December 6, 2012

"Pure Poetry" | essay by Douglas Messerli (on the lyrics of Cole Porter's Anything Goes)

pure poetry
by Douglas Messerli
P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, revised by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, revised again by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman (book), Cole Porter (music and lyrics) Anything Goes / the production I saw was on December 1, 2012 at Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles

The musical Anything Goes has been rewritten so many times, adding Porter’s songs from other musicals while subtracting several of the original songs, that one might almost describe what I witnessed the other day as a shadow of its first conception, even if, arguably, the layering revisions have burnished it into a better work. Most of the changes, however, have been to the story, and since the silly couplings and un-couplings of the work hardly matter, it is hard to be interested in the “ur-text.” I will be glad to except Timothy Crouse’s and John Weidman’s assurances that they were “purists” “but only to a point.” What is important is that they restored as much of Porter’s score as they could, adding only three wonderful Porter songs “Friendship,” “It’s De-Lovely,” and “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye.”

The story, in fact, pretty much lives up to the musical’s title, the characters almost changing partners willy-nilly. This time round nightclub singer (former evangelist?) Reno loves Billy, Billy loves Hope, Hope pretends to love Lord Evelyn Oakleigh but really loves Billy, Lord Evelyn loves Reno, Elisha Whitney loves Evangeline Harcourt, and Erma loves everybody. Enough said. The book—whatever version you choose—makes soap operas, by comparison, look like grand operas. “Frothy” is the appropriate word.
      Yet this chestnut has been immensely popular since its 1934 opening in New York, running 420 performances even during the great depression, and reappearing in successful productions in England and New York in 1935 (261 performances), 1962, 1987 (784 performances), 1989 and 2011 (521 performances). What I saw was a sold-out performance of the touring version of the 2011 production. Why has it succeeded again and again?
     The answer, quite obviously, is not just a cast of talented singers and dancers (a requirement of course!) but Cole Porter, who in this and other works turns what might have been tin-pan ditties into pure American poetry. Sure, the music itself is spritely and often borders on a kind regularized jazz. But those words! No one, not even Stephen Sondheim, can write as wittily idiomatic lyrics while pulling his audiences into a kind of licentious world that hints of everything from adultery and drug addiction to sexual orgies and open homosexuality, with his characters simultaneously hoofing up innocent-seeming line dances across the stage.
      The fun begins with this show’s very first song, “I Get a Kick Out of You,” where Broadway libertine Reno Sweeney (the talented Rachel York) tells Billy about her frigidity concerning everyday life:

                                      I get no kick from champagne.
                                      Mere alcohol doesn’t thrill me at all,
                                      So tell me why should it be true
                                      That I get a kick out of you?
                                       Some get a kick from cocaine.
                                       I’m sure that if I took even one sniff
                                       That would bore me terrific’ly too
                                       Yet I get a kick out of you.

The whole idea of sexual excitement being likened to a “kick,” compared to champagne and cocaine would be unimaginable in Irving Berlin’s near-Puritanized romances. Berlin could be funny, even witty, but couldn’t be funny, witty, and naughty at the same time. When Berlin’s characters said they loved someone they meant it, for all time. For Reno and numerous other characters of Porter’s world love my haunt one, even torture one, but it was seldom seen as permanent and could even be an everyday occurrence, something to traffic in, something someone might what to “buy”—just like champagne and cocaine.

Or consider the wonderful shifts in the notion of “friendship” in the song titled that. It begins as a song of spirited support of one being for another, in this case the musical’s two major “hustlers,” Reno and Moonface Martin (the 13th most wanted criminal):
                                If you’re ever in a jam, here I am
                                If you’re ever in a mess, S.O.S.
                                If you’re so happy, you land in jail. I’m your bail.

     But gradually as they each try to outdo one another in imagining life-saving necessities, the song becomes a kind of contest which reveals that underneath their “perfect friendship” there is not only an open competiveness but a true hostility:
                                 If they ever black your eyes, put me wise.
                                 If they ever cook your goose, turn me loose.
                                 If they ever put a bullet through your brain, I’ll complain.

The lyrics grow even more outlandish as they imagine the worst for one another:

                                  If you ever lose your mind, I’ll be kind.
                                  And if you ever lose your shirt, I’ll be hurt.
                                  If you ever in a mill get sawed in half, I won’t laugh.

It finally ends with imagining each other being eaten by cannibals, in which the second half answers “invite me.”
     These are not the words of supportive human beings, but of criminals who might turn on each other in a minute. Pluming the unconscious depths of Americans’ fascination with violence—notably present in the entertainments of the 1930s—Porter has created almost a paean to the macabre, a world wherein people land up in jail, put bullets through brains, lose their minds, get sawed in half, and are consumed by cannibals, lines somewhat reminiscent of William Carlos Williams’ observation “the pure products of America / go crazy” and Allen Ginsberg’s opening line in Howl: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked….”
     Hearing once more the musical’s title song, “Anything Goes,” I realized that, again, the most important thing about this work is its lyrics—which unfortunately, in the quick-paced rhythms, got somewhat lost in York’s rendition; suddenly it became clear to me that the original Reno, played by Ethel Merman, with her emphatic pronunciations of every word, may have been the perfect Porter interpreter—ensuring that the audiences heard every one of Porter’s quips.
     Like the peeved reactions of conservative parents through the mid 1960s, Porter presciently reiterates the very same issues of change in his opening refrain:

                                    Times have changed
                                    And we’ve often got a shock,
                                    When they landed on Plymouth Rock.
                                    If today,
                                    Any shock they should try to stem,
                                    ‘Stead of landing of Plymouth Rock,
                                    Plymouth Rock would land on them.

The song goes on to explain the topsy-turvy morality of the contemporary world:

                                     The world has gone mad today
                                     And good’s bad today,
                                     And black’s white today,
                                     And day’s night today,
                                     When most guys today
                                     That women prize today
                                     Are just silly gigolos

Porter might almost have added: “Or are gay today.” Indeed, Porter does add himself, indirectly, to that list:

                                     Good authors too who once knew better words,
                                     Now only use four letter words
                                     Writing prose, Anything Goes.

     The incessant repetition of the word “today” simply reiterates the inescapable contem-poraneity of it all, the insistence of this song’s presentness without past or future. Porter’s world—at least in this musical—is without guilt or consequence, a godless place where “grandma’s who are eighty” sit in nightclubs getting “matey with gigolos,” where  “mother’s pack and leave poor father” to become “tennis pros,” and “The set that’s smart / Is intruding in nudist parties in studios.”  It is a world we all imagine we live in or, at least, might liked to have lived in, even if the truth is something far different; and for that reason, the elderly audience with whom I sat at the matinee performance, instead of being even slightly taken aback, leaned forward with complete enthusiasm, as the cast tap-tap-tapped.
       In such an “anything goes” atmosphere Porter was freed up to even question the normal structure of his songs, to query and even challenge the standard introductory lead-ins and normalized language of Broadway music:

                                     I feel a sudden urge to sing
                                     The kind of ditty that invokes the spring.
                                     I’ll control my desire to curse
                                     While you crucify the verse.
                                     This verse I started seems to me
                                     The Tin-Pantithesis of a melody.

                                     So spare us all the pain,
                                     Just skip the darn thing and sing the refrain…      

Of course, what they sing is “delightful, delicious, de-lovey, delirious” in its de-construction of the English language, letting themselves go in thrilling, drilling (de-de-de-de) of words that suggest being out of control.
     Porter’s lyrics almost always seem to be slightly over the top, about to spill over into pure ridiculousness as they finally do in “You’re the Top,” where the same couple, Reno and Billy, again in an attempt to outdo one another, compare each other with almost anything that comes to mind, from the Louvre Museum, to a symphony by Strauss, to a Shakespeare sonnet and even Mickey Mouse, blithely jumping across the bodies of outstanding individuals, expensive drinks, glorious visions of nature, national institutions, celebrity salaries, to end in marvelous industrial creations, moving across the whole society as if it were all of one piece—not unlike Williams in his Spring and All. *
                                        You’re the top!
                                        You’re Mahatma Gandhi.
                                        You’re the top!
                                        You’re Napoleon Brandy.
                                        You’re the purple light
                                        Of a summer night in Spain,
                                        You’re the National Galley
                                        You’re Garbo’s salary,
                                        You’re cellophane.**

Never has the simple metaphor been used to such an extreme example! At one grand moment the couple compare each other to the great romantic poets only to suddenly drop into the most banal of American consumer products:

                                         You’re Keats.
                                         You’re Shelley,
                                         You’re Ovaltine. (,)

 hinting at the purist poetry possible!


*Compare, for example, these lines from Williams’ Spring and All from 1923:

O “Kiki”
O Miss Margaret Jarvis
The backhandspring

I: clean
    clean: yes . .  New York

Wrighley’s, appendicitis, James Marin:
Skyscraper soup—

 Either that or a bullet!

**Surely it is not coincidental that in the very same year as the Broadway production of  Anything Goes, 1934, Four Saints in Three Acts, Gertrude Stein’s and Virgil Thomson’s noted opera, premiered in Hartford, Connecticut, the set festooned with cellophane. The opera had been previously performed in Ann Arbor in a concert version in 1933.

December 4, 2012

Zbigniew Herbert (Poland) 1924-1998

Zbigniew Herbert (Poland)

Born on October 29, 1924 in Lwów, Poland. Herbert was attended the Państwowe VIII Gimnazjum I Liceum im. Króla Kazimierza Wielkiego we Lwowie until the German and Svoiet invastions in 1939. During the German occupation the poet continued his studies at secret meetings organized by the Polish underground, graduating and passing the A-level exam in January 1944.
     Herbert worked as a lice-feeder in the Rudolf Weigl Insstitute, production anti-typhus vacines and as a salesman in a metal shop until passing his exam, upon which he began Polish Philology studies (also held in secret) at University of Jan Kazimierz in Lwów. He had to drop out however when the family moved to Kraków before the 1944 invasion of the Soviet Red Army. After the war his hometown of Lwów, no longer within the Polish borders, would become a Ukrainian Soviet city.

The family originally lived near Kraków in Proszowice, while Herbert studied Economics in Kraków and attended lectures at the Jagiellonian University and the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1947, he received his Trade Academy diploma and moved, with his parents to Sopot, working at several different jobs, in the Polish National Bank, as a sub-editor for the journal Prezgląd Kupiecki, and, in Gdańsk, in the department of the Polish Writers’ Union. During this time he met Halina Misiołkowa at the Union, developing a relationship that would last until 1957.
     Herbert also continued Law studies at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, where he ultimately received a Master of Law. Shortly thereafter he worked in the District Museum and as a primary school teacher.
     In 1951, he moved to Warsaw to study Philosophy at the University of Warsaw, living in poor conditions, at one point living in a room rented by 12 people. He attempted to live from his writing, but his style did not follow the social-realistic dictates, and he refused to write political propaganda. He did publish, however, in the weekly magazine Tygodnik Wybreż his poetry cycle, Poetyka dla Laikó (Poetry for the Lay People), as well as reviewing for the journal Slwo Powszechne under both name and the pen name Patryk. Under another pen name, Stefan Martha, Herbert published in Dziś I Jutro, a publication of Catholic-based PAX Association. But with the closure of the more oppositional magazine, Tygodnik Powszechny, Herbert felt he could no longer cooperate with the more collaborationist PAX. He earned some money froom writing biographies, for a period in 1952, becoming a salaried blood donor. For a short period of time he worked as the manager of the management office of the Union of Socialist Composers.
      Although he had published other works of poetry previously, it was not until the end of Stalinism in Poland that he could devote himself to poetic writing. In 1956 he was offered a small studio and won a scholarship of 100 US dollars, that permitted him to travel abroad. Throughout the next several years, Herbert would become a traveler, moving throughout Western Europe, to England, Scotland, the United States, and elsewhere while living off of awards and small stipends. In 1968, he married Katarzyna Dzieduszycka at the Polish consulate in France.
     From 1971 to 1973, he returned to Poland, living in Artur Międzyrecki’s flat in Warsaw, and joining the board of the Polish Literary Association. That same year he also joined the Polish P.E.N. club. But he 1975 through 1981, he was again traveling through Germany, Austria, and Italy, returning to Poland in 1981, joining the editorial board of the underground journal Zapis and writing under his own name. In 1986, Herbert returned to Paris, where he joined the Polish Writers’ Association and became a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1991 he received the Jerusalem Prize, giving him an opportunity to travel to Israel, where he became a close friend of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.
     Seriously ill, Herbert returned to Warsaw in 1992, and by 1994 was wheelchair bound, although he continued to write and traveled even to Holland. On July 28, 1998, Herbert died, awarded, posthumously the Order of the White Eagle, but his widow declined to accept. In 2007, however, he was invested with the Order of the White Eagle, which his family finally accepted.
     Because his poetry was often rejected or banned, Herbert’s book publications were relatively late in his life, most of them published over a period from 1961 to 1999. But he also wrote essays, fiction, and drama, and his work quickly found an international audience, most of his work being translated close to its original Polish publication in English. Among his many international awards was the Austrian State Prize for European Literature (1965), the Herder Prize (1973), the German Petraca-Preis (1979), the Struga Prize (1981), the International Literary Prize of the Arts Council of Wales (1987), The Bruno Schulz Prize (given by the American Foundation of Polish-Jewish Studies and American P.E.N) (1988), and the previously mentioned Jerusalem Prize.


Struna światł (Warsaw: Czvtelnik, 1956); Hermes, pies I gwiazda (Warsaw: Czvtelnik, 1957); Stadium przedmiotu (Warsaw: Czvtelnik, 1961); Napis (Warsaw: Czvtelnik, 1969); Pan Cogito (Warsaw: Czvtelnik, 1974); Raport z oblężonego Miasta I inne wiersze (Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1983); Elegia na odejście (Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1990); Rovigo (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, 1992); Epilog burzy (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, 1998); 89 wierszy (Kraków, 1998); Podwójny oddech. Prawdziwa historia nieskończonej miłośi. Wiersze dotąd niepublikowane (Gdynia: Małgorzata Marchlewska Wydawnictwo, 1999)

Selected Poems, Czesław Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott, trans. (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Modern European Poets, 1968; reprinted by New York: Ecco Press, 1986); Report from the Besieged City, trans. by John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter (New York: Ecco Press, 1985); Mr. Cogito, trans. by John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter (New York: Ecco Press, 1993); Elegy for the Departure, trans. by John Carpenter and Bogdana Carpenter (New York: Ecco Press, 1999); The Collected Poems: 1956-1998, trans. by Czesław Miłosz, Peter Dale Scott, and Alissa Valles (New York: Ecco Press, 2007); Zbigniew Herbert, Selected Poems, trans. by Czesław Miłosz, Peter Dale Scotjt, John and Bogdana Carpenter (Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2007)

For a selection of poets by Zbigniew Herbert, go here:

December 3, 2012

Ana Christina César (Brazil) 1952-1983

Ana Cristina César (Brazil)


Born in 1952 in Rio de Janeiro, César wrote for newspapers and alternative journals in the 1970s. She was also active in journalism, television, and literary research. Her published books of the period include Nada esta espuma; Cenas de abril, Correspondência Completa; and Luvas de Pelica, collected under the title A teus pés in 1982.

On October 29, 1983,
 César committed suicide, apparently as a result of her sexual involvements in Rio de Janeiro during the Military Dictatorship.
     Several of her manuscripts were collected after he death as Escritos da Inglaterra in 1985. Her posthumous work also includes the book of poetry Inêditos e Dispersos.


Nada esta espuma; Cenas de abril (Rio de Janeiro: Edição do autor, 1970); Correspondência Completea; Luva de Pelica: A tues pés (São Paulo: Editora Brasilense, 1982); Inêditos e Dispersos (São Paulo: Editora Brasilense, 1985)



Polly Kellogg and the chauffeur Osmar.
Rapid but intense dramas.
Photo romances of the conceptual heart.
Of the navy blue strapless dress.
I swallow insults but with sincerity.
Giddy with good sense.
Aerial of the square.
Artist of savings.
Absolutely blind.
Lust for the perhaps.
Mincing gait.
Water in my mouth.
An angel that registers.

—Translated from the Portuguese by John Milton

Nothing, This Foam
To confront desire
I insist on the evil of writing
but I don’t know if the goddess comes up to the surface
or if she just punishes me with her howls.
From the bulwarks of this boat
how I long for the mermaid’s breasts.

—Translated from the Portuguese by John Milton

it’s very clear
love is here
to stay
on this open veranda
night falls over the city
under construction
on the small constriction
on your breast
anguish of happiness
car headlights
slashing time
road works
at rest
a sudden recoil from the plot

—Translated from the Portuguese by John Milton


Late at night I put the whole house back in its
I put all the leftover papers away.
I make sure of the soundness of the locks.
I never said another word to you.
From the top of the hills of Petrópolis,
With a pointed hat and a watering can,
Elizabeth confirmed, “The act of losing
isn’t hard to master.”
I rip up the leftover paper.
“Your eyes sin, but your body
doesn’t,” said the precise, simultaneous translator,
and it was his hands that trembled. “It’s dangerous,”
laughed the skilled Carolina on Kodak paper.
The lowdown camera panned.
The voiceover in the hills, indestructible
tamed fire of passion, the voice
of the mirror of my eyes
denying all the journeys,
and the shrill voice of speed,
I drank a little of all three
without noticing
like someone looking for a thread.
I never said another word to you,
I repeat, I state firmly,
late at night
while I lose direction
with no luxury
the seemings I heard in an endless day:
without seeming more like the dazzling light of this
                                 same interminable day  

—Translated from the Portuguese by John Milton

Poems reprinted from Régis Bonvicino, Michael Palmer, and Nelson Ascher, eds., The PIP Anthology of World Poetry of the 20th Century, Volume 3: Nothing the Sun Could Not Explain—20 Contemporary Brazilian Poets (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2003). English language copyright ©by John Milton. Reprinted by permission of Green Integer.

"Décio Pignatari (1927-2012)" | short obituary by Charles Bernstein [link]

For a short obituary on the Brazilian poet and theorist, Décio Pignatari, go to link below:

December 2, 2012

Eugenio Montale (Italy) 1896-1981

Eugenio Montale (Italy)

The youngest of six boys, Eugenio Montale was born in Genoa on October 12, 1896. His father was a chemical product trader. As the youngest son, Montale was, as he put it, “released from the task to keep up the family’s name.
      In 1915 he worked as an accountant, but was allowed a great deal of free time to frequent the public libraries and to attend his sister Marianna’s private philosophy classes. He studied opera with Ernest Sivori.

In the war of 1915-1918, Montale became an infantry officer, but with the death of Sivori, he turned to literature, devoting himself to poetry. In 1921 he contributed to Primo Temp, demonstrating what the Nobel committee has described as “a rare critical talent through his acuteness and independence of conventional patterns.” Montale also contributed to the newspaper, Corriere della Sera, and wrote a large number of essays on literature, music, and art, including a foreward for an edition of The Divine Comedy.
     His first collection of poetry, Ossi di seppia (1925, Cuttlefish Bones) quickly became one of the major works of contemporary Italian poetry. Critics praised its interlinking poems, which created a sense of a continuous narrative not unlike a novel.
     In 1928 Montale moved to Florence, becoming the director in the Gabinetto Vieusseux library. During this period, her contributed to the magazine Solaria and frequented the literary café Le Giubbe Rosse (Red Jackets). An anti-fascist, he refused to join the party then in power, and was dismissed from his job.
    Now hindered with financial difficulties and having to face the conservative demands of the authorities, Montale still found a way to publish one of his most important collections, Le occasione (1939, The Occasions). Having developed a close relationship with the Jewish-American Dante scholar, Irma Brandeis, he represented her several times in that collection, as a mediatrix figure not unlike Dante’s Beatrice.
     Throughout World War II and immediately after, Montale continued to publish new works, often however in small print runs, including Finisterre (1943), published in Lugano, translations, Quaderno di traduczion (Milan, 1948), and a book of poetry criticism, La fiera letteraria (1948).
     In 1956 the poet published another collection poems, La bufera e altro (The Storm and Other Things) in Venice. A collection of stories, Farfalla di Dinard was printed privately that same year.
     In 1961, Montale was awarded an honorary degree at the University of Rome, and soon after, similar degrees from the universities of Milan, Cambridge, and Basel. Appointed in 1967 as a senator for life “in recognition of his distinguished achievements in the literary and artistic fields,” Montale was freed from his daily writing chores as music critic at the Corriere della Sera. Throughout this period, he was able to publish a wide range of poetry (Satura, 1962; Xernia, 1966; and his collected poems in 1977), as well as travel writing, cultural criticism, and other works.
     In 1975, Montale received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
     He died in Milan in 1981.


Ossi de seppia (Lanciano: Carabba, 1925); La casa dei doganieri e alter poesie (Florence: Vallecchi, 1932); Le occasioni (Turin: Einaudi, 1939); Finisterre (Lugano, Collano di Lugano, 1943); La bufera e altro (Venice: Neri Pozza, 1956; reprinted as a larger edition: Milan: Arnaldo Mondadori, 1957); Satura (Verona: Oficina Bodoni, 1962); Xenia (private edition, 1966); Il colpevole (Milan: V. Scheiwiller, 1966); Satura (1962-1970) (1971); Diario del ’71 e del ’72 (Milan: Mondadori, 1973); Tutte le poesie (Milan: Mondadori, 1977); L’opera in versi (1980; reprinted as Altri verse e poesie disperse Milan: Mondadori, 1981); Tutte le poesie, ed. by Giorgio Zampa (1991)

Poems, trans. by Edwin Morgan (Reading, England: University of Reading, 1959); Poesie: Poems, trans. by George Kay (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1964); Selected Poems, trans. by Glauco Cambon (New York: New Directions, 1965); Provisional Conclusions: A Selectionof the Poetry of Eugenio Montale, trans. by Edith Farnsworth (Chicago: Regernery, 1970); Xenia, trans. by Ghan Singh (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1970); Motetti: The Motets of Eugenio Montale, trans. by Lawrence Kart (Grabhom Hoyem press, 1973, reprinted Minneapolis: Gray Wolf Press, 1990); Selected Poems (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1975); New Poems, trans. by Ghan Singh (New York: New Directions, 1976); Xenia and Motets, trans. by Kate Hughes (Agenda Editions, 1977); It Depends: A Poet’s Notebook, trans. by Ghan Singh (New York: New Directions, 1980); Otherwise: Last and First Poems, trans. by Jonathan Galassi (New York: Random House, 1984); The Storm and Other Things, trans. by William Arrowsmith (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986); The Occasions, trans. by William Arrowsmith (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987); The Coastguard’s House: Selected Poems, trans. by Jeremy Reed (Tarset, Northumberland, England: Bloodaxe, 1990); Cuttlefish Bones: 1920-1927 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992); Collected Poems: 1920-1954, trans. by Jonathan Galassi (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997); Collected Poems, trans. by Jonathan Galassi (Manchester: Carcanet, 1999); Collected Poems: 1916-1956, trans. by Jonathan Gallasi (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997); Collected Poems: 1920-1954, trans. by Jonathan Galassi (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998); Selected Poems, trans. by Jonathan Galassi, Charles Wright, and David Young (Oberlin, Ohio: Oberlin College Press, 2004)

For a small selection of 7 poems by Montale, click below: