Archive for December, 2011

The Bellknapp Press of Harvard University Press

Nobody writes books like this anymore: books of close-reading; books that investigate poetry in depth, from their language, their craft. Maybe not since the ground breaking and canonical textbooks of New Criticism has there been such an extended and comprehensive study of a body of work.

This is a handsome, and exemplary book.

If, like me, you always thought the Sonnets the weakest part of Shakespeare’s oeuvre: inconsistent quality etc etc, then, like me, you will be surprised at this book’s claims.

Throughout, Helen Vendler has used the 1609 Quarto edition of the Sonnets. A facsimile of this edition is reproduced; the examination and commentary of each sonnet is then prefaced with a modern-spelling version of the sonnet. The length, depth and volume of the commentary varies; at times she has gone into great detail examining a particular sonnet’s strictures and structures etc, at times she has written less. The last two sonnets she not commented on at all.

The Hardback version of this book contains a cd of Vendler reading selected sonnets.

The genesis of this book lies in a pamphlet of her 1990 Hilda Hulme Lecture, entitled Ways into Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

She suggests we do not look for a cogent philosophy, autobiography, or historical parallels, or even sociological asides to the age, in the Sonnets.

Sonnets were the equivalent of well-turned pop songs; poems of emotional and emoting content. With the Sonnets we perhaps come across the Lennon and McCartney of sonnets, or perhaps Dylan. Probably the former; that is, the traditional sonnet taken on further, into something more.

The collection, the Sonnets, consists of two thematic sequences; the first, from 1 to 126 Vendler calls the Young Man sequence, is followed by the Dark Lady sequence, sonnets 127 to 154. However, this does not prove that they were written sequentially, or in thematic order. Following Kent Hieatt, she states that early, what she calls ‘trial pieces’, are scattered throughout the collection as a whole: sonnets 4, 6, 7, 9, 145, 153, and 154

It is only in the preparation of the Sonnets, however, that the two were first construed as a sequence, she argues.

Of the Dark Lady sequence she makes the illuminating comment that they form “a proto-sketch for a drama rather like Othello, with its jealousy… sexuality… ambiguous “darkness”… and so on…”, whereas the Young Man sonnets are more ‘lyrical’ in the sense  that they “…allow(s) full exercise of the linguistic play… (that) embody(s) (the) structural mimesis…,”. The true ‘actors’ of lyric, as opposed to drama, are the words, “And the drama of any lyric is constituted by the successive entrances of new sets of words, a new stylistic arrangement… visibly in conflict with the previous arrangement…”. Othello was published in quarto in 1606, the Sonnets in 1609. The time of writing and preparation of the one coincides well with the preparation etc of the other.

Sequence One, the Young Man sonnets, she characterises as  “…entirely an infatuation of the eye – which makes a fetish of the beloved’s countenance rather than his entire body – that gazing is this infatuation’s chief… form of intercourse.” There was no consummation, it seems, if we are to read them for veracity.

Sequence Two, however, she reads as a contradictory aesthetic to that: “Shakespeare’s duty as a poet of the inner life was not to be fair to women but to be accurate in the representation of the feelings of his speaker.”

Early on she makes the case for a very clear distinction between the writer of the poems (Shakespeare) and the speaker of the poems: lyric poetry is, by necessity a spoken art: “The act of the lyric is to offer its reader a script to say. The words of a poem are not to “overhear … nor is the poet “speaking to himself” without reference to the reader…”. In fact it is Shakespeare’s fabrication of the realness of the speaker that is one of the innovations of these poems. Shakespeare’s speaker is “… given “depth” of character in each individual sonnet by several compositional strategies…” and she goes on to enumerate seven of these, giving an explication on each one. Her exhaustiveness of examination is most impressive, and, what is more, very persuasive.

The Shakespearian sonnet is a structure of four parts: three quatrains, and a couplet. This means the quatrains of the poems can be ‘set up’ in a variety of ways: successive and equal; hierarchical; contrasting; analogues; logically contradictory; successively louder/softer etc.

The relationships between the quatrains are distinguished by the manipulation of phonemic clusters or metrical effects.

These sonnets are, she writes, “… fundamentally structured by an overlying inner emotional dynamic,” which “allows the speaker to see more, change his mind… pass from description to analysis…”. It is, she says, “a system in motion… with several subsystems going their way through them.”

Sonnet 30

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste;

Then can I drown an eye (unused to flow)

For precious friends hid in earth’s dateless night,

And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,

And moan th’expense of many a vanished sight.

Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,

And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er

The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,

Which I new pay as if not paid before. 

     But if the while I think on thee (dear friend)

     All losses are restored, and sorrows end.

Her commentary is very informative here. The sonnet, she writes, “… takes pains to construct a speaker possessing a multilayered self, receding through ‘panels of time’: “now”, “recently”, “before that”, “yet further back”, “the remote past””. She plots these out on a table thus: ‘Habitual present’; ‘Time of stoicism’; ‘Time of loss’; ‘Happy time’; ‘Neutral time’, and then proceeds to justify this with apposite quotations from the poem.

One of her most interesting examinations of this poem is her following through of strings of word sounds that ‘sound out’ the argument, its turn, conclusion, and counter turn. Read down, and across:

sessions        remembran – ce        woes    flow       drown      lack           precious

sweet                          sin –  ce      wail    friends   death’s     love’s         a-fresh

silent                        can –ce-ed   waste                                  long        

summon                expen – se        woe                                   losses

sigh                     grievan –ce-s     woe

sought                                           woe

sigh    t                                       sorr  ow



 She even posits, wittily, the coinage of a new verb (“… given the Renaissance confusion of sigh and sight, recalled by Kerrigan…”): sigh, sight, sought: “A sigh is the eventual result of a sight sought.”

The last couplet is always the tricky one, relying at times on cliché, or proverb. These times, she writes, are when the speaker “gives up”, admits that a conclusion is beyond him, and that he must throw the problem to a wider jury, that of time-tested knowledge.

This makes sense, the poems are all concerned with knowledge through experience; time is the greatest test of knowledge, as well as the greatest source of error. Between the two is everything that we know of our self and ourselves.

In this particular sonnet “… the credibility of the couplet depends upon the probability that once the things summoned up in thought become rawly painful, the speaker will in reaction turn to the … friendship of the young man…” i.e. not to “right” the situation, but for him just to be there.

“It is,” she writes, “in such simultaneous marshalling of temporal continuity, logical discreteness, and psychological modelling that Shakespeare’s Sonnets surpass those of other sonneteers.”

Sonnet 55, she suggests, is built around the key word ‘live’. There are many instances of sonnets built around, and building in, key words. In 55 this is the one word that appears in all four parts of the sonnet, but more importantly, the one word that carries the weight of meaning in each part. In each part, that is, except quatrain 3; we have in quatrain 1 out-LIVE, quatrain 2 LIV-ing, the couplet LIVE… but in quatrain 3 it occurs in ob-LIV-ion. This one word carries the whole crux of the sonnet: how can the beloved survive, or outlive, oblivion?

This also points up one of Shakespeare’s greatest strengths, his unwillingness/inability to stay with a simple explanation, or expression; in 55 he must relate his desire for his beloved’s continuance, to practical, realistic means; that it is not enough his strength of desire or love should ‘rule the day’, but that it should be expressed concretely, that publication is the way, and the way of the future.

Helen Vendler successfully makes the argument for reading sonnet 116 as a sonnet of “dramatic refutation or rebuttal…”. This sonnet is generally taken as a classic case of affirmation (a kind of ‘Love Is…’ cartoon?). There are a number of such rebuttal sonnets in the collection, it is one of the threads that runs throughout the collection (cf. Sonnet 18, Shall I compare thee to summer’s day?/ Thou art more…; Sonnet 130, My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun… etc etc).

Sonnet 116 runs:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments; love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no, it is an ever fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wand’ring bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his heighth be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

   If this be error and upon me proved,

   I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

She says of the sonnet: “… there are too many no’s and nor’s, never’s and not’s… The prevalence of negatives suggests that this poem is not a definition, but rather a rebuttal – and all rebuttals encapsulate the argument they refute.”

The iambic prosody of the sonnet belies the general reading: this sonnet’s meaning is emphasised by that the stress falling on that ‘me’ in the first line: ‘Let me not to the marriage…’

Vendler argues that the speaker in 116 is responding to certain arguments, or rationalisations. In this case, that of the Young Man, for a more ‘open’ relationship than the one already assumed by the speaker.

With quatrain 1 we have the mimicking of the argument, and its outright rebuttal. Quatrain 2 asserts an alternative stance to that of the other person; quatrain 3, states Vendler, “is not simply a rhetorical restating of those two threatening words alter and bend… the words are now unpacked in their full significance as they are reinscribed…”. Quatrain 3, in fact, takes on the other’s stance where before this position had been fought off/away; the speaker has now to admit the other’s stance and argue on his terms. This is in a sense a backing off/fearing to offend. It can be read as a plea, to bear(s) it out, but together. The couplet’s tone is more conceding in its self-turned criticisms, its broken rhythms.

Sonnet 117 is in some ways a continuation of the situation in the overlapping of “topics, diction, and imagery, as noted by Booth…”. Booth also commented, Vendler notes, that “in 116 the speaker is grand, noble, general, and beyond logic; in 117 he is petty, particular, and narrowly logical.”  This is not inconsistency; it is an artist manipulating the facets of his art.

Earlier it was stated that the Sonnets cannot be read as cogent autobiography; the argument for this runs that their autobiographical bases are overlaid, offset, outplayed by the writer’s artfulness and skilled characterisations, that the Sonnets aim more at artistry than salaciousness.

It is surprising, and chastening, to learn, as here, just how much needs to go into a poem, into its structure; how its structure is in fact a part of the sense of the thing, and how the sound of words, part-words, can clinch an effect on the listener. A poem is indeed as much a physical artefact as a subjective, metaphysical, event. A poem is as much intent as it is manipulation of language.

The History Wardrobe

The History Wardrobe recreate the clothes and styles of various periods of English and French history. All clothes are wonderfully recreated, using museum and private collections.

These are the reminiscences of one enjoyable afternoon spent in their company.

Using characters from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the Mistress of Ceremonies – was it Elizabeth Bennett?  – in full Regency style indoor day dress: a pleasant pale yellow on white, complete with white satin pumps, introduced, on cue from back of the hall, Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy. And dressed in full outdoor great coat, of double-breasted bottle green.

All early Regency men’s clothes were styled on riding wear, and so the back of the coat, below a high waist, had two long tails cut so as to lie well whilst ‘on horse’.

The mid-shin length coat was tailored to the body; a broad shoulder cape attached to the back (the more flamboyant added many, many layers of cape). A peculiar fashion-note was struck by specific use of buttons to specific colour of great coat: all but blue coats had self-fabric buttons, but blue, oh no, blue must be brass. Perhaps a nautical connection?

Mr Darcy very obligingly dispensed with Great Coat for us. Underneath, layer on layer of clothing, was an indoor coat of brown cotton material. This was very distinctively cut with very high bowed waist trailing once again to a long back of coat tails. The close fit tailored sleeves were made in two pieces so as to provide a greater effect of stylish dress. The fold-over collar, a recent innovation, was broad-lapelled to emphasise broad shoulders. There was, indeed, quite a cult of youth in this period.

As Mr Darcy obligingly doffed his hat he revealed the very latest hairstyle. Natural hair. No more the powdered wig or periwig! Not only natural, but cut short, curled, and swept forward. A good example of the style is a period portrait of Napoleon. The idea was to copy the styles of Roman heroic statuary (no doubt complete with certain posturings and posings, for the ladies). The style was known as ‘a la Titus’, or ‘a la Brutus’.

And the gloves! Soft white calf skin for outdoor wear, and the statutory requirement of a further five pairs to be worn at certain times throughout the day, each with distinctive material, cut, and use. And the six pairs to be prepared afresh each and every day.

The hat itself was very much a signature of the time: broad brim and mid-tall crown, tapering to the flat top. Hats varied of course, and innovations appeared all the time. Indeed, the first milliner to create the classic shiny silk topper landed himself in very dire straits. It is reported when he first appeared on the street so clad dogs barked, children fled, ladies fainted.

Beneath Mr Darcy’s day coat was yet another coat: a waistcoat, cut at the front a little lower than the day coat to show off watch chain with added key-fob attachment. This attachment held one’s signet. The material a light silk, pale, and tailored to fit close to the body. The reason here was to reflect what was known as ‘naked from a distance’: the light colour and close fit, along with the hair style, to reinforce the effect of Roman heroic statuary.

The Prince Regent’s styles at this time were notoriously so extravagant as to be a constant source of amusement: striped silks, or antagonising clashes of colour, and all bejewelled expansively.

Wigs, powdered and pigtailed, as well as the tied knee breeches, were still de rigeur at Court, and woe betide anyone so urbane as to adapt a more modern style!

The coordinated effect was one of those new styles. As were more subdued colours and designs.

A certain military officer of no significant birth but an eye for effect appeared on the scene; and when he began receiving invites from Names in the City, everyone knew something was afoot. Beau Brummell had arrived, and with him a new emphasis on the masculine: the breeches of light coloured material, sometimes the yellow of nankeen: a heavy denim cotton, finished mid calf; the hose below was to specifically emphasize the youthful, well turned calf.

To take off one’s waistcoat, to be seen in shirtsleeves, was considered positively indecent; a shirt, after all, was the man’s last undergarment. And yet we are very familiar with those shirts: white linen, large floppy collar, and voluminous sleeves. The sleeves gather at the wrist, leaving a fluting around the hand, whilst the shoulder panel extends down to mid bicep. The huge sleeve, therefore only balloons out for three quarters the arm length. There is a deal of pragmatism gone into the dress: all had to able to fold small and neatly beneath the over layer without ridging or (too much) discomfort.

Breeches, waistcoat, shirt, and even… yes, I have seen Mr Darcy in his drawers… all tied at the back with neat arrangements of draw strings.

And horror of horrors, under Mr Darcy’s shirt, a girdle, a stomacher for men. The cult of youth required modelling; even to the padded calves of more senior members.

Another of Beau Brummell’s innovations was the semi-starched cravat: a neck cloth folded and arranged exquisitely, carefully, beneath chin and shirt front. It is reported washerwoman fainted when he introduced this. And no wonder, on top of everything they had to wash, iron, and mend they now had this semi-starched neck cloth: not full starch so it could be done with all the others, no, it had to be semi starched.

But Mr Brummell was too nouveau for our Mr Darcy: no, Mr Darcy had the good eye to allow so much but no more of the ‘new look’ into his wardrobe.

The Frozen Borderline is a reissue of two of Nico’s most famous albums: The Marble Index, from 1968, and Desertshore, 1970; and remastered.

What you get are, for Marble Index, the eight tracks, plus four outtakes, and then seven alternate versions; for Desertshore the eight tracks, and also six demos

Do we come to this record out of historical interest? Or is it in a search for authenticity: a unique voice, a unique vision, the experience of the times?

What we get in each case is something altogether unexpected. There are seemingly simple tunes, songs, where she accompanies herself on a harmonium. They have an ethereal quality, a Bergmanesque atmosphere. Existential expressionism. The effect could be studiedly avant gardish. The singing could remind you of a sketch by the singing divas ‘Fascinating Aida’ when taking off heavily teutonic, neureasthenic singers, from Marlene Dietrich to cabaret singers.

But fellow Velvet Underground member John Cale orchestrates throughout; he ups the ante, and what he produces takes the songs into altogether stranger places, at once more substantial, and also more disturbing.

Simple tunes, songs sung from a limited plangent chromatic palette. But the way Cale’s music plays underneath, its phrasings taking the top chords and inducting them into its own compulsive patterns, is what really lifts the recordings. There are broken bars, unfinished phrases. In Frozen Warnings and Evening of Light he takes you further and further out into strange territories.

So, is Cale a Svengali figure, like Warhol and Lou Reed in the Velvet Underground days? Is Nico a manipulated chanteuse, a creation of demonic male power? Did Bob Dylan write Visions of Johanna for her? Was it Leonard Cohen introduced her to the harmonium?

Her angst is passive, she is not an aggressive musician; her lyrics do not take on the power-play of psychic misalignment. They express it; and that in its way can be just as effective.

Underneath her life at this period was heroin.

And so do these records just chart the damage that drugs do? Are they just…. Because we now know enough about drugs, heroin in particular, to know they are not facilitators of creativity. Drugs are the new madness, romantic emblems of the freedom of imagination. Their reality, as with madness, insanity, is the very opposite of romantic, or creatively imaginative. And heroin, drugs, are not conducive to authenticity; their landscape is derivative, they use the imaginative resources already inherent, we are not taken elsewhere by it. And that is what we look for.

Born in 1938 in Germany, her father dying in a concentration camp, she was brought up solely by her mother. Finishing school, enrolled at secretarial college; her mother arranged modelling opportunities for her.

What followed was a cameo role in La Dolce Vita, much film work. A meeting with Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones helped her move into circles she wanted more – opportunities for singing: New York, Greenwich Village when it was hopping. And then Warhol, arch manipulator.

And running, always running, as she admitted herself: and so never the same record label twice…. In a country split between occupying troops and defeated population, a girl must behave impeccably. But the psychological damage of that defeat pulls towards psychic disturbance. And also in the mix is a pull towards power, the victors. We only have to read Henreich Boll to feel the tone. (Christa Wolf is another matter, what happened in the East was altogether too weird.). Try Ingeborg Bachmann. The suicidal edge. The Marble Index is “an artefact, not a commodity… you can’t sell suicide.” John Cale.

But the crucial point is it is the combination of Nico’s ‘sound’ and Cale’s orchestrations that make this special. Separately they could not work. I remember seeing Nico as part of the Confessions of Dr Dream tour by Kevin Ayres, Eno, and other luminaries, in 1974. She sang accompanied only by harmonium. Without the orchestrations the songs lacked their particular, peculiar magic.

The outtakes on Marble Index are wonderful, deeply satisfying. Why, then, were they outtakes? It was thought the eight tracks were strong enough meat for any commercial venture. They had enough variation and depth to represent the venture as a whole. The outtakes were thought just too strong; maybe because two, Sagan Die Gelehrton, and Reve Reveiller are in German.

On Desertshore the sound is altogether fuller, Cale brings in a delightful melodious piano piece on The Falconer, and following tracks, before becoming an electronic cello drone, resolving once again to piano. The songs are at their best when Cale takes us through the rigorous sonic landscapes. The meeting of Nico’s lyrics, tone, and Cale’s responses, produce something truly unique.

And the other crucial point is that although heroin was behind Nico’s making of these albums, John Cale did not use it. And Cale was the chief mover.

The Swedish novelist Kerstin Ekman, hit world status in 1994, with her European blockbuster Blackwater.

A writer of wide and wonderful facility; she is essentially a fabulist: stories, anecdotes, myths tumble from her in abundance.

Blackwater has all her best novelistic traits, and also her failings.

One detail from Blackwater – a local policeman, at the end of a long day’s stint talking to a senior school, tells a class the real story of a failed robbery. The robbers, two city types, made off with their swag in a stolen car, heading up north. Holed up in an empty house, they were found next day, frozen to death. The simple flaw in their plan: being city types they did not have the basic knowledge for living in the north: how to light the wood stove.

Taken as it is, it is just another, authentic-sounding, statistic. But the time was the early 1970s, the Cold War, and fears of nuclear attack, which seemed immanent. The children insisted the teacher made two school curricula: one standard, and one covering everything they could ever need to know to survive: how to bake bread: which grain to use, how plough to prepare it, how to harvest it, how to make sickles, plough-shares etc. The children were avid; then a parent found out, and the teacher, one of the book’s main characters, was sacked ‘for frightening the children’.

The writer ably picks up here on the aftermath of fear of that period as echoed in the recent Soviet Union nuclear disaster at Chernobyl; the cloud of radioactive dust swept across Sweden, Scandinavia, as indeed it did northern England.

All of her books are rich in a wide variety of technical expertise. To be fully paid-up responsible adults, these are things, the book suggests on one level, we must question and be able to respond to. To be responsible to our children, another of the book’s main themes; what it is to be a child, and how being a parent is a part of that: from the bottom up. Blackwater makes us question all those things we take for granted.

The irony, also, is an Ekman hallmark.

Kerstin Ekman was born in mid Sweden in 1933. Like many other writers of her generation she moved north: north means, beyond the Arctic Circle. This was their authentic experience of the real Sweden.

This is the setting of one of her earlier books, Under the Snow, written in 1966, translated for the first into English in 1997. It is a thriller based in a tiny village in the Swedish arctic; settled by nomadic Sami, for whom Swedes helped set up a local school.

Thorsson, local policeman, receives a call about a death. It is subzero still, the last of the long winter. A wonderful vignette: the super-fit younger colleague, all the right clothes, turns an ankle in the first few yards. Also, in the summer, a language academic excitedly scribbles the ferryman’s curses.

Someone says ‘killed’, another ‘accident’; everything suggests suicide. In arctic communities it is a matter of honour that everyone looks out for each other. This is the clue: honour plumbs the meaning of the death. It is essentially a clash of cultures, Sami and Swedish. It is played out against a backdrop of the long endless night of the winter months, and the neverending days of summer, when the sun scarcely sets.

In the 1970s she put herself through a strict discipline. This was the tetrology of books Witches Rings, Spring, Angel House, City of Light, available from the Norvik Press.

They follow the growth of an end-of-the-tracks village where the railway ended, into a prosperous city; but followed through from inside, that is, through the lives of its women. A wholly successful enterprise; this gained her wide recognition.

Rich and full of authentic detail. At best the books tread a careful line between character-led organic development, and explorations of history. Angel House, set in WWII explores the cost of Sweden’s neutrality: local militia guard rail stops as retreating German troops pass through from Norway; and then the sealed train that stopped briefly in the out-of-the-way station. Some said ‘German collaborators’, but the truth was ‘the last of Norway’s Jews’. The sudden jolt of implication is ours, for historically those realities were not then known. The fallibility of our humanity is the main thrust of the book.

This consciousness of the consequences of the Swedish neutrality in the War informs Swedish writing to the present day: we can see it in Mankel Henning’s Wallander series of books, where the books examine the role of the military in peacetime, in its role in international peace-keeping, and in the writer’s African concerns.

After the success of Blackwater readers wanted another, similar book; what they got was The Book of Hours. Published before Blackwater in Sweden, translation and English publishing demands have skewed chronology.

The Book of Hours takes on the long sweep of Swedish history, again from the inside, but this time explored through the exploits of a strange, sinister character: long lived, non-human but passing as human; a troll. And the magic realism of the book disconcerted some readers.

Where Blackwater explored contemporary concerns about nuclear war, sexual relations, social structures, and the a wonderful section unravelling the mythologies around the hunter in a modern setting; The Book of Hours was full of the culture of forestry, medieval alchemy, the histories of religion, medicine, and commerce; of the Hundred Year’s War, and the Lutheran revolution.

I mentioned her failings as a writer; this centres on the problem that plotlines do not always come together. If, like me, however, you become so engrossed in the storytelling, then it ceases to be an issue but a wry quirk, a humourous signature.