Tag Archives: Poetry

More Words of Muhammad Ali, by Louis Vuitton and Yasiin Bey

Part 3 of Louis Vuitton’s beautifully realized Core Values campaign. Words of Muhammad Ali: Float

 

Parts 1 and 2 here

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Paris Review Interview – Umberto Eco and the Art of Fiction

The prodigious and playful professor gives a fascinating interview to the Paris Review. On everything from Jorges Luis Borges to James Bond. And all over calzone and scotch…

“I think that at a certain age, say fifteen or sixteen, poetry is like masturbation. But later in life good poets burn their early poetry, and bad poets publish it. Thankfully I gave up rather quickly.”

The first time I called Umberto Eco, he was sitting at his desk in his seventeenth-century manor in the hills outside Urbino, near the Adriatic coast of Italy. He sang the virtues of hisbellissima swimming pool, but suspected I might have trouble negotiating the region’s tortuous mountain passes. So we agreed instead to meet at his apartment in Milan. I arrived there last August on ferragosto, the high point of summer and the day the Catholic Church celebrates the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Milan’s gray buildings gleamed with heat, and a thin layer of dust had settled on the pavement. Hardly an engine could be heard. As I stepped into Eco’s building, I took a turn-of-the-century lift and heard the creaking of a door on the top floor. Eco’s imposing figure appeared behind the lift’s wrought-iron grating. “Ahhh,” he said with a slight scowl.

The apartment is a labyrinth of corridors lined with bookcases that reach all the way up to extraordinarily high ceilings—thirty thousand volumes, said Eco, with another twenty thousand at his manor. I saw scientific treatises by Ptolemy and novels by Calvino, critical studies of Saussure and Joyce, entire sections devoted to medieval history and arcane manuscripts. The library feels alive, as many of the books seem worn from heavy use; Eco reads at great speed and has a prodigious memory. In his study, a maze of shelves contains Eco’s own complete works in all their translations (Arabic, Finnish, Japanese . . . I lost count after more than thirty languages). Eco pointed at his books with amorous precision, attracting my attention to volume after volume, from his early landmark work of critical theory, The Open Work, to his most recent opus, On Ugliness.

Eco began his career as a scholar of medieval studies and semiotics. Then, in 1980, at the age of forty-eight, he published a novel, The Name of the Rose. It became an international publishing sensation, selling more than ten million copies. The professor metamorphosed into a literary star. Chased by journalists, courted for his cultural commentaries, revered for his expansive erudition, Eco came to be considered the most important Italian writer alive. In the years since, he has continued to write fanciful essays, scholarly works, and four more best-selling novels, including Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004).

With Eco’s paunch leading the way, his feet shuffling along the floor, we walked into his living room. Through the windows, a medieval castle cut a gigantic silhouette against the Milanese sky. I had expected tapestries and Italian antiques, but instead found modern furnishings, several glass cases displaying seashells and rare comics, a lute, a collection of recorders, a collage of paintbrushes. “This one, you see, by Arman, is dedicated especially to me . . .”

I sat on a large white couch; Eco sank into a low armchair, cigar in hand. He used to smoke up to sixty cigarettes a day, he told me, but now he has only his unlit cigar. As I asked my first questions, Eco’s eyes narrowed to dark slits, suddenly opening up when his turn came to speak. “I developed a passion for the Middle Ages,” he said, “the same way some people develop a passion for coconuts.” In Italy, he is well known for his battute, his comedic sallies, which he drops at nearly every twist of his snaking sentences. His voice seemed to grow louder the longer he spoke. Soon he was outlining a series of points, as if speaking to a rapt classroom: “Number one: when I wrote The Name of the Rose I didn’t know, of course, since no one knows, what was written in the lost volume of Aristotle’sPoetics, the famous volume on comedy. But somehow, in the process of writing my novel, I discovered it. Number two: the detective novel asks the central question of philosophy—who dunnit?” When he deemed his interlocutor clever enough, he was quick to extend professorial appreciations: “Yes, good. But I would also add that . . .”

After our initial two-hour interview session, Mario Andreose, the literary director of Bompiani, Eco’s Italian publisher, arrived to take us to dinner. Renate Ramge, Eco’s wife of forty-five years, sat up front with Andreose, and Eco and I took the backseat. Eco, who just minutes before had brimmed with wit and vitality, now appeared sullen and aloof. But his mood lightened soon after we entered the restaurant and a plate of bread was placed before us. He glanced at the menu, dithered, and as the waiter arrived, hastily ordered a calzone and a glass of Scotch. “Yes, yes, I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t . . .” A beaming reader approached the table, “Are you Umberto Eco?” The professore lifted an eyebrow, grinned, and shook hands. Then, at last, the conversation resumed, as Eco launched into excited riffs about Pope Benedict XVI, the fall of the Persian Empire, and the latest James Bond movie. “Did you know,” he said while planting a fork in his calzone, “that I once published a structural analysis of the archetypal Ian Fleming plot?”

INTERVIEWER

Where were you born?

UMBERTO ECO

In the town of Alessandria. It is known for its Borsalino hats.

INTERVIEWER

What kind of family did you come from?

ECO

My father was an accountant and his father was a typographer. My father was the eldest of thirteen children. I am the first son. My son is my first child. And his first child is a son. So if by chance someone discovers that the Eco family is descended from the emperor of Byzantium, my grandson is the dauphin!

My grandfather had a particularly important influence on my life, even though I didn’t visit him often, since he lived about three miles out of town and he died when I was six. He was remarkably curious about the world, and he read lots of books. The marvelous thing was that when he retired, he started to bind books. So he had a lot of unbound books lying here and there around his apartment—old, beautifully illustrated editions of popular nineteenth-century novels by Gautier and Dumas. Those were the first books I ever saw. When he died in 1938, many of the owners of the unbound books did not ask for them to be returned, and the family put them all in a big box. Quite by accident, this box landed in my parents’ cellar. I would be sent to the cellar from time to time, to pick up some coal or a bottle of wine, and one day I opened this box and found a treasure trove of books. From then on I visited the cellar rather frequently. It turned out my grandfather also collected a fabulous magazine, Giornale illustrato dei viaggi e delle avventure di terra e di mare—the illustrated journal of travels and adventures by land and by sea—devoted to strange and cruel stories set in exotic countries. It was my first great foray into the land of stories. Unfortunately, I lost all of these books and magazines, but over the decades I have gradually recovered copies of them from old bookstores and flea markets.

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The Greatest Words of Muhammad Ali, by Louis Vuitton and Yasiin Bey

Hip-hop emcee, Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def), and calligrapher, Niels Shoe Meulman, pay homage to The Greatest, and sport’s greatest showman, Muhammad Ali, in this video for Louis Vuitton’s Core Values campaign. Drawing on Ali’s most famous quotes, Bey adopts the role of storyteller, bard and (literal) ringmaster to glorify the heavyweight champ. The results, directed by Stuart McIntyre, are beautiful. Both visually and lyrically dazzling.

What Pop Music Owes to The Waste Land

“Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain”

This is a superb article by Dorian Lynskey, from last week’s Guardian online, on the debt pop music owes to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. There can be few English students, and many others besides, on whom this colossal, transcendent poem has not left an indelible impression.  He’s right about teenagers. And musicians, too.

From Bowie to PJ Harvey (above), King Crimson, Van Morrison, The Pet Shop Boys to Chuck D…

Here is the link (with videos.) And the article in full:

The New Yorker critic Louis Menand, reflecting on TS Eliot’s transition from radical modernist to arch-conservative, wrote in a review of the poet’s letters: “He tried to shut the door on modern life. It was too late of course. He was the author of Prufrock and The Waste Land. He was already inside.”

Eliot would not have loved pop music but pop music loves Eliot. Ninety years after the publication of The Waste Land, he remains the lodestar poet for ambitious songwriters. They rummage through his masterpiece’s treasure chest of arresting phrases: the “violet hour” and “bodies naked on the low damp ground” quoted in the Sisters of Mercy’s Floorshow, “April is the cruellest month” kicking off Hot Chip’s Playboy or the “red sails” picked up by David Bowie on Lodger (Bowie told William Burroughs in 1974 that he’d “never read” Eliot but I suspect he got around to it).

Likewise 1915’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. “Like a patient etherized on a table” is paraphrased by avowed Eliot fan Win Butler inArcade Fire’s We Used to Wait, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” became a song title for Chuck D, and “the Eternal Footman” crops up in Tori Amos’s Pretty Good Year. “Alfred J Prufrock would be proud of me,” declare Manic Street Preachers on My Guernica. And 1925’s The Hollow Men lends its name to songs by Faust, Gravenhurst and Cocteau Twins. And on it goes: Genesis, Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Van Morrison, Rush, EMF, Crash Test Dummies, Okkervil River, the Clientele … “This music crept by me upon the waters.”

But why Eliot, above all other poets? One simple reason is that he is widely taught in British and American schools and he impacts on the adolescent imagination with peculiar force. The Waste Land may be unfathomably complex but it is easy to love regardless of whether you understand it. The language is juicy and pungent, full of fire and rain, rivers and dust, birth and death – lots of death. I remember deriving a thrill of pleasurable dread from its sense of crisis and doom when I first read it as a teenager. Lines such as “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” or “This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper” (from The Hollow Men) would be at home on the back of a goth’s leather jacket. Eliot offers a vivid grown-up take on a teenager’s sense that all is not right with the world. At a difficult age you get the impression he’s on to something terribly important, even if you’re not sure what it is.

So the message resonates, in sometimes simplistic ways, but the medium also has much to teach songwriters. Just months after his death, on 4 January 1965, Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row described “Ezra Pound and TS Eliot/ Fighting in the captain’s tower.” You can understand the appeal to a man attempting to blast open the language of rock’n’roll in a period of sociopolitical flux. Eliot told Virginia Woolf that Joyce’s Ulysses, which he believed did in prose what The Waste Land did in verse, “destroyed the whole of the 19th century”. They were twin responses to the shattered postwar world – vast collages of competing voices which declared that the old ways were dead and new language was needed. But that new language was built from the bones of the old: a dizzying mosaic of allusion, quotation, pastiche and impersonation, assembled from ingredients gathered everywhere from the ivory towers to the saloon bars, ancient Greece to modern London, and inviting endless interpretation. It attempted to encompass everything in a way that could mean anything, which is a decent description of Dylan’s mission in Desolation Row. When Eliot, traumatised by the strain of composing The Waste Land, later dismissed it, he used a line you could imagine Dylan pitching to an earnest interviewer: “a piece of rhythmical grumbling.”

The poem remains a catalyst for jolting songwriters out of their usual approaches because of the relentless ventriloquism referenced in Eliot’s Dickens-quoting working title for The Waste Land, He Do the Police in Different Voices. The style enables you to open up a song’s meaning by sliding between characters and perspectives: not a single broadcast but a radio impatiently flitting between stations. Neil Tennant applied the technique to 80s London on West End Girls with its “too many shadows, whispering voices” in an unreal city where “we’ve got no future, we’ve got no past”.

Thom Yorke reached for it to evoke his own sense of dislocation and lurking horror on Paranoid Android’s neurotic babble of unidentified voices (“Please would you stop the noise”, “That’s it sir you’re leaving”, “Off with his head”) talking but not listening – “a heap of broken images”, to quote The Waste Land.

Eliot’s influence extends across the whole of PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, which pieces together voices and images from multiple decades and countries, and collapses all that history into a single ongoing commentary on war and nationalism. You often can’t tell which lines Harvey wrote herself and which she took from existing sources; among other things The Waste Land’s collage technique is a licence to borrow without shame. One blogger has pointed out the similarity between On Battleship Hill (“Jagged mountains jutting out/ Cracked like teeth in a rotting mouth”) and The Waste Land (“Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit”). The critic Donald Childs believes Eliot was actually referring to Gallipoli (the home of Battleship Hill), where his close friend Jean Verdenal had been killed in action. During the campaign Australian soldiers sang the risque song about Mrs Porter that is quoted in III: The Fire Sermon. Did Harvey know all of this or is it just a case of The Waste Land’s world of echoes setting off accidental echoes of its own?

This process is apt considering The Waste Land includes allusions to show tunes, operas, folk ballads and ragtime songs among its linguistic flotsam and jetsam. In one example of cultural baton-passing Eliot took the refrain “goodnight ladies” from a 19th-century folk song and thenLou Reed took it from him.

As Radio 4’s recent broadcast of The Waste Land demonstrated, it’s a poem that wants to be listened to. The Fire Sermon in particular is full of noise: gramophones and mandolins, throbbing engines and pealing bells, “a clatter and a chatter”. Read it aloud and before you begin to thrash out what it might mean you can hear the music humming in the wires of the verse – the “rhythmical grumbling” if you like. It’s above all this sensuous, enigmatic quality that continues to inspire songwriters who want to leave all their options open; to bathe in words, and the sound of words, without locking them into a single reading. Eliot once wrote: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” True enough, many songwriters would say, especially if you can sing it.


Paris Review Interview, 1966: Allen Ginsberg and the Art of Poetry

“The poetry generally is like a rhythmic articulation of feeling. The feeling is like an impulse that rises within—just like sexual impulses, say; it’s almost as definite as that. It’s a feeling that begins somewhere in the pit of the stomach and rises up forward in the breast and then comes out through the mouth and ears, and comes forth a croon or a groan or a sigh. Which, if you put words to it by looking around and seeing and trying to describe what’s making you sigh—and sigh in words—you simply articulate what you’re feeling. As simple as that. Or actually what happens is, at best what happens, is there’s a definite body rhythm that has no definite words, or may have one or two words attached to it, one or two key words attached to it. And then, in writing it down, it’s simply by a process of association that I find what the rest of the statement is—what can be collected around that word, what that word is connected to. “

Read the full interview here.

Reading Books Makes You Better

Langston Hughes: Juke Box Love Song

I love the honesty and rhythm of Langston Hughes’ poetry. It is seductive and raw. Shot through with the Blues. Juke Box Love Song is a favourite…