Thursday, March 31, 2011

The English-Speaking Vernacular: A Toast to Robert Burns

"Preserving the old ways from being abused,
Protecting the new ways for me and for you.
What more can we do?
We are the Draught Beer Preservation Society,
God save Mrs. Mopp and good Old Mother Riley"


--The Kinks, "The Village Green Preservation Society"

I feel kind of guilty about this sometimes. I don't really like Robert Burns-- or rather, I don't like his poetry. I don't think the guy's actually that great of a poet.
Donald Dewar is disp-- wait. You don't even know who he is, do you?
This wouldn't be a huge issue, except for the fact that I have relatives born and raised in Scotland and I'm a Scottish Nationalist, meaning that me not liking Burns's poetry is kind of like a queer activist saying "yeah, Sappho's okay, I guess."

There's a recurring joke in Alasdair Gray's 1982 Janine in which, whenever a new and exciting is discussed, he's referred to as "our best since Burns," and that's a pretty accurate portrait of the way Burns stands in his homeland. When the Scottish Parliament (which the Scottish National Party now controls, yesss) was formed--or, rather, reinstated after a 290-year hiatus--in 1997, they opened by singing Burns's "A Man's a Man for A' That." It should be noted that singing is illegal in the British Parliament. And that "A Man's a Man" is about how the people who are poor and powerless are the real kings.

Burns was also one of the first major poets to actually write in Scots: the lowland pidgin language made of a mix of antiquated English, snippets of pseudo-Gaelic, and words and accents carried over from Old English. He's also the great recorder, transcriber, and composer of classic Scottish folk music. "Auld Lang Syne?" Wrote that one. "Loch Lomond?" (You know, ye tak the high road and I'll tak, that one). Wrote the music. The extent of the man's involvement in native Scottish culture can't be underestimated.
Let me put it this way: if Enlightenment-era Scotland is 90's Brooklyn, Burns is the RZA.

So to those of who think that a country with a thousand-year history of independence, a unique artistic history, its own dialect, and amazing whisky should be free and independent, Burns is kind of a big deal. He's Scotland's great Romantic poet, the artist who pretty much created written poetry in Scots English, and a symbol of the nation and its art. But...Burns lived from 1759-96 (dying at 37 of a combination of a weak heart, lots of whisky, and a tooth extraction gone wrong). And...well, here's a comparison of him to a contemporary Romantic:

BURNS: O my Luve's like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve's like the melodie
That’s sweetly play'd in tune.

GOETHE:
They hear no longer these succeeding measures,
The souls, to whom my earliest songs I sang:
Dispersed the friendly troop, with all its pleasures,
And still, alas! the echoes first that rang!
I bring the unknown multitude my treasures;
Their very plaudits give my heart a pang,
And those beside, whose joy my Song so flattered,
If still they live, wide through the world are scattered.

Oooo, Goe-TOLD!
Now, I know it's not exactly fair to compare a simple folk song that Burns wrote to the dedication Goethe--one of the greatest artists of all time--wrote to his decades-in-production masterpiece. But the point stands that, as a poet, Burns is fairly outclassed by his peers. His work is nice, but it's simple, sentimental, and a little trite. I can sit down with Keats in the right situation and tears come to my eyes.

But--and you knew a but was coming--earlier this year I actually celebrated Burns Night with my girlfriend. Big glasses of scotch (Auchentoshan as an aperitif, Bowmore for her and Glenmorangie Lasanta for me), haggis, rutabaga and potatoes, scotch ale, the whole deal. Recited as much of Burns's "To a Haggis" as I could remember. Then we watched Robocop, which isn't really part of the tradition but whatever.
Sometimes--just sometimes--it's not shite bein' Scottish.
And that's what makes Burns special: the fact that unlike Shelley (who would spend the dinner telling us that God is a farce) and Byron (who would try to put himself inside us) and Keats (who would die), Burns is always welcome at my table. The guy's poems don't exactly say anything violently revolutionary, but they say things that are still revolutionary in their decency and their respect for his fellow man:
1. Friends are good.
2. Whisky is good.
3. Being rich doesn't make you any better than me.
4. We should try and respect nature.
5. Scotland's a beautiful country and its language deserves celebrating.

(Side story time: in 1789 Burns was working as a customs official and ended up confiscating a giant crate of guns. Knowing that their owners wouldn't be coming after them, Burns did probably the coolest thing you can do with a crate of guns, short of kill the Predator: he secretly shipped them to Robespierre's revolutionary army. It's like if Ollie North wasn't a complete and utter piece of shit).

These are good, good sentiments, and Burns lived them. I never wanna curl up with the man's work and read it and weep, but they're good poems and songs to sing while you're with those you love. He was a political rebel who managed to be a crusader, not just for liberty, but for human decency and kindness. While other Romantics--especially the London crowd--were punks of the highest caliber, Burns is less of a rabblerouser and more of a party-thrower. I may not want to imitate him as artist, but I could pick a lot worse people to imitate as a man.
I'm sure he's honored that a 22-year-old American college student would say that.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Endorsement: Secondhand World

"Speaking King's English in quotation...
You wanna join in a chorus
of the Amerasian blues?"
--The Clash, "Straight to Hell." 

Hey all. I can't properly call this a review, but that's essentially what it is. The reason I can't call it a review is because, well, it's impossible for me to be impartial in recommending this book, as the author's someone I know personally. So while I can talk smack on G.B. Shaw, I can't really step back and give you a critique of this book, but I can say "hey, someone I know wrote a good book and you should check it out."

So hey, someone I know wrote a good book and you should check it out.

Katherine Min's a former professor of mine and a really smart woman in general--she regularly teaches a class on Murder in art and we've had really long discussions about Mahler. Right now I'm actually reading a book she loaned me (Joyce Carey's The Horse's Mouth, which I plan on praising to high heaven on here as soon as I'm done with it because it's pretty wonderful and I hadn't heard of it until she recommended it). So there's the full disclosure-- I picked up Secondhand World less out of being intrigued by literature and more so I could see the art someone I respect produced.

Good news is that you shouldn't let the whole personal bias issue be a worry at all, because it is a hell of a book and I'm really glad I picked it up. I read the whole thing over the course of a long afternoon--which I hadn't done since Nick Cave's The Death of Bunny Munro-- in between coats of paint on a couple paintings I was working on, and you can rest assured that I'm endorsing it here because it's a damn fine read.
Also, like 95% less painful sex scenes.
The book, at its core, is about, well, the secondhand world of the title.  For the novel's main character and narrator, Isa, that world is the one left behind by our parents--the fact that the sins, mistakes, and histories of our parents, ancestors, and nations are all passed down to the living and prevent us from living a life that is totally new. The secondhand world, though, is also the experience of the outsider. The woman, the racial Other--Isa is, like the author, the first American child of Korean immigrants--the book's strength is the way that it connects different modes of alienation and the different ways that its Korean, 17-year-old girl narrator feels lost in a world not her own.

That's one of the things I found a little frustrating about a blurb on the back of the book that compares it to Louside Erdrich (Chippewa woman), Zadie Smith (Afro-caribbean woman), and Amy Tan (Chinese-American woman). Secondhand World (and, yes, the books of the other women mentioned) isn't a book solely about the non-white, non-male experience as much as it is--for me at least--about the experience of being a stranger in someone else's world. As a white man, there were still moments of resonance in the text that had a painful familiarity, and (despite the floral print on the binding) some moments of pretty intense emotional violence towards the reader. But this is turning more into a complaint about publishing's tendency to treat female authors as incapable of writing big powerful books. (But that's for another time--although I've been considering doing an essay on Franzenfreude for a while now).

I know I'm rambling here--if you want actual journalism go read the mostly five-star reviews it has on Amazon-but I'm trying to express the way that this book connects with the themes of this blog (main themes: being angry at authority, being angry at the state of the world, out-of-place pop culture references).
All three of which can be summarized by pretty much any scene from The Street Fighter. I'm sorry. Most conversations with me, like most lives, inevitably end with Sonny Chiba.

Point is that alienation, outsider rage, and a love of art are what we do best here at The Triumph. And they're all subjects that are dealt with pretty powerfully and deftly in this book. So if it sounds good and you wanna do someone I respect a favor, check it out.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Literary Cocktails: The Dulce Decorum

The other night I had a Death in the Afternoon, a cocktail originally designed by Hemingway, and it got me to thinking-- why aren't there more literary cocktails? Hemingway has his share, there's at least one in honor of Dorothy Parker, and the Fitzgerald is a work of art. But where's the Faulkner, the Behan, the Poe, or the Rabbie Burns? And what about those writers that weren't filthy, filthy drunks? And so I'm embarking on a project to give some of them drinks--something special with which we can toast the artists who deserve it, so that there is a particular glass we can raise in the honor of those we can never honor enough.

It's not amazing that Behan died young, it's amazing his level of alcoholism didn't travel back in time and prevent his birth.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that Wilfred Owen was an incredible man and that this drink is to do him the honors he deserved to be given to his face, and that were he here I'd drink one with him. He was one of the first great anti-war writers to grow out of the absolute horror that was World War I, and his work is a product of the birthing pains of Modernism. He wrote about the horrors of war, the brutal inhumanity of the technology that allowed men to kill each other from miles away, and he wrote with absolute, seething scorn of the poets and journalists who cheered on the war.

Alasdair Gray (one of my absolute, all-time literary heroes), in his Book of Prefaces, holds up Owen as the first poet willing to let the War kill off his sentimentality. "This war had stripped elegy of its heroes, of its panapoly of consolations, dominions & powers, leaving a poetry of true feeling, without the bullshit of a bankrupt officer class." Owen was arguably the first poet to write of war with honest brutality, to write poems about soldiers rather than heroes. When he was staying in a hospital having his "nerves regenerated," his roommate had constant nightmares about his dead commanding officer, rotting, bloody, in his uniform, demanding to know why the man had let him die. Owen's poetry attempted to do the same to those who read it.

His greatest, most famous work is "Dulce et Decorum est," one of those poems that--even to those not passionate about poetry--hits you in the stomach with all the power of a goddamn car and leaves you reeling. It includes some of the most horrifying lines in English poetry ("Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, / As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. // In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, /He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning."), and ends with the absolutely furious condemnation of anyone who could say that burning a man's lungs from the inside out until he vomits blood so much that he dies is somehow a noble thing.

Hey bitch, Wilfred Owen says you can go fuck yourself.
When Owen's best friend--also a soldier--was sent home after being injured by friendly fire, Owen volunteered to return to the front in his place, believing that the world needed him to be able to truly describe the War and that, somehow, he hadn't suffered enough already to create a masterpiece.

He was shot in the head in France a week to the hour before the war ended. His mother received the news via telegram literally while the Armistice bells were ringing.

Jesus. I think...I think we all oughta take like a three-minute break, because otherwise any jokin' on my part is gonna seem really tasteless.
You good? Can we go on to the booze?

Okay, let's go.

Those of you who follow my other blog know that I'm a bit of a big  fan of booze. So it's fairly natural that it would bleed over onto my lit blog as well. When designing a drink named after the great gas poem, I knew what the principal flavoring would have to be: French? Bright green? A noted reputation for being poisonous? Well golly gee whilikers, I wonder what I could possibly--
Ooooh, right. Thanks Vincent.
So with the absinthe decided upon, I had to figure out what to use as a base alcohol, because trust me, absinthe is too damn strong to ever use as the core of a drink, in flavor and in other things (I have stories, man. And my girlfriend has like six hours' worth of progressively more unspeakable text messages). I decided to use some of the basil/rosemary vodka that I infused a while back, both because Russia and Italy were also Allied powers in WWI and because the herbal bitterness of it would complement the incredibly herbal, slightly toxic bitterness of the absinthe.

As a base I used plain seltzer water, both because everything else had pretty strong flavors and because I thought something fizzy would best evoke that feeling of, well, "the blood...gargling from froth-corrupted lungs" (wow I only just now realized what an unappetizing premise this post had). All in all, the drink is herbal, bitter, milky-green, and has a fairly sharp edge to it. It tastes mildly poisonous, but not in a bad way. It makes you want to lock your door and think about what's wrong with the world. It doesn't taste Dulce or Decorum--sweet or just--and I think Owen would be glad to share one with me and spit on the names of those who killed millions for thirty miles of ruined land.

Sorry for the lack of image gags in this article-- there are literally like three photos of the guy and, weirdly enough, he's a tough guy to joke about.
DIRECTIONS:
Pour 1.5 oz. of basil rosemary vodka (either shake your vodka with the herbs, or out several leaves of each in a jar with the vodka for a day) into a very, very cold highball glass. Fill the rest of the glass with seltzer water. Add .5 oz absinthe and give one gentle stir. Sip slow, think hard, and toast a great man who never had the chance to become an even greater one.
Finally, a productive use of my doughboy gas mask and 19-teens french pornography.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

REVIEW: G.B. Shaw's The Perfect Wagnerite

 [As this blog goes on, I'm going to be reviewing interesting books from time to time, as I read or think of them. These aren't usually great classics, but are probably going to be weird, out-of-the-way things that I find interesting or are especially relevant]


"I hide behind your sun.
You are the champion...
So you can take me to the Dragon's Lair,
or you can take me to Rapunzel's Windowsill,
but either way it is time
for a bigger kind of kill."
--Sunset Rubdown, "Dragon's Lair"

I have a prickly relationship, at best, with Richard Wagner. I love classical music and its history--Dmitri Shostakovich will always be one of my personal heroes--but Wagner is a very, very difficult man to like. It's not just the sexism (which Mahler had in spades) or the racism (didn't I just too a post on Eliot?) or the egotism (one of the best art exhibits I've ever been in was 11 rooms of Gaugin) or how bombastic and over-the-top his art was (I have been listening to a ton of death metal lately). It's a weird combination of all of the above, combined with the stain left by the Nazi Party co-opting his work and a general resistance I have towards opera. I recognize that the man was a musical genius (if more than a little horrible), but for some reason it just never quite clicks with me.
Also, I play football in a tux. Like a gentleman.
That said, George Bernard Shaw was an Irishman, an ardent Socialist, and a man who detested organized religion, so the fact that he wrote a book on Wagner's Ring Cycle (and that the cover was an Aubrey Beardsley painting, who I adore) was enough for me to pick it up used. And let me tell you, it's worth getting just for the last line of the introduction, written in 1922, which eerily predicts what would happen to Wagner's legacy:

"The Ring ends with everybody dead except three mermaids; and though [the Great War] went far enough in that conclusive direction to suggest that the next war may possibly kill even the mermaids with 'depth charges,' the curtain is not yet down on our drama, and we have to carry on as best we can. If we succeed, this book may have to pass into yet another edition: if not, the world itself will have to be reedited."


Yes. Yes, that is a monocle.
The Perfect Wagnerite is a pretty stirring assertion of Wagner's genius, and, even if (unlike me) you don't care or don't need convincing, it's a damned entertaining read. One of the reasons I wanted to review it here is the fact that Shaw does throughout the book essentially what I try and do with this blog: he approaches a work of the canon (which, in his day, was a fairly controversial work with a great deal of detractors), and tries to explain not only why it's great but why it's not just relevant to society, but a work of incredible rebellion and anti-authority sentiments. Essentially, the book is an incredibly clever Marxist telling you what he thinks about a story drawn from classical mythology. And that kicks ass.

On the magic helmet of the villain Alberic--a gold-miner Shaw holds up as the epitome of selfish accumulation of wealth--which allows him to become invisible and change his form, Shaw writes: "This helmet is a very common article in our streets, where it generally takes the form of a tall hat. It makes a man invisible as a shareholder, and changes him into various shapes, such as a pious Christian, a subscriber to hospitals, a benefactor of the poor...and what not, when he is really a pitiful parasite on the commonwealth, consuming a great deal, and producing nothing, and doing nothing... ."

"Wallets are a tool for the accumulation of wealth, but if I had one it
would say Bad Motherfucker on it."
In particular, he envisions the cycle's protagonist Sigfried, raised in the woods with no human contact, as the first Hero and, as a vital part of his heroism, his lack of a societal moral compass or any respect for authority or danger. He draws several parallels between Sigfried and Wagner's friend, the Russian Collective Anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (who he calls Michael Bakoonin, because...I don't know, I think people before like 1950 just assumed Russians were retarded and didn't know how to spell their own names). As a Hero, Shaw argues, Sigfried's great triumph--which Odin fathered him for--isn't his defeat of the evil dwarf, but the unintended consequence: the destruction of the Gods. Shaw sees the destructiveness, brutality, and amorality of Wagner's world as something beautiful: a world of useless authority and horded wealth destroying itself.
Critical opinions do vary, however.
I'm not sure I buy into all his optimism (this might be a good time to mention that Shaw was still a sexist, anti-semite, supporter of Stalin and a eugenicist, because you know...actually, 19th century aside, not much of an excuse for that). But it's still a really well-written book that has a lot--a lot--of incredibly passionate and smart speeches about human nature and why we all should get around to killing the rich. In between all that juicy stuff, it's a great artist getting really excited about another one, and retelling his story in an accessible and illuminating way. So if you've got an afternoon (it's pretty short) and want to see just how a 19th-century opera is a condemnation of capitalism, I'd definitely suggest finding a copy.

"Happy Birthday, Milton," by Stanley Fish

Was going through a few of Fish's articles for the NY Times and found this one, from 2008. Stanley Fish is, if not the world's greatest Miltonist, certainly one of the most interesting (and also probably the best writer among them). He's a big influence on this blog, and if you've been enjoying my work I'd advise you to check it out.

Essentially it's a great argument about what makes Milton so goddamn great.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Why "The Triumph?"

"Oh, I didn't realise that you wrote poetry.
I didn't realise you wrote such bloody awful poetry."
--The Smiths, "Frankly Mr. Shankly

So why is this blog named "The Triumph?" Is it because I'm kicking ass and taking names, proving myself the most badass literary critic ever and standing above a pile of my enemies? No-- although make no mistake, that's still the case.
  
Like that, except that the girl is Stanley Fish.

No, it comes from one of T.S. Eliot's earliest poems, written around the time of the publication of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"--right when the man came out of his corner at the age of 22 (jesus christ I am 22 what am I doing with my life I should have been a pair of ragged claws) swinging about as hard as anybody ever has, punching tradition in the face until the nosebone went into its brain.


Look, Eliot is a symbol of stodgy intellectualism and was for a good chunk of his own life. However, in 1910, the man was the most rebellious poet in the world and it is literally impossible to underestimate how shaken up the world of poetry has been by his work of that year and the 15 years that followed it. In 1910 Eliot was to verse what Scorcese was to film in 1976. And when he was doing that he wrote the poem reprinted below:


THE TRIUMPH OF BULLSHIT
Ladies, on whom my attentions have waited
If you consider my merits are small
Etiolated, alembicated,
Orotund, tasteless, fantastical,
Monotonous, crotchety, constipated,
Impotent galamatias
Affected, possibly imitated,
For Christ's sake stick it up your ass

Ladies, who find my intentions ridiculous
Awkward insipid and horribly gauche
Pompous, pretentious, ineptly meticulous
Dull as the heart of an unbaked brioche
Floundering versicles feebly versiculous
Often attenuate, frequently crass
Attempts at emotions that turn isiculous,
For Christ's sake stick it up your ass.

Ladies who think me unduly vociferous
Amiable cabotin making a noise
That people may cry out "this stuff is too stiff for us" -
Ingenuous child with a box of new toys
Toy lions carnivorous, cannons fumiferous
Engines vaporous - all this will pass;
Quite innocent - "he only wants to make shiver us."
For Christ's sake stick it up your ass.

And when thyself with silver foot shalt pass
Among the Theories scattered on the grass
Take up my good intentions with the rest
And then for Christ's sake stick them up your ass.

If I've done my job right you should be staring at this picture with an El-P beat roaring in your head.
 "The Triumph of Bullshit" is everything I wanted this blog to be about when I started it. It's the man who would become the Saint of New Formalism peeling away in a Corvette while giving the finger to literary establishment. It is, at its core, Eliot trying to defend literature in its own right and saying that it should stand on its own without the need for critics to prop it up. And he's doing so in the most angry and sarcastic manner that a Harvard boy and converted Royalist could.

And if you were going to ask me the three things I wanted The Triumph to be, they would be:
1. A celebration of the hidden joy of the literary canon.
2. A combination of literary theory, history, and punk-rock mentality.
3. A balance of legitimately educational and stupidly funny.

And I think that, for all of his tweediness and the elbow-patches on his soul (although make no mistake, even in his old, Royalist, anti-Milton, Tory age, the man remains far and away my absolute favorite poet), Eliot at 22 would have agreed with that mentality.
"Have I explained my stance on the Police, and why they should be fucked?"
(Also, I'm pretty sure that the box he's holding in that photo actually has a Nobel Prize in it).

So yeah. That's the story behind the name, that's our official mission statement here at the headquarters of The Triumph (my desk--or, when I'm especially lazy and/or drunk, my bed). And it's also a reminder that, despite the fact that I'm pretty passionate about literature in a way that I'm not about much else, it's pretty much all different flavors of bullshit when you get right down to it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Guest post on "From the Desk of Solomon Kelly"

"And at the schoolyard fences,
Where the children shout,
Let the chains fall away and let them all rush out.
And all good things in time will melt away,
Pinklon Thomas is getting out of prison today."
--The Mountain Goats, "Pinklon"

Hey all. Gonna try to have a proper post on literature up later this weekend--thinking a little thing on Tennyson's "In Memoriam"--but until then, you should know that I've got a guest post on my favorite boxer coming up later today at http://solomonkelly.blogspot.com. If you're not reading Solomon Kelly you should be: I don't even get that into sports but it's still one of the most entertaining blogs I follow. And not just cause it's written by my closest friend. See you all next time I explain poetry.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Heretic Pride: The Radicalism of John Milton (pt. 3)

"All there, forever falling,
falling lovely and amazing."
-Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "As I Sat Sadly By Her Side"

STRAIGHT TO HELL, BOYS
By the twilight of his life, Milton had fallen hard from his heights as a celebrated propagandist of a successful Revolution. By the time he finally set himself to his great work, Cromwell was dead (hooray!), Charles's son...Charles...had been invited back onto the throne like he would be doing England a favor (boo!), and it was only through the intervention of his friend Andrew Marvell that Milton was able to avoid beheading for his role in Charles I's death. He was totally blind by this point his wife Mary had died in childbirth and his second wife Katherine had died without ever being seen by her husband. Of his four children, his son had died at only a year old and his three daughters had a strained relationship with their passionate, political father. Milton was more alone than he had ever been in his life, and, feeling that he had squandered his poetic talent in his decades of political involvement, decided that he would use his isolation to write the epic he had dreamed of since he was a schoolboy.
Sort of, but blind, with more dead wives, and charged with high treason.
He had promised people that he would write an English epic, something that would do for the Commonwealth--or, well, kingdom once again--what Virgil had been able to do for Rome: to cloak its founding in the Christian faith and glorifying the nation and language, and had hinted that he wanted to write about the Arthurian legend in particular. What he eventually produced was a work set in Heaven, Hell, Chaos, and the Garden of Eden, dealing with (essentially) an employee who is fired for insubordination and decides to get revenge on his old boss by screwing up the marriage of his kids. It's the equivalent of if, after finally reaching the final game of the World Series, the Cubs just all came off the bench holding bowling balls-- and somehow managed to score a perfect 300 and win the game.

The thing is, of course, that Paradise Lost is a poem of England. Milton lived through the Civil War, for christ's sake, and here he was writing an epic poem about a selfish tyrant, a revolution, the invention of Law, and the first and last truly free human beings. To say that it was just a biblical retelling, or that it wasn't about his politics, would be like reading Animal Farm and saying "this can't be about the Russian Revolution! They're all pigs! And look at the sad little horsey!"
"Wait...Red Dawn was about Afghanistan?"
The entire text is one of the most anti-authority, pro-liberty, Sic-Semper-Tyrannis things ever written. And that's not even taking the reading that we're supposed to cheer for Satan (which, sorry Blake, Shelley, Anton LeVey, is wrong)--Milton's poetic triumph is that able to show how not only is it morally right to be a rebel, but that God would vote for Eugene Debs, listen to Crass, and know every word of Easy Rider.

TRENCHES FULL OF POETS
First off, the very language of the poem is one that clearly doesn't give a shit about your badge, Mr. Man. The entire poem is unrhymed--something which Milton defended, not just as a stylistic choice, but as a necessity of republican virtue. He argues in the introduction that rhyme, like kingship, only came about in the middle ages and is a form of tyranny over words. Just as the Greeks and Romans governed themselves with democracy, their poetry was capable of governing itself only through the beauty of metrical rhythm, and it would be sinful to write a poem which condoned tyranny by not doing the same.

Similarly, he uses his incredible skills in Latin, Greek, English, and Italian to create a new English language. Repeatedly throughout the poem he contorts English to the grammar of Romance languages for the benefit of its beauty, or returns to the Greek and Latin roots of words and coins new English words from them to suit his purposes. The verse repeatedly spills out of the lines, so that the first sentence of the poem lasts for around forty lines, and that's fairly typical. As a poet, he is as unrestrained here as anyone ever was.
And then he had his dog attack an effigy of King Charles. "DOWN ROCKO, HE'S MINE."
And according to a lot of more modern critics, he is able to free English in a way few ever have: in writing about an unfallen world, he actually redeems the language from sin. For example, take a look at this (long, but there are no short ones) quotation, when we first meet Eve in Book IV of the epic (sexy words bolded):

She, as a veil, down to the slender waist
Her unadorned golden tresses wore
Dishevelled, but in wanton ringlets waved
As the vine curls her tendrils, which implied
Subjection, but required with gentle sway,
And by her yielded, by him best received,
Yielded with coy submission, modest pride,
And sweet, reluctant, amorous delay.
Nor those mysterious parts were then concealed;
Then was not guilty shame, dishonest shame.


Won't somebody PLEASE think of the CHILDREN?!
That's right: Eve is not just naked, but she's having wild enough sex with Adam to dishevel her hair and they don't care if anyone sees it--and, to quote Patrick Stewart, "I've seen everything. I've seen it all." But Milton immediately tells us that this is something pure and beautiful, and that these two people are the most good that ever lived. In this case, the words "disheveled," "wanton," "amorous," and "pride"--two of which are deadly sins--aren't sinful, because sin doesn't exist. Milton here destroys the entire notion of profanity and obscenity: no matter how explicit (and except for John Wilmot, who I plan to talk about on a later date, this is about as explicit as most poetry of the day gets), a portrayal of true, good love is sinless and beautiful. Much like in his arguments for the freedom of the press, Milton proves that no word or idea (or body part) is evil if used in the service of good.

COMPLETE CONTROL
Now, is Satan the hero? Because that would be real rebellious, if Milton got us to cheer for the devil.

No. Nope. Not even close. And it wouldn't be, because Satan isn't a rebel in the poem. Oh sure, he puts on the appearance of freedom-fighting rebellion, but that's one of the greatest political points that Milton makes in the whole work. Satan is, essentially, trying to usurp power he never deserved from God, rallying up an army that believes that because he's rich and handsome he deserves to be king, and has no motivation for ruling beyond wanting to maintain power.
Well, I have a new favorite picture.
Satan is, at his core, a self-pitying tyrant--more Stalin than Lenin. He's also, like Charles, fairly roundly incompetent: not only is it made clear that he had no chance of winning the war (especially once Jesus rolls out his giant tank YES THAT ACTUALLY HAPPENS [Book VI, line 840]), but God makes it clear all along that he could stop Satan from tempting Adam and Eve to fall, but that doing so would preempt Satan's freedom. Indeed, God never condemns Satan (or, really, anyone) to Hell in the poem. Instead, Satan hurls himself in out of shame for having lost, and knows full well he can return to Heaven the instant he's willing to give up his lust for power and become a member of the Parliament of Angels.His invasion of Earth isn't out of a lust for evil and chaos, but out of petty anger that it was given to Adam and Eve instead of him, and the language he claims it with is that of a monarch laying claim to a colony.

Yes, he says that "tis better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven," but that's self-delusion (and Satan in the book, as the Prince of Lies, is better at lying to himself than to anyone else)--he never convinces any of his troops to do anything except for waking them up with a rousing speech. Satan isn't powerful, he's not noble, he's just a selfish, jealous loser-- think of it like Biff at the end of Back to the Future, where you know he's still a rapey psychopath but that the most he'll ever be able to do to hurt anyone is not wax their car enough. In addition, Milton's optimism returns in that Satan never accomplishes anything: he thinks he's king when he's simply imprisoned himself, and when he revisits Heaven later God and Jesus essentially go "ooooo, we're sooooo scaaaaared" (yes, Milton's God is sarcastic).

"Oh boo hoo hoo, did somebody lose a war against God?"
In fact, Satan's great victory--the fall--is just him defeating himself, because he was tricked by God into giving Adam and Eve the gift of liberty. They have to leave the Garden, but they are given the entire world to choose from and the love of their life to share it with; hardly much of a downgrade. In addition, it's made clear that because of their new freedom they will be able to improve themselves--by learning to rule themselves and by battling Sin (and, in a rather bizarre metaphor, making it so glutted and lethargic that the arrows of angels will be able to kill it for good later), they create the framework for the eventual Kingdom of God, in which Jesus will finally banish all tyrants and set up a just Republic. The final lines, though sad, are overloaded with hope, freedom and love in a way that no account of the fall ever had been before:

"Some natural tears they draped, but wiped them soon;
The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence Their guide:
They hand in hand with wadding steps and slow,
Through Eden took Their solitary way."

Oh and right, Michael took Adam aside and showed him the future, including God's punishment of the first unjust king and a warning that all future tyrants would suffer the same fate.

REVOLUTION ROCK
Of course, I can't do the entirety of the work justice (but I'm not gonna say "go out and read it yourself!" because that shit is loooooong)--but these aren't small incidents. Indeed, these are almost all the major plot points covered, and they're all pretty clearly political. And not even, necessarily, subtly political. Yes, Paradise Lost is beautiful. Yes, it's arguably the greatest achievement of English literature. But, beneath the complex arguments, incredibly original language, rich characters (though he's not a hero, Milton's Lucifer remains one of the greatest protagonists ever written), the central political message remains, roughly, as follows:

"God Save the King!
He ain't no human being!
There's no future,
and England's dreaming!"

It's the climax of a lifetime of political activism, revolutionary pamphlets, and poetic passions, making an argument that striving to rule others is the greatest evil, and that men should help to lift each other ever higher. And  the man who wrote it remains one of the greatest rule-breakers, icon-smashers, and king-killers to ever live.
The ghetto prince of gutter poets.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Heretic Pride: The Radicalism of John Milton (pt. 2)

"And I start laughing like a child,
And I mark their faces one by one.
Transfigurations gonna come for me at last,
And I will burn hotter than the sun.

I waited so long and now I taste jasmine on my tongue
,
And I feel so proud to be alive.
And I feel so proud when the reckoning arrives."

-The Mountain Goats, "Heretic Pride" 

DARLING YOU'VE GOT TO LET ME KNOWThe period after his college graduation and his early life as a schoolteacher was--to put it mildly--a fairly exciting time for Milton. Part of it is simply the fact that any man, having completed his education and entering his late twenties and early thirties, is going to have some exciting times ahead as he finds love and figures out what to do with his life.

Part of it was the English Civil War breaking out when he was 34, as forces supporting a Republic governed by Parliament tried to overthrow the divinely-ordained king. That'll shake anybody up.


The first major change in Milton's life was that he got married, almost by accident. Nobody's quite sure of the details, but after his father's death in Milton's early thirties he went off to collect a debt owed to his father by a Mr. Powell, and returned married to the 16-year-old Mary Powell. Milton, a fairly strong believer in the education of women, was excited to have a chance to educate a woman personally, and looked forward to long years spent discussing Virgil with Mary--until he discovered that she didn't care about poetry, loved the King, and had no interest in learning Latin. Which, considering that Milton's 3 main interests were writing the greatest poem ever, killing the King, and teaching Latin, makes you wonder what the hell they talked about on their first date.
"Her name's not Crindi, John."
Then when that whole "war" thing happened, Mary, discovering that not only was her husband a giant nerd, but he believed in deposing a man she thought God gave a magic hat to so he could tell poor people what to do, ran off back to her father's home.

It's also around this time--and this might just be a coincidence--that Milton published a pamphlet arguing that it should be easy and legal to get a divorce (which, considering his country was ruled by a church specifically founded so that King Henry could get divorces easily and legally, wasn't really too much to ask). Now, it would be easy to call Milton an asshole for this: marry a teenage girl because her dad owes you money, realize that you hate her (it's like she's a child or something!), and whine that you can't divorce her. But Milton's pamphlet on divorce is actually pretty revolutionary for the day, in that he argues the main reason to get married is to have company in your old age--not to put a baby in a girl, not for money, but so that a woman as intelligent and learned as you can be by your side to talk about Spenser until one of you watches the other die. And that's a pretty sweet sentiment, to be honest.

JUST AROUND THE CORNER IN THE ENGLISH CIVIL WAR
Of course, the Anglican church at the time wasn't too keen on Milton's advocacy of divorce for everyone. Not because they were pro-marriage (See The Eighth, Henry), but because the Anglican Church at this point was essentially an organ of the state which existed to tell people that Charles wasn't an incompetent dandy who was spending the country into a depression. Pamphlets arguing that the Church didn't understand the common people (and Milton's advocacy of Scottish Presbyterianism as a faith which actually listened to its followers) made him a target for censorship. And that's when things started getting pretty vicious.

You see, what dictatorships--from England to England again to France to Russia to Russia again--don't understand about this kind of thing is that when you tell a person their writing is dangerous to the state is that a) you're making a casual opponent into a bitter enemy, and b)you are telling them that they are strong enough to take down the state. Making someone hate you and making them realize their power are, let's be honest, incredibly stupid things to do to an angry schoolteacher.
Most kings have private tutors, how come no one ever teaches them this shit?
Their attempt to stop Milton from publishing (of course) led to the writing of probably the greatest work ever written in defense of the freedom of the press, Aeropagitica. Published at the height of the Civil War, Aeropagitica is a work that even now is pretty impressive in its passion. The core argument is, of course, that books are awesome and that the government should let him publish his, but more importantly, anyone should be allowed to publish anything. Milton's argument is that we don't punish people for thinking things-- if someone publishes a book that is evil and corrupting, they can be punished for it, but everyone has the right to at least say their piece before being thrown in jail.

There is, of course, a theological argument at work here too. Milton was a strong believer in the notion that the truth shall set you free and that God would never allow a falsehood victory (the growing inevitability of the King's removal from power certainly seemed to bolster this), and so that even evil and ignorant books contributed to the world; even books that were wrong advanced mankind by giving others an opportunity to prove them wrong.
Yes, even that one.
In fact, because God would never allow a deceiver to go unpunished--and the inevitable victory of good becomes one of the central tenets of Milton's theology, including driving the main resolution of Paradise Lost--the work's argument becomes somewhat libertarian, with the belief that a "bad" book will be proven wrong by its failure; that the Free Market, guided by the Divine Hand, will censor books better than a government office ever did.

And Aeropagitica went on to revolutionize the publishing of the day, showing that-- oh wait, right. Charles I was a king who abolished Parliament because they didn't want to tax people to buy him a bigger palace, and Milton's works went right on being censored. But at least the book was good.

LONDON IS DROWNING AND I LIVE BY THE RIVER
After this conflict, Milton became fully involved in the Civil War, throwing his support roundly behind the Parliamentarian forces and calling for the complete abolition of the monarchy. He wrote some fairly impressive sonnets in praise of Cromwell and his generals (although, thankfully, rescinded his support once he saw what Cromwell actually did with power-- it's important to note that, in the Civil War, Cromwell is actually a fairly admirable hero of democracy rather than, well, a racist war criminal), as well as a fairly beautifully sarcastic one arguing that, if Royalist troops were to find him, they should still spare him so that they would have a poet speaking in their defense when Parliament's armies finally won.

(This war, by the way, is responsible for an amazing quote from one of the Royalist commanders: "In our army, we have only the sins of men--drinking and debauchery--but yours has the sins of devils: false piety and spiritual pride!")

The Royal Army, pretty much.

Like his support for the freedom of the press--and, really, everything in his life--Milton's politics stem in large part from his radical notion of God. The Anglican Church, like Rome, relied on an Aristotelian worldview which stated that everything had a natural place on a ladder of the universe: Kings rose above commoners as naturally as steam rose above water, because they were instilled with properties of kingliness and somehow biologically equipped to rule justly. Milton, however, proved himself again to be totally punk, pointing out that there was absolutely zero Christian basis for this notion. Indeed, God created only one man and then let him live freely in a garden with his wife--hardly a kingly position--and Christ in his life only led those who chose to follow him. Milton argued, then (and keep in mind that this is the 1640s, over a century before Jefferson), that as all men were fallen and equal in God's eyes, the very notion of a king was an affront to God's plan for the world.

Several of these ideas weren't totally new, of course. Thomas Hobbes, in 1651, made the argument that all men were equal in their animal nature, but his conclusion was that we needed a bigger animal to tell us what to do and keep us from mauling each other--that even an evil or incompetent king still protected men from each other. Milton is...more optimistic, to say the least.

Hobbes does win the beard fight, though.
 This was also, despite the political victories, a difficult time for Milton--he realized that he was growing blind, losing his vision to the glaucoma that would later blind him entirely. His sonnet on this, however, is a triumph, both of himself and of the poetic form. In it he recommits himself to the poetry of God, trusting that he will still produce the masterwork he promised as a young man and that he is doing God's work in politics.

Milton also began to see some (well, not literally) disillusionment with himself during the war. He became disappointed in Scotland--a nation of religious liberty and rebellion--when it lent its armies to a tyrant king merely because his father was born in Scotland, and disappointed with many of the rebel forces for not seizing the banner of individual freedom and waving it high. And there is also, as the above sonnet shows, something of a crisis of art--he was unsure if he would ever produce his great work, and worried that he was abandoning his art (Spoiler alert: Cromwell unjustly conquers Scotland and massacres the Irish, the monarchy is reinstated, and Milton creates one of humanity's greatest artistic triumphs).

When King Charles escaped from Parliamentarian prison, tried to marshal another Scottish army, and was later captured, Milton crafted, not his artistic triumph, but his political one: calling for the King's execution.
That Nick Cave thing is making more and more sense.
WITH EXTREME PREJUDICE ON A TERMINATOR MISSION
It's at this point where I think anyone who has remotely admirable political ideals has to get on board with Milton (I'm looking at you, Eliot!)--King Charles is a war criminal, an enemy of democracy, and he truly believes that God wants him to be king and will tear his nation apart just to put himself back on the throne. Yes, by all means, cut the bastard's head off. That can't be too controversial.

Except that John Milton, never one for restraint, takes it a step further. He argues in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates that any Tyrant--and he defines Tyrant as a king who puts his own power ahead of his people's good--deserves death for betraying his people. He also directly retaliates against the Hobbesian idea of a beneficial Tyrant, pointing out that the reign of a bad king only creates more corruption and opportunities for men to hurt each other (because it's not as if Hussein's Iraq had a low crime rate). He also, while not directly arguing for the complete abolition of the monarchy (YET) makes the claim that a parliamentary commonwealth is the most just and free form of government.

In 1649, Charles was executed for his crimes against Britain, and contemporary reports claim that a hush fell over the crowd when they realized that a king could actually be killed by his people, and the first democratic revolution in human history came to an end.
Milton's response to the beheading.
NO ONE BUT YOU AND I (SAY THE BELLS OF PRINCE FAR I)
Before we wrap up this section and move on to the Great Work, I just wanted to make a comment on the two major poems still undiscussed: "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso." They're both beautiful, beautiful works-- the last major pieces he wrote that weren't sonnets or epics. Each portrays a different man: "L'Allegro" a happy man in the fields, enjoying music with his friends in the sunlight, and "Il Penseroso" a melancholy scholar who stays up reading in his tower by moonlight. Both, though, are portrayed admirably, beautifully, and as men to aspire to, and there's a very good argument to be made that the poems represent an essential conflict of Milton's: whether to dedicate his life to living or to art. By this stage in his life Cromwell had won the war and Milton had a well-paying job in the administration, and was beginning to realize he could make a good living as  government official and Latin translator.

Each poem, and each character, represents a choice for Milton: does he rest on his laurels and try to make this whole "woman" thing work, or does he keep trying for that great epic? He's going blind, his vision will likely keep getting worse, and he desperately wants to commit himself to freedom and serve the government he believes is God's will. It will be years--and the end of the Cromwell administration--before he makes his decision, but the debate framed in these poems is a fairly timeless one: is it possible to be an artist and still enjoy life outside of art?
Well...maybe this time it'll be different.
 In Part 3...Paradise Lost

Heretic Pride: The Radicalism of John Milton (pt. 1)

"Bereft of air the earth trembles wide
Cracks all mountains high
Soaring demons now swarm the skies
In awe and heretic pride"

-Aura Noir, "Black Deluge Night" 

You would be hard pressed to find a writer who better represents the stodgy Lit-department canon than Milton. Shakespeare? Canon, certainly, but everyone knows that he put lots of dirty jokes in his works and the notion of Shakespeare as rebel is more popular now than the idea of him as establishment ever was. Eliot , Pound, and Joyce are all contenders for most obtuse and elevated, but the fact that Madonna has a tattoo of the last line of Ulysses and eight thousand hipsters have tattoos of some line in "Prufrock" that they think applies to them kind of work against that notion.

Milton, meanwhile, is pretty much everything that stodgy should be, at least on the surface. His masterwork is a huge, dense epic poem in the Homeric tradition, he was deeply religious, went to Cambridge, and of course has been held up as The Great British Epic Poet, every word of which pushes him one step further away from being hailed as the King of Badasses (previous title-holders: Teddy Roosevelt, Sonny Chiba, Yukio Mishima).
Not pictured: Secretary of the Interior Alexander "RoboCop" Murphy.
All this somehow seems to forget several key facts about John Milton: he was a liberal revolutionary, one of the first ardent defenders of a free press, had three wives, and, oh yeah, advocated for beheading a king that most citizens thought probably received his orders directly from God. And his masterpiece--that long, dense poem about religion--was for its time, and still remains, one of the most impassioned defenses of liberty, freedom, and anti-authoritarianism ever penned. He had more in common with Joe Strummer and Hunter S. Thompson than he ever did with any academic or politician.

And, since the main mission of this new blog is to prove how much the canon kicks ass, and that these old dead writers have their reputations for a reason, he's the perfect candidate for its inaugural entry.

A HEDGE BACK HOME IN THE SUBURBS
First, we have to say some words about John Milton's father (also named John), who was a historically noteworthy man in his own right. A well-respected composer, John Sr. also established something of a family tradition as a young man by converting to Protestantism, and was thrown out of his home by his devout Catholic father for reading the bible in English rather than Latin. Granted, his son would go on to make English the language of a huge amount of radical theology, but still. Baby steps.

John Sr. was also a mover in the London theater scene at the time, due to his financial standing and love of the arts. Let's reiterate. Theater manager, late-16th early 17th century. You know what that means.
...Groupies?
No, dumbass. It means that John Milton Sr. frikkin' hung out with Shakespeare, and knew him well enough--and was a talented enough writer--that he got to write the introduction for the first published collection of Shakespeare's plays. Now, that's pretty kickass if you're a young man who wants to be a poet. Just imagine your dad  saying "oh yeah, I had this poet buddy once. Old Billy Shakey. Pretty fun guy--christ, the women he slept with though."
"Now, I dunno if Shakespeare killed Nancy...but he should've."

So John Jr. was already set up for greatness: a father who loves the arts, can afford to send him to school and support him while he writes, and knew arguably the greatest English poet to ever live. Actually, no. Make that definitely. Because I don't think Shakespeare is the greatest English poet to ever live--the man's plays are of course the masterpieces that created modern English, but the sonnets, while good, aren't the best. The best is the contemporary poetry of John Donne--the intensely intelligent, ambitious, and maddeningly imaginative poet responsible for works like "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," "The Good-Morrow," and probably the greatest sonnets ever written in any language.

And, for much of John Jr.'s young life, Donne was the preacher at St. Paul's, just a few blocks away from the Milton home. So, to reiterate: the shadows of England's two great poets of the day, a Cambridge education, a wealthy and encouraging father: Milton was the poetic equivalent of a Kennedy.

WHERE THEY TEACH YOU HOW TO BE THICK
Of course, it's hard to hold on to the light of imagination when you have to go learn Latin at Cambridge, but Milton did his best. His academic performance seems to have been exceptional, with one exception-- a brief suspension following a heated argument with his professor, seemingly over either Latin poetry or theology. Looking back, we can probably safely say that he was right.

"This day, I saved the Latin tongue / and what, pray tell, hast thou since done?"

Milton produced two major poems in his college years and shortly afterward. The first of these, "On the Morning of Christ's Nativity," is also the first complete poem he composed in English--and as a debut, it's pretty astonishing. Like Kanye West, Milton's first solo work makes it clear that he's arrived and is going to be fighting hard and playing for keeps.

Although the theological content is pretty interesting--especially the sad moment when the nymphs of Greco-Roman myth flee Christ's coming, showing a pain of Milton's at turning away from the tradition of Ovid and Virgil, who he loved, in order to glorify the Christian God--the poem's true strength is the way that Milton announces himself. In the beginning, and in letters to his college friend Charles Diodati, the young Milton proclaims his destiny: to be the great English religious poet, to dedicate his life to an art in the service of a higher power, and to, someday, write a great work to lay at the feet of God and his countrymen. Even more than these sentiments, his choice of English, rather than Latin, is astonishing; although trained as a Classicist, Milton here announces his intent to tell the story of Christ in a language for the common man, and to prove that English could create verse poetry as rich as Italian or Latin, a claim that very few outside of Shakespeare or Donne had the audacity to attest to.

And the little shit was in college. I'm a college student right now, and I'm proud if I can write a poem that has a working rhyme scheme or isn't just a John Darnielle song translated into Japanese and back. Milton, meanwhile, is devoting himself to writing an epic that will make English the prime language of religious poetry.
And also inspire like 90% of Nick Cave's career, which is pretty awesome too.
His other major work as a young man, "Lycidas," is a little harder to deal with. The basic premise is simple: Milton's former classmate Edward King drowned at Sea, and Milton, as the best poet of his class, was asked to provide an elegy mourning King.

Along the way Milton decided that it was also the appropriate time and place to attack the established clergy of the Anglican Church and their subservience to the Crown, because when you're in college you don't get that that's a dick move. The poem becomes, not just an elegy for King (who Milton never really knew), but a celebration of his potential: Milton saw his generation of angry protestant youth as being one who could really tear shit up, and King not just as a man but as a fellow Englishman cut down in his prime.

Although not a masterpiece--and probably the weakest of his great works (which still places it above most people's best, just as Ringo's solo career still blows The Monkees out of the water)--there's some intriguing moments of confused genius here. One of the greatest moments is where, as an extension of the pastoral and religious imagery (like many poets, Milton at this point loved poems about shepherds, farmers, and good country people, and puts "Lycidas" in that genre), he casts the corrupt clergy as wolves feeding sheep empty calories in order to fatten them up (l.125). It's a brilliant combination of the pastoral genre and the idea of Christ as Shepherd, and a pretty vicious attack on the church. And then he makes the argument that this bad food makes the sheep gassy and their flatulence poisons other sheep who don't even listen to the wolves, which, as a metaphor for the societal harm caused by false religion, is a pretty catastrophic failure.

Or perhaps he was merely centuries ahead of his time.
Like the Nativity Ode, though, "Lycidas" is astonishing in its Englishness. In the beautiful passage at the end he casts St. Michael as a guardian of England, asking him to look away from the scary Catholics to the South and find King's body pitching among the waves (l. 163), and in the procession of gods and spirits mourning King he creates Camus, a spirit of the river Cambridge covered with pig iron and seaweed (l. 103). It doesn't always work-- for ever brilliant line in "Lycidas" ("Where thou perhaps under the whelming tide / Visit'st the bottom of the monstrous world") there's also one that either falls far short or is just kind of goofy (With Nectar pure his oozy Lock's he laves"). Still though, as a piece by a recent college graduate, it's a pretty significant achievement.

In Part 2: The English Civil War and Paradise Lost