Tuesday Mar. 15, 2016

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How to Clean an Oil-Slicked Penguin

Like the punch line to a very bad joke
the obvious and actual answer
is: “carefully”.
First, you must learn to hold the penguin
from behind, to avoid the beak,
pressing both wings against the body
until you need to hold each out
(again, carefully) to clean
in and around the extremities.
Next, contrary to logic,
you apply more oil
(cooking oil works best)
to loosen and remove
the thicker crude. Working it (carefully)
into the feathers. Next
you clean what remains
with dishwashing detergent
four, five, maybe even six times.
Careful (yet again) to avoid
the eyes and mouth.
You want to clean the feathers
without removing their natural
protective coating, or else
the penguin will sink like a stone
having lost its normal buoyancy.
Finally, you let it rinse off
in a pool of clean water.
Let the penguin do the work,
preening its coat and reclaiming
what little remains of its dignity.
Do not expect thanks.
In fact, it will continue
to bite and scratch.
But, if you are lucky,
it might survive.
Which is the most
we can hope for.

“How to Clean an Oil-Slicked Penguin” by Andrew Gent from Explicit Lyrics. © The University of Arkansas Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the ides of March. The term “ides” refers to an event in a lunar calendar; the “ides” marked a full moon and noted the 15th of the month in March, May, July, and October, and the 13th in the other eight months. But when the lunar calendar became different than the monthly calendar, and the full moon was no longer always on the 13th or the 15th, the phrase went out of use.

On this day, in 44 BC, the Roman emperor Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by senators who called themselves the Liberatores (Liberators) and claimed they were preserving the integrity of the Roman system. In modern usage, it was Shakespeare who popularized the phrase “the ides of March” in his play Julius Caesar. Caesar is in front of a crowd of people, and he says, “Who is it in the press that calls on me?/I hear a tongue shriller than all the music/Cry ‘Caesar!’ Speak; Caesar is turn’d to hear.” And a soothsayer replies, “Beware the ides of March.”

It’s the birthday of biographer Richard Ellmann (books by this author), born in Highland Park, Michigan (1918). His parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father was a lawyer, and Richard’s two brothers followed their father into law, but Richard was more inspired by his parents’ love of reading and decided to become an English professor. He got into Yale and studied literature there, then went to graduate school and started to write his dissertation on W.B. Yeats, who had died in 1939 — there wasn’t much scholarly work on him.

While Ellmann was working on his dissertation, World War II broke out, and he enlisted. He worked for the Office of Strategic Services in London, and he took a leave to go visit Dublin. He wrote a letter to George Yeats, the poet’s widow, totally unaware that she was famous for refusing to answer letters or grant visits. But for some reason, she changed her mind when Ellmann’s letter came along, and she wrote back inviting him to visit her at 46 Palmerston Road in Rathmines, a suburb of Dublin. She told him stories about Yeats and showed him her late husband’s study. He wrote: “There in the bookcases was his working library, often heavily annotated, and in cabinets and file cases were all his manuscripts, arranged with care by his widow. She was very good at turning up at once some early draft of a poem or play or prose work, or a letter Yeats had received or written. When complimented, she said she was just a hen picking up scraps. Among the scraps were all Yeats’s letters to Lady Gregory, done up in innumerable small bundles according to year, with ribbons to hold them together. I asked her about Yeats’s first meeting with Joyce, and she showed me an unpublished preface to Ideas of Good and Evil (1903) in which Yeats described that singular occasion. I evinced a perhaps unexpected interest in the magical order to which Yeats belonged, the Golden Dawn; she opened a chest and took out his implements and regalia and rituals.”

After Ellmann was discharged from the Navy in 1946, he got a Rockefeller scholarship to go to Ireland and continue his work on Yeats. He went back to visit George Yeats, and he said, “She produced an old suitcase and filled it with manuscripts that I wanted to examine.” More than that — Mrs. Yeats gave Ellmann access to more or less all of her late husband’s documents, about 50,000 of them — diaries, letters, notes, poems. Ellmann said, “It is hard to know how revolutionary my ideas are, but I do feel that I shall produce the definitive book on Yeats for many years to come.” And so he put together the first comprehensive work on W.B. Yeats. He published it as a critical biography called Yeats: The Man and the Masks (1948). In it, Ellmann wrote: “If he was reticent in public, Yeats was indiscreet in private. He confided almost everything to his manuscript books, diaries, and letters, and from them another picture can be elicited, which joins together the disparate fragments and episodes of his life, and reveals him in quite a different light, the embroidered coat removed. But this picture is one which few residents of his home town would recognize, for in Dublin he is too often a subject for anecdotes which reduce him to a pompous, lifeless man, incapable of having written a good line of even of having existed.”

He followed up his first book with The Identity of Yeats (1954). He considered himself a Yeats scholar, and when he was looking for a new angle on the poet, he remembered the unpublished preface Yeats had written about his meeting with James Joyce. Ellmann said he was struck by “Joyce’s impudence with his distinguished and much older contemporary.” So he decided to write an article about the relationship between Yeats and Joyce. From there, he found himself fascinated by Joyce, and decided to attempt a biography of him. In 1959 he published James Joyce. It won the National Book Award, and Anthony Burgess called it “the greatest literary biography of the century.”

Ellmann published many more studies of Yeats, Joyce, and other Modernists. After 20 years of research, Ellmann finished his last great biography, Oscar Wilde (1987), just before he died. It was published posthumously and won a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Ellmann wrote about Wilde: “As for his wit, its balance was more hazardously maintained than is realized. Although it lays claim to arrogance, it seeks to please us. Of all writers, Wilde was perhaps the best company. Always endangered, he laughs at his plight, and on his way to the loss of everything jollies society for being so much harsher than he is, so much less graceful, so much less attractive. And once we recognize that his charm is threatened, its eye on the door left open for the witless law, it becomes even more beguiling. He is not one of those writers who as the centuries change lose their relevance. Wilde is one of us. His wit is an agent of renewal, as pertinent now as a hundred years ago. The questions posed by both his art and his life lend his art a quality of earnestness, an earnestness which he always disavowed.”

The Irish Studies scholar John V. Kelleher met Ellmann in the spring of 1946, and they traveled to Ireland together a couple of months later. Ellmann was on his way to do more work on Yeats: The Man and the Masks. Kelleher said, “It was on shipboard that I really got to know Dick and to appreciate his charm and tact.” He remembered an anecdote about his friend: there was a rude woman on board the ship who accosted Kelleher because American college students were playing a game with her and couldn’t come up with the name of Bonar Law, a British Prime Minister for less than a year in the 1920s. Kelleher suggested that it might be equally hard for British students to come up with the name of President Benjamin Harrison. The woman was so offended that the scholar was comparing an American president to a British prime minister that she stormed off, and Kelleher was equally angry. He wrote: “A little later, though, I saw her indignantly laying the case before Dick. He soothed her. He listened smilingly and a little pensively, then began to chuckle softly — not at her, not at me, not at the questions, but at the situation. The things people get themselves involved in. Presently she began to laugh too. By the next afternoon she had forgiven me almost fully, though for what I could never quite figure out. That was the first time I saw Dick’s tact in operation. It was wholly personal, quite instinctive, and as far as I could observe it always worked.”

Richard Ellmann said, “Modern writers, for all their variety, were in some sense engaged in a communal enterprise of an imaginative kind.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®