|. . . 2010-09-26|
Wit's Voices: Intonation in Seventeenth-Century English Poetry
by John R. Cooper, U. of Delaware, 2009
I've only encountered a couple of halfway-convincing books about English verse meter. As for useful applied metrical studies — well, this may be the only example I've ever seen. (And at these prices I won't see many more: fifty-five dollars without even a goddamn snippet view.)
The first task of a useful metrical study is to break out of the familiar "da-dum da-dum da-dum" impasse. Building on Dwight Bolinger's and Derek Attridge's work, Cooper distinguishes accent from stress:
And then distinguishes meter from both:
With that last, Cooper explains the centrality of iambic pentameter within a certain class of English poetry. If one was going to derive a regular meter from English speech, it would be (and has been) four-beat ("native rhythm," "song meter," "strong-stess," or "ballad meter"). It comes so easily that it's hard to avoid: purported hexameters and fourteeners tend to fall apart into four-beat units when read. Iambic pentameter became attractive by sabotaging "the natural music of the language." The odd number of feet resists reduction to a heartbeat thump, allowing greater attention to prosodic nuance, characterization, and semantics — albeit at a cost to immediacy.
Well, abstractions are cheap. (Cheaper than $55, anyway.) The meat of Cooper's book is his triple-threat application: testing the validity of his theory while describing stylistic variation across the sixteenth centry while fulfilling the interpretive expectations of close reading.
He validates by experiment, rewriting stanzas or repositioning lines, and asking our ears to follow. Allowing for acceptable variations of taste or intuition, I was convinced. No matter how "naturally" I recited a line, the poem's established meter had an audible effect: more careful articulation, or a choice of emphasis among several possibilities, or a steadily rising pitch, or a deflation. Or a tempo change: going against the grain by "promoting" or "demoting" syllables retards us; keeping normally unstressed syllables off the metrical beat speeds us. (Therefore, Lear's "Never, never, never, never, never" is not, as I've often called it, the worst iambic pentameter possible. Instead, it's the slowest iambic pentameter possible.)
Had I but Cash enough or Time, at this point I'd hand you a copy. But here's a sample, at least. This is from his chapter on Ben Jonson, looking at the possible influence of Donne on his later career:
In the Workes of 1616 there were no stanzas as complicated as this.
The poem may also remind us of Donne in the way that the speaker expresses an emotion that is unresolved at the moment of utterance. Donne-like, too, is the way that verse form is used to support a dialectical structure, as the poet goes through a process of reasoning and feeling in the course of the poem. The opening iambic pentameter line, slowed by pauses indicated by heavy punctuation and ending with syntactic closure, is a rather deliberate-sounding and finished statement that, like the opening of many of Donne's poems, sounds more like an ending than a beginning (e.g., "For Godsake, hold your tongue, and let me love"). Yet this apparently complete assertion, which seems to point to no thematic development, is opened up with the "For" at the beginning of the next line, which has a different rhythm and intonation. It is possible that in these lines we see the influence of such an opening of Donne's as that in "Loves Growth":
In both Jonson's and Donne's poems, there are short lines rhymed with long ones, so that metrical pauses come at disturbingly unexpected places. The sense of formal instability is the greater because the line breaks occur in the middle of intonational contours and because all lines have an odd number of feet, so that we have nonmetrical pauses that are unlike, for example, the silent beat that occurs when a trimeter is paired with a four-beat line. In addition, Jonson increases tension by delaying the sentence accent and the completion of syntactic units, so that the pauses at "be" and "she" will be uttered with a sustained high pitch. In sum, the emphatic assertion of Jonson's first line gives way to an explanation that is formally unstable, tense, jerky, and, because of raised and lowered syllables, slow-paced ("should so slight me"). As with the poem by Donne, the effect is to characterize the speaker as one who has not distanced himself from the problem but is actively and emotionally engaged in thinking about it. This description can easily be tested by rewriting the lines so as to remove the tension and formal instability:
Emotion that can be expressed so formally seems no longer (discounting the possibility of irony) to be felt in all its immediacy. [...]
Thank you. That clarifies my intuitions like a drop of bull's blood in the burgundy.
|. . . 2010-09-28|
The past tense of "Behave!" is "Was had."
|. . . 2010-09-29|
The Death Wish in American Publicity Material :
Land Is Your Safest Investment
Ask the man who owns one. From "AimLoan Online Mortages Spring 2010 Newsletter":
And thank you, anonymous rider, for this:
AimLoan: you'll never be disappointed.
|. . . 2010-10-04|
Two televisions and a police band scanner play continuously at my parents' home. Which is how I finally came to understand my unease around Jon Stewart's comedy stylings: he reminds me of the unsung hero who hosts America's Funniest Home Videos.
Which in turn reminds me of an earlier cross-cultural insight. Used to whenever I thought about "Rube" Goldberg, I'd wonder which boondock he hailed from to get a nickname like that. It only hit me well into middle age: the boy's probably Jewish!
Josh Lukin explains the history behind my mistake:
Reuben's not an especially Jewish name in U.S. history. The Protestant Reformation opened up the Hebrew Bible to Christian baby-naming, kind of like Commodore Perry opened up Japan to trade.
I believe the ambiguity was first brought to my attention by an early episode of All in the Family when Archie listed show-biz personalities who'd anglicized their last names but kept their first and Edith contributed Abe Lincoln.
My own family's names are marked by Appalachian-whimsy: Sadie, Orville, Ina Mae, Irving, Edna (pronounced "Ednie")....
|. . . 2010-10-05|
Climbing alone as dawning terror built to soul-shattering certainty, scholar Renfrew Q. Hobblewort watched this poem by Anselm Dovetonsils uncoil before his glassy bulging eyes. Turn away! By all that's holy, turn away!
EGRESS PLANMAIN DRAIN
EXIT TO SUB-BASEMENT
NO ROOFTOP ACCESS
SUICIDE PREVENTION AWARENESS WEEK
|. . . 2010-11-02|
Occasioned by ComicsComics' mini-anthology
Jack Mercer found a voice which could encompass all the many ways of Popeye. Olive was easy once the talkies uncorked ZaSu Pitts. Rough House, Castor, King Blozo, Mister Geezil, and zo on never presented difficulty. But the most articulate of Thimble Theatre's stock company has never been heard. The Fleischers' Wimpy was so colorless that I can't even bring him to mind; Altman's Wimpy was a bland villain.
For the role of shabby middle-aged con artist, a "W. C. Fields type" would be the obvious casting call and would be disastrous. Fields takes comfort in his own invention; his soliloquies murmur of feelings too rich for this wicked world; his outbursts are their own reward.
J. Wellington Wimpy is more damaged and more efficient, a shell of mimicry around a core of sub-mammalian hunger. Wimpy demonstrates Behaviorist Man: someone in whom language developed by pure reinforcement, one hamburger pellet at a time, with any formula which occasioned a reward forever recalled and forever replayed, no matter how inappropriate its audience may be. In extreme circumstances, Wimpy might show something resembling normal emotions — shame, fear, pity — but they're sloughed from his surface with horrifying ease.
When I read long passages of Wimpy aloud, I find myself striving for a clipped, over-precise tone which lacks the contempt of Clifton Webb or the throbbing repression of other great cinema prisses. Among stars, perhaps only Alec Guinness could have emptied himself sufficiently.
As evidenced not only by Guinness's George Smiley but by Guinness's Gulley Jimson — the "heroic artist" as justified sociopath, a stereotype I loathe but whom Guinness, for good or ill, portrayed effectively. Wimpy is no painter, but there's an abstract artistry to his con: his compulsive deployment of language as machine rather than as communication, his disregard for human context, associate him with a certain post-Romantic concept of "poetry" — one I hold myself; one we might find, for example, in Ashbery....
|. . . 2010-11-06|
I am Dew-Drop Inn, I contain multitudes.
|. . . 2010-11-11|
He slowed down, maybe remembering my bum foot. He picked up again, maybe forgetting it. He slowed down again. I couldn't see his face of course but I imagined feigned distraction and feigned determination and feigned worry. And all to no response.
Without an audience he was lost. He would have been happier with Echo.
I heard him say "What a week." I heard him say "How long is this thing?" I heard him say "That's what she said." I heard him say "This quiet really gets on your nerves." He paused, he fidgeted, he sighed. I heard him say "You know" and saw his shoulders shift and knew he would turn.
So I shot him.
As Thurber said: Little girls these days are not as easy to fool as they used to be.
|. . . 2010-11-12|
Rabbit with an M-Six
M-SixRabbit with an M-Sixteen
Rabbit with an M-Six
M-SixRabbit with an M-Sixteen
you sound smart
|. . . 2010-11-17|
He used to be one of my favorite scholars. Lately, though, it seems like all he does is preach. And yeah, I know I'm in the choir, but I only joined for the music.
Doxology the study of PhDs? and then?
Then I highly recommend Herr Doktor Adam Kotsko's essay on Augustine on the Fah-ther and on the Son and on the Hoh-ly Gho-host, because I highly enjoyed it.
|. . . 2010-11-25|
The Very Model of
a Public Intellectual
Behind the bright mask of 1946's Cluny Brown we find the damp inversions of 1945's Confidential Agent. Woebegone orphan Else replaces unsinkably willful Cluny as abject alterity; abovestairs, in place of cultured Betty Cream, Lauren Bacall sulks, swills, and gallumphs. The speech Margery Sharp wrote for her refugee writer — "That is the trouble in Poland: there are not enough distinguished Poles to go round; everyone must do double duty" — flips the defense Graham Greene wrote for his feckless musician: "We are all amateurs in our government. A blacksmith becomes a general, a college professor is our president, a composer a confidential agent. We have one strength in common, though: we believe in the better world we're fighting for." From each according to the Republic's need (insatiable); to each according to the Republic's ability (nil).
Experience precedes Innocence. This is an England where the upper-class-twit comic relief (accompanied by the love interest) gazes on approvingly while a helpless man is thrashed by a hired thug; when we visit the green and pleasant countryside, it's to incite a riot at a coal mine. Viciously lensed by James Wong Howe, undirected with dispirit by Herman Shumlin, Charles Boyer's Denard — snubbed, cheated, booed, charmless, looking at times like Edmond O'Brien — achieves his single onscreen triumph by slapping an immobilized old woman.
Contrary to some plot summaries, the movie's most dangerous villains are not "dedicated Fascists." One set consists of comrades who sensibly want to sell out while they still command a price. The others are mundane capitalists ("We are never rash") or everyday xenophobes (Denard's final nemesis is basically the Ale & Quail Club). They don't like his attitude; no one does. "I can't stand martyrs," declares Bacall, and "I hate melodrama," and "I told you I hate melodrama." "Sometimes it just happens that way," Denard mildly objects, moments before yet another attempt on his life.
As later in The Third Man, Greene capped his original story with an absurdly inappropriate happy ending. Shumlin lacked Carol Reed's good sense; he kept that ending. But lacking good sense, he also isolated it, squeezing it into the last sixty seconds with a tonal shift so jolting that it becomes, in a way, recoverable — it feels like a shift into dreamworld, a flash of mercifully renewed fantasy, presumably during sudden and violent death, most likely while Denard's unweaponed transport was, in the true spirit of the film, struck and sinking into that better world he fought for, where there are no jobs left to botch.
|. . . 2010-11-26|
FRANK : Thou takest the safest course.
SECURITY : Faith, the quieter, and the more contented, and, out of doubt, the more godly. For merchants in their courses are never pleased, but ever repining against heaven: one prays for a westerly wind to carry his ship forth; another for an easterly to bring his ship home; and at every shaking of a leaf, he falls into an agony, to think what danger his ship is in on such a coast, and so forth. The farmer, he is ever at odds with the weather: sometimes the clouds have been too barren; sometimes the heavens forget themselves — their harvests answer not their hopes; sometimes the season falls out too fruitful — corn will bear no price, and so forth. Th’ artificer, he’s all for a stirring world: if his trade be too full or fall short of his expectation, then falls he out of joint. Where we that trade nothing but money are free from all this, we are pleased with all weathers: let it rain or hold up, be calm or windy, let the season be whatsoever, let trade go how it will, we take all in good part, e’en what please the heavens to send us — so the sun stand not still, and the moon keep her usual returns, and make up days, months, and years.
FRANK : And yet, forsooth, we must have trades to live withal, for we cannot stand without legs, nor fly without wings, and a number of such scurvy phrases. No, I say still, he that has wit, let him live by his wit; he that has none, let him be a tradesman.
SECURITY : Witty Master Francis! ’Tis pity any trade should dull that quick brain of yours.
- Eastward Ho! by George Chapman, Ben Jonson, & John Marston, 1605
|. . . 2010-12-01|
1 IntroductionWhat do you get when you cross a scientific theory with experimental theater? 'Insignificance', you might be tempted to say, referencing Terry Johnston's quirky and riveting play about a meeting of Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Joe DiMaggio, and Joe McCarthy. We think we have a more recognizable, but probably no less surprising answer: therapy.
|. . . 2010-12-02|
This helpful comics-construction chart from Sydney Padua also describes the process behind most fiction, most screenplays, my own essays, and some poems and songs.
Left out of Padua's graphic (but described in its walltext) is the extent to which all nodes are fed by STUMBLE-UPON. And of course DON'T KNOW HOW IT ENDS is generally resolved by the power trio of HUBRIS, FATIGUE, & DISGUST.
|. . . 2010-12-07|
- FIVE DAYS' DRAWING TIME A WEEK, FOUR DAYS' WORTH OF CRAPPY COMMERCIAL ILLUSTRATION WORK — RESULT: HAPPINESS.
- FIVE DAYS' DRAWING TIME A WEEK, SIX DAYS' WORTH OF CRAPPY COMMERCIAL ILLUSTRATION WORK — RESULT: MISERY.
I love you.
(It's funny, Roger Langridge always has this effect on people.)
|. . . 2010-12-11|
A plot only tells so much about its telling. And where better to exhibit the gap between narrative line and narrative effect than the cinema, at twenty-four gaps a second?
The most horrifying such exhibitions are start-to-finish misreadings like Adrian Lyne's Lolita and Joseph Strick's Ulysses. The most satisfying are burlesques like Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, Altman's The Long Goodbye, Fields's Fatal Glass of Beer, Rohmer's Dangerous Liaisons (AKA Claire's Knee), and Gilligan's Island's Hamlet. Most alienating are the mob actions.
But as a connoisseur of closure, my favorites reverse the end's polarity.
They do so within the small back wiggle room between fabula and reflector, that magical space in which we drop our cake and eat it too. A favorite hangout of Howard Hawks, who suffered from a morbid fear of unhappy endings — for example, in Come and Get It, which has all the makings of a Greek tragedy and follows through on most of them, only to have the tragic lead decide, "Fuck this shit, I'm Edward Arnold!" It's as if Oedipus Rex closed on a shot of the retired monarch shrugging, twirling his cane, and shuffling a jaunty soft-shoe while being led down that lonesome road.
And while the fingers fumbled on the dread bomb, his woman waited, patiently, for Sam Rice to prove his manhood.
For conceptual purity, however, nothing beats Powell-&-Pressburger's reversal of The Small Back Room.
Midlist middlebrow mainstream novels don't win the twilit immortality of other genres, and Nigel Balchin never tipped into academic respectability. But I'm fond of this novel, and I suspect it might find fellow admirers among the Better Sort of science fiction readers — it's the depressive alcoholic reclusive grandfather that Carter Scholz's Radiance never met.
You'll find it over there on the left, courtesy of Perkus Tooth's garage sale. Ah, the glory days of paperback publishing, when even impotence was titillating.
The come-on is, as always, a rip-off. Any attempted fucking in Sammy's and Susan's illicit cohabitation takes place offscreen and near-as-damn-it to unconsciousness. The come-on is understandable, though, insofar as our hero has had one foot cut off, has an aching stump, is relentlessly defeatist and drunk, and was authored by a psychologist.
So far, so midcentury mainstream. But these are just the generic handholds one sets to let oneself finish or publish a story. Try to focus past them, as you focus past the talking squids in a Margaret Atwood novel, and you find something very special: a novel about work. (The text excerpted on the paperback's front cover actually concerns career strategy.)
And not gangster work or cop work, but intellectual work, done with skill and for a good cause — yes, even a better cause than Google, perhaps even better than open-source software for institutions of higher education! It's the appropriate day job that was denied to poor Denard and his poor president.
And it still sucks, because at the end of the day it's still a day job. The book's real titillation is having been published by an Army researcher during World War II, in the same year Churchill wanted to ban Powell-&-Pressburger's sentimentalized Colonel Blimp. It's a home-front geek's "Willie & Joe." If you thrill to this selected-at-random scene, you may be among the intended audience:
I was busy with the report for the progress meeting. Not that anybody would read it properly. No one ever did. But it kept things straight for me.
I said to Joe, "This colour filter thing. It's been on the books for about six months and nothing ever happens to it."
"There are four other outfits messing about with it anyhow," said Joe.
"Passingham. The doctors. Rea. The Staines Lab. And I think the R.A.F. are doing something themselves."
"Where did we get it?"
"God knows. The Old Man came back from a meeting full of it. The whole place was chucked on to it for about half a day, and then he got bored and it's never been touched since."
"Think we might write it off?"
Joe said, "I should think we might write off about two-thirds of the stuff you've got there."
I said, "I think I'll go through and do a grand scrap."
Till said, "That's a most extraordinary thing."
"According to this," said Till, peering at his figures, "the seventh round had a negative muzzle velocity."
"Oh come!" said Joe.
"Was there anything funny about the seventh round?" said Tilly to me.
"Not as funny as all that," I said.
In such fashion Balchin keeps the pages staggering downhill to a deservedly celebrated finale: Sammy somewhat arbitarily sets himself a near impossible goal which should conclusively decide his worth, most likely by erasing him utterly at the moment of failure, and then we watch him work it.
And god damn it all to hell, he doesn't quite meet his arbitrary goal and it doesn't kill him:
The facts were that Dick was dead, and Stuart was dead, and the Old Man was gone, and Waring was Deputy Director, and I was just where I had always been. The good chaps went and were killed, and the crooks got away with it. But I just stayed put. I tried to think of something concrete to do — resigning and going to the Old Man, or something like that. But it wouldn't fire. I knew it really didn't make any difference where I went, or who I worked for. And I was too tired, anyway. I didn't like what I was, and couldn't be what I liked, and it would always be like that.
It'll be all right with Susan. She'll take it and make it into what she wants, just as Strang did. We shall all know, but I'm the only one who'll mind.
(Those who accuse Susan of fantastic saintliness might want to review Balchin's 1955 screenplay for Josephine and Men, which instead suggests a diagnosis of "perversity." Misery loves company, and Balchin's kind of woman loves misery.)
So how were Powell-&-Pressburger able to turn this downer into a tale of redemption and optimism? Their solution was elegant: don't include a voiceover. Because without Sammy's whine, the producer and the director and the cinematographer and the composer and the audience can, just as Susan and Strang did, take it and make it into what they want.
|. . . before . . .||. . . after . . .|
Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2010 Ray Davis.