Thursday, January 18, 2018

"Lincoln Theatre", by Langston Hughes

Lincoln Theatre
Langston Hughes

The head of Lincoln looks down from the wall
While movies echo dramas on the screen.
The head of Lincoln is serenely tall
Above a crowd of black folk, humble, mean.
The movies end. The lights flash gaily on.
The band down in the pit bursts into jazz.
The crowd applauds a plump brown-skinned bleached blonde
Who sings the troubles every woman has.
She snaps her fingers, slowly shakes her hips,
And cries, all careless-like from reddened lips!
   De man I love has

   Gone and done me wrong

While girls who wash rich white folks clothes by day
And sleek-haired boys who deal in love for pay
Press hands together, laughing at her song.

I read this beautiful poem this cold and dark morning and wanted to share it, but there's no complete version of it online, so I thought I'd rectify that.

(The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, ed. Arnold Rampersad, Vintage Classics, 1995, 360)

Sunday, January 14, 2018

"Language leading us up the garden path": a line from Mimi Khalvati's "In Search of the Animals"

In Mimi Khalvati's poem "In Search of the Animals" (from The Weather Wheel, Carcanet 2014), the speaker looks "at a daylight moon behind drifts / of cloud" and sees it as "a platinum sun":

a frieze of haunches, heads, ears and mouths
evening out, dissolving back to cloud

"Evening", here, is not the noun but the gerund form of the verb "to even"; this leads the speaker to comment on her own language and arrive at a line break that takes an idiom and makes it literal:

And look how morning becomes evening
accidentally, heuristically, in the miracle

of language leading us up the garden path
a white rabbit crosses, a badger, our local fox

"To lead someone up the garden path" is the idiom here, and before the line break, the sense is clear: "the miracle // of language" deceives us, plays tricks on us – here, the trick of seeing or hearing "evening" as a noun when, in context, it is actually a verb. The relative clause that follows the line break, however, turns "the garden path" into a literal path that the animals can cross.
            Enjambment often generates such a doubling of meaning, from figurative to literal (as here), or in other cases from general to particular. This particular doubling stands out because "the garden path" has a third meaning associated with language: the "garden-path sentence." Such a sentence sets up a word or phrase to be read one way but then turns out to require a different reading. And that, of course, is what happens with examples of enjambment like the one above: "leading us up the garden path" goes from being figurative to being literal; it has to be reinterpreted for the two lines to fit together.
            Hence, this particular enjambment provides a general way to think about enjambment: as a "garden path" effect in which one reading is replaced and often even displaced by another. The garden-path sentence is further related to the rhetorical figure of paraprosdokian, which means "against expectation" – and that is precisely how enjambment works: it creates an expectation and then adds something that works against that expectation. So enjambment could be seen as a form of paraposdokian. But more generally, it's the idea that enjambment behaves like a rhetorical figure that seems useful to me – particularly strikingly so in the case of Khalvati's poem, where the enjambment involves a figurative expression that is also a term for a rhetorical figure. Or has the pun just led me, too, up the garden path?

Monday, January 08, 2018

A passage from John Ashbery's "The Skaters"

In the middle of this passage from John Ashbery's "The Skaters" is a description of a picture in a calendar:
A broken mirror nailed up over a chipped enamel basin, whose turgid waters
Reflect the fly-specked calendar—with ecstatic Dutch girl clasping tulips—
On the far wall. Hanging from one nail, an old velvet hat with a tattered bit of
            veiling—last remnant of former finery.
(John Ashbery, Collected Poems 1956–1987, Library of America, 162)
The poem does not say whether the picture in question is a photograph, a painting, or even a drawing, but the image of the "Dutch girl" is clear and vivid. It is a vision of ecstasy that also stands more broadly for a genre of pictures in whatever format–Dutch pictures, of course, with the tulips as further confirmation of the nationality of the image. The image is both complete in itself and an image of completion, of elements fitting together, of ecstasy as a momentary emotion of wholeness.
            Yet this moment of wholeness and even wholesomeness at the center of the passage is surrounded by images of broken and tainted things. The calendar that contains the image is "fly-specked"; it is seen only in its reflection in the water in a "chipped" sink; above the sink is "a broken mirror"; the "veiling" on the hat hanging on the wall is "tattered". A "broken mirror" does not produce accurate reflections; whoever looks into it will see a distorted version of themselves, and the room described so precisely here will also be distorted. The water in the basin is also a kind of "broken mirror" that also offers a distorted vision of the room. With the hat, the broken doubling of reflections is replaced by the concealment of a veil–but it, too, does not work as it should. The veil, like the mirror, does not serve its purpose effectively. All this "former finery" frames an image of the ecstasy that such finery could create, if it still existed. All that remains of ecstasy is the image of ecstasy–all that remains of an aesthetic of wholeness and sentiment is this "fly-specked" image from a calendar hanging in a room full of broken things.