TO BE READ
For me, writing and talking are tied to reading—so much that it almost seems that reading is ontologically prior except that it isn’t, rather the three form a field that I must move in and, in this field, I am usually reading. What do I read? I am scared by time because it is a ghost, and so I am interested in authors that write the same thing for a long time, or a number of works over a long time. Because it is silly to talk about one book when there are so many, I will talk about the most important intersection, for me, of authors writing the same thing, or a number of things, for a long time. This is in Louis Zukofsky’s late work, Bottom: On Shakespeare, because it is a book written by the modernist poet that has affected me the most and it is about the early-modern poet that has affected me the most. I have not read Bottom: On Shakespeare, though it sits on my shelf, next to, or possibly under, all the other books by or about the modernist poet Louis Zukofsky. Why don’t I read it? The book is a long essay that acts more like a gathering of quotations, mostly from Shakespeare, but also from elsewhere, that tries to explain that, and this is Zukofsky writing, “All of Shakespeare’s writing embodies a definition, a continuing variant over so many years. It is a definition of love that the learning of the later (specifically English) Renaissance had forgotten: the definition of love as the tragic hero. He is Amor, identified with the passion of the lover falling short of perfection—discernment, fitness, proportion— at those times when his imagination insufficient to itself is an aberration of the eyes; but when reason and love are an identity of sight its clear distinct knowledge can approach the sufficient realizations of the intellect…” To prove this point, that Shakespeare, and a whole lot else, are about the intersection of reason and love in the identity of sight, Zukofsky, took thirteen years to write an essay, that is mostly, but not all, a string of quotations mostly, but not all, from Shakespeare, that tries to show, slowly, forcefully, and through the words of others, that reason and love are an identity of sight. Quotation is very important to Zukofsky, there are whole sections of his master-poem, “A”, that are just edited versions of Marx. He is a faithful Modernist, but his use of quotation is different than Eliot’s who, it can be said, generally, fits quotation to collage, or Pound who, it can be said, generally, fits quotation to history. Zukofsky, I think, can be said, generally, to fit quotation to reading. Why don’t I read Bottom: On Shakespeare? It is a reason that should never stop anybody from reading anything, because one should never not read, especially when one has not read, because the reason I don’t read Bottom: On Shakespeare, is because I haven’t read all of Shakespeare. So this year I made a decision to read all of Shakespeare, in the order we think he wrote it in, on the mornings after I teach, as a kind of leisurely Saturday exercise, though it is Wednesday, and while reading Shakespeare, I have decided to make note of the quotes I think, knowing his thesis, that reason and love are an identity of sight, that Zukofsky will use in his book. That Zukofsky has used in his book. So anytime someone mentions sight, or eyes, or love, or reason, or something else that might seem like it has something to do with the idea that I think Zukofsky has about Shakespeare, I make a note in the margin. I am reading to begin reading. Leaving aside Zukofsky for the moment, let me first make two things clear: 1. I am not very far. I have, so far, read eight plays out of around the 37 that we think he wrote. (Though, of course, were we to count the other times I have spent with Shakespeare, this number would increase.) And 2. Of these 8, I would say that I have only really “enjoyed” three of them and that, mostly, what I have found in these first eight plays, is a poet working out his major themes, but doing it poorly. But poorly isn’t quite the right word, it is just this: Shakespeare is beginning a career, and in the knowledge of Henry IV, parts one and two and Henry V I read the pitiable Henry VI, parts one, two, and three, and in the knowledge of Midsummer and As You Like It I read the pitiable Comedy of Errors and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. (Strangely, rock and roll works the other direction, we listen to the pitiable Let it Be or Love and Theft in the knowledge of Revolver or Blonde on Blonde.) This is part of the joy, I think, of being scared by time because it is a ghost, and finding joy and being most interested in authors that write the same thing for a long time, or a number of works for a long time. But then, I am not really reading these plays for enjoyment, but, then, I am also not not reading these plays for enjoyment. Why am I reading these plays? It is clear to me that reading Shakespeare will help me to read Zukofsky, and in reading these two writers, I may also come to some understanding, or many other understandings, either about my self or the world, (of which Zukofsky and Shakespeare are both apart) or some third thing that is neither my self nor the world. Or else I will not come to some understanding at all, in which case I will only have read. Because time is a ghost, I must wait for it to come, and so to speak about what understanding(s) are to come, would be to ask the ghost to come too soon but, thankfully, though I am not able to tell you what I will understand by reading, I can, at least, speak about reading, for I know that, even if I fail to gain some understanding from Shakespeare or Zukofsky, I will nonetheless have read. What does it mean to read? Because I am sensitive to there being many ideas of doing things well, I do not want to ask what it means to read well, and so I am going to ask what it means to read poorly. (I am sensitive to there being many ideas of reading poorly, but one seems as good as the other, which is a strange way of putting it.) This way, we can get out of confusing reading with what comes after. I mean that reading well probably also seems to have added effects, like reading Shakespeare allows you to read Zukofsky, and that to speak of reading is probably not to speak of those effects, but to speak of something else (those effects,) so let’s talk about reading something poorly so we don’t have to worry about confusing effects with the act. To make this even more effective, we should probably read something poorly that is also poor. This way, we don’t have to worry that when we speak about reading, we speak about the cause for reading the text. Just like we might get confused about the difference between the effects of reading something well and the reading itself, we also might get confused about the difference between the cause of reading something that is written well and the reading itself. By reading something poor poorly, maybe we will be able to talk about reading. But, as I said above, it is clear that of these eight works of Shakespeare, that I have recently read, they are not “poor,” per se, but a poet working out his major themes. So then, what’s the play that deals with his major themes most poorly? It must be The Taming of the Shrew, which contains, as near as I can tell, at least three major themes or ideas that Shakespeare engages with throughout his career, all done poorly: 1. There is a play within a play. 2. There is character switching in the name of love. 3. There is deceit in the name of power. Why are these three themes done so poorly? I am sensitive to a number of ways of answering this question, but, to me, because I am scared by time because it is a ghost, the reason these themes are done poorly is because there is no clear reason within the play, if by play we mean the play of time which is a ghost, for the existence of these themes. One play begins the play, where a Lord dresses up a passed out poor drunkard named Christopher Sly as a rich man, and has everyone pretend that Christopher Sly is rich, and part of this pretending is they take him to a theatre to watch a play, which he has never done before, and the play they watch is The Taming of the Shrew, and that’s that, that’s the last we hear of the poor drunkard who is now a rich man. In The Taming of the Shrew, Lucentio poses as Cambio, a tutor, so he can woo Bianca, but in his tutoring, Lucentio very quickly falsely translates Latin, so he can tell Bianca who he is, and what he’s up to. His costume is instantly revealed as such. And finally, Petruchio deceives Kate to gain power over her— he is not Lear or Macbeth or Iago, those characters who are deceitful towards power, who we look on with disgust and tenderness. Petruchio is, merely, disgusting, and the power he wields over Kate is disgusting, and the deceit with which he wields this power is disgusting. So, three themes done poorly. What would it mean to read them poorly? It seems to me that to read these poor themes poorly, if the reason these themes are poor, is because they have no reason, within the play, if by play we mean the play of time which is a ghost, for the existence of these themes, then to read these poor themes poorly, would be to give them reason, within the play of time which is a ghost. By giving poor themes without reason reason, by reasoning about themes without reason, we might read poor themes poorly, and understand something about what reading might be. 1. Why is there a play within a play? Robert Duncan, a poet working after Zukofsky, but in his realm, as someone who reads, speaks of Shakespeare in his essay, The Truth and Life of Myth: “The greatest poets… Dante or Shakespeare… must ever be troubled by the play of their genius, of true things in fictions, and fictions in true things. Here, let me take, as an example of how uneasy the truth of mythical reality in poetry must be, Dante’s careful accounting for the nature of the angel Amor as He appeared in the course of the poet’s Vita Nuova… (in Rosseti’s translation): ‘I felt a spirit of Love begin to stir Within my heart, long time unfelt till then; And saw Love coming towards me, fair and fain, (That scarce I knew him for his joyful cheer) Saying, “Be now indeed my worshipper!” And in his speech he’d laugh’d and laugh’d again.” That Dante is not illustrating some thought of his but telling us of an actual presentation is the crux of the reality of the poem… ‘I have spoken of Love as though it were a thing outward and visible: not only a spiritual essence but as a bodily substance also.’” For Duncan, the best poets realize myth not just as part of the spirit, but part of the world, Love, Amor, is a thing outwards and visible, not only within but without. Might the reason we give to Shakespeare’s play within a play be that he is trying to establish the reality of his own myths? So that the first characters establish a (false) reality for us to watch, but in this, then, they establish another (false) reality in which we see myth unfolded as the real, as a real object, within the world and, like the world, without the world, because, let’s be clear, The Taming of the Shrew does not close off this world, does not “finish” the play within the play. Myth, like the world, opens up out of the world and is never closed by it, and so, the world, opens up out of myth, and is never closed by it. 2. Why is there character switching in the name of love? The main action of Lucentio posing as Cambio is his mistranslations of Latin: “Hic ibat,” as I told you before; “Simois,” I am Lucentio; “hic est,” son unto Vicentio of Pisa; “Sigeia tellus,” disguised thus to get your love…” Louis Zukofsky is also famous for strange translations of Latin. In 1958, ten years or so after he’d begun Bottom: On Shakespeare, Zukofsky, with his wife Celia, began translating Catullus. These translations, however, were not based on, necessarily, the “meaning” of Catullus, but instead were based on translating the sounds of Catullus. Celia Zukofsky actually knew Latin, she did a pony translation of the text and Louis Zukofsky created a homophonic translation out of her pony. For instance, from Catullus 8: vale, puella. iam Catullus obdurat. is usually translated as: “Farewell, girl. For now Catullus is firm.” but Zukofsky translates the Latin as: Vale! puling girl. I’m Catullus, obdurate (this is from Mark Scroggins' excellent biography of Zukofsky). Lucentio is not translating this way. “Simois” does not sound like “I am Lucentio.” But does it need to? Zukofsky was also, according to David Wray, interested in the shape of Catullus’ poetry. Zukofsky was not only making poetry that sounded like Catullus, but poetry that looked like Catullus. Still, does “Simois” look like “I am Lucentio?” No. What to make of the translation of Simois to Lucentio? The full Latin is from Ovid, it is a letter from Penelope to Odysseus, and Simois is a Trojan river and god, famous for supporting the Trojans during the Trojan War. We have reached a dead end— there is nothing even in the Latin to help us. But, perhaps, the secret is not in the Latin, or the sound of the Latin, or the look of the Latin, but in the English. What if we are meant to focus on the pointlessness of the Latin in the face of the English meaning, obvious and present before us? Lucentio, presenting himself to his love, breaks through language, and makes love apparent beyond a mismatch of tongues and costumes. Reason and love are an identity of sight— if we see a lover, we are unable to see or hear or speak anything else. I must always see my lover, in all guises Lucentio appears in. If I love something, whether I know it or not, it presents itself to me. Lucentio appears because Bianca already loves him. Or, to put it another way, Love is a clear distinct knowledge, it can approach the sufficient realizations of the intellect, and Love, like the world, opens up out of the world and is never closed by it, and so, the world, opens up out of Love, and is never closed by it. 3. Why does Petruchio use deceit to gain power over Kate? The most extreme case of Petruchio enacting his power over Kate comes late in Act IV, when Petruchio and Kate go back and forth with Petruchio first lying that the moon appears, and then Kate saying no that it is the sun, and then Petruchio lying no it is the moon, forcing Kate to agree with him, and when she finally does he, of course, disagrees and makes her disagree with herself. How to save this? If the play is a myth, and part of that myth is that love, as sight, as reason, breaks through language, and appears before us as love, as nothing but something attached to, but more than, surface, or that love might be more than the moon or the sun as words that describe an orb in the sky, but, nonetheless, that love is, precisely, as much as the moon or as much as the sun, those orbs in the sky, I say that to read is to say that the moon or the sun are words that describe an orb in the sky, and that orb appears before us, and that it is no more than a thing outward and visible and that words are not only bodies but spirits and that to speak is to read these words not only in the world but in the self, or, possibly, in some third place, that is not self or world, not only as spirit but as material, and, to speak with Kate, that the moon changes even as the mind, and that the mind changes even as the moon.
Devin King is a writer, musician, and teacher working in Chicago. A long poem, CLOPS, is out from the Green Lantern Press and a chapbook, The Resonant Space, is out from Holon Press. More at www.dancingyoungmenfromhighwindows.com