As a guiding principle for Steinzor, accentual verse does provide a kind of structure to work within, but if the average reader is anything like me, they will soon stop trying to read his stanzas as verse but as prose and, functionally, that’s what it is and what I did. To illustrate, Steinzor quotes Wendell Berry at the start of his third book:

Sometimes too I could see that love 
is a great room with a lot
 of doors, where we are invited 
to knock and come in. Though 
it contains all the world, the sun, 
moon, and stars, it is so small
 as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts 
of those who choose to come in. 
Some do not come in. Some may stay out 
forever. Some come in together 

and leave separately. Some come in 
and stay, until they die, and after. 
I was in it a long time with Nathan.
I am still in it with him. 
And what about Virgil? Once, we too 
went in and were together in 
that room. And now in my tenderness of remembering 
it all again, I think I am 
still there with him too. I am there
with all the others, most of them gone 

but some who are still here, who gave me love 
and called forth love from me. When 
I number them over, I am surprised by how many 
there are.

The quote, as written by Berry and quoted by Steinzor, is actually prose. To show just how easily any prose can be lineated as syllabic or accentual verse, I lineated Wendell’s prose using Steinzor’s 5,4 pattern; and as with Steinzor’s verse, some may disagree with the number of accented syllables in each line, but that’s the nature of the “meter”. Does this lineation turn Wendell’s prose into poetry? In truth, some metrists don’t consider syllabic or accentual meters as true “meters”. And as with arguments over the dividing line between free verse and prose: Here there be Rabbit Holes. (The debate can be both informative and frustrating.) Things get a little more interesting in Steinzor’s third book, his retelling of Paradiso, in which he begins each line with a stressed syllable, but the effect is more nominal than structural. It’s easy to alter Berry’s prose, without changing a word (and given the normal latitude as to what is and isn’t accented) so that it fits the new constraint:

Sometimes too I could see that love 
is a great room with a lot of
 doors, where we are invited to
knock and come in. Though 
it contains all the world, the sun, 
moon, and stars, it is so small as to be
 also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of
those who choose to come in. 
Some do not come in. Some may stay
out forever. Some come in (etc.)

All this is to say that I never got the sense, reading passages from Steinzor’s books, that I was actually reading “verse” or “poetry”. There was never a moment when I felt as though “language [was being] used for its aesthetic qualities in addition to, or instead of, its notional and semantic content”. This, for me, is the dividing line between poetry and prose. Other readers disagree and, as the expression has it, your mileage may vary. And as a stylistic matter, I did find Steinzor’s style to be a little too curated at times—a little precious. The purpose, I suspect, was to introduce a certain formal and elevated grandeur to the narrator’s voice, but it too often comes off as mannered and self-conscious.

On a more positive note, I found his writing to be evocative. I especially enjoyed the synesthesia in some of his imagery and appreciated his attentiveness to the five senses—touch, taste, smell, sound and sight—a necessary skill set if one is going to be describing Hell and Heaven.

Do Steinzor’s books make compelling reading? The downside to retelling a masterpiece is that, well, you’re always going to be compared to the masterpiece. Like Dante’s Comedy, there’s really no overarching narrative or dramatic arc beyond the journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. As Steinzor himself comments, the progress is episodic. We move from one tableau to the next and what happens in one canto is mostly forgotten in the next. Unlike Dante’s original, whose sheer force of originality, insight into the human condition and linguistic beauty create a sum in excess of its parts, Steinzor’s effort, by definition, is derivative and his verse falls well short of Dante’s linguistic genius. That leaves Steinzor’s insight into the human condition as the primary reason to read him (insofar as he offers something Dante doesn’t).

In that regard, Steinzor’s Comedy could be read as semi-autobiographical or as a kind of memoir; and, like Dante’s Comedy, as a critique of 20th/21st century figures, culture and politics through the lens of a medieval theology (that has been more or less relegated to history books). As to be expected, given my opening paragraph, I had a mixed reaction. I often felt as though the far greater moral and ethical complexities humanity has realized since the 14th century were being shoehorned into the moral edifice of a rigid and absolutist medieval one. Steinzor’s narrative felt, to me, more like a contrivance, a vehicle into which he could stamp his autobiography and/or life experiences (akin to the vehicle of his accentual verse) rather than as a unique and organic vision of the Comedy.

Is that an unfair standard? Would it be possible to write another Comedy without its feeling derivative? Is being derivative a bad thing; and isn’t its being derivative the point? Is Steinzor’s Comedy also a commentary on Dante’s vision of the universe? It isn’t; and that may be the real missed opportunity. Steinzor doesn’t question Dante’s theology but accepts its strictures and applies it to our own culture and dilemmas. That makes it a retread of medieval Catholic theology in modern dress.

All that said, the writing remains strong enough, honest enough, vivid and humorous enough to recommend to those interested in a modern writer’s tour of a medieval poet’s Hell.

And that’s that for today.

upinVermont | February 18th 2021


 Just as the Cosmos is remarkable
 In its homogeneity, so life
 Surprises not in its variety,
 But similarities—a living world
 May neither be too close nor orbiting
 Too distant from its sun, must be rocky,
 Have water and a molten core’s enveloping
 Magnetosphere. Consider living worlds
 Like organisms, each convergently
 Evolving oxygen, a temperate climate
 And life. 
               And just as they're alike in their
 Constituent elements, the life arising
 Evolves alike—prokaryotic and
 Eukaryotic over billions of years
 Divided into plants and animals.
 The laws of evolution are not altered
 By time, locale or species. Anywhere
 There’s life there’s more that’s recognizable
 Than alien, more that universally
 Applies not just to life’s emergence but
 Also to sentience, intelligence
 And civilization, for in every world,
 Where though the sun is unfamiliar,
 Where night is visited by stranger tides
 And constellations, where though the byways
 And thoroughfares traverse implausible fields
 Under alien skies, you still will find
 The bicycle.
                    There are an infinite number
 Among as many worlds. The universe
 Is everywhere replete with life, some worlds
 Awash in microscopic biomes
 While others teem with wilderness; but where
 Intelligence and sentience evolve
 So does the necessary wheel and means 
 To turn the wheel: the chain, gears, frame and sprocket
 Both different and alike in their design—
 Blueprints of the physiology
 And minds inventing them. In any world
 Where there’s a child’s bicycle, there’s elsewhere
 In any quarter of the universe
 Another likewise trimmed with streamers, spangles
 And balanced on a kickstand.
                    Were it possible
 To bridge the light years with a bicycle
 By pedaling or by a sail affixed
 To catch the winds of other Milky Ways;
 Or to visit on a summer’s day
 An undiscovered world; to gaze at nightfall
 At nebulae; and were there, anchored
 To every handlebar, a telescope
 To navigate the air (and wine and blankets
 In every basket); then bicycles
 Would populate the intervening skies,
 Would coast like comets through the scattered stars
 And glitter in the light.
                    If on an evening
 You find a square of earth to unfold
 Your blanket and to gaze at constellations,
 You’ll see a thousand thousand worlds with life
 And yet see none. In every world you’ll see
 A thousand thousand bicycles and yet
 Not one. You’ll peer into another’s eyes,
 A billion intermittent years gone by,
 Whose gaze meets yours if only for an instant,
 Yet never know. 
                   Ride your bicycle
 The little while you can—and wait no more;
 Though a bicycle won’t ferry you
 Across the turbulent oceans of the Cosmos
 My poem has never truly been about
 The bicycle—but your imagination.
 The Universe is full of bicyclists
 Who dream of navigating, just like you,
 The same intractable distances,
 To view, if for a day, another moon,
 Another sun—and you. So little
 Are our allotted days, so impossible—
 The grandeur, the sublimity, the Universe;
 Let your imagination be the bicycle
 And what before had been beyond your reach
 Will be the tally of an afternoon.
 Will be the nebulae that fade like leaves
 Among worlds moving darkly and unseen;
 Will be the radiant whirlwinds birthing stars
 And stars new worlds. There will be life and bicycles
 And for a little while—yours. 

Bicycles by Me, Patrick Gillespie | February 14th 2021
Continue reading

A Brief Look at Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural Poem

The first thing to say is that any Elizabethan Rhetorician who saw or heard Amanda Gorman’s poem would immediately, and with a broad smile and nod of recognition, recognize it as a species of Euphuism. The euphusitic style of writing comes from John Lyly’s play Euphues and, for a time, was all the rage in Elizabethan poetry and prose. As of this month, February 2021, Wikipedia opens their article on Euphuism with the following:

Euphuism is a peculiar mannered style of English prose. It takes its name from a prose romance by John Lyly. It consists of a preciously ornate and sophisticated style, employing a deliberate excess of literary devices such as antitheses, alliterations, repetitions and rhetorical questions. Classical learning and remote knowledge of all kinds are displayed. Euphuism was fashionable in the 1580s, especially in the Elizabethan court.

And goes further to describe the principles of the euphuistic prose style:

The euphuistic sentence followed principles of balance and antithesis to their extremes, purposely using the latter regardless of sense. John Lyly set up three basic structural principles:

  1. phrases of equal length that appear in succession;
  2. the balance of key verbal elements in successive sentences;
  3. the correspondence of sounds and syllables, especially between words that are already balanced against each other.

Now one might object that Gorman’s “Poem” is not prose. But it is. A while back I coined a name for verse like hers called Syntactic Verse. Syntactic Verse is simply prose that has been lineated according to its syntactic and/or rhetorical units. I would wager a guess that the majority of free verse is syntactic verse. It’s easy to write and it provides a quick and ready rationale by which to lineate. One could take any of Lyly’s prose and lineate it according to its syntactic and rhetorical units and you would end up with a poem that looked just like Gorman’s and, apart from 400 years of English, would sound identical. All this is to say that Gorman’s verse is verse on paper only. If you didn’t know that she had lineated her prose or that she called it a poem, and listened only to her reading, you would have no reason to think it wasn’t especially euphuistic prose (though you might not know the term you would recognize the patterning). It’s the sort of rhetorical patterning that public speakers from the pulpit to the soapbox have availed themselves of since ancient Rome—though they never took it to the extremes of Lyly or Gorman. None of this, by the way, is meant to denigrate Gorman’s poem or poetry. It’s simply a description of what she’s doing and why there’s no difference between her writing and that of Lyly. They are both playing exactly the same game.

For example, lineated Lyly:

But alas Euphues, 
what truth can there be found in a traveller? 
What stay in a stranger? 
Whose words and bodies 
both watch 
but for a wind, 
whose feet are ever fleeting, 
whose faith plighted on the shore, 
is turned to perjury when they hoist sail

And Amanda Gorman:

but that doesn't mean we are
striving to form a union that is perfect
We are striving to forge a union with purpose
To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us
but what stands before us
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside

The passages are so strikingly alike that they could almost be performed on the same stage with little disjunction. Both writers use the same rhetorical figures to the same ends: consonance, alliteration, conduplicatio, isocolon, paramoiosis, etc… And both John Lyly and Amanda Gorman weirdly share a predilection for the consonant ‘w’ sounds. Both engage in rhetorical questions. And neither has an alliteration off-switch. The last twenty or so lines of Gorman’s poem is a traffic-stopping crescendo of alliteration. If Gorman had deliberately set out to imitate the euphuistic style of the 16th century, she couldn’t have done a better job.

And here is The Hill We Climb in all it’s euphuistic glory:

My markings aren’t exhaustive and I know I’ve missed some rhetorical figures, but you get the idea. A prose passage by John Lyly would look exactly the same.

It will be rightly pointed out that her style of poetry is influenced by rap and hip-hop rather than John Lyly, but it’s also fair to say that she’s re-invented/rediscovered a style of writing that is nevertheless indistinguishable from the euphuistic Elizabethan style (just as Elizabethan writers re-invented Iambic Pentameter after Chaucer). Lyly’s style was popular for its time, but after a point it became an easy target for satire. As Wikipedia notes:

Many critics did not appreciate Lyly’s deliberate excesses. Philip Sidney and Gabriel Harvey castigated his style.

Lyly’s style, however[clarification needed], influenced Shakespeare, who satirised[clarification needed] it in speeches by Polonius in Hamlet and the florid language of the courtly lovers in Love’s Labour’s Lost; Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing also made use of it, as did Richard and Lady Anne in Richard III. It was taken up by the Elizabethan writers Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge and Barnabe Rich. Walter Scott satirised it in the character of Sir Piercie Shafton in The Monastery, while Charles Kingsley defended Euphues in Westward Ho!Wikipedia on Euphuism

While I thought that Gorman’s poem wasn’t one for the ages, it was perfect for the occasion; and it was perfect because it exploited so many of the rhetorical strategies that every public speaker, from Cicero to Shakespeare’s soliloquies, used to persuade and ingratiate themselves with the crowd. Another poet might have written a poem with such unimpeachable academic poise and restraint as to be generic, like Elizabeth Alexander’s exquisitely forgettable inaugural poem—Praise Song for the Day. Not Gorman. All that alliteration at the close of the poem was like an explosion of confetti, faerie dust and birthday glitter. Irresistible. She knows how to bring down the house.

I only wonder how hard Gorman will ride this horse. Her later Super Bowl recitation, Chorus of the Captains, shows her to be in full gallop:

Let us walk with these warriors,
Charge on with these champions,
And carry forth the call of our captains!
We celebrate them by acting
With courage and compassion,
By doing what is right and just.

The poem—In this Place (An American Lyric)—likewise rhapsodically hails readers with an alliterative piling on of sloganeering. It will wear thin or she’ll be forever asked to write the kinds of poems one belts out before the battle of Agincourt (it’s no coincidence her poetry was featured before the Super Bowl). Hers is stylistically the poetry of public declamation. But she’s young, talented, and deservedly successful. Time will tell and I wish her all the best.

upinVermont ❦ February 12 2021

Reading The Winter’s Tale after the Trump Years

With my novel finished, I’ve gotten back to work on some languishing poems. To get my head in the right space, I decided to read Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which I read years ago, and is replete with some of Shakespeare’s most transcendent poetry. What immediately struck me, though, was how much I disliked both Leontes and Polixenes. In truth, we’re supposed to dislike them. Each, in their turn, is vicious, cruel and tyrannical, but what disturbed me now was less their viciousness than the assumed prerogatives of wealth and class that allowed them to act without compunction or consequence—ostensibly a play about two rich and entitled men who inherited their wealth (and haven’t we had enough of those these last few years)?

The aristocracy and royalty were the oligarchical billionaires of their day, and almost uniformly corrupt. The Europeans who fled to the United States in the 18th century were damned well fed up with these kinds of families. At the founding of the United States, the following was added to the Constitution:

Article I, Section 9, Clause 8. No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.

If Prince Harry were to become a naturalized US citizen, he would have to renounce his title. But none of this has prevented the US from creating its own aristocracy. The only difference is that we call them one percenters instead of “Your Excellency”. And just as in the Europe of prior centuries, they wield outsize influence on the political process through their wealth and loyalists (read Royalists if you like). They are the Koch brothers, the Murdochs and the Trumps, rewarding their loyalists with the cash needed to maintain and share in their political power. The loyalists, in turn, reward these families with lower taxes, fewer regulations and the government levers needed to crush unions, depress wages, write laws that favor them or, more mundanely, seize federal lands for their own profit. The Trump years subjected the United States to a family who treated the US no differently than the various royals, aristocrats and theocratic mobsters of pre-20th century Europe—who asserted, in one form or another, their entitlement to rule and their entitlement to the wealth over which they ruled.

So when I read the first act of The Winter Tale, I felt like I was reading about a familiar family, class and wealth bracket. I was much less interested in their tender fates as compared to the first reading and wasn’t even sure I desired a happy ending for any of them. The play begins with Leontes suddenly seized by a rabid fit of jealousy that would have embarrassed Henry VIII. He suspects that his wife, Hermione, has been cheating on him with his childhood friend, Polixenes. What does a rich and entitled man with unimpeded power do? He considers murdering her as though her life were nothing more than a formality to be relievedly dispensed with:

Say that she were gone,
Given to the fire, a moiety of my rest
Might come to me again.

Winter’s Tale Act 2.3: 7-9 | Norton Digital Edition

He orders that his erstwhile best friend, Polixenes be murdered first, by poison, then that his pregnant wife and child be burned alive.

A callet
Of boundless tongue, who late hath beat her husband
And now baits me. This brat is none of mine;
It is the issue of Polixenes.
Hence with it, and together with the dam
Commit them to the fire!

Winter’s Tale Act 2: 90-94 | Norton Digital Edition

It needs to be emphasized that Hermione, at this point, is nine months pregnant. Leontes’ comments are in response to Paulina, wife of a nobleman and vociferous defender of Hermione. What does Paulina get for defending Hermione against a rich man with absolute power? She’s all but called a bitch and her husband pussy whipped: says Leontes of Antigonus, “He dreads his wife.”

In short order, the character Hermione gives birth, off-stage, to Leontes’s daughter (presumably precipitated by the horror of Leontes’s jealous rage). When Paulina brings the newborn to Leontes, he also orders the newborn burned alive:

Thou, traitor, hast set on thy wife to this.
My child? Away with’t! Even thou that hast
A heart so tender o’er it, take it hence
And see it instantly consumed with fire.
Even thou and none but thou. Take it up straight.
Within this hour bring me word ’tis done,
And by good testimony, or I’ll seize thy life
With what thou else call’st thine. If thou refuse,
And wilt encounter with my wrath, say so.
The bastard brains with these my proper hands
Shall I dash out. Go, take it to the fire,
For thou sett’st on thy wife.

The Winter’s Tale Act 2.2: 130-141 | Norton Digital Edition

So. Shakespeare really piles it on. It’s clear that we’re not meant to like or feel much sympathy for Leontes. However, the play is considered a romance in the sense that there will be redemption and a happy ending. This is where I get tripped up. After witnessing four years of cruelty, corruption, banality, and incompetence, and after being subjected to the sneering lies of Trump and the Trump family, I’m not interested in redemption or, as the party of Trump cynically labels it: “unity”. Before having witnessed this kind of corruption first hand, the characters of Leontes and Polixenes were fairytale-like figures—the kinds of stock characters that simply serve as foils. The fabulists and tellers of fairy tales who riffed on Kings, Queens, Princes and Princesses didn’t do so out of any love for these people, but because they were the Marvel super heroes of their day. They possessed unlimited power—not confined by poverty or social class. The story teller didn’t need to explain how or why a given character had the freedom to do X, Y, or Z. If they were a prince or princess, their extraordinary privilege was assumed, along with the extraordinary trials that confronted them. What evil fairy princess, after all, is going to waste her time cursing the daughter of some serf or peasant? What Prince is going to give a damn if some peasant girl is buried alive in a glass coffin by a bunch of dwarfs?

As it turns out, it’s just this dynamic that plays out in Act 4. In Act 2, Leontes orders Antigonus to take his newborn daughter (who he believes to be the bastard child of Polixenes) into the wild and leave her there (hopefully to be torn to shreds by a passing carnivore). As it turns out, the baby, Perdita, is rescued by a Shepherd. Act 4 moves us forward in time and Perdita is a marriageable, teenage girl. And as it happens, Polixenes son, Florizel, stumbles on her and straightaway falls in love. No one suspects that Perdita is actually the child of nobility and so Florizel’s amorous attention is a deadly threat to Perdita and she knows it.

Oh, but sir,
Your resolution cannot hold, when ’tis
Opposed, as it must be, by th’ power of the King.
One of these two must be necessities,
Which then will speak that you must change this purpose,
Or I my life.

Winter’s Tale 4.4: 35-39 | Norton Digital Edition

By “I my life” she doesn’t mean my life will be changed, rather, I will lose my life. But that doesn’t stop Florizel who, until meeting Perdita, has presumably lived a life of entitlement. Despite her protestations, he insists that not only will he marry her but that he would rather surrender all the benefits of his wealth and station than not marry. Shakespeare intends the audience to appreciate Florizel’s earnest love, though not, perhaps, his naïvety. Sure enough, his father, Polixenes, shows up in disguise and susses out what’s going on. Things don’t end well. Polixenese, who, until this point, had been the sympathetic and wrongly accused childhood friend of Leontes, turns out to be just as much of a tyrannical SOB:

Mark your divorce, young sir,
Whom son I dare not call. Thou art too base
To be acknowledged. Thou a scepter’s heir
That thus affects a sheephook? —Thou, old traitor,
I am sorry that by hanging thee I can
But shorten thy life one week. —And thou, fresh piece
Of excellent witchcraft, who of force must know
The royal fool thou cop’st with—

SHEPHERD Oh, my heart.

POLIXENES —I’ll have thy beauty scratched with briars and made
More homely than thy state. —For thee, fond boy,
If I may ever know thou dost but sigh
That thou no more shalt see this knack—as never
I mean thou shalt—we’ll bar thee from succession,
Not hold thee of our blood—no, not our kin—
Far than Deucalion off. Mark thou my words.
Follow us to the court. [to SHEPHERD] Thou churl, for this time,
Though full of our displeasure, yet we free thee
From the dead blow of it. [to PERDITA] And you, enchantment,
Worthy enough a herdsman—yea, him too,
That makes himself, but for our honor therein,
Unworthy thee—if ever henceforth thou
These rural latches to his entrance open,
Or hoop his body more with thy embraces,
I will devise a death as cruel for thee
As thou art tender to’t.

Winter’s Tale 4.4:408-432 | Norton Digital Edition

Polixenes has learned nothing from his experience with Leontes. First he declares that Perdita, who everyone still thinks is the Shepherd’s daughter, too low class for his royal and aristocratic blood. His son “thus affects a sheephook?” he asks. Next he declares that he will hang the Shepherd (the girl’s father), regretting only that the Shepherd is so old as to make the effort hardly worthwhile. After that Polixenes declares that he will have Perdita mutilated: “thy beauty scratched with briars and made/More homely than thy state.” How dare any mere commoner presume to marry into Polixenes’ aristocratic/royal family? He further declares that if Perdita nevertheless pursues Florizel, he will have her killed as cruelly as possible.

All the while, Shakespeare plays around with a common trope (found elsewhere in his other plays) that there is something intrinsically superior to the aristocratic/royal class. (It’s easy to see how this very prevalent attitude eventually led to the race “science” of the Nazis.) Earlier, both Polixenes and his advisor, Camillo, comment on Perdita’s aristocratic bearing:

POLIXENES This is the prettiest lowborn lass that ever
Ran on the greensward. Nothing she does or seems
But smacks of something greater than herself,
Too noble for this place.

CAMILLO [to POLIXENES] He tells her something
That makes her blood look on’t. Good sooth, she is
The queen of curds and cream.

Winter’s Tale 4.4: 155-161 | Norton Digital Edition

She is “too noble” for this place. One need not imagine that the nobility of our own age fancy themselves intrinsically superior to the common run of human being. Trump has on numerous occasions made clear his contempt for dirty, low-class Americans (including those among the exceedingly gullible mob who stormed the capitol building); and has done so in just those terms. His family has also made clear that they share his contempt for the average American. There’s a reason Trump didn’t pardon a single protestor among those who stormed the capitol—they were dispensable. They weren’t worth his time. They were a means to an end (which didn’t materialize) and nothing more. They were like the easily dispensable peasants with whom European aristocratics waged war. True to form, Trump’s children all married within their class and station.

Florizel and Perdita flee, of all places, to Leontes (under the manipulative advice of Camillo who, literally, is merely looking for an excuse to see Leontes again). He couldn’t give a damn about Perdita, who, he well knows, will straightaway be murdered by Polixenes (once they catch up to the couple); but he knows that Polixenes will pursue Florizel and Perdita and so he’ll get a free ride to Sicilia. But what is that to the noble Camillo? As far as he knows (at this point in the play) Perdita is merely a dispensable means to an end; and once that end is achieved, she will be brutally and rightfully dispensed with. But so what? T’were as much as hang a dog from a tree. One wonders to what degree Shakespeare bought into all this. First thing to know is that this was not Shakespeare’s plot, but based on a story by Robert Greene (a deceased playwright and erstwhile rival). Was he just exploiting the literary tropes of the day? I think so. Shakespeare might have bought into the belief, to some degree, that class was intrinsic and not economic; but he was also keenly aware that the nobility didn’t behave any better than anyone else and wrote dozens of plays based on just that reality (Shakespeare had a keen nose for hypocrisy).

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow,
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Sonnet 44

It’s my own belief that Shakespeare’s sonnets come closest to personal utterance. Those who exercise power without restraint, he suggests, though they might be deemed the very flower of their class and station, are “outbraved” by the basest weed in dignity. I personally doubt that Shakespeare would have had much sympathy for Leontes or Polixenes (neither could be said to have been like stone or to temptation slow) but he used the tropes of the day to dramatic effect. That said, it’s thought that Shakespeare endorsed the political hierarchies of the day. In his plays, at least, he comes down on the side of rule by aristocracy (which is really as much as to say that he preferred a functioning government—such as it was—to mob rule). Whenever Shakespeare gives voice to the common people they’re generally portrayed as a mob—as a dangerous and destabilizing force. That used to disappoint me, but having witnessed the mob instigated by the Trump family, I see it from Shakespeare’s perspective. It’s not that he thought particularly highly of the aristocracy, but he probably saw in them the closest thing to political and social stability that the Middle Ages had to offer. And why shouldn’t he? The enlightenment was still decades away.

When Perdita’s pedigree (as Leontes’s lost daughter) is finally revealed/discovered at the end of Act 4, then everything changes (though nothing about Perdita has changed). She was still raised by the Shepherd who discovered and saved her life (demonstrating incomparably greater integrity and kindness than any of the noblemen). Not only does Leontes recover his daughter (who he had threatened to burn on the very day of her birth and/or strangle with his own hands) but he also recovers his wife, Hermione—revealed to him by Paulina in the guise of a statue. (This is the same Leontes, in the same act who would have killed Perdita at Polixenes bidding prior to discovering her identity). All in all, I find it an undeserved happy ending for Leontes and Polixenes—or any of their venal hangers on (apart from Paulina). That said, if there’s a difference between Leontes and Trump, it’s that Leontes had enough self-awareness to spend his life, until his discovery of Perdita, regretting his wrongdoing and expressing humility. Trump isn’t even intellectually capable of the insight granted to a fictional pre-Christian King portrayed by a dramatist of the middle ages.

All this is to say, reading Shakespeare after the Trump years has changed everything. I now have a little taste for what life must have been like for those in the Middle Ages—ruled by entitled fools along with their retinue of corrupt courtiers, hangers on, grifters and opportunists. Some part of me still buys into the fairy tale tropes, but the greater part is not so inclined to overlook the venality of the nobility in The Winter’s Tale. If Leontes and Polixenes had accepted Perdita, as a Shepherd’s daughter, prior to discovering her true pedigree (probably an inconceivable outcome in Elizabethan England) then there might be some measure of redemption, but there is none. Both tyrants only accept the outcome after they get what they want. The prerogatives and entitlement of both men is reinforced rather than examined. That’s not redemption. No lessons are learned. I do recognize that Shakespeare’s job was to write a successful play and that involved fulfilling certain conventions and expectations. The Winter’s Tale should probably be read or watched as a kind of implausible fairy tale; and it’s success or failure should likewise be premised on its dramatic effectiveness rather than its moral or ethical assumptions. In that regard, I do get the sense that Shakespeare’s heart wasn’t really in it or that he was conflicted. He gives Paulina, who excoriates Leontes, all the best lines; so much so that the other characters comment on her unrealistic bravery (but maybe she speaks for Shakespeare). By the fifth act, rather than dramatize the revelation that Perdita is really Leontes’ daughter, Shakespeare assigns the revelation to a conversation between two Lords who rattle off the occasion with efficient and workmanlike prose. Should we read Leontes and Polixenes as little more than fairy-tale absurdities? One of the arguments Oxfordians put forward is that Shakespeare too accurately portrayed the court and court politics to have been, well, Shakespeare. But, as better scholars have pointed out (including near contemporaries), Shakespeare’s portrayal of the nobility and the court was patently inaccurate:

It follows, therefore, that the background of life in the plays is, and at the same time is not, the background of Elizabethan life. As an example — old Capulet is an admirable picture of a testy Elizabethan parent, and his behaviour to Juliet in the matter of the match with Paris reminds us instantly of the perpetually quoted account that Lady Jane Grey gives of her own noble father and mother. The human reality is faithfully portrayed, and at the same time the detail of the portrait is contemporary. If, however, we go on lightheartedly to assume that old Capulet in his behaviour as a “nobleman” bears any resemblance to an Elizabethan noble of similar standing we shall be hopelessly misled. If we compare him with the genuine article we realise at once that the intimate “realistic,” or Elizabethan, scenes in which he appears are purely “romantic,” or, if we prefer, untrue to the facts of contemporary noble life. Shakespeare may label Capulet the head of a noble household, who can treat Paris, “a young Nobleman, Kinsman to the Prince,” as his equal, and a proper match for his daughter; but when it comes to a scene like Act IV, Sc. iv, which shows the home life of this supposed nobleman, we realise that the setting is not Verona but Stratford, and that the most likely person to have sat for that very realistic portrait is John Shakespeare, or any of the good burgesses who were William’s father’s friends.

“The Social Background” | A Companion to Shakespeare Studies, edited Harley Granville-Barker and G. B. Harrison.

So, one could treat Leontes’ and Polixenes’ entitlement and murderous threats as more figurative than literal (if one were to act the play as a contemporary city drama); and I could accept that. On those grounds I might let the play’s “happy ending” slide (and the poetry of Florizel and Perdita’s love for each other is to die for); but taken at face value? No. We don’t live in the Middle Ages. I’m not feeling the happy ending of The Winter’s Tale any more than were the corrupt billionaire Donald Trump to escape the consequences of his crimes.

up in Vermont | February 6th 2001

January 4th 2021

    smooth as moonlight on a January

1: January 4th 2021 | bottlecap


Welcome to a new year of poetry. In addition to finishing my novel on the first of January, I’ve had to get back to work. The novel has consumed me these last few weeks and will probably continue to as I copy edit for at least another week or so. After that, my hope is to finally get back to writing longer poems, which means finishing poems I’ve already started. In the meantime, I’m beginning my search for an agent to represent my book—a work of fiction that takes place in contemporary Vermont and with a touch of magical realism. If any reader has any suggestions in that regard, feel free to contact me via my Contact Page or directly in the comment section.

December 31st 2020

    as paper—the clouds at year's

    Blockprint Chair
• Nothing came to me last night, and I was 
tempted to date this as January 1st. I'm 
within a few paragraphs of finishing my novel, 
perhaps tomorrow or Sunday. Then we'll 
see what else I write this coming year. 
A happy New Year and best wishes for 2021.
103: December 31st 2020 | bottlecap