A Drink and a Poem (The Mudslide and The Emperor of Ice Cream)

NOTE: This was first published on my old blog July 15th, 2016.

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NOTE: This was first published on my old blog July 15th, 2016.
The Emperor of Ice Cream
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Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
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Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
–Wallace Stevens, 1922
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I read somewhere that the true use of literature is to help us understand why we do what we do, to uncover our true motives.
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And here are the motivations uncovered — ice cream.
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It’s hardly a surprise that lofty ideas sometimes lead to disappointment, and, in truth, our appetites can lead us to strange situations, not necessarily bad ones. They may lead us to do the right thing. They probably won’t, but they might. Even a small act of kindness — attending a funeral one doesn’t want to attend — can have good results.
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Stevens and I are both New Englanders and we all have an extravagant taste for ice cream. We eat a lot of it. One might think that Hawai’i would eat more but that isn’t really the case. Where we come from, ice cream is for all occasions — dolorous ones included.
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This poem is likely set in some place where people roll cigars, since there is a cigar roller (also Stevens used to vacation in a place with palm trees)  but I understand his impulse, because the impulse to ice cream belongs to the north.
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It is in this fine ice cream eating tradition that we drink the mudslide. In other places mudslides are a kind of gross cocktail with a cool name, because most people don’t know how to make them. The proper Mudslide (or Frozen Mudslide as it is sometimes called) is made in a blender with ice cream.
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Stevens — although he likely never had a mudslide in the prohibition-era stage in his  writing career  — would surly understand the overabundance and decadence of the mixed ice cream and booze.  It isn’t a way to stave off death, or forget one’s sorrows,  but a way to get all of one’s desires in a single glass, and to take it all in at once  — to be buried, perhaps smothered, by desire.
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Repent. Repent. Repent.
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Notes:
* People who roll cigars are not called ‘rollists’ although they should be.
* Some simple drinks — like the first two discussed in the series — had been around since Victorian times.
* This is when complex mixed drinks were first coming into vogue so I guess the possibility that he had a mudslide is still there, but it seems unlikely.
* As far as lofty ideas go, I assume that for most of you ice cream in this case is a disappointment but what do I know?
* I really don’t like the word ‘decadence’ the way contemporary people use it. I may give into my appetites, but those appetites don’t involve anything decaying.
* The notes in this series don’t follow any particular order but nobody seems to have noticed.
* So you are wondering how it is made? a blender full of  vanilla ice cream, and a couple shots each of coffee liquor and vodka. I suggest some home made whipped cream for the top.
* This blog does not endorse doing the right thing for the wrong reasons on moral grounds.

A Drink and a Poem (Red Eye & Girls Bathing, Galway, 1965)

First Published on my old blog on June 23rd, 2016

Note: First Published on my old blog on June 23rd, 2016

Girls Bathing, Galway, 1965

The swell foams where they float and crawl,
A catherine-wheel of arm and hand;
Each head bobs curtly as a football.
The yelps are faint here on the strand.

No milk-limbed Venus ever rose
Miraculous on this western shore.
A pirate queen in battle clothes
Is our sterner myth. The breakers pour

Themselves into themselves, the years
Shuttle through space invisibly.
Where crests unfurl like creamy beer
The queen’s clothes melt into the sea

And generations sighing in
The salt suds where the wave has crashed
Labour in fear of flesh and sin
For the time has been accomplished

As through the shallows in swimsuits,
Bare-legged, smooth-shouldered and long-backed,
They wade ashore with skips and shouts.
So Venus comes, matter-of-fact.
–Seamus Heaney

I have never seen this poem reprinted or anthologized. After it appeared in one of Heaney’s collections, A Door in the Dark (1969), it sort of just disappeared. I don’t know if it is because the poem was deemed politically uncomfortable. One might — just because of the title — claim that the poem objectifies women even if that is exactly the impulse it is rejecting. Or it could be the totally unknowable reference to the Irish goddess. Or maybe people just didn’t know what to do with it.

Heaney came of age between the poetic eras of dense Modernism and authors’ embarrassing contemplations of their own genitals. The taste-makers of those days were infamously tasteless,  so it is hardly surprising that they missed good things when they saw them — this poem included.

Like all sensible people, I don’t enjoy going to the beach.  I do, however, enjoy the depictions of bathing in art. I suppose everyone does, because in life beach-going is always a disappointment, but one never gets sun-burned, coated with greasy sunblock, or abraded by sand when contemplating a painting in a museum. It is a pure ideal experience — well almost. The closeness to the ideal always depends on the artist’s skill and situation. It is a classical ideal after all, and Ireland doesn’t lend itself the ideal of the Greeks and Italians, at least not at first glance.

Back in ‘07, and far from the shores of Galway, I briefly worked for the local Italian American Club as a daytime bartender, and took a liking to a group of elderly men who would come in early and hang out with each other. Every now and again one would order a Red Eye — a beer and a tomato juice. I think that they just wanted something to sip on without having to really drink. There would be no sense in asking them why they did it because they had this strange, almost aristocratic, attitude and assumed that people in-the-know knew and that everybody else was an idiot. They were not believers in any sort of explication, and never deigned to do so. As a person who explains things for a living I have come to admire this attitude.

Where Red Eyes came from, I have no idea. It certainly isn’t Italian and I doubt it is Irish. But it is the perfect thing when stranded on a beach, sitting in the shade, and waiting for a goddess to arise from the water.

Or not waiting for her to arise, although she might anyways.

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Notes:
* After writing this post I took the time to google the poem and found that it is commemorated on a plaque at the beach where it was written. I suppose that I should change the opening paragraph, but I doubt that I will.
* A rhyme is two different words phonetically alike from the last stressed vowel to the end of the word. Anyone care to guess which one bothers me?
* I do understand children liking the beach: I care nothing for swimming as an adult but what child doesn’t love digging giant holes in the sand? After the discovery of the periwinkle and the starfish the strand holds no wonder — and all that is left is the battering of each of the four elements in their least agreeable states.
* The old timers will hopefully get their own post later.
* The Internet thinks a Red Eye is something different, but the Internet is generally wrong.
* Let me preemptively not care that any of you self-righteous nudzhes object to my beginning sentences with the word ‘or.’
* Canadians add clam juice and call it “Clam-and-Beer.” The Canadians and their clammy tomato juice will return next week.

 

Auden’s Songs (Cabaret Music pt. I)

I can’t find a suitable version of Auden’s cabaret songs.  I can find some well-done versions, but they are all done in the operatic style.  It may have something to do with Britten’s settings, or the simple fact that Britten did the settings, which are musically fine, but don’t really reflect how good the lyrics are, or the nature of the material.

Opera can ignore bad writing, because it is about the performance, but the same is not true here — the quality of the song depends largely on the quality of the lyrics. That is the story of popular music in the first three quarters of the 20th century.

There was a sentimental movie in my youth that featured one of these songs read aloud at a funeral as if it were a poem. Whoever wrote the screen play showed good judgement here (if not anywhere else).  The lyrics aren’t poetry (there is a very big difference and Auden wrote on the subject) but they do function better on their own.

It doesn’t have to be the case. Certainly, we can imagine these songs would be better if they had been scored by Kurt Weill, or George Gershwin, but it ain’t necessarily so. The music is better than sufficient, but the songs themselves need to be sung in different voices — the baritones and contraltos they were meant for. The ones that could deliver the wry jokes with the sly winks they need.  The songs need to be transposed into a different sensibility (and perhaps into keys low enough for us to hear the words).

But, alas, the song are, and have always been, the property of the classical world.  It is a world of composers and of performers, but not of lyricists. It is a world where changing a key is an act of impiety, where a great performance treats the voice as an instrument, but it is far away from the world where these songs belong.

There Are Days when Poetry Is Required

September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright 
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can 
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return. 

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire 
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
--W.H. Auden

Leonard Cohen: Working Steady

NOTE: this is an unrevised version of an entry from my old blog from August 26th, 2016

NOTE: this is an unrevised version of an entry from my old blog from August 26th, 2016   

Leonard Cohen just published an unpunctuated poem with the following lines:
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I was always working steady
But I never called it art
I was funding my depression
Meeting Jesus reading Marx
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I assume he means:
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I was always working steady,
But I never called it art.
I was funding my depression,
Meeting Jesus reading Marx.
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Rather than:
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I was always working steady,
But I never called it art.
I was funding my depression,
Meeting Jesus, reading Marx.
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The ambiguity in the poem, in a few places, is Cohen’s little joke on us (if you can’t see it look in the kitchen).  But it’s satisfying that the man we have long thought of as an old troubadour is doing the proper troubadour thing.  The poem was just published an hour or so ago, but I already like it.
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I may post about it again when I have had time to think on it a little.

ON THE LATE SEAMUS HEANEY, POET

NOTE: This first appeared on my old blog on August 30th 2013.

Seamus Heaney died today, and the press immediately jumped on his Nobel Prize and his his writing about the The Troubles in Northern Ireland, proving definitively that no one in the press had read his work. The Nobel Prize is a fine thing when used to sell books but it says nothing of merit. At best it is an indicator that a person with solidly centrist political beliefs has reached a certain level of fame and a certain quality of writing, but it says nothing of greatness, or even interest. Heaney was defined by the politics of his time, but what of it? Everyone is. We don’t pretend that Chaucer is a spokesmen for the hundred-year-war generation (or generations as it may be), but certainly as a soldier and a statesman he was created by it.

Instead Heaney’s worth will be his ability to reach people and his ability to have his quirks and queernesses seem completely natural and correct. He was one of the most eccentric and provincial writers ever born but made us all feel as if we were of his tribe and his quirks and queernesses were ours and his province our own.

I have no right or even desire to speak for posterity but I hope he will be read in the future, without cumbersome foot notes or drawn out introductions (posterity I’m sure will have dictionaries if they want to know what a ‘bleb’ is) and just read for his immediacy warmth and miraculous sense of language.