Monthly Archives: March 2010

Monday’s Verse, March 1, 2010

Lousy Smarch weather.

It is so cold in New York that people are stealing other people’s
dog’s JACKETS. People are stealing dog jackets. I know this not
because I read the NY Post, but because I was reading an article about
tabloid journalism, which commented on the Post and its ability
(laudable, in the writer’s eye) to focus in on the telling detail
within each morsel of midlevel noncelebrity bad behavior. Excerpt:

“It’s valuable, I’ve found, to reflect on what the Yale English
department used to call “conspicuous irrelevancies.” Those little
disjunctions in poems that, when unlocked, open a door to some
unexpected meaning. The conspicuous irrelevancy here: Who’s gonna
fence a mini dog coat? Is there a ring of dog-coat thieves? No, the
thief really couldn’t be stealing Lexie’s outerwear because he thought
he’d make a quick buck on the illicit canine coat market, could he?
But then I thought some more about the “TERRIER-FYING CRIME,” as the
Post  had it. What if the alleged “goon” had a little dog at home in
his unheated apartment, a mutt, probably, who shivered whenever he
went out. He figured the Park Slope yuppies probably had a couple
extra dog coats in their condo at home. So, yes, it was still
stealing, it was still wrong, but maybe it was also, on some level,
selfless. A story of poverty and desperation, love and sacrifice.
(You’d kind of have to sacrifice your self-respect to steal the coat
off a tiny dog’s back, right?) Straight out of Dickens. Or maybe
Chekhov. (Think “Lady with a Lapdog.”)”

OK, it gets a little pretentious, but I like it.* And why no Gogol
reference? Then I thought for a sec about how we love those
conspicuous irrelevancies in all kinds of cultural production, not
just poetry: the producer’s role in pop music, art direction and
homage in film, comedy of all kinds–sometimes the throw-away lines
are the best. With narrators, we can think about these conspicuous
irrelevancies in terms of digression–why do certain things pop up,
why are some thoughts cut off mid-sentence, what does a character, in
trying to reveal little, actually reveal?

And I immediately thought of Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” that
heavily-anthologized “two weeks on poetry analysis” chestnut. But it’s
so awesome, and if we’ve read it here before it was in the 90’s. So I
print it today without too onerous a guiding thought: How do the
conspicuous irrelevancies–those little guys that don’t necessarily
have to do with the poem’s subject or tone–affect our sense of what
the narrator’s about? Or am I wrong–are there no conspicuous
irrelevancies to speak of here? Comments from Brooklynites who own
small dog jackets particularly encouraged.

It’s a tricky poem with some arcane language, so a bit of intro: The
poem is spoken by a man named “Ferrara,” a rich duke whose very young
first wife predeceased him. He’s now seeking as bride the daughter of
a very powerful noble, to whose representative he speaks in the poem.
There is plenty of scholarship about who these characters are (or
represent) historically, and the court representative is claimed to be
an Austrian. Though Browning was a Victorian, the poem takes place
during the Italian Renaissance, accounting for some of the consciously
arcane diction. There are so many good avenues into this poem, which
we’ll explore in future weeks if it at all intrigues. -ed.

*The entire article, which includes minor ruminations on the Hiram
Montserrate affair, is available at:
http://www.slate.com/id/2245895

MY LAST DUCHESS

Ferrara:

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)                                [10]
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Fra Pandolf chanced to say “Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat”: such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough                    [20]
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,                [30]
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set                                [40]
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence                                [50]
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

-1842