Tea at the Palaz of Hoon

March 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

Not less because in purple I descended
The western day through what you called
The loneliest air, not less was I myself.

What was the ointment sprinkled on my beard?
What were they hymns that buzzed beside my ears?
What was the sea whose tide swept through me there?

Out of my mind the golden ointment rained,
And my ears made the blowing hymns they heard.
I was myself the compass of that sea:

I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

– Wallace Stevens

Stevens excelled at titles and this one says a lot. Let’s take it bit by bit.

Tea places the scene in Asia. Tea leaves are endemic to that continent, and they relate to calmness and meditation which one associates with Eastern religions.

The palaz is a palace. It seems that Stevens is rejecting more popular religious beliefs, the hymns and anointments of Christianity, for instance, for a solipsistic approach to spirituality (“I was the world in which I walked…”) in which he builds his own spiritual structure.

Hoon sounds like a vaguely Eastern deity or philosopher, and there is the sense of Stevens tapping into the Tao as he navigates his noösphere (“and there I found myself truly and more strange”).


Sir Beelzebub

February 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

Beelzebub called for his syllabub in the hotel in Hell
  Where Proserpine first fell,
Blue as the gendarmerie were the waves of the sea,
  (Rocking and shocking the barmaid).

Nobody comes to give him his rum but the
Rim of the sky hippopotamus-glum
Enhances the chances to bless with a benison
Alfred Lord Tennyson crossing the bar laid
With cold vegetation from pale deputations
Of temperance workers (all signed In Memoriam)
Hoping with glory to trip up the Laureate’s feet,
  (Moving in classical metres)…

Like Balaclava, the lava came down from the
Roof, and the sea’s blue wooden gendarmerie
Took them in charge while Beelzebub roared for his rum.
  …None of them come!

– Edith Sitwell

With sonics as succulent as syllabub, “Sir Beelzebub” concludes Façade, Sitwell’s collection of sound poems, with the most coherent narration of the series: something to do with the Prince of Darkness’ sweet tooth. After a stuttering start, the poems erupts into a galloping meter, performs a few metrical tricks, and ends abruptly in the hammered four-note knock of its last line.

In her notes, Sitwell summarized the ideas behind “Sir Beelzebub” and its ilk:

The poems in Façade are abstract poems — that is, they are patterns in sound… My experiments in Façade consist of inquiries into the effect on rhythm and on speed of the use of rhymes, assonances, and dissonances, placed at the beginning and in the middle of lines, as well as at the end, and in the most elaborate patterns.

…The poems appeared strange, sometimes because of the heightened imagery and sometimes because, to quote a phrase of the scientist Henri Poincaré, ‘the accident of a rhyme can call forth a system.’

William Walton orchestrated the poems in the 1920s (to quite a stir — Noël Coward walked out on the debut performance). Listen to selections below:

A Jellyfish

January 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

Visible, invisible
  a fluctuating charm
an amber-tinctured amethyst
  inhabits it, your arm
approaches and it opens
  and it closes; you had meant
to catch it and it quivers;
  you abandon your intent.

– Marianne Moore

A pulsating and cerebral confection on an ethereal creature. The understated indentations, unusual for Moore, oscillate like a jellyfish.

the Triumph of Bullshit

January 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

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 attentuate, frequently crass
Attempts at emotions that turn out 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 us your ass.

– T. S. Eliot

It is interesting that the face of SERIOUS MODERNISM would begin and end his career with light verse. “The Triumph of Bullshit” is one of Eliot’s earliest poems (written around 1910) and contains one of the first, if not the first, use of the word bullshit as we know it. More on that here.

The “ladies” refers to the taste-makers of the time whom Eliot believed were blocking his way to publication. One was possibly Harriet Monroe, the then-editor of Poetry, who would later publish “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” under the suggestion of Ezra Pound.

My favorite touch is the obscure Latinate words juxtaposed with the completely inelegant “stick it up your ass” refrain. Choice lines include “dull as the heart of an unbaked brioche” and “floundering versicles feebly versiculous”. And from a technical stand-point, I prefer Eliot’s own ballade rhyme scheme to that of the traditional one: ababacaC instead of ababbcbC.

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