Thursday, November 11, 2004

Archibald MacLeish There

Archibald MacLeish was not a prophet. But his resume was impressive anyways: Yale (Skull and Bones), Harvard Law (graduated first in his class), almost-partner at Choate, Hall, and Stewart (resigned the day they offered him a partnership in order to move to Paris and study poetry, where he befriended Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Cummings), editor at Fortune magazine, Librarian of Congress, Roosevelt’s “Minister of Culture” and speechwriter (most of the 1941 inaugural address, for example), Chairman of the Committee on War Information, Assistant Secretary of State for Cultural and Public Affairs (where he helped write the UN charter, the preamble being mostly his work), first American member of UNESCO’s Executive Council, Harvard Chair of Rhetoric and Oratory, poet, playwright, and critic.

But not much of his work is read these days, although his lyric poems are still praised in anthologies. “The End of the World” is one of these. It’s a carny sonnet and pleases on first reading like a trapeze performance. At least, the octave does. The sestet is something of a different show. More existential. And uses the art of repetition to get its message across before it fizzles into nihilism. There are some things that make me smile. Like the repetition of “quite unexpectedly.” Or the crazy constant movement in that octave. And all the repetition in the sestet, as if one had to will something out of nothing.
The End of the World

Quite unexpectedly, as Vasserot
The armless ambidextrian was lighting
A match between his great and second toe,
And Ralph the lion was engaged in biting
The neck of Madame Sossman while the drum
Pointed, and Teeny was about to cough
In waltz-time swinging Jocko by the thumb---
Quite unexpectedly the top blew off:

And there, there overhead, there, there hung over
Those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes,
There in the starless dark the poise, the hover,
There with vast wings across the cancelled skies,
There in the sudden blackness the black pall
Of nothing, nothing, nothing --- nothing at all.
Yet, there’s a feeling of cotton candy despite its philosophical reach. Nothing happens to anybody. The characters are less than surreal; they’re cartoonish. It leaves you with a smile, and then just an emptiness in your gut. Not because of the existential nihilistic crazy constant repetition, but because in the middle of all those “theres”, those seven, count them, “theres,” in the end, after all is said and done, after the carnival has folded its tent and, like Elvis, left the building, there’s just no there there.

(But, really, I still like it alot, and wish that I could write something one-tenth as witty, accomplished in its craft, and just as telling.)

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