If the world sorts into Stones and Beatles people, I’m Kinks. Where the Stones had sex and swagger, and the Beatles structure and strings, the Kinks were a more ambiguous outfit whose pull I find harder to account for.
Andy Miller gets at the underdog appeal that’s always drawn me to the band in his 33⅓ book on their masterpiece, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society. While the Beatles had access to Abbey Road studios and EMI engineers, the Kinks had to settle for night sessions in the cramped, tobacco-darkened Pye Studio 2. If the Beatles wanted brass or woodwinds, they called in George Martin and an orchestra; Ray Davies made do with the cheaper tape loops of the Mellotron. When the release date finally arrived—November 22, 1968—Village Green dropped the same day as The White Album. The Beatles promptly sold 2 million copies in the first two weeks; the Kinks less than 25,000.
Since poets are the Kinks to just about everyone else’s Beatles, November 22nd’s my secret Christmas of literary time, feast where the manger proves a throne. Davies’s record eventually found its ears, and it turns out posterity had room for a Ray, Paul and John.
My favorite professor in college was Stephen Booth, who struck me at the time as Kinks to the Beatles of Stephen Greenblatt, the department’s other Shakespearean. Booth’s “You Really Got Me”—his monster hit from yesterday’s charts—was his 1977 edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets; Greenblatt was playing stadiums with the New Historicism. I never knew of any rivalry between them, but I was at an age of passionate sorting, and I’d settled on Booth as my Kinks.
The best lecture I ever saw Booth give—that I’ve ever seen, hands down—was on a single paragraph from Huckleberry Finn. Booth wasn’t a powerful lecturer. He could seem ill at ease at the podium, and on some days read his lectures out straight from the notes. He shined though in the back-and-forth with students. If you’ve read his endnotes to the Sonnets, you’ll know that his approach to Shakespeare involves identifying a cloud of potential meanings for each line, some contradictory, then showing how each one is plausible. Since the mind can’t settle on a single interpretation, it often fills in the gaps to make a provisional sense where there really isn’t one. Booth’s gift as a teacher was to make you rigorously aware that Shakespeare rarely says just what you think he’s saying. Whatever meaning or moral you’ve extracted is surrounded by a cloud of overtones, traces of alternate readings you might equally have taken that vibrate just beneath the surface sense.
What I took away from Booth’s class is that this double experience—assembling a working meaning while at the same time learning to recognize that no definitive interpretive choice is possible—is pleasurable. It’s central to the pleasure of Shakespeare, and Booth made us alive to its pleasures in all great literature. It wasn’t much of a leap, even at eighteen, to go from Booth’s aesthetics to a freshman form of ethics. Moving through a sonnet is like moving through the world, whose ringing certainties are equally ambiguous and paradoxical, calling upon the Boothian virtues of honesty, attention, independence, humility and, finally, a capacity for pleasure in situations where meaning’s necessarily precarious.
Somewhere along the river, Huck and Jim sneak into a circus. The ringmaster’s being razzed by a clown, then a drunk interrupts the performance, boasting he can ride the trick horse as well as anyone until “the whole show come to a standstill.” Booth started to read us the passage, but I figured it wasn’t one of his good days, since he stopped about here and asked the class for a volunteer to finish it. Hands shot up, and someone near the middle of the hall was picked to come up to the lectern. The new reader went on to the part where the crowd turns on the drunk—“Knock him down! throw him out!”—and the ringmaster restores order by proposing they give him a chance on the horse, so long as he shuts up once he’s thrown.
The student who was reading seemed unremarkable, a little nervous and mechanical, hunched over the book concerned not to lose his place. The drunk clambers onto the horse, which instantly “begun to rip and tear and jump and cavort around, with two circus men hanging on to his bridle trying to hold him, and the drunk man hanging on his neck, and his heels flying in the air at every jump, and the whole crowd of people standing up shouting and laughing till tears rolled down.”
Around this point, our reader started to grow more confident. He’d found his rhythm, and tripped more smoothly through the sentences. When the drunk, against all expectation, gets hold of the bridle and starts to right himself, “a-reeling this way and that,” the reader straightened up and began to gesture while he read. By the time the drunk amazed the crowed by standing up on the horse’s back, “a-sailing around as easy and comfortable as if he warn’t ever drunk in his life,” Booth’s reader was reciting the lines from memory. And at the point where the rider throws off his shabby suit to reveal a slim, handsome man “dressed the gaudiest and prettiest you ever saw,” conjuring a whip to light into the horse “and make him fairly hum,” our volunteer unbuttoned his shirt and drew a corn cob pipe from his pocket to finish the last sentence—“and finally skipped off, and made his bow and danced off to the dressing-room, and everybody just a-howling with pleasure and astonishment”—by sticking the pipe in his mouth, folding his arms across his chest, and spinning around to reveal “THE HUCKSTER” printed on the back of his undershirt.
And the whole crowd of people standing up shouting and laughing till tears rolled down, and everybody just a-howling with pleasure and astonishment.
Koeneke was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and Los Angeles. He is the author of the full-length poetry collections Body & Glass (2018), Etruria (2014), Musee Mechanique (2006), and Rouge State (2003). His scholarly work includes the book Empires of the Mind: I.A. Richards and Basic English in China, 1929-1979 (2004). Koeneke earned his BA...