Friday, November 19, 2010


A few evenings ago, the great Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel gave a recital at Carnegie Hall. He opened the second half of the program with a presentation of several songs from the plays of Shakespeare set to music by the twentieth-century British composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). These songs contain such brilliant lines as:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun;

Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney sweepers come to dust;

Journeys end in lovers’ meeting;

What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;

Sweet lovers love the spring;

Love doth to her eyes repair,
To help him of his blindness;
And, being helped, inhabits there.
After a set of songs (Chansons de Don Quichotte) by Jacques Ibert, Terfel devoted the rest of the program to a dedication to another great singer of Welsh ancestry. (Who said, “Charlotte Church”? Go stand in the corner!). John Charles Thomas (1891-1960), American-born son of a Methodist minister of Welsh descent, was a renowned musical stage, operatic, and radio star for almost four decades. Many composers arranged poems and texts for Thomas to perform, and the first of them that Terfel sang received a more rapturous welcome than the Shakespeare cycle. It was an arrangement of Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.”

Like most people, I guess, before Terfel’s rendition I knew only the first (“I think that I shall never see/ A poem lovely as a tree”) and last (“Poems are written by fools like me,/ But only God can make a tree”) couplets—and I always thought that “Trees” is crap. After hearing the full text, I know the poem is crap.


So I got to thinking: What is the crappiest famous poem?

Among the crappiest lines of poetry are these attributed to (but perhaps not written by) Alfred Austin, a future British Poet Laureate, upon the serious illness in 1871 of the then Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII):

Along the wires, the electric message came,
"He is no better, he is much the same."
Awful, but merely a single couplet, so it can’t compete for the title of crappiest famous poem.

For a corpus of awful poetry no-one can beat the oeuvre of Scotsman William McGonagall. His most famous work, “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” was occasioned by the collapse of that railway bridge in 1879. It begins:

Beautiful railway bridge of the silv'ry Tay
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last sabbath day of 1879
Which shall be remembered for a very long time.

And ends:

Oh! Ill-fated bridge of the silv'ry Tay
I now must conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay
That your central girders would not have given way
At least many sensible men do say
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses
At least many sensible men confesses
For the stronger we our houses build
The less chance we have of being killed.

Still, chauvinistically, I am going to hold out for the American, Kilmer. Because of McGonagall’s erratic meter, eccentrically-varying lengths of lines, and forced rhymes, undoubtedly even the Carnegie Hall audience would recognize “The Tay Bridge Disaster” as indeed a disaster. But while that poem is famous as a crappy poem, how many people can actually quote from memory any of its lines? “Trees,” on the other hand, has a celebrityship about it. It is famous for being famous; it is easily remembered and widely quoted, and instantly recognizable. It has the attributes that now-grown-ups thought verse should have when they tried to write “Poetry” in high school; such as, the strait-jacket of a strict iambic tetrameter (contrast the variations in stress in Shakespeare’s verse above), and end-stopped couplets with trite rhymes.

Beyond those flaws, “Trees” does not even sustain a coherent analogy. Here are the lines that fall in the middle of the poem (and probably no-one can quote):

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
A tree, then, is like a babe at the breast of Mother Earth. OK—but what orifice does the tree have that is analogous to the child’s mouth? The tree gets its nutrition through its roots, which are totally un-mouth-like. Besides, a tree is implanted in soil not the liquid implied in “flowing breast.” So, the lips are pressed to the ground, but a nest rests hat-like on the top of the tree (the “hair”). Er, how even the greatest contortionist could manage that is beyond me. But wait! What’s between the “hungry lips” on the ground and the nest on the hair? The “bosom” (i.e., the trunk).

But even if we ignore the clip-clop meter and the beyond-Cubist anatomy lesson, there is the vapid religiosity of the poem, culminating (after the false humility of “fools like me”) in the childishness of the well-known last line (“But only God can make a tree”).

It is only fitting that New Jersey has memorialized Kilmer by naming a rest area on the Turnpike after him. The idling tractor-trailers in the parking lot, belching diesel fumes into the atmosphere, are just an alternate form of pollution.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Screen Burned

After more than a decade of writing “Screen Burn,” his generally searing review of British television programming, Charlie Brooker announced recently that he was giving up the column, which appeared Saturdays in the Guardian. While I am a devotee of Charlie’s eccentric Monday columns in that same newspaper, I have seldom read any of the “Screen Burn” articles—firstly, because for most of the decade I didn’t know they existed and secondly, because when I found out about them, I really didn’t see any profit in reading about shows that I probably would never see or want to see.

Alas, in reading Charlie’s farewell “Screen Burn,” (available at I discovered what I had missed. For example, these descriptions of celebrities (hilarious, whether you’ve heard of them before or not):

“Not that I'm saying [Jeremy] Kyle himself is an agent of Satan, you understand. I'm just saying you could easily cast him as one. Especially if you wanted to save money on special effects”;

Nigel Lythgoe was "Eric Idle watching a dog drown";

Alan Sugar reminded Charlie of "a water buffalo straining to shit in a lake";

Ann Widdecombe had "a face like a haunted cave in Poland";

Cilla Black was "starting to resemble the result of an unholy union between Ronald McDonald and a blow-dried guinea pig";

Anthony Maxell was "a man so profoundly thick you could sell him a pair of his own socks for £500, even if he was already wearing them," while his girlfriend Saskia “had a face that could advertise war.”
While not all the persons savaged above by Charlie are content-free celebrities--as discussed in my previous blog entry, “Do You Know Me?”--(Sugar, for instance, made a name for himself as a successful businessman, and Widdecombe is a Conservative Member of Parliament), all of them fall into the category of “television star”—that is, famous (or most famous in some cases) for being on television.


As it turned out, after several years of writing such harsh judgments, Charlie began to run into some of his targets, with an unexpected result:
Once or twice I found myself in conversation with someone I'd been awful about in print, and discovered to my horror that the ruder I'd been, the warmer and more pleasant they appeared to be in the flesh.
Indeed, Charlie found that the above-mentioned Saskia was “lovely.”

Charlie’s discovery about the contrast between the public mask and the private face of the celebrities he met is revelatory, in that it is the opposite of what a satirist deals with (that is, a good mask covering the true evil or foolish face). Apparently, our modern celebrities, in order to promote themselves, feel the need to put on public displays of crassness, insipidity, dimwittedness, and so forth, while underneath it all, they’re nice (at least some of them). Which, perhaps, renders the modern celebrity unsatirizable, because the is is better than the seems.

Or maybe not. Aren’t those privately sweet and nice people deserving of Brookerian invective for lusting so much after fame that they will corrupt their public personae?

And what does that tell us about our modern world, which offers stardom and celebrityship to those who willingly degrade themselves in order to offer us vapidity, crudity, and nastiness?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Do You Know Me?

The New York Mets are almost a half-century old (would you believe it?). In their early years, one of the major sponsors of their broadcasts was Rheingold Beer. Aside from their inane jingle (“My beer is Rheingold the dry beer/Think of Rheingold whenever you buy beer,” it began), the staple of the beer’s advertising campaign was the Miss Rheingold contest. Beer guzzlers (and anyone else) were encouraged to vote for their favorite contestant (out of six) at bars and liquor stores. The face of the winner of the contest (which at one point had the second-largest vote count in the country) would adorn Rheingold’s advertising for the rest of the year.

It was during the first or second year of the Mets’ existence that the contestants visited the broadcast booth during games to do a little electioneering and to do things worthy of a Miss Rheingold—whistling themes from Wagner, for example—err, scratch that . . . to answer the usual powder puff questions, like what is your goal in life? I remember being stunned when one of the beauties didn’t answer, “I want to save mankind from the scourge of war,” but averred that she wanted to be “a television star.” “Wait a minute,” I almost shouted out loud (almost, because I’m quite mannerly even by myself), “you become a star on television by singing well, dancing elegantly, or acting superbly.”

Of course, I was wrong. The world had changed. “Television star” was now its own category, and one achieved television stardom by being on television. Welcome to the modern world of celebrityship*, where one is famous for being famous**. Consider Vanna White, whose talent was what? Knowing which panels to display on Wheel of Fortune? Not even that—the panels lighted up to guide her. Yet, at one point ABC’s advertising for the show teased viewers to tune in to see what Vanna would be wearing. Not to see Vanna singing, dancing, or acting.


Today, in the world of the remote control, at the merest hint of a television commercial I turn the sound off (which means, of course, that I don’t have a modern jingle equivalent of Rhiengold’s assaulting my waking hours). It also means that, with only a half glance at the tube to see when the programming is resuming, I have only the slightest idea of what is going on during the commercials. Recently during one of my half glances I recognized on a jeans commercial a guy I had seen before. “That’s that same actor with the baseball cap from last year’s Ford commercials,” I again didn’t shout out loud. But then suddenly at the lower left corner of the screen there appeared the name of the becapped one. “Wait a minute,” I didn’t shout out loud, “if they’re showing us his name, they want us to be impressed that he isn’t just an anonymous actor in a commercial, but a Somebody.” But if he is a Somebody, I thought, why do they have to tell us who he is? He’s in these commercials because he and/or his baseball cap are famous (in the celebrity sense***) or he wouldn’t be there. But if I don’t know who he is, then what the hell good does it do to tell me who he is? That’s not going to make me run to my local Ford dealer or jeans supplier and open my wallet.

Which raises the question: If I refuse to recognize modern-day content-free celebrityship, can I, in my solipsistic insistence, deny the fame of the famous-for-being-famous?

To me, the truly famous should be like the Lone Ranger; he cleaned up the town, left behind only a silver bullet, and didn’t do talk shows.


*There have been several recent books on celebrity, tracing its roots back in time. But while the content-free celebrity did exist in the past (e.g., Beau Brummell being famous for what exactly?—wearing certain clothes?), most other great celebrities, such as Lord Byron (“mad, bad, and dangerous to know”) did something, like write great poetry.

**Modern content-free celebrityship was anticipated a decade before our Miss Rheingold contestant in the movie It Should Happen to You. Out-of-work model Gladys Glover (Judy Holliday) spends the last of her money to rent a billboard at Columbus Circle. Soon she is mobbed at a department store by people who recognize her as the face on the billboard.

***I Googled the name of the becapped one and found that he could be called a “television star,” assuming anyone bothers to watch the Discovery Channel. For the rest of us, he isn’t famous for being famous.