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A performative study of playfulness in Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Frank O'Hara, and Elizabeth Bishop

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A Performative Study of Playfulness in Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Frank
O’Hara, and Elizabeth Bishop
Gregory Kirk Murray
Professor Maria Damon
September 2010
UMI Number: 3426485
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UMI 3426485
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The author would like to acknowledge his wonderful advisor, Professor Maria Damon,
for her inspiration and thoughtfulness. The electric conversations and unending
generosity of Professor Michelle Wright were so very helpful. The meticulous feedback
of Professor Lois Cucullu and fascinating discussions with Professor Christophe WallRomana were crucial to my formulation of the play concept. Also, Professor Jani
Scandura’s brilliant ideas were catalysts for his work.
Outside of his committee, Andrew Gaylord, Nick Hengen, Megan Friddle, Dan Birk,
Jason “J-Bird” Smith, Professor John Mowitt, Adam Lindberg, Lydia Lunning, and his
PhD cohort were all waylaid for various and sometimes inconvenient discussions of
Of course, nothing would have happened without the love and support of his partner
Enbar, his grandparents Boo and Papa, mother Pamela, father Russel, sister Katie, and
brother Chris.
This dissertation is dedicated to Boo Kirk, the greatest professor of them all.
Table of Contents
I. Introduction (pp. 1-33)
II. “I belong to no race or time”: "Zora Neale Hurston" and the Play of Identity (pp. 3477)
III. “They say a jazz-band’s gay”: Langston Hughes and the Porosity of the Cabaret (pp.
IV. "Kenneth! Kennebunkport!": Exclamatory Play in Frank O'Hara (pp. 126-167)
V. “The rich with their binoculars/ were back again”: The Dangers of
Playful Discourse in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Manuelzinho” (pp. 168-213)
VI. Works Cited (pp. 214-229)
List of Figures
i. “Pylon Putter.” As a touchdown celebration, Cincinnati Bengal Chad Ochocinco putts
a football with an end-zone pylon. (p. 10)
ii. “Chaplin Enters the Machine.” In a still from Modern Times,” actor Charlie Chaplin
is swallowed up by gigantic gears. (p.15)
iii. “SESC Pompéia.” Brazilians use architect Lina Bo Bardi’s boardwalk to catch some
rays. (p. 19)
iv. “São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP).” Architect Lina Bo Bardi designed the MASP
with room underneath for Brazilians to use as they saw fit. (p. 20)
v. “Dust Tracks on a Road. Holograph Manuscript.” Hurston gave this typed draft to
Yale University. (p. 34)
vi. “Zora Neale Hurston Crow Dance #1.” Zora Neale Hurston demonstrates a Crow
dance. (p. 38)
vii. “Zora Neale Hurston Crow Dance #2.” Zora Neale Hurston demonstrates a Crow
dance. (p. 49)
viii. “Statuette of Isis and Horus.” Egyptian goddess Isis with Horus. (p. 51)
ix. “Ophelia.” Painter Sir John Everett Millais depicts the suicide of Shakespeare’s
Ophelia. (p. 53)
x. “The Prize Winners.” A veritable “who’s who” of the Harlem Renaissance. (p. 60)
xi. “Zora Neale Hurston Crow Dance #3.” Zora Neale Hurston demonstrates a Crow
dance. (p. 71)
xii. “Langston Hughes at the Stage Door Canteen.” Langston Hughes as a volunteer
waiter for World War I veterans. (p. 94)
xiii. “Lenox Avenue Bar, Harlem.” Carl Van Vechten snapped this photo in 1940. (p.
xiv. “Photograph of Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, & Jessie Fauset, 1927 Tuskegee Summer.” Three giants of the Harlem Renaissance pose before a statue of
Booker T. Washington. (p. 102)
xv. “Fine Clothes to the Jew, by Langston Hughes.” The dust jacket, particularly the
blurb, provides insight into the racist marketing of Hughes’s 1927 book. (p. 107)
xvi. “Langston Hughes.” One of Carl Van Vechten’s many photos of the pensive
Hughes. (p. 117)
xvii. “New York City in 1950.” This is a view of Frank O’Hara’s New York City. (p.
xviii. “Trophy II (for Teeny and Marcel Duchamp).” Robert Rauschenberg mixes media
to create a variety of exclamation, including typographical ones. (p. 130)
xix. “O’Hara Nude with Boots.” In this painting by Larry Rivers, O’Hara would have
noticed that his penis resembled an exclamation point, and that it produced the effect of
one in the viewer. (p. 140)
xx and xxi. “Poets Dressed and Undressed: Joe Brainard, Frank O’Hara, Joe LeSueur,
and Frank Lima (Standing).” Painter Wynn Chamberlain depicts the poets clothed and
nude in this two-panel work. (p. 142, p. 145)
xxii. “Untitled.” For the illustrated book Parler Seul by Tristan Tzara, Joán Miró paints
exclamation points. (p. 148)
xxiii. “Frank O’Hara on the Telephone.” What could be more natural? (p. 151)
xxiv. “Lana Turner.” In the photograph, Lana Turner’s upper arm and head form an
exclamation point. (p. 166)
xxv. Untitled. This Chon Day cartoon was published on January 7, 1956 in The New
Yorker. (p. 173)
xxvi. Untitled. This Robert Kraus cartoon was published on May 5, 1956 in The New
Yorker. (p. 179)
xxvii. Untitled. This Ed Fisher cartoon was published on October 20, 1956 in The New
Yorker. (p. 181)
xxviii. Untitled. This Dana Fradon cartoon was published on February 18, 1956 in The
New Yorker. (p. 187)
xxix. Untitled. This Barney Tobey cartoon was published on September 22, 1956 in The
New Yorker. (p. 195)
xxx. Untitled. This Barney Tobey cartoon was published on June 23, 1956 in The New
Yorker. (p. 208)
Siyoko then put on the mask of Anung-Ite, the horrid, double-faced witch, a sight that
makes one’s blood curdle. “This will really scare him,” Siyoko hoped. The little boy liked the
mask. He would not leave it alone. He wanted to keep it as a toy.
Siyoko was exhausted. He said: “Let’s rest awhile.” He sat down and put the baby on
his lap. The little boy pissed on him. He dirtied him all over. He covered Siyoko’s lap with
At this moment the baby’s mother came in. She scolded the little one, saying: “What
have you done!” The baby got scared and cried.
“I give up,” Siyoko told Iktomi. “You win. This baby is mightier than any Woinihan I
ever fought.”
“Kanji,” said Iktomi, “I’ll take your horses and buffalo robes. You can keep your wife.
She’s too ugly for me.” (“Ikto’s Grandchild Defeats Siyoko” 106-7)
In many ways the above excerpt functions as a readymade, or an alwaysalreadymade, to reappropriate and signify on a cliché. One could generate a
complex analysis of this parable or, alternately, allow it to be strictly didactic. It
depends on how the parable is used, how it is appropriated, how it is
reappropriated, and how or whether it is played with. Here, we have
reappropriated a portion of a story from the Rosebud Sioux’s oral tradition, and
our gesture raises many relevant issues for the present study. In the context of an
agonistic contest, Siyoko puts on a mask, itself an act of mimetic play, as he
assumes a new identity. It is an identity now set into play. Siyoko hopes, “This will
really scare him.” Yet, Iktomi’s grandchild, the baby, remains in the play sphere, his
default sphere, accepting all as play. He only leaves the play sphere when his
mother scolds him. For now, this moment concerns us the most. The baby has
broken a rule. It is perhaps a rule that he didn’t know about. He is being initiated
into the world of rules and laws. This is a world he has been resisting. This is a
world the parable itself is resisting through its play spirit.
Modernist studies, unlike post-modernist studies, has tended to operate
according to a view of man as homo melancholis, regarding post-war literature as
an exploration of mankind’s alienation from society and the resultant conditions of
despair and fragmentation.1 While modernist texts often perform these
explorations, particularly in the so-called high modernist tradition, countless
canonical texts, including those once located in the margins, are written in the play
spirit, seeing man as homo ludens. Scholars of the post-modern have dominated an
emerging play criticism scene, often working their “ludic” studies by applying play
theory to the post-modern novel. Helpful though these studies have certainly been,
they ultimately reveal a preference for what has been considered a more elevated,
more developed, and more sophisticated type of play. Critics have preferred, to use
Roger Caillois’s terms, ludus (organized, rule-based play) to paidia (childlike,
inventive, spontaneous play) (13).2 The subject, and subject position, of these
“elevated,” post-modern ludic discourses, has been occupied by white males,
beginning, perhaps, with Irish authors James Joyce and Flann O’Brien.3 However
we calculate its origins or calibrate its trajectories, ludic studies is emerging as an
important player in literary scholarship, as it puts to use a brilliant line of
It is reasonable to allow the play concept to disrupt the line between modernism and postmodernism, a distinction that has already come under substantial pressure. I conceive of playful
modernism as a movement, not a period. In this model, it is not problematic to include Frank
O’Hara and Elizabeth Bishop. Although controversial, it would also be acceptable to include “late”modernist poets such as Lorenzo Thomas and Lanny Quarles because of their playful poetics.
2 For more details, also consult page 257 of Caillois.
3 Actually, I question the extent to which many of these texts are more ludus than paidia, yet
criticism has tended to emphasize ludic elements precisely because they have seemed more worthy
of study.
interdisciplinary theories of play, unearthing the ludic components in, especially,
the novel.4
As an American modernism scholar, I bring a play spirit to this discussion,
and as a play scholar, I bring modernism into the discussion of American play
literature. Using the novel, ludic critics have established its status as a game
between the author and the reader; one need only read a page of Vladimir
Nabokov criticism—which includes his own criticism—to see this.5 The present
study’s emphasis on poetry is not meant to insinuate that genre’s monopoly of the
play spirit in modernism. I will assert, though, that it is just and pragmatic, as very
little has been done to apply play theory to poetry. In this introduction, I don’t
undertake a comprehensive and interdisciplinary history of the play concept,
something already done a handful of times. Instead, I examine a few play concepts
that deserve closer analysis and have special application to Zora Neale Hurston,
Langston Hughes, Frank O’Hara, and Elizabeth Bishop. To this end, I will mention
what I mean by and what is at stake in the play spirit, the characteristics of the play
sphere (especially its “porosity” and its combinatory nature), play as
reappropriation, and play as resistance to museification. Any study of play theory
One could also start with Lewis Carroll and move to Joyce and Nabokov, a strategy discussed in
Carroll studies and one that damages the thesis that post-modernism is temporally distinct from
modernism. Both Joyce and Nabokov owe a significant play debt to Carroll.
5 Alfred Appel, Jr. writes that Huizinga’s Homo Ludens is “an excellent introduction to Nabokov,
even if he is not mentioned” (lxv). Still, Appel is quick to point out that Nabokov’s play is “very
selective,” and he cites the latter’s criticisms of James Joyce’s Ulysses as an example, actually, of how
much more wrought and carefully assembled is the trivia of Lolita compared to the more
spontaneous gestures of Ulysses. To me, this play is more ludus than paidia on Nabokov’s part,
making Appel’s comment the slightest bit misleading. In this comparison, Homo Ludens would be a
better introduction to Joyce, even if, like Huizinga, Nabokov tends to stress the agonistic elements
of play in his Lolita.
should say something about the research of Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois,
what ideas influenced play’s history of ideas, what remains relevant, and what
could stand revision. But my emphasis in reviewing play theory is on thinkers and
ideas that have, despite receiving less critical attention than others, been crucial
for the establishment of play literature scholarship. In the penultimate and
ultimate sections of this introduction, I detail contemporary play scholarship,
discussing how it has mobilized play theory and how the present project
contributes to it.
I. Huizinga and Caillois
The history of the play concept is rich and various, and it does not belong to
a single discipline, trajectory, or application. It has been played with,
reappropriated by scholars to new contexts, taken on and off like the mask of
Siyoko. Although the play concept had been active in a plethora of analyses when
Johan Huizinga published Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture in
1938, it was his insistence on its primacy to all aspects of culture that attracted
attention. When he was meticulously preparing this erudite book, he was in fact
creating an interdisciplinary playground whose chalk is still fresh on the asphalt.
Sociology, philosophy, psychology, pedagogy, children’s studies, anthropology, and
literature, to name a few, have adopted meaningful play concepts, many of them
directly addressing play issues he initiated into academia’s own play sphere.
Huizinga has been credited, appropriately, with being the father figure of the play
theory. Yet, in the custom of those phallocentric times, he raised many sons but
few daughters. Some of his offspring continued his interdisciplinary approach,
many of them concentrating on developing play theories in their respective
disciplines. Ultimately, Huizinga’s contribution would lead to ludic (or what I
prefer to call play) criticism.6 Sure, Huizinga’s legacy in play theory has been
scrutinized by those that would “kill daddy,” as it were, but it should be
emphasized that his own thought was not mere child’s play, and it belongs to a
telling historical context. Arrested in 1941 for delivering an anti-Nazi speech,
Huizinga was banished to a small village in Gelderland, near Arnhem (in the
Netherlands). He would die a prisoner there in 1945, before Homo Ludens would
reach the United States. I do not mean to suggest that Huizinga represents a
“revolutionary” politics that should or even could serve as a handbook for play
activism. It is certain, however, that he deserves profound homage for developing
and advancing a thesis valorizing the play spirit in that historical moment.
Using Huizinga’s work as a launching pad, Caillois introduces a matrix of
concepts that he feels are more suitable to the study of play and to the task of
deriving a sociology of games. Yet, as Warren Motte points out, “...Curiously enough
(for all his demurrals), when Caillois finally comes to postulate his own model of
play, it resembles Huizinga’s point by point” (6). Caillois defines play as an activity
with six characteristics: free, separate, uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules,
and make-believe (9-10). Essentially, he thinks of play in the context of games, and
will use the terms “play criticism,” “play studies,” etc… rather than “ludic criticism,” “ludic
studies,” because I prefer the richness in the term’s history. Whereas “play” evokes a network of
discourses related more tangentially to play scholarship (e.g. studies of playful architecture or
children’s play), “ludic” siphons off many of those histories, especially the field of child psychology,
which doesn’t even use it. Also, most people don’t even know what “ludic” means!
he has definitions for the types of games he observes through his research. To this
end, he introduces agôn (games of competition), alea (games of chance), mimicry
(games of simulation), and ilynx (games of vertigo).7 Indeed, these categories have
proven quite useful to scholars such as Warren Motte and Kimberly BohmanKalaja, who have applied them primarily to post-modern novels. Still, Motte
observes problems in Caillois’s sociology, including his degradation of the ludic
cultures in Cameroon and Gabon, which were French colonies at the time Caillois
wrote Man, Play, and Games (9).
Motte’s critique deserves elaboration, as Caillois’s emphasis on
development toward more rule-bound, organized play not only amounts to a
preemptive defense of Western play and culture but also the continued
marginalization of folk literatures. Actually, most of modern American literature
would be profoundly “primitive” by his definitions. Though Huizinga is often
criticized for including a play mood or spirit in his own definition of play, this
inclusion connects him to certain marginalized literary traditions, including
African-American literature. In Caillois, however, there is a point at which
classification becomes colonization. He is, after all, the same “M[onsieur] Caillois”
that Aimé Césaire lambastes in his Discourse on Colonialism. There, Césaire
performs a counter-discourse: “His [Caillois’s] doctrine? It has the virtue of
simplicity. That the West invented science. That the West alone knows how to
think; that at the borders of the Western world there begins the shadowy realm of
primitive thinking...” (69). Indeed, the “simplicity” on which Césaire puns is the
page 36 of Caillois for a table classifying types of games and providing examples.
attribute often applied to the “primitive thinking” that sociologists like Caillois
applied to “exotic” civilizations. Caillois had been critical of the fieldwork of, for
instance, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, who had refused to assert the dominance of Western
thought and logic. I would assert that Césaire’s critique applies to Caillois’s Man,
Play and Games. What about the play, the games and rituals, of these so-called
“exotic” civilizations that Caillois studies? What makes them less “civilized”?
Caillois mobilizes his categories to differentiate between the more “advanced”
agôn-alea civilizations and the more “primitive” mimicry-ilynx tribes. In his chapter
on “Simulation and Vertigo,” Caillois writes, “[The games of a civilization]
necessarily reflect its culture pattern and provide useful indications as to the
preferences, weakness, and strength of a given society at a particular stage of its
evolution” (83). What he has in mind is that primitive societies are still in the
childish phase where a preoccupation with masks and a predilection for spinning
around are still popular. Societies that are “not too stable” are beset by the
“contagious presence of masks” (Caillois 89). This point needs no further
elaboration, I hope, aside from perhaps this concluding comment, which should
put Caillois’s views into focus: “...Each time that an advanced culture succeeds in
emerging from the chaotic original, a palpable repression of the powers of vertigo
and simulation is verified” (97). Though I am wary of being polemical in my
scholarship—for that would be contrary to a certain spirit of openness that the
play element represents—I make an exception when criticizing those gestures that
would close off forever the gates to dialogism. In Caillois, we observe the
establishment of fixed categories that valorize one culture and denigrate another;
indeed, once the Western conception of “civilized” play becomes the gold standard,
what can mimicry and ilynx be but child’s play? Actually, the term “ludic,” the
preferred term of post-modern scholars, reveals Caillois’s preferences. He
employed the Latin “ludic” to refer to games governed by rules, and as games
become more “developed” they become more ludic. In the history of development,
paidia refers to childlike play in which there are no fixed rules, and it is typical of
primitive cultures.8 Importantly, this type of play is not dismissive of rules, it’s that
the rules are fluid rather than static. Warning: THEY ARE SUBJECT TO CHANGE.
This isn’t to say that rules preclude a play-spirit or are inherently inferior or even
antithetical to improvisational, spontaneous, or unstructured play. I will assert that
the valorization of ludus over paidia amounts to a preference for white, male,
heteronormative, and Western play. My project insists on the importance of
amputated, playful histories to American modernist literature.
II. What They Didn’t Tell You About Play Theory
Giorgio Agamben’s substantial, if recent, contributions to the history of the
play concept are themselves of a historical yet highly theoretical nature, and they
suggest that play is essential for understanding history. Agamben asserts in his
chapter “In Playland” from Infancy and History, that children play with history, by
which he means that “humanity’s little scrap-dealers” reappropriate their toy
Caillois’s appropriation of “ludic” is somewhat misleading. The Oxford English Dictionary defines
the term as “of or pertaining to undirected or spontaneously playful behavior” (“ludic”).
objects from the realm of the used (81). The object that becomes reappropriated
through play changes its use-value; it is not static. When Agamben states that
“Everything which is old, independent of its sacred origins, is liable to become a
toy”, he is putting to work the term “sacred,” which is in opposition to that which is
“profane” (Infancy 79). Agamben’s later essay (which is) “In Praise of Profanation”
reappropriates the words of Trebatius to rehabilitate a term that has been dragged
through the mud, quoting: “[…] Profane is the term for something that was once
sacred or religious and is returned to the use and property of men” (“Praise” 73).
What is old is susceptible to being reappropriated, profaned, and played with,
except for those elements tying it to sacred origins. What is “sacred,” contrary to
what many modern religious traditions will have us think, is not what unites man
to the religious sphere; on the contrary, the sacred is what has been “reserved
exclusively for the celestial gods” (“Praise” 73). By making objects “sacred,” they,
like museified objects, can no longer be used. Indeed, as Agamben explains, “The
impossibility of using has its emblematic place in the Museum” (“Praise” 83).
Agamben’s “In Praise of Profanation” makes it clear that play, as he sees it, is a
matter of changing the way a thing is used. Agamben’s contribution to play studies
is not limited to these observations, for he also leaves open the door to a
revolutionary politics based on this observation and opposed to what he terms,
after Walter Benjamin, the “capitalist religion” (qtd. in “Praise” 81).9 What has
been separated from us, theoretically speaking, must be returned to everyday use.
Also see Walter Benjamin, “Capitalism as Religion.” In Selected Writings, Volume 1, 1913-126.
Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, eds. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1999, p. 288.
But the capitalist religion not only museifies things; it feeds them to a culture of
consumption, which denies any possibility of ever freeing them, of ever playing
with them. Significantly, Agamben views this playing as a political project, and
Zora Neale Hurston’s “Drenched in Light” enacts one way in which the
reappropriation of a thing’s use-value can turn the tables on reigning hierarchies.
This is precisely a non-ludic type of play, a spirited and politically-active play. It
challenges the rules, thereby changing the dynamics of the play sphere. The NFL
(National Football League), which
has been playfully referred to as the
“No Fun League,” routinely fines
player Chad Ochocinco for his
“inappropriate” celebrations (see Fig.
1). In the photo, Ochocinco (then,
Chad Johnson) uses an end-zone
pylon as a putter and pretends that
the football is a golf ball. Ochocinco,
whose football jersey number is 85,
had his named legally changed from
Chad Johnson in honor, he said, of
Figure i.i
Latino Heritage Month. He appears to
be aware that “Ochocinco” does not actually mean “85” in Spanish. 10
I will remind the reader that my own playful antics are occasionally tongue-in-cheek. Some
would argue, I think correctly, that Chad Ochocinco’s end-zone celebrations are as much publicity
Unlike Ochocinco’s playful gestures, American “play reform” theory of the
1910s and 20s reveals a desire for organized, sanctioned play, as well as a type of
play whose function is efficiency and, ultimately, national unity. William Gleason’s
1999 The Leisure Ethic observes that “the notion that one might shape a satisfying
sense of self primarily through one’s leisure activities instead of one’s job—was
fast becoming an article of American common sense (1).11 Gleason’s study of the
years 1840-1940 chronicles the rise of a “leisure ethic,” which turns out not to
have replaced a work ethic but rather to have joined forces with it. To draw out
this cultural shift, Gleason consults canonical literature, beginning with Henry
David Thoreau and Mark Twain and ending with William Faulkner and our very
own Zora Neale Hurston. Gleason also makes a significant contribution to play
theory by drawing on modernist-era play “reformers” such as Joseph Lee, Henry
Curtis, and Luther Gulick to provide the backdrop for his investigations of culture.
These “recreation reformers ultimately backed organization over improvisation”
(Gleason 15). The preference for ludus, valorized by modernist-era play theorists
for demonstrating “development” and sophistication, was combined with
nationalist zeal. The result, Gleason posits, was a “redefining [of] one’s highest self
to mean ‘team,’ not ‘individual,’ and insisting that the team-self is best created
through systematic management” (16). This was equally a response to
urbanization, as the “bulk of their [the play reformers’] financial, political, and
stunts as they are subversive acts. In one sense, they are playing at being subversive acts, just as
this example is playing at being academic. Do the NFL’s actions of “regularly fining” Ochocinco
indicate disapproval or tacit encouragement?
11 See also Dean MacCannell’s The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Schocken
Books, 1976.
organizational resources” went precisely there (17). Frank O’Hara’s poetry of the
city, to provide a handy example, represents much the opposite, a playful poetry
against that grain. It is spontaneous and improvised, not rule-driven and cityfunded. Granted, O’Hara’s play embraces communities, and even calls on national,
cultural icons, but his competing, and marginal, camp coterie figures temper that,
and, some would argue, protest larger organization in deference to the individual’s
right to play as s/he sees fit. Henry Curtis, former secretary of the Playground
Association of America and one of Gleason’s “play reformers,” suggests three
important contributions to play theory. First, the “Surplus Energy Theory”
advanced by Friedrich Von Schiller—whose Letters on the Aesthetic Education of a
Young Man has received adequate attention on the play topic—which purports
that biological organisms play to release excess “nervous energy” (Curtis 2). The
second is that set forth by Karl Groos, a forgotten but important precursor to
Sigmund Freud, who “held that play was an instinct that came into the world to
serve the purpose of education” (qtd. in Curtis 3). In fact, this is commonly held to
be true by contemporary play theorists in the sciences. Lastly, Curtis mentions G.
Stanley Hall’s “Recapitulation Theory,” which begins with the then-popular
sociological presupposition that games are “remnants of the earlier activities of the
race that have come down to us in a somewhat modified form” (4). An idea taken
up by Johan Huizinga in particular, contributions would be also be made by Emile
Benveniste, and then in turn by Giorgio Agamben, which would recharge play with
ritual significance.12 Curtis’s use of Schiller, Groos, and Hall as a departure for his
See Emile Benveniste, “Le jeu et le sacré.” Deucalion, no. 2, 1947. Agamben discusses Benveniste’s
“practical” model, which he applied to the implementation of play spaces and
organized games, sheds light on which play concepts held sway at that historical
moment. Curtis argues that play leads to a healthy body, which in turn makes for a
healthy citizen. Luther Gulick, another American play reformer, shares these
sentiments in his A Philosophy of Play. Gulick also stresses the increasing
importance of play in more modern and industrial urban areas. Still, for all the
ways in which these play reformers reflect an emphasis on the value of play,
Gleason notices their exclusions: “And yet in the case of the play theorists, their
white, middle-class, and predominantly male conceptions of just which [people]
might be so lifted and enlarged to feel that power proved all too often distressingly
small” (Gleason 16-7). There was a party in the play sphere and not everyone was
invited. Referring to women teachers, Henry Curtis agrees with “some school
boards that will not employ a homely teacher” (336). “Her teaching also will surely
be more effective when clothed in a beautiful face and form…” (336). Someone
always gets left out. It wasn’t that women weren’t interested in meaningful play (to
say nothing of meaningful work). Their play activities were seen as child’s play,
inventive and mimetic, such as doll playing or “house.” In his chapter titled, “Sex
Differences,” Luther Gulick asserts that “The women of the world have never
played team-games” (93). Of course, one could enumerate countless examples of
the systematic infantilization of African-Americans throughout American history. I
work in “In Playland: Reflections on History and Play.” In Infancy and History: On the Destruction of
Experience. Trans. Liz Heron. London: Verso, 2007.
do not wish to infuriate the sympathetic reader by repeating these welldocumented travesties. Kindly ask someone from that generation; they will recall.
With the domination of ludus, it isn’t just players that are pushed to the
sidelines but non-standardized games themselves. David Parlett points out in his A
History of Card Games that the “Hoyles” solidify a false representation of card
games in establishing “official rules.” As Agamben observes of transubstantiation,
these entrenched rituals lose their playful nature (“Praise” 79). They become
mechanized, and, as “official,” they lose their ability to be innovated upon. They
have achieved distance, separation, and untouchability, which effectively leads to
their museification. These games are no longer played; they are only consumed. Of
course, games such as Bridge class off once they are official. What happens is that
those folk games and their histories are erased, which appears not to be a big deal,
except that in games lie much of what we consider culture. Some would scoff that
folk histories of card games are amputated by the illusion of standard versions of
games like Rummy, Poker, and Canasta, but those same people think more is at
stake when we suggest that folk art, like literature, music, and dancing must be
preserved. Huizinga presents the idea that “civilization” has been primarily fueled
by a play instinct, that history has been played out from the beginning. This was a
difficult thesis to pull off at this time in history (Limon 177). Nonetheless, by
formulating play as Henri Bergson does in his Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of
the Comic—play in opposition to a mechanized, rule-bound, and organized from
without—Huizinga provides the kernel for seeing play as an oppositional political
strategy. I do not say that Huizinga blazes trails as a theoretician of modern
political radicalism; he was conservative, concerned with and even frightened by
modernity. But the play spirit, its mood or attitude, often overlooked in theories of
ludus, of organized games and sport, can be a powerful political tool. For Bergson,
laughter is a social corrective, primarily when people are not acting “human.” The
dramatic comedy he describes is the result of human beings having “mechanical
inelasticity” (10, his italics). With the introduction of the assembly line, of unskilled
labor encouraged by Fordism, a mechanized worker was precisely the goal of
modernization. One
could make the same
argument about the
“play reformers” and
their desire for
organized, rulebound play; they
wanted obedience
and efficiency, not
paidia play.
Figure ii
Reformer Henry S. Curtis, in his Education Through Play, explains how “play” can
make children productive, law-abiding citizens.
The laws that are most vital to children are not usually the laws of the city,
but laws of the games they are playing. In the play of the vacant lots they
are accustomed to disregard these laws more or less, so that we find in the
playgrounds that we have to teach the rules over again. (76)
Charlie Chaplin, an unnamed factory worker in the brilliant, playful film Modern
Times embodies a perfectly Bergsonian humor. He makes us laugh in part because
human beings don’t act like machines. In the photo, Chaplin’s factory worker, still
miming his assembly line gestures, gets pulled into the giant machine, the way
modern workers lose their humanity through routine, through organization,
organization, and more organization. The character does the same thing over and
over and over again, even in a new context. In the film, the character actually
enters the machine, unwittingly becoming a cog in the wheel. It is not clear what, if
anything, the giant machine actually produces, perhaps the ultimate insult to
If the factory, the quintessential “work sphere,” is the site of the most
complete automatization of the individual, we may accept that Bakhtin’s carnival
space provides a rich zone of playful activity, much of it politically subversive. Of
course, Bakhtin’s carnivelsque has been a hot topic among academics, and it has
gained converts as a lens for reading literature. In 1981, Terry Eagleton challenged
Bakhtin’s unequivocal valorization of carnival by pointing out, after Shakespeare’s
Olivia, that “there is no slander in an allowed fool” (qtd. in Stallybrass and White
13). This is to say, the carnival’s political impact is compromised by its having been
sanctioned, licensed by that which it hopes to subvert. Scholars have made
contributions on both sides since Eagleton presented the idea, but I would assert
that, regardless of traceable political efficacy, there is a performance of identity
lodged in the fact that it will always have happened. As an artistic product,
whether vexed by sanctioning or motivated onward by it, it has occurred. This fact
cannot be policed, and Zora Neale Hurston of all artists teaches us its relevance, as
we pursue her “identity performances,” from the historical Zora to the Zoras she
inscribes in her oeuvre.
Sergei Averintsev takes Bakhtin to task in rethinking the oft-discussed
carnival laughter. Of the former’s criticism, Susan M. Felch and Paul J. Contino
write, “Bakhtin claims that ‘violence never hides behind laughter’; Averintsev
points to Ivan the Terrible, Condorcet, Mussolini, and Stalin, and insists that ‘all of
history, literally, screams against’ such a claim” (10). Averintsev forces us to
[…] Consider Russian history: if one can discern in the midst of it the
monumental figure of a ‘carnivalizer,’ then it could be no one else, of
course, but Tsar Ivan the Terrible, who was a real expert in all varieties of
‘ambivalence.’ He was the one who could expertly stage a ritual of crowning
and discrowning his victims; he was the one who in his letters exhibited
expert mastery in manipulating the most extreme registers of irony and
ambiguity, but also of deliberate coarseness [grobianizm]; and finally, he
was the one who devised the unique system of mock-monastic rituals for
his oprichniki.13 (86)
Averintsev locates historical examples that map perfectly and frighteningly onto
Bakhtin’s model of the carnivalesque set forth in Rabelais and His World. I quote
In an endnote, Averintsev explains that “the oprichniki were members of the lower gentry who
served in the household troops of Tsar Ivan IV the Terrible within a peculiar institution the tsar
created for himself…” (94).
his research on Ivan the Terrible because of the mastery of Ivan’s playful
discourse. Ivan does not merely sanction the play sphere, he mocks its subversive
potential in the most extreme ways. Peter Stallybrass also takes issue with the
notion that playful transgression can only come from the margins of society.
Instead, he prefers to analyze carnivalesque discourse “as a set of rhetorical
practices within the social, a set which includes, but is by no means limited to,
linguistic devices” (“Drunk” 46). The carnivalesque will always find a space for
itself, and seeing the porosity of not merely the play sphere but also the work
sphere allows us to recognize its transgressions as socially-constructed and
Those constructions of the play sphere as politically active, from within and
without, anticipate another important contribution to play studies. French play
theorist Jacques Ehrmann critiques the idea of a pure play sphere in the 1968 Yale
French Studies devoted to Play, Games, and Literature.
[…] As useful as the concept of ‘pure space’ is for certain aspects of play and
culture (e.g. , the illuminating parallels between law court, race track,
arena, theatre, etc.), play reality, and culture are not susceptible to
isolation, for we play our reality, our work, our religion, indeed we play the
game(s) of life.” (55)
Ehrmann’s challenge to traditional dichotomies of the play sphere has far-reaching
implications for play theory, but it does not discount wholesale other dynamics
established by play research, regardless of what discipline generates them. Just
consider, for instance, Bakhtin’s aforementioned concept of the carnivalesque,
whose introduction to American letters in 1968 marked an important moment in
the history of ideas.14 This concept became itself a locus for dialogic activity, a sort
of play sphere, precisely as Bakhtin would have hoped. 15 He knew, just as Langston
Hughes did, that the play sphere was temporary and changing, that it would
occasionally close, that the poet would wander out its doors and into the night,
carrying language along with him or her.
Unlike American play reformers, Modernist architect Lina Bo Bardi did not
hope to sanction her play spheres.
Rather than make sure citizens used
play for fitness and therefore
efficiency, she created actual
playgrounds, play spheres that could
be used however their occupants
saw fit. In the photo (left), Bo Bardi
reappropriates an old factory into a
public cultural activities center (the
Figure iii
SESC Pompéia). Some Brazilians,
shown here in swimwear basking in the sun, opted to use the boardwalk that Bo
Bardi created as a waterless beach. That this sort of play sphere would be anything
Stallybrass lays out a succinct catalogue of the elements of the carnivalesque in his “Robin
Hood, the Carnivalesque, and the Rhetoric of Violence.” See page 46.
15See also Stallybrass and White in their The Politics and Poetics of Transgression, especially pages
28-30 which critiques the “fair” as a carnival sphere and, contrary to Bakhtin’s observations,
highlights its combinatory nature. For instance, they cite the “fair’s inmixing of work and pleasure,
trade and play” (30).
but static was precisely Bo Bardi’s intention with many of the spaces she imagined.
She would also have been proud that the space beneath her famous museum in Sao
Paolo, Brazil has acted, since her death, as a site for everything from political
demonstrations to the viewing of World Cup soccer matches (see photo below).
Figure iv
The field of psychology, particularly psychotherapy, has provided
additional contributions to play theory since the moments of Sigmund Freud and
Jean Piaget, whose work has of course received attention on this topic. D.W.
Winnicott’s work with babies and toddlers and their mothers breaks ground as he
posits play as a method of indirect communication. In Playing and Reality,
Winnicott explains how Diana, a five year-old, played or “acted out” her feelings
during a psychotherapy session her mother was having with Winnicott himself
(44). Diana used a teddy bear as her “transitional object,” which allowed her to
“organize a somewhat regressive experience in her play activities” (46). One can
plainly see the inspiration of Freud’s studies, for instance the fort-da game of
young Hans, yet Winnicott’s also emphasizes her play as exploratory, educational,
communicative, and developmentally essential. 16 In more recent work, Brian
Sutton-Smith offers an interdisciplinary approach to play in his 1997 The
Ambiguity of Play, and like Huizinga he is highly inclusive about what qualifies as
play. His study introduces the non-specialist to the field of play studies. Although
Sutton-Smith’s long career of psychology research has focused on child
development, he presents readers with a cornucopia of play concepts, discussing
them chiefly within their own contexts. Although informed by a somewhat
developmental view of play, studies like these have opened the doors to the view
that “childlike” play is not only valuable and absolutely formative.
Susan Engel is one of many educators who have observed the value of
incorporating play into learning activities, as she writes, “During the school day,
there should be extended time for play” (n.p.). Wisely I think, she emphasizes more
paidia play than her “play reform” predecessors, as well as teach-to-the-test
Play—from building contraptions to enacting stories to inventing games—
can allow children to satisfy their curiosity about the things that interest
See pages 32-35 of Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Trans. James Strachey. New
York: Bantam, 1972.
them in their own way. It can also help them acquire higher-order thinking
skills, like generating testable hypotheses, imagining situations from
someone else’s perspective and thinking of alternate solutions.” (Engel n.p.)
This recent article in the New York Times is part of a growing call for educational
reform that incorporates a pedagogy of play, not merely “for its own sake,” but
simply because it’s more effective. Stuart Brown, the founder and president of the
National Institute for Play, has made a name for himself as, basically, an advocate
of play activity. Having researched play in humans and animals, Brown sees play as
a biological instinct necessary to health and (presumably, one’s perception of)
happiness. Like Huizinga, he does not believe play is confined to the animal world,
and like most post-Piaget child psychologists he believes play serves the
developmental (for Brown, evolutionary) purposes of learning and preparation for
later experience. In his book designed for the non-specialist, Play: How It Shapes
the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, Brown puts it in these
(contestable) words: “In fact, play can be scientifically proven to be useful” (31).
Such statements do not alleviate the tension between “soft” and “hard” disciplines,
particularly those that do not purport the untouchable, essentialized, all-powerful
discourse of science (Science!).17 However, Brown’s valorization of play activity
marks a major shift in the way scientists see play. As another matter of Fact, if I
may, Brown’s operative definition and conclusions about play coincide nearly
point-for-point with Huizinga’s. Brown’s research supports the value, both
evolutionary and social, of play. Ultimately, it adds to a growing interdisciplinary
Yes, I did just allude to Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science.”
effort to reconfigure play as “without purpose” yet purposeful. It also underpins
the notion of play as exploration, a type of play probably most operative in
Langston Hughes, if we are confined to the present study. Hughes wanders in and
out of various play spheres, blurring the line between inside and outside. Frank
O’Hara’s I-do-this-I-do-that poems are exploratory. This play need not be
organized, not pre-organized, as in Caillois’s “civilized” play. And it need not be
rule-bound and proctored in the service of “national unity,” a unity that tends to
exclude those with hyphenations and different, less state-sanctioned orientations.
The English language itself reflects the exclusions that have accompanied
modernization, especially in the lexicon of play. Notice Henry Abelove, who doesn’t
necessarily think that the rise in sexual intercourse caused the rise in production
during the “long eighteenth century” in England, nor does he think the converse
(my italics). He does speculate, however, that they “may be aspects of the same
phenomenon” (221). Sexual intercourse being deemed “productive” coincided with
Industrialization, whereas “foreplay” did not “rise” per se; it actually became, for
the first time, a term in the English language. The for(e)play was not the main
event, although it was known to be non-procreative. Prior to the modernization of
cities, and with it the fetishization of production and efficiency, foreplay was just
sexplay, not “getting some” (but not all), not “getting to third base” (but not hitting
a home run), not fooling around (but not getting serious). That this history
suggests the marginalization of same sex acts as being “not serious” can, like
Abelove’s thesis, only be speculated, only “played with” at this point. The
suggestion I would consummate through foreplay is that such a history belongs to
a more large-scale marginalization of the play concept since Industrialization.
Scholars have been hesitant to write about play because of its status as
unproductive, and still others have been afraid to undertake playful scholarship for
fear of appearing not serious or not hardworking. Ruth E. Burke, in her The Games
of Poetics, refers to a “long-lasting bias against according play anything more than
a cursory notice” (39). Still, to speculate once more, play’s status as marginal
during modernization managed to coincide with an explosion in the history of
African-American art. This explosion, of which the literature of the so-called
Harlem Renaissance was but one instantiation, was sanctioned by its very
marginality. Many artists of the Harlem Renaissance were patronized by their
patrons, allowed to be artists so long as they stayed on stage. In this paper, we play
with the Harlem cabaret where Langston Hughes played with folk music and the
jooks where Zora Neale Hurston played with folk mythologies. If our (anal)ysis of
this (oral) tradition does not produce offspring, we will consider (adopt)ing an
even more playful approach.
III. Ludic Literary Criticism and Performative Play Scholarship
In the introduction to his 1995 Playtexts: Ludics in Contemporary
Literature, Warren Motte offers a generous and eclectic history of play, focusing
primarily on its application to humanities discourses, with gestures to psychology
pioneers Jean Piaget and D.W. Winnicott . Despite referencing thinkers from Plato
to Jacques Derrida, his primary interest is mid-20th century sociology and cultural
theory, in particular Huizinga, Caillois, and Jacques Ehrmann. Motte helpfully
works out their conversation, from Homo Ludens to Callois’s Man, Play and Games
to Ehrmann’s 1968 article in Yale French Studies, “Homo Ludens Revisited.” Thus,
Motte’s consideration of the play concept responds directly to this “homo” file,
largely played out over these 30 years (1938-1968). Motte has perfectly timed his
emphasis, making it roughly contemporaneous with the gestation and birth period
of the “post-modern” literature he covers. To wit, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake,
Flann O’Brien’s At-Swim-Two-Birds, Jorge Luis Borges’s “Pierre Menard, Author of
The Quixote,” and Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land were all
published in 1939. A comparative literature scholar, Motte primarily works with
European novels. Like Motte, Kimberly Bohman-Kalaja also touches upon the
history of the play concept as it applies to post-modern literature. Her interest in
the literary games of Flann O’Brien, Samuel Beckett, and Georges Perec lead her to
a Cailloisian analysis. Although she parses out the differences between Caillois’s
and Huizinga’s definitions of play, her primary interest is in Caillois’s taxonomy of
games. Like a sociologist, Bohman-Kalaja argues that these game texts are the
“conscious intent of these authors—that Play forms exist organically in these
works—and I have simply observed them” (4). Despite her acknowledgement that
these texts often cheat at the very games they play—which only reaffirms the game
itself, she and Caillois argue—Bohman-Kalaja describes her inquiry as structural,
and her insights on these texts have much to recommend them. Yet, BohmanKalaja’s study does not engage women writers or writers of color, for she is
primarily wrapped up in the “post-modernist impulse to consciously and expressly
engage with [structures of play]” (4). I do not mean to imply that Bohman-Kalaja
has non-methodological prejudices; my observation indexes the less disputable
point that her analysis of games perpetuates an exclusive line of game-players, a
tradition that, while not dominant per se, has been safe in the highly-wrought
webs of post-modernism. Ruth E. Burke, also a ludic scholar emphasizing games of
the post-modern novel, studies only male authors in her excellent book, The Games
of Poetics: Ludic Criticism and Postmodern Fiction. Her contributions to the
piecemeal history of play theory suggests room, however, for expansion into paidia
play. Burke’s concept of “looseness,” borrowed from Algirdas Julien Greimas,
amounts to epistemological teetering. 18 The text can’t be “trusted” as a truth
system. To my thinking, it isn’t that there aren’t any rules, but that the game isn’t
stable, isn’t reliable. There is, Derrida might say, a play of the supplement that
keeps the system changing. It is loose, or open. It has play. In theorizing a play
sphere, the concepts of looseness and supplementarity are valuable, but I prefer
the term “porosity,” as it implies zones of give and take on the boundaries of a
recognizable, if shifting, play sphere. I mention this to encourage play scholars to
consider devoting close analysis to play literatures from the margins of modernism
and post-modernism. There is room, as it were.
Outside of ludic literary scholarship and its focus on ludus, we have
witnessed a rise in performative play scholarship. Aside from the well-known
performative and playful theorists, such as Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes,
few scholars have allowed the play spirit to influence their writing. Ross
See Greimas, Algirdas Julien, “About Games.” Sub-Stance. No. 36, 1980.
Chambers’s Loiterature and Jennifer DeVere Brody’s Punctuation: Art, Politics, and
Play, however, are examples of what I hope is an emerging trend of performative
play scholarship. Clearly, Ross Chambers’s concept of “loiterature” embraces
aspects of the play concept, perhaps most centrally the idea of pointlessness, or
seeming pointlessness. In play theories, the term “autotelic” is generally employed,
perhaps because the term makes the work seem less meaningless. That is, at least
the activity is done for its own sake, rather than no sake at all. Chambers shows
that loitering literature has been an effective political strategy from the margins,
and his discussion of it as a deferral is likewise relevant to the concept of rupture.
Himself performing the digressions he discusses, and deviates from, and diverts
attention from, and defers, Chambers (out?)Derrida’s Jacques Derrida when he
How is it, then, that digression can happen? I learn with interest from the
dictionary that the adjective dilatory, like the verb to dilate, is
etymologically related both to differing and to deferring (which are from
the Latin di-ferre, whereas dilatory is from its past participle, dilates).
Derridean différence is therefore, not so surprisingly, intimately bound up
with digression and dilatoriness, unless of course it’s the other way around.
(11, italics, and loitering, his)
My computer keeps correcting my spelling of différence, delaying its inscription
until I add it to its established dictionary once and for all. (The piece of junk. Sigh.)
In any case, Chambers catches the damn thing in its own web of lies. What I mean
is, through his digressions, he performs a rupture of the organized, systematic,
instantiated, and institutionalized order. Certainly, not all Microsoft Word
programs now contain this word, but they may eventually, through digressive
dissemination. Interesting that Chambers opts for the spelling of the French word,
rather than the somewhat translatable “differance,” also, predictably, not in
Microsoft Word’s pre-packaged dictionary. (Still, take that, Computer Dictionary!)
Chambers writes that loiterature
[…] Blurs categories, and in particular it blurs those of innocent pleasure
taking and harmless relaxation and not-so-innocent ‘intent’—a certain
recalcitrance to the laws that maintain ‘good order.’ In so doing, it carries an
implied social criticism. It casts serious doubt on the values good citizens
hold dear—values like discipline, method, organization, rationality,
productivity, and, above all, work. (9)
This blurring is found in Hurston, whose lived mythology and printed memoir
masquerade as fiction, or some kind of “if you want to know the truth.” It’s found in
Hughes, whose work space is a playground that can’t keep its doors closed. It’s
found in O’Hara, whose poem is a brisk stroll and whose life is a telephone call. It’s
found in Bishop, whose play was an attempt to familiarize, to center, as it were, but
results in the very marginalization she hopes to bridge. I also see performative
play scholarship in Jennifer DeVere Brody’s spirited Punctuation: Art, Politics, and
Play. From the get-go, Brody performs her points, though she insists that “rather
than arguing a point, [she] argues and plays with points” (2). Her work, then, is
exploratory. And it’s edgy. One could even say that, like the artists she studies, she
uses play as a political tool. When Brody exclaims, “Go Truss yourself should you
wish to be bound by convention!,” it is a rule-questioning exclamation point, a
rupturing stake in the territory (1). Just as Parlett deplored the “Hoyles” and their
official rules, Brody prefers to invent new ways of using punctuation, playing with
them to find new ways of meaning. Ultimately, hers is a work of scholarship, but
does that mean she cannot play?
IV. Road Map
The present study is an example of performative play literature scholarship,
which, unlike the work of Chambers and Brody, focuses primarily on performances
of literary criticism. Whereas Chambers’s primary interest is theory and Brody’s is
visual and filmic arts, I pursue close readings of playful literature in their
sociohistorical contexts. Chapter one, “‘I belong to no race nor time’: ‘Zora Neale
Hurston’ and the Play of Identity,” moves beyond the question “Will the real Zora
Neale Hurston please stand up?” to the question, “How does the historical Zora
Neale Hurston make it impossible to tell which of the contestants is already
standing up?” In Dust Tracks on a Road, “Drenched in Light,” and Their Eyes Were
Watching God, Hurston’s representation of her historical self is a jeu, a hinging, a
teetering, and a blurring of genres. 19 An exploration of this type of play highlights
the ever-shifting nature of Hurston as an author and Hurston as a character. From
the young Zora in Dust Tracks to the dramatic Isis Watts in “Drenched in Light” to
Chapter two also looks at “How It Feels To Be Colored Me” and Jonah’s Gourd Vine, though in less
detail than these other three texts.
the love-struck Janie Starks in Their Eyes to the ever-playful historical Zora Neale
Hurston, identity is play, is a play, is performed. The term performance, like all of
Hurston’s dusty roads, is forked. In one way, it is a performance in the sense of J.L.
Austin’s performative utterance (in which saying “x” is doing “x”).20 Hurston “is” as
Hurston does, and the line between mythologies of Hurston, as in the cosmic
Hurston of “How It Feels To Be Colored Me” and the “historical” Hurston of her
“autobiography” Dust Tracks. Her playful identity itself deconstructs any solid
notion of a “Zora Neale Hurston.” Yet, if we take Yogi Berra’s advice when you
come to the fork in the road (“Take it!”), we see that Hurston’s theatrics are
themselves “performances.” They are always done for an audience, or for multiple
audiences, and with (often competing) purposes. Through close readings—
particularly Hurston’s largely-ignored “Drenched in Light”—situated as historical
utterances from Hurston’s life, we look at the play element in a number of its own
forms or “identities,” rupturing, exploring, reappropriating, performing, and
Chapter two, “‘They say a jazz-band’s gay’: Langston Hughes and the
Porosity of the Cabaret,” explores the ways in which the play sphere of the Harlem
cabaret is not “pure” but combinatory. This space combines work with play, labor
with leisure, customer with patron, and every shade from black to white. Also,
significantly, it focuses on the artist within that sphere, him or herself a
combinatory element within it. To say that the cabaret space is a combinatory play
See How To Do Things with Words, especially pages 4-7. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1975.
sphere is to suggest that it has admitted “foreign elements,” elements that would
seem to be contrary to its nature. For the Harlem cabaret, and indeed any play
sphere, this suggestion is problematic from the outset. The definition of a “play”
sphere is vexed in that it requires porosity. This is to say, the play sphere’s “doors”
would always be open to change or new categorization. This porosity could be
considered a supplement in the jeu of the play structure or system, and the Harlem
cabaret was anything but well-insulated. In Hughes, this is seen to be the case
through careful analysis of poems from his Harlem Renaissance publications, The
Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927). Hughes’s speakers take us
to the “Harlem Night Club,” allow us to question the work/play conflict of a “Young
Singer” there, introduce us to “The New Cabaret Girl” with mixed racial features,
and give us “The Weary Blues,” all on a “Saturday Night.”
Frank O’Hara’s exclamatory play is the subject of chapter three.
Modernism’s monopoly on the city would seem to extend to O’Hara, and indeed
most scholarship attends to his reputation as a city poet. Moving outside of the
city, we explore how O’Hara’s typographic innovations, especially the exclamation
point, reveal him to be as much a Romantic gawker as a metropolitan wordsmith.
His whole life was an exclamation, partly the campy, theatrical, overcome-withemotion descendant of the wood wanderers that bled on life’s thorns, and part the
lapel-grabbing, advertising, attention-stealing poets of the moment. Such a
dichotomy, fragile as it is, presents quite a Venn diagram, the overlapping portion
of which again challenges play theory’s conception of an impervious play sphere.
Like Hurston before him, O’Hara embodied the play spirit. He lived play, was play.
To engage the intersections between his life and art and his work and play, we look
primarily at his less-studied pieces, focusing on his exclamations—not just to make
a point, but, if I may, to come over the top.
If Frank O’Hara’s chapter three glorifies the play spirit, chapter four
tempers our enthusiasm. Whereas the playful discourses of Hurston, Hughes, and
O’Hara act as ruptures to the oppressive hierarchies dominating African-American
and gay life in the 1920s and 50s, Elizabeth Bishop’s “Manuelzinho” presents the
sobering reminder that play can also reify existing power structures. By grounding
Bishop’s discourse in the context of her life and ideas, as well as 1950s Brazil, we
evaluate the effects of this play, engaging it as an utterance with comic intent.
Because issues of the carnivalesque and the play sphere encroach on this analysis,
Bakhtin’s theories are always in mind, some of them so central to play studies that
they are even worked out here in the introduction. While Bishop often had good
intentions, such as desiring familiarity with Brazil, her version of play is ultimately
contrary to that encouraged by, for instance, Giorgio Agamben. From her life with
the aristocratic Lota de Macedo Soares to her tendency to objectify and, ultimately,
to museify, Elizabeth Bishop’s “Manuelzinho” is an example of the dangers of play.
Throughout these chapters, I rely on the sociohistorical setting for the
utterances I study, because it doesn’t confine them to a separate play sphere or
“game.” I think we have something to learn from structural analyses of texts,
analyses that study the game independently of its context. But do we not see the
way in which the historical identities and discursive performances they leave
inked on ivory pages are inseparable? The discourses of Hurston, Hughes, O’Hara,
and Bishop are inscribed performances of their ever-shifting identities out of
porous, combinatory play spheres. I work in a combinatory sphere myself.
Sometimes I am at work, sometimes I am at play, sometimes I am serious,
sometimes I am joking. You think I’m joking now?! Try me. No, seriously… Punk.
“I belong to no race nor time”: “Zora Neale Hurston” and the Play of Identity
“Without such a record, however, much of her early life remains a mystery. This may be how she
wanted it.” – Carla Kaplan, writing about Zora Neale Hurston (36)
Dust Tracks on a Road is aptly named. Put one way, Zora Neale Hurston’s
“autobiography,” represents a thing of no Thing. The title evokes a dirt road with
tracks, dust kicking up as if a car has just sped by, heading somewhere. And yet, in
this image, the “tracks” themselves aren’t “dust.” Dust is what’s flying off,
separating into the wind. It doesn’t leave a track. Nor does it “make tracks.” Nor
does it move along a discernable path. It doesn’t allow tracking, and it isn’t a
tracking device. Zora’s dust tracks on
a road would be, by definition, not
tracks, not places of firm ground, not
even places in the air in which the
dirt would be gathered as dust. They
would be in a state of nonbeing, in
that sense, or heading out of being
through endless subdivision. So, too,
Zora Neale Hurston. In fact, maybe
that should be “Zora Neale Hurston.”
Figure v
What Hurston says about her birth in
Dust Tracks is playful. “This is all hear-say. Maybe some of the details of my birth as
told me might be a little inaccurate, but it is pretty well established that I did get
born” (19). As every Hurston scholar knows by now, her age was a constant
mystery—and many readers would have smirked, even in 1942, at the passage. In
Alice Walker’s 1975 essay, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” she quotes a
librarian at Yale’s Beinecke Library as saying, “Zora Neale Hurston was born in
1901, 1902, or 1903—depending on how old she felt herself to be at the time
someone asked” (qtd. in Walker 5). 1891—yes, that’s right—is currently the most
widely-held belief of her birthyear. That said, what strikes me is that her very
existence as “Zora Neale Hurston” is called into question, intentionally, by its being
“pretty well established.” The chapter title, “I Get Born,” is immediately followed
up by the declaration that everything is hear-say, including the birth itself, though
she does admit that such a claim would appear to be nonsense. In actuality, her
birth information couldn’t be substantiated at the time she penned the
autobiography, and she goes on to refer to the story of her birth as a “saying,” again
delivering it to the vagaries of linguistic production and evolution. What’s
significant is that she sees, quite clearly, that the business of her identity has to do
with hear-say, with saying-practices, with falsification and rumor. Not that there’s
anything wrong with that. Like Jorge Luis Borges, she acknowledges her shifting
identity, as well as her control—or lack of control—in fixing it historically. In
“Borges and I,” the speaker asserts two Borgeses, reminding us at the end, “I do not
know which of us has written this page.” Interestingly, the iteration of Hurston’s
“self”-narrative is also linked to her identity; of course, for she is, like Borges,
known for her writing. Yet, why does the speaker of Dust Tracks insist that she was
“crying strong,” “spreading my lungs all over Orange County,” “yelling bass like a
gator,” and using her “plenty of lung-power” (20; 21; 21; 21)? Was her entrance
into language painful? More likely, it is to be found within the narrative. These
screams were to be recognized as having actual existence in the world. “My mother
heard my screams and came running” (22). Here, her “sounding” establishes her
identity. Gates writes that Janie "write[s] herself into being by naming, by speaking
herself free," and the same applies to Hurston (207). This sounding is responsible
for her “being heard.”
Hurston’s mother, an important, because absent, figure (not) in “Drenched
in Light,” was central to her life. This is established through her Isis character in
Jonah’s Gourd Vine and her Zora Neale Hurston character in Dust Tracks. In Dust
Tracks, the speaker says, “But I was Mama’s child.” Mama permits imaginative play
in both texts, whereas the grandmother figure bans it altogether, insisting in
“Drenched in Light” that she perform manual labor instead. In Dust Tracks, nineyear-old Zora tells Mama how she conversed with the lake and then walked across
its surface—not the first time Hurston would incorporate Christian mythology into
her literary creations—and asks her mother “Wasn’t that nice?” (52). Content with
her play, “My mother said that it was. My grandmother glared at me like openfaced hell and snorted” (52). Mama’s child, to be sure. The reverse of Stephen
Dedalus, young Isis obeys her mother’s deathbed wish… with varying success. In
Jonah’s Gourd Vine, young Isis takes on all deathbed comers, saying “No, no, don’t
touch her pillow! Mama don’t want de pillow from under her head!” (NS 113). Her
father, protecting convention it would seem, has to literally pull her away.
Dramatic as this scene is, Hurston takes it up a notch for the “real thing.” In Dust
Tracks, Death itself becomes a character, and Hurston’s poetic performance ups
the ante. As Mama lies dying, Zora the speaker notes, “We were all grubby bales of
misery, huddled about lamps” (65). God is a much more central character in this
rendition, and the speaker ultimately reflects that “Mystery is the essence of
divinity. Gods must keep their distances from men” (67). I mention the more
mythological telling in part because the speaker’s grandmother wants to root out
Zora’s tendencies due to her own competing mythologies. In grandmother’s eyes,
“I [Zora] was the punishment God put on Mama for marrying Papa” and in
“Drenched in Light,” Gran’ma’s religious views are even more heavily pronounced,
and as confusing as the Incarnation (Dust 53). Here, however, we find an instance
of the performance of the collision between the “reality of the text or story” and
the mythologies that keep us mystified. Ventriloquizing grandmother’s character
in Dust Tracks, the speaker notes, “Mama was going to be responsible for my
downfall when she stood up in judgment. It was a sin before the living justice,
that’s what it was. God knows, grandmother would break me or kill me, if she had
her way” (53). Cliché is mixed in with literary technique, a play of high and low
discourse that performs the “reality”/mythology tension. Obviously, behind
grandmother’s words are the Christian concepts of sin and judgment, and perhaps
even divine (read “Old Testament”) justice. Then, Hurston lifts the linguistic mask
with the phrase “God knows,” an expression that has all but lost the relation to the
mythologies from which it emerged. Grandmother is a talking head for the
restrictions imposed on language itself, and her demands for manual labor—
instead of play—become all the more relevant in that respect. She doesn’t like play,
whether physical or mental. In that sense, it is not surprising that she is our
reminder of slavery in Dust Tracks and “Drenched in Light,” of which more later. In
general, we ally Hurston with the “eternal feminine with its string of beads,” as she
refers to herself in “How It Feels To Be Colored Me” (829). While she “belong[s] to
no race nor time,” she still
posits herself in negative terms
as “feminine,” existing in
opposition to a deafening
patriarchal roar (829).
Cixous’s “Le Rire de la
Méduse” was published in
1975, just as Hurston was being
rediscovered through the
efforts of Alice Walker and
others. In that essay, Cixous
asserts the need for women to
write with their bodies, and her
writing comes from her body.
Figure vi
Though her notion of an
écriture feminine is theoretically problematic in that it presents a fixed notion of
the “female,” Hurston is a good example of the biographical importance of
see(k)ing a break in the patriarchal tradition. In Cixous’s words, this feminine
writing practice is a rupture from “nearly the entire history of writing,” which “is
confounded with the history of reason” (1646). This history of reason, associated
with phallocentrism, is the history of masculine domination, and one that has
served as the “locus where the repression of women has been perpetuated, over
and over” (1646). She implores women to “write themselves,” and her own
performance recalls Hurston as well. Her choice of phrasing suggests that women
must not only take control of a writing practice, but also write with their bodies,
making it personal to themselves. Yet, her writing is also a performance “as a
woman, toward women” (1644). Granted, Hurston’s writing in, say, “How It Feels
To Be Colored Me,” is directed toward a white audience, and not necessarily one
for women. Still, she ruptures the phallocentric tradition dramatically by the way
she performs her identity, and she does it in a way that doesn’t reify or privilege
any one, isolated concept of what the feminine means. After all, what kind of a
woman was she? She was the “eternal feminine”—which playfully mocks the
category and its value as a Platonic form—and she was always changing. Her
identity wrote herselves, but it was always emphasized that she was always
mama’s child. In “How It Feels To Be Colored Me,” as elsewhere for Hurston, “there
is always within her at least a little of that good mother’s milk” (1647).
My argument about Hurston, though admittedly this inquiry seeks more to
explore than “argue,” is this: From fully autobiographical to mythobiographical,
Isis, Janie, and various “Zora Neale Hurstons” perform, through these “soundings,”
Zora Neale Hurston’s identity. Ultimately, they show us that, at its core, the concept
of Hurston is played out, that it begins in play and is performed in play. This is not
to say that, on some level, we aren’t all “played out” as human beings; but, Zora’s
awareness of being on-stage presents unique opportunities for critical engagement
with the performative elements of the play concept as they relate to identity
construction. Regardless of how her identity is remembered, it will be interpreted
as performance. Whether from biological constructs such as African-American or
woman, or from societal ones like novelist or folk anthropologist—as if they were
wholly separable—her performance is the thing. Signficantly, Hurston’s identity as
it has been relayed biographically persists in these mythologies. One potential
criticism of Valerie Boyd’s Wrapped in Rainbows is that she conflates lies from
Hurston’s “autobiography” with historical fact. Confusingly, Alice Walker praised
Boyd’s work effusively, though she thought Hurston’s autobiography “rang false”
(qtd. in Bordelon 5).
Pierre Walker’s 1998 essay “Zora Neale Hurston and the Post-Modern Self
in Dust Tracks on a Road” seems more reasonable, and less Reasonable. He engages
critics that would challenge the authenticity of Hurston’s autobiography. Arguing
that Dust Tracks “focuses on the life of Zora’s imagination,” Walker, in different
words, indexes the dynamics of a performative identity, not in the Butlerian sense
but in the sense that Hurston is always playing a role (388). Always. Although
Maya Angelou, like Alice Walker the former, longed for the “real Zora Neale
Hurston,” Pierre Walker the latter counters that this “presupposes a single,
autonomous, homogeneous unity” (qtd. in Walker 388; 388). Of course it does, but
what really floats my post-structuralist boat is that he (correctly) pins Angelou to
an Enlightenment view of the individual. Hurston embodies, as much as any figure,
a play identity, in multiple senses of the term. Quoting Walker:
If Hurston had a “true” persona, it would be the combination of all the
various masks she could wear, and thus, through the very opaqueness of its
representation of its protagonist, as well as through its inconsistency and
fragmentariness, Dust Tracks offers a self-portrait which should satisfy the
expectation of verisimilitude of conventional readers of autobiography”
There is Charlotte Osgood Mason’s Hurston, who signed her letters “Devotedly,
your pickaninny,” who resembles but is less edgy than the Hurston of “How It Feels
to be Colored Me.” Obviously different is the Hurston who took care of family
growing up. Different too the one who stayed with family while collecting folklore.
Different too the one who didn’t want family to be a part of her later years. How
many heads must we enumerate?! The woman was a performer. Peeling the
Hurston onion results in nothing more than a peeled Hurston onion. This isn’t to
discount the important work of critics such as Pam Bordelon, whose historical
efforts on Hurston include an illuminating interview with Hurston’s niece,
Winifred Hurston Clark. I would assert upfront, however, that rather than viewing
Hurston’s life as “problematic,” which has pejorative connotations, I choose to
acknowledge it for what it “is”: absolutely the best show in town (Bordelon 5).
Clark provides us with the Hurston family bible, which is privileged as God’s truth
indeed by the article. Sure, this document seems more credible in light of the many
“falsehoods” brought forth by Hurston throughout her life. It helps us to construct
a more believable story about her. This bible reveals that Hurston was born in
1891… in Alabama, not Florida. I’m glad we know where to put the sign now, but
the “real” value of this research is that it helps us to see Hurston as the
consummate performer. Still, I have to add that “Hurston” would have laughed that
the last word on her birth would be found in a bible, for this very point about
Christian mythologies is linked to dramatic performance in Dust Tracks itself.
There, Hurston takes great delight in staging a performance of her father’s attempt
to convert sinners to Christianity. She explicitly describes the service as a staged
drama, citing its “dramatic fury,” “music and high drama,” and “the congregation
working like a Greek chorus” (196). She adds, writing about the frenzy of the
induction of new converts, “I know now that I like that part because it was high
drama” (199). To Zora, this restaging involves a (re)performance of her father’s
work, transforming herself into the preacher and transforming the reader, not into
sinners, but into her as a girl, the curious, delighted, and ever-excited observer. By
absorbing the voice of her father into her own description, and eliding their
difference, Hurston accomplishes this.
They became conscious of their sins. They were Godly sorry. But somehow,
they could not believe. They started to pray. They prayed and they prayed
to have their sins forgiven and their souls converted. While they laid under
conviction, the hell-hounds pursued them as they ran for salvation. They
hung over Hell by one strand of hair. (198)
The suspense is hammered into the discourse through the (period)ic (nail)ing. The
sentences begin to elongate as they pray and prey, and the rhythm quickens as
they run from Hell’s hounds and to the precipice. Quick reminder: the drama that
Hurston stages is about belief in the first place. Hurston begins this chapter with
“questioning and seeking” (193). Yet, whereas with her father, for whom
“Everything was known and settled,” we again must recognize Hurston’s
movement away from the patriarchal and its domination of these spaces (193).
There, between the wooden pews, Hurston smells something more fragrant. She
eschews the words for the decorations, prefers the improvisation to the word of
the Lord. Thanks be to Zora for transforming the space.
In 1973, Alice Walker went “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” flying to
Eatonville, Florida and ultimately writing her essay of that title. This work, itself a
performance of “Zora,” would appear in the March 1975 issue of Ms magazine. Ever
aware of Hurston’s playful ghost, Walker haunts the text with voices from past
texts and sayings. In fact, she lets biographer Robert Hemenway have the first
word(s). Funny, she takes them, not from his well-known critical biography, but
from inside an anthology whose heteroglossia is designed to remember the entire
Harlem Renaissance, not just Hurston.21 By burying the antecedent, we are
reminded with all the subtlety of a shy ghost that how we go digging in these
graveyards, and what we find therein, will ultimately determine how we
remember the bodies. Walker includes other echoes throughout, including
Langston Hughes’s well-known description of Hurston, though she chooses to
make it a peroration by the standards of her other echoes. Walker leaves the seams
This quote is taken from Hemenway’s “Zora Hurston and the Eatonville Anthropology” in The
Harlem Renaissance Remembered, edited by Arna Bontemps (Dodd, 1972).
of her digging dangling, quoting unknown persons from Yale’s Beinecke Library,
where many of Hurston’s archives reside. She quotes a “student” in the following:
“You have to read the chapters Zora left out of her autobiography.”
-Student, Special Collections Room
Beinecke Library, Yale University (20)
In one sense, Walker’s essay is one the chapters left out of Hurston’s
autobiography, but her decision not to name the student or librarian, if out of
consideration for their identities, provides an interesting commentary on
Hurston’s. The missing threads were always intentional on Hurston’s part, as this
(unknown) student knows well. What’s most satisfying is the recognition of the
lack of correspondence between Hurston’s autobiography and some presumed
reality that could be achieved by gathering facts. By the student’s remaining
unknown, there is no referent. Implicit in the quote is that to know “Zora,” one has
to see for oneself. In a “real” scene from the essay, Walker and the newly-met
Rosalee look for the actual spot where Hurston is buried, seeing as it does not have
a marker. As she describes it, “…There is nothing but bushes and weeds, some as
tall as my waist” (14). The women have arrived at this particular part of the
cemetery by way of a diagram drawn up by Mrs. Patterson, the director of LeePeek Mortuary in Fort Pierce. Once they enter the likely domain of Hurston’s final
resting place, diagrams and instructions become useless. Charlotte, a member of
the search party, says she isn’t coming to look because, “I’m from these parts and I
know what’s out there” (14). She doesn’t know where Hurston is buried, but she
knows that snakes, in all their elusiveness, are rampant. The failure of rational
thinking strikes both Walker and Charlotte, to which the former replies, “Shit” (15)
and the latter, “How’re you going to find anything out here?” (15). At this point,
Walker decides to do it Zora’s way:
Finding the grave seems positively hopeless. There is only one thing to do:
“Zora!” I yell as loud as I can (causing Rosalee to jump), “are you out
“If she is, I sho hope she don’t answer you. If she do, I’m gone.”
“Zora!” I call again, “I’m here. Are you?”
“If she is,” grumbles Rosalee, “I hope she’ll keep it to herself.” (15)
The results of Walker’s search, like her autobiography, have verisimilitude with
Hurston’s identity. It exists as an experience in the observer, located somewhere
away from the center. Walker, the character in the essay, acknowledges this, and
Rosalee demonstrates her position with respect to the text through the thin veil of
her humor. She doesn’t believe, but doesn’t want to be “proven” wrong, either; as it
is written, Lord I believe; help my unbelief.22 Of course, Walker does learn
something from her call(s) to the wild. Continuing with the story:
On a clump of dried grass, near a small busy tree, my eye falls on one of the
largest bugs I have ever seen. It is on its back, and is as large as three of my
fingers. I walk toward it, and yell “Zo-ra” and my foot sinks into a hole. I
look down. I am standing in a sunken rectangle that is about six feet long
and about three or four feet wide. (16)
This is taken from the New Testament book of Mark 9:24.
Coincidence? This isn’t how Walker interprets it. From this “information” she
concludes that this must be where Hurston’s grave lies. But this isn’t a matter of
true or false. It’s not a truth candidate. It’s something you feel. It’s a dust track.
Likewise, in dispelling the myth that Hurston died of malnutrition, and replacing it
with Dr. Benton’s take that “She had a stroke and she died in the welfare home,”
Walker doesn’t thereby show scientific investigation’s power to uncover the truth
(22). In fact, that’s where she reveals the slippage, the play in our realities. In Tina
Barr’s examination of the role of myth in Their Eyes, she writes, “Hurston’s
research interests were not purely academic because she involved herself in them
as subject” (102). To illustrate, Barr cites the Hurston’s own experiences, told
about in her Tell My Horse and Dust Tracks, in which she was “initiated into voodoo
practices” (qtd. in Barr 102). And Hurston did believe in Voodoo, with her thinking
being “why not?” The very title of Walker’s essay suggests that the search
continues, but doesn’t it, to use the hackneyed phrase, always already continue? I
continue the search for Hurston with one proviso: I’m not looking for her. I am
looking for “her,” or put more generously, I am looking for the conditions of “her,”
for tendencies, for the playfulness that performed her identity as we would know
One beautiful aspect of Hurston’s personal performance against a
patriarchal hegemony is her adoption of the mythic. Taking us back to a time
before Rationalism creates the real and unreal in its big bad Cartesian web,
Hurston embraces folklore’s disregard for that dichotomy. In one sense, this was
the Golden Age when all the world was
Hurston relishes the role
storytelling plays in rupturing this dichotomy, exposing it by playfully referring to
it as lying.24 She takes the mask off those that enjoy storytelling, indulging in it as a
leisure activity separated in a play sphere. Her insight seems to be that all the
world is a stage, and that even science is but a tale, a way of describing. Rather
than objectively observing folktales, Hurston let them live their lives, continually
changing their authorship through reappropriation. By publishing many of the
folktales as they were told to her, Hurston performs the elision, the rupture that
re(places) mythology and reality as a provisional in-between, a constantly played.
When she writes that “Raking back yards and carrying out chamber pots were not
the tasks of Thor,” she acknowledges her resistance to the dichotomy itself (Dust
41). You know, it’s not a lie if you believe it. This is not to say that Hurston saw no
difference between her imagined realities and lived experience; she drove a wedge
through it on purpose, and she sought this play space as a site for racial
performance in “How It Feels To Be Colored Me.” Interestingly, it perhaps less
true-to-life than the young Zora/Isis in the fictional “Drenched in Light.”
In “How It Feels To Be Colored Me” young Zora plays for motorists on the
way to Orlando:
During this period, white people differed from colored to me only in that
they rode through town and never lived there. They liked to hear me "speak
pieces" and sing and wanted to see me dance the parse-me-la, and gave me
Huizinga, among others, valorizes this historical moment in problematic ways.
See Dust Tracks, especially pages 28-30, 47, and 52.
generously of their small silver for doing these things, which seemed
strange to me for I wanted to do them so much that I needed bribing to
stop. Only they didn't know it. The colored people gave no dimes. They
deplored any joyful tendencies in me, but I was their Zora nevertheless. I
belonged to them, to the nearby hotels, to the county-- everybody's Zora.
(“How It Feels” 826-7)
Published in the May 1928 issue of The World Tomorrow, just four years after
“Drenched in Light” appeared, Hurston identifies herself as the splitting image of
Isis the “joyful.” Significantly, though, this is in the context of her unapologetic
manifesto as a “colored” person. A colored person who doesn’t think of herself as
colored. Distancing herself from the tradition of the tragic mulatto, the speaker
quickly quips that she doesn’t have Native American ancestry; she “really is” black.
She, at the very least, acts like she doesn’t find anything problematic in reifying the
racial stereotype of the black as entertainer. It’s who she “is” with this audience. In
that sense, she is not out of character as she steps into this role. No, she has a full
tank of character to work with! She transforms the gatepost into a stage, riding the
boundary of her property and the world beyond, itself a festival gesture that
inverts the performer/performed rapport. She is, quite literally, straddling the
fence, playing the edge, performing. Here, performance actually “takes place” in
between places, which is part of the performance of porosity in the play sphere.
Nor is this a surprising discovery, given Jocelyn Hazelwood Donlon’s studies of
porch life in Southern culture. She discovers that “Porch dwellers can […] put out
two signals: one for work, one for leisure. When visitors arrive during work
periods, these worlds of labor and
leisure intersect” (44). Isie
perpetually challenges the
identity, not just of herself, but of
the spaces in which she plays. The
visitors in “Drenched in Light” are
always already leaving, yet she
has them stop, during a time of
labor, mind you, in order to hear a
tune, to catch a show. She is a
busker on Gran’ma’s land in this
moment, and the porch becomes
Figure vii
the site of a power struggle. Indeed, Donlon noticed the importance of porches in
Hurston’s work, focusing her attention on Their Eyes, including the steps of “her
own back porch where […] Janie tells her life story to her friend Pheoby” (51).
Donlon expresses well that the porch in Hurston is not merely the site of the tale,
it’s a porous space—she calls it “liminal”—that can be “overcome […] making it an
individual ‘space’ to express an identity” (50). I mention this in the context of a
discussion of Hurston’s identity in “How It Feels To Be Colored Me” in part because
the speaker performs “colored her” for the audience of the article. She signifies on
it in interesting ways, though, mixing in sophisticated language and layers of
meaning that belie the act itself. She demonstrates, to a T, what Houston Baker
refers to as “mastery of form” in his Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Thus,
the text itself becomes another stage for Hurston, and the contradictions about her
expressions of identity become apparent only to an audience in the know. Barbara
Johnson’s 1985 choice to do a deconstructive reading of “How It Feels To Be
Colored Me” is in retrospect a perfect choice then, as it shows Hurston performing
for a white audience yet exploring her identity as a black, woman artist. The porch
is a seat for the spectacle that’s in the road. As Hurston writes in “How It Feels To
Be Colored Me”:
The front porch might seem a daring place for the rest of the town, but it
was a gallery seat to me. My favorite place was atop the gatepost.
Proscenium box for a born first-nighter. Not only did I enjoy the show, but I
didn’t mind the actors knowing that I liked it. (“How It Feels” 826)
She transforms the porch to the place where the story happens, not merely where
it’s told. If the porch is where stories come to life, there really isn’t any difference
between it and where the stories happen, if they ever happen at all. Seems is is.
Hurston locates herself in the telling, and is thus always becoming, always
unfolding, always performing. Barbara Johnson’s conclusions are similar as she
discusses the ending of “How It Feels”:
By the end of the essay, then, Hurston has conjugated a conflicting and
ironic set of responses to her title. Far from answering the question of “how
it feels to be colored me,” she deconstructs the very grounds of an answer,
replying “Compared to what? As of when? Who is asking? In what context?
For what purpose? With what interests and presuppositions? (284-5).
A far cry from the subject in Descartes’s Meditations, Hurston is shown here not to
be able to work from the cogito ergo sum and deduce certainties about self and
world therefrom. Put simply, she isn’t done questioning. Johnson notes that these
are “matters of strategy rather than truth” (285). I like the word “strategy” applied
to Hurston, for one of its many connotations is “opportunism,” which applies to her
peculiar relations
to her patrons,
especially the socalled Godmother,
Charlotte Osgood
Mason. Though
Hurston had not
met Mason yet
when she was
“Drenched in
Light,” the
patronage of a
white woman,
Figure viii
Helen, to Isis is as
unsettling as Hurston biographers have found Mason’s to Hurston to be. Sadly
congruous is the way in which Mason becomes the “Godmother” and, occasionally,
the “Mother-God,” to Hurston. It is also reminiscent of Hurston’s epistolary
salutations to Mason of “Devotedly, your pickaninny” that, when Isis asks “Do you
wanna keep me?” Helen turns to her and says, “Oh, I wish I could, you shining little
morsel” (24).
That said, “Drenched in Light” begins with Gran’ma Potts’ imperative “You
Isie Watts! Git ‘own offen dat gate post an’ rake up dis yahd!” (17). Isis Watts at the
boundary, playing the edge of property and adolescence, is commanded to work.
Significantly, her threat to break Isie “down in de lines” which the text tells us is
“loins,” engages a fascinating relationship between sexuality and the (false)
work/play dichotomy. If Isie doesn’t work, she’ll be broken down in the loins.
Gran’ma interprets the girl’s shoulder shrug, if defiant, as a sort of “shaking,” here
perhaps conflated in the Grandmother’s mind with a sexually-exhibitionist gesture.
She is too “‘oomanish,’” which means her behavior is too sexually-charged,
especially for her age. Later, she’ll be accused of lying on her “backbone,” clearly
indicating that Gran’ma thinks her posture too “loose,” as well as “settin’ brazen,”
which means to sit with the knees separated, and sundry other things that “no one
of the female persuasion should do” (19). Gran’ma thinks Isis should act “like a
lady,” which interestingly involves NOT PLAYING. This theme will come up when
another Isis—Janie of Their Eyes Were Watching God is prohibited from playing
checkers by Joe Starks. She shouldn’t be too “free,” either with her time or, what’s
more, sexuality. But it is this “freedom” that is inherently linked to the play
instinct, which in turn provides the impetus for imagination and desire.
Isis had crawled under the center table with its red plush cover with little
round balls for fringe. She was lying on her back imagining herself various
personages. She wore trailing robes, golden slippers with blue bottoms. She
rode white horses with flaring pink nostrils to the horizon, for she still
believed that to be land’s end. She was picturing herself gazing over the
edge of the world into the abyss when the spool of cotton fell from
Grandma’s lap and rolled away under the whatnot. (19)
Here she is again lying on her back, the little Lolita! (Note the sarcasm.) She is
forced to imagine other identities, ones that would allow her to poke the porous
boundaries, dangle her legs through other fence-holes, penetrate the world’s
portals. This is the key passage in the story, followed as it is by an ellipsis,
suggestive of the “contemplation” that has taken place (19). It is a blank space for
our own penetrating thoughts. Fascinating, also, that Gran’ma has a roll of cotton—
the very Kingly symbol of work—roll from her own lap, her very own “l(o)ines.”25
Again, work and sexuality become joined, though for Gran’ma sexuality is precisely
the opposite of freedom. It is a reminder of her own enslavement, of her own
misuse, of her sexuality appropriated as property. In fact, Hurston’s autobiography
collides with “Drenched in Light” at this very point, as the text reads:
My grandmother worried about my forward ways a great deal. She had
known slavery and to her my brazenness was unthinkable.
Hurston will mention in Dust Tracks that her grandmother was formerly a slave.
“Git down off dat gate-post! You li’l sow, you! Git down! Setting up
dere looking dem white folks right in de face! They’s gowine to lynch you,
yet…” (Dust 34)
It is not surprising that biographers Hemenway and Boyd have found “Drenched in
Light” to be so autobiographical. That said, Hurston’s story is not as simple as a few
critics have insinuated. Isis does “know something” about gender, if not sexuality,
in the tale. She combines the play instinct with that of duty, insisting, “Poah Granma needs a shave” and “Ah got to shave Gran’ma” (“Drenched” 20). But, this
important expertise is hierarchized, since her brother, interested more in causing
mischief than righting gender categories, thinks she “doan know nothin’ ‘bout
shavin’ a-tall—but a man like me—” (“Drenched” 20, her italics). This isn’t to say
that Isis fully inverts the power dynamic from before; no, she isn’t able to “teach”
Gran’ma anything about gender or sexuality—Gran’ma literally runs when she
awakens to Isis holding the knife “cleaver fashion”—but it is a playful role reversal
all the same (“Drenched” 21). And the charade is meaningful as such. Isis takes the
clothes off the emperor here. Gran’ma is scared to death to be at the mercy of
another’s power, confined physically to a chair—picture Isie in an earlier scene,
slumped in the chair in an unladylike manner—and having her gender questioned.
She has become the “plaything,” according to Isie’s brother, Joel (“Drenched” 20).
Of course, giving a shave to another person is only play in this context because of
Isie’s imaginative recreation, or re-appropriation of the activity as a playful, in this
case subversive one. Ordinarily, it’s the work of a barber.
Isis will shed yet more light—forgive me—on the situation, when she
demonstrates how to play with the “thing,” as she reappropriates the red tablecloth into clothing. This couldn’t be a better example of Giorgio Agamben’s notion
of play in his essay, “In Praise of Profanation,” in particular because Gran’ma refers
to Isie’s transgression as profanations. She is, after all, a “limb of Satan”
(“Drenched” 17, 18). When Giorgio Agamben writes his “In Praise of Profanation,”
he begins by correcting the “insipid and incorrect etymology” that claims religare
to be the origin of religio, and hence “religion” (74). In that line of thinking, religion
serves to unify the human and divine elements, which naturally belong to different
spheres. Instead, Agamben points to religere, which points to an “uneasy
hesitation” with the divine (“Praise” 75). It is really about separation. Because of
this, religion takes things out of the common use of men, making them “sacred,” or
off-limits. As Agamben writes, “The thing that is returned to the common use of
men is pure, profane, free of sacred names” (73). The tablecloth is just such an
example for Isis. It has been set aside for another use, and indeed a special use, as
it is off-limits and not used for daily dining. Isis’s gesture of stealing the tablecloth
and wearing it as a skirt is not merely a transgression of the Gran’ma’s law, but is a
profanation. She returns to common use what has been made sacred; more
importantly to Agamben, she has demonstrated the value of play. Quoting the Atrain:
The passage from the sacred to the profane can, in fact, also come about by
means of an entirely inappropriate use (or, rather, reuse) of the sacred:
Figure ix
namely, play. It is well known that the spheres of play and the sacred are
closely connected. Most of the games with which we are familiar derive
from ancient sacred ceremonies, from divinatory practices and rituals that
once belonged, broadly speaking, to the religious sphere. (“Praise” 75)
Isis’s gesture is, then, the play gesture par excellence, and she does indeed
demonstrate its political power. In a highly significant gesture, Hurston’s narrator
explains how this play is subversive, challenging the extant hierarchies. The
gesture couldn’t be more intentional or obvious. “The Grand Exalted Ruler rose to
speak; the band was hushed, but Isis danced on, the crowd clapping their hands for
her. No one listened to the Exalted one, for little by little the multitude had
surrounded the brown dancer” (22). The group holding the festival is the Grand
United Order of Odd Fellows, an African-American branch of the fraternal
organization known as the International Order of Odd Fellows. In light of Bakhtin’s
observations, this festival of men is particularly interesting. 26 Historically, the
Grand Order was formed for African-American males who weren’t welcome.
Women, of course, weren’t welcome either. And what are the white folks doing
there, the white folks that will go searching for and locate Isis in the forest?
Hurston implies that they are not merely patrons-to-be of young Isis; they are
actually patrons of this segregated society of Fellows. Odd, isn’t it? It’s also obvious
that Hurston is presenting another drama of Christian mythology. The group is
Christian as well, detailing the hierarchies of that faith, wrapped into the theater of
the festival. It was, like the visitors to Florida detailed the young Zora of “How It
Feels To Be Colored Me,” a good show according to the speaker. But Hurston had
other ideas too. Isis ruptures this “order” of the odd fellows, driving a wedge
through the parade of the phallus, dancing circles into the hierarchical grid. Yet, if
it seems as if Hurston is using the dance to make her ultimate point about Isis’s
ability to politically subvert these male, Christian hierarchies, the reader must
come to terms with the aforementioned problematics of the patrons themselves,
and their relation to Hurston’s life. Also, at this point in the story, the playing
comes to a dramatic halt as—who else?—Gran’ma sees the unsanctioned
transgression. Like Zora would frequently do, Isis “takes to the woods” to escape
See Bakhtin notes in the introductory chapter.
The next thing we know, Hurston has reromanticized young Isis, this
time in a playfully dramatic scene:
“Oh, Ah wish Ah could die, then Gran’ma an papa woul be sorry they
beat me so much. Ah b’leeve Ah’ll run away an’ never go home no mo’. Ah’m
goin’ drown mahseff in th’ creek!” Her woe grew attractive.
Isis got up and waded into the water. She routed out a tiny gator and
huge bull frog. She splashed and sang, enjoying herself immensely (23).
You see, Isis has the ability to forget, which is in some ways the essence of, insofar
as it is possible, pure play. In his “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for
Life,” Friedrich Nietzsche considers why men envy the cattle grazing in a field—
amazing to us, I realize—and then invokes something straight out of Hurston. He
imagines what the animals would like to say to a human being confounded by their
happiness. Quoting Nietzsche quoting a happy beast: “‘The reason is I always
forget what I was going to say,’ but then he forgot his answer too, and stayed
silent: so that the human being was left wondering” (61). Significantly, Nietzsche
sees that the cow is not unlike the child, and Huizinga indicates the necessity of
forgetting oneself when he remarks, “Really to play, a man must play like a child”
(199). Nietzsche, continuing about the envious human, writes:
That is why it affects him like a vision of a lost paradise to see the herds
gazing or, in closer proximity to him, a child which, having as yet nothing of
Although hard work is often associated with routine, Hurston was not inclined to it. As she noted,
“The regular grind at Barnard is beginning to drive me lopsided… Don’t be surprised to hear that I
have suddenly taken to the woods. I hate routine” (qtd. in Boyd 115)
the past to shake off, plays in blissful blindness between the hedges of past
and future. Yet its play must be disturbed; all too soon it will be called out of
its state of forgetfulness. (61)
In the sense that Huizinga talks about the player being immersed in his or her play,
these nagging memories must be shaken off or they keep the player from true play.
This is sometimes referred to as being “in the zone.” In entering the play sphere,
Isis forgets the real tragedy of her situation. She’s been forced to flee one dance,
again by Grandma,
but she moves on,
actually embracing
the woe as she plays
a new edge. She
doesn’t “cross the
bar,” or pull the full
Ophelia; on the
contrary, she opts to
“wade in the water
signifying a spiritual
entrance into the
play sphere. This is
Isis’s, and arguably
Figure x
Hurston’s, greatest gift, her ability to lose herself, to translate sorrow into
opportunity. Isie’s activity, dancing, is in many ways at the heart of the playinstinct. Johan Huizinga suggests that dance is perhaps the closest to pure play
(164). Isie’s dancing has not lost the spontaneity of its paidia character, as it has
not yet been concretized into ritual. Not only is it voluntary, non-teleological, and
involving a reappropriation of an object, hers is not a choreographed dance. It is a
play of the moment, one that generates its own rules. Indeed, in the dance lies her
opportunity, as it did for Hurston. Hurston’s own wading in the water involved a
new sort of anthropology, one that met with resistance from the academy, but one
that was ultimately supported by Franz Boas’ own research. As noted earlier,
Hurston participated in the voodoo rituals of her subjects, many of which she was
more than willing to describe to jaw-dropped readers, such as her three days
naked with the rattlesnake skin. Suspend your belief if necessary.
In many ways, “Drenched in Light” hinges on Isie’s opportunism, an
interesting take on the dissolving dichotomy between work and play. Indeed, Isie’s
splashing and singing, as well as her earlier dancing, leads to the opportunity she
will take in the story. This opportunity, like those earned by Hurston in her life,
came as a negotiation with her identity, and one for which she was often criticized.
Hurston was opportunistic and very hardworking, particularly during the 1930s.
Kaplan introduces this decade of Hurston’s letters with the title, “I Like Working
Hard,” referring to an attitude expressed throughout this period (159).
Interestingly, Hurston always put her career above her love life—while Kaplan
suggests that Hurston is “flip and amusing [about love], no doubt masking
whatever she really felt about the difficulty of blending intimacy into her
hardworking life” (183). It might be more accurate to say that Hurston tried to
blend intimacy into her hardworking life through the play element. She did “work
hard,” but she did so within the play sphere, which provided her with a uniquely
human, very connected experience to her community. It was as intimate as love,
and really hardly distinguishable from it at bottom. It wasn’t that Hurston valued
work over love; it’s that she found “work” to be the right place for it. She didn’t
know where it was likely to go better.
When Joe Starks dies in Their Eyes, I would assert that Janie’s play instinct
has already begun to set in. “Tain’t dat Ah worries over Joe’s death, Pheoby. Ah jus’
loves dis freedom” (93). Huizinga, whose insightful claims in Homo Ludens sheds
(drenches?) interesting light on play’s relationship to freedom, especially in Their
Eyes and “Drenched in Light”:
[…] All play is a voluntary activity. Play to order is no longer play: it could at
best be but a forcible imitation of it. By this quality of freedom alone, play
marks itself off from the course of the natural process. It is something
added thereto and spread out over it like a flowering, an ornament, a
garment. (7)
A tablecloth? Isie has felt trapped by Gran’ma’s rules, her insistence that Isie stay
in the yard, that she work the space. When Gran’ma puns that Isie should “wave
dat rake at dis heah yahd,” (17) it’s clear that she sees conflict between the world
in which waving happens and the one in which raking happens. The work space is
not, as Huizinga points out, “play to order.” No, it’s raked to order, not waved to
order, and Gran’ma will need a maid to order if she wants the job done “right.”
Isie’s play instinct is nurtured by freedom, in the sense of voluntary activity. Our
discussion is raced, classed, aged, and gendered in “Drenched in Light,” yet for
Huizinga, it is not even specied. “Man” and animals are not distinguished by the
play-instinct, as they are in, say, the work of Friedrich Von
As Huizinga
notes, “Child and animal play because they enjoy playing, and therein precisely lies
their freedom” (8). Thus, agency inside of one’s instincts as a pleasure-seeking
creature amounts to freedom. In Bakhtin, whose Rabelais and His World is
essentially about freedom, the hierarchies of society are suspended within the
context of carnival. Because these festivals are sanctioned by the powers that be,
Stallybrass and White, in particular, ask whether the “subversive” acts therein are
rightly termed “political.” This question would seem to depend on the situation, as
well as on the extent to which they are “sanctioned.” For Isis, the festival play
becomes problematic with the introduction of white patronage. It is sanctioned.
Very sanctioned. And not merely the festival itself (as noted above, these white
people are also patrons of the African-American Order of the International Society
of Odd Fellows), but also the transgressions of the play element (i.e. her dancing at
the festival). The dancing is encouraged and finally transformed into a tool of
oppression. Yes, Isie is free to dance, but the space is no longer a contested one.
Leaving the forest and her drowning aside, little Isie decides not to face Gran’ma
alone, and instead brings some light to her new lighter-skinned friends. They pay
off Gran’ma so that they can take Isis with them into town; it reminds me of a letter
Hurston wrote in May of 1935 to Edwin Osgood Groover—note the middle name—
“Working like a slave and liking it” (qtd. in ZNH 162). Gran’ma will gladly give up
Isie to this “adoption” so long as it is a good deal, and Isie consents so long as the
For more information, consult Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man.
work looks like
How is one to think of what happens when Isis is referred to
as a “shining little morsel,” by Helen, the kind white lady, the patron of the hour?
(24). Is Isis a chocolate chip, not producing her own light but merely reflecting it
from elsewhere? The text doesn’t close off these issues; instead, as Barbara
Johnson, quoted earlier, asserts about “How It Feels To Be Colored Me,” Hurston
“deconstructs the grounds for an answer.” I think the autobiographical
verisimilitude only underscores the deconstruction, as we see Isis, there Zora,
wearing these different masks, playing out new identities. This is the Zora, or some
iteration of her, that signed her letters to Charlotte Osgood Mason, “Devotedly,
your pickaninny, Zora” (ZNH 223).
That said, Their Eyes is certainly a feminist text, and one that explores new
identities and the consequences, positive and negative, of adopting them. Though
Joe Stark’s role of standing in for an oppressive patriarchal society in Their Eyes
has been critically contested, an analysis of the play element strengthens that case.
Like the Grand Exalted One, Joe Starks becomes the all-important “voice”—“Ah
told you in de very first beginnin’ dat Ah aimed tuh be uh big voice” —as mayor in
Eatonville, and even the early physical descriptions of Joe support his ascendency
(46). “With him on it, it sat like some high, ruling chair” (32). Janie does indeed find
her voice, despite Joe’s silencing influence. One recalls the scene in which he
literally speaks for her:
But, as Langston Hughes would object in his The Big Sea, this spectatorship starts to matter at
some point; on this, more later.
“And now we’ll listen tuh uh few words uh encouragement from Mrs.
Mayor Starks.”
The burst of applause was cut short by Joe taking the floor himself.
“Thank yuh fuh yo’ compliments, but mah wife don’t know nothin’
‘bout no speech-makin’. Ah never married her for nothin’ lak dat. She’s uh
woman and her place is in de home.” (43)
The rupture of the “burst of applause” is squelched by Starks, who physically and
orally closes the fissure. It had already, however, entered Janie’s consciousness.
Whereas before she had “never thought of making a speech,” she was now aware
of her voice, a tool which acts itself as a rupture in the practice of signifyin(g) (43).
And, what’s more, the realization that she has found her voice is rooted in more
than political or feminist critical discourses; Janie associates her voice with play.
As soon as she learns to argue with Joe, she says, “Everybody can’t be lak you, Jody.
Somebody is bound tuh want tuh laugh and play” (62). That Joe restricts her access
to the play sphere is, as noted above, described physically and orally. Because Janie
and Joe both work at “his” store, they operate in a combinatory sphere. It’s work
for them, but the porch of the store is the cultural center of the town, which allows
play to enter it. Donlon completes our picture of the porch allowing for this
transformation/transgression, as she writes:
Picturing the young Zora dragging her feet so that the life of the porch
would hang in her ears helps us to envision Janie’s own desire to be part of
the store porch. One of her sustained desires is to create a “space” for
herself in this male society. (53)
The porch is where checkers is played, stories about Matt Bonner’s mule are told,
and important “philosophical” conversations are had, such as what keeps you off a
red-hot stove, nature or caution.30 Joe, unlike Janie up to this point, is a transitory
figure, breaking the laws he makes, so to speak, and representing the porous
nature of the sphere itself. He works there, is the boss, but he also indulges in the
games of checkers, the tales, the jokes. Significantly, and preparatory to the plotcrucial dozens incident, Joe makes the division between work and play Stark
indeed: “You getting’ too moufy, Janie… Go fetch me de checker-board and de
checkers. Sam Watson, you’se mah fish” (75). 31 Reasserting the reason for these
prohibitions, Joe reminds us that Janie’s voice is developing in opposition to the
patriarchal code. She is to get him the goods for male play—not only with the
board, a self-enclosed play space, but also the pieces, the manipulated “players”—
while she remains at work.32 As Gates and others have identified, the battle
between Janie and Joe that makes Sam Watson gasp, “Great God from Zion! […]
Y’all really playin’ de dozens tuhnight,” is where Janie’s character gets him good(s):
“T’ain’t no use in getting’ all mad, Janie, ‘cause Ah mention you ain’t
no young gal no mo’. Nobody in heah ain’t lookin’ for no wife outa yuh. Old
as you is.”
This last example is an instance of Zora Neale Hurston signifying on the “rationalist” modern
philosophical debates, especially John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
31 The introduction will include a discussion of the dozens, as will possibly the Langston Hughes
chapter. See Dust Tracks, page 136, for Hurston’s discussion of Big Sweet and “the dozens,” also
called “specifying.”
32 This play sphere is closed off from the point of view of the pieces, the rules, and the game itself.
However, it is worth noting that the people actually controlling the pieces do not have to obey the
game’s rules. As in the case of Janie and Tea Cake, this larger play sphere—the sphere of the metagame—is porous, and their spontaneity signals paidia play alongside their ludic, rule-bound play.
“Naw, Ah ain’t no young gal no mo’ but den Ah ain’t no old woman
neither. Ah reckon Ah looks mah age too. But Ah’m uh woman every inch of
me, and Ah know it. Dat’s uh who lot more’n you can say. You big-bellies
round her here and put out a lot of brag, but ‘tain’t nothin’ to it but yo’ big
voice. Humph! Talkin’ ‘bout me lookin’ old! When you pull down yo’
britches, you look lak de change uh life” (79).
As Gates reads it, “Janie… gains her voice within her husband’s store… by engaging
in that ritual of Signfyin(g) (which her husband had expressly disallowed) and by
openly Signifyin(g) upon the impotency of her husband, Joe, Mayor, “I god,”
himself” (193). Gates famously reads this as an act of castration. Deborah Clarke
has observed that Janie’s insult of Joe has an important visual component, that she
creates an image that he is unable to erase. As she notes, Joe is denied both “sexual
and political power” (606). This castration lops off both thing and king in one
Lorena Bobbit moment, as she “expose[s] the vulnerability of a phallocentrism
which abuses women” (606). Janie learns how to play in her own way, though my
reading is not meant to imply that she achieves “self-consciousness,” as it does in
Gates, for instance. Janie’s status as a figure in-between the real and the mythic
suggests that jeu remains, that Janie is not defined by, but rather with the blank
space that follows the immortal: “She called in her soul to come and see” (193).
That said, Gates acknowledges that Hurston’s own performance—though he
doesn’t use that term—is linked to the search for self: “For Hurston, the search for
a telling form of language, indeed the search for a black literary language itself,
defines the search for the self” (183). Yet, I would assert that Hurston’s search
reveals precisely the continuation of another search, the search with an identity
that is always played out, always being played out. Unlike in Gates’s analysis,
Hurston’s language is not always signifying on her forefathers. It also plays into the
future as a performance in its own (w)rite.
What interests me is the space and place of Janie’s insult of Joe, as well as its
play character. Joe’s store, the workplace, is the site of this agonistic exchange, and
Janie’s transgression of this sphere begins with her even opening her mouth. She is
not even permitted to play the game in the first place; that it ends with a victory in
the doesn’ts/dozens is shattering. 33 This verbal sparring match may derive its
name from the prohibitive “doesn’t,” and that Janie finds her voice here is all
the more rupturing for that reason. It is culturally encoded in the language. The
linguistic play is certainly a stakemarker in Janie’s quest, but one that extends to
Hurston on the outside of the text as well, for she performs it. We ought not to
forget that this too is enframed the other way, within the text, as Janie tells this to
Pheoby of the back porch. Donlon informs us that the back porch is a more
personal site, usually for work, but Janie transforms it into a communal site
through storytelling (55). Donlon writes:
But lest we imagine that Janie is using her back porch to completely
separate herself from her surrounding community, Hurston lets us know
that Janie’s life story will eventually get connected to the community at
large. It will do so through Pheoby’s appropriation and eventual retelling of
Some etymologies claim that the word derives from “bulldoze,” implying that one thrashes an
Janie’s story. Janie’s back porch, while separated, thus serves as a
transitional “space” […] [It] will become part of the community mythology.
Pheoby’s retelling will signify upon its source, not as a specifying act, but as a
playing act. Citing Donlon, this is an appropriation, and I would argue, a
reappropriation, because Pheoby will tell it for different reasons than does Janie.
Thus, in that sense, it places the story in the hands of the community, adding to its
mythology. Like Hurston’s folktales that she copied and disseminated in such
works as Mules and Men and Every Tongue Got To Confess, Janie’s story, which is
also Hurston’s, is reauthored.34 It is always transitional, the story, the nature of
word itself, and Hurston’s acknowledgment of this might well be the reason for her
enframing strategy, as it no doubt was for Plato in his great literary work, The
Joe Starks will die, leaving Mrs. Mayor Joe Starks behind, a valuable prize
for a would-be suitor. Chapter 10 of Their Eyes begins with Hezekiah
asking—although his on-the-job expertise, and male organ, make him more a boss
than Janie—“off from work to go off with the ball team” (94). Despite this initial
insistence on the work/play dichotomy, and the repetition of “off,” the silver lining
is that Janie Starks is now in charge of the work space. She tells him “not to hurry
back,” and we pick up the edge in her voice when she says she’ll close up the store
“herself this once” (94). Somewhere between the taking of toast and afternoon
This is also analogous to Hurston’s sales on Hughes’s books of poetry to Southern workers, who
then changed the words and resung the poems. See chapter three for more information on this
tea—a time of leisure—and the moment when the privileged can “eat cake,” a
character ruptures the work space, and along with it Janie’s routine. She is closing
up the store early, and the first clue we have of this rupture is that, as he enters the
store, she is “leaning on the counter making aimless pencil marks on a piece of
wrapping paper” (94). She has re-appropriated the pencil—whose original use is
in the work sphere as a way of marking prices on meat paper—to this playful
gesture. Immediately, the dialogue works at a slant, and the performance of Janie’s
identity becomes an issue, as Tea Cake calls her by name. The game has already
begun when they begin their signifyin(g) flirtation. She says he has “all de
advantage” because he knows her name. From the get-go, the play-mood
dominates. He speaks with a “sly grin” (94). She answers “pleasantly.” (94). In
short, they laugh more than characters in a Langston Hughes poem about “my
In perhaps the most crucial moment in Janie’s transition from worker to
player, Janie accepts Tea Cake’s offer to play checkers:
“How about playin’ you some checkers? You looks hard tuh beat.”
“Ah is, ‘cause Ah can’t play uh lick.”
“You don’t cherish de game, then?”
“Yes, Ah do, and then agin Ah don’t know whether Ah do or not, ‘cause
nobody ain’t never showed me how.”
“Dis is de last day for dat excuse. You got uh board round heah?”
“Yes indeed. De men folks treasures de game round heah. Ah just ain’t never
Learnt how.”
The unnecessary italics on “you” is the first clue that Hurston means business.
Strike that, leisure. Janie makes clear the prohibition, but, as Tom Sawyer would
say, “she throws some style into it.” That Janie is hard to beat because she doesn’t
play is more than just a wittism;
like the performed slide in meaning
production, Janie is no longer a
candidate for identity value, in the
same way that “the King of France
is bald” can’t be either true or
false.35 Janie’s identity is
unestablished. She is no one here.
Like the performative utterance,
she can’t be beat. And, indeed, she
isn’t beat when they begin playing.
Uninitiated in the actual rules—“he
Figure xi
set it up and began to show her”
(95)—she will object to the moves that follow the established order. Though Tea
Cake clearly follows the rules in jumping her king, her playful protest takes on
political significance. Nor is this occluded from the reader. When he jumps her
king, an exclamation point places the fake dagger in the man’s heart. Janie screams
The statement presupposes that France is a republic and can even have a king. See Bertrand
Russell’s “On Denoting.” It can be found in Logic and Knowledge: Essays, 1901-1950. London: G.
Allen & Unwin, 1956.
“in protest against losing the king she had had such a hard time acquiring” (96).
Janie’s shifting position as a player had, evidently, won her a king, the symbolic
entry into the rules of the play sphere. Embedded in this struggle for the king is a
performance on multiple levels. Tea Cake is performing theatrically, “struggling
gallantly,” the text reads, “but not hard enough to wrench a lady’s fingers” (96).36
Janie, through playing, is subverting the established order of the game, but more
importantly all of her actions are symbolic of her emerging identity in the face of
patriarchal convention. When she reaches onto the board, breaking the rules of the
game she is now, finally, permitted to play, she claims for herself—what else?—but
the king piece. As she puts it, better than I could, “Ah got a right tuh take it. You left
it right in mah way” (96). Janie’s “right” is natural, albeit contested by convention.
As with her behavior in the months following Joe’s death, during which convention
would prescribe prolonged mourning, Janie thinks mourning “oughn’t tuh last no
longer than grief” (93). The suggestion here is that her transgression, like her
laughing and playing, is “natural.” In perhaps the most explicit expression of this
idea, Tea Cake sets up the game and begins to show her how to play. “Somebody
wanted her to play. Somebody thought it natural for her to play” (96). Implied here
is that Joe’s, and society’s, prohibitions on female play were unnatural,
contradictory to her “rights.” Their play gestures break the rules implied by the
work space, as well as those of a general store. The text makes Tea Cake’s
transgressions clear: “It was time for him to go but he didn’t” (95). In this instant,
Already this mimesis is giving way to a performance of being in love, which may well be the
closest thing we have to “pure play.”
as if on cue/queue, the speaker performs this transgression as well: “He leaned on
the counter with one elbow and cold-cocked her a look” (95). Reappropriating this
word from the slang to knock a person unconscious and trying it out in a new
context, the speaker plays with its meaning. Coldcock is itself a transgression,
though entirely playful; Tea Cake metaphorically “knocks her unconscious” with
his look(s). This is a slantway of expressing Janie’s interest in him, although he is
the subject, the one coldcocking. She also seems to be toying with “cocking” one’s
head, which makes more sense than punching her with his eyes. There is a
delightful ambiguity here. At the moment this comment, this transgression is
perpetrated, another one is being perpetrated alongside it. Tea Cake is already
“supposed to” be at the game, but he points out to her that they reside together
outside of that convention:
“Why ain’t you at de ball game, too? Everybody else is dere.”
“Well, Ah see somebody else besides me ain’t dere. Ah just sold some
cigarettes.” They laughed again. (95)
In essence, Janie and Tea Cake’s laughter is the rupturing of “what they are
supposed to be doing.” Bakhtin notes that carnivalesque laughter “builds its own
world in opposition to the official world, its own church versus the official church,
its own state versus the official state,” and this scene suggests the carnivalesque, to
be sure (Rabelais 88). They live in their own world with their own language, not
unlike the race-crossed children in Danzy Senna’s novel Caucasia who develop
Elemeno as a form of communication. This world outside of the carnivalesque goes
on as it must, but to Janie and Tea Cake, they see it from atop the fence, while the
cars driving by go on to Orlando. He shows her how to live in a new way, and like
Isie’s reality (and the speaker’s reality in “How It Feels To Be Colored Me), it is
opposed to Gran’ma’s way:
“Cause Tea Cake ain’t no Jody Starks, and if he tried tuh be, it would be uh
complete flommuck. But de minute Ah marries ‘im everybody is gointuh be
makin’ comparisons. So us is goin’ off somewhere and start all over in Tea
Cake’s way. Dis ain’t no business proposition, and no race after property
and titles. Dis is uh love game. Ah done lived Grandma’s way, now Ah means
tuh live mine.” (114)
Critics would throw Tea Cake into the mix with Jody Starks as a prohibitive force
working against Janie’s self-actualization and instead champion the feminine force
of the storm, the force that eventually, if indirectly, leads to Tea Cake’s destruction.
In the above passage, Janie announces that she is going to live “Tea Cake’s way,”
which she ultimately conjoins with her own way. Janie isn’t being forced to live his
way; it’s her decision to play it t(his) way. If anything represents the consistently
prohibitive forces, the letters of the law, it is Gran’ma, who is masculated by her
beard in “Drenched in Light.” Whereas her mother has always permitted her play,
“poah Gran’ma” retains the straggling wisps of tow connecting her to slavery. She
is content to have freedom within the confines of the work sphere. As Janie says,
though about the Grandma of Their Eyes, “She was borned in slavery time when
folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches
lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her” (114). Janie, on the
other hand, has a different position with respect to that sphere. She sees the
possibilities of transforming it, and Tea Cake is instrumental in that process. He is,
to my thinking, an extremely important character for understanding the play
element in the construction of Hurston’s identity. Though he does not directly
represent “Zora Neale Hurston” in the way that Janie does at times, he is most
responsible for Janie’s liberation within the play sphere. Still, his value to Janie has
been hotly debated. Yvonne Mesa-El Ashmawi constructively points out that Tea
Cake is viewed as a sinner or saint depending on one’s methodology. Whereas
those who approach Their Eyes as a “quest novel” see him as a saint, others point
out his violence toward Janie and his having driven her into the muck (see
“sinner”). Ashmawi wishes to “embrace the text as a whole” in order to “see Tea
Cake in his full complexity,” which seems fair (205). And yet, while I agree with
this statement, I am inclined not to view Tea Cake in terms of sinner or saint, as the
Christian mythologies are decidedly disputed by Hurston. Tina Barr, in writing
about the Isis/Osiris myth in the novel, appreciates Tea Cake’s mythological
importance to the story, and thus sees him with myth-colored glasses. Yet, the
violence isn’t as glossed over as she would like to think. It is never clear how to
moralize Hurston’s characters, plot elements, themes, or any other issue, because
of their teetering, the jeu, as it were, in their relations to “reality.” Barr, among
others, points this out herself, saying ,“The character who best reflects the figure of
Isis is Janie” (105). Biographer Robert Hemenway had said the same thing in his
early study. Also, Valerie Boyd completed the Hurston/Isis/Janie triangle in stating
that “Drenched in Light” “isn’t so much a plot-driven story as it is a self-portrait”
(92). It is, Boyd continued, “almost completely autobiographical” (92). And yet,
even there, Isis is quite clearly named after the Egyptian goddess, the symbolism
quite clearly holds, and the text, as I have shown, is quite clearly layered. Like Tea
Cake, it has its own “complexity.” Yes, Tea Cake’s violence toward her is troubling,
but then so is the violence done by the storm, which not a few critics have argued
is a representation of Janie’s power. Tea Cake gambles and he brings her to the
muck, but Janie wanted to be with him in the first place, and she seemed free
enough to do so. She knows, as she tells Pheoby, that in doing so she is engaging in
aleatory play. She is taking what Pheoby calls a “mighty big chance” (115). Indeed,
Tea Cake teaches Janie to play in ways she had only begun to recognize, which
ultimately allows for, not a different fixed identity, but the freedom to continue
determining it, to set it into play.
Writing to Langston Hughes, Hurston expresses this about her identity:
“Somehow I don’t mind re-versing myself, especially when it moves me towards
pleasanter relationships. Perhaps I am just a coward who loves to laugh at life
better than I do to cry with it. But when I do get to crying, boy, I can roll a mean
tear” (ZNH 205). The hyphen, obviously unnecessary and possibly unintentional,
makes us stop and re-evaluate the first sentence. Engaged as she was in a rift with
Hughes over, of all things, the authorship of their play, Mule Bone, Hurston still
expresses her willingness to “re-verse.” She will take back her act and move in
another direction, especially when opportunity calls. Yet, also in these lines is the
sense of verse as a poem, or the collective poetry of an author, or a stanza, or a
type of line, or various other manners of poetic expression. In other words, a verse
can be any number of things. She can always re-verse, re-think herself as a form of
expression. Sure, Hurston acknowledges her ability to “roll a mean tear,” but I
prefer to think of her as laughing, re-versing a tradition through play, which
amounts to a constant rupture.
“They say a jazz-band’s gay”: Langston Hughes and the Porosity of the
You see, unfortunately, I am not black.—Langston Hughes, The Big Sea
Throughout the 1920s Langston Hughes would shuffle out of busy kitchens to clear
away half-eaten plates and glasses, transferring grease from rich, wet food to a
busy dining room to the penciled verse page hanging out a corner from his soiled
pocket. He would stop and scribble, the jazz music percolating the air around him.
He tells us that he penned the poems of Fine Clothes to the Jew when he was
“dragging bags of wet wash laundry about or toting trays of dishes to the
dumbwaiter of the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington” (BS 271-2). We know that
Hughes was at least washing the fine clothes of others, if not occasionally selling
his own in these low/high exchanges. He was also traveling the world as much as
any other poet of his time, often writing from ship hulls, whether up and down the
Hudson or across the Atlantic to Africa or Paris. Perhaps this is one reason these
combinatory elements of the play sphere are most marked in Hughes, sending to
the back the assumption that play exists as its own entity or in its own place. For
Hughes, the page is the stage, a porous play sphere in which he Charlestons along
the observer/participant divide.37 He lights the word stage with multiple valences,
performs his own playful discourse while signifying across folkloric traditions,
both musical and rhetorical, as if that distinction could reasonably be honored
after his 1926 release of The Weary Blues or his 1927 Fine Clothes to the Jew. In
in the introduction, “porosity” is an index of the degree to which a system or “sphere” is
open to change or new categorization. A play sphere’s “porosity” depends on its tendency to admit
external elements.
looking at these Harlem Renaissance years, we see an adventurer, and recent
criticism has opened up studies of Hughes’s transatlantic modernism, not to
mention other closets as well.38 My rethinking of Hughes’s relationship to the
Renaissance is in step with Shane Vogel’s recent project in which he argues that
“what critics dubbed Harlem’s ‘Cabaret School’ was in fact a subterranean literary
tradition within the Harlem Renaissance that provided new ways of performing,
witnessing, and writing the racial and sexual self” (5). Like Vogel, I look at “the
scene of Harlem cabaret,” though my exploration is concerned with race and
sexuality as they pertain to the combinatory nature of the play element. As with
my study of Hurston, I follow Hughes in and out of his biography, in and out of the
music, in and out of the cabaret.
Yes, he was quiet, but in many ways Hughes did embody the play character
in his life. Certainly, Hurston’s identity would exhibit more variation, more identity
performance, if you will. She was more of a card, more of a ham, more socially
unpredictable, and more outgoing. Still, Hughes was not merely playful with his
pen. He was adventurous, unpredictable, and at least as mysterious as Hurston
(though for different reasons), particularly during the years of the present study.
Hughes’s reflective 1930 novel, Not Without Laughter, “holds up a mirror to the
writer’s own youthful experiences through the character of Sandy Rogers” (qtd. in
From Arnold Rampersad’s insistence that Langston Hughes was asexual to Shane Vogel’s “Rumor
has it, Langston Hughes was gay” and John Edgar Tidwell’s “Without a doubt, Langston Hughes was
a brother on the ‘down low,’” times have changed in Hughes studies (104; 62).
Sandy, in some ways also mirroring “Drenched in Light” Isie’s situation,
admires the play spirit, despite grandmother’s belief that hard work rules the
world.40 Rogers is just like his father who, as Rampersad describes him, “is
regarded as a layabout, more interested in pursuing a life as a musician than in
settling down with a ‘real’ job to support his family” (NWL iv). This is a father with
whom the real-life Hughes could relate, for his biological one was, like Hurston’s
“po’ah Gran’ma,” a representative of a more enclosed work sphere, one in which
the play element was discouraged. Hughes couldn’t handle the boring, numerical
life his father invited him to join in East Jesus Nowhere, Mexico. Quoting The Big
Sea: “‘A writer?’ my father said. ‘A writer? Do they make any money?’” (BS 61).
I start by close reading “Harlem Night Club,” a poem that stages a number
of the main issues at play in the cabaret:
Sleek black boys in a cabaret
Jazz-band, jazz-band,-Play, PlAY, PLAY!
Tomorrow….who knows?
Dance today!
White girls’ eyes
Call gay black boys.
Black boys’ lips
Grin jungle joys.
Dark brown girls
Elizabeth Schultz adds to this, observing that Hughes’s representation of seasons “underscores
the generic structure of Not Without Laughter as a bildungsroman” (3).
40 See chapter two of the present study.
In blond men’s arms.
Jazz-band, jazz-band,-Sing Eve’s charms!
White ones, brown ones,
What do you know
About tomorrow
Where all paths go?
Jazz-boys, jazz-boys,—
Play, PlAY, PLAY!
Tomorrow…. Is darkness.
Joy today! (CW 28-9)
A spectator conducts the performance on the page in “Harlem Night Club,”
commanding that the jazz-band “play, plAY, PLAY,” and then later referring to the
same band as “jazz-boys.” The switch implies the more derogatory term “boy,”
often used by white employers. Indeed, the gay scene is threatened by these
observations, because the “play” of the band is really work. As Vogel helpfully
notes, these night clubs were “locations of pleasure, instruction, networking, and
professionalization for performers and musicians” (84). When discussing the
white invasion of the Harlem night club scene in his The Big Sea, Hughes mentions
Gladys Bentley, “who was someone worth discovering in those days” (225). In this
same gesture, Hughes is sure to mention the hard work of her performance,
identifying once more the ways in which white specularization transformed play
into work. He refers to how she “played a big piano all night long, literally all night,
without stopping” (BS 226). The first “all night long” might’ve been enough for the
careful reader, the second “all night” makes his point, and the third “without
stopping” shows his biting resentment. And he still isn’t done, writing, “[Bentley
was] singing songs like ‘The St. James Infirmary,” from ten in the evening until
dawn, with scarcely a break between the notes…” (BS 226). The poem indicates the
impossibility of so-called “pure” play, or play without work. The porous walls of
the cabaret that bring the eyes of white, paying customers are our first indication
of the white patronage with which Hughes himself would struggle. As noted, it is
the “white girls’ eyes” that “call gay black boys”; Eve is crashing the party. The
doors and pores have already let in these patron-izers when “Play” becomes
“PLAY,” reverberating the force of the demands on the jazz band.
But, the ones who are really “at play” in the dance are actually being closed
in on by the very temporality of their joy. In Hughes, the cabaret is a temporary
space, one which operates, as in “Young Singer,” “From dark to dawn” (CW 26).
“Tomorrow.... who knows?” which in stanza one has a wishful tone of expectancy,
becomes “Tomorrow... is darkness” in the closing stanza. This carpe diem poem is
aware of Time’s winged chariot, and this is one aspect of its porosity. That this is
really a play sphere, confined by the walls of a cabaret, where the jazz-band, jazzband will “play, plAY, PLAY,” is already in question. 41 Stanza four suggests at least
four questions with its four lines: “White ones/ brown ones,/What do you know/
about tomorrow/ Where all paths go?” The first seems jolly enough, though it lacks
Shane Vogel likewise observes this carpe diem spirit on page 125 of The Scene of Harlem Cabaret.
punctuation—“what do you know”—as if the answer were an excited “nothin’!”
Indeed, the dancer in the grip of carpe diem. But “what do you know” also contains
a shadow, given its usage in moments of trial, or when someone or something
shows up unannounced, “well, well, what do you know.” The mystery leaves, the
game is up, and all scatter. There are other questions, such as “What do you know/
about tomorrow,” and the answer to that was probably sobering indeed. The
shadow lengthens with the added phrase, “Where all paths go,” for there is no
denying the temporality of the play sphere. In a performance of this temporality,
the speaker gives us our exclamation, slicing the moment with “Dance today!” and
“Joy today!” This same sentiment will be echoed in other poems, in particular,
“Joy.” This is double-edged, with the carpe diem component embodying the play
element while simultaneously signifying its demise. Like pharmakon, it contains
two essential yet contradictory qualities.42 The play sphere requires temporality as
a marker, but Hughes reveals that this temporality does not merely exist
philosophically, it doesn’t just loiter on the outside of the club under
smokescreened lamplight. The speaker views it as a rupture, and the exclamation
point is a fitting typographical gesture for it.43 In other poems from this period,
Hughes describes the pain of historical struggle as a birthing of laughter, truly the
labor of play. This is the combinatory nature of the play element at work.
42 For further details, consult Jacques Derrida’s essay, “Plato’s Pharmacy.” Found in Dissemination.
Chicago: University Press, 1981.
43 See chapter four for a more complete analysis of the play function of the exclamation point. Note,
however, that this not the only rupturing punctuation in the present poem. Here, the ellipses... the
ellipses function as a sort of unconscious zone, a space where the play sphere is severed. The beat
and energy of the poem stop in these moments. It is a black out. The dashes and question marks,
albeit in different ways, serve as interruptions.
It is not merely the temporality of the play sphere that is “darkness” in the
poem. Time and space are both at issue. This play sphere, marked by the title,
“Harlem Night Club,” need not be carefully specified, as the Hughes reader would
know this isn’t the Cotton Club. The spectacle was as much on the dance floor as on
the musical stage. This club was almost certainly white-owned, and integrated.
Hughes describes in The Big Sea how many owners “failed to realize that a large
part of the Harlem attraction for downtown New Yorkers lay in simply watching
the colored customers amuse themselves” (BS 225). In addition to a power
struggle of the specularization, the speaker of this poem expresses a more
physical concern, one common to the period. This is that “dark brown” girls were
cozying up to white men. These “Eve’s” were being snaked. The “gay black boys”—
need we question that this is a queer eye/I?—are in a “jungle” frenzy over the
white girls. Actually, some black intellectuals such as A. Philip Randolph and
Chandler Owen were strongly encouraging miscegenation in their “The New
Negro—What is he?” published in The Messenger in 1920.44 That said, the poem’s
speaker does not describe these interracial “romances” in flattering terms. The
white has the power, both with the girls who “call” with their “eyes” and the “blond
men” who have the “dark brown girls” wrapped in their arms. Like the AfricanAmerican ritual game of the dozens, a hierarchy is established within the play
sphere; in some cases like that “game,” the power dynamics continue beyond the
“With respect to intermarriage, he [the so-called “New Negro”] maintains that it is the only
logical, sound, and correct aim for the Negro to entertain. He realizes that the acceptance of laws
against intermarriage is tantamount to the acceptance of the stigma of inferiority” (Randolph and
Owen 8).
This is a result of its porous nature, with the introduction of an altered, or
even reified, set of power dynamics. 46 Johan Huizinga observes this temporary
hierarchy in the court system, from that depicted in the Iliad to his own 1930s
Europe, where he wrote Homo Ludens:
This court is still […] the sacred circle within which the judges are shown
sitting, in the shield of Achilles. Every place from which justice is
pronounced is a veritable temenos, a sacred spot cut off and hedged in from
the “ordinary” world. The old Flemish and Dutch word for it is vierschaar,
literally a space divided off by four ropes or, according to another view, by
four benches. But whether square or round it is still a magic circle, a playground where the customary differences of rank are temporarily
established. (77)
In Homo Ludens, Huizinga locates play spheres across diverse cultural institutions,
most of them from the middle ages and ancient world, observing their
instantiation in ritual. In the above passage, he describes the time, space, and
power dynamics. He notes that the English courts have maintained certain rituals,
as “the judge’s wig […] is more than a mere relic of antiquated professional dress”
(77). And, indeed, the carpe diem spirit is fed by the temporality of the play sphere.
What has been overlooked by scholars is the way in which these play spheres are
not merely continuing through history, but also how they are porous, how even
their entrenched rules, bound by their own time, space, and power dynamics,
See chapter five on Elizabeth Bishop for the dangers of this porosity.
Bullying is the classic case of this kind of reification of power dynamics.
become internalized by the participants and live on, for better or worse. For better,
one might point to the actual historical function of, say, capoiera, which was once a
disguised form of martial arts and is now an important aspect of Afro-Brazilian
culture. For worse, Americans retain many of the sexist tendencies of the AfricanAmerican dozens game, as spin-offs such as mother-bashing exhibit. (I mean,
really, who makes fun of someone’s dad?) We could enumerate countless examples
of the stakes of these scenarios, and our final chapter on Elizabeth Bishop is a
prime example. Giorgio Agamben’s concept of the homo sacer helps to identify the
power dynamics accomplished by the effective politicization of the play sphere
more generally. As noted in the introduction, Bakhtin locates and valorizes the
carnival as a site of revolutionary political activity, yet we have questioned its
status as such because of its sanctioning by the state. We might assert that
Agamben’s concept of the homo sacer applies, because the play sphere’s
politicization would be different if it were accomplished by the actual power of the
people. Referring to the United States constitution, Agamben observes that “We the
people” excludes bios, what he calls the “bare life” of people as human beings (1).
Some would argue that, at the end of the day, the sovereign itself is in the only
state of exception, for the festival is enframed—like the speech of Hughes’s
characters—within the power of the State.47 This pessimistic view is worth
considering, but does not change the influence of the festival, or, writ smaller, of
free discourse in a more isolated play sphere (e.g. a single poem or performance)
For more on this, consult Giorgio Agamben’s sequel to Homo Sacer, entitled State of Exception.
Chicago: University Press, 2005.
on language itself. Here, I would assert, along with Valentin Vološinov, that these
speech acts are always politically influential on some level. 48 A more optimistic
construction is that, on the page, Hughes’s characters become sovereign,
adjudicating their own contexts. Set free by this heteroglossia— so long as the
book itself isn’t censored or burned—Hughes’s incorporation of directly quoted
lyrics creates a temporary context, a play sphere, a festival, in all of its subversive
potential. Given the social nature of language, although the site itself is temporary,
its effects can be lasting. Language is creating and created in that sphere, and it
really does affect life outside of it. One could say its porosity is an advantage. In a
similar way, constructions of the state, such as Black History Month, allow
concepts to enter language, where they change and are changed as real aspects of
social consciousness. Of course, it can always be argued that more harm is done
than good, but without the thing being named it does not e/affectively exist.
Regardless of how we ourselves enframe this issue, the playful Hughes has
In his Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, Valentin Vološinov identifies two trends in the
study of language philosophy: individualistic subjectivism and abstract objectivism. 48 Vološinov
associates the first trend with Wilhelm von Humboldt, who laid its foundation, and Karl Vossler’s
school, which followed in Humboldt’s footsteps. We can even think of Benedetto Croce insofar as he
sees language as an “aesthetic phenomenon” (Vološinov 52). These schools more or less consider
the basis of language to be the “individual creative act of speech” (Vološinov 48). Their focus is on
the aesthetic nature of all speech acts, or “utterances,” and their emphasis on expression is
symptomatic of that; after all, as Vološinov notes, “any sort of expression is, at root, artistic” (52).
Contrast this with the second trend, abstract objectivism, which sees language as a system of
“normatively identical linguistic forms which the individual consciousness finds readymade”
(Vološinov 57). This trend, whose chief figure is linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, prefers to analyze
a system that provides its speaker with a set of rules from without. Rather than focusing on the
sign’s social nature, Saussurians view it as part of a given, and closed, linguistic system. Using terms
taken from Hegelian dialectics—here appropriated to the Marxist tradition of dialectical
materialism—Vološinov notes that abstract objectivism’s main principles appear as an antithesis to
those of individualistic subjectivism. True to the dialectic, Vološinov intervenes with a synthesis
that reveals the sign to be indeed social, allowing for the individual creativity of the speaker as part
of an addresser/addressee relationship. Speakers act upon language and language acts upon
speakers, all within a social space.
probably been the most influential poet of the
century in American letters,
excepting perhaps Robert Frost.
I would assert that much of this is due to his adoption of a playful,
politically-engaged poetics. Hughes’s reappropriation of folklore to the poetry
sphere has been a significant aspect of his ongoing influence. Stephen C. Tracy, in
his study on the blues legacy in Hughes’s work, devotes one of three chapters to
folklore. In looking at the folkloric root of Hughes’s blues poetry, Tracy asserts that
it “reflects all aspects of this environment: speech, sayings, tales, songs, religion,
superstitions, signs, symbols, crafts, clothes, gravemarkers” (13). Tracy is not just
saying that Hughes is a poet of the people in that sense, and Vološinov’s arguments
about the social nature of language help us connect Hughes as a poet of black
culture to Hughes as poet of, at least, the English language. In Hughes, we observe
that the “Negro farthest down” is not only an important producer of culture, but a
continually evolving reflection of it as well. 49 You see, “unfortunately,” Hughes was
not black. The transnational circumstances of Hughes’s early and mid-1920s
reflect, indeed, a variety of environments and identities. Hughes’s Harlem came
alive in amazing ways in 1926 (Weary Blues) and 1927 (Fine Clothes), but as “pure”
or “authentic” as our own categories (e.g. Harlem Renaissance) try to make them,
these spaces were reflections of a society at sea, ever transitioning and marked by
fluidity. Recalling Jacques Ehrmann’s critiques of early play theory, the
impossibility of a “pure” play sphere is now accepted and, indeed, the failure of
The expression “Negro farthest down” comes from Zora Neale Hurston’s “Characteristic of Negro
Expression.” See FMOW 839.
eugenics to produce a viable “race” theory only opens further the pores of
Harlem’s play spheres. Although scholars have produced superb work chronicling
a uniquely African-American play tradition, we must nonetheless acknowledge the
complex racial nature of artistic production; there is no “pure-blooded” AfricanAmerican art. It is part of the Harlem cabaret’s porosity as a play sphere that as an
object of commemoration, and through performance at that, it wasn’t written
solely by artists born in Harlem. In most cases, it wasn’t written by artists living in
Harlem. As I hope to indicate, the space of the Harlem cabaret was not inhabited
by an “authentic” people per se; this latter form of porosity is most evident in the
poems themselves, where the characters are mixed, from their intentions to their
races. Hughes’s early poetry stages issues, activates them within a space, rather
than didactivates them as in some of his work in the 1930s.
Does a jazz-band ever sob?
They say a jazz-band’s gay.
Yet as the vulgar dancers whirled
And the wan night wore away,
One said she heard the jazz-band sob
When the little dawn was grey.
As in “Harlem Night Club,” Hughes’s poem “Cabaret” suggests the jazz players as
sad workers. “They,” the uninitiated, say that a “jazz band’s gay” (CW 27). They’ve
been “playing” late, and when finally the “little dawn” arrives, not to a dazzling
sunrise but to a gloomy, “grey” day, one says she heard them sob. She could’ve,
perhaps, sworn she heard them sob. If she insisted, that is. This observer is
grammatically taken out of the cabaret, partially by not having a named identity or
location. She is just “she,” and “one,” as if the speaker says, “Yes, but to put a little
doubt in our minds…” Or, more to the point, the speaker shows that the “vulgar
dancers whirled” oblivious to the deep-down feelings of the jazz-band. “They,” the
vulgar dancers, would say the jazz band was gay, but the low moans, from
somewhere outside of the cabaret, down the street, the damp beats slumping along
the alleys go into a furnished room, where one sits, hearing the jazz-band’s slow
dull sob.50
In “Harlem Night Club,” Hughes allows the words to perform musically on
behalf of the speaker, yet the performance of the writer’s identity in the context of
the “work” space is vexed, especially in the case of the cabaret. Whether culture at
large attaches more identity import to work or leisure, Langston Hughes is more
than a fly on the wall.51 For the writer in the cabaret, unlike Wallace Stevens’s
“listener, who listens in the snow,” who is “nothing himself,” cannot be thought of
as nothing himself (10).52 It is not a question here of immersion or participation.
Not at first. As noted above, the place itself is porous, admitting of work and play in
constant exchange, in a dance. Still, the speaker stands in the play space, offcamera left, sometimes dancing, sometimes striking up a conversation with the
The “one” could also be one of the vulgar dancers. Though this reading would still distance the
speaker’s gender and obscure his/her identity, it would name the location, putting the observer in
the cabaret itself.
51 William Gleason, discussed in the introduction, asserts in his The Leisure Ethic: Work and Play in
American Literature how and when leisure effectively replaced work in its importance to how
individuals self-identify.
52 See Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man.” “For the listener, who listens in the snow,/ And, nothing
himself, beholds/ Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (10). The Complete Poems of
Wallace Stevens. New York: Random House, 1982.
patrons, sometimes watching wondering wandering. This is a theatrical
performance of identity, performing the roles of (Hughes’s) transient presence.
The speaker takes on a slightly different role in “Summer Night,” actually becoming
a physical presence and voice in the poem, rather than an “involved” observer. Also
from The Weary Blues, “Summer Night” is unique in its incorporation of the
pronoun “I,” and with it an emphasis on the speaker’s experience of the Harlem
night, as opposed to his performative report on it. The poem begins in retreat with
the speaker shifting in and out of the cabarets and homes. The “I,” ostensibly
Hughes the poet, is the last one up, still “working.” The other late-nighters were
playing/working in the cabarets.
The sounds
Of the Harlem Night
Drop one by one into stillness
The last player-piano is closed.
The last victrola ceases with the
“Jazz Boy Blues.”
In this stanza, the players are their instruments, synecdoched workers, the piano
“closed” like the workplace and the victrola again relegated to “boy.” This is the
closest to closed we get in the work sphere, whose porous walls allow sounds to
enter into the night and then disappear into the ears of the poet, who never sleeps.
His “weary” blues continue and he, unlike the jazzers, is not contracted for the
night. Like Socrates in The Symposium, he doesn’t sleep this night, “toss[ing]
without rest/ in the darkness/ Until the new dawn” descends into the courtyard
(Plato 58). Significantly, the work/play dichotomy is not the only element in the
summer night, for the night, black like our speaker, loses to the “white mist.” Like
Hurston’s dust, the mist is untraceable in its demarcations of night and day,
untraceable in the way it works the space. The combinatory confusion enters the
subjectivity of the speaker, for whom the tossing (but not the turning) ends with
the advent of the new day. As it was inside the “Harlem Night Club,” the speaker
broods in the gloaming, unclear of his identity as it relates to the groups. Is he with
the revelers or workers, the white patrons or black dancers, or is he always
already somewhere in between?53
As in “Harlem Night Club,” the place of the cabaret is itself combinatory,
mixed. It is a porous play sphere. If we move back inside the club, for instance in
“The New Cabaret Girl,” Hughes’s speaker operates with conflicting power
dynamics, delivered through an exploration of specularization. The poem takes
place in the cabaret, where it is expected that the new cabaret girl “ought to play”
(CW 84). In fact, Hughes frequently writes the cabaret as play itself. 54 In “The New
Cabaret Girl,” though we may see the music workers, usually the jazz-band or jazzplayers, as having a deeply mixed, deeply combinatory relationship between work
and play, we may well ask if Hughes saw, like Huizinga, the dance as the possibility
of a more “pure” leisure? In The Big Sea, Hughes recognizes specularization as a
deterrent to play. At rent parties, he sees the dance as more genuine; it was the
This question will again surface in our exploration of subjectivity in “The Weary Blues.”
In “Sport,” from Fine Clothes, the speaker describes a character for whom life is all “sport,” and at
the “closing hour/ The lights go out/And there is no music at all/ And death becomes/ An empty
cabaret” (90).
whites’ watching the cabaret “play” that made him pause… The new cabaret girl
“ought to play,” but there are always complications. One is the corruption of the
physical space, evident in “Harlem Night Club,” which is actually permeated by
white bodies, as well as here, where you can, forgive me, see it in her eyes. “That
little yaller gal/ Wid blue-green eyes:/ If her daddy ain’t white/ Would be a
surprise” (CW 84). The speaker speculates that her daddy is white, not her, and she
intoxicates him through by being racially mixed. But, the speaker also specularizes
her, taking her down a notch. He hits on her at the same time that he questions her
identity. Where was she born? He asks her. This can be casual, but here it comes off
as interrogational, as in “you’re not from around here…” But, it really is a hit on
her, for his questioning presence saddens her. It makes sense that Hughes the poet
would identify with the speaker but also that he is clearly distinct from him.
Himself mixed, he must have felt both girl and speaker. You see, Hughes,
“unfortunately,” was not black, as he explains in The Big Sea. Her stated “I don’t
know,” set off as its own line, is symbolic of her combinatory identity, for she
belongs to neither race. The speaker has definite opinions. She ought to play. Her
dad is white. He powerfully asserts these as facts, and she is condemned to not
knowing, to being uncertain, to being unable to choose her own drink. He
concludes that “she can’t live that way,” meaning that she ought to live a little. We
might well question whether it’s for his benefit or hers.
Hughes was aware of himself as an observer, as well as the line between
being an observer and being a participant. In The Big Sea, Hughes describes the
rape of two African girls, sadly destitute enough to seek sex work from the
impoverished crew of the S.S. Malone. In particular, he focuses on a 30-man gangrape of one of the “little” African girls. “Finally, I couldn’t bear to hear her crying:
“Mon-nee!” any more, so I went to bed. But the festival went on all night” (BS 108).
The speaker, the “Hughes” of this
real life narrative reveals the
ways in which the work place
complicates objectivity. Perhaps,
Hughes as a worker feels that he
has little choice, but the text
doesn’t explore this angle.
Himself poor and helpless, he
ought to relate as much to the
girl as to the crew. It complicates
the “festival” aspect described by
Hughes not only that this is a
Figure xii
work sphere, but also that the entertainment is being exploited. Certainly,
“festival” is an interesting choice of words, for the festival is a play sphere in which
hierarchies are inverted by the players. Sex, which would seem to belong most
properly to the play sphere, is at the farthest reaches from it in rape. In the case of
this sex worker being raped, the act is not merely work but work without pay. Like
the bees in Hughes’s “Black Workers,” “Their work is taken from them” (CW 233).
The fact that this incident is not poeticized, that it emphasizes the
observer/participant boundary, is indicative of its having lost its play function.
While Hughes may be criticized for his lack of intervention or open protest, we see
in this (non)gesture a sober reminder of the primacy of the work principle in this
deeply exploitative scene.55 Hughes literally cannot afford to make a fuss, for he
too feels powerless against the mob. Ultimately, he is “tired” of it, as if it involves
labor to watch.
The combinatory nature of the play sphere is further pursued in “The
Weary Blues,” in particular as Hughes mixes laughter and tears, both in content
and performance. Here, the sonic, or instrumental, performance is especially
evident. Pointing out that critics have at times emphasized Hughes’s connection to
the African-American vernacular by looking at the voices in his poetry as human
voices that wake us, Meta DuEwa Jones reminds us of Hughes’s jazz “performance
on the page,” in which the voices are “instrumental” (1155). How does a poem like
“The Weary Blues” work, with playing and moaning crowding the same stool? The
lazy sway of the words, long “o” sounds in the crooning feet, thumping out, but
pitched against the high “i” lyrical shriek. Weary as this poem is, and slow, it does
tickle the “i”vories (white audiences love the piece!), its rhythm is lighter, skipping
around, playing in a lighter light. Note the way the exclamation points jump in,
commenting on the blues, on the situation itself. This subjectivity is challenged too
by the i’s—very much like exclamations—jumping around within the song itself.
From the get-go the poem is stop-start, slo-mo and then hop-step. The words that
speed up the rhythm in the first three lines are “syncopated” and, to a lesser
It is also an example of the power dynamics of racism and sexism.
degree, “play.” Later, “melody” and “rickety” and “musical” supply the tinkling
touch that plinks out of words like “blues” and “soul” and “moan.” What is it about
this “black man’s” sleep that fascinates us, these miles he has to go? He has stopped
playing, but an “echo” remains. When he goes to bed, the blues are still playing,
though he is no longer the agent of the music. Why is he tired outside of the
context of the song? Why like “a man that’s dead”…? Given that the man is
“playing” on Lenox Avenue, this probably wasn’t his piano. The spot, with its “pale
dull pallor,” matches the descriptions found in studies of Harlem cabarets at that
time. The man was playing for a crowd, “far into the night,” playing, in other words,
as work. He might have worked a day shift too, as many of these artists did. Even at
the time of their playing, these jazzers were not merely at work on their
instruments. Ethel Ray (or “Nance”) recalled that, in the Cat on the Saxophone, the
club on which the Hughes poem of that
(slightly altered) title is based, “members
of the orchestra would wait on the tables
when it became rushed” (qtd. in Vogel
Figure xiii
Our take on subjectivity is necessary to recognizing that performance is not
restricted to the cabaret, that the cabaret’s porosity is palpable, that the
boundaries of the play sphere are untenable. On this point, I disagree with Trudier
Harris’s reading of “The Weary Blues,” in which she writes, “not having followed
the musician home or witnessed for himself the result of his singing, the speaker is
left to imagine the blues just as he must stand back from and merely observe the
blues life” (37). The speaker performs the in-and-out nature of the blues space, of
the blues experience, by continuing to perform the croon of the man’s tune after
leaving. “And far into the night he crooned that tune./ The stars went out and so
did the moon” (CW 24). The performance of the music drifts out of the club as a
result of its porous nature, as well as the fact that neither speaker nor player is
named, only the song. Also, I do not think that the speaker is necessarily torn
between “slept like a rock or a man that’s dead;” he is, rather, understanding the
jeu at work in this option, the hinge between being inanimate and dead. The music
would seem to be the spirit, the anime. The speaker allows more than one
possibility as the result of rival sensitivities. When the speaker is in the cabaret,
the words plink out their own performance. In the bedroom of the musician, the
speaker is not “merely observing,” as the poem’s triplet performs how the “Weary
Blues echoed through his head,” with bed/head/dead. Indeed, Harris insists that
“the life of the bluesman is not his to live,” (37) and yet that is what Hughes does
by laying the poem to its final rest on the word “dead.”
For Hughes, pain did not exist on its own. Laughter, which Hughes thought
essential to African-American identity—especially his identity—was welded to
pain like the other side of the pillow. In his introduction to I Wonder as I Wander,
an autobiography of Hughes’s life in the 1930s, Arnold Rampersad writes that
Hughes “saw laughter as an essential ingredient of the spirit of the blues…” (xvii).
That laughter is an essential part of his own identity emerges in the largely
autobiographical “Young Sailor,” and in this poem, as elsewhere, it is inextricable
from the play mood. That the mood itself is not merely capricious but mixed is
significant. In “The Jester,” the speaker says:
In one hand
I hold tragedy
And in the other
Masks for the soul.
Laugh with me.
You would laugh!
Weep with me.
You would weep!
Tears are my laughter.
Laughter is my pain.
Cry at my grinning mouth,
If you will.
Laugh at my sorrow’s reign.
I am the Black Jester,
The dumb clown of the world,
The booted, booted fool of silly men.
Once I was wise.
Shall I be wise again?
The poem evokes the performance of identity from its outset, as the speaker holds
both play genres, comedy and tragedy. Like the scales of Libra, they would seem to
balance, though the one is necessary for the other. It is his jester/clown status that
is tragic. That “work” is associated with tears is solidified outside of the construct
of this poem, and here the soul’s “masks” are plays in the theatrical sense. But,
they are played out by poem’s end, for the speaker notes “once I was wise” at the
moment he reveals that he is a fool. He is performing the parts, performing the
doubleness of his character to the reader/audience, and the poem becomes the
dramatic performances it laments. The imperatives to laugh and weep along with
him are mocked by their subsequent “You would” (now I’m the one emphasizing).
Laughter is also like jazz to Hughes. It is like the “gods… laughing at us” (CW 32).
The laughter is a rupture, but it’s essential, as if it belonged to the identity of
African Americans to perform a sort of rupture. This seems coupled with the desire
for exploration, for adventure, which is essential to the play spirit. In “Young
Sailor,” Hughes, who spent much of the period in question (1924-1927) either
outside of Harlem and D.C. or trying to get outside of them, certainly had the
potlatch spirit discussed by Johann Huizinga in Homo Ludens. “What is money for?/
To spend, he says./ And wine/ To drink?” (CW 49). Like the day-to-day, welltraveled characters of Claude McKay’s Banjo, Hughes would step onto land, spend
every last cent and then head back to work. His emphasis on consumption here is
one thing, but it is rooted in the aforementioned carpe diem mentality. It is in the
context of this poetic adventure that Hughes refers to himself as laughing. Whether
it operates as an essential quality that comes along with him “wherever he goes,”
or whether it is inextricably linked to the adventures themselves, Hughes sees in
laughter a transience, an eternal rupture, for he concludes, “And the brown land,/
For laughter./ And nothing hereafter” (CW 50). At this historical moment, Hughes
has decided that he is “not black”; rather, as he notes in The Big Sea, “I am brown”
(11). It is possible that Hughes directly identifies with laughter here, and only
laughter, as the brown land could well be his own skin.
Although Hughes would become more politically involved in the 1930s, his
social conscience is nonetheless evident in The Weary Blues.
What is there within this beggar lad
That I can neither hear nor feel nor see,
That I can neither know nor understand
And still it calls to me?
Is he not but a shadow in the sun—
A bit of clay, brown, ugly, given life?
And yet he plays upon his flute a wild free tune
As if Fate had not bled him with her knife!
Here, Hughes elevates this Thoreauvian “Beggar Boy,” one of his “Shadows in the
Sun”. Unlike “Suicide’s Note,” in which the subject is, perhaps, too much i’ the sun,
this mendicant “plays upon his flute a wild free tune,” a situation that puzzles the
speaker, yet fills him with admiration. The only two complete thoughts before the
final couplet are questions, and the exclamation point in the end suggests
incredulity if nothing else. The overwhelming observation is DESPITE. The boy’s
flute and the “free tune” are suggestive of a pastoral, though this would be an
unusual locale for begging, to be sure, and the tune is “wild,” which connotes both
the wilderness of the pastoral as well as a hectic pace that belies it. Interesting too,
the poem on the opposite page is the aforementioned Romantic suicide, in which
the river asks for a kiss. Below the poem, a “troubled woman” is compared to a
“wind-blown autumn flower.” What is “calling” to the speaker? It is not necessarily
the flute music, though that’s what interests the speaker. What interests him and
what calls to him may well be different. The paradox is what’s interesting to me.
What calls to him is a mystery. What matters for our discussion is why the boy’s
playing is a paradox and how that settles into our vision of Hughes’s cabaret
players. The boy plays “as if,” signaling both a pretend playing, but also one
required by his situation. Again, the pain encourages the play.
The cabaret was also porous in that it couldn’t keep the words in the
building for very long. From the listener who walked home with the song on her
lips to the banjo player improvising on Hughes’s “The Weary Blues.” Zora Neale
Hurston reveled in poetry’s ability to be reappropriated to a new context, and even
a slightly new wordset. She knew that these new iterations were performances in
their own right, as Hurston writes in one of her many letters to Hughes during the
late 1920s:
Read “Fine Clothes” to enthusiastic bunch of lumber-jacks here Sat. Big
colorful jook here. You’d love it. I am full of impressions.
(ZNH 130)
Hurston’s “impressions”
are double, both her
interpretations and
performances of the
Hughes poems. Nor was
the setting inappropriate
for Hurston to be not just
the life of the party but the
party itself, according to
the famous way Sterling
Brown described her.56
Why? Where Hurston was
Figure xiv
traveling, the blues were in the air, and Hughes’s bluesy influence is wellestablished by Steven C. Tracy, among others.57 Indeed, Hughes’s travels with
Hurston would lead to his most important encounters with the blues (113). While
Carla Kaplan helpfully defines “jook joint” as a “private bar or dance hall with live
music,” Hurston’s definition in “Harlem Slanguage” might serve us better to see
See Wrapped in Rainbows, page 95.
See Steven C. Tracy’s Langston Hughes and the Blues.
Jook, a pleasure house in the class of gut-bucket. The houses originated in
the lumber, turpentine and railroad camps of Florida. Now common all over
the South, even in the towns. They are the cradle of the Blues, and most of
the dance steps that finally migrate north. (Kaplan 130; CS 228)
Like Hughes himself, we might add, though he headed more east than north from
his native Kansas. Before he was traveling with Hurston through the South, his
poems were. When Hurston writes, “even in the towns,” she implies that these
blues skipped through the backwoods, but that ultimately they originated there.
The poems were received very well in Alabama. This is Hurston reporting in her
own played-up vernacular from July 10, 1928.
In every town I hold 1 or 2 storytelling contests, and at each I begin by
telling them who you are and all, then I read poems from “Fine Clothes”.
Boy! They eat it up. Two or three of them are too subtle and they dont get it.
“Mulatto” for instance and “Sport” but the others they just eat up. You are
being quoted in R.R. camps, phosphate mines, Turpentine still etc. I went
into a house Saturday night (last) and the men were skinning—you
remember my telling you about that game—and when the dealer saw his
opponent was on the turn (and losing consequently) He chanted
“When hard luck overtakes you
Nothin for you to do
Grab up yo’ fine clothes
An’ sell em to-ooo-de Jew Hah!!”
(slaps that card down on the table)
The other fellow was visibly cast down when the dealer picked up his
money. Dealer gloating continued: “If you wuz a mule
I’d git you a waggin to haul—
But youse so low down-hown
you ain’t even got uh stall” (ZNH 122).
Hurston sells the books in the context of agonistic play, the contests she invents for
the purpose, thus exchanging them within a contrived play sphere. Indeed, this is
where they become reappropriated, and the temporary hierarchy is honored. The
dealer is permitted to gloat, and the “other fellow” takes his abuse. Hughes’s lyrics
survive their new context. Now, they are play insults, and the dealer signifies on
them, or, perhaps more appropriately “improvises” on them, for musical effect. The
letter continues, “So you see they are making it so much a part of themselves they
go on to improvising on it” (ZNH 122).These folks are playing with the texts the
way Hughes plays with the original lyrics, reappropriating their contexts,
sometimes changing them as well and sometimes, gasp!, using them like
readymades. Steven C. Tracy’s remarks are apt here, “Poetry needs the poet, the
performance, and the audience to be complete” (13). While the present study
doesn’t, unlike, say, Meta DuEwa Jones’s, evaluate particular performances of
Hughes’s works, I think it is valuable to our assessment of the play element to view
these poems as sites of exchange. The audience of many of the poems played with
here were those “farthest down,” and those audiences would in turn become
performers, and arguably poets as well, depending on the nature of their
signifyin(g). In her July 10 letter to Hughes, Hurston points out not merely the new
context but the new performance as well:
For some reason they call it “De Party Book.” […] They sing the poems right
off, and July 1, two men came over with guitars and sang the whole book.
Everybody joined in. It was the strangest & most thrilling thing. They played
it well too. You’d be surprised. One man was giving the words out-lining
them out as the preacher does a hymn and the others would take it up and
sing. It was glorious! (ZNH 122)
In an upbeat letter on August 6, 1928, she writes, “Loved your letter. Books almost
all gone.” (ZNH 124)58 Ten days later, she asks for more copies, saying, “Please
send me 10 copies of the “Weary Blues.” I could do with some more “Fine Clothes”
too” (ZNH 125). (This is probably true on more than one level, as Hurston was
operating on a very tight budget.) She would continue mentioning the success of
Hughes’s books. She didn’t always read it at jooks, either.
“My last night in New Orleans I spoke on poetry at New Orleans College and
read some poems from WEARY BLUES and read FINE CLOTHES clean
through. My they liked it. One old maid matron of the dormitory near
finished dying when I read ‘Saturday Night,’ but the boys et it up.” (ZNH
The old matron understood the poem loud and clear, and one can imagine the
Hurston’s rollicking (re)performance. The truth is, it was a bold stroke for her to
Here, “books” refers to both volumes of the present study, The Weary Blues and Fine Clothes to the
read that poem in particular, for just when the audience thinks that Sadie, from her
appearance as a “whore” in the fourth line, has been effectively written out of the
poem, she comes back in a rather climactic way for the final line.
Hey! Hey!
Ho… Hum!
Do, it, Mr. Charlie,
Till de red dawn come. (CW 91)
Here, the ellipsis gives the audience time to react to her return, and then Sadie
becomes the pronoun “it,” her importance now, as before, lying in her services
rendered to Charlie. For those with prudish sensibilities, it is possible to miss the
“doing it” and “coming” of these final lines, but harder to ignore the shades of
Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” in “Won’t be nothin’ left/ When de worms
git through” (CW 91). Charlie isn’t just shakin’ up dice “all night long,” and Hurston
was never shy on innuendo, especially when she had an audience (CW 91). Yet, if
we see the mode of specularization as restricted to the clubs, we miss Hughes’s
reperformance of them, as well as his signifying on them. Vogel correctly
designates these poems as critiques of and adjustments to a more conservative
racial uplift project. In addition, I would assert that these poems become the very
experience they write about. Like so many black artists whose work was
misinterpreted by white audiences as a copy of white forms, the poems themselves
were perceived by these audiences as authentic experiences of black life. Hughes
did the police well, so well that people thought he was just a cop. Reductively. You
see, unfortunately, Hughes was not black. This is not to say he wasn’t “also” black,
but he wasn’t just a type. Hurston knew these poems weren’t primitive types when
she peddled them through poor Southern towns. She saw that the poems became
spaces, stages for performance, not a display case for the thing itself. Lacking these
glass knobs, they became for many white readers instances of authentic black life.
Call the roller of big cigars, indeed. Vogel is spot on in writing that “Cabarets and
other nightlife institutions provided sociologists and journalists with a ‘museum of
types’ for the study of antisocial behavior” (10).59
Sure, Hughes had as characters all types of blacks in both The Weary Blues
and Fine Clothes to the Jew, his two major publications during the historical
moment in question. But, they were characters in more than one sense; they had
lives of their own. On the back cover of the first edition of Fine Clothes to the Jew
(1927), the publicity pitch reads:
These poems, for the most
part, interpret the more
primitive types of
American Negro, the bellboys, the cabaret girls, the
migratory workers,
singers of Blues and
Figure xv
Spirituals, and the makers
of folk-songs. As in The Weary Blues, Mr. Hughes expresses the joy and pathos, the
Vogel borrows the term “museum of types” from William H. Jones, who used it in his Recreation
and Amusement among Negroes in Washington, D.C.: A Sociological Analysis of the Negro in an Urban
Environment. Also, see chapter five for the discussion of Elizabeth Bishop and the museum.
beauty and ugliness, of their lives (Beinecke).
! If it were any wonder what the public’s opinion was of the blues, of folk-songs, let
those ruminations rest. This unsettling blurb details how “The Weary Blues” itself
became a “museum of types” for the “negro farthest down.”
A desire for authentic experience accounts in large measure for Carl Van
Vechten’s interest in a Langston Hughes autobiography, an interest that came prior
to Hughes’s having much to write about. Hughes’s final letter sounds as if the
autobiography will be his own (prison) sentence, which it had been from the first
letters in which Carl Van Vechten brought it up.60 The autobiography had been a
sore point from the beginning, not because Hughes knew that he was writing as a
black writer, but because he knew he would be entering the museum himself,
where he would be locked in place with a click and a clasp. Still, I think Hughes
frees the folk voice through his construction of a paginated stage. Mu’tafikah,
Ishmael Reed’s group of museum raiders in the novel Mumbo Jumbo is a better
analogy for most of Hughes’s “primitive types,” for I think Hughes opens rather
than (fore)closes their reappropriation as types. Yes, Hughes “quotes” AfricanAmerican folk, jazz, and blues songs, reappropriating their lyrics to new contexts.
Fixed in print, these reappropriated works are now incarcerated, yet the black ink
and book binding are merely typographical shackles whose context actually allows
for more widespread reappropriation. One might think of the Reverend John
Donne, whose Holy Sonnet XIV asks that God batter his heart and imprison him
These can be found in Remember Me to Harlem: the Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van
Vechten, ed. Emily Bernard, especially pages 8-19.
because that is precisely what will set him free. These chains/letters are the very
source of their freedom.61 They are themselves subject to the temptation of
change, of resignification, but they remain fixed on the page, credit given to their
Maker. The Mu’tafikah stole African art that had been itself stolen and taken out of
“common use,” to evoke Agamben, and made into a spectacle for white viewers in
Western art museums. As for Reed’s performance, Gates notes that Mu’tafikah
itself puns on “motherfucker,” and Robert Eliot Fox cleverly relates it as a
performance of the dozens by way of “mu,” the twelfth letter of the Greek alphabet
(Gates 225). Nor should this all be Greek to us, for Reed’s “mu” also evokes James
Churchward’s 1926 book, Lost Continent of Mu, Motherland of Man, which gesture
would seem to woof on followers of Marcus Garvey by theorizing an original
location for all of mankind. What Hughes does, like these art thieves, is perform a
signifyin(g) return, “elevating” this art by changing its context. Most importantly,
though, he frees the pieces, allowing them to be resignified, as, say, Janie Starks’
story will be resignified through its retellings (Donlon 55). Those that would
challenge my use of “elevating” through a change in context may refer to Lorenzo
Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you
As yet but knocke, breath, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue,
Yet dearely’I love you, and would be lov’d faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie,
Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee. (344)
Thomas’s arguments in “I Cudda Had A V-8…” because that’s just what poetry
does.62 There are ways of elevating language without instantiating hierarchy, and
Hughes does a (master)ful—whoops!—job of this. I don’t mean to imply that
Hughes, like the Mu’tafikah, was stealing folk art to serve his inner Garvey… though
at the time he scribbled many of these poems Hughes was literally heading to
The artifact is a stand-in for culture. It is deactivated play. It is dead. It
does not perform identity; it skips right to identity, saying “this is the identity I
represent.” It is the “original,” and African art that participates in it does so in the
way a thing participates in the Platonic form of that thing. Thus, it has been
sacralized, made untouchable. It is as though one can only take a photograph in
this museum without a flash, for the flash, the flair, ruins, diminishes the original in
its reproductivity. The Mona Lisa is a point in case, for it is protected by thick glass
as it is, but the museum’s flash photography prohibition is only the more enforced
by the thickness of the glass. One must reproduce the work itself, then signify on it,
to make the now obvious point that “Elle a chaud au cul.” 63 It is the performance of
signifying that allows the museified object to return to common use. Hughes’s—
and Hurston’s for that matter—signifying on folk materials keeps them from
sterility, from existing as mere copies, mere stereotypes of the race, mere mimicry,
Lorenzo Thomas's lecture, "I Cudda Had A V-8: Poetry and the Vernacular" was presented on
April 7, 1988 as part of the Poetry Project's Symposium, Poetry of Everyday Life.
63 Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q.,” in which a reproduction of the Mona Lisa is given a goatee, phonetically
translates to “elle a chaud au cul,” or “she has a really hot ass.”
if there were such a thing. In a study of Hurston’s and Hughes’s joint creation, the
play Mule Bone, Carme Manuel notes:
Mule Bone uses humor not only to transcend the black stereotypes
exploited by white literature in minstrel shows and black-faced plays but
assertively to depict black experience in the first decades of the twentieth
century in America from a hilarious stance and through language that sets
its roots in communal knowledge, wisdom, and the capacity of
regeneration. (84)
The humor in Mule Bone is highly playful, and itself includes signifying, particularly
the ritualized signifying of the dozens, to curry a laugh. Manuel sees that humor
ruptures rather than reifies black stereotypes. It breaks into the museum, takes the
object, and gives it back to the community for common use.
Of course, being the same or a mere “copy” of a predecessor, can be the
most stinging insult to an artist, particularly in the context of literary modernism.
Ezra Pound’s “make it new” was not a phrase to live by for all Harlem Renaissance
writers and readers; indeed, Countee Cullen’s work, now often ignored or even
criticized for being highly derivative, for being the “same” as “white” forms, was
praised for its virtuosity at the time. He sought to be a poet, not a black poet.
Langston Hughes was deeply aware the need for a non-derivative artistic practice
in his well-known essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926). That
essay opens:
One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I
want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write
like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white
poet”;meaning behind that, “ I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the
young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being
himself. (27)
Though Countee Cullen is not named, his absence seems to give presence to his
emerging anonymity in a changing tradition of poetic expression. Cullen’s
tendency to work in “white” forms, whether right or wrong, left him out of
conversations about a new history of African-American literature.
Significantly, the logic that produced the dangerous criticism that black art
was a copy of white works is related to a “developmental” tradition in the history
of ideas. As we have seen in our remarks on the problems of Roger Caillois, the
game category of mimicry is often viewed as childish, especially by those on the
“outside” of a tradition looking in. 64 Jean Piaget, in expounding a theory of child
development in his Play, Imitation, and Dreams, considers play to be “mere
assimilation” (89). Unlike accommodation, in which children adapt their schemas
to fit new experiential data, play is a suspension of the effort to learn. As he defines
it, play is “purely for functional pleasure” (89). As such, it only develops into
mimicry, into imitation, and is not to be considered true “development.” How
similar is this to Caillois’s belief in the development of “civilized” games according
to the development of agonistic and aleatory games? Indeed, in both systems of
thought, the primitive, the undeveloped, is allied with a propensity for mimicry, a
mere production of the same. It was in 1968 that Amiri Baraka coined the phrase
See the introduction for a more extended critique of Caillois.
“changing same” as a way of discussing the continuous, yet distinct character of
work within the black musical tradition. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., roughly 20 years
later, would undertake the ambitious project of not only sketching a black literary
tradition but also recovering an implicit black theoretical tradition. A trace of EsuElegbara, a “divine trickster figure from Yoruba mythology” (5), African-Americans
have the Signifying Monkey. Put briefly, the Signifying Monkey is a mythological
referent for an African-American rhetorical practice. It is a repetition with a
différence, whether it plays against “white” forms or, like Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo
Jumbo, signifies on black ones. Drawing heavily on Derrida’s notion of différance,
Gates points to a uniquely African-American iteration, heard as “Signifyin’.” To
represent this new form of signification, he puts the “g” into parenthesis:
Signifyin(g). Thus, this playful practice is posited in relation to an AfricanAmerican rhetorical tradition. Houston Baker’s work on the Harlem Renaissance
also projects a “changing same” history of African-American literary discourse, as
he generates the concepts of “mastery of form” and “deformation of mastery” to
explore the relationship of discourse to tradition. My intention in recounting this
history is to demonstrate the various ways in which critics have responded to
reckless, racist claims that African-American literary modernism is a “mere copy.”
The responses continue, and have reached recent Hughes scholarship, especially in
sexuality studies and diaspora studies. 65
In particular, consult the essays in Montage of a Dream: the Art and Life of Langston Hughes. Ed.
John Edgar Tidwell and Cheryl R. Ragar.
Hughes indeed plays a tight edge at times between suggesting authenticity
and signifying on stereotypes. Like Hurston, he uses folk vernacular, and
sometimes verbatim from the source, whether that be a blues song from a Macon,
Georgia jook or a comment overheard by a Senegalese in a Parisian cabaret. Also
like Hurston though, he enframes these words, recontextualizing them, like
readymades that need only to be recognized for the poetry they are. While Marcel
Duchamp chose the urinal and bicycle wheel and wine rack, Hughes thieved the
beat in the everyday speak, choosing the low-down spots for beauty; in this, like
Hurston, he would abandon the law of the father. Whereas his father called
everything of the “nigger” low, Hughes, and his speakers, would be quick to
acknowledge their “shade.” Though he would reappropriate contexts, Hughes was
far from being a copy.
Angela Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism makes a special point of
acknowledging Langston Hughes as an exception to many rules. Hughes was
“willing to consider seriously the contributions blues performers made to black
cultural politics” (xiii). Although Hughes’s literary treatment of women as
spectacles was often problematic, Davis, along with Cheryl Wall, points out that he
was “the first writer to represent the figure of the blues woman in literature” (qtd.
in Davis xiii). Along with Zora Neale Hurston, Hughes saw the blues as a rupture to
the prevailing music scene, saw them for their complexities rather than those who
saw the blues as “‘low,’ childish, irrational, and bizarre” (qtd. in Davis 123).
Childish? Irrational? Sounds like paidia to me. Davis notes that the blues were
often seen as low by middle-class African-Americans as well, and this is averred by
Shane Vogel’s
It was within blues music’s complexities that the
“difference” observed by Gates could truly be appreciated, a difference that would
repeat itself—with another difference—when Hughes enframed these “lowly”
lyrics in the context of poetry books.67 There are still scholars who wouldn’t study
Hughes because, “Isn’t he simple? Isn’t his work just straightforward?” Even when
it isn’t on someone’s lips, s/he is often thinking it. “Oh, you’re working on
Hughes…? Well, that should be coming along nicely.” 68 With that in mind, and I do
mind, it should be said that using blues itself was a rupture, a significant and
signifyin(g) political play.69 Hughes seems simple now because the fault line has
reached us, the osmotic exchange went from his “low” to our “high.” Hell, these
days, you’ve gotta be a high-class sombitch or a brand-name
anthrofuckin(polo)gist to know anything about the blues.
Davis discusses how Bessie Smith tried to “[articulate] African-American
identities and consciousness” (144). Though her attempt to do so through the
blues and jazz was “ignored by most of the leading figures of the [Harlem]
Renaissance,” Langston Hughes was the exception (Davis 144). Paul Burgett
confirms Davis’s observations, writing:
“Except for the poet Langston Hughes, none of the Harlem Intellectuals took
jazz seriously. While people like James Weldon Johnson and Alain Locke
66 About the Cabaret School’s opposition to racial uplift ideologies, see Vogel, The Scene of Harlem
Cabaret, esp. pages 5-13.
67 Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) has made important contributions on these complexities in Blues
People and elsewhere.
68 The quoted portions are from an actual conversation at Yale University with a graduate student
who will remain nameless.
69 In the 1925 anthology, The New Negro, J.A. Rogers refers to jazz as a “joyous revolt from
convention, custom, and authority” (217).
respected jazz as an example of folk music, their greatest expectations lay in
its transformation into serious music of high culture by some race genius in
the tradition of a Dvořák or a Smetana” (29-30).
Of course, the dream of the conservative black intelligentsia was to push a
“talented tenth” into high culture, demonstrating the greatness of AfricanAmericans through excellence in the arts. The litmus test, however, was more
bleached than Hughes wanted. In fact, he refers to none other than Bessie Smith at
the end of his “Negro Artist,” in which he praises her originality, as opposed to
Countee Cullen’s origin-amity.
Performers such as Bessie Smith worked on stages from big city cabarets
to southern jooks, but what concerned Hughes were the integrated clubs, and how
they reminded him of his point in “Negro Artist.” In The Big Sea, as noted above, he
recalls the specularization of Harlem afternightlife, of whites watching AfricanAmericans dance at Harlem’s rent parties. He goes on to compare it to the
audiences of African-American poetry, “Some critics say that that is what
happened to certain Negro writers, too—that they ceased to write to amuse
themselves and began to write to amuse and entertain white people…” (BS 226). At
rent parties, however, the specularization was not an impediment. People went to
see and be seen, but they were neither seeing nor being seen by “strangers.”
Then it was that house-rent parties began to flourish—and not always to
raise the rent either. But, as often as not, to have a get-together of one’s
own, where you could do the black-bottom with no stranger behind you
trying to do it, too. (BS 229)
House-rent parties flourished at the same time whites were flooding the cabaret
scene. According to Hughes, these parties remained playful even to the extent that,
contrary to their own initial purpose, they were for their own sake. Sites of leisure
rather than work, many of the musicians who went from playing—which is to say
“working”—earlier in the evening, were now producing music “to amuse
themselves.” Even the dancer, who was formerly relegated to a type of work in the
night club—because s/he was performing for a white audience—is now able to
dance without the stranger trying to “extract” anything from the labor of her
gestures. They become the free gestures of play. The back of the book jacket was
right that Hughes often wrote about blacks with working-class incomes, but his
museum did not fix them on the shelves, locked behind their glass:
I wrote lots of poems about rent parties, and ate thereat many a fried fish
and pig’s foot—with liquid
refreshments on the side. I met
ladies’ maids and truck drivers,
laundry workers, and shoe shine
boys, seamstresses and porters. I
can still hear their laughter in my
ears, hear the soft slow music, and
feel the floor shaking as the
dancers danced. (BS 233)
Figure xvi
Liquid refreshments? Is there any other kind? one might ask. But even the
foundations were fluid, shaken by dancing feet, the laughter a constant rupture
and reminder of the play sphere. The “museum of types” representing the
primitive is impossible to describe. Not only is access barred, it is in play, so to
speak. Hurston biographer Valerie Boyd describes these rent parties as “raucous,”
explaining that they “were most often held on Saturday and Thursday nights, when
domestics—or ‘kitchen mechanics,’ in Harlemese—usually had the evening off”
(94). Unlike Hughes, she sees them as an “economic necessity,” and her logic is
convincing (94). That blacks paid more than whites for their apartments is a wellestablished fact, and it is hard to deny that “rent parties… helped to keep many
Harlemites afloat” (Boyd 95). Indeed, Zora Neale Hurston’s famous rent party of
1926—which was actually a furniture party—was not without purpose, although
she didn’t receive all the necessaries that night. As in the other rent parties,
Hurston provided food, hers being fried chicken (Boyd 120). Boyd’s research does
match Hughes’s with respect to the labor/leisure problem facing the “jazz-boys” of
the city’s night clubs. As she notes, “At the liveliest rent parties, professional
musicians—even big names like Fats Waller and Duke Ellington—would show up
after their paid gig and, through their inspired playing, incite a black bottom
contest or a Charleston frenzy” (95). Their play there was different from paid gigs;
Boyd uses the word “inspired.” 70 To again mention the transatlantic movement of
In some ways, Zora Neale Hurston’s apartment was one long rent party. Carolyne Rich Williams
describes Zora’s Harlem apartment as always having “a motley group of Columbia students,
creative people, song writers, authors, music arrangers and high spirited people” and they would
“sing together, laugh and talk and tell tall tales. They would play drums and sing old spirituals and
African-American modernism, J.A. Rogers noticed the same trend as Hughes, but in
Montmârtre. He would publish these thoughts in Alain Locke’s The New Negro.
In a little cabaret of Montmârtre they had just “entertained” into the wee
small hours fascinated society and royalty; and, of course, had been paid
royally for it. Then, the entertainment over and the guests away, the
“entertainers” entertained themselves with their very best, which is
always impromptu, for the sheer joy of it. That is jazz.” (217)
As with play poiesis, jazz is ideally performed without specularization. Of course,
work always seeps into the play sphere. I like the placement of Rogers’s “That is
jazz,” because it’s separated from both jazz for work and jazz for the “sheer joy of
it.” The statement is next to “joy,” but the specter of jazz for work is still active as
an antecedent. We must admit that jazz is work, too. And Hurston could be found
at the rent parties too, partying it up. And working. The thing with identity and
artistry is that you’re always already doing both.
I got a job now
Runnin’ an elevator
In the Dennison Hotel in Jersey,
Zora would have a harmonica” (qtd. in Hemenway 60). Williams repeats the root “spirit” twice in
her reminiscence, and not by surprise given Hurston’s unique attraction to the play spirit, or play
mood. Johan Huizinga describes the play sphere as dominated by this mood, “The play mood is one
of rapture and enthusiasm” (132). So it was that Hurston made her home into a sort of play sphere.
And yet, the walls of the sphere did not remain entrenched in this mood; even our assertion that
poiesis belongs properly to the “play element” is not without its own porosity. Hurston still
believed in work. As Hemenway writes, “Zora was the central figure, unless she had some work to
do. Then, she would retire to the bedroom and amaze everyone by working with great
concentration despite the noise in the next room” (61). See chapter two of the present study for
more on Hurston and play.
Job aint no good though
No money around.
Jobs are just chances
Like everything else.
Maybe a little luck now,
Maybe not.
Maybe a good job sometimes:
Step out o’ the barrel, boy.
Two new suits an’
A woman to sleep with.
Maybe no luck for a long time.
Only the elevators
Goin’ up an’ down
Up an’ down,
Or somebody else’s shoes
To shine,
Or greasy pots in a dirty kitchen.
I been runnin’ this
Elevator too long.
Guess I’ll quit now.
(Fire!! 20)
Langston Hughes’s “Elevator Boy,” who quit running his elevator in Fire!! and The
Weary Blues, goes from having a job at the beginning of the poem to leaving that
job at the end. The blank page that follows—and the subsequent wavy lines that
will through it into sinuous play with the rest of the poetry in Fire!! Like a dance
that gets old, like play whose up and down motion grows tiresome, makes one
weary, the work of the poem is not fundamentally different. Time to move on. The
play of it is no different. Time to move on. The poem performs it. Ostensibly a
poem about work, in between its typographic up/down, vertical structure, the
poem plays. The speaker mentions somebody else’s shoes, proud synecdoche of
the dance, and then enjambs, drawing the pants up the leg to expose the
hierarchical Shine: the speaker at work on the shoes. It oscillates like chance,
maybe this and maybe that, highlighting the aleatory element within the work
itself. Fabulously, the speaker posits work as a voluntary activity with this aleatory
element, choosing in the beginning of the poem to get a job and in the end, “guess
I’ll quit now.” The play on guess,” clearly a colloquial shortcut for “I guess,” is also a
spinning of the wheel of fortune as the poem ends. There is no certainty in this
reluctant change, and the play element is all the more activated as a result.
“Closing Time” works inversely, making a clear departure from the play
mood. Here, the play sphere closes, rather than opening the blank page of
possibility that awaits the “Elevator Boy.” The closing is not just the nightly closing
of the club, but also the unnamed “little drowned girl” that closes (in) the poem
itself. It begins by performing its own beginning:
Her face is pale
In the doorway light.
Her lips blood red
And her skin blue white.
I’m tired.
Deep… River…
O, God, please!
The river and the moon hold memories.
Comets play.
Dancers whirl.
Death, be kind.
What was the cover charge, kid?
To a little drowned girl. (CW 85)
What Vogel finds of the girl in the doorway to be the “threshold (both literal—the
doorway—and temporal, as the title suggests) between the cabaret and the night,”
I see as also an aporia in the play sphere, written on many levels. The poem is
about osmosis, and death, ironized by the term “starter” that begins the poem.
From his own life, Hughes realized that every adventure was a death of a fixed
identity in a starting place. This is one fascinating reason that these Harlem poems,
poems that suggest movement out of its own places, poems that suggest a closing
down, were written from the Atlantic Ocean and Washington D.C., from Paris to
Mexico. These images belie fixity, each foreclosure representing a shot, a snap, as
each cabaret is photographed before, or during, a closing. The poem’s opening is
self-referent, but it also darts in sever(ed)al directions. This could be the phatic
“Starter!” signaling that this girl is leaving the cabaret. She is, after all, in the
doorway. Yet, even if “Starter!” doesn’t refer to her, if it is an overheard fragment
about another leaving, it seems to call her by another name, for the word also
means “one given to wandering; one that cannot abide long in one spot”
(“Starter”). This latter is freighted with the girl’s leaving what is presumably an
urban cabaret and heading into woods, where she would have a clear view of the
moon and, presumably, either the Hudson River or the Harlem River. The poem
plays in and out of the space, as it works in and out of her subjectivity. Yet, there
are times when it is painfully unclear which side a given utterance is on. The “I’m
tired,” for instance, is a disembodied voice. Is it the speaker? It is the biographical
Hughes, who was also “tired” of/when witnessing the U.S.S. Malone gang-rape? Or,
is it the “excuse” of the girl for leaving the club? “Cover charge” could also be the
cost of her holding it together, repressing her emotions, covering them up and
taking them with her. Unlike Isis, whose retreat “to the woods” in “Drenched in
Light” is for a mythical suicide, this girl is headed away from the play sphere, and
perhaps for a real one. The “Taxi!” with its (big ole) honking exclamation feels like
a warning—or panic—on the part of the speaker by poem’s close. “Cover charge” is
literally the cost of entering this adult play sphere, and here the question is turned
around, as if to say, “What’s the charge?” This playground, the cabaret, is adults
only. The blood red lips could be a girl in woman’s lipstick, but a darker reading
suggests the girl has been raped. The “cover charge” of being an adult, the pale face
of fear, the play, whirl, the death. She may also be, like so many other women in
these cabaret poems, racially mixed, for her face described as “pale” and her skin
“blue white.”
The lighter version of this poem, it would seem, is “To a Black Dancer in
‘The Little Savoy,’” from The Weary Blues. The (little) Savoy refers, of course, to a
well-known cabaret in Harlem. Here, Hughes indulges in a quasi-blason of a “winemaiden,” this time describing her lips as “sweet as purple dew” (CW 30). After
describing her breasts, he continues with the wine theme, saying that “grapes of
joy” have “dripped their juice” (CW 30) on her. From where (or from whom) did
this come? Possibly from her passing from maidenhood into womanhood through
entering this adult play sphere. The black dancer is not on the threshold, but the
poem is all a single question, an apostrophe to her. If the poem is a performance of
the play sphere, of a certain carefree leisure, one word is doing a bit more labor
than the others, when he asks her, and now I quote the final four lines:
Who crushed
The grapes of joy
And dripped their juice
On you? (CW 30)
The sense that lemons have to be squeezed to make this lemonade is troubling, and
the question mark lingers, the only non-enjambment-based punctuation in the
poem. Although the poem seems lighter than “Closing Time,” the maiden in the
beginning of the poem seems to have paid the same “cover charge.” She may not
realize that until the taxis honk their horns (!) Interestingly, exclamation in “Blues
Fantasy” is associated with the laugh, a regenerative rupture that “cures” the blues,
though there is an uneasy tension with the title. As the fantasy that laughing it off
is indulged, wandering ensues. Here, as elsewhere, Hughes links laughter with
“coping with” adventure, and the poem performs as a salve for its wandering
speaker. As we wander here, we wonder whether “when I get on the train” the
speaker will be able to “cast my blues aside” (CW 32). As for Langston Hughes, he
was able to get on the train time and again, exploring and performing folk play
spheres. While Frank O’Hara’s performances are different in many respects, he too
does it all with a bang. We jump across the tracks to address his exclamatory
relationship to the play element in the next chapter.
“Kenneth! Kennebunkport!”: Exclamatory Play in Frank O’Hara
You’ll recall Frank going through his manuscripts at Joan’s. How bleak and unrewarding he finds the
chore! He wrote the damn poems—isn’t that enough? --Joe LeSueur (273) [Stay consistent about how
you are going to cite these, whether footnotes or parentheticals]
In a capitalist country fun is everything. –Frank O’Hara (AC 5)
Frank O’Hara shuffles down the steps from his flat, walks among the skyscrapers
that dot the skyline like exclamation points. He skims the streets, sees the hardhatted men working, hears the taxis tamp their ceaseless honks, buys some
cigarettes at a newsstand. His lighter like an exclamation point, fire at its lips,
blazes one up. With its ash and fire point, it exclaims out, leaving its trail of smoke.
To a show, to the movies, to work, down to the subway, up from the subway. Ever
in motion and at play, he would see something, know somebody. The exclamation
point parking meter snapping red as a... Wait! He catches some scrap of poetry.
That line should make it into something! He scampers back up the stairs, to the
typewriter, or to the telephone, whichever rings first.
For O’Hara, play was punctuated, exclaimed. His spontaneous overflows, as
e(motional) as em(phatic), reflected changes in direction, and were typographic
performances in their own right. Like Zora Neale Hurston’s, O’Hara’s playful
performances were as lived as written, and their theatrics are remembered in
poetic “autobiography” and the memoirs of others. O’Hara was a poet of the city,
and his poetics of exclamatory play merge the graphic onto the geographic,
providing a snapshot of how structures of the city, how its advertisements, its light
and electricity, map onto the exclamation point itself. These structures are physical
reproductions of the exclamation as emoticon, but they also illuminate the site
where he wrote his poems, where he bought the newspaper, where he took the
bus, where he went cruising. The poems’ speed, their quickness, and their
exclamation, I would assert, place them in the heart of 1950s New York City. Critics
have long pointed out that O’Hara is a poet of place by crowning him and his
coterie “The New York School,” in many ways an appropriate appellation for an
exclamatory poet of everyday city life. Here, however, I explore several poems set
outside the city. It was not uncommon for O’Hara to take as his poetic scenery
places like Kennebunkport or Onset, Massachusetts, or indeed to transform an
urban locale into a rural one, as in his exclamatory—and hilarious—“The Lay of
the Romance of the Associations.” In looking at the “coterie” that forms the core
the New York School, we find that they do not all use this form of punctuation.
Kenneth Koch: certainly; James Schuyler: every once in a while; John Ashbery:
almost never. Although exclamatory play is not an attitude or performance that
these poets share, it is likely the most productive way of exploring the relationship
between Koch and O’Hara. Critics have recently found it more productive to
contrast these poets than to demonstrate a uniform poetics, and with good reason.
Nor does O’Hara’s poetics of exclamation map onto the “manifesto” poetics of
modernists such as F.T. Marinetti. Somewhat paradoxically, especially given his
constant movement, O’Hara’s use of the exclamation point captures the very
materiality of the mark as a signifier, often a phallic signifier. The “wonder”
indicated by his exclamation point is a response to Nature and the sublime, an
overwhelmed reaction shared by some poets of exclamatory
Romanticism. 71
theatrical use, campy and fun, reminds us of the stage, especially the antics of the
Restoration period. And yet, behind these theatrics is an intensely confessional
poet, one who uses the mark to disclose strong personal feelings and experiences.
O’Hara wrote about his own life, so closely, in fact, that Joe LeSueur admits of his
Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara that he “couldn’t have pieced together
this memoir without Frank’s poems before [him]” (xxii). I suggest, furthermore,
that what Lytle Shaw observed as O’Hara’s desire to reach a community beyond his
coterie is deeply connected to the poetics of play. Indeed, O’Hara is not merely the
city poet pounding the keys of his typewriter, begging for attention. He’s much
harder to pin down than that!
Figure xvii
Here, I am emphasizing a link to exclamatory Romanticism, which admittedly involves a
reductive view of this complicated body of work.
Ross Chambers, in his aforementioned Loiterature, begins a series of
prefaces with none other than Frank O’Hara, whose loitering around Ann Arbor
streets coincides, or intersects, with Chambers’s own performance of scholarly
loiterature.72 Our understanding of play as movement, and indeed its etymological
relationship to movement, is enriched by the concept of loitering. As Chambers
writes, “It may seem paradoxical that a literature of hanging out does not, and
can’t, stand still. But its art lies not in not moving but in moving without going
anywhere in particular, and indeed in moving without knowing—or maybe
pretending not to know—where it’s going” (10). This poetics of the flâneur has
become a thriving discourse—if not in so many words—in child development and
play therapy. Rather than seeing children’s play as superfluous to their
development, psychologists now view their exploration in more positive terms.73
The late-modernist John Matthias expresses his own playful poetics like this in an
interview with Joe Francis Doerr:
I almost always, in a long poem, use the act of writing as an act of
exploration. I seldom know where I’m going, and sometimes don’t know
where I am. One is always told in writing workshops, ‘write about what you
know.’ That can be good advice. But it’s sometimes also interesting to ‘write
about what you don’t know,’ using the poem as the very means of discovery.
See introduction.
See introduction.
Writers like Matthias, who consider themselves late-modernists and who
demonstrate the influence of French surrealism’s experiments and games, find
direction by indirection. It reminds one of E.M. Forster’s clever quip from Aspects
of the Novel: “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” (101).
Figure xviii
Robert Rauschenberg’s highly punctuated triptych, “Trophy II (for Teeny
and Marcel Duchamp)” is a relevant example of the exclamation point as emoticon,
as well as a reminder of Frank O’Hara’s close link to abstract expressionism. 74
Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollack, and Willem de Kooning are just a few of the
Many critics have shown interest in O’Hara’s ties to abstract expressionism. Marjorie Perloff’s
seminal work, “Frank O’Hara: A Poet Among Painters” (1977) is the first book-length study.
painters that O’Hara both wrote about and in some ways emulated. The piece’s
letters, bold patches of paint, and mixed media create material, exclamatory
gestures. Yet, what is particularly interesting is the way in which the piece actually
creates the figure of the exclamation point, allowing it to serve many of the same
functions that it serves in O’Hara’s poems. Aside from the discernable exclamation
point in the center panel, the reflective panel—a readymade dedicated to and after
the models of Marcel Duchamp—allows for the viewer to see her body and head,
which together form a sort of exclamation point. As with many of O’Hara’s poems,
the viewer is being drawn in to participate in the emotion, as when one begins an
exclamation with “Lo!” for it is a call to behold something, to share in its wonder.
The exclamation point in the center panel is roughly at the level of the head of the
average adult viewer. It is possible that it indicates another mirror, especially
given that it is the exclamation point most similar to the one seen in print. It should
be noted that, given the triptych structure’s relationship to medieval religious art,
the center panel is meant to depict the person of Jesus. If this is so, the abject red
marks in the center panel map on fairly closely with where Jesus would have bled
at the crucifixion, making the exclamation point on his face a response to that
painful and disappointing situation (!). Though O’Hara did not place the
exclamation point alone in his poems, they were often gut responses to his
experience, thinly veiled—if at all—emotions that he emphasized through the
mark. Rauschenberg’s piece would suggest an interesting read on Jesus’s emotions
upon being crucified... simply “!” The necktie depicting a baseball game, along with
the gold soup can lid (the everyday “trophy” of the title?) suggests another
exclamation point. O’Hara’s use of the punctuation, and the spirit, has much the
same “opening” influence as the Rauschenberg piece. The (!) on the face belies the
complexity underneath.
The Oxford English Dictionary provides a useful definition of “exclamation,”
which begins: “1. The action of exclaiming or crying out; the loud articulate
expression of pain, anger, surprise, etc.; clamour, vociferation. Also, an instance of
this, an outcry; an emphatic or vehement speech or sentence.” The exclamation
point has become, in usage, a mark of emphasis, one that tends to represent force,
or, more generally, a heightening of the sentiment expressed by the words that it
modifies. It is one of only three types of end punctuation, along with the period and
the question mark. Lefèvre d’Etaples adds the exclamation mark (punctus
admirativus aut exclamativus) to his 1529 book, Grammatografia, the first work of
its type to mention the existence of the mark (Graham-White 28). Elsewhere,
d’Etaples confirmed that the mark had been invented by Coluccio Salutati in the
fourteenth century (Graham-White 31). I find it interesting that another early
grammar, John Hart’s 1569, Orthographie, noted what the Spanish language found
logical: “for the marke of the interrogative and admirative, I would think it more
reasonable to use them before then after, because their tunes doe differ from our
other manner of pronunciation at the beginning of the sentence” (qtd. in GrahamWhite 32). That said, Frank O’Hara’s exclamations, due to their tendency to reflect
an intensely felt sentiment, are often short enough that the end punctuation is
noticed by the reader at the outset of their reading of that particular sentence. In
other cases, O’Hara exploits the exclamation point’s ability to change the way a
sentence is read through poetry’s versified structure. For instance, he opens his
poem, “June 2, 1958” with, “Oh sky over the graveyard, you are blue,/ you seem to
be smiling!” (CP 301). The second line completely subverts the sentiment of the
first, keeping the reader off-balance.
Although the exclamation point “remained uncommon in the sixteenth
century,” Anthony Graham-White notes that this is often because other marks of
punctuation did its grammatical work (32). In theater, the question mark and the
semicolon were often meant to signify exclamation, and the question mark
continued to serve this purpose in the seventeenth century (Graham-White 32). To
be sure, the lack of exclamation points during the seventeenth century was not due
to lack of pragmatic value for them, but rather to limited room in printer’s type
(Graham-White 33). Graham-White’s study of punctuation in theater has
interesting applications to Frank O’Hara’s theatrical use of the exclamation point,
in particular, which will be explored shortly. To begin with, however, I will note
that O’Hara demonstrates the importance of the exclamation point’s vertical shape
as a sort of ascendance, a heightening, if you will, of the emotion, whether positive
or negative. In his well-known poem, “Sleeping on the Wing,” he introduces the late
seventeenth century dramatic history Graham-White refers to, as well as that of
the early eighteenth, as he writes:
Perhaps it is to avoid some great sadness
as in a Restoration tragedy the hero cries ‘Sleep!
O for a long sound sleep and so forget it!’
that one flies, soaring above the shoreless city,
veering upward from the pavement as a pigeon
does when a car honks or a door slams, the door
of dreams, life perpetuated in parti-colored loves
and beautiful lies all in different languages. (ME 44)
O’Hara ventriloquizes the (Restoration) tragic hero as an (exclamation) point of
reference for his own emotions. In this case, the speaker suggests that the
exclamatory apostrophe to sleep—or at least the expression of a strong desire for
sleep—will lead to an ascendance. The upward motion is even more pronounced
given its opposition to the supine position required by sleeping. In describing all of
O’Hara’s poems, but focusing on this one in particular, Kenneth Koch writes, “His
poems don’t give profound explanations for the way life is—they give a feeling of
what it’s like to be alive” (249). It is interesting that O’Hara’s “Restoration tragedy”
quotation reflects the sentiments of Prince Hamlet’s melancholy, rather than the
tragedies that would follow; in fact, during this time (1660-1730), the most
successful plays on the English stage were the Shakespearean tragedies of
yesteryear. The Restoration period is better known for its comedies than its
tragedies. With the exception of Dryden, there is not much critically-acclaimed
drama at all, and much of that was parodied for its melodrama (e.g. Henry
Fielding). But, it is not surprising that O’Hara would identify with such overacting.
His speakers often comport themselves like actors in Restoration drama, fainting
at the sight of a rose in bloom. “Sleeping on the Wing” is a poem about “feelings,”
but I would assert that, anthologized as it is, it is not one that ends up very
characteristic of O’Hara’s oeuvre. Though the poem likely does describe the feeling
of wanting to escape the world—a suicidal sentiment that Brad Gooch picks up on
in his biography City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara—David Lehman and
O’Hara’s close friends insist that he wasn’t suicidal; as Joe LeSueur wrote, “[Frank
O’Hara] was not a miserable Hart Crane or Delmore Schwartz figure. He celebrated
life constantly. He was fun to be with right up to the end” (qtd. in Lehman 172).
Unlike much of O’Hara’s work, “Sleeping on the Wing” is not in the first person, and
seems more inclined to speak on behalf of the human race, as the speaker suggests
that “to avoid some great sadness [...] one flies.” The poem is not about everyday
experiences but focuses on the (every?)night experience of dreaming. It’s a poem
about getting away from the world, whereas most of his work is about embracing
it. In fact, what causes the upward flight of the pigeon is the everyday stuff that
O’Hara tends to praise, as when “a car honks or a door slams,” things he would
hear constantly throughout the day in New York City. That said, the poem still
reveals O’Hara’s penchant for the theatrical use of the exclamation point.
Elsewhere in the poem, he gets himself worked into a “state”:
Once you are helpless, you are free, can you believe
that? Never to waken to the sad struggle of a face?
to travel always over some impersonal vastness,
to be out of, forever, neither in nor for! (ME 44)
The movement in these four lines is from a direct question to the reader/spectator,
but a nearly rhetorical one whose design is, like so much of O’Hara’s life and work,
to relate to the experience of another, to draw their experiences into his own.
Then, he seems to become increasingly worked up, increasingly emphatic as a
series develops. Helplessness and freedom are one in the dreaming sleeper, but so
is fear. As the fear creeps further in, he realizes that the flying state removes the
individual from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but it also harrows
him with fear and wonder! Speaking of wonder, the exclamation point used to be
referred to as a “note of admiration,” which one can extract from d’Etaples’s
punctus admirativus. The Oxford English Dictionary defines this as the “mark (!)
affixed to words, phrases, or sentences, intended to be uttered with an intonation
of exclamation or surprise.” 75 “Admiration” referred to the acts of wondering or
marveling, and it is impossible to divorce this notion from the artist’s relationship
to the sublime. “In the 18th and 19th centuries, the sublime came increasingly to be
a term of aesthetic approbation, as attested by the interest in both sublime
landscapes and paintings of sublime landscape” (“Sublime” 1231). It is from this
tradition that the Romantic usage emerged, and it was most commonly applied
through the apostrophe to Nature, typically emotion. This is, perhaps, why poetry
tyros define poetry as “the expression of emotions,” or something similar.
One of the most common discursive sites for exclamation points today is the
email, which Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home (perhaps using
the word “essential” a bit loosely) notes is a “lazy but effective way to combat
email’s essential lack of tone” (again loose with “essential”) (Shipley and Schwalbe
135). Indeed, O’Hara’s tone is often manipulated through use of the exclamation
point, though he seldom retains that tone throughout a poem, even in a short lyric.
An interesting aside is that the definition implies a spoken rather than written usage of the note
of admiration. Considering that O’Hara felt that saying a poem into the telephone was as suitable a
performance as the written one, this doesn’t seem so unusual.
He begins his “Autobiographia Literaria,” a playful spoof on Coleridge—one of his
many allusions to Romanticism—“When I was a child/ I played by myself in a/
corner of the schoolyard/ all alone” (CP 11). We suspect mischief in his tone,
making us wonder whether he is masturbating; after all, he mentions being alone
twice. Still, at this point in the poem his tone seems to be in step with the narrative,
an “autobiographia” of sorts. Of course, this is not destined to be a portrait of the
artist, for the lyric form is in conflict with the more drawn-out narrative template.
Sure enough, the tone does switch in stanza four as he launches a series of
exclamations: “And here I am/ the center of all beauty!/ writing these poems!/
Imagine!” (CP 11). He is like a child jumping out of the closet while his parents are
having sex. The exclamation points are a coming out party, for he goes from
describing his past to proclaiming himself as the poet at work, announcing his
presence through the exclamation point. Of course, the shift in tone makes the
poem. As our “essential” guides suggest is the case with emails, O’Hara’s
exclamation points often create warmth; “Exclamation points can instantly infuse
electronic communication with human warmth. ‘Thanks!!!!’ is way friendlier than
‘Thanks’” (Shipley and Schwalbe 135). O’Hara does not require multiple
exclamation points to convey “extra” emotion in part because poetry is not
“without affect” (Shipley and Schwalbe 135). I would assert that email is closely
associated with the “work-place” and therefore obeys its rules of formality. 76 When
personal, playful discourse interrupts the normal, everyday operation of that
Of course, as is implied by prior chapters, these spaces are never entirely “work” or “play”
spheres, but instead are always somewhere along a spectrum.
space, in order not to be confused with the “work-tone” it must distinguish itself in
a strong, emphatic way. Thus, the punctuation mark acts as a disruption—can we
not see even in the physical form of the mark the line it draws in the sand, the
dagger it places in the heart of the monarch? It breaks the rules of formal
discourse. Brody’s tease in her Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play, “go Truss
yourself should you wish to be bound by convention!” is a performance of this
assassination in academic discourse, as she really sticks it in with her own “!” 77
O’Hara, admittedly influenced by James Joyce’s Ulysses, experimented early on with
punctuation in “Lament and Chastisement,” at times leaving it out entirely as Joyce
did in the Molly Bloom chapter. Much like Molly’s character, O’Hara was emotive,
expressive, sexual, and willing to discuss anything. Importantly, he was also willing
to abandon convention. Even in making a point about not using exclamation
points, the aforementioned Lynne Truss uses one as an attention-grabber on the
cover of her punctuation guide (although she insists within the pages that it is
“hopelessly heavy-handed” (138)). A red one, no less. Could this hegemony be
more obnoxiously hypocritical? Truss herself is rather performative, and clearly
excessive, in declaring hers the “zero tolerance approach to punctuation.” Please,
oh sovereign one! Show us when it is appropriate to use an exclamation point! This
is an academic paper! Am I getting too worked up!? Am I an “unpractised” writer,
as you insinuate on page 139?78
Brody’s gesture is also discussed in the introduction.
Truss is quoting H.W. Fowler’s 742 page tome, Dictionary of Modern English Usage in this quote.
Why Truss quotes a book from 1908 to prove her point is really beyond me. Maybe she is padding
the credentials of her hegemony.
The tone-switch in “Autobiographia Literaria” is a frequent play in O’Hara.
Comparable to the volta in a Petrarchan sonnet, O’Hara’s not only energizes or
renews the charge of what’s come before, but also it is itself overcome, itself
electrocuted. From Poems Retrieved, the “Poem” (“Poised and cheerful the”) is cold
and gone when O’Hara jumpstarts it:
empty forever
fading into wider sky
leaves are all below
him wires farther from
each other our antennae
no longer conduct him
cold and gone
oh squirrel
why didn’t you tell us
you knew how to get there! (PR 10)
Here, O’Hara plays on “conduct.” Amazingly, the squirrel is sexualized—another
instance of this trope entering natural discourse—when he is able to “get there!”
Again, that this volta comes at the climax, accompanied by its material signifier,
makes such a reading more relevant. O’Hara conveys this shock that ultimately
“our antennae” could no longer conduct the squirrel. “We” couldn’t lead him, for he
had climbed so high. We also couldn’t conduct him from our wires. Still, the
squirrel manages to do it (all by) himself. Imagine!
It was the poet’s “duty to be attentive” (Perloff 20). As anyone with ADHD
will tell you, the present is the moment for writing things down. You never know
what’s going to happen to that idea, that
observation. You do know that this is
your last chance at it, whatever it was.
My reading doesn’t depend on my
speculation that O’Hara is a fellow
traveler on the ADHD road—though this
couldn’t seriously be a contested
diagnosis—but, I can certainly relate to
inscribing anything and everything of
note. O’Hara didn’t just know how to
write; he knew when to write.
Perloff’s reading of “Why I Am Not a
Painter,” now more than three decades
Figure xix
old, remains an astute observation of
O’Hara’s poetics, “Art does not tolerate divisions; it must be viewed as process, not
product” (112). John Ashbery confirms this view in general, saying, “O’Hara
demonstrates that the act of creation and the finished creation are the same” (qtd.
in Ferguson 27).
The Chambers Guide to Punctuation commands: “[…] In formal writing, do
not use an exclamation mark as a means of emphasizing the point you are trying to
make, as in ‘We recommend that you proceed with extreme caution!’” (10). It is
interesting that this example is chosen, for the exclamation point here does seem
to be helpful, and yet the force of convention is stronger. (Also, why would this
sentence be in a piece of formal writing?!) Here, it is as if the exclamation point
exposes itself, and reveals that it is too excited—both through its material, phallic
form, as well as through its signification of emotional concern for the reader. In
poetry, the rule books would prefer that the exclamation point be placed on its
side, and therefore robbed of agency and (pro)creative power, for on its side it
resembles the prosodic mark of an iambic foot, the “appropriate” meter for poetry.
The exclamation point is an insomniac who cannot stand the supine position, who
feels called into the street at 2 a.m. Paula Rabinowitz, in a piece on the colon in
James Agee, refers to the Oxford English Dictionary for her title, finding “1616
Bullokar, Colon, ‘A marke of a sentence not fully ended with is made with two
prickes” (qtd. on 22).79 It might be said, then, that if the colon is made with two
prickes, the exclamation point is made with one pricke that got a bit too excited!
Nor is it out of the question to infer that Frank O’Hara was aware that his
exclamation points were erect phallic symbols, and that his use of them both
exposed him sexually as well as, more generally, emotionally. In his poem,
“Blocks,” O’Hara might well be playing with the materiality of the exclamation
point as signifier. “Vivo! the dextrose /those children consumed, lavished, smoked,
in their knobby/ candy bars. Such pimples! such hardons! such moody loves./ And
thus they grew like giggling fir trees” (ME 8). Vivo, in the midst of this phallic
This article is forthcoming this summer, so I do not yet know which page it will be on.
forest, reminds us of the overexcited exclamation point, as its discharge contains
the seed of life. Though this would appear to be a stretch, there is an oral
consumption of this sugary substance. They “lavish” the bars and they “smoke”
them. The bars are “knobby.” Would O’Hara imagine these “children” (“ninth
graders”(ME 7)) performing fellatio? It’s possible. Remember, this poet announced
that he “suck[ed] off / every
man in the Manhattan Storage
& / Warehouse Co,” though
this was probably not true
(qtd. in Heep 83). The pimple
seems to take the dot and the
hardon the shaft of the
exclamation point in these
lines. Interesting, too, that he
mentions moodiness, relevant
to the obvious reading of the
exclamation point as a
heightened representation of
Figure xx
an emotional state. These
exclamation points are “moody loves” in themselves, taking on whatever emotion
is asked of them. The issue of fellatio that emerges in his poems “A Step Away from
Them” and “Une Journée de Juillet”—both of which mention the Manhattan
Storage & Warehouse Company—brings out an important shade of the term
“ejaculation,” which is, of course, not only a short, exclamatory utterance, but also
the discharge of an orgasm. “Poem in the Attic” overtly references masturbatory
climax, as O’Hara writes:
The most ancient of boards creaks
beneath Frank’s mammoth back
and lava burst o’er the flesh! That
childishly thrusts for lost Pompeii (qtd. in Gooch 50)
The painterly O’Hara would have also noticed that the final two i’s of the quoted
portion invert the typography of the exclamation point. Indeed, O’Hara was more
than willing to talk and write about masturbation, and another instance of this is
his “Galanta,” also found in Gooch’s tell-all:
A strange den or music room
dream of Persian grass configured distilled
first hardon milky mess (50)
O’Hara associates masturbation in both these instances with childhood, with the
play of exploration and the excitement of first experiences.
Of course, O’Hara did not just keep these things to himself. The phallic
exclamation’s ability to produce an exclamation in the viewer was not merely part
of O’Hara’s work. It was part of his life. “He enjoyed the shock value of these
escapades when he confessed them drunkenly in public, especially in mixed
company” (Gooch 196). Indeed, if the above poems write about “going solo,” Lytle
Shaw’s Frank O’Hara: The Poetics of Coterie takes as its kernel a claim made in
1977 by Marjorie Perloff that “O’Hara was a coterie figure—adored by his New
York School friends and acolytes, especially by the painters whose work he
exhibited and wrote about” (qtd. in Shaw 3). Though this was a lament on Perloff’s
part, and Shaw echoes these sentiments, Shaw’s 2006 book explores the complex
poetics that have allowed O’Hara’s work, despite its inner-circle referentiality, to
move beyond this “coterie.” I agree with Shaw. Yes, the avid poetry reader may
pick up a poem such as O’Hara’s “On a Birthday of Kenneth’s” and may wonder
whether Kenneth Koch is a name she is supposed to remember from her, say,
modern American history class. Actually, if we take Joe LeSueur at his word,
O’Hara and Koch were hardly even friends, sharing only surface banter in their
“literary friendship” (257). But, whether they were close friends or merely part of
the same coterie, Shaw’s main point is that “any of us middle-class speaking
subjects has a friend like Kenneth” (Ward qtd. in Shaw 30). This last argument—
and it’s citation—is a point in case: Should the fact that this quote found in an
argument by Shaw but referring to something Ward wrote disqualify it because I
found it in Shaw?80 Does it matter that I don’t quote Ward in direct context?
Certainly, much can be gained by elaborating on the coterie context, but it is not
essential that we don’t know Kenneth, for he is a character in a poem and can be
read as such. In the first lines of the aforementioned poem, “Kenneth!
Kennebunkport!” the reader is immediately met by this coterie member, whom the
The text in escrow is Geoff Ward’s Statutes of Liberty: The New York School of Poets. New York:
Saint Martin’s Press, 1993.
initiated know to be Kenneth Koch. Still, the uninitiated reader can already infer
from the first few lines that this “Kenneth” is a friend of the speaker’s. The double
exclamation, along with the title, conveys the excitement of the occasion, and the
poem goes on to celebrate the life of this character known as “Kenneth”:
I see you standing there
assuaging everything with your smile
at the end of the world you are scratching your head wondering what is
that funny French word Roussel was so fond of? oh “dénouement”!
and it is good (CP 396)
The poem, another of O’Hara’s that takes place outside of the streets of New York
City, projects his “city” poetics of motion
once again onto rural scenery. Kenneth
“assuages” the apparently off-camera
activity, as Kennebunkport is supposed
to be a relaxing location for the getaway.
But O’Hara’s this-then-that style creates
the very drama that Kenneth assuages.
For everyone else the unnamed crisis is
“the end of world,” but for Kenneth Koch
it is merely part of a (theater) drama
Figure xxi
that he need not take too seriously, as he thinks of “dénouement,” in which a plot is
explained or resolved. There is a sense as well in which Kenneth strips the scene
down to its essentials, as dénouement, from the French verb denouer (to unknot),
also nearly contains the sound, “nue,” French for nude. 81 Kenneth is taking the
clothes off the emperor here and exposing that the situation is no big deal. Yet, true
to the characteristic back-and-forth nature of this poem, Kenneth not only
assuages but also incites:
you have simply the joyous line of your life like in a Miró
it tangles us in your laughter
no wonder I felt so lonely on Saturday when you didn’t give your annual
cocktail party!
I didn’t know why (CP 397)
Perhaps this is where O’Hara’s own dénouement—for this is the end of the poem—
pays off. Now that Kenneth has denuded the situation it is safe to mention the
cocktail, as we return to the phallic exclamation point. Once again, O’Hara poses
nude in his poem thanks to the inspiration of Kenneth Koch—must we pronounce
it “Coke”? After all, his muse for many of these poems is “excitement prone
Kenneth” (Lehman 203).
Joan Miró “liked to compare his visual art to poetry,” writes Stanley Meisler
in an article for the Smithsonian magazine called “For Miró, Poetry and Painting
Were the Same” (1). Miró himself said that he “make[s] no distinction between
painting and poetry” (qtd. in Meisler 1). It isn’t my contention that a distinction
A native French speaker would be able to tell the sounds apart, making them off-homonyms.
isn’t helpful, only that one isn’t always observed by O’Hara. The brushstroked
letters of abstract expressionists on O’Hara poems in the Bill Berkson edition of In
Memory of My Feelings, as well as O’Hara’s own vispo collaborations suggest a
more typographical argument about the relationship between O’Hara and painting.
In a letter to Frank O’Hara on January 15, 1954, James Schuyler painted us an
illustration of the difference, “What are you writing? What are Larry [Rivers] and
Fairfield [Porter] painting? What are you painting? What are they writing?” (2)
Schuyler’s lighthearted swap reveals an awareness of the liminality of these
respective play spheres at their intersection. In his collaborations with Larry
Rivers and Norman Bluhm, the painterly script is sprawled, textured, and the
drawings occasionally serve as framing devices providing a context for them to
play. Of course, as with the hallowed ruminations of Michel de Montaigne’s cat,
who’s to say that the words are not providing the context for the drawings to
In his “Apology for Raymond Sebond,” Michel de Montaigne quips, “When I play with my cat, who
knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” (331).
Figure xxii
“For O’Hara poetry had no meaning except in the context of a life fully lived,
just as living life fully for him meant always to be engaged with poetry and with
art” (Ferguson 16). This is the Frank O’Hara of the cinema and the theater, the
concert hall and the jazz club. Joe LeSueur sees in this engagement no special
difference from O’Hara at the typewriter:
But I think Frank’s attitude toward poetry, or toward life in general, was
merely consistent with the way he lived. As important as art was to him, it
was after all only part of life and not separate from it so that he had to shift
into high gear to get ready for an aesthetic experience. He was in high gear
all the time…” (xv)
Like Langston Hughes, O’Hara was drawn to the ever-moving sea, and his bestknown works have an “on the move” quality to it. Huizinga explains that, for play,
the “semantic starting-point [in the German language] seems to be the idea of
rapid movement” (32). In O’Hara’s early poetry workshops, he preferred to move
onto the next poem rather than rework old material. In fact, he was uninterested in
Professor John Ciardi’s reactions to his work (Gooch 120). Marjorie Perloff points
“Photographs, monuments, static memories—‘all things that don’t
change’—these have no place in the poet’s world. We can now understand
why O’Hara loves the motion picture, action painting, and all forms of
dance—art forms that capture the present rather than the past, the present
in all its chaotic splendor.” (21)
O’Hara, only partly joking, writes in his mock manifesto that “only [Walt] Whitman
and [Hart] Crane and [William Carlos] Williams, of the American poets, are better
than the movies” (CP 498). Rapid movement aside, and any other cinematic
qualities these writers share, they are all three highly playful. O’Hara’s poetics was
in always pushing forward, always more occupied with creating than with
producing an artifact. Even in conversations about art, O’Hara’s playful
“movement” stuck out. “O’Hara was notorious, in fact, for the rapidity with which
he could shift his position. He often preferred the vigorous cut and thrust of
argument itself to the conclusions drawn from it” (Ferguson 16). Not surprisingly,
he was fascinated by French surrealism and clearly influenced by it as well. Harold
Brodkey remembers the interest in Wallace Stevens that developed between John
Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, one markedly “downplaying [the importance of] T.S.
Eliot” (qtd. in Gooch 138). The gifted reader Helen Vendler, among others, has
developed affection for Stevens as part of an abstract and philosophical tradition,
but in Stevens one also finds playfully exclamatory expression with spontaneous
shifts. I see in O’Hara’s work a different aspect of Stevens, one more along the lines
of “Bantams in Pine Woods” and “The Palace of the Babies” than, say, “The Auroras
of Autumn.” I mention this for the reader that will identify in Stevens, the walker
and poet of imagination, the raw and inventive play that sings Harmonium.
For O’Hara, life involved the same games as his poetry. It was a play
identity, and perhaps the best example is related by William Weaver.
Once we were walking down Fifty-seventh Street […] There were all these
very grand antique shops, but small, each one with a window that would be
arranged as a little Louis Quinze salon or a Victorian fumoir. One night
Frank and I stopped and looked and a game began spontaneously where
this was our living room and we were inviting all our idols in. He would say,
‘Tab, how nice to see you,’ and I would say, ‘Sugar Ray, I’m so glad you could
come.’ We played the game the length of Fifty-seventh Street. This sort of
thing happened every time you were with him. (qtd. in Gooch 218)
As Gooch interprets it, “O’Hara used the cityscape constantly in his wishful need to
transmute life into game or art” (218). My slight amendment would be to say
O’Hara’s life was a game of art, or at least a play of art. This variety of play,
mimesis, was not exclusive to his life. It found its way into the drama of his
characters, particularly his speaker.
Figure xxiii
If O’Hara’s inner-circle references are not necessarily directed toward a
private coterie of “characters,” it is not inappropriate to elaborate on the ways in
which his playful use of the exclamation point creates ritual spaces, like those
discussed at length in Johan Huizinga’s early study of the play-element in culture.
Huizinga suggests that “men make poetry because they feel a need for social play”
(142). This is well-applied to O’Hara, who felt the value of poetry to be mostly
meaningless if not shared with friends. Nor did he distance his work from playing;
he called writing “playing the typewriter” (qtd. in Chiasson 82). Of course, there is
the sense in this phrase that O’Hara, trained as a pianist, was making music
through writing poetry; I would suggest that he was also homo ludens in those
moments of poetic creation. Huizinga goes on to say, “Poetry enjoys a vital function
and has full value in the playing of a community, and it loses both these to the
degree that social games lose their ritual or festive character” (142). For O’Hara,
poetry retained its “vital function and full value.” His creation of a more permanent
space retains the paradox of the play sphere’s essential porosity, for this occasional
poetry was meant for that very occasion, not future ones. John Gruen wrote, “When
Frank talked to you he made you feel everything you did was of vital importance
and interest—at least for the moment” (qtd. in Ferguson 18). With the stipulation
“at least for the moment,” the essence of the occasional poem—at least for
O’Hara—is announced. Predictably, O’Hara rarely returned to old work. He would
often read poems to friends the same day he wrote them.
Frank O’Hara’s exclamatory play signals the disruption of an “established”
order, whether that be the typographic rupture of each exclamation point or the
lived rupture of the conventional spaces he inhabited. That said, he does work, at
times, within what would normally be called “sanctioned” play spaces, such as
recognized “occasions.” The occasion presents a natural moment in which his lived
artistic process is appropriate. O’Hara was always living a playful life. The
occasions didn’t so much sanction it; he was doing it anyway. The occasions were a
context in which what the play meant could be understood. Still, as Susan
Rosenbaum points out, O’Hara’s act of rupturing bourgeois values (such as work
and productivity) is not without complicity. Yes, O’Hara was part of the crowd, part
of the work and play spaces where he walked. This is the “flâneur’s bind” (144).
O’Hara, who worked at MoMA (New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern
Art)—an institution based in playful creation and preservation—took these poetic
strolls during the lunch hour sanctioned by a “national temporal economy”
(Rosenbaum 150). She stresses, nonetheless, O’Hara’s ability to critique the
“strictures of the American work-place” (150). I think that O’Hara exclaims his way
into this critique, through the excess that moves him “out of the center.” In his
person as well as in his poetry, O’Hara is bigger than the space will allow.
In the poems, the exclamation point rings the bell for the party to begin,
even within the work space, where he was often giving to talking on the telephone
for hours. The exclamation point in O’Hara is at once subversive and festive.
O’Hara’s occasional poetry is an instance of his desire to celebrate, commemorate,
to strike up the dance. His poem on the occasion of Kenneth’s birthday is an
example. These occasional poems were indeed meant to be read at the “festival,”
which O’Hara loved to do, especially with friends. It is also well-known that O’Hara
liked to pose, clothed or not, to show off, to be a part, as it were, of the festivities.
This from Huizinga:
[I] distinguish three great varieties of poetry after the immortal Greek
models, namely the lyric, the epic, and the drama. Of these the lyric
remains closest to the play sphere they all started from. The lyric must
be understood here in a very wide sense, so as to include not only the lyrical
genre as such but all moods expressive of rapture. (142)
It is not surprising at all that O’Hara most often worked in the lyric. In many ways
this is precisely the way to describe O’Hara, as a poet of rapture. But, for O’Hara,
rapture and rupture end up being bound together. In “Personism: A Manifesto,” his
playful, oft-quoted piece, he explains:
I don’t believe in god, so I don’t have to make elaborately sounded
structures. I hate Vachel Lindsay, always have; I don’t even like rhythm,
assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you
down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout,
“Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.” (CP 498)
The first part of this is somewhat flirtatious, for though O’Hara’s poems were in a
different key they were certainly musical. The notion of going on one’s nerve
couldn’t be more apt. O’Hara’s feelings erupted at the spur of each running
moment. The energy of his work remains in the burst of feeling, regardless of how
wrought some poems would become. Ira Sadoff refers to critics being bamboozled
by O’Hara’s apparent “spontaneity,” which, he asserts, is a “strategic fiction” (49).
Still, regardless of how spontaneous his poeisis, O’Hara’s rapture translates into
rupture through its assault on expectation. Although much of his work rewards
structural analysis, the first hit is its energy. As when he writes it, the reader must
“try to avoid being logical” (CP 498).
In his earliest published poem, “How Roses Get Black,” O’Hara uses the
exclamation point in a different sort of “play,” this time a highly theatrical sense.
Here, it contrasts the period’s finality and dullness. Like “On Rachmaninoff’s
Birthday” and “June 2, 1958,” (discussed below), this poem zigzags in and out of
the exclamatory mode:
First you took Arthur’s porcelain
pony from the mantel and! dashed
it against the radiator! Oh it was
vile! we were listening to Sibelius.
The histrionics of the speaker survive print, first through his unusual (in his work,
at least) application of the exclamation in line two, pre-emptively marking his
shock through an unnatural placement of the exclamation. It recalls John Hart’s
comment that exclamations and question marks should precede what they will
modify, as if the speaker cannot wait to express to the reader how shocking this
was. The enjambment creates even more drama, for the reader can envision the
speaker, in his anger, thinking of le mot juste for this evil act. The presence of the
hard fact, “We were listening to Sibelius,” is made all the more final by the period’s
juxtaposition to the exclamation point and is an authenticating presence in the
poem. The poem meanders in and out of emotional response, expressing anger and
humor, as well as a more distanced reflection on the events. Reflection allows the
speaker to alternately plot the next step or remember the events as they happened.
The enjambment between “was/ Vile!”—separated as well by a new stanza—is a
liminal space for reflections, for calming down. From “Sibelius,” the poem reads:
And then with lighter fluid you wet
each pretty pink floored rose, tossed
your leonine head, set them on fire.
Laughing maniacally from the bathroom. Talk about burning bushes! I
who can cut with a word, was quite
amused. Upon reflection I am not.
Send me your head to soak in tallow!
You are no myth unless I choose to
speak. I breathed those ashes secretly.
Heroes alone destroy, as I destroy
you. Know now that I am the roses
and it is of them I choose to speak.
Though this poem has not received much critical attention, Brad Gooch does touch
on it in his biography, explaining that, “roses, especially roses damaged in a
rebellious and slightly guilt-tinged scenario, were evocations for O’Hara of his
father” (132). “How Roses Get Black” predates a similar incident in “Macaroni,” a
poem that relates a moment of child abuse inflicted on him by his father. Gooch
suggests that the drafting of “How Roses” is a crucial moment—and the poem a
crucial illustration of it—in which O’Hara develops his voice as a poet (132).
Significantly, O’Hara develops a poetics of reflection and exclamation in the same
moment, one built on the past as well as the present moment. He becomes the bold
poet, one who can “cut with a word” and in the same breath be “quite amused.”
One of O’Hara’s conflicts with his father was that the latter thought young Francis
“let emotions rule his mind,” which one can plainly see in O’Hara’s exclamatory
verse(Gooch 29).
Dan Chiasson observes that “[O’Hara’s] poems keep changing gears, revving
and slowing, caught between two values they prize equally, hurry and delay” (83).
When O’Hara begins one of his many poems on the occasion of Rachmaninoff’s
Birthday with “Quick! a last poem before I go/ off my rocker. Oh Rachmaninoff!,”
the exclamation is once again a way of “revving” the poem, infusing it with a sense
of urgency and signaling to the reader that it will be as brief as an exclamation (CP
159).83 What stands out right away, however, is that the poem is not merely
dashed off, but appears highly wrought; the first enjambment’s apokoinu allows for
the opening line to stand alone, while allowing “go” to act as a hinge, for the
thought continues into “off my rocker.” The tension here in the word “go” is
appropriate, for the poem which is supposed to be quick demands attention—and
not merely the kind of attention one gives an exclamation, which might be
In total, O’Hara wrote seven poems titled, “On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday” and many others in
which the composer is mentioned (Shaw 117).
momentary, but rather the sustained critical attention that is able to read into the
moment, even as it passes. Interesting too is that he’s “going off,” a possible third
reading that adds to our explanation of how exclamation is operating in the poem.
Is this “going off” a going off on a tangent or is there anger? The poem continues:
Onset, Massachusetts. Is it the fig-newton
playing the horn? Thundering windows
of hell, will your tubes ever break
into powder? Oh my palace of oranges,
junk shop, staples, umber, basalt;
I’m a child again when I was really
miserable, a grope pizzicato. My pocket
of rhinestone, yoyo, carpenter’s pencil,
amethyst, hypo, campaign button,
is the room full of smoke? Shit
on the soup, let it burn. So it’s back.
You’ll never be mentally sober.
Another enjambment hints at anger, as “Shit” alone at the end of the line creates
another exclamation that does not receive a point, because it wraps around into
the imperative. Of course, this is the critical moment in the poem in which the
speaker realizes that he’s not going anywhere—was it a bluff all along?—as
evinced by the soup that was on the stove, forgotten in the fury of dashing off this
poem. This strange cataloguing of the bricolage in his apartment and pocket looks
more like an attempt to remember, a reflection rather than, say, looking for one’s
keys on the way out the door. In fact, like many of O’Hara’s poems, it is deeply
confessional of his drinking problem, for as wrought and careful as the poem
appears, it is, truth be told, a poem about substance abuse. Note that “Onset,” the
name of the real town in Massachusetts that’s depicted in the scattered
synaesthesia of lines 3-7 is also the beginning of something, usually something
unpleasant. It foreshadows the burning soup and more importantly the confusion
of being drunk and upset and not fully in control.
The “Oh Rachmaninoff!” is an instance of O’Hara’s sense of wonder, which
was marked by the Romantic poets in particular as apostrophic gasps at Nature.
Whether these poets were bleeding on the thorns of life or transfixed by changing
leaves or sylvan wies, the wond(e)rous mark often follows “O” or “Oh.” Robert
Hass reports in his Time and Materials a conversation with Czeslaw Milosz in
which he provided the difference between “Oh!” and “O!” Milosz had sent a set of
poems called “Oh!” Hass asked him by email if he meant “Oh!” or “O!” Hass then
explained the difference, by phone, as follows: “I explained that ‘Oh!’ was a long
breath of wonder, that the equivalent was, possibly, ‘Wow!’ and that ‘O!’ was a
caught breath of wonder and surprise, more like ‘Huh’ and he said, after a pause,
“O! for sure” (38). I think the distinction is useful when applied to “Oh
Rachmaninoff!,” for O’Hara is expressing strong emotion and overwhelmed
inspiration, as well as wonder, as if to say, “Oh, Rachmaninoff, how do you do it?”
Indeed, Rachmaninoff’s music inspired many poems. The “long breath of wonder”
is another indication, as well, of the tension between “Quick!” emotions and more
reflective ones. When he later expresses admiration at Onset, “the palace of
oranges,” he has calmed down somewhat, and no longer employs the exclamation.
The poem also recalls the phrase “get my rocks off,” which the Urban Dictionary
defines as “To have an orgasm. The word ‘rocks’ can be compared to the testicles of
the male...” (“Get my rocks off”). The idea that the speaker is going to dash off a
poem quickly before masturbating is consistent with the observation that the
exclamation point is a phallic signifier for O’Hara. The opening of “Quick!” already
suggests the erection and the reader is reminded of it through the two marks that
follow. Though the poem doesn’t slow down per se, it is possible to read “Oh
Rachmaninoff,” a clever inversion of the words, as the moment when, literally, he
gets his rocks off.84
About this poem, Ira Sadoff notes that “every object transmutates. No thing
can be held on to or stabilized” (51). This is the play in the thing itself, its jeu.
Jacques Derrida identifies this kind of play, a slippage and deferral of meaning in
the signifier. For O’Hara, it is a destabilizing force, and its result is an excess, much
like the concept of the supplement. O’Hara’s emotional response must be
discharged; literally, it must lose its charge, which also means losing its “charge”
(read “control”). Like the squirrel, it is under its own control and darts from
meaning to meaning, becoming an abstraction. Unlike Sadoff, I would say that the
dramatization of the anxiety is a playful gesture, for O’Hara is able to look on the
chaotic events with a reluctant observation that he lacks sobriety. The lesson is
There is some critical controversy over how sexual Frank O’Hara was in his verse. I have
suggested one reading, a reading that is in line with Brad Gooch and those who stress interpreting
O’Hara’s poems in the context of his life. Even that, however, is disputed. For instance, his friends
differed on the extent to which sex and sexuality occupied O’Hara’s thoughts. “[Poet John] Ashbery
said he thought that sex was about Frank’s sixth favorite thing in life, and [his friend Lawrence]
Osgood said, ‘Well, fourth’ (qtd. in Lehman 175).
that no subject is safe from the play sphere. When he “let’s go” of, as Sadoff argues,
his “desire to control experience,” what I see is a planned rupture (51). O’Hara lets
the bomb tick and eerily celebrates the “onset” of a number of dramatic
circumstances. He indulges in their frenzy, just as the flashing lights and honking
horns of the city become the everyday drama of his life. Everything could be
subject to the play sphere, because his life was not (and this was intentional)
separable from it. O’Hara’s desire is played out here. He does get his rocks off by
going off his rocker.
Like the above version of “On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday,” O’Hara’s “June 2,
1958” has received very little critical attention. Earlier I noted that the placement
of the exclamation at the beginning of the poem puts the reader off-balance. “Oh
sky over the graveyard, you are blue,/ you seem to be smiling” sets up the natural
opposites “blue,” as in down-and-out, and “smiling” (CP 301). The other reading of
“blue” as a color sets up another opposition, which is that the typical notion of the
graveyard belongs to a Gray sky, as in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” a
poem in many ways a precursor to the concerns of Romanticism. Indeed, this
opening exclamation is reminiscent of the Romantic apostrophe, and yet this
opening is quickly challenged with “or are you sneering?” (CP 301). Like the
“rocker” of “On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday,” this poem’s motion is back and forth,
and it is tempting to see the poem as a thinly veiled confessional about his drinking
problem. Joe LeSueur suggests that Mike Goldberg and Norman Bluhm are the two
grown men, or perhaps one of them is Matsumi (Mike) Kanemitsu (175). As the
poem continues:
under the captured moss a little girl
is climbing, come closer! why it’s Maude,
or Maudie as she’s sometimes called. I think
she is looking for her turtle. Meanwhile,
back at Patsy Southgate’s, two grown men are
falling off a swing into a vat of Bloody Marys.
It’s Sunday and the trains run on time. What
a wonderful country it is, so black and blue
airy green, leaning out a window
thinking of the sea and the uncomfortable sand! (CP 301)
The entreaty to “come closer!” is not merely the speaker talking to the little girl,
but also the speaker talking to the reader. This “come closer” operates as a type of
performative utterance in that the exclamatory nature of the gesture also
accomplishes the command of it. This is to say, by using an exclamation point—the
lapel-grabbing variety—the reader is necessarily brought into closer contact with
the poem. The loaded word “why” functions rhetorically as a note of admiration,
and as such it welcomes the reader to meet the little girl. O’Hara’s speaker is so
conversational as to become a character himself, for right after displaying an
omniscient knowledge as speaker he immediately returns to the subjective
formation, “I think.” The rocker continues its to and fro motion through this
objective/subjective move, and then proceeds to make a shift in location. Here we
are actually moving closer—“come closer!”—to a potentially autobiographical
subjectivity, as he may well be one of the men at Patsy Southgate’s. According to
Joe LeSueur, June 2, 1958 marks the date that O’Hara met Patsy Southgate (175).
This would be a moment O’Hara would certainly reflect on, given that she would
serve as his muse, much as Bunny Lang and other women had (LeSueur 176). Brad
Gooch, in explaining a complicated situation in which O’Hara and Southgate
actually tried to sleep together (though Patsy was the wife of friend Mike Goldberg,
and moreover a woman, which wasn’t O’Hara’s main interest), describes their
drinking together. “About a hundred yards down the road Southgate swerved over
to let O’Hara take the wheel. ‘Frank was probably in no better shape to take the
wheel than I,’ she has written, ‘but he was better at assuming responsibility’”
(391). Like “On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday,” it seems that O’Hara is again falling off
the wagon, and this time he uses the juxtaposition of the little girl in the graveyard
with the “grown men” and the swing to explore his point. Untangling these images,
we have, quite possibly, a concern that drinking will be the death of him. Even if
the drinking refers to the friends suggested by LeSueur, the speaker juxtaposes our
little Maudie, who is most properly at play on a swing, with the “grown men,” who
ought to know better. The poem hinges, or swings, on these juxtapositions, as
childhood clashes with adulthood, “black and blue” clashes with “airy green,” and
the carefree Frank O’Hara, zestfully leaning out of a car window, clashes with the
graveyard of Jackson Pollock, the great Jackson Pollock, who, as O’Hara knew all
too well, died in an alcohol-related car accident.
“On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday,” “June 2, 1958,” and many other poems in
O’Hara’s oeuvre express wonder in a more rural space than one might expect from
the so-called “poet of New York City.” O’Hara’s ”city” poetics, a style that emphasis
motion and quick changes in aesthetic direction, retains a Romanticism divorced
from a city poetics motivated by political change. The exclamatory gestures of
advertising and newspaper headlines, in particular, belong to the realm of the city,
where their material form acts as a sort of barrier to communal life. The
exclamation point’s black dots are like heads popping over cubicle walls, each
worker in her own little rationalized space. 85 Even O’Hara’s pastoral scene in “June
2, 1958” has the speaker’s head popping out the window to enjoy the “wonderful
country,” as opposed to the wandering hoary-headed swain in Gray’s churchyard,
or, later, Wordsworth’s speaker returning to Tintern Abbey sans voiture. The
purity of the emotion, however, is maintained. If “spontaneous overflow” applies to
anyone, it’s O’Hara, though he certainly did not recollect them in “tranquility”!
(Wordsworth “Preface” 1800) In the city, the exclamatory gesture is
individualized, rationalized, usually intimately related to profit and consumption.
This is not to say that O’Hara does not buy a “carton of Gauloises and a carton/ of
Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it” (SP 155). As noted above,
courtesy of Susan Rosenbaum, he is part of the crowd, a man of the crowd, as it
were. But, the motivation behind the exclamation point in O’Hara is not to sell, not
to market his poetic product. It is to inspire wonder at a type of beauty that
Wordsworth repels in “The World Is Too Much with Us.” My suggestion is that the
world is not too much with O’Hara; the world never becomes too much for him. Or,
at least, he never avoids it. David Lehman summarizes, “O’Hara did everything to
are competing claims about the invention of the cubicle, but the consensus is that they
began popping up in the early 1960s.
excess,” and he quotes poet Joe Brainard, “‘[O’Hara] went to extremes. Or perhaps
he just found himself there’” (176, qtd. in 176). This excess is what he found in the
world—both natural and man-made, both urban and rural—and how he
articulated the world that he experienced. Gooch avers, “The excessiveness of the
period matched his own penchant for excesses,” though Gooch is putting O’Hara’s
binge drinking into sobering perspective (203).
And so we close with a party. Famously, O’Hara wrote his “Poem (Lana
Turner has collapsed!)” on the Staten Island Ferry and then proceeded to
announce to fellow reader Robert Lowell and the attendant crowd that he had just
written the poem “15 minutes ago” (Gooch 387). This, of course, irked the
methodical Lowell, who “apologized somewhat disingenuously for not having
written a poem on the spot” (Gooch 387). The poem goes:
Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up
O’Hara makes the reading an occasion, and he writes a poem for the occasion. He is
on the way somewhere while writing the poem, a message which is performed in
its words. One can only
imagine this dramatic
speech act playing out in
O’Hara’s mind as he
scribbled it down. Like
much of the variegated
oeuvre of the so-called
New York School,
O’Hara’s poem had to be
“exclaimed” in a number
of ways—indeed, it was
both literally and
figuratively punctuated
by that mark on the
Figure xxiv
page. That O’Hara was “in such a hurry,” that things happen suddenly, and that the
“traffic was acting like the sky” all share intimate connections with the city poem
and its exclamatory modes, and yet they also retain their connection to the
Romantic concept of being “in tune” with Nature. He ventriloquizes the
typographic reproduction “LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!” which changes how
we are to read this exclamation—the fact that it is both capitalized and exclaimed
adds to the irony that this is newsworthy, let alone a headline...
Oh! But it is! O’Hara’s gossipy poem represents a rupture within a rupture,
for the play sphere is already signaled by the venue: a party. This is Hollywood, in
which there is no snow, because there is no “real” weather. It is all simulacra. In
fact, there isn’t even any rain in the entire state (not just in Southern California,
mind you). But, even so, Lana Turner collapses, causing the whole party, and the
whole nation outside of that sphere, reading the paper in real weather, to gasp!
This isn’t scripted! The headline causes a stir! Even Robert Lowell heads to the
newsstand to pick one up!
“The rich with their binoculars/ were back again”: The Dangers of Playful
Discourse in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Manuelzinho”
“You know we are a unique class, the only three American writers [including Randall Jarrell] of our
generation who don’t have to work. Usury has made us; and I can hear Karl Marx muttering out a
review to prove that our biases are identical” -Robert Lowell to Elizabeth Bishop (WIA 133)
Perhaps I had better put on my serious hat. Though it would not be inappropriate,
not rude to leave “serious” on the rack—one can see how we have been fighting
the relevancy of such terms—we delve here into contested territory. In April of
2007, I presented a paper at the joint conference of the American Culture and
Popular Culture Associations. I shared some of the research from the present
chapter, namely my exploration of the problematic relationship between Elizabeth
Bishop and the squatters on the property of the Samambaia house that she
inhabited with her lover, Lota de Macedo Soares. After my presentation, a fellow
Bishop scholar, visibly agitated, approached me. Was I saying that Bishop was
racist? Classist? She wanted to know. Yes, she had to admit that the research was
pretty conclusive and that to talk about hierarchy in 1950s Brazil was to talk about
race and class. Still, what was my point? My interest throughout this project has
been Bishop’s occasional use of a more conversational tone in her poetry, one akin
to if less experimental than the playful discourses I have explored in Hurston,
Hughes, and O’Hara. It did occur to me at the conference that Bishop’s attitudes
towards the lower classes in Brazil affect how we ought to view this playful
discourse, as well as “Filling Station,”“Pink Dog,” and “A Trip to Vigia,” to name a
few others. It’s important that Bishop scholars consider these attitudes in
particular when close reading the poetry of her Brazil years. What’s clear now that
wasn’t clear then is that her conversational tone acted as a rupture. However, this
wasn’t the rupture I had expected. Instead of challenging extant stereotypes as
does the playful work of Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Frank O’Hara,
the conversational tone acted as a rupture to my thesis, which had heralded playful
discourse as de facto revolutionary discourse. I found that Bishop’s “Manuelzinho”
neither temporarily suspended the pronounced hierarchies of the Brazilian social
system nor bridged the distances within it. In fact, her playful style reinforced
hierarchical distance and reified stereotypes about lower class Brazilians. So, my
serious hat goes on, “unpainted and figurative,” for one mustn’t equivocate on
serious matters. Or, at least “I promise to try.”
When Mikhail Bakhtin writes about epic distance, he refers to its “radical
degree of completedness not only in its content but in its meaning and its values as
well” (DI 17). Acting as a rupture to hierarchical distances encouraged by epic
discourses, Bakhtin prefers the heteroglossia of novels, which employs competing
“voices” and language actually spoken by people. Epic poetry operates under
established conventions, which classes it off from the discourse of the novel, a
genre whose conventions are unstable. In his work on Dostoevsky, Bakhtin
appreciates the way in which the characters establish discourses of their own. As
Wayne Booth puts it:
Turgenev, Tolstoy, indeed most who are called novelists, never release their
characters from a dominating monologue conducted by the author; in their
works, character seldom escape to become full subjects, telling their own
tales. Instead they generally remain as objects used by the author to fulfill
preordained demands. (xxii)
Thus, like epic poetry, the novels of Turgenev and Tolstoy are monologic. They
work in one direction and serve to perpetuate hierarchical difference. Of course,
Bakhtin’s valorization of heteroglossia is not confined to, and perhaps not even
exemplified by, the novels of Dostoevsky. In his incredible study of Rabelais and His
World, Bakhtin discusses the concept of the carnivalesque at length. François
Rabelais, in the supreme display of dialogism that is Gargantua and Pantagruel,
sets free the discourse of the lower classes and creates a play sphere that
challenges extant hierarchies. In this sphere, the prevailing social hierarchy is
inverted, and suspended. Bakhtin writes of the carnival sphere:
This temporary suspension, both ideal and real, of hierarchical rank created
during carnival time a special type of communication impossible in
everyday life. This led to the creation of special forms of marketplace
speech and gesture, frank and free, permitting no distance between those
who came in contact with each other and liberating from norms of etiquette
and decency imposed at other times. (Rabelais 11)
Significantly, this discourse does not mesh into a finalizing, totalizing, or closed
sphere of agreement. There is no essentialized message, no uniform moral or
moral code, no set of rules, and no manners. Bakhtin credits carnival laughter with
building “its own world in opposition to the official world, its own church versus
the official church, its own state versus the official state” (Rabelais 88). In his essay,
“Epic and Novel,” Bakhtin explains that “popular laughter,” which he alternately
calls “folklore,” “[…] in general destroys any hierarchical (distancing and valorized)
distance” (DI 23). Importantly, just as this thesis was challenged by scholars, I
would suggest that the present study of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Manuelzinho” provides
another reasonable objection.86
Despite its problems, Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque has inspired a
handful of Bishop scholars. At one point, I considered the possibility that his
theoretical framework could open up interesting interpretations of her work,
especially in Brazil where carnival has such a rich history. Typically inspired to
produce a more “high poetic” voice, Bishop’s intention in writing “Manuelzinho”
may well have been to familiarize herself with Brazil. Biographer Brett Millier
refers to it as her “first attempt to say anything much about Brazil” (271). Yet, if
Bishop’s playful discourse works in the carnivalesque spirit at destroying the
structures causing “distance” in her private life, it certainly fails. One can see the
sputtering of that engine at the poem’s close. In the final analysis, “Manuelzinho” is
not written in the free carnival spirit. Instead of allowing Manuelzinho to occupy a
role, to mimic a new level within the hierarchy, he actually plays himself to
exaggeration. He acts the fool, reifying the lower classes as uneducated and
uneducable, as silly as they are strange. In fact, Henri Bergson’s writing on
laughter, which focuses on Moliere’s dramatic satires of the courtly class, offers a
more relevant lens through which to view “Manuelzinho.”
“Manuelzinho” first appeared in The New Yorker, like so many of her works,
on May 26, 1956. Beneath the text was a small comic, unrelated to the piece. A
See introduction for further discussion of this as it relates to the play concept.
larger one lounged on the opposite page. The short story that walked clumsily
around the poem was anything but literary. The context is appropriate in that
sense; while the important issues in the poem echo others in Questions of Travel, as
well as a handful of “new ones” from Alice Quinn’s Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke Box,
its sustained playfulness remains a unique artifact. Despite the fact that its
immediate environs were comic, Bishop wrote Robert Lowell that, “Somehow
when he [‘Manuelzinho’] appeared just now, in The New Yorker, he seems more
frivolous than I’d thought, but maybe that’s just the slick, rich surroundings” (One
Art 320). Here, the notion that the poem seems not to be as serious as she had
envisioned troubles her, though she is comforted by the “seriousness” with which
Lowell has regarded it. Bishop was always uncomfortable giving up a poem, as it
would then be out of her hands and into her critics’. Still, Lowell thought
“Manuelzinho” was a “dazzling masterpiece” and passed along that Randall Jarrell
thought so too (WIA 591, 590).
Bishop’s life in Brazil began in early December of 1951 as she entered an
with Maria
Costellat de
Macedo Soares.
At that time,
Lota was
building a
house at
Figure xxv
The letters Bishop wrote during this period consistently relate anecdotes involving
Soares and their domestic issues. In these letters, Bishop’s playful discourse is at
its most free. The conversational tone is represented as well in “Manuelzinho,” and
Bishop actually notes that “[…] If it doesn’t work as a poem it may as a letter” (WIA
171). In a letter to her doctor Anny Baumann, Bishop explained her famous allergic
reaction that was to put her more permanently than planned under the care of her
lover-to-be Lota. I have never heard, or in this case read, anyone projecting such
cheerfulness in such a physical condition. In her head-swollen state, eczemaridden and asthmatic, she tried “to wash her hair and fainted,” a situation she
describes as “very funny” (One Art 231). The truth is, the exotic nature of the
Brazilian surroundings excited her poetic nature, especially the Brazilian with
whom she was falling in love. In her early essay, “Domestication, Domesticity, and
the Otherworldly,” Helen Vendler discusses Bishop’s work in terms of that which is
“strange” over that which is exotic, and that which is “domestic” over that which is
familiar. Such a dichotomy makes sense for describing Bishop’s poems about Novia
Scotia and the Northeastern United States. But Vendler’s piece deals almost
exclusively with non-Brazil poems, despite her inclusion of several from Questions
of Travel. Moreover, she tends to work by showing how Bishop takes the domestic
and makes it other-worldly or strange. In poems about Brazilians, such as
“Squatter’s Children” and “Manuelzinho,” Bishop takes what is exotic (to her) and
tries to make it domestic. Renée Curry suggests that this quest was ultimately
unsuccessful. “Bishop was always a tourist in Brazil,” she writes; “Bishop never
really connected with Brazil or Brazilians” (115).
In the above letter to Baumann, Bishop wants to send a gift that could only
be found in Brazil, and it reveals her way of dealing with the exotic, at least broadly
speaking. “In return I wish I could send you (1) some coffee, (2) a parrot, (3) one of
the little wild monkeys that are in the mountains right in back of the house—they
whistle” (One Art 232). While what drives the remark is her desire to repay Dr.
Baumann for her services, the charms of Brazil are, especially during Bishop’s first
years there, repeatedly coffee and wildlife. In these years (during which she wrote
“Manuelzinho”), Brazil is the site of a “really lofty vagueness... where a cloud is
coming in my bedroom window right this minute” (One Art 237). She is both
fascinated by Brazil and happy to be out of the United States. As Brett Millier
observes, “The life that Elizabeth was leaving in New York and the United States
held little nostalgia for her” (245). And yet she was experiencing the exotic in the
most intimate sense with her Brazilian lover, Lota de Macedo Soares. Bishop’s
poem, “The Shampoo,” which was conceived during those first years in Brazil and
finally published in 1955, Millier writes is really about, “Elizabeth’s gentle truce
with the passage of time (‘Time is/ nothing if not amenable’); and the easy
intimacy of the final lines... [as] all newly acquired pleasures that came to her with
Brazil” (248). But this astrological poem is also about the mystery of Soares, never
mentioned directly but recognizable through her “black hair.” Interestingly, the
poem does not reference Soares by name, nor as a Brazilian. Though Soares’s name
graces nearly all of Bishop’s letters from 1952 to 1955, very few of them attempt to
come to terms with her as a Brazilian. As with many of Bishop’s drafts, Bishop
subjected her observations in “The Shampoo” to a formal sieve, just one more way
she filtered out the poem’s identifiable intimacy. Draft two is a chicken-scratched,
half-blank arrangement of “abacbb abacbc” (Vassar 57.6.2). Lota’s name is too
intimate even for the first draft, though “Gray Hairs” is a bit closer to her head than
“The Shampoo,” which ultimately becomes the object, instead of Soares herself.
Here we first encounter what I refer to as Bishop’s poetics of untouchability,
manifested by her desire to maintain distance between herself and the human
subject. In Brazil, this poetics amounted to class and racial distancing, separating
herself as “untouchable.” Yet this term also operates as an index of museification,
for Bishop’s emphasis on the object, on polishing the object and preparing it for a
life of immutability. Although Soares was above certain criticisms—primarily
because of her class—like other human subjects she was left out of Bishop’s Brazil
Of course, in “Manuelzinho,” Lota is the “friend of the speaker who is
speaking,” though in many ways it is Bishop as well.87 Mary Morse explains that
Bishop “got into Lota’s crowd. They didn’t have anything to do, [or] they had plenty
to do but they didn’t care about having jobs” (Fountain and Brazeau 129). Lota’s
landed, if cash-poor, status allowed her to view work as optional. When she and a
friend decided to open a small business in Rio de Janeiro, it was out of a desire to
live there; Morse says it was “more a whirl than anything else. They lost money—
they didn’t know how to keep accounts or anything like that” (Fountain and
Brazeau 130). (Account books? They are more like Dream Books!)88 The
discrepancy, of course, is that Lota was en(title)d to live this way, whereas
Manuelzinho’s incompetence and whirlish attitude broke code. The most amazing
of Mary Morse’s stories about Lota’s class affectations relates when Lota informed
her, “You can’t have a name like that” (Fountain and Brazeau 130). Lota, who had a
lot(a) of names, told her she needed to use her entire birth name.
[Lota:] “You come from Boston, right? You’re from the old Puritans?”
I [Morse] said, “Well, as a matter of fact, I am a descendant, but that
doesn’t mean anything. And they were all rebellious anyway, so I don’t
think they were a very good sort.”
87 Thomas Travisano verifies that Lota is “supposed to be the speaker” by citing a letter from
Bishop to Marianne Moore. See Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development, p. 146.
88 In the poem, when the speaker and her gardener discuss their “accounts,” Manuelzinho leaves
out the decimal points. “You whisper conspiratorially;/ the number mount to millions./ Account
books? They are Dream Books” (CPoems 98).
And she said, “You’re a Bostonian, a wonderful aristocrat. Also,
you’re related to Samuel F.B. Morse.”
I said, “Not at all.”
Lota said, “I’m going to present you that way.” (Fountain and
Brazeau 131)
Clearly, Lota had a lively sense of humor! But she really did get upset with the
lower classes for being in the way. In reading “Manuelzinho,” Morse thought of
“how upset Lota would get because people [read: the help] wouldn’t or couldn’t do
what she wanted them to” (Fountain and Brazeau 134). This was definitely the
case with Manuelzinho, though it is clear she has a condescending affection for
him, the way one loves a good entertainer.
Bishop would have been more conscious than Lota about the hierarchical
distance between them and their gardener, especially as it translated as
metaphorical distance. Writing in 1957 about Questions of Travel in The New York
Review, Robert Mazzocco notices that the “true tenor of her work […] is rather
toward measured distances, scales, steps; side-stepping the ‘vulgar beauty of
irridescence,’ [sic] and side-stepping, too, the intimate” (4). I think Bishop does
measure the distance, the space between her and Manuelzinho, between Lota and
Manuelzinho. Mazzocco, who draws on “Roosters” for the above allusion, asserts
that Bishop avoids vulgarity along with the personal, as well as with the human.
She rarely confronts the human being qua human being in her Brazil poems, which
is why Manuelzinho is more of a failed automaton than a human being. Put one
way, Bishop prefers to objectify humans. In this respect, “Manuelzinho” is a poem
about trying to write a certain kind of poem, though she is not committed to this
more “personal” poetics.
It wasn’t that Bishop was unaware of Brazil’s social problems, or even
insensitive to them. She made constant reference during these years to Brazil as a
third-world country. “But Brazil has never been in a worse state, apparently—food
prices are incredible and I just don’t know how the poor poor people are keeping
alive” (One Art 284-5). But she was content with the race relations. In her
interview with Kathleen Cleaver, wife of Eldridge Cleaver and herself an important
player in the Black Panthers, they disagree on the topic of Brazil’s problems.
EB: In Brazil the problems are more economic than racist.
KC: Pardon?
EB: The problems in Brazil are more economic than racist.
KC: Yeah, that’s what all racist countries will say. They all say that. You
know. It’s economic […] (14)
While Bishop is content to ascribe Brazil’s hierarchical tensions to the country’s
poverty, Cleaver reflects on its colonial history, explaining the role of racist
exploitation in the country’s current hierarchical organization. While Bishop
laments the lack of social mobility as a purely economic reality, Cleaver points out
that “Any society that’s based on slave labor of another race of people is a racist
society, because the basis for defining the laboring class is their race, you see” (12).
Betsy Erkkila uses Bishop’s interest in Cleaver and the Black Panther Party to
explore the former’s Left politics, but this interview was anything but cooperative,
anything but sympathetic, anything but dialogic. Bishop is terse, probably feeling
antagonized by Cleaver’s aggression and lack of propriety. Millier writes,
“Elizabeth said the interview was ‘not a success’ and remarked dryly that it would
be one-third shorter if she removed the word ‘shit’ wherever it appeared” (410).
Bishop’s idealism about race relations in Brazil is represented in the book she
grudgingly wrote for Life magazine’s “World Library” series. Bishop draws on her
and Lota’s interactions with Manuelzinho’s family when she writes:
A rich man will shake hands with and embrace a poor man and also give
him money, try to find him a job and pay his wife’s doctor bills, because
they grew up on the same fazenda, or country estate […] In such
relationships there is complete ease of manner on both sides.” (12-13)
Lota was often very
helpful, even
adopting a boy she
found “in a garage
where she was
having her car
fixed” and often
paying for things
like those
mentioned in the
Figure xxvi
above passage (Fountain and Brazeau 131). However, with that “ease of manner”
came expected subservience. Lota was able to boss around these lower-class
As hinted earlier, the line underneath the title of “Manuezinho,” both in its
initial publication in The New Yorker and in all editions of Questions of Travel,
reads: “[Brazil. A friend of the writer is speaking.]” (CPoems 96). Aside from
distancing herself as author from the poem’s speaker, this move cues the reader
into a less critical, less “poetic” ground. The current poem is to be the site of a
dramatic monologue, as noted by the fact that the friend is “speaking,” as opposed
to writing. Bishop also sees the need to note that the setting is Brazil for the benefit
of The New Yorker readers seeing the poem outside its original context. Strangely,
this “Brazil” was retained for subsequent printings, although the poem was always
part of the section of Questions of Travel entitled, “Brazil” (as opposed to the other
section, “Elsewhere”). In her letters, she persists in her desire to attest to the
poem’s historical accuracy and at one point defends herself. 89 She makes sure that
people believe that the speaker is justified in only loving “Manuelzinho” all she can,
though this poem is much less endearing to the sensitive contemporary reader
than to the 1950s The New Yorker reader. At that time, the magazine’s humorous
writing was highly risqué by today’s standards, with sexism and racist running as
rampant as the infantilized Manuelzinho looking for vegetables.
Historically, Manuelzinho was Lota de Macedo Soares’s (and, by extension,
Elizabeth Bishop’s) gardener. He and his family lived on the property and were fed
See page 476 of One Art for Bishop’s claim that the poem is accurate.
by their owners; Bishop explains one of the problems this poses, “Here, feeding
three or four servants –and they make the most of the privilege, poor things—
besides ourselves, is costing Lota a fortune” (One Art 277). Although Mary Morse
says “he didn’t work for Lota,” in the poem Manuelzinho is “supposed to supply me
with vegetables” (Fountain and Brazeau 141).90 Joanna dos Santos da Costa
remembers the
situation differently,
saying that
Manuelzinho did
work both “outside
and inside the house”
(Fountain and
Brazeau141). The
truth is probably
Figure xxvii
closer to da Costa’s
view, given that squatters like Manuelzinho had obligations to their land-owners,
some of them inherited (“the roads your father or grandfather made”). Similar to
the poem, da Costa lists “trimming the road” as one of Manuelzinho’s jobs. The fact
that his family is fed by Soares (and, therefore, Bishop) is something Bishop refers
to above as a “privilege,” not a right. “Poor” here has two meanings, obvious
enough but worth the reminder. That the servants are the object of pity indicates
Morse recollects that Manuelzinho “worked for himself, and he was just on a piece of her land,
hoping he wouldn’t be put off” (Remembering 141).
the nature of the social distance. Like the burglar of Babylon, they are pitied by the
“rich with their binoculars” (CPoems 116). Also, their poverty serves to create
cultural distance, as their set of everyday concerns clearly differs from the
“speaker’s.” Bishop, like the speaker in “Manuelzinho,” was suspicious of the
workers on her property, and usually more annoyed than enchanted by their
“artistry.” In a letter to Lowell, she complains about two workers who ate their
lunch on the porch of her “estudio,” because it was windy and raining, the “poor
things” (WIA 254). She sees one of them eating an apple, and thinks, “I’m sure it
was one of my eight Roman Beauties he’d stolen off the little tree, but I didn’t like
to go and count them right under his nose” (WIA 253). Though she entertains the
thought of telling them to leave—mostly because she can’t stand hearing one of
them sing a folk ballad—she ultimately waits it out and celebrates quietly to
herself. I relate this anecdote not to challenge her suspicions or insist on the
quality of the singing—I wasn’t there—but Bishop, especially in her honest,
conversational letters with Lowell, evinces a shallow if sympathetic air with
respect to the poor. She tends to pay lip service to their plight, and yet her
annoyance at having them so close to her house—when clearly there is nowhere
else to go—is at odds with a deeply-felt social consciousness. At the very least, she
is perpetually ambivalent about being in close contact with native Brazilians,
particularly lower class and uneducated ones. In her autobiographical story “A
Trip to Vigia,” Bishop makes her discomfort quite obvious. While staying in Belem
with a friend, they met a “shy poet, so soiled, so poor,” and found themselves
reluctantly accepting an invitation to be driven in his ramshackle car to sight-see a
famous church in Vigia (CProse 111). Although she had reservations about the
mode of transportation—a friend of the poet’s went along as mechanista—Bishop
writes, “But what could we do? I couldn’t very well flaunt my dollars in his face and
hire a better one” (CProse 111). While maintaining her trademark allegiance to
truth through observation, Bishop nonetheless allows her disgust of the poor to
seep into her descriptions. Looking around the tiny room of “Dona Sebastiana,” she
notes, “There was almost nothing in her kitchen except a black pot or two. The only
signs of food were some overripe cucumbers on the windowsill. How had she
managed to be so fat?” (CProse 117). Here, as elsewhere, Bishop reveals the source
of the tension of her position as observer to the interactions between Lota and
Manuelzinho. Bishop is highly critical of the lower classes’ response to their social
position. “How had she managed to be so fat?” rhetorically questions how the
woman is so “poorly made” and also seems to imply that she has let herself go, as
though there were universal standards for desirable weight. 91
It is not merely a question of socioeconomic distance within the Brazilian
hierarchy that created distance in Bishop’s private life. Writing again to Pearl
Kazin, Bishop comments on an issue of revolutionary politics by saying, “I wish
there were somebody I could talk to about it! Lota is, after all, a Brazilian, and no
matter how fair everyone wants to be, nationality always gets in the way sooner or
later...” (One Art 289). Indeed, nationality and the socioeconomic issues that
accompany it were literally and figuratively “in the way” in “Manuelzinho.”
The reader will recall Bishop complaining about how no one seems “‘well-made,’ except some of
the Negroes” (One Art 258).
Consider the metaphorical and meta-metaphorical distances established in the
poem’s landscape:
Twined in wisps of fog,
I see you all up there
along with Formoso, the donkey,
who brays like a pump gone dry,
then suddenly stops.
--All just standing, staring
off into fog and space.
Or coming down at night,
in silence, except for hoofs,
in dim moonlight, the horse
or Formoso stumbling after.
Between us float a few
big, soft, pale-blue,
sluggish fireflies,
the jellyfish of the air... (CPoems 98-99)
The figurative gulf between them becomes literal in these lines, as the fireflies
become jellyfish. Bonnie Costello’s view is that these lines provide a “bridge
between his world and hers,” but the distance is filled with the “jellyfish of the air,”
which makes the wading uncomfortable if not impossible (83). This stanza is
located just after the speaker admits that it is “impossible to make friends” with
the children, normally because of the age distance between them, though here
there are multiple divides (CPoems 98). In hierarchical terms, from her property
the speaker exhibits the privileged perspective of the observer who is able to
watch without being watched. The fog between them connotes the difficulty in
seeing, discussing, and representing clearly what the speaker sees. This step can be
interpreted as the speaker’s awareness of the inherent difficulties in using a poem
to become familiar with the object of perception. There are irreconcilable
“distances” between them. Bishop describes these distances/differences in her
letters, particularly during the first years of her time in Brazil.92 What can at best
be referred to as an ambivalence toward bridging those distance is perhaps
indicated through contrived similarities between the speaker and the subject.
When Costello says, “She [the speaker] is beginning to think like him,” she
underemphasizes the critical differences in their reflections (83). Manuelzinho is
“standing, staring off into space.” In the above passage, the cue for their moment of
silence is that the donkey stops braying “like a pump gone dry.” These are the
empty, desperate reflections of the absent-minded, and the link is drawn between
Manuelzinho and his braying beast of burden rather than Manuelzinho and the
speaker. The speaker reflects more deeply, questioning the value of her own
musings in the poem’s final stanza—“or do I?” Also, unlike Manuelzinho, who
presumably cannot read, she turns from her reflections and “goes on reading a
I do not supply them all here, but they can be found in One Art, pages 233-293.
Another place in the poem in which the metaphorical distances are
pronounced, and which incidentally also invokes the gaze of the subject, is stanza
...Watch[ing] you through the rain
trotting, light, on bare feet,
up the steep paths you have made—
or your father and grandfather made—
all over my property,
with your head and back inside
a sodden burlap bag,
and feel I can’t endure it
another minute; then,
indoors, beside the stove,
keep on reading a book. (Poems 96)
The speaker/subject and her object are on the same piece of property, and yet that
fact creates more distance than it bridges. Thomas Travisano, in an early study of
Bishop, reads this scene in light of the observation that the poem explores both the
speaker’s and Manuelzinho’s perspectives (146). I agree but think he overstates
the matter when asserting that “her [the speaker’s] own comfortable superiority
receives at least as much irony as her tenant’s odd ways” (147). The speaker’s
perspective, particularly as she looks from above him from the dry, comfy kitchen
and then continues reading a book, is much like the readership to which Bishop
caters in The New Yorker. They are a comfortable class that travels the world for
curios and artifacts, a
class that is amused by
Manuelzinho but
ultimately separated
from him by vast
distances. The speaker’s
bind is not ironized like
Manuelzinho’s. She
tries to love him, but in
an insincere way, as
when a United States
Figure xxviii
Southerner criticizes another roundly and then adds, “God bless her!” As a halfsquatter, Manuelzinho and his family live on the land, but as half-tenant, which he
is not “entitled” to, it is his property as well. He lives there but is the help. This bind
“of inheritance” is infantilizing, for he relies on land that is not his under the
watchful eye of a master from whom it is impossible to know what to expect.
Manuelzinho’s bind is suggested in the opening lines, but with no attempt to
resolve it:
Half squatter, half tenant (no rent)
a sort of inheritance; white
in your thirties now, and supposed
to supply me with vegetables,
but you don’t; or you won’t; or you can’t
get the idea through your brain—
the world’s worst gardener since Cain. (CPoems 96)
The poet’s intention is to be critical, to elicit, “Wow, what a pain!” from the reader.
I disagree with Kim Fortuny that “like Cain, he [Manuelzinho] has a legitimate
grievance with the powers that control the garden” (22). In none of the Wisdom
literature traditions is Cain valorized for his “fugitive status” (Fortuny 22). I would
be more inclined to think, as Fortuny does, that Bishop “appreciates the protest
and records the individual subject’s subversion of authority through aesthetics” if
Bishop did not look down her nose at any and every “backwards” Brazilian
working on her (oops, Lota’s) house, on her (oops, Lota’s) land, and on her (oops,
Lota’s) property (22).93 That Bishop ventriloquizes Lota’s discourse perfectly is yet
another indication of her own “adopted” status. She does some policing in these
different voices, too. Cain, whose father, depending on the tradition, is either Adam
or the serpent in the garden, is a really bad gardener without a whole (hell of a) lot
of redeeming qualities. He murders his brother. The passage is condemning, not
redeeming. Also, the speaker quickly glosses the complexity of Manuelzinho’s
station in life. The first four lines of the above passage set up the situation, as well
as the speaker’s expectation, and the fifth, sixth, and seventh humorously evaluate
Manuelzinho’s (lack of) success in that role. The speaker is not trying to
understand the power structures creating hierarchical distance. No, following
Bishop criticized her students for having it so good, believing that a “trip to a really backward
country” would help them write better (qtd. in Monteiro 35).
Brett Millier’s read, Bishop “does not question deeply the paternalistic system;
rather it [the poem] examines anecdotally the thinking of one of its participants
[Soares]” (272). Or, put another way, she is one of the power structures creating
hierarchical difference.
The “participant” in this case, Soares, is much more like Bishop than some
would like to admit. Frank Bidart reflects, “Elizabeth would defend their friend the
governor, that sort of thing. She began to sound like Lota. [Robert] Lowell didn’t
find this particularly attractive (Fountain and Brazeau 141). In a letter to Kit and
Ilse Barker, Bishop hints at this change:
Lota is extremely pro-English & I’ve at last begun to understand it better. I
hadn’t realized how England really ran Brazil all through the 19th century.
When I knew Lota in N.Y. even, I noticed how she constantly spoke of things
being ‘well-made,’ ‘well-finished’ or ‘beautifully tailored,’ etc.—and now
after living here I see how everything is wretchedly made, unfinished, and
that for so long only the rich with good taste could have anything better,
and of course then it was always English. (One Art 258)
That Manuelzinho is “white” becomes another charge against him, at least as far as
Soares is concerned. He is clearly the product of a mixed ancestry—one involving
English blood—which ought to make him a better gardener. Not only is he
economically poor, and poor in skill as a gardener, Bishop thinks he has more
aesthetic ailments:
The same thing is true of looks. I think I take it for granted that my friends
are handsome, their babies are pretty, etc.—but here there almost seems to
be an obsession with looks—everyone describes children’s eyes and noses
and chins endlessly—and when I see them I’m often disappointed. But the
general level of looks is rather low, I’m afraid—and the ugliness of the ‘poor
people’—I don’t know what to call them—is appalling. Nobody seems ‘wellmade,’ except some of the Negroes. (One Art 258)
Bishop sympathizes with Lota, acknowledging the “differences” that create
hierarchical distance. Resorting to genetic inferiority as an explanation, Bishop
embraces startling ideologies. Can she really be so fixated on an essentialist view
of looks as to deny that beauty is in the eye of the beholder? More likely, Bishop
loses herself here, forgetting momentarily that malnutrition and poor hygiene
affected whether many lower-class Brazilians appeared “well-made.”94 Bishop’s
awareness of Brazil’s social problems overrided neither her desire to be upper
class nor her desire to separate herself from depressing thoughts. Bishop writes to
Lowell, “Well, I don’t mind the large families if they’d only confine them to the
upper class (and how it simplifies thing to have almost no middle class)” (135).
Whether she minds them matters, for she implies that they wouldn’t bother her if
only they were upper class. As in “Pink Dog,” in which Bishop wishes the dog
would “dress up for Carnival,” this class costume allows her to master her
tendency to mind.
94 In her Life World Library book on Brazil, Bishop writes about the malnutrition of the people as it
relates to their premature death statistics. On page 11, she notes, “[…] Often the malnutrition is due
not so much to actual lack of food as to ignorance, a vicious circle in which poverty creates
ignorance which then creates more poverty. In Rio, for example, there are many good free clinics.
But fine doctors have been known to resign after working in them for years; they can no longer
endure seeing the same children brought in time after time, sicker, weaker and finally dying
because the parents are too ignorant, or too superstitious, to follow a few simple instructions.”
The metaphorical distance shows up again in “Squatter’s Children,” also
from Questions of Travel, as the “specklike” children play near a “specklike house”
(Poems 95). Here, however, Bishop apparently views the squatter’s children
sympathetically, seeing them at their play work, with the thunderheads sure to end
it. Though composed in a more typically Bishopian, “high poetic” language than
“Manuelzinho,” “Squatter’s Children” also acknowledges difference and distance
through metaphor. In “Squatter’s,” the physical distances and lines of sight are
blurred, complicated, problematized by the rain, and in both poems there is little
evidence to suggest that circumstances will be improving. After all, the children’s
rights are “retained [on soggy documents]... in rooms of falling rain,” indicating
that they are on the way out, subject as they are to the Brazilian social hierarchy
(CPoems 95). Some critics might argue that “Squatter’s Children” is more indicative
of Bishop’s true sensitivity for the lower classes, but hidden here is her disdain for
Manuelzinho’s wife, Jovelina, who ends the children’s play. Both extant Bishop
references to Jovelina are strikingly pejorative. In the unpublished poem,
“Gypsophilia,” she casts a “figure like a young witch’s” and in “Squatter’s Children”
her voice is “ugly as sin” (Juke Box 128, CPoems 95).
Even over time, Bishop’s conception of Brazil as strange and unfamiliar
ultimately seemed to win out over her seeing it as “her country.” In “Letter to Two
Friends,” an early 1950s, unpublished poem written “to” Marianne Moore and
Robert Lowell, she refers to Brazil as “where the nuts come from” (Juke Box 114).
The poem is about her inability to write, as she asks the aforementioned to act as
muses for this difficult project of writing about Brazil. Perhaps Bishop recognizes
that her fixation on Brazil as “this” or “that” disrupts her ability to maintain just the
right poetic distance, or, if I may, lack of familiarity, with the subject matter. In
another unpublished poem, “New Year’s Letter as Auden Says— ,” Bishop’s
speaker questions how close she can ever get:
an intense black cup or two
state of caffeinization—
and try out your famous names
in the rarest diminutives—
merrily, merrily
confusing ends and means
in the country of coffee beans
If I cannot speak Portuguese.
shall I ever say Shibboleth?
with love, Elizabeth (Juke Box
It is through consuming the export and playing with the language that the adviceadhering reader would come to a “pleasant state of caffeinization,” enjambed
against its off-homonym “civilization.” Unlike Caliban who curses in the language
he’s given, Bishop is able to play around with the language she picks up, and she
maintains the freedom to leave at any time and come back to “civilization.” In
August of 1954, Robert Frost came to Brazil, an event that Bishop apparently used
as a litmus test for Brazilian culture. It didn’t pass. She found herself appalled by
the actions of the ambassador, whose major transgression was sitting in between
Frost and his daughter with an unlit cigar in his mouth (One Art 298). This
culminated in Bishop’s saying to a friend, “I don’t think I can try to defend my
country anymore” (One Art 298). Bishop has a problem with the man’s manners, an
issue that always created class distance for her. She was too polite to dig in the
muck, to cuss, or to write about being drunk. Yet this adherence to a poetics of
politeness was itself classed. Like the conventions of the epic discussed by Bakhtin,
Bishop employs an aristocratic rhetoric with aged forms. Whereas Hurston,
Hughes, and O’Hara mop around in the lingo of folk discourse, Bishop prefers the
established lineage of poetic tradition. Granted, one could point to her facility with
and determination to master foreign languages, including Portuguese. Indeed,
Bishop would eventually learn Portuguese, even going so far as to translate The
Diary of Helena Morley into English. A profound learning experience, this was a
way for the shy Bishop to learn about a culture that genuinely fascinated her
brilliant mind. Still, all of her friends in Brazil were people to whom she could
relate on her own level, those with shared interests, those who spoke her
language.95 Rosalina Leão writes:
Arthur Gold reflects that “Elizabeth always struggled with Portuguese and really had a dreadful
American accent in every language” (qtd. in Fountain and Brazeau 138).
Elizabeth didn’t get on friendly terms [with many people]. It was Lota’s life
and Lota’s friends. I think that’s what [made Elizabeth at times] feel alone,
because she lived very much on her own. She only liked to talk to poets like
her and people of the same [interest]. (Fountain and Brazeau 146)
The fact is, Bishop was trying to be honest in “Manuelzinho,” and she would
attest to the poem’s accuracy. “The poem you [Bishop’s Aunt Grace] saw must have
been “Manuelzinho”—about L.’s kind-of-a-gardener—wasn’t it? It’s all completely
true—how he hired the bus to go to his father’s funeral, etc” (One Art 321). That
everything was “accurate” supports Bishop’s belief that “the friend of the speaker”
is speaking many a truth in this jesting discourse. Indeed, it is likely that Bishop’s
assessment was that a more humorous approach to the issue would be the most
believable. For her, not to acknowledge the, to recall Vendler, “strange”ness of
Manuelzinho’s peculiar mannerisms would be artistically dishonest. In stanza
three of the poem, Bishop describes the incident alluded to in the letter to her Aunt
The strangest things happen, to you.
Your cow eats a “poison grass”
and drops dead on the spot.
Nobody else’s does.
And then your father dies,
a superior old man
with a black plush hat, and a moustache
like a white spread-eagled sea gull.
The family gathers, but you,
no, you ‘don’t think he’s dead!
I look at him. He’s cold.
They’re burying him today.
But you know, I don’t think he’s dead.’
I give you money for the funeral
and you go and hire a bus
for the delighted mourners,
so I have to hand over some more
and then have to hear you tell me
you pray for me every night! (CPoems 97)
It is worth
noting the
comma in the
first line of the
above passage,
what we will
eventually find
out in the
Figure xxix
fourth: only Manuelzinho is subject to such magical misfortune. Manuelzinho’s
honesty, or at the very least inability to perceive events properly, is indicated by
his thinking that the grass is poisonous. This “distance” between them has nothing
at all to do with cultural or hierarchical distances, presumably, as “nobody else’s
does.” Still, while this stanza appears to criticize Manuelzinho apart from his race
or class, the “delighted mourners” are implicated in line 16 for having
inappropriate emotions. Also, the speaker imputes audacity upon hearing that she
is prayed for every night, yet another “inappropriate” cultural remnant.
Presumably criticized for social misrepresentation in the poem, Bishop
writes to U.T. and Joseph Summers in October of 1967:
I wonder who the reviewer was who misunderstood ‘Manuelzinho’ so—but
then I’ve been accused of that kind of thing a lot, particularly in the socialconscious days—‘Cootchie,’ etc., were found ‘condescending,’ or I lived in a
world (I was obviously VERY RICH) where people had Servants, imagine,
and so on. Actually, Brazilians like ‘Manuelzinho’ very much. I’ve had
several English-reading friends tell me, ‘My God (or Our Lady), it’s exactly
like that.’ And that’s why Lota is supposed to be saying it. (One Art 479)
One possible criticism of Bishop is that she never felt rich enough, and perpetually
had trouble gaining a non-privileged perspective (or distance, if I may). In 1954,
likely near the time of the poem’s conception, Bishop and Soares were planning to
sell “the Land Rover and her [Soares’s] old Jaguar” for a new car; they had
considered the “Mercedes-Benzes, Alfa Romeos, Ferraris” (One Art 285). It is not
surprising to hear Bishop say that Brazilians liked the poem, though the nature of
their own class status played into it. In Narrative on the Life of Frederick Douglass,
an American Slave, Douglass recounts one aspect of the master/slave relationship
that might well apply here:
Moreover, slaves are like other people, and imbibe prejudices quite
common to others. They think their own better than that of others. Many
under the influence of this prejudice, think their own masters are better
than the masters of other slaves. (62)
Brazilians viewed Elizabeth as the great poet of Brazil. They celebrated her, though
only a privileged few could read her poetry. In a story that Bishop relates about
her having been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, one can see that the Brazilian lower
classes were entirely unaware of what she was doing:
The nicest story is about how Lota went to buy vegetables in the market
and our vegetable man asked if it wasn’t my picture he’d seen in the papers.
She said yes, and then he said it was amazing what good luck his customers
had. Just the week before another lady had bought a lottery ticket in the Qui
Bom lottery and had won a bicycle. (One Art 318)
Bishop repeated this story in many an interview, for she found it hilarious. But
Brett Millier soberly reminds us, Bishop was “convinced that the Brazilian lower
classes were uneducable” (272). In Bishop’s “Manuelzinho,” the gardener himself
approaches the speaker to settle their accounts, and communication breaks down
as a result of his having left out the decimal points. “Account books?” the speaker
quips, “They are Dream Books” (CPoems 98). Indeed, there is no reason to exclude
Manuelzinho from the other “uneducable” Brazilians. Bishop’s attitudes were so
severe that in a letter to May Swenson, Bishop is forced to defend herself against
the charge that she and Soares were hoping that the premature baby of a servant
would die, saying,
The parents are so ignorant, savage, suspicious, etc that now they are
blaming us and it is very unpleasant, naturally, but exactly what one has to
contend with... when dealing with backward people who are incapable of
any of the more highly refined emotions” (qtd. in Millier 272-3).96
Such ideas inevitably led Bishop to view Manuelzinho and his family as less than
human, a point that suggests better possibilities for analysis than, say, the carnival
theories of Bakhtin.
Bergson’s notes on the meaning of the comic in his Laughter: An Essay on
the Meaning of the Comic suggest the ways in which the play sphere can turn the
“object” of humor into a failed automaton. Bergson describes the comic result of
the following situation:
A man, running along the street, stumbles and falls; the passers-by burst out
laughing. They would not laugh at him, I imagine, could they suppose that
the whim had suddenly seized him to sit down on the ground. They laugh
because his sitting down is involuntary (13-14).
The idea here is that, as Rhiannon Goldthorpe notes, “the comic is provoked when
natural spontaneity is reduced to a set of mechanical bodily responses” (84). Of
interest is that the object of the speaker’s perception is thought of in mechanical
It is unclear from my sources who the parents are, but it is probably not Manuelzinho and
Jovelina, his wife.
terms at the outset. What is ridiculed is his inability to operate successfully
according to the rules of that mechanical engagement, if you will. What is then
implied by our laughter—and what implicates us—is that we too view these
operations as mechanical. In “Manuelzinho,” the gardener resists his role as
automatic subject, whether willfully or not (and probably not). He is “supposed/ to
supply me [the speaker] with vegetables,/ but you don’t; or you won’t; or you
can’t/ get the idea through your brain.” Note the enjambment between “can’t” and
“get,” which allows the speaker to say both that Manuelzinho can’t supply her with
vegetables and also can’t get the idea through his brain that his job requires him to
do so. Although he may well have been a comical figure in “real life,” Bishop
transforms Brazilian lower class culture into a “foolish” space by juxtaposing it
with the work sphere, that of neglected responsibility. The speaker implies that the
mystic “three-legged carrot” and the pumpkin “bigger than the baby”
(Manuelzinho’s terms) are the result of poor gardening technique. She jokes in a
letter to Robert Lowell about the lower classes’ fascination with such vegetables:
[…]The best moment was when a farmer or somebody handed the
President up a monster mandioca root—about 25 lbs.—a huge phallic
symbol—and this was so Brazilian. (Giant vegetables are revered—I have a
“pumpkin big as the baby, you may remember, in a poem. Just another proof
of primitivism.) (WIA 497)
Manuelzinho has wasted the speaker’s money on “imported” seeds, which produce
the mythical produce. His actions are playful, by which we mean “unproductive,”
but they are not “rupturing.” That is, they do not challenge the prevailing order.
They do not open new possibilities. Instead, they are marginalized on the very
property in which they squat, confined to the lines the speaker redraws. Good
hierarchies make good squatters, and Manuelzinho’s own play is untenably
frustrating for the speaker. To Lowell, Bishop’s own play was in stark contrast. He
is careful to stress that “Manuelzinho” is the result of hard work, as he writes, “You
seem to have a loose, seemingly careless style, very humorous, very ‘I am saying
what amuses me and saying it without breaking my back’; but of course I know all
[the] fierce labors you really go through” (173). Lowell’s negotiation between
economies of work and play is also a negotiation between real and mythical.
Bishop’s art is not wholly separated from the gardener’s, and yet hers is
productive, especially in Lowell’s estimation. Through “fierce labors,” she has
created a master(/)piece, whereas the gardener is “supposed to supply her with
vegetables,” and doesn’t. Bishop makes it look easy where it’s supposed to be hard,
and Manuelzinho takes it easy when he’s supposed to be working hard.
The poem’s Bergsonian dramatic laughter is evident in these early lines in
which Manuelzinho ineptitude is again linked to the mythical element:
And once I yelled at you
so loud to hurry up
and fetch me those potatoes
your holey hat flew off,
you jumped out of your clogs,
leaving three objects arranged
in a triangle at my feet,
as if you’d been a gardener
in a fairy tale all this time
and at the word ‘potatoes’
had vanished to take up your work
of fairy prince somewhere. (CPoems 97)
Here the “mechanical” expectation is that Manuelzinho will understand the
command to fetch potatoes as befitting his role within the social hierarchy (and
implicitly his job description) and will do it. The critique, to use a phrase that
exhibits the layers we are dealing with, is that he is “in another world” when asked
to perform his duty. What Bergson refers to as “absent-mindedness” is of course
opposed to our expectation that he can fulfill his function, the way a machine ought
to (20). But he doesn’t, and this is what creates the comic moment. Further, the fact
that he is “in another world” has important applications for the present discussion,
the first of which is that Bishop’s speaker sees Manuelzinho as existing to fulfill a
function in the first place. The scene calls to mind that Manuelzinho is in an
entirely different socioeconomic world as well, as his “holey hat” indicates,
nevermind that “holey” appears also to be a pun on the religious sense of holy. In
this case, this might mean that Manuelzinho is not in touch with the present world,
that his attention is drawn to another realm—a realm that is only satirically higher,
I presume.97
It also figures into some of the religious motifs in the poems that do contribute to Manuelzinho’s
other-worldliness. He is religious, we know, because he prays for the speaker every night. The
holey/holy observation is also made by Bonnie Costello on page 82 of her Elizabeth Bishop:
Questions of Mastery.
In the final two stanzas of “Manuelzinho,” Bishop returns to the “holey” hat
from the third stanza.
You paint—heaven knows why—
the outside of the crown
and brim of your straw hat.
Perhaps to reflect the sun?
Or perhaps when you were small,
your mother said, ‘Manuelzinho,
one thing: be sure you always
paint your straw hat.’ (CPoems 99)
For the first time in the poem we see the speaker question her own ethnocentrism.
Perhaps it is not logical reasoning that compels him to paint his hat. Instead, it may
be a tradition passed down from his mother, a tradition that represents something
the speaker does not understand. Here, what is exotic and strange can be made
neither domestic nor familiar to the speaker; she must admit that the teasing to
which she subjects Manuelzinho in the lines to come might not be well-founded,
and she writes, “I apologize here and now” (CPoems 99). Her insincere apology is
for the disparaging joking voice, a gesture about which Freud might say, “[S]He
who lets the truth escape like that... is in reality happy to throw off the mask” (qtd.
in Lacan 224).98
It would be interesting to conceive of Bishop as a Lacanian split subject, which is not far-fetched
because of the schizophrenic discourse here. Like one who has told a joke into a tape recorder and
now sits back to hear it replayed, Bishop reflects as a listener—no longer the analysand, she is now
the analyst—and we see that here she encounters the foreign, unfamiliar element that causes her to
The final stanza reflects on what has or has not been accomplished by the
poem itself. The speaker concedes that, though Manuelzinho is “helpless” and
“foolish,” she nonetheless “loves [him] all she can” (Poems 99). Significantly,
however, she questions the motives behind the move. The question “Or do I?”
could be reframed as, “Is there any way to bridge the distance between us?” Just as
the speaker has already admitted that she cannot be friends with Manuelzinho’s
children, she also seems to ask if she can really view him as anything but a comic
moment, the Bergsonian man who, “as though wearing the ring of Gyges with
reverse effect [...] becomes invisible to himself while remaining visible to all the
world” (Bergson 20).
But it is Bishop’s own poetics of untouchability that are inextricably tied to
her insincere “promise.” She wanted to distance both herself and her poetry from
more “common” discourses, placing them off limits in a sort of museum. Betsy
Erkkila has noted that one tendency of early scholarship on Bishop has been to
view her work in aesthetic terms. One early review of Questions of Travel puts it
this way: “Miss Bishop is a careful craftsman. Her phrasing is exquisitely polished.
Each poem is a gem” (Johnson n.p.). Bishop would have preferred that these gems
be left alone. She sees the lower class world as untouchable, looked at closely but
through binoculars. Consider “Filling Station,” in which everything is dirty, dirty,
question her project anew. Jacques Lacan, discussing Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the
Unconscious, writes (in the first person) of the joke listener: “...not only must there have been
something foreign to me in my find for me to take pleasure in it, but some of it must remain foreign
for this find to hit home” (224). Here, it is right the think of this “find” as “getting the joke,” or at
least recognizing what is supposed to be funny therein. The subsequent “Or do I?” reveals the
foreign element, which is the “analysand” Bishop’s inability to bridge the hierarchical distance
between her and Manuelzinho.
and more dirty. Vicki Feaver cleverly observes that the introduction of typically
feminine touches in “Filling Station” amounts to a “reclamation of female space”
(95). By the same logic, however, Bishop claims a classed space, a space where she
would go for gasoline, not the site of a family (gasp!). Bishop, who never obtained a
driver’s license, would maintain her distance at the pumps, typically remaining an
observer while someone else paid for and filled up the car. Though some critics
have generously pointed out the silver lining in “someone loves us all,” I assert that
the speaker is quite amazed that someone loves these oil-soaked men; how many
times must she say “Why?” It is condescending, and its status as a “much lighter
poem” is less of a comfort to me than an embroidered doily (Feaver 94). The poem
is at least as much of a critique of the lower-class housewives and lower-class
houselives as it is a celebration of female space. Bishop, who but for a few teaching
jobs in her twilight years never worked outside the home, seems surprised that a
work space could be domesticated. Or that someone could live in such a “dirty!”
“little,” disturbing,” “dirty,” “all thoroughly quite dirty” filling station. Zachariah
Pickard writes that Bishop’s “deeply unsurrealist optimism extends so far that
even in the dirtiest, most mundane of places she finds a beauty lying beneath the
surface” (56). I think that what some critics see as an “all creatures great and
small”99 is actually “there’s a lid for every pot.” In these poems, Bishop finds beauty
where she requires it, not where she sees it, and the exoticism of all things “oilsoaked” is, as elsewhere, transformed into rainbow, rainbow, rainbow. She has
held up this ugly fish long enough to take a good look at it, and now she lets it go.
See Cecil Frances Alexander, “Maker of Heaven and Earth (All Things Bright and Beautiful).
The blackening of the body in “Filling Station” is symbolic of the
racialization inextricably entwined with a classism that doesn’t wipe off so easily.
Renée Curry’s White Women Writing White takes a black-and-white, no-frills look
at Bishop’s racial essentialism. While Curry notes that “writing white constitutes
writing authored from an acknowledged or unacknowledged white perspective,”
Bishop’s white writing differs across these discourses, and in some she identifies
with the marginalized, the displaced, the orphaned, and the parasitic (2). Thus, it is
not an all-out indictment of Bishop when Curry writes that “her poetry presents a
hierarchical view of the world with whiteness firmly situated in power” (77). Still,
Curry consults Bishop’s letters, which “blatantly portray people of color in
romanticized and childlike ways” (79). It is tempting for critics, me included, who
tend to valorize “childlike ways” for their playful, creative potential, to defend
Bishop’s treatment of Manuelzinho as being in this category. Yet, Bishop was far
from approving of the romantic or the childish, especially in poetry. Asked about
the “profound influence [of the Beat poets] on thousands of young people all over
the world,” Bishop said, “Romantic and self-pitying. I hate self-pitying poems” (qtd.
in Monteiro 35). When circumstances finally forced her to teach—cushy gigs, to be
sure—she deplored her students’ romantic tendencies and consistently measured
their work against her own essentialist notion of what makes a “good” poem. She
also felt that children should not create art. 100
Bishop notes, “I was in the hospital several years ago and somebody gave me Kenneth Koch’s
book, Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? And it’s true, children sometimes write wonderful things
[…] but I think they should be discouraged” (qtd. in Monteiro 121-2). Sorry, kiddos, the ivory
tower’s full. Actually, in context, Bishop was lamenting that it was so hard for her to choose
Appyling Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque to Bishop’s work without
acknowledging her classism and problematic poetics of untouchability has
misleading results.101 In his work on “Pink Dog,” Stephen Gould Axelrod sees her
treatment of the Brazilian classes as “Rabelaisian,” and suggests a far more
socially-activist observer than the historical Elizabeth Bishop (67). In his article,
“Heterotropic Desire in Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Pink Dog,’” he compares her treatment
of the dog/impoverished Brazilians to other journalistic accounts of poor around
the world. He admires her for “addressing this problem” of poverty (68). But I
would assert that Bishop’s desire for the dog to “dress up!” is characteristic of her
desire to be separated from, distanced from these problems. Bishop’s own distance
from the carnival creates problems for thinking of the text as “Rabelaisian,” or
some performance of a carnivalesque discourse. On the contrary, Bishop removes
the masks of the carnival, denying it subversive potential and revealing it for what
it is to her: a bunch of poor, irresponsible people leaving their children and other
obligations to dress up and dance. As Costello notes, the carnival only makes their
condition worse; “If a depilated dog does not look attractive, one in mascara,
dressed up and dancing, is truly obscene” (86).
students for her writing class with so many young writers. She also remarked that too many people
were working on creative activities such as “handcrafts” (qtd. in Monteiro 122). “I think we should
go right straight back to the machine” (qtd. in Monteiro 122) (!) Bishop’s ambivalence can most
likely be credited to her fear of the poem losing its museified life as a unique object. In the age of
mechanical reproduction, the machine should make our leather belts and throw our pots… leave
the artistry to a select few, so that their productions will retain value as works of art by being
distanced from more “common” art. It is very hard not to see this as elitist, much like her tendency
to berate her students for not “producing” anything of worth. Lost in this is the conception that
creative play is not just about “production.”
101 Betsy Erkkila refers to Manuelzinho as a “resistant and carnivalesque figure” (299).
Critics would both do well to acknowledge Bishop’s problematic poetics of
untouchability in the context of her real, lived experience. Although Kim Fortuny’s
Elizabeth Bishop: The Art of Travel responds to a new, and welcome, tradition of
socially-conscious Bishop scholars, the work is thinly researched. Moreover,
Fortuny chooses to ignore the dynamics perpetuating Bishop’s meager poetic
production during her Brazil years. In contriving her reading of “Manuelzinho,”
Fortuny criticizes Frank Bidart, who had referred to it as the only poem (the only
one, mind you) with a “whiff of noblesse oblige” (qtd. in Fountain and Brazeau
141). The quote was actually generous of Bidart, for I have cited several Bishop
pieces with more than just a “whiff” of the rank stuff. Fortuny’s suggestion that
“Manuelzinho” may be “too easily interpreted as a lighthearted treatment of
poverty” suggests that it has been treated that way by critics; this is unjust and
inaccurate (21). Her argument is founded on the poem’s words alone, largely apart
from the biographical, historical, and social spheres in which it was penned.
Fortuny’s is a bizarre treatment given her otherwise admirable concern for social
responsibility and for bridging aesthetic and social discourses. Scholars of the
Brazil period should acknowledge Bishop’s vexed politics when examining her
poetry, regardless of the depth the discourse itself affords.
A poetry that is raced off and classed off can only be admired, not played
with, not reappropriated, not sent back into folk circulation. What critics like
Axelrod have seen as a carnival space, a site of dialogism, is often foreclosed as a
museum space. In 1966, Louis Martz noticed Bishop’s travel(ing) museum in his
review of Questions of Travel for Yale Review. There, he criticizes “a weakness that
runs throughout most of these Brazilian pieces: the presence of a stagy, factitious
quality as of some ‘quaint’ souvenirs carefully arranged upon a mantelpiece” (458).
The image Martz constructs is interesting in that it suggests Bishop making
personal use of these artifact poems, taking them from the exotic and bringing
them into the familiar, domestic space of the mantelpiece. He suggests that the
poems about “the peasants and their children,” among the others, “fall with an
effect of jarring contrivance upon the ear” compared to her other work (459).
Bishop certainly struggled to apply order, to arrange her perception of Brazil and
its objects. What Martz deems an “excessively studied naiveté” might well be a way
of describing Bishop’s poetry about Brazil and a way of explaining why her
souvenirs do not quite feel authentic (460).
In Bishop’s
unpublished poem,
“The Museum,” the
speaker wants to return
to a museum in
disrepair, repeating
“Please let’s go back,”
the missing comma
suggesting the
Figure xxx
sentiment’s urgency (Juke Box 72). The exhibit had been neglected, and this
“provincial” museum ought not to be left alone. It must be cared for. Bishop took
this job very seriously in her poetry, as she appointed herself the docent poet,
typesetting each object, making sure it had the proper embroidery, yes, but also
the less-noticed preservational procedures. The light, the way it is set, the form.
Bishop was very selective about just where to place her poems, and just how they
would look. She refused to be placed in a “women” poets anthology and continued
to shop around for other publishers at one point, because this museum wasn’t
exactly what she wanted. Susan Rosenbaum has made significant contributions on
this topic, contrasting Lowell and the confessionalists’ method to Bishop’s. The
latter, she writes, “uses ‘found objects’ in her poetry to preserve their
inscrutability, drawing attention to the frames through which they are viewed,
known, and named so as to resist their appropriation” (213). To Rosenbaum, this
is Bishop’s “illegible signature,” which was an attempt to present something
separate from herself and preserve it as such. It is telling, therefore, that Bishop
often chose The New Yorker to be her bourgeois print museum, a publication
whose readership would admire and protect her pieces, look after them and not
touch them or mess them up.102 Here, we observe a longing for separation in
Bishop’s readers. They too want travel, want an epic distance, a vantage point from
which to observe “oh but it is dirty” or “now, this is beautiful art.” They want the
fixity and untouchability of high art, which is part of the outcry over Alice Quinn’s
Edgar Allan Poe and the Jukebox, a collection of previously unpublished poems. For
these readers, Bishop is perfect, without peers. She is the poet’s poet’s poet
Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker, several years after it first hit Barnes & Noble’s high-gloss
shelves, remains an best-selling book in the category of “Museums and Collectibles.”
because of her polish. So, please, they cried, don’t ruin our Elizabeth Bishop by
subjecting her to life outside of the museum! It’s hard not to admire the varnish.
But there is no “vulgar beauty of iridescence.” It is a far cry indeed from Langston
Hughes’s poems, which Zora Neale Hurston took into southern jooks and whose
verses were passed around, sung, signified upon and doused with beer foam,
pinched in a guitar strap and belted warm to the moon.
This is why Bishop could not stand literary critics and their theories. They
looked and touched. They played with her work. They took it out of the museum
and into the sandbox, reappropriating its “proper” use. Bishop would agree
“wholeheartedly” with Octavio Paz’s decision not to allow his class to read any
literary criticism (qtd. in Monteiro 102). When Paz says that “‘Critics have so much
more active imaginations than poets,’” Bishop finds this “very amusing and
accurate” (qtd. in Monteiro 102). Talking to Eileen McMahon in 1978, she remarks,
“Of course, critics find the most extraordinary philosophies that never could have
occurred to you when you wrote the poem” (qtd. in Monteiro 108). In her letters to
Robert Lowell, Bishop reveals the ways in which this attitude is related to her anticonfessional poetics. Unlike him, she is not comfortable “tackling any idea or
theme, seriously, in both writing and conversation… It is hell to realize one has
wasted half one’s talent through timidity that probably could have been overcome
if anyone in one’s family had had a few grains of sense or education” (qtd. in
Rosenbaum 196). Here, Bishop shows her insecurity about not being a “true”
aristocrat and running in the Harvard circles. As Rosenbaum points out about this
letter, Bishop “subtly valorizes her inability (lack of desire) to write ‘real’ poems in
Lowell’s confessional style” (197). Bishop consistently attacked, sometimes subtly
and sometimes less so, the project of the confessional poets. Unlike Anne Sexton,
Bishop was not a performer, and as for presenting or “framing” her work herself,
she was perpetually mortified, turning down many opportunities to make public
appearances. Bishop was not merely shy or enochlophobic; instead, she preferred
to create what Rosenbaum might permit me to call “miniature museums,”
including the tiny Geography III. In this slim volume, each piece is properly set off
and preserved, never misheard, and above all separated from any intimate
connection to her. Imagine what a prison life would’ve been for Frank O’Hara had
an invisible hand confined him to that tendency!
Quite the opposite of O’Hara, Bishop’s poetics of untouchabilty manifested
itself in her adherence to the laws of punctuation. Speaking crankily of her
teaching days, she tells Wesley Wehr: “I found out the other day, to my horror, that
they don’t even know the difference between a colon and a semicolon!” (qtd. in
Monteiro 38). And, later in the same conversation, she complains, “I finally had to
get out my Dictionary of English Usage and slowly read to them the definitions of
like and as” (qtd. in Monteiro 38, her italics, my eye roll).103 This isn’t to say that
adherence to grammatical rules is inherently wrong, but Bishop’s various forms
often belied her essentialist view of what a good poem “is.” Whereas even this was
set into play for O’Hara, Hughes, and Hurston, most of Bishop’s oeuvre identified
with an object-based, typographically-fixed, left-justified, and “high”-language
poetics that was “horrified” by too much rule breaking.
Yes, reader, the very same! See the O’Hara chapter’s footnote on Lynne Truss.
Bishop’s desire to set her objects at a remove, to museify them, to make
them untouchable, as it were, is at odds with the conversational discourse that is
sometimes identified as “carnivalesque.” By policing the discourse itself, Bishop
instead reveals her desire to maintain her status within the hegemony. It is a false
carnival. To open up this conversation—and maintain our own dialogism—we
might say that it is her unarticulated superiority that is reified, as in the AfricanAmerican game of the dozens in which a temporary hierarchy is established. Of
course, when that “game” is over, this hierarchy does not retain the same value
that it has in the play sphere. A trace, if not more, remains. In institutionalized
marginalization—or, writ small, “bullying”—a process of ownership then takes
hold. Consider, for instance, Atlanta Braves and Florida State Seminoles athletic
events, at which one hears the persistent reification that must still sound like
bullying, or like donning “redface,” as it were, to some Native American peoples.
These chants, coupled with a “tomahawk chop,” within the play sphere have come
under scrutiny, to be sure, yet the frequent response by the powers that be is that
neither the team names nor the chanting rituals can be changed. They will say it is
out of their hands at this point or that the names are so deeply embedded that they
no longer refer to the “actual” referent. This is the complete reappropriation of
another identity, claiming that it exists for oneself, and it is a dangerous play with
the highest of stakes.104
In applying Bakhtin’s theories of the novel to Bishop’s poetry, one question that emerges is how
to negotiate the extent to which they apply. Determining whether Bishop’s conversational
discourse bridges hierarchical distance provides one example that could be used to figure this out,
but it is not definitive. Ultimately, it points to the requisite caution in applying theory carefully, a
caution that parallels, to some degree, the dangers of Elizabeth Bishop’s playfulness. What was
perhaps, for Elizabeth Bishop, a desire to familiarize herself with Brazilian culture becomes a tool
for keeping it at arm’s length. Are we not doing the same when applying theory without answering
these questions?
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