Twain, Shakespeare, and Nonsense

April 16, 2014

Tonight, Andrew presented his proposal for a final paper on Mark Twain’s allusions to Shakespeare as nonsense in Huckleberry Finn. This will be the final paper for his Folklore of Play class. In the novel, Huck meets two con men who claim to be the Duke of Bridgewater and King Louis XVII. One of the Duke’s scams is performing scenes from Shakespeare, so he teaches the King to do Hamlet’s “to be, or not to be” soliloquy, but the speech turns out to be a hodgepodge of disordered lines from Hamlet, Macbeth, and Richard III. In nineteenth-century America, parodies and burlesques of Shakespeare were common in performance and writing, often vulgarizing or combining the original text with American slang or folk songs for humorous effect. Twain’s allusions, however, maintain the original wording; it is the sequence of lines that is changed. The lines are recognizable but disarranged;  the mismatch of references spiral into nonsense. Drawing on Susan Stewart’s theories of nonsense as breaking common sense frames with overabundance of signification, and allusion’s connections with nostalgia, the soliloquy as nonsense suggests an intrusion upon the American realist project and a unified American identity. The constant invention of origins by Huck, the Duke, and the King, alongside the allusive nature of the text, point to a problem of American origins–America’s culture and literature lacking the deep history of European societies. The speech not only destabilizes American identity by reliance on a British past, but also destabilizes that British past itself by cobbling it together from various texts in an incoherent way, rather than pointing to a single, cohesive source.

Consult this color-coded transcription of the Duke’s recitation. The different colors show which play the lines come from, and the original Shakespeare passages are given as well.

Allusions to Shakespeare in Huckleberry Finn

Fun facts: as Twain worked on Huck Finn, he also wrote a few acts for a full-length burlesque of Hamlet, in which a nineteenth-century slickster book agent visits Denmark and tries to push his wares on Hamlet and his father’s ghost, but tries to help out the prince when he learns of the plot against him. Also, Twain published a book-length essay in 1909, a year before he died, called Is Shakespeare Dead?, in which he claims to side with those who believe Sir Francis Bacon to have written the works of Shakespeare, apparently a hot controversy at the time. Some scholars believe the work’s exaggerated vehemence of argumentation to be satirical.

William Shakespeare and Mark Twain

Mark Twain may have believed that Sir Francis Bacon, not William Shakespeare, wrote Hamlet. Or he might have been telling a stretcher.


O steel! O stone! Poems of the Brooklyn Bridge

April 10, 2014

Yesterday (4/9), Ayendy Bonifacio led the Kerouac Krew to discuss several poems that “contemplate, illustrate and even eroticize the Brooklyn Bridge”: selections from Jack Kerouac’s “Brooklyn Bridge Blues,” Marianne Moore’s “Granite and Steel,” Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “Brooklyn Bridge,” Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge,” and Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Each of these poems engages with a radically different relationship to the bridge, and to its readers. We discussed how Kerouac’s take is more personal and ironic, while Moore broods over the exploitation of immigrant workers who made the bridge. They have not quite partaken of the liberty promised by the “Caged Circe of steel and stone,” represented by the Statue of Liberty as seen through the bridge (see photo below). Mayakovsky, a Russian futurist, challenges the iconic status of the bridge (and of America itself?), with the very form of the poem–its irregular line breaks and intrusions of white space create a sense of instability. Crane’s vision is of an ethereal, almost spiritual bridge, whose “curveship lend[s] a myth to God.” Finally, how can you talk about Brooklyn and poetry without Whitman? We only touched on “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” briefly, which does not reference the bridge directly, but uses setting to transcend the individual–reaching out to us in the 21st century, declaring that those who “shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.”

"Caged Circe of steel and stone."

“Caged Circe of steel and stone.”

National Poetry Month Day 5: Acquainted with the Night

April 5, 2014

Missed Day 4, but here’s one for Day 5: Robert Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night” has always resonated with me for several reasons. Like many poets, I walk frequently, often at night, trying to burn out, push through, or just dwell with an unsettling aura of melancholia. And if you pass by, I’m not going to explain. I didn’t have a luminary clock against the sky to deepen that gray not wrong/not rightness, but when I was young, there was a red cross that glowed on the hill across the river. Now that the weather’s getting warmer, I hope the long walks will be less broody.

acquainted with the night


“Acquainted with the Night”

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,

But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.


National Poetry Month Day 3 – Body of a Woman

April 3, 2014

I don’t have to say much to explain this poem or my response–it’s Pablo Frickin’ Neruda, “Body of a Woman.” You can find another translation here, though I personally like Merwin’s the best (reproduced below). I’ll just say that, as erotic as his poems are, there’s also a profound longing embedded in them, and that’s what I tried to capture–“alone like a tunnel.”

body of a woman

“Body of a Woman”

Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,
you look like a world, lying in surrender.
My rough peasant’s body digs in you
and makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.

I was alone like a tunnel. The birds fled from me,
and night swamped me with its crushing invasion.
To survive myself I forged you like a weapon,
like an arrow in my bow, a stone in my sling.

But the hour of vengeance falls, and I love you.
Body of skin, of moss, of eager and firm milk.
Oh the goblets of the breast! Oh the eyes of absence!
Oh the roses of the pubis! Oh your voice, slow and sad!

Body of a woman, I will persist in your grace.
My thirst, my boundless desire, my shifting road!
Dark river-beds where the eternal thirst flows
and weariness follows, and the infinite ache.

National Poetry Month Day 2 – There Will Come Soft Rains

April 2, 2014

Here’s my visual response to Sara Teasdale’s haunting “There Will Come Soft Rains.” In case it’s not entirely clear what’s going on in the background, it’s supposed to be a broken skyscraper overtaken by plant life. I was thinking of trying to draw more ruins, but I was honing in on the line “would scarcely know that we were gone,” suggesting less and less traces of humanity.

Yes, I know Ray Bradbury wrote a short story of the same name (which features the poem itself). It’s one of my favorites.

there will come soft rains

“There Will Come Soft Rains”

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

National Poetry Month Day 1 – Wild Swans

April 1, 2014

So, April is National Poetry Month. Rather than write a new poem each day, or analyze a poem written by another each day (both of which I’ve done before), I’m going to draw something as a response to poems. I’m no professional artist by any stretch of poetic license, but I think it’d be interesting to experiment with creating visual representations of poems. Some images might be quick doodles, others might be more carefully rendered. This first one is based on Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Wild Swans.”


wild swans

Wild Swans

I looked in my heart while the wild swans went over.
And what did I see I had not seen before?
Only a question less or a question more;
Nothing to match the flight of wild birds flying.
Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,
House without air, I leave you and lock your door.
Wild swans, come over the town, come over
The town again, trailing your legs and crying!