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Harpo Reads!

I have not, since last week, been able to stop thinking about Harpo Marx. The other night I saw A Night at the Opera, and while it didn’t excite me quite as much as Duck Soup, when Harpo starts hugging all the passengers onboard the ship, my love for him grew even stronger. What then, to do about it? Write a poem. If I were a plumber I would plumb about Harpo.

I’m not going to post my results here, but the project did get me thinking about poetic homages, especially poetic homages to funny men. First I thought of Hart Crane’s “Chaplinesque,” which is beautiful and led me to re-read all of White Buildings. Comedy is given such credit in this poem–made sacred, really, in the last stanza:

The game enforces smirks; but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.

I love the sentimentality this poem risks. Certainly the Little Tramp is a pretty sentimental figure, usefully so!

Because I have not been able to stop talking about Harpo and the associated act of homage, my friend Brian Baldi (who runs the world’s naming-est food blog here) directed me to Elizabeth Bishop’s “Keaton.” I have not yet picked up Edgar Allen Poe and the Jukebox, but now feel (even more so) that I must. The first stanza here is brilliant:

I will be good; I will be good.
I have set my small jaw for the ages
and nothing can distract me from
solving the appointed emergencies
even with my small brain
–witness the diameter of my hatband
and the depth of the crown of my hat.

I love the appointed emergencies, the small brain, the determined voice working at a task that seems so very very Bishop. My question (and this has to do, perhaps, with why the poem did not make it past Bishop’s desk until now) is whether or not the poem’s end is as successful.

Perhaps a paradise, a serious paradise where lovers hold hands
and everything works.
I am not sentimental.

I don’t know, maybe there is something to this. But Buster Keaton too is sentimental, no? Isn’t that the nature of this particular kind of clown? So why the last line? On the other hand, it doesn’t seem fair, really, to criticize the poem too strongly, given the nature of how it came into public view, so I will leave it alone.

Or I will imagine what it would be to be Harpo reading “Keaton.” He looks puzzled. He embraces Alice Quinn.

The Kenyon Review was founded in 1939. The resources for the new literary journal were provided by Gordon Keith Chalmers, President of Kenyon College, while the inspiration to establish the journal and raise the national stature of the institution had come from his wife Roberta Teale Swartz, herself a poet and a friend and protege of Robert Frost. Frost encouraged the idea and visited Kenyon more than once. The poet and critic John Crowe Ransom was recruited to Kenyon by Chalmers with the express purpose in mind of his launching a distinguished magazine. During his 21-year tenure, Ransom published such internationally known writers as Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, William Empson, Mark Van Doren, Kenneth Burke, and Delmore Schwartz, as well as younger writers: Flannery O'Connor, Robert Lowell, and Peter Taylor, to name a few. It was perhaps the best known and most influential literary magazine in the English-speaking world during the 1940s and '50s. In 1969, discouraged by the quarterly's financial burdens and sagging reputation, Kenyon College ceased publication of The Kenyon Review. The journal was revived in 1979, and in June 1990, internationally acclaimed poet and editor Marilyn Hacker was hired as the Review's first full-time (and first female) editor. She quickly broadened the quarterly's scope to include more minority and marginalized viewpoints. In April 1994, the trustees directed that The Kenyon Review be continued, but with significant cost-reducing and revenue-enhancing initiatives. Hacker left and David Lynn (acting editor in 1989-90), Kenyon English professor, was named editor on a two-thirds time basis. The magazine's financial picture has since stabilized and improved dramatically. The creation of a Kenyon Review Board of Trustees and a renewed commitment by Kenyon College combined to guarantee the financial health of the Review and to free its editors to pursue increased excellence. Such is the status of The Kenyon Review today.