Oct. 1, 2011

A Night at the Opera

by William Matthews

"The tenor's too fat," the beautiful young
woman complains, "and the soprano
dowdy and old." But what if Otello's
not black, if Rigoletto's hump lists,
if airy Gilda and her entourage
of flesh outweigh the cello section?

In fairy tales, the prince has a good heart,
and so as an outward and visible
sign of an inward, invisible grace,
his face is not creased, nor are his limbs gnarled.
Our tenor holds in his liver-spotted
hands the soprano's broad, burgeoning face.

Their combined age is ninety-seven; there's
spittle in both pinches of her mouth;
a vein in his temple twitches like a worm.
Their faces are a foot apart. His eyes
widen with fear as he climbs to the high
B-flat he'll have to hit and hold for five

dire seconds. And then they'll stay in their stalled
hug for as long as we applaud. Franco
Corelli once bit Birgit Nilsson's ear
in just such a command embrace because
he felt she'd upstaged him. Their costumes weigh
fifteen pounds apiece; they're poached in sweat

and smell like fermenting pigs; their voices rise
and twine not from beauty, nor from the lack
of it, but from the hope for accuracy
of passion, both. They have to hit the note
and the emotion, both, with the one poor
arrow of the voice. Beauty's for amateurs.

"A Night at the Opera" by William Matthews, from Search Party: Collected Poems. © Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of prolific novelist and short-story writer Ernest Haycox (books by this author), who was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1899, and is probably best known for the story Stage to Lordsburg, which became John Wayne's Stagecoach; and Alder Gulch, which became the Jimmy Stewart film The Far Country. Haycox didn't live the open-range life that he would write so much of later in life, but he had plenty of adventure in his youth, his youth spent in and around logging camps and shingle mills, coal mills and ranches, and the small towns that were the locales of the American West's pioneer experience.

Haycox's parents separated when he was a boy, and he grew up with various relatives and in various towns. By 14, he'd held a number of odd jobs — delivery boy, bellhop, dishwasher, peanut seller. At 16, living on his own in San Francisco, Haycox lied about his age in order to join the Oregon National Guard and ended up stationed at the Mexican border during that country's civil war. He served in France during World War I and then went to Alaska to work as a commercial fisherman and save money to go to college. When he applied to Reed College in Portland, Oregon, he explained on his application that he wanted "to equip [himself] for fiction writing," and once accepted in 1920, became a journalism major and took every creative writing course available.

Haycox was a very active writer from the start. At Reed, he became a columnist and humorist for the school's paper, dubbing himself "The Campus Cynic," contributing to the yearbook and humor magazine, and reviewing books for a Eugene daily paper. He also started writing short stories and submitting them to countless national magazines, and took over an old chicken shack behind his fraternity to use as his office, working late into the night and papering the walls of his hut with rejection slips.

In 1922, Haycox sold his first paying story for the princely sum of $30. By the time he graduated a year later, he'd sold six or seven more. He would later say of his vocation: "You know, it's not exactly a natural pursuit, a man putting himself in front of a typewriter — a machine — day after day. But you've got to spend three or four years digging yourself a rut so deep that finally you find it more convenient not to get out of it."

When his first novel, Free Grass, was published in 1929, the critics generally agreed that it was an exceptionally vivid tale. In many ways, Haycox was a cautious writer, conservatively following the Zane Gray Western model — white male heroes, virtuous heroines, and thoroughly nasty villains — unfolding his stories through nearly nonstop action. He wrote of stampedes, gold rushes, feuds, saloon brawls, marshals, Indians, soldiers, and solid citizens trying to eke a living out of stubborn land. Haycox began producing a novel a year, and became a regular contributor to Collier's Weekly and The Saturday Evening Post, both of which published many of his stories and serialized a number of his novels. Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway were both fans of his work, the latter once stating that he never missed The Saturday Evening Post whenever it had a Haycox serial.

Professionally, Haycox was an unrelenting taskmaster to himself. Every day of the work week, he would rise, put on a suit, and go to his office in downtown Portland, where he would write all morning, and then edit, read, and answer correspondence all afternoon, his continuous work leading to two dozen published novels, and 300 published short stories. Haycox showed a continual advancement in his craft, expanding and growing beyond the simple, recognizable Western formula to include introspective, Hamlet-like heroes, historical tales of the American Revolution, and sweeping, panoramic novels fueled by story and human experience, rather than just the usual Western-style action.

Haycox laid out the following necessary stages for becoming a successful writer. First, one must break in to print somewhere, anywhere, with anything, and get money for it. Second, he advised that one must "consolidate in that field ... to such a point that your stories will be good enough to sell whenever written." The third stage, Haycox explained, is "to do something permanent, something at least bordering on the field of literature. The first two stages can be accomplished by sheer muscle and sweat. The third is an entirely different problem."

The man who almost, but not quite, invented the phonograph, Charles Cros (books by this author), was born on this day in 1842 in southern France. Charles never attended school but, along with his brothers, was educated by their father, who was a lecturer, writer, and philosopher. The entire Cros family was keenly interested in the arts and sciences, and Charles was exceptionally gifted in languages and linguistic studies.

Cros is primarily remembered as a poet, and wrote several books of poetry including, Le Coffret de Santal, or, The Sandalwood Chest, but also investigated various ways to record sounds and images. Earlier in Cros's century, others had devised ways of recording the vibrations from sound-producing objects such as a tuning fork and even the human voice; in one such device, sound waves vibrated a parchment diaphragm and the fine bristles attached to it, the vibrations then translated to a delicately undulating line as the bristles moved over the surface of a rotating cylinder covered with a thin coating of soot. But Cros was the first person known to have made the conceptual leap from the captured wave to the idea of reproducing what the recorded line represented — creating a sound divorced from its origin — as strange a concept to those unaccustomed to recorded materials as it would be if we could reproduce the ghost of a man from the mark he left in the cushions of a couch.

Cros had very specific ideas for the process and equipment to recreate past voices and called his invention the Paleophone. On April 30, 1877, he submitted a sealed letter to the Academy of Sciences in Paris, detailing his proposed method. An account of his invention was published on October 10th. Cros, being a poet of meager means without the resources to set himself up in the Paleophone business, was largely content to give his idea to the public for free, and he never patented his machine. Unfortunately, the American inventor Thomas Alva Edison was right on his heels with his own independent invention, the phonograph, unveiled just five weeks after the Cros's idea and patented soon after that.

Charles Cros, who was also interested in light and photography, developed various ways of improving photographs, including an early method of introducing colors into the photographic process. He published a nonfiction work on the subject. In a somewhat related vein, Cros had come to the conclusion that the pinpoints of lights astronomers could observe on Mars and Venus, probably due to the sun illuminating clouds in their atmospheres, were in fact the lights of large cities built by the civilizations of those worlds. In 1869, he published Studies on the Means of Communication with the Planets, in which he projected that a huge concave mirror could concentrate sunlight, focusing the beam on Mars or Venus and fusing the surface material of those planets in geometric patterns that would presumably be intelligible to intelligent life in the universe.

Along with his scientific innovations, legitimate and spurious, Cros is credited with creating or perfecting the satirical or amusing monologue, which he would perform himself or write for the actors and performing artists who were members of the many literary salons to which he belonged, including the Parnassians, the Hirsutes, the Zutistes, and the Chat-Noiristes.

Cros, always an impractical Bohemian, lived poor and died poor, but he was admired and respected by his contemporaries for his poetic ability in a remarkable variety of verse forms. The poet Arthur Rimbaud, whose prose-style poetry was so revolutionary, was in close contact with the older Cros, who was also a prose poet, and it has been theorized that Cros's versatility with form was an inspiration to the younger man. In 1975, the writer and illustrator Edward Gorey reproduced a translation of Cros's poem "The Salt Herring" as a picture book, telling the nonsensical story of a man who ties a string to a dried herring and the string to a nail in a wall, leaving the fish to sway "forever and ever and ever. I made up this story — silly, silly, silly, / To infuriate the squares — solemn, solemn, solemn, / And to amuse the children — little, little, little." To the larger public, he remains mostly unknown.

The American anthologist, editor, and 14th United States poet laureate Louis Untermeyer (books by this author) was born today in 1885 in New York City. His parents were an established jeweler and his wife, Julia, who would read to her two sons from a rich variety of sources, from adventure stories to epic poetry like Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha." And so Louis developed a taste for literature when he was still a boy. And when he learned to read on his own, he was fascinated by books like Tennyson's Idylls of the King and Dante's Inferno, and from them would create stories for his little brother, his imagination encouraged by the fantasy and power of the Gustav Doré engravings in the volumes.

Untermeyer's formal education ended after a few years of high school and he went straight to work in his father's jewelry business, but his real passions were the arts — music, theater, and writing — and he began writing verse. In 1911, he published his first book of "serious verse," First Love, through a vanity press with his father's backing, a book that Untermeyer at the time described as managing to "draw a long sigh through seventy-two lyrics plus a sweetly swooning envoy." And in 1919, he published his first anthology, Modern American Poetry. As a serious poet, Untermeyer failed, and he produced nothing particularly memorable in his entire writing career. But from the beginning, he established himself as a leading editor of anthologies, and the books he would compile would be used as standard teaching volumes for half a century.

By 1923, Untermeyer was vice president of his father's business, by which point he quit in order to dedicate all his time and energy to writing, reviewing, and editing. Over the next 50 years, he published, wrote, worked on, or compiled more than 100 books, 22 of which were his own original work.

Although Untermeyer was not much of a serious poet, he had a love of burlesque, parody, and lampoon, and produced a few collections of light verse. The American poet Amy Lowell said that he was "simply a genius when it comes to parody," and the playwright Arthur Miller called him a "lovable master, what with his instant recall of every joke and pun he had ever heard."

Untermeyer's tastes were eclectic, and in speaking to a columnist with The Washington Post once "described himself as 'a bone collector' with the 'mind of a magpie.'" He was socially liberal and did much to alleviate the Victorian myth that poetry was a highbrow art for the intellectually elite. He explained that "most of us don't realize that everyone loves poetry," and in pointing out the then-ubiquitous Burma Shave road signs as his example revealed something of his own catholic perspective.

Untermeyer felt that his early forays into anthologizing were tentative and uneven, but the Yale Review felt quite differently, calling his first poetry anthology a "delightful one to read; it has a distinctive individuality, and if Mr. Untermeyer, in avoiding the beaten track, does not always publish the finest work of his poets, he recovers many a line that has been undeservedly forgotten." Untermeyer revealed what may have fed his energy to create so many anthologies in his 1965 autobiography, Bygones, by first talking about his love of food generally, and in particular his love of the smorgasbord, "that lavish range of appetizers — which, of course, is what an anthology should be. It was therefore, only natural that one of the happiest episodes in my life was tasting, testing, and spreading out my first anthology." Untermeyer's taste for work projects certainly covered a lavish range, and he would eventually publish biographies, Golden Books and other volumes for children, travel memoirs, literary essays, translations, and even one novel.

Opinions of Louis Untermeyer seem to be somewhat polarized, his critics seeming to love or loathe him, respect him or think him a fraud, with little lukewarm middle ground in between. While he had many long-term friends and warm acquaintances among the art world's elite — Robert Frost, D.H. Lawrence, and Carl Sandburg, to name a few — not everyone had kind things to say about him, E.E. Cummings going so far as to pen a now-famous four-liner after Untermeyer's death: "Mr. U. will not be missed / Who as an anthologist / Sold the many on the few / Not excluding Mr. U." Some seemed to straddle both ends of the spectrum, like Ezra Pound who once invited Untermeyer to drinks with the declaration that, "The fact that your taste in poetry is execrable shouldn't prevent us from having a vermouth together."

In later years, Louis Untermeyer developed a deep appreciation for country life, and told Contemporary Authors: "I love on an abandoned farm in Connecticut ... ever since I found my native New York unlivable as well as unlovable ... On these green and sometimes arctic acres I cultivate whatever flowers insist on growing in spite of my neglect; delight in the accumulation of chickadees, juncos, cardinals, and the widest possible variety of songless sparrows; grow old with three pampered cats and one spoiled cairn terrier; season my love of home with the spice of annual travel ... and am always happy to be home again."

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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