A Philistine’s Lament?

As you may or may not know, a philistine is “a person who is hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts, or who has no understanding of them.”

I cannot say that I am indifferent to the arts. I majored in Art History, and the visual arts are a constant and abiding interest to me. That said, I am by no means an expert in the field, and am always willing to learn and be open to challenges.

However, I confess to having no ability to appreciate some artists’ works—Jean-Michel Basquiat’s doodles and chicken-scratchings would be one example. Basquiat was born in 1960 and died of a heroin overdose in 1988. It’s not the neo-Expressionist style per se that disagrees with me, just his particular work. He is much admired by the art world, but I’m afraid that I can’t share in that. It worries me a little that a recognized and acknowledged artist’s work gives me nothing.

I went to the Basquiat exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario some time ago, in spite of my aversion to his work, to force-feed Basquiat into my consciousness. I tried to see what “they” see, to understand and appreciate what “they” understand and appreciate. But my eyes and mind rebelled at every item of his work. It was such an effort to not just look away and walk out.

Let’s forget about the visual for a moment, since that is not really the point of this article. I want to talk about poetry, so let’s consider a piece of Basquiat’s writing. This is a poem called “A Prayer”, just as the artist/poet wrote it…


The words ‘obscure’ and ‘ambiguous’ occur to me as I read that.

(Hate the feeling that I was sent for and couldn’t come.)

I flatter myself that somewhere inside of me is a writer, and my writerly impulse is to communicate thoughts, feelings, and information in an intelligible and readily understandable way. I may not be doing that, but I’m working on it. That is my aim.

Some poets, on the other hand, seem to delight in stringing words together such that their ultimate purpose can be known only to the poets themselves.

Maybe understanding a poet’s personal history is the key to understanding the poems he or she writes.

But if that’s right, why is it right? Why cannot the words stand for themselves without a backstory to support them?

So, my problem is not the subject matter of the poem, but the fact that I sometimes have to struggle to recognize what it is. Why does a poem sometimes have to be a riddle with no solution? Is there absolutely NO way for the poet to make his or her meaning accessible to the average person without some effort expended on research? Maybe he or she is not writing for the likes of me. (I might be a little miffed, actually.)

Let’s consider poetry through the centuries, because I don’t believe that poets delighted in being obscure in the years prior to the 20th century. This examination must be restrictive, of course, since the topic is so broad, and my examples cannot be universally representative.

For a 16th century example, here are three stanzas from the poem The Lie by Sir Walter Raleigh (ca. 1552-1618)…

Tell physic of her boldness; 
Tell skill it is pretension;
Tell charity of coldness;
Tell law it is contention:
And as they do reply,
So give them still the lie.

Tell fortune of her blindness;
Tell nature of decay;
Tell friendship of unkindness;
Tell justice of delay:
And if they will reply,
Then give them all the lie.

Tell arts they have no soundness,
But vary by esteeming;
Tell schools they want profoundness,
And stand too much on seeming:
If arts and schools reply,
Give arts and schools the lie.

Those words are as relevant for the human condition today as they were all those centuries ago. Perhaps especially relevant to our discussion of the moment are these two lines:

Tell arts they have no soundness,
But vary by esteeming;”

Can Raleigh be saying that a work of art may not have intrinsic value, but if it gains esteem, perhaps through endorsement by a recognized artist, its acceptance is automatically assured? From what I’ve learned, Andy Warhol provided ‘esteem’ for Basquiat. 

And another poet from this era…

John Donne (1573-1631)
(He likely knew Sir Walter Raleigh, and fought with him against the Spanish at Cadiz.)

Meditation XVII

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Again, this poem’s words do not leave us ‘all at sea’…we know what he’s saying.  (I’m not going to discuss the poems themselves at the moment, just their degree of intelligibility.) 

Donne may have straddled the 16th and 17th centuries, but the following poet wrote entirely within the 17th century. These are the opening lines of a poem by Anne Bradstreet (ca. 1612-1672)…

Here Follows some Verses upon the Burning of Our House July 10th, 1666

In silent night when rest I took
For sorrow near I did not look
I wakened was with thund'ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
That fearful sound of “Fire!” and “Fire!”
Let no man know is my desire.

These words capture the poet’s experience of taking to her bed on a peaceful, quiet night, in the expectation that she would arise in the morning, and life would proceed as usual. Instead, she was startled out of her sleep by the noise of a terrifying conflagration—and that, as she says, was the very last thing she needed. I get that. You get that. We all get that. Maybe that’s too easy? Not enough challenge?

Even the title gives us a huge clue to the subject matter of the poem. It’s expository almost to the point of superfluity. In any case, it does place the event in time for us, and so we in the 21st century might say that the style of this poem was pretty much in keeping with the fashion of the times, given what we know of it.

And here’s a portion of Jubilate Agno, (Latin for “Rejoice in the Lamb”). It was written ca. 1760, a hundred years after Bradstreet, by Christopher Smart (1722-1771), during Smart’s confinement in St. Luke’s Hospital, London, for insanity:

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.

Every cat lover can see Jeoffry in those lines. Christopher Smart himself can also be found there. As we can easily see, the motivation for Jeoffry’s cat behaviour is explained in terms of Christopher Smart’s own beliefs, morality, and understanding, and so the pet reflects the poet. Easy. I get that, you get that, we all get that.

And here’s a poem by Christine Rossetti (1830-1894), from another century after Smart:

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.

Again, there’s no mistaking the sentiment nor the subject matter. It’s a beautiful poem, and perhaps representative of the 19th century in that there seems to have been a preponderance of themes surrounding death–grief, loss, general melancholia–in that era.

The following poem from T.S. Eliot pushes us into the early part (ca 1910/11) of the 20th century. I never realized before that the lyrics for the song ‘Memory’ in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Cats” drew on this poem…


By T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)

The winter evening settles down 
With smell of steaks in passageways. 
Six o’clock. 
The burnt-out ends of smoky days. 
And now a gusty shower wraps 
The grimy scraps 
Of withered leaves about your feet 
And newspapers from vacant lots; 
The showers beat 
On broken blinds and chimney-pots, 
And at the corner of the street 
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps. 
And then the lighting of the lamps. 

The morning comes to consciousness 
Of faint stale smells of beer 
From the sawdust-trampled street 
With all its muddy feet that press 
To early coffee-stands. 

With the other masquerades 
That time resumes, 
One thinks of all the hands 
That are raising dingy shades 
In a thousand furnished rooms. 

You tossed a blanket from the bed, 
You lay upon your back, and waited; 
You dozed, and watched the night revealing 
The thousand sordid images 
Of which your soul was constituted; 
They flickered against the ceiling. 
And when all the world came back 
And the light crept up between the shutters 
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters, 
You had such a vision of the street 
As the street hardly understands; 
Sitting along the bed’s edge, where 
You curled the papers from your hair, 
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet 
In the palms of both soiled hands. 

His soul stretched tight across the skies 
That fade behind a city block, 
Or trampled by insistent feet 
At four and five and six o’clock; 
And short square fingers stuffing pipes, 
And evening newspapers, and eyes 
Assured of certain certainties, 
The conscience of a blackened street 
Impatient to assume the world. 

I am moved by fancies that are curled 
Around these images, and cling: 
The notion of some infinitely gentle 
Infinitely suffering thing. 

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh; 
The worlds revolve like ancient women 
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

For me, that poem is so evocative of time and place. I’ve never been there, but I can go there.  It’s not completely explanatory, but he gives us enough. We can enjoy winkling all the meaning out of it.

And here are a couple of stanzas from Maya Angelou…

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.


You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

There’s no mistaking the essence of this poem…the refusal to be downtrodden, the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of adversity. We know that she’s speaking from the life experiences of a black woman, but her theme has a universal quality.

And a section from another black woman’s poem.  This is from the 21st century, by Parneshia Jones…

What would Gwendolyn Brooks Do

Dawn oversees percolating coffee
and the new wreckage of the world.

I stand before my routine reflection,
button up my sanity,
brush weary strands of hair with pomade
and seal cracked lips of distrust
with cocoa butter and matte rouge.


Hold On, she whispers. 

Another day, when I have to tip-toe
around the police and passive-aggressive emails
from people who sit only a few feet away from me.
Another day of fractured humans
who decide how I will live and die,
and I have to act like I like it
so I can keep a job;
be a team player, pay taxes on it;
I have to act like I’m happy to be
slammed, severed, and swindled.
Otherwise, I’m just part of the problem—
a rebel rouser and rude.

And I can understand this poem as well, very easily. Jones is writing from the perspective of a black female in American society, but I think we can all feel her words. Many of us have had the experience, or the awareness, of being in thrall to fractured humans who decide how we will live and die. At times we’ve had to stamp a smile on our faces in spite of it. Maybe not quite in the same way that she has, or to the same degree, but I very definitely know what she means.

However, I have absolutely no clue what Jean-Michel Basquiat means in his poem, A Prayer. And I’ve given it every chance to speak to me. It doesn’t. No more than does his visual art. Does that make me a Philistine?

Perhaps one must choose one’s poets. A poet for me might not be a poet for you. Perhaps there is no universality or commonality in poetry. Maybe that’s not always possible, or even desirable.

Poetry has been defined as “the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts.” Another definition is, “literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm.”

I think the first of the two definitions above is a little fanciful. Some poems express feelings and ideas that give us pain and discomfort rather than pleasure. 

And, of course, some can leave us–some of us, that is–bewildered. Maybe even a teensy bit irritable.

But maybe that’s not a good enough reason to look away.


James Rufus Agee: A Death in the Family

I don’t know how I came to buy Agee’s, A Death in the Family, but I’ve had it for some time, unread, and only recently took it with me on a trip to Scotland—more for its convenient size than for any other reason.  This autobiographical novel, which won James Rufus Agee the Pulitzer Prize posthumously, was my introduction to his writing.  I’ve since ordered “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” which is another major work of Agee’s on which he collaborated with photographer Walker Evans, and am looking forward to reading it.

A Death in the Family [Penguin Books, 2008],begins with an explanation by the publishers that Agee was not finished with the book at the time of his heart attack and death in a New York taxicab on May 16, 1955, when he was 45 years’ old.

It was Agee’s intention to work on this book over the coming summer, as he says in his final letter (May 11, 1955) to close friend and long-time correspondent, Father James Harold Flye:  “…I am planning to retreat from money work, use this summer free, and finish my book.”  [Letters of James Agee to Father Flye, George Braziller, 1962]

He died just five days later.

The publishers of A Death in the Family further explain that the book is presented exactly as Agee had written it to that point in time, with the exception of seven-or-so pages which they could not satisfactorily fit into the novel.  There were also several sections of text which were outside the time span of the basic story, and which the authors decided to print in italics after Parts I and II to assist with transitions in the narrative.  Agee’s Knoxville Summer of 1915, often described as a ‘prose poem’ was added as a scene-setting prologue by the publishers, even though it was not a part of the original manuscript.

Here’s a selection from this prologue:

Content, silver, like peeps of light, each cricket makes his comment over and over in the drowned grass.

A cold toad thumpily flounders.

Within the edges of damp shadows of side yards are hovering children nearly sick with joy of fear, who watch the unguarding of a telephone pole.

Around white carbon corner lamps bugs of all sizes are lifted elliptic solar systems.  Big hardshells bruise themselves, assailant:  he is fallen on his back, legs squiggling.

For those of us whose childhoods were lived in the out-of-doors amidst the creepy-crawly lives of insects and reptiles, these words evoke summer evenings with all the mystery and wonder of moonlight, starlight, and sightless sounds.  “Sick with joy of fear” is an apt description of a child’s sense of the magic, danger, and excitement in the natural world.

It’s tantalizing to wonder what A Death in the Family would have looked like at the end of the summer of 1955 had Agee lived to complete his work on it.  The Pulitzer Prize judges evidently thought that what Agee had completed by the time of his death was sufficient to earn him their prize for the year 1958.  The book was published in 1957 by the publishing house of an acquaintance of Agee’s, David McDowell, of McDowell, Obolensky, Inc.  Agee seems to have known McDowell through Father Flye, since McDowell was a former alumnus of St. Andrew’s, the boarding school where Father Flye taught.  McDowell not only published A Death in the Family, but also both volumes of Agee on Film, a compilation of Agee’s movie reviews, and he was working on a biography of James Agee when he died on April 8, 1985, at the age of 67 (http://www.nytimes.com/1985/04/13/arts/david-mcdowell-dies-a-publisher-and-editor.html).

A Death in the Family is based on Agee’s childhood memories of his family at the time of his father’s death in a car accident when Agee was six years’ old.  Since Agee was born in 1909, age six would take us to the time of the book’s prologue, 1915.

Interestingly, the novel begins with a blind…the nighttime phone call from Agee’s Uncle Ralph, his father’s brother, who imparts the information that their father is seriously ill and seemingly near to death.  We are therefore led to believe that Agee’s grandfather will be the family death for which the novel is named.

All the clues to doubt this are provided by the character of Ralph, and by his brother Jay’s (Agee’s father’s) reaction to the phone call, although we are not ready to relinquish our initial impression until proof that the story concerns another death is later delivered.

Ralph’s character is first indicated by Jay’s exasperation with the phone call and his inability to get a reasoned, common-sense assessment of their father’s condition from Ralph.  Ralph spends much of the telephone conversation wallowing in self-pity and apologies for having to call at such a late hour.

We’re subsequently taken into Ralph’s mind and thoughts at his father’s bedside while he waits for his brother to arrive.  His character as a weak and self-obsessed man, an alcoholic, unreliable son, a volatile and unpredictable father, a jealous, unfaithful and emotionally abusive husband, is provided to us by Ralph himself.  “I ought not ever to have fathered children, Ralph thought.  I ought not ever to have been born.”

And Ralph later believes himself to be the cause of his brother’s death, since it was his phone call that brought Jay out to see their father.

Contrasting with Jay’s brother, Ralph, is the character of Agee’s mother Mary’s brother, Andrew.  While Ralph is, by his own admission, a weak and dissolute man, Andrew is, by his words and actions, a stalwart support to his family.  It is he who goes to the scene of the accident and identifies Jay’s body.  He is also the one to bring the details of the accident back to the family, and help with arrangements.  When Ralph, who works as an undertaker, seeks to assuage some of his imagined guilt by providing for the burial of his brother (“He’s blaming himself for Jay’s…He wants to try to make up for it.”), Andrew tells him firmly, on his sister’s behalf, that she does not want this.

In addition to the skillfully drawn personality profiles of the main characters, Agee takes us inside the mind of the six-year-old boy he was when his father died.  We learn his view of events and the degree to which he is able to absorb the enormity of the changes in his family circumstances at that time.

Some of the six-year-old Rufus’s remembrances have to do with trust, as when his parents’ friends told him that he could whistle and the cheese would jump off the table into his lap.  His parents’ friends, a couple by the names of Ted and Kate,

…were shaking with laughter they were trying to hold in, though he couldn’t see what there was to laugh about in a cheese that wouldn’t even move when you whistled even when Uncle Ted said it would and he was really whistling, not just trying to whistle.”  He was “…almost crying with embarrassment and impatience” and the couple “burst out laughing out loud, but his father didn’t laugh, he looked all mixed up, and mad, and embarrassed, and his mother was very mad, …”   She reacted by saying “…I think it’s just a perfect shame, deceiving a little child like that who’s been brought up to trust people, and laughing right in his face!”

Similar instances of Rufus’s vulnerability to deception happened during his interactions with older schoolboys who habitually teased and tormented him because of his name.  Making Rufus tell them his name was the trigger which started them chanting a derogatory rhyme.  He wanted so much to be friends with these boys that he repeatedly allowed himself to be victimized by them, in the hope, each time, that this time their attentions would be genuine and truly friendly.

Later, after the death of his father was explained to him, Rufus took the information to these schoolboys, some of whom had learned of it through their parents.  Rufus thought that the importance of the event would buy him respect and admiration from these boys,

…he knew that they were all approaching him with the realization that something had happened to him that had not happened to any other boy in town, and that now at last they were bound to think well of him; and the nearer they came but were yet at a distance the more the gray, sober air was charged with the great energy and with a sense of glory and of danger, and the deeper and more exciting the silence became, and the more tall, proud, shy and exposed he felt; so that as they came still nearer he once again felt his face break into a wide smile, with which he had nothing to do, and, feeling that there was something deeply wrong in such a smile tried his best to quieten his face and told them, shyly and proudly, “My daddy’s dead.”

The tragic loss of his father was a concept impossible to grasp on an emotional level by this little boy.  His little sister was even less able to understand anything of what had happened, and could not accept that her father would not be coming home again.

I remember the death of a little friend from a brain aneurysm when I was around seven years’ old, and I remember her funeral, which I attended with my Grade 2 classmates.  Amongst the few, clear memories I have of that day were the sight of her white-sheeted casket, and her emotionally distraught parents.  I also remember the Grade 1 teacher from my previous year in elementary school weeping quietly at the service, which surprised me very much since I found her a harsh, unkind woman as a teacher.  I felt that if she could cry I ought to be crying, too, since Marcy was my friend.  And so I tried, but I was continually distracted by the hornets in the window.  I had a terrible fear of stinging insects, and so I watched them carefully out of the corner of my eye.  There was a strange unreality about that day, and try as I might, I could not feel the grief of it, even though I missed my friend and was sad to lose her.

And so Agee’s childhood remembrances of his father’s death ring true to me.  There is trauma and confusion for a child in an encounter with death at a young age, but not the same depth of sorrow and grief that adults experience at the loss of someone close to them.  I’ve carried the memory of my little friend’s death from that time in my childhood to this day, and I remember her glossy brown ringlets, heart-shaped face, almond eyes, and her cleverness and humour.  She was a perfect child, except for health issues—she was asthmatic, and needed to wear a surgical mask on dusty, dry days walking to school.  I have repeatedly thought of her family’s devastation (her father went into the Anglican ministry afterwards), and wonder to this day what her life might have been had she lived.

Of course, to an even more profound degree, Agee would never lose the remembrance of his father’s loss.  We can surmise that much of the detail of events and adult interactions of that time in his childhood must have been supplied to the adult Agee by his mother.  His re-creation of them in the novel masterfully interweaves words and actions with the personalities that prompted and guided them.  The related misapprehensions and confusions between child and adult, child and child, and adult and adult further evince the emotionally turbulent time between the death and funeral.

Unsurprisingly, the novel engages with religion to a significant extent.  Agee’s own quest for understanding of spiritual and religious matters within the context of his life and art can often be seen in his 30-year correspondence with friend and mentor, Father Flye, Episcopalian priest and teacher, whom Agee met when he was a 10-year-old student boarding at St. Andrews’s school.

Here’s an excerpt from Agee’s January 26, 1949, letter to Father Flye:

My intuition is that God is not a vulgarian. I don’t think He so directs traffic that one truck miraculously stops short on a precipice and another demolishes a child.  I think the former and the latter merely happened, and stand in humility before chance (with its conceivably traceable causes), not God. I would suppose that God leaves the Universe to its own devices (largely, anyhow), as He leaves human beings to theirs—largely.

A memorable scene in A Death in the Family involving spirituality is the one in which Rufus’s dead father’s presence is sensed by his mother Mary, along with her aunt, mother and brother.  Mary’s father, agnostic or atheist, is the only one immune to this perception.  Mary thought at first that it might have been the children waking and moving about, but then

…whoever or whatever it might be, she became sure that it was no child, for she felt in it a terrible forcefulness, and concern, and restiveness, which were no part of any child.

Even Mary’s nearly-deaf mother imagined she heard footsteps, which she herself knew to have been impossible, since she could barely hear anything shouted into her hearing trumpet.

She laughed at herself, “I must be getting old and dippy.”

The religious members of the household, Mary and her Aunt Hannah, could readily accept a visitation by the spirit of Mary’s dead husband.  However, Mary’s brother Andrew, who shared his father’s agnosticism or atheism, unwillingly felt a presence, and was chilled (“felt the flesh go cold along his spine”) by his deaf mother’s unprompted remark, ““Has somebody come into the house?” Catherine inquired in her clear voice.”

There was another apparent instance of spiritual presence at the burial when a cloud covered the sun and a butterfly came to rest on the coffin as it was being lowered into the ground.  In the dazzling sunlight that appeared following this, the butterfly took flight out of the grave, much like a soul soaring upward to heaven.  Rufus’s Uncle Andrew told him of this, in a tone of wonder and amazement (Rufus was not permitted to attend the funeral himself).  However, combined with the sense of the miraculous was Andrew’s anger and disgust with the officiating priest who refused to read the full burial service over Rufus’s father, since he was not baptized.  Andrew says…

Genuflecting, and ducking and bowing and scraping, and basting themselves with signs of the Cross, and all that disgusting hocus-pocus, and you come to one simple, single act of Christian charity and what happens?  The rules of the Church forbid it.  He’s not a member of our little club.

And so the story ends on the unresolved conflict between the spiritual and the religious, and the essence of true Christianity versus hypocrisy.  The six-year-old child’s life had been a series of misapprehensions to this point in time, and he leaves the episode of his father’s death and funeral with continued confusion and an inability to understand what his uncle is trying to communicate to him.  One realizes at this point that the adults around him are often unable to understand, either.


Having the Last Word

When my sister and I toured Italy some years ago, we made a point, during our stay in Florence, of visiting the English Cemetery.  It seemed only right to pay our respects to Elizabeth Barrett Browning while we were there.

Elizabeth Barrett-Browning 2

Number 43 from ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.

I love thee to the level of every day’s

Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.

I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;

I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.

I love thee with the passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.

Her tomb surprised me.  I found it beautiful in design, but surprisingly devoid of words for a monument of remembrance to a poet who had been married to another famous poet (Robert Browning).  She died in 1861 and he died in 1889, so it wasn’t that he predeceased her and could have no say in the inscription on her monument.  Mind you, I think now that the words would have interfered with the design, and were probably superfluous anyway.

Elizabeth_Barrett_Browning, tomb in the English Cemetery, Florence

I wonder what the Scorpioni thought of it.  They were, as you may know, a small group of genteel, expatriate English ladies who lived in Florence in the 1930s and 1940s, and who were in the habit of visiting the English Cemetery.  Supposedly they were called Scorpioni (scorpions, in English translation) because of their arch humour and stinging wit.

I cannot tell you how much I love that.  I picture–rightly or wrongly–a 1930s/40s Italian world wherein the choices of ideal womanhood would be divided between the voluptuous young woman (à la Sophia Loren/Gina Lollobrigida), or the plump, kitchen-loving mama.  In that world, I imagine elderly women subsided into black-shawled nonentities scuttling back and forth between home and market–on those rare occasions when they could be seen at all.

What would Italians of the time possibly have made of these English ladies?  OF COURSE those women would have packed a sting like a scorpion for the dominant sex in Italy.  They operated outside the cultural boundaries for that time and in that place.  There must have been occasions when the Scorpioni and the local Italian authorities locked horns over one issue or another, with neither side willing to give an inch, because it would be unthinkable for either that they should need to.  Franco Zeffirelli’s movie, Tea with Mussolini (1999), gives us a small window on that worldI wish I could discover what happened to the Scorpioni after they were sent to an internment camp at the start of WWII.

Back to my topic, which, incidentally, is the character of inscriptions on grave markers for famous writers, poets, philosophers, and suchlike–people who worked with, and lived for, words and ideas.  I was curious about what words might have accompanied them (or their family members, in some cases) to their last resting places.  It’s a large topic with plenty of scope, and I can only skim the surface.

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (16 October 1854 – 30 November 1900) was an Irish playwright, novelist, essayist, and poet, who died at the ‘dingy’ Hôtel d’Alsace in Paris of meningoencephalitis secondary to chronic right middle-ear disease.  It is believed that Wilde had a cholesteatoma, a destructive form of chronic suppurative otitis media (for you medical types).  The ear infection first occurred in 1896 during his imprisonment for sodomy, four years before his death on November 30, 1900.  (Ashley H. Robins, Sean L. Sellars, The Lancet, Vol 356, November 25, 2000)

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery, where he was re-interred in 1909 after his first burial at Bagneux at the time of his death in 1900.

The inscription on his tomb consists of these lines from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, written by Wilde in 1897…

And alien tears will fill for him

Pity’s long-broken urn,

For his mourners will be outcast men,

And outcasts always mourn.

Wilde was bankrupt at the time of his death, and so his friends could provide only un enterrement de sixième classe (a sixth-class burial) at Bagneux, outside the city.  Robert Ross, Wilde’s friend and literary executor, eventually succeeded in annulling Wilde’s bankruptcy with the sale of some of Wilde’s works, and subsequently purchased a burial plot “in perpetuity” at Père Lachaise.  Helen Carew, a friend of Ross’s who had known Wilde in his heyday, anonymously offered £2,000 to commission a monument for Wilde by sculptor Jacob Epstein. This was unveiled in 1914.  (This information was taken from The Guardian, Nov 27, 2011; they were quoting Merlin Holland, Wilde’s grandson.)


I can’t discover who chose the words from The Ballad of Reading Gaol for the inscription on Wilde’s tomb, but it was likely Robert Ross.  Another possibility might be Helen Carew. In any case I think that those lines are very suitable, reflecting, as they appear to do, not only his broken life and career but his self-imposed exile.  Wilde’s wife even had to change her surname and that of their children to ‘Holland’ to escape notoriety.  It was tantamount to a total erasure of his former life.  How tragic that someone with such sparkling wit and humour–who gave us so much enjoyment and entertainment–should have been ostracized, reduced to poverty, and tormented with terrible suffering before his too-early death.

Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) had more than his share of family grief, with the loss of an infant son to diphtheria in 1872, the loss of his daughter, Susy, from spinal meningitis at age 24 in 1896, the loss of his wife at age 58 in 1904, and the loss of his 29-year-old daughter, Jean, from an epileptic seizure which resulted in her drowning in the bath at Christmastime, 1909.  Of his four children only his daughter Clara outlived him; she died in 1962 at age 88.

Mark Twain

Susy, it seems, was a particular favourite of Twain’s.  In a 64-page unpublished document he wrote after her death, he said: “She was a magazine of feelings, & they were of all kinds & of all shades of force; & she was so volatile, as a little child, that sometimes the whole battery came into play in the short compass of a day. She was full of life, full of activity, full of fire, her waking hours were a crowding & hurrying procession of enthusiasms … Joy, sorrow, anger, remorse, storm, sunshine, rain, darkness – they were all there: They came in a moment, & they were gone as quickly.”

Susy Clemens, ca 1885

“In all things she was intense: in her this characteristic was not a mere glow, dispensing warmth, but a consuming fire.”  (Ed Pilkington quoting Twain in The Guardian, April 21, 2010)

For her gravestone, Twain borrowed from the poem “Annette” by poet Robert Richardson published in a book titled Willow and Wattle (1893).

These are the actual lines borrowed from Richardson’s poem…

Warm summer sun, shine friendly here/Warm western wind, blow kindly here;/Green sod above, rest light, rest light,/Good-night, Annette!/Sweetheart, good-night!

Susy Clemens tombstone

As we can see, Twain altered the poem a little for Susy.  Interestingly, when the poem is viewed in its entirety, there is a line shortly before the ones chosen by Twain that says, “Broke a foolish heart in twain.”  By her early death, Susy did indeed break a heart in Twain.

As for Twain’s own tombstone, it has no verse.  I should imagine that this would have been according to his wishes, since his daughter Clara would have been there in 1910 to carry out his burial arrangements.

Mark Twain headstone

Here’s an interesting anecdote…In 1909, Twain said:

“I came in with Halley’s comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ Oh! I am looking forward to that.” (Mark Twain: A Biography, The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens by Albert Bigelow Paine.)  [The perihelion (point at which it comes closest to the sun) of Halley’s Comet for 1835 was November 16th; for 1910 it was April 20th.  Twain was born on November 30 of 1835, and died on April 21 of 1910.]

I tried to find George Bernard Shaw’s tombstone inscription, since various internet sources report it to be:  “I Knew If I Stayed Around Long Enough Something Like This Would Happen!”  It looked a bit unlikely to me, and in fact that does not appear to be correct–at least, not that I can find.  I’ve read that he was cremated after his death on November 2, 1950, his ashes mixed with those of his wife who predeceased him in 1943, and then scattered in the garden of his home, Shaw’s Corner, in Ayot St. Lawrence, Hertfordshire, England.

George Bernard Shaw

Internet sources for tombstone epitaphs can be very unreliable—I believe it only when I see the photographic evidence.  To borrow a quote from David Hume, “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”  Also wise women, I think—or at least women making an effort to be wise.

For example, the following was advertised on some internet sites as the inscription on David Hume’s own monument in Edinburgh:

David Hume (1711-1776)

“Within this circular idea/Called vulgarly a tomb/The ideas and impressions lie/That constituted Hume”

…but I couldn’t find it. I read all sorts of articles about the tomb, but this inscription was in nothing that I read. Just as well, since I find that inscription pretty feeble. The ideas and impressions that constituted Hume lie in his tomb? Hmmm…don’t think so, actually.

Hume was a “Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist known especially for his philosophical empiricism and skepticism.” (Encyclopedia Britannica’s description) He also shocked the ordinary folk of his time with his atheism. It was apparently expected by them that he would do a volte-face and embrace religion as he lay dying of what is thought to have been an abdominal cancer of some kind. After Hume’s burial, his friends reportedly had to stand armed guard in case his grave was interfered with–so many people lurked nearby to see if the devil would come to claim him.

David Hume

“The populace of the day took a certain interest in his interment, but it was not of a flattering kind. They visited the cemetery afterwards, expecting to find a rifled sepulchre. Satan, it was confidently believed, would come, or had come, in person to remove the body of his very own. Not without a certain horror the citizens for years watched the figure of an elderly gentleman with broad face and benevolent smile and a somewhat corpulent habit of body though his life was simplicity itself. Day by day he trod their streets, as familiar as the Tron Kirk or the Crown of St Giles. As the years went by the step became less active and the corpulency more accentuated, but there was always the same placid smile, with a depth of humour and irony which none probed.” (Edinburgh and The Lothians (1912), by Francis Watt, Chapter XV – The Graveyards of Edinburgh, from electricscotland.com)

These are the instructions Hume left in his will, concerning his memorial:

“I also ordain that, if I shall dye any where in Scotland, I shall be bury’d in a private manner in the Gallon Church Yard [also known as the Calton graveyard], the South Side of it, and a Monument be built over my Body at an Expence not exceeding a hundred Pounds, with an Inscription containing only my Name with the Year of my Birth and Death, leaving it to Posterity to add the Rest.”

The Ancient-Roman-style cylindrical mausoleum was designed by Hume’s friend, the famous architect Robert Adam, and construction was completed in 1778.

Old_Calton_David_Hume tomb

Interestingly, the mausoleum became something of a family vault, and subsequently adulterated with religious symbols and a decidedly Christian-inspired verse above the doorway:

“Behold I come quickly Thanks be to GOD which giveth us the victory, through our LORD JESUS CHRIST.”

This was added much later, when Hume’s nephew memorialized his wife by inscribing her name on a funerary urn in a niche above the door, with the religious verse shown between it and David Hume’s name. It was intended for her and not him, but it would be difficult to determine that from looking at it.

David Hume monument inscriptions

It does rather give the impression that the great man’s atheism was little more than a rumour.

So, be ye hereby warned: if you wish for something in particular to be engraved on your memorial stone after your passing, you might want to get busy now, while you’re still around to see that things happen as they should.

Otherwise, chances are that somebody else will be having the last word.



Icons of Style: Fran Lebowitz and Quentin Crisp

“Frances Ann (Fran) Lebowitz (born October 27, 1950) is an American author and public speaker. Lebowitz is known for her sardonic social commentary on American life as filtered through her New York City sensibilities.  Some reviewers have called her a modern-day Dorothy Parker.”  (Wikipedia)

Some of her books (I have these three):

  • Metropolitan Life, Dutton, 1978.
  • Social Studies, Random House, 1981.
  • The Fran Lebowitz Reader, Vintage Books, 1994.

“Quentin Crisp became a gay icon in the 1970s after publication of his memoir, The Naked Civil Servant, detailing his life in homophobic British Society. […] Quentin Crisp was born Denis Charles Pratt in Surrey, England, on December 25, 1908. A self-described flamboyant homosexual, Crisp changed his name in his early 20s as part of his process of reinvention. Teased mercilessly at school as a boy, Crisp left school in 1926. He studied journalism at King’s College London, but failed to graduate. He then moved on to take art classes at Regent Street Polytechnic. […] He moved to Manhattan in 1981, when he was 72 years old; settling in a studio apartment in the Bowery. […] Quentin Crisp died in November 1999, just shy of his 91st birthday, while touring his one-man show.” (These biographical details were taken from biography.com)

He once described himself in this way:  “I am the last of Britain’s stately homos.”

So what have these two got in common?  For a start, the ‘sardonic social commentary’ that Fran Lebowitz is famous for, was practiced with equal skill by Quentin Crisp.  And they both lived in New York City.

For those unfamiliar with Lebowitz’s writing, here’s a taste from her essay, “My Day:  An Introduction of Sorts” from The Fran Lebowitz Reader:

12:35 P.M. – The phone rings.  I am not amused.  This is not my favorite way to wake up.  My favorite way to wake up is to have a certain French movie star whisper to me softly at two-thirty in the afternoon that if I want to get to Sweden in time to pick up my Nobel Prize for Literature I had better ring for breakfast.  This occurs rather less often than one might wish.


1:20 P.M. – I go downstairs to get the mail.  I get back into bed.  Nine press releases, four screening notices, two bills, an invitation to a party in honor of a celebrated heroin addict, a final disconnect notice from New York Telephone, and three hate letters from Mademoiselle readers demanding to know just what it is that makes me think that I have the right to regard houseplants—green, living things—with such marked distaste.  I call the phone company and try to make a deal, as actual payment is not a possibility.  Would they like to go to a screening?  Would they care to attend a party for a heroin addict?  Are they interested in knowing just what it is that makes me think that I have the right to regard houseplants with such marked distaste?  It seems they would not.  They would like $148.10.  I agree that this is, indeed, an understandable preference, but caution them against the bloodless quality of a life devoted to the blind pursuit of money.  We are unable to reach a settlement.  I pull up the covers and the phone rings.  I spend the next few hours fending off editors, chatting amiably, and plotting revenge.  I read.  I smoke.  […]

Yes, she reads, she smokes, she writes, she gives interviews, and she has performed in a television drama (as a judge in ‘Law and Order’)–and I had to force myself to stop typing any more of ‘her day’ or this would have been a very long article in which I would have said nothing on my own account, which I feel a strange compulsion to do.  You may prefer to read more of what Fran has to say, and I wouldn’t blame you, but for that you will need to purchase one of her books (see above).  I believe there may be more than the three I’ve listed.

And speaking of my strange compulsion to write things, she says (again in The Fran Lebowitz Reader, p. 12)…

Very few people possess true artistic ability.  It is therefore both unseemly and unproductive to irritate the situation by making an effort.  If you have a burning, restless urge to write or paint, simply eat something sweet and the feeling will pass.  Your life story would not make a good book.  Do not even try.

All well and good if the aspiring amateur enjoys sweets, Fran.  My personal preference is for salty/savoury, and I’m afraid that that would not produce the desired effect.  I will need another means of diversion.

And now I’m going to call on Quentin Crisp in support of a person trying to express themselves in some way…

First, the profound:

“Ask yourself, if there was to be no blame, and if there was to be no praise, who would I be then?”

Then, the glib:

“There are three reasons for becoming a writer: the first is that you need the money; the second that you have something to say that you think the world should know; the third is that you can’t think what to do with the long winter evenings.”

Maybe the glib is more profound than I think.  It is February, after all, and I started this blog last month, in January.  The winter evenings have been very long indeed.

As for Quentin Crisp’s own means of earning a daily crust, he wrote books (The Naked Civil Servant, How to have a Lifestyle, Manners from Heaven: a divine guide to good behaviour, and Resident Alien, The New York Diaries, among others.)  He also did theatre and film work, as well as interviews.  Here’s a quote from Resident Alien, The New York Diaries:

When I go on television, I remember that there only one law prevails:  the survival of the glibbest.   If your interviewer asks the question, ‘What is the secret of the universe?’, you do not stutter, you do not hesitate, above all you do not say, ‘A good question.’  You say, with a gracious smile, ‘I am happy to tell you there is no secret.’  The remark is inane, but you are smiling and your lips are moving.  You’ll be back.

Back to Fran, this time in the Paris Review, Summer, 1993, No. 127, Fran Lebowitz, A Humorist at Work, Interviewed by James Linville and George Plimpton:

I used to love to write. As a child I used to write all the time. I loved to write up until the second I got my first professional writing job. It turns out it’s not that I hate to write. I hate, simply, to work. I just hate to work, period. I am profoundly slothful. Practically inert. I have no energy. I never have. I just have no desire to be productive. Now that I realize I don’t hate to write, that I just hate to work, it makes writing easier.


There are few books written by people in their twenties that, even if they are great books, are not in some way young people’s books. It’s that base longing of youth that really irritates me. I like a person who is more embittered. That embittered sensibility is not possible in a young person. You can be nasty when you are young, but you really have to be older to achieve bitterness.

Well then!  Slothful and embittered…this is the stuff of which writers are made. I’m quite sure that I can find these attributes somewhere in my nature without looking for too long. I have been cultivating them for some considerable time, and have finally, in the past few years, realized some success.

Doesn’t matter, anyway.  Even if I never rise above the level of dilettante as a writer, I’m having fun doing this blog. But never mind that, here’s an interesting thing…

“In September 2007, Lebowitz was named one of the year’s most stylish women in Vanity Fair’s  68th Annual International Best-Dressed List.  She is known to wear tailored suits by the Savile Row tailor Anderson & Sheppard.”  (Wikipedia)

I found that a little startling, I have to say.  Fran has always dressed in a ‘mannish’ sort-of way…most often a shirt, a suit jacket, jeans, and cowboyish boots.  This mode of dress seems to have been pretty consistent throughout her life.

Fran on windowledge

The very first time I ever saw Fran Lebowitz was in a television interview with someone a very long time ago (probably more than 20 years).  The format was for the interviewer and Fran to be sitting on chairs facing one another in a pool of light with the surrounding set dark, if I remember correctly.  I was fascinated, because I couldn’t decide whether she was male or female.  Her voice was low—probably the result of her heavy cigarette habit—and her mannerisms were somewhat ambiguous from a gender standpoint.  She had no makeup, her hair told me nothing, and even the way she sat in the chair did not specifically signal ‘male’ or ‘female.’

I came to the interview late, so I didn’t hear her introduction at the beginning of it.  I’m not sure that there was any internet then to enable me to find out anything more about her.  I may have heard her name mentioned, but ‘Fran’ can also be a man’s name (Fran Tarkenton, for one).  So I listened to the interview not only for interest in the subject matter (whatever it was), but also for a clue as to her gender.  It was an interesting exercise, and I’m not sure that I resolved the conundrum during the program.

This puts me in mind of the very first time I saw k.d. Lang, as well.  That was in the music video of the song, ‘Crying’ with Roy Orbison.  I thought she was a young guy.

So either I’ve got a problem, or these women are sufficiently androgynous to fool some of us.

The fact that Vanity Fair thought Fran Lebowitz was one of the year’s most stylish women in 2007 begs the question of what constitutes ‘style,’ I think.  ‘Stylish’ evidently does not mean that a woman dresses in haute couture from one of the major fashion houses.

And here I’m going to call on Quentin Crisp again, this time to define ‘Style’ for us.  Incidentally, I have one of Quentin’s books, Resident Alien, The New York Diaries.   I also have the movie based on his autobiographical book, The Naked Civil Servant, which starred John Hurt as Quentin Crisp–so I do have a little more original material than just ‘Quentin Quotes’ from websites.  The DVD also has a documentary of the man himself as an added feature.

Here’s Quentin Crisp’s definition of ‘Style’ as distinct from ‘Fashion’:

“Style, in the broadest sense of all, is consciousness.  More specifically it is a consistent idiom arising spontaneously from the personality but deliberately maintained.”


“Fashion is what you adopt when you don’t know who you are.”

Elle.com reporter Kathleen Hale interviewed Lebowitz on March 24, 2015, about her unwavering devotion to men’s shirts, suit jackets and Levi’s…

Kathleen Hale: You don’t have a uniform, per se, but you wear a jacket, a men’s shirt with cufflinks, Levi’s jeans, cowboy boots, two gold rings, and tortoiseshell glasses every single day.

Fran Lebowitz: Yes.

Walk me through your outfit.

This jacket is from Anderson and Sheppard in London. I don’t go there, they come to me. Or they did. Now they have a dummy made of me.

What people don’t know is: Clothes don’t really fit you unless they’re made for you. Especially when you wear men’s clothes, like I do. American women think that clothes fit them if they can fit into them. But that’s not at all what fit means. I get all my shirts at Hilditch and Key. There’s one in Paris and one in London. There’s not one here, I don’t know why. They’re men’s shirts—they don’t really fit—but I don’t really care if shirts fit perfectly. I have all my suits and jackets made, but I’ve never had a shirt made. I’ll have them shortened, so that there’s not three yards of cloth hanging down. But it’s not as important to me that they fit perfectly.

I used to buy all my shirts at Brooks [Brothers], but that was completely ruined about 20 years ago. They discontinued the shirt I liked. If I had only known this—I mean, if you’re going to discontinue an item that thousands and thousands of people buy, announce it. Say, ‘We will no longer be making our excellent Brooks Brothers cotton shirts that we made for 5,000 years. We’re going to change them in some awful way. We’re alerting you so you can buy a lifetime supply.’ Shirts don’t go bad, they’re not peaches.

Quentin Crisp on the other hand, while he didn’t actually dress in drag, was effeminate and wore makeup to enhance eyes, lips and complexion.  His clothes were essentially male in character, but given flair and individuality usually with a silky cravat and a fedora set to a rakish angle atop his tinted coiffure.

Quentin Crisp 5

His definitions of ‘style’ and ‘fashion’ work very well for Fran, I think.  She is definitely stylish rather than fashionable, and her mode of dress is certainly a “consistent idiom arising spontaneously from the personality but deliberately maintained.”  That also works very well for Quentin, himself.

Choosing quotations from a womanish man to explain the personal style of a mannish woman seemed very apt, to me.  I don’t know if they ever met in person, and I can’t find evidence of what they might have thought of one another.

I like it that Quentin and Fran blur the lines between the sexes a little in the way they present themselves.  Once one discards surface appearance for being a meaningless way of defining a person, what’s left is the essential human being.

Both Fran Lebowitz and Quentin Crisp are self-revelatory and insightful in their writing, while being witty, engaging and sometimes acerbic.  Possibly they’ve exaggerated aspects of their personal lives, as well as their thoughts and opinions, for their reader’s or listener’s entertainment–and to pay the rent, of course–but I’ve enjoyed their writing, and am intrigued by their personalities.

Sadly, Quentin has left us long since, but I expect to hear more from Fran.  I believe we need people who are capable of showing us the world as they see it; people who are not swept along by media hype and marketing and technology, and who can point out different aspects of our lives–and theirs–in a quirky, humorous way.  That’s what Quentin did, and what Fran has done and is doing.

I like their style.

Live it Through

I was just cruising through the contents of my hard drive, looking for anything that might be of interest to you, and found a poem entitled, “Live it Through” by David Ignatow.  I could not remember anything about it.  So I re-read it, and thought, yes, I must have liked it when I saved it to my computer, and I still like it.  I then found a link that talks about David Ignatow (1914-1997), and it’s below the poem that follows…


By David Ignatow

I dreamt a huge liner stood in the desert, its crew leaning

over the railing looking down as though the ship were

plowing through the waves of sand. I was afraid to ask

how a ship could come to rest in the desert. I was afraid I

might hear of a monstrous happening that would set my

heart to beating wildly and kill me with its fear. The world

itself was strange enough and that was all I cared to know,

and so I hailed the crew from my position on the sand and

asked where they were sailing to and was answered, Into

the desert. I was glad to get such an absurd answer, since

I could assume it masked their own fears.


Can I climb on board, I then asked and was answered Yes

promptly and a rope ladder dropped down. Eagerly I

climbed it. We would go through with this madness

together, think of it as real as life itself and help each other

live it through.



In an interview of David Ignatow by Gerard Malanga in The Paris Review, The Art of Poetry No. 23, Ignatow says that the poem of which he is the most proud is Rescue the Dead.

Rescue the Dead

Finally, to forgo love is to kiss a leaf,

is to let rain fall nakedly upon your head,

is to respect fire,

is to study man’s eyes and his gestures

as he talks,

is to set bread upon the table

and a knife discreetly by,

is to pass through crowds

like a crowd of oneself.

Not to love is to live.


To love is to be led away

into a forest where the secret grave

is dug, singing, praising darkness

under the trees.


To live is to sign your name,

is to ignore the dead,

is to carry a wallet

and shake hands.


To love is to be a fish.

My boat wallows in the sea.

You who are free,

rescue the dead.


I pulled the quote below from the biography of David Ignatow on the poetryfoundation.org site:

“Ignatow commented on another significant difference between his earlier and later work; regarding “my early concentration in my poetry on injustice and cruelty,” he once told Contemporary Authors, “these poems were written with the assumption that somewhere, somehow there was a social system, idealized in faith by me, that practiced justice and decency consistently and with pleasure. I was wrong. At seventy-five years of age, I no longer have such hopes and expectations, though my heart still leaps at any and all pieces and fragments of good news.”

Ignatow died in 1997 at age 83.