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Posts Tagged ‘London’

In the Madhouse

January 5, 2016 | by

John Clare, Christopher Smart, and the poetry of the asylum.

stlukeshomeforlunatics

Saint Luke’s Home for Lunatics, where Christopher Smart was confined for more than five years

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, here.

In an agrarian or preindustrial Britain, a brilliant young man bristles at his assigned vocation. After reading insatiably for years, he starts publishing odd, distinctive poems that cause a local stir. Urged to settle down, he instead experiments with more startling writing and shows more worrying behavior. His wife and family, understandably troubled but also driven by some unsavory motives, arrange for him to be sent to a madhouse, where confinement turns out to be much more to his harm than to his good. As his mental and physical health declines, his poetry starts to develop more radical formal arrangements. It also takes on a new tone: a strange, arresting combination of de-sexed innocence, bitter wisdom, childlike whimsy, and intensity of focus. Well after his death, as literary critics start pillaging the past for works of inadvertent modernism, his surviving poetry becomes a source of inspiration for a new generation of writers by whose books he’d have been equally fascinated and baffled.

This account corresponds roughly to the lives of both John Clare (1793–1864) and Christopher Smart (1722–’71), though it ignores much of what set the two poets apart. An archetypical urban poet, the son of a bailiff, Smart spent years on Grub Street writing satires, poems, attacks on his contemporaries, and flurries of hackwork, much of it under pseudonyms. Years earlier, when he started his career as a brilliant (if eccentric) divinity student at Pembroke College, he’d already received a thorough grounding in the classics. Clare, an agricultural laborer who lived and worked in Britain’s East Midlands during a period of rapid industrialization, grew up to a family of poor tenement farmers and went to school only sporadically. No less intelligent and formally imaginative than Smart’s, his poetry was as closely informed by Helpston’s birds, flowers, and folk songs—he might have been one of Europe’s earliest ethnomusicologists—as his predecessor’s was by the gospels, the classics, and the Grub Street press. Read More »

Roger That

December 25, 2015 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!

William_Byrd_II

Hans Hysing’s portrait of Byrd, ca. 1724.

The complicated sex drive of William Byrd II.

William Byrd II was a colonial Virginia gentleman who, on occasion, was no gentleman at all. Writing about himself in the third person, in 1723, he bemoaned “the combustible manner in his constitution”; he cursed the innate passions that “broke out upon him before his beard,” making him a “swain” before all women. Byrd’s carnal drive underscored the eyebrow-raising vigor of his lust. On a trip to London in 1719, according to his secret diary, he “rogered”—an easy enough euphemism—no fewer than six women in nine days. Of one woman, he (proudly) recorded having “rogered her three times” in a single evening. That same night, Byrd, aged forty-four, noted with a tinge of sadness that he had “neglected my prayers.”

When he wasn’t on a whore-chasing jag in the metropolis, Byrd was back on his Virginia estate, called Westover, with his wife, Lucy. At Westover, his sexual proclivities certainly raged with similar, singleminded intensity—he wrote in his diary about having urgent sex with Lucy on a billiards table—but it was also tempered by a healthy desire to achieve mutual pleasure with her. He was just as inclined to “give my wife a flourish”—bring her to orgasm—as he was to “roger” her, a semantic shift suggesting that Lucy’s response to their sexual union mattered as much to Byrd as his own physical gratification. On April 30, 1711, he noted in his diary that although he discovered his wife in a “melancholy” mood, the “powerful flourish” he delivered filled her with “great ecstasy and refreshment.” He recalled one morning during which “I lay in my wife’s arms” while, during another, his wife “kept me so long in bed” that “I rogered her.” That evening he got around to saying his prayers—before rogering her again. The man could be a virtuous, even tender, Tidewater lover when he wasn’t being a London sleazebag. Read More >>

Just Say Said, and Other News

December 3, 2015 | by

An illustration from Debate and Oratory, 1909.

  • Our new Winter issue features an interview with Jane and Michael Stern, “the original culinary road warriors.” A new profile in Eater captures what Norman Rush would call their “idioverse,” i.e., a “private patois made up of shared references and sayings, occasional neologisms, and common words that have taken on new meanings”: “the dyad of Jane and Michael—some four decades in, now—almost surpasses idioverse, and forms a hovering mushroom cloud of collective memory. Spending time with them, I realized that there’s a voyeuristic pleasure in finding yourself submerged in the intimacies of a couple with a complex history. Watching the deepest, strangest way two people communicate made me feel like an intellectual Peeping Tom—one who wanted to stay … They go at it tit for tat, with the rapid-fire speed of David Mamet dialogue, but they’ll linger to enjoy language more when discussing their Roadfood glory days. At times, listening to them talk, it seems that alone neither one can remember an entire story, and that together neither one can remember it the same way. There are tales about botched attempts to donate leftovers that ended in an undercover police sting, and casual references to a strange commune-like group of former Barnum & Bailey performers who live in Bethel and call themselves the ‘frog people.’ ”
  • This is a public service announcement. If you, like me, were taught growing up to deploy synonyms for said whenever you wrote dialogue, please stop immediately. To stick to said is to improve the world of prose for all of us. Gabriel Roth agrees: “Replacing the word said with ‘colorful’ or ‘lively’ synonyms is a ubiquitous symptom of bad writing. Individual instances are usually redundancies: ‘I’ll never cheat again!’ is recognizable as a promise without ‘he vowed’ after it. But a procession of she explained and he chuckled and I expostulated—the reporting verbs that clog your dialogue when you follow the ‘never say said’ rule—is worse, because they force the reader’s attention away from the content of the writing and onto the writer’s hunt for synonyms.”
  • “Nabisco. Nabisco! / Oreos! Right? / Oreos! I love Oreos! // I’ll never eat them again. OK? / I’ll never eat them again. // No … Nabisco.” This poem, a masterwork of compression and a ludic comment on commodity fetishism, comes courtesy of Donald Trump, whose speeches have been anthologized in a “treasury of oral poetry” called Bard of the Deal. Some are calling “Freedom Tower,” in particular, the most vital and intriguingly cross-disciplinary work of our young century: “Worst pile of crap / Architecture / I’ve ever seen.”
  • Hey there, young person: Do you wish to be as successful and as verbally acrobatic as bona-fide geniuses like Trump? Gay Talese has some advice for you: “I don’t think this new generation has the patience or even knowledge of how to get things … You have to get off your ass. Make something happen with your personality, with your goddamn style, your charm, your beautiful clothes, your reassurance, your salesman huckster-ist licorice. Know how to get something and not break hearts or be offensive.”
  • Before he embarked on Moby-Dick, Herman Melville paid an inspiring visit to London: “Late at night, he ‘turned flukes’ down Oxford Street as if he were being followed by a great whale, and thought he saw ‘blubber rooms’ in the butcheries of the Fleet Market … Perhaps most importantly, it was here that Melville saw the work of J M W Turner, a clear visual influence on his book-to-be. Turner had painted a series of whaling scenes for Elhanan Bicknell, whose British whaling company was based in the Elephant and Castle; parts of Moby-Dick would read like commentaries to those tempestuous, brutally poetic canvases, not least the painting that greets Ishmael at the Spouter-Inn, ‘a boggy, soggy, squitchy picture’ of ‘a black mass … floating in a nameless yeast … an exasperated whale.’ It is all the more intriguing to note how Melville’s Anglophilia was the yeast out of which this great American novel emerged.”

Portrait of a Miniseries

October 22, 2015 | by

You’d be forgiven for thinking I’ve lately fallen down some peculiar Bloomsbury Group rabbit hole. And you wouldn’t be wrong. While I was in London last month—and, incidentally, beginning my own marriage—I reread Nigel Nicolson’s classic Portrait of a MarriageHis parents, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, had an enduring relationship and a successful experiment in unconventional coupling: both were more or less openly gay, they lived often parallel lives, and they remained deeply committed to each other. 

It is with unreserved enthusiasm that I recommend you listen to this record of Vita Sackville-West reading aloud her poetry. She wrote “The Land” at the height of her affair with Virginia Woolf. Her voice is mellifluous and deep and of another era. It’s time travel. Read More »

Christopher Logue’s Poster Poems

October 12, 2015 | by

Superman, 1968 (with Trevor Wayman), 101.5 x 68.5 cm, screenprint. Distributed by Bernard Stone in an edition of 75.

“I have never been part of the London literary scene,” Christopher Logue said in his 1993 Art of Poetry interview:

My time has been passed with painters, antique dealers, musicians, booksellers, journalists, actors, and film people. I find it natural to collaborate with others on such things as posters, songs, films, shows. This is unusual in literary London.

This collaborative spirit led him to reproduce his poems on all kinds of unlikely surfaces: mugs, beermats, T-shirts, mirrors, Tube station walls, Lake District concrete, and the silk lining of at least one gown. But Logue, who died in 2011, found his biggest success with his poster poems, a form he’s said to have invented. Read More »

More Sweetly Play the Dance

October 6, 2015 | by

William Kentridge’s elaborate danse macabre.

William Kentridge, More Sweetly Play the Dance, 2015, eight-channel video installation with four megaphones, 15 minutes. All photos © William Kentridge, courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery

Dance has always been aware of death: it lingers just off to the side of the stage, waiting for the performance to end. William Dunbar’s 1508 poem “Lament for the Makers” describes two “state[s] of man”: “Now dansand mirry, now like to die.” In other words, you’re either dancing or dead. Death in the poem is personified as a sort of efficient businessman, doing his best to knock people out of the dance. The more familiar character of Death—the cloaked, scythe-bearing skeleton who fulfills his duties like an overworked godly employee—was around even before Dunbar, an invention of the medieval period, which remains the most productive time in human history for imagining deathly personifications. People then seemed less resistant to death than they are now, perhaps because the threat was omnipresent: one could die from the plague, childbirth, decapitation, infection, or even of indigestion, as Martin of Aragon did at a feast in 1410.

The danse macabre, or death dance, another medieval invention, was an allegorical way of resisting as well as respecting the force of death. It comprises a chain of dancers, some living and others skeletons, moving together toward a grave—death being the equalizing force that brings all of us together, finally. Some more modern dances, like the tarantella, present themselves as assertions of survival, proving that one is still alive despite mortal injury. When we dance, the thinking goes, we are at the most alive we can be. Likewise, when we stop dancing, we die. Read More »