These Jeanne Moreau-ish Bourgeois eyeballs (cast upward as, we are told, is proper to champagne sipping) led me to the entrance of the Williams College Museum of Art in a faint drizzle. Autumn has a light touch here: a burgundy fringe on the roadside, gold and blush in haptic patches on the tree crowns, like the burnish on a pear.
Inside, Modernism Concentrate: a Larry Rivers, a Diebenkorn, a deKooning, a Cornell—bang bang bang. Upstairs, a perfect Pisarro. A perfect Piero della Francesca. I wandered through the exhibition on Gerald and Sara Murphy, pausing at video of a Stravinsky ballet that made the hackles on my neck rise as I recalled the quote from Edith Sitwell’s A Poet’s Notebook that I had just been reading that morning in a coffeeshop:
Cocteau, writing in “Le Coq et l’Arlequin” (Le Rappel a l’Ordre) of a great work of this nature, the ballet Parade, of which he, Picasso, and Satie were the authors, said, “For the majority of artists a work cannot be beautiful without a plot, involving mysticism, love, or boredom. Brevity, gaiety, sadness without romance are suspect. The hypocritical elegance of the Chinaman, the melancholy of the Little Girl’s steamboats, the touching silliness of the Acrobats, all that which has remained a dead letter to the public, would have pleased them, if the Acrobat had been in love with the Little Girl, and had been killed by the jealous Chinaman, who had then been killed, in his turn, by the wife of the Acrobat—or any of the other thirty-six dramatic combinations.”
We’ll pass over the bitterness—plus ca change!—to wonder briefly if Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the mock-tragedy “Pyramus and Thisby”) was a comment on the silliness of the “thirty-six dramatic combinations.” You know: the secret lovers meet at night, but on her way to the assignation Thisby sees a lion, runs off affrighted, and leaves her scarf for the lion to mangle. Pyramus happens on the scarf and thinking Thisby a goner, slays himself. Thisby happens on slain Pyramus, slays herself, etc. All this relayed with a giggle. Silly plot, silly market for proto-liebestod!
I was at Williams for the inaugural reading of the Poetry Now series (which, if you live near Williamstown MA, you ought to check out). It was an honor to share the stage with the terrific poet Monica de la Torre and critic Michael Wood, who suggested that poets are really treating words as things in a new way. I thought that we find this use of words in Shakespeare, especially in the deployment of puns. (In the Elizabethan Age, words throw shadows.) Wood quickly agreed, and suggested this feeling for words was lost by the Romantics.
A professor in the audience wanted more clarification of this. But I think what Wood was thinking of was Shelley’s constant sublimation of poetry to music, airs, melodies, spectra. On the other hand, there’s Keats:
SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Hard not to think of this stanza as a sculpture (see above, casting eyes up as if to sip champagne…) rather than an air.
Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...