Thursday, July 29, 2010

How to Make The Divine Comedy Relevant to Today’s Audiences

Hellscape: In this remake of Dante’s Inferno, the remains of post-apocalyptic Earth live underground to survive the radiation-poisoned surface world. So many centuries have passed since humanity has moved to the Underworld that no one remembers what life above was like. No written history exists, having been lost in the nuclear holocaust, but images of a world with green flowered fields, rolling mountains, bright blue skies, swirling sun & ocean stretching to the horizon persist in stories passed down through the generations. Most believe these are myths, but a teenager named Dante, tormented with dreams of Beatrice, a beautiful mythic goddess, believes he–as Beatrice has instructed–should leave the Underworld for the surface. Everyone thinks he’s crazy to try such a thing–everyone except a “mecha” called V.I.R.G.I.L. (a Virtual Integrated Robotic Gizmo Intelligence Learning unit) who, having been to the surface on military reconnaissance missions, says he will serve as guide. In a nod to the poetry of the Inferno, as well as Willy Wonka’s beloved Oompa Loompas, V.I.R.G.I.L. will often impart great wisdom in rhymes. Battling through legions of doomed humanity with explosions of sheer pyrotechnic artistry, Dante & his mechanical guide–with the invaluable advice the ghostly vision of Beatrice provides–eventually reach the surface, where it’s just like the teenager’s dreams, all beautiful & stuff, with flowers all over the place & puffy white clouds tumbling by, one of which, taking Beatrice’s benign likeness, smiles knowingly. As the credits roll, a kick-ass rock ballad plays.

Limbo: In this adventure, two insurance executives–Virgil, vice president of Fidelity Life & his young protégé, Dante–set out on a mountain climbing expedition of Mt. Purgatory, a pre-wedding gift to the latter, who next week plans to marry his longtime sweetheart & total hottie, Beatrice. Unlike most action movies, Limbo (which may not mean the same thing but is a catchier, hipper title than Purgatory) will be shot in a formalist style, rendering surrealistic images that readily lend themselves to allegory. For instance, shortly after the avalanche, symbolically wrath, Virgil & Dante fortuitously meet Sordello, a sort of Sherpa of the Pacific Northwest, his own party lost in the falling rocks of pride, who, after helping the two friends through the treacherous crevasses of sloth & the ice slopes of envy, joins them. At the movie’s climax, as they dangle by a single rope from the snowy peak of lust, Dante must either cut the rope to survive or die with his companions. Seeing that his young friend won’t save himself, Virgil implores the teary-eyed Dante, his tormented mind a virtual slide show of sexilicious Beatrice seemingly projected on the snowy mountainside, to “kiss her for me,” then cuts the rope. Sadly, Dante watches Virgil & the incredibly unlucky Sordello plummet to their deaths. As part of the story’s denouement, Dante–having saved the company a fortune by declaring Virgil’s death a suicide–receives a huge bonus from Fidelity Life, which he spends on a honeymoon in Hawaii, where the movie ends, with scrumptious, bikini-clad Beatrice removing her top in the cherub-adorned hot tub as Dante, clipstick extended, tackles her as easily as a climbing wall. (Note: If you’re wondering how Dante was rescued, please remain seated for the duration of the credits. Your patience will be rewarded when the movie resumes with Dante, his partially snow-covered body still on the mountainside, barely breathing, muttering sweet nothings to no one. So the previous ending was merely an hallucination? Apparently, yes!)

Paris Disco: Ever wonder why Dante called his masterpiece The Divine Comedy when there’s not a laugh in the whole damn thing? That all changes in this final remake. In late-70s Paris, Dante & Beatrice want nothing more than to be with each other–well, that & to dance at the hottest discotheque around, Paradiso! However, a mix of hilarious hijinks & kooky characters, including a comically time-warping appearance on the dance floor by Dante’s crazy grandfather who thinks he’s Fred Astaire, conspire to keep them apart. On this particular summer night, Dante plans to ask Beatrice to marry him during the laser light dance. He’s bought a ring from his shady friend Don, unfortunately stuck across town “in traffic,” he says, though he’s secretly wooing Dante’s sister Pia. To complicate matters, Dante has competition. Justin, a transplanted American, is muscling in on Beatrice, threatening Dante privately while acting conspicuously generous & charming in Beatrice’s presence. As if that weren’t enough, the voluptuous duo of Venus & Cleo never tire of tempting Dante with their tight tube tops, red hot pants & seductive moves which Beatrice always seems to stumble upon at the most incriminating moments. Of course, everything works out. Don makes it to the club in time, Pia sheepishly on his arm. Dante gives Cleo & Venus the slip, finds Beatrice hurling–along with a lengthy string of insults–a banana daiquiri in Justin’s face, sweeps her onto the dance floor & just as Donna Summer sings “MacArthur Park,” busts the biggest move of his life. Rated PG-13 for language, adult content & stupidity.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Going Ballistic

I like Billy Collins, despite the horrible rumors I've heard about him. I enjoy his poetry, especially Nine Horses, which he graciously signed for me when I met him several years ago at a writers conference.

Given his remarkable popularity, I find myself in the minority about his latest effort–& I use that word ironically–Ballistics, which The New York Times calls a “supple collection” & Vanity Fair describes as “Killingly clever,” both facetiously, I’ll assume.

While he's often praised as casual & conversational, Collins is also wordy. Take “January in Paris”–please! The first four stanzas serve merely to set the scene. This seems particularly excessive in that most readers are familiar, if only vicariously, with Paris. For me, the poem begins somewhere around line twenty with Valery’s abandoned poems “Wandering the streets of the city half-clothed” in need of “a final line/or two, a little verbal flourish at the end.”

This “little verbal flourish at the end” brings me to another problem: Such “flourishes” are to Collins as schmaltz is to Spielberg. Rather than relying on a signature sense of closure, perhaps Collins should consider cutting his poems two or three lines short, if for no other reason than to reject his current, albeit successful, formula. As for Spielberg, if he were to remove the schmaltz, he would essentially stop making movies altogether, a splendid idea in itself.

Another problem in Ballistics is that nearly every line of every poem ends with a noun/pronoun. "Aubade"--to choose at random as example--opens:

If I lived across the street from myself
and I was sitting in the dark
on the edge of my bed
at five o’clock in the morning,

I might be wondering what the light . . .

Each line, if not technically an end stop, is virtually so, lacking any thought-provoking enjambment. It’s as if Collins means to dumb down poetry in hopes of reaching a mainstream audience.

Perhaps to this end, Collins often inserts himself into the poem--zing!--not merely as the first person speaker, but as the poet in the act of composing. This nod to post-modernism may work at times, but generally speaking, I’d like to see more distance between Collins & his subject.

While it may seem creative to muse on what one may erroneously think a term, such as "Baby Listening" or "Bathtub Families," means, Collins decides that he also needs to explain what the term actually means. Gentle reader, I’m not violent by nature, but I can be provoked. To assuage my anger, I suggest Collins--giving the reader credit for at least enough intelligence to know how to Google--omit the explanations, combine the two poems into one & never show anyone.

That goes for “The Golden Years” as well as “Despair.” My research indicates that Collins invented the fictitious Chinese poets Wa-Hoo & Ye-Hah in the latter for “cutting-edge comic effect,” according to their imaginary contemporary, Fuk Yu, an interpretation shared by phony Russian literary critic, Yuri Dumaski.

Add to the better-never-seen list “Hippos on Holiday,” in which Collins concludes that “Only a mean-spirited reviewer/Would ask on holiday from what?” Actually, that’s the nice reviewer. However, so as to not to cast myself in the role of curmudgeon, I'll barely mention "The Day Lassie Died," a half-assed parody of Frank O'Hara.

If I’m overcritical, it’s because I expect more from the former U.S. Poet Laureate. Besides, he shows no compunction when pointing the gun at an anonymous poet in the title poem or when he speaks of “the intolerable poetry of my compatriots” in “Le Chien.” On that point, I may have an inkling, as in “The Effort,” as to what he’s trying to say.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

In Memory

George S-- was the son of a bishop (identity undisclosed by the church) who abandoned him in a thicket of pawns to avoid checkmate. Officially, his birth certificate names John Milton as the father. Experts generally discount this, given that Milton, who died in 1674, over 250 years before George's birth, allegedly went blind due to a chronic condition colloquially known as whacking off.

Raised on a trout farm somewhere near Lake Erie possibly, George began writing poetry at an early age, publishing a handful of poems under the name of Pope John Paul II. These early poems appeared on billboards, benches, the backs of buses & just about everywhere he pretended. However, his main ambition remained being an excessive pain-in-the-ass.

From 1954 to 1961, many people died, some mysteriously. Posing as a doorman at an out-of-the way hotel, George met T.S. Eliot, a secret cross-dresser, there for a massage only, according to police records & the two men argued over poetics & a fair price.

George’s first collection of poems appeared on a business trip, so he was reimbursed for the cost. In a private letter to his wife, the former Elsie Borden–if you can believe Wikipedia–Wallace Stevens called it “brilliantly clear & intensely blue . . . beyond what you have ever seen,” referring not to George, whom he considered an utter lout, but to Key West, which he, having recently passed, dubbed paradise.

George worked a variety of jobs, none particularly long or well. He was in New York making helicopter sounds when he formed a group consisting of fellow poets Ted Berrigan & Charles Bukowski to purchase stuff. That group, having jettisoned George after his lobotomy, later enjoyed success as The Captain & Tennille.

He received the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for New & Collected Poems when former U.S. Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur, leaving the room for a quickie, mistakenly trusted George. Afterward, he ran. His rumored love trysts with Richard Nixon were probably untrue.