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by David Cope



The Arte of English Poesie (1589)


Puttenham’s book is among the finest of the poetics texts in a tradition that begins with Roman works such as Cicero's Ad C. Herennium and Quintilian's Institutes of Oratory.  Sometimes clearly dated, the book does explore the currently often-neglected art of poetics, especially in its recollection of the growth of the poetic and dramatic arts, in its lucid argument on the traditional purpose of the art, and in its discussions of figures and tropes.  Despite its age, it remains a veritable handbook of techniques which informed the poets of Shakespeare’s age and which provide tools for contemporary poets who wish to extend their skills in the art.  Divided into three “bookes,” the second is especially valuable as an explanation of poetics proper, explaining measure and the effects of various meters, caesura and other pauses as techniques improving oral recitation, the uses of cadence to complement content, ending with discussions of the various metrical feet, and their uses in verse.  The third book explores figurative speech—the various techniques used to intensify and amplify poetic speech, as well as to give it emotive and imagistic clarity.  The Echo Library is to be commended for making this print-on-demand edition available after years of its being out of print. 



The Poems of Charles Reznikoff 1918-1975  


The complete poems of Charles Reznikoff are now republished as a single volume by David R. Godine.  Seminal in the development of this writer, Reznikoff was a major figure among the “objectivist” poets who came of age in the 1930s.  An American master whose work has rarely surfaced in the much-touted anthologies of American poetry, his influence extends through whole generations who came after him; I recall him at the 1973 National Poetry Festival, where Allen Ginsberg and Robert Duncan, in the roles of gifted students, peppered him with questions about poetics.  Trained as a lawyer, Reznikoff displays in his work a steely, unsentimental eye which through his close observation of ordinary lives manages to find the heart of human suffering and elevate it in a quietly compassionate vision.  This volume contains all of the work from the two-volume set published by Black Sparrow; his Testimony remains unpublished, and the famous Holocaust series has been published separately.



Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog:  Medieval Studies and New Media, ed. Brantley L. Bryant.  New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.


As any Chaucerian scholar knows, Geoffrey Chaucer was the greatest master of irony and understated wit in all literature; he had a superb eye for detail and his stories master an enormous variety of genres. More so than with other literary masters, I suggest that Chaucerian scholarship appropriately should mix careful observation with humor, an awareness of our own absurdity, and a delight in the play of language. Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog does just that, exploring the current state of scholarship (with a proper nod to the famed International Congress of Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University) even as the authors compose new works in faux-Middle English, ranging from the mock envy of a modern John Gower's "Why Ye Should Nat Rede This Booke," to "A Pyrates Lyf for Chaucer" and "Serpentes on a Shippe," an hilarious send-up of Snakes on a Plane. Our pyrate tale here has Chaucer taken by the great pyrate Robertson (influential Chaucer critic)who was "terrible for to looke vpon, . . . wyth a skulle and bones y-crossede and a pegge leg and a copye of the De Doctrina Christiana by Seynt Augustine." When Robertson learns of Chaucer's tale-telling ability, he forces him to recite tales each night, with the warning that "yt most likely shal happe that yn the morning Ich shal slaye thee." Eventually, the Drede Pyrate Robertson's ship Cupiditas is taken by the Feerede Buccaneer Donaldson (another critic), and Chaucer is put ashore to tell the tale. There are many other jewels in this book of rare scholarship, both serious and divinely funny, and if you love Chaucer, it's a must-buy.



Edward II.  by Christopher Marlowe.  Perf. Ian McKellen, James Laurenson.  BBC, 2009.


Christopher Marlowe's masterpiece, Edward II, is the first major English History play/ tragedy in the renaissance canon, predating and providing a model for Shakespeare's Richard II and other plays of the genre (for that connection, see Charles R. Forker's magisterial introduction in the Manchester U Revels Plays edition). It's also an important work in the LGBTQ literary canon, as the love affair between Piers Gaveston and his king is the first open, unabashed representation of gay characters on the English stage, and the poetry of that love affair is marvelous. The play also features a villainous cadre of Machiavellian lords and churchmen who despise Gaveston for his lower class beginnings, his and Edward's wasting of the nation's treasury, and for Gaveston's sexuality.


As a film, the play is already known to many through Derek Jarman's 1992 experimental version of it, featuring good performances by an angry, spiteful Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan) and Queen Isabella (a young Tilda Swinton). Its chief feature is a peculiar cutting and pasting of text and plotline, interlarding the play with a song performed by Annie Lennox, as well as modern  gay rights demonstrations (largely male) and police brutality.


That said, the 1969 BBC Edward II starring a very young and gorgeous Ian McKellen in a filmed stage performance of the play is a wonderful surprise, a delight in every way. McKellen is more passionate, spontaneous, and utterly possessed by his role than I have ever seen him; he has obviously learned his chops, but there's a sense that this performance is 90% "going on nerves" in the best sense. James Laurenson's Gaveston is more nuanced than Tiernan's, and the film itself is less polemic than Jarman's: it focuses much more closely on the depth of their love. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, and one should not be put off by the fact that this is a film of stage performance; the work is so good that one quickly overlooks the difficulties of transition. Costumes bring one a humorous reminder of the colorful sixties, but they aren't too intrusive, and the film quality is very good, given the fact that this is a product of that decade. 



Great Performances:  King Lear.  Dir. Trevor Nunn and Chris Hunt.  Perf Ian McKellen, Romola Garal, Sylvester McCoy. PBS, 2009.


The role of Lear is famously difficult for the many contrary demands it places on the actor, and it must be said at the outset that Ian McKellan acquits himself admirably in this production. Romola Garal's Cordelia and Sylvester McCoy's Fool are also carefully inter-preted, as is Jonathan Hyde's Kent. Ben Meyjes' Edgar begins as a nerdy older brother and completes the metamorphosis through Poor Tom the madman to avenging hero in a way that stretches the role: I was left wondering if that initial Edgar would even know how to handle a sword, so in the end there may be some unanswered questions about the character. Beyond this, pacing and filmic quality are good, despite the inevitable risks in trying to shoot a stage production on film. McKellan's interview, the only special feature here, is also a "don't miss"—the great actor meditates on his profession. The problem is the rest of the cast—an Edmund (Philip Winchester) who couldn't hold a candle to Robert Lindsey's dynamic performance in Olivier's production, a Goneril and Regan (Frances Barber and Monica Dolan) who rarely capture the intricacies of their roles. Despite the flaws, this film makes a worthy addition to my collection, though it does not rise to the intense pathos of Olivier's tenderly heartbreaking agony or the mythic, heroically tragic Lear of Kosintsev.



Playing Shakespeare.  by John Barton. Dir. John Carlaw.  Perf. John Barton, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Ben Kingsley, et al.  9 episodes.  Acorn Media/Athena, 2009. 


This collection features the great John Barton's master classes in acting Shakespeare and features some of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the age as his assistants. The format is a combination of socratic dialogue and acting demonstration in which Barton uses his extraordinary skills as a dramaturge to tease out the subtleties of performance indicated by the verse itself. It's also a continuous delight in that one gets to see acting greats McKellan, Dench, Stewart, Kingsley, Suchet, the great Peggy Ashcroft, and many others articulating their own approaches to their profession. There are nine episodes for a total of 456 minutes of instruction and demonstration, and the box contains a booklet which highlights the main points of each episode, as well as a series of questions which suggest avenues for exploring each episode's premises further. The series is a must-have for true Shakespeare lovers, actors, theatre programs, and anyone with a deep appreciation for the craft of acting and the enormous beauty of Shakespeare's scripts. 



40th Century Man:  Selected Verse.  by Andy Clausen.  Brooklyn:  Autonomedia, 1997.


Early in his career, Andy Clausen chose "Ma Joad's people, the blues singer's people, the backwoods and backalley ones" as "my chosen people," and he has unswervingly followed that path through over thirty years worth of oral poetry whose pagescript can only barely suggest the power of his voice—yet the depth of feeling is always there, even on the page. Allen Ginsberg once characterized Andy's voice as "heroic, a vox populi of the democratic unconscious," and his work is all of that—outspoken, openly politicized and hugely, roughly spiritual, but what is often overlooked is the admittedly risky tender-ness and intimacy of much of his work—from the heartbreaking honesty of childhood sorrow in "Send You Back" to the unabashed clear memory of his own excitement at his daughter's birth in "Ramona." Some of his best work is here, including the comic sadness of "Ahoj! Mr. President, Ahoj!" and immense paradoxes of "Gokyo Lake," the prophetic "They Are Coming" ("the derelict women poets are coming!"), and the tears of "The Night Kerouac Died." The book does lack a few of his best poems—perhaps most notably the revelatory "The Porters of Namaste," the heroic "At the Top of My Lungs: An Open Letter to the Russian People," and the early, almost objectivist working sequence, "In the Cab—Out of the Cab." Yet it's the best shot of Andy's long and distinguished peripatetic workingman's blues now available, thirty years of rough and tumble poetry that pulls no punches and sings like there's no tomorrow.



The Dance of Yellow Lightning over the Ridge, by Jim Cohn.  Rochester:  Writers & Books, 1998.


Jim Cohn's fourth collection of poems continues the various strands of his work- including the "world grief" group framing the book, a group of "beat generation/fathers" poems, a group that marks this book as a personal coming to terms with the past and struggling to define the present, the wilderness landscape & "Asian echo" poems, the developing rabbi/Jewish poem series, and finally, the quirky humor poems. The "World Grief" theme is the deepest and consistently most affecting strand throughout all his work, whether in the opening "Wu Xiaonai" or "Viewing Schindler's List," the absolutely stunning "I Give Up My Place in the World To Come" or the clinically understated horror of "It Is Said That Intellectuals From The Universities Wrote Lists Of Those To Be Slaughtered" and "Witness No. 87," or in the more personal explorations of "Naked Guru Kiva Mosh Pit," "To One I Saw Despondent At A Rave," or the stripped-down questioning "Domestic Terror Couplets." Jim's series playing on the Beat generation fathers includes poems that are often playful and yet which intimate a deeper sense of lineage and purpose: these include "Notes From A Tribute to Allen Ginsberg by Sharon Olds," "On Rooftop, Denver Press Club," and "Peter Orlovsky's Jack Kerouac Lecture & Revelation." These poems present some homage, some wonder, some sense of all our poetic fathers as Charlie Chaplinmen shuffling like sacred clowns in visionary ecstasy, unseen & yet strangely wise to the foolishness of those seriously ambitious peddlers of dreams and those bent on remaking the world in their own images. The book's also coming to terms with the past and struggling to define a present—it's the dream of one's father in uniform with its opportunity, the farewell prayer to one's former spouse on her wedding day, the transfigured vision of lost love & shared spirit despite that loss in "The Hummingbirds," but also the day his "Basic Skills English Class Finished Reading To Kill A Mockingbird." Wilderness landscapes punctuate the collection—"Jemez Mountains Meditation," "Interpreting The Petroglyphs At Deluge Shelter," and "Oh Be Joyful." Diverse in mood, the series of "Asian echo" poems features the melancholy "Like Wang Wei," the wisdom of "Su Tung P'o: The Hits," and the prayerful "Excarnate," inscribed after Basho. Of all the poems in this group, however, the rabbi series is this reader's personal favorite: "New Years Sermon," its rabbi both pathetic in the final loss of his faculties and wonderful in the length of his committed service through the century's hells & ecstasies; "Ten Menorahs'" Hanukkah hopefulness despite the despair that marks so many lives; and "Shouldn't Have To Do This," the old rabbi's struggle to fathom his own pain at the loss of his oldest friend. Finally there are the quirky humor poems, such as "When Robots Cry," "Meeting The World Wide Web Salesman and "I Took A Dump In The Bathroom of Pain," a fit piece to close the book, with its naked wonder of "how simply you return to yourself," its recognition of renewal and its paradoxical resignation: "we love and we lose but only among the living."



Note:  The reviews of The Arte of English Poesie and The Poems of Charles Reznikoff 1918-1975 both appeared in the “Books” section of my Facebook page; all others are product reviews found with the product description and price of the individual item at Amazon.com.