Sunday, March 2, 2014

'Chaplinesque': the motion pictures from Chaplin till tonight — and a star-struck poet's motion sickness

A century and one month ago, the first actor to embed his persona in the new art of the motion picture appeared onscreen for the first time. As the glitz and tension surrounding the annual Academy Awards lie a few hours ahead of us, it's irresistible not only to celebrate Charlie Chaplin but also to reflect on the appeal and the shortcomings of Hart Crane, the American poet who first paid tribute to the great film comedian in verse.

Pre-tramp Charlie Chaplin in his movie debut, "Making a Living."
I can't help blogging now and again about literature, the art I know best, but this time it's for the sake of touting the most durable and widespread of the performing arts: the movies. Of course, since each film is set as one well-considered amalgam of performances (leaving aside director's cuts and the avenues they open to seeing other versions besides the marketplace original), it is a performing art with an asterisk.

But motion is its stock in trade, and of course part of its original name. More than the serious actors in early film, who had to cultivate a now-dated range of facial expressions and gestures to stand for emotions that couldn't be expressed by the spoken word, Chaplin was able to exploit a head-to-toe vocabulary of movement that added up to a complete, uniquely personified form of comedic communication.

"Chaplinesque" is an often anthologized poem. It proceeds a little more loosely than is Crane's high-rhetorical norm. It alludes to a popular aspect of Chaplin's Tramp character, the whimsy and sentimentality classically represented by "The Kid."  It amounts to a weak evocation of the urban loneliness and vulnerability of the Tramp's world, and is embarrassingly dependent on a kitten to drive the point home. Naturally, "Chaplinesque" often captures new readers feeling their way into poetry.
Kittenish kitsch spoils Hart Crane's Chaplin tribute.

Yet for all its strenuous grasp of the popular art that often inspired Crane, "Chapllinesque" doesn't get close to much that is central to its inspiration. Crane may have signaled that with his adjectival title. But what really seals the poem's failure for me is its remoteness from the essence of Chaplin — the way he moves, from his eyebrows on down, and how that radiates outward through his Tramp clothes, including the vital accessories of cane and derby.

Apart from the phrase "the pirouettes of any pliant cane," the poem remains aloof from Chaplin the performer. Of course, it is not necessary for a poet to display a gift for rendering physical motion. Many great poems are reflective or the counterpart of a painter's still life. Some meditate on time while deliberately stopping it. Crane could sometimes render physical action: "National Winter Garden," a section of "The Bridge," uneasily but doggedly describes New York burlesque shows of the 1920s. But could he have managed the Tramp's vertiginous, one-footed rounding a street corner? Apparently not.

Crane typically transmutes action into marble statuary. His poetry too often looks into Medusa's eyes and is turned to stone: The great "Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge" starts with the exhilaration of movement — "How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest / The seagull's wings shall dip and pivot him / Shedding white wings of tumult..." — but that poor bird quickly flaps its way into the empyrean and is seen no more. In its place, our view is directed to the Brooklyn Bridge, sitting stolidly on its glittering throne of human ambition and idealism.

In an involved essay called "General Aims and Theories," Crane defended his practice of what he called "the logic of metaphor." It's striking how often that logic veers away from action and its agents.  In one famous passage, for example, he defends the phrase "adagios of islands" in one of his best poems, "Voyages, " by saying "the reference is to the motion of a boat through islands clustered thickly, the rhythm of the motion, etc."

A plausible explanation of a pretty phrase, surely; but notice how this kind of image-making abstracts the soul of motion from the sight of those Caribbean islands as seen from a slow-moving boat, and the feel of that boat moving. To be sure, "adagio" in music indicates the movement of notes in slow time, but for that word to carry Crane's notion of movement, he has to discard what is actually doing the moving.

This habit of mind, I'm guessing, prevented him from writing a poem about Chaplin that would capture the essence of either this seminal actor or his medium. To other poets of the modern era, putting movement into words came much more naturally. Here is my short "motion carried" list, starting with two poems that release depicted movement from famous paintings: W.H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" and William Carlos Williams' "The Dance."  Williams also used direct observation to celebrate movement, most exuberantly in his swiftly impelled poem "The Yachts."
Breughel's "The Kermess," which inspired Williams' "The Dance."

Along with Robert Frost, Williams has a cinematic feeling for movement even when next to nothing is happening.  Witness his "To a Poor Old Woman," in which we not only see the subject enjoying the fruit she's eating, but also experience it as a process we can taste vicariously, as a moment in time not frozen, but — better yet — fluid.

As for Frost, his most famous poem, "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening," embodies a notion of motion in its largely static picture of wintry peace. The agent is the speaker's horse who "gives his harness bells a shake / To ask if there is some mistake" in the vehicle's unaccustomed  halt. The mode of transportation is crucial to the poem's tension; imagine how inert — and possibly death-haunted, as some commentators have claimed anyway — the poem would seem if the speaker had stopped his automobile by snowy woods and turned off the engine. The resistance to the speaker's decision by another sentient being has the kernel of drama in it, and its slight motion sets up a needed tension. Lo and behold, we're at the movies!

It isn't that high-toned, gnarled diction works against communicating movement in poetry, though it probably makes it more difficult.  In Robert Lowell's early modernist phase he wrote "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," a work whose rhetorical style is as highly worked as anything by Crane.  But the poem pulsates with vivid imagined activity at sea and among those who strive to master it.

In this mode, some poems unhappily fall into a category I should call "motion tabled": Wallace Stevens' "Sea Surface Full of Clouds," inspired by the twinned vision of clouds moving overhead as reflected in the independently churning sea below, is a movement-intensive concoction pureed in an image blender. It's a rare failure in a Stevens long poem that even Harold Bloom, his most vociferous critical admirer (and huge champion of Crane, by the way), deplores.

There's plenty of depicted motion in "Sea Surface...", all right, but the result — despite the rapturous tone — yields mal de mer, or at least a mental belch or two,  in the reader, long before the final tercets:

"The sovereign clouds came clustering. The conch
Of loyal conjuration trumped. The wind
Of green blooms turning crisped the motley hue

To clearing opalescence. Then the sea
And heaven rolled as one and from the two
Came fresh transfigurings of freshest blue."

As Dave Barry might say: "Motley hue — an excellent name for a rock band." (Oh, wait a minute.)

So, hail the Chaplin career centennial, and see you at the movies, folks!