I made a trip to the Maison de la Poesie in Paris on a recent evening to see a staging of Arthur Rimbaud’s prose poem Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell). The performance room was in the basement, down a steep flight of stairs. It was like a catacomb, with bare stone walls and a stone floor: a fitting place to stage this work. The set was simple: a large metal cross, a table laid as if for Communion, with a loaf of bread, a glass of wine, and two candles. A blood red carpet covered the floor. The director/actor, Nazim Boudjenah, sat to the side, eyes closed, dressed in white.
Within the time frame of this comic book's mystery plot, Gertrude Stein will meet and fall in love with a feisty ragamuffin named Alice Tolkas, Picasso will paint his famous portrait of Gertrude Stein, and Picasso and Braque will invent cubism. In fact, all of these things did happen in 1907, and Bertozzi clearly knows his stuff. He threads many "art history" lessons into this tale, and correctly describes the way Pablo Picasso profited from Georges Braque's idea for a drawing style that depicted any number of possible perspectives instead of a single perspective. (Picasso, on the other hand, emphasized cubism as a form of zen-like minimalism, and also as a primitivist homage to his beloved African masks). Bertozzi also convincingly depicts the ongoing beef between the Cubists and the Fauvists, though he is probably unfair to the worthy Fauvist Henri Matisse, who comes off as a sourpuss.
The glue that holds this artwork together is a murder plot involving the blue-skinned spirit of a dead Tahitian woman, brought to Paris by Paul Gauguin, who leaps into paintings and dwells inside the canvases (the elderly Gauguin, it turns out, is dwelling sadly inside a canvas too) while she waits for the chance to jump out and kill people. A special kind of blue absinthe from a country called "Lysurgia" allows the cubists and poets at the Paris salon to jump inside canvases too, and eventually they must chase the murderer inside this absinthe-soaked realm. I like the obviously symbolic and heavily metaphysical plot okay, I guess -- it reminds me of Matthew Pearl's The Dante Code, which also posits an aesthetic movement as the catalyst for a misguided serial murderer. But I like this book best for its earthbound scenes, its clever, perceptive depiction of a group of young Modernists working in a creative white heat.
Pablo Picasso is the book's best character, a hilarious irrepressible egotist who paints buck naked and goes around shouting in a mangled Spanish/French: "Are you creetic? You talk sheet of me?"
The Salon by Nick Bertozzi gets a strong "buy" recommendation from LitKicks.
John Osborne, the subject of a new biography by John Heilpern, has never been a household name on my side of the Atlantic Ocean. But they knew him well in England in the 1950's, when he and Kingsley Amis (father of our Martin) and Harold Pinter and many others bandied around London as The Angry Young Men, a close match to the Beat Generation writers in America, as well as the cafe-haunting Existentialists of Paris. But the fad of the Angry Young Men of London quickly fizzled out, and John Osborne's subsequent career deserves to be considered on its own terms.
His signature work is Look Back in Anger, which opened in 1956 and gave the "Angry Young Men" their name. It's the story of a fuming, flannel-shirt wearing London bloke named Jimmy who slaves away at a candy stand all day and plays hot trad jazz saxophone all night. He's married to a lively young woman, but he's too brutal and impulsive to keep her love or, ultimately, her respect. Which is okay with him, because he's more interested in her prim, conceited best friend, who drives him crazy much the same way Blanche DuBois drove Stanley Kowalski crazy in A Streetcar Named Desire. In fact, the film version of this play shows Richard Burton at his most Brando-esque as the rambunctious Jimmy (it also features Claire Bloom, Philip Roth's future wife, ex-wife and harshest critic as Jimmy's romantic nemesis, Helena Charles).
Unlike some of his Beat Generation counterparts in America, John Osbourne chose not to continue to milk the "crazy youth" image, but instead turned to the story of an aging, sad music hall singer for his next hit play, The Entertainer. This can be enjoyed in a canonical film version starring Joan Plowright and the great Laurence Olivier, who turns this movie into such a deeply personal statement that many viewers will forget John Osborne (or anybody other than Laurence Olivier) had anything to do with it.
Osborne withdrew further from modern times with his next big success, Luther, a biographical study of the German founder of Protestant Christianity, which opened in London in 1961. Osborne clearly related to the iconoclastic Martin Luther, whose boiling sense of permanent rage recalls the cruel saxophone-wielding Jimmy of Look Back in Anger. (Luther can also be enjoyed in a good 1973 film starring Stacy Keach).
Unfortunately, in his private life John Osborne all too frequently resembled the growling mad, self-pitying male heroes who graced his most successful plays. John Osborne's literary career was a proud one, but those who know him well speak of a personality marred by fame, self-doubt and selfish impulsiveness.
John Osborne died in 1994. He was married five times, and was said to have had a cruel and terrible relationship with his daughter. In his personal decline, the angry Brit does resemble his flannel-shirt wearing American counterpart, Jack Kerouac. Neither were ready for the ravages of literary fame.
2. Then there's Jeff Bryant of Syntax of Things, who must be hooked into some secret private Google or something, because he always seems to get the alert before I do. He knew about DeLillo's Game Six a month before anyone else, and he got the scoop on the new Bukowski movie about six months ago before anybody else (actually, where the hell is this movie?). Of interest today: the London house where Symbolist poets Verlaine and Rimbaud gamboled and frolicked happily together when they weren't busy shooting each other is in jeopardy. Bob Dylan and Patti Smith are joining the effort to preserve this landmark, and we are glad to hear this. But somebody should have rung up Richard Hell.
3. The multi-day 2006 People's Poetry Gathering looks like it will be an amazing event. The broad lineup includes Robert Bly (whose poetry comes alive in performance), Miguel Algarin, Kewulay Kamara, Bob Holman, Galway Kinnell, Black 47 and many others.
4. A minor miracle recently occured on cable television. The BookTV network ran a show that featured a literary author whose latest book was not a biography of a dead President and did not involve a dead President in any way. I know what you're thinking: that's crazy -- but it actually happened. Norman Mailer was the author, and he appeared in a videotaped interview with his son, the wonderfully named John Buffalo Mailer, who seems to be stirring to follow in the old man's footsteps.
5. This is the best ode to spring I'm likely to read this year. Reclaim life! Eat jelly beans ...
If more writers could write like Richard Hell, I'd be a happier man.
Hell doesn't write very much, or very often. He'll give us one new book of poetry or a slim paperback novel every few years. Godlike, his first novel since 1997's superb Go Now, is an absolute pleasure and a perfect distillation of this unique author's talents.
Godlike purports to be the scribblings of a middle-aged poet named Paul Vaughn who sits in a mental hospital reminiscing about a younger poet named R. T. Wode, but it becomes quickly apparent that Hell is basing the story on the real-life relationship between two 19th Century French poets, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. He tells the tale with a light, glancing touch. Imagine if Jim Jarmusch made a movie about Verlaine and Rimbaud, and you get the idea. The Vaughn/Verlaine character also resembles Richard Hell himself, and the story is updated to Lower East Side New York City circa 1971.
But enough about the plot, because when Hell writes I only care about the sentences. I couldn't get through half a page without pausing for a big smile or a grateful sigh of recognition. Hell's writing is pointed, sharp, like a junkyard of broken glass. Surprising connections abound, celebrating random oddness, reaching for beauty or truth:
To give offense was his mission, his meaning ... People say James Dean was the same way, mean and arrogant and competitive. And I remember having this revelation watching Bette Davis on-screen one time. That everything that was magnificent about her in the movie would be impossibly obnoxious in the same room with you ...
Nixon the opposite of Dylan, right? Does that make them creators of each other? What would you do with that? Was there anywhere to go with that? Dylan's name looked like Dylan too ... They both have hanging noses and tense mouths. Richard Nixon -- cross-eyed, his tight downturned lips where the spit leaks out at the corners. What if you switched their names?
Why are soap containers so beautiful? The packaging, I mean. Brillo, Ivory, Tide, Comet. It can't be a coincidence. But the thing I really love to see, that gladdens my heart, is a thick stand of empty two-liter generic soda bottles pressed against each other on the floor. The soft gleanings, the complexity of the light, the humility, the blue labels, the uniform bottle shape in the random blob of the clustering ...
Snot is white blood cells that've died fighting germs.
Some writers are dull at heart, and mask their dullness with literary complexity and intellectual obscurity. I don't like writers like that. Hell is my kind of writer; his sentences are rational, direct, clear as water. It's the ideas behind the words that stand surreal and gather poetic mystery.
Like Paul Verlaine himself, Richard Hell suffuses his writings with images of filth and depravity but expresses, through it all, a surprisingly affirmative and affectionate view of life. As the pages of Godlike progress, we know that Vaughn will have to shoot Wode (without seriously injuring him), that Vaughn will go to prison and that Wode will disappear, reemerge and die. After this all plays out, Vaughn tells us the difference between Wode and himself, which is the difference between Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine:
He looked at emotions as a scientist, but there are things I know more about than he did. I know that love is real."
I think this is also the difference between hundreds of mediocre writers and Richard Hell, a great modern transgressive poet and author who writes about nothing but the joy of our world, and of life.
You know those internet quizzes where you find out what kind of Disney character you are, what root vegetable you are, which flag of the world you are? Well, I don't know if there's a quiz for which classic existentialist text you are, but if there were, I'm pretty sure I would be No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre.
This is a comic play about three recently dead people who find themselves in hell. But hell, in Sartre's vision, has no burning embers or rapacious goat-monsters. Instead, it's a mundane hotel room with a polite servant and Second Empire furniture. The three people, puzzled at their surroundings, begin to converse. They are:
- Garcin, a grand but arrogant alpha male who brags of his courageous service in the French Resistance against the Nazi occupation.
- Inez, a street-smart, world-weary lesbian.
- Estelle, an attractive, somewhat brainless young woman.
The Marquis de Sade, or Comte Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade was born on June 2, 1740 in Paris, France. His work was banned for many years but had an influence on many modern works and Surrealist art. His real life was as terrible and sadistic as the lives he wrote about. He was imprisoned many times for gross sexual acts, one time for masturbating with crucifixes whilst screaming obscenities and for whipping and raping a canoness.
120 Days Of Sodom is a story of four libertines who imprison a selection of whores, young girls and boys and their own wives and perform hideous sexual acts on them. (The word sadism comes from de Sade's name.) The book is divided into day-by-day chapters, each day bringing more grotesque crimes, spurred on by the stories of an old prostitute. The Marquis wrote this book in his last few years of life in a mental asylum on a 45 foot scroll that was carefully hidden inside the tube of a bedpost and was not rediscovered until 1904. Although the book gave me a sick feeling in my stomach and brought the taste of bile into my throat, I could not be torn away from it, my curiosity overcame my disgust and even at times overcame my feelings of contempt for the author. But that is another thing, for even though it is hateful and extreme, one feels one must fight all these feelings and pursue this original work to the end. If you can't read de Sade to the end, you lose. Though, somehow, even if you do read de Sade to the end, you still lose.
Amazingly, de Sade has such a philosophical view of these libertines that all questions of morality and the corruptness of religion are challenging and sometimes have a real truth. Despite the usually monotonous dialogue, the constant depictions of "frigging" and the gratuitous language, one must be stronger than the author, reading until the ending, fighting his 'low' art and emerge feeling more pure and unaffected than before, with a just, analytical viewpoint.
Is de Sade really the anti-Christ? I suggest you pick up one his books and experience the constant flux of emotions it brings and make up your own opinion. "Plaisir a tout prix ": pleasure at any price.
All prophecies are fragile. They are subject to contradiction, to falsity. The false prophet, then, one might consider insane. But how does one interpret the language of prophecy? Is it a language of madness, of hidden truth, of images? Such questions are pertinent when discussing the works of visionary poet William Blake. His prophecies or visions informed his poetic style and language and invested them with a vigor, energy, and substance that reach far beyond the mere meaning or signification of language. He claimed to experience visions of the prophet Elijah (among other visions). So was Blake insane? Blake, certainly, suffered from some type of mental illness. His mood swings, his depressions, and his fervent, inspired productivity have been the subject of much debate. However, does mental illness necessarily detract from the value of his visionary poetry? Or does it contribute something to it? These questions cannot be answered adequately unless address the topic of mysticism as well. Blake was a follower of the esoteric religious doctrines of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The intersection of madness and mysticism is key to the understanding of Blake, if only because it demonstrates that this madness did not signify a necessary degeneration in the faculties of the mind, but rather a passionate commitment to the imagination, the spiritual, and the profound.
"He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee."
-Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
James Douglas Morrison's poetry was born out of a period of tumultuous social and political change in American and world history. Besides Morrison's social and political perspective, his verse also speaks with an understanding of the world of literature, especially of the traditions that shaped the poetry of his age. His poetry also expresses his own experiences, thoughts, development, and maturation as a poet--from his musings on film at UCLA in The Lords and The New Creatures, to his final poems in Wilderness and The American Night. It is my intention in this essay to show Morrison as a serious American poet, whose work is worthy of serious consideration in relation to its place in the American literary tradition. By discussing the poetry in terms of Morrison's influences and own ideas, I will be able to show what distinguishes him as a significant American poet. In order to reveal him as having a clearly-defined ability as a poet, my focus will be on Morrison's own words and poetry. I will concentrate on his earlier work to show the influence of Nietzsche and French poets such as Arthur Rimbaud and Antonin Artaud and the effect they had on Morrison's poetry and style.
We will give our lives completely every day.
FOR THIS IS THE ASSASINS' HOUR."
-Arthur Rimbaud, Drunken Morning
"The revolution was in his poetry from the beginning and to the end: as a preoccupation of a technical order, namely to translate the world into a new language."