Monday, December 14, 2009

Some Crow About Upstarts

Chair and Door


The insolence of
gadgetry, the beverage
depot’s hoisting something
inflatable, a cork-
screw or beer-
bottle. It’s gusting
out, the guy
lines keep busting
loose and why
anybody’d bother is
entirely sub rosa
like the smoke-
and nicotine-color’d
snail that’s maneuvering
up the stem
of the American
Beauty that’s plant’d
near the car-
dealership’s fence. Beauty’s
something of a
nuisance and a
fix, categorical putty
used to fill
any hole. That
upstart Crow Shakespeare’s
got Polonius saying
“a vile phrase:
‘beautify’d’ / Is a
vile phrase” at
Hamlet’s pinning it
to celestial Ophelia—
who ends up
in a flower-
strewn watery ditch—
in a love-
letter. What is
beauty? A hammer
to tack down
(or pin up)
the corporeal thralls
of desire or
a silk air-
hose to pump
up the shiny
slack sheath of
disgorged truth? A
way of making
fly a fat
warning that’ll advert
the usual quotidian
dopey insolence at
the day’s end?

I recall a short period of sporting a button that read “I’m An Upstart,” some merchandizing-foible (or bauble) of a punk-era band call’d the Angelic Upstarts. I don’t recall how I arrived at that button, or why, precisely, I wore it, hardly being one to “accessorize.” Or even to advertise my allegiances, of which, mark of an upstart, I had none (I hardly knew the band). I liked the term “upstart,” I liked the idea of the “angelic upstart”—presumably one who knock’d down a complacency of used-up angels by dint of sheer undaunt’d counter-angelicks. So, a pleasure to read—out of Jonathan Bate’s Soul of the Age: The Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare (Penguin, 2009)—how the “earliest clear record of Shakespeare in the London theatre world”—in the autumn of 1592—“sees a rival playwright, Cambridge-educated Robert Greene, insulting him” thus:
There is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a country.
Insecurity of the “made” gentleman Greene twitting the newly-arrived “maker” Shakespeare. Bate:
There can be no doubt that this refers to Shakespeare, the player turned “maker” who is here accused of borrowing the stylistic plumage of university-educated playwrights such as Greene himself. Shakespeare made his theatrical name with the barnstorming Henry VI plays, in one of which Queen Margaret places a paper crown on the head of Richard, duke of York, and is rewarded with a diatribe describing her as an “Amazonian trull” with a “tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide.” The quotation, with woman altered to player is unmistakable. A Johannes fac totum, was a jack-of-all-trades—English culture has a long history of men from the professions, armed with degrees from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, looking down their noses at hardworking men, form a trade background who lack a degree (which in the Elizabethan age allowed you to call yourself a gentleman). Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit goes on to call Shake-scene a “rude groom” and a “peasant.” This is the snobbery of the town sophisticate toward the country bumpkin as well as the professional toward the trader.
The “upstart” means and maneuvers: rife in the history of letters, unsuccumb’d even today. Milton points somewhere to the “the improper mixture of Scholastick and pusillanimous upstarts.” Richardson, in Clarissa: “None but the prosperous upstart Mushroom’d into rank.” Is it possible to fill the role of both upstart and “gentleman”? Is it possible to make a career of upstartism? One sees somebody like Ron Silliman—upstart gone to whining is how one might delineate the humdrum maledictory betidings interminably spout’d against the “quietists,” surely, they must all be gentlemen, no? Though it is current policy chez Silliman to brook no noise-making argument—a gentlemanly position, certainly—that is, to maintain a clotted veil of ignorance (and silence) regarding whatever “upstart” noises abound. By so routinely heaping up such a massive (unreadable, and, I’d wager, mostly unread, even by the heaper himself) accumulation of pointers to various stories in the “field,” Silliman is not unlike a big box store, an Amazon: the suggestion is: here’s all the news about poetry that one needs. That other—the rude upstart, the bumpkin (note Silliman’s rampant city-centrism, East or West)—is negligible, ignorable, ignorant. Oi.

Angelic Upstarts

Angelic Upstarts at a Miners’ Benefit Dance at the Barbary Coast Club, Sunderland, Wearside, 1984
(Photograph by Chris Killip)