Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Unscrambling Samuel Beckett's "Whoroscope"

His first published poem is a real flooz, er, doozy.

by Stephen J. Gertz

What do you call a 100-line poem narrated by a grumpy and delirious René Descartes while he anxiously awaits being served an egg that better have been hatched between eight and ten days or else, and that is - Mother of Mercy! - annotated by its author?

You call it Whoroscope, Samuel Beckett’s first published poem.

Poet Andrew Goodspeed, in Contemporary Poetry Review, called it, “Oblique, resistant, and complex to the scholar as it is to the novice reader…squalor for squalor’s sake, indulgence in gloom, endless obscurity, pointless obscurantism, unfollowable erudition, reference to the untraceably personal, and the occasional unexplained diversion towards what seems motiveless degradation of humanity…sprawling, abrupt, amusing, obscure, disgusting, fantastically referential and, of all things, annotated. It betrays the provocative erudition, intellectualist sneering, and verbal confrontationality that Beckett adopted early.”

In other words, you may, when finished reading, ask yourself and anyone nearby, “WTF?” At which point your mettle is tested: run screaming into the void, or go back to re-read, sink into, swallow, and digest. If you’re Samuel Beckett you might add, “then excrete.”

It is, nonetheless,  an inspiring poem. It inspired literary critic William Bysshe Stein to write a sunny  side up eggsegesis, Beckett’s “Whoroscope”: Turdy Ooscopy, that begins:

The method of this study mirrors an ooscopy, a divination from eggs. And it is not alone the fowl taste of the renowned philosopher Descartes for omelets 'made from eggs hatched from eight to ten days' that inspires this approach. Patently, this biographical fact fertilized the imagination of Samuel Beckett, its implicit absurdity underlying his perverse embryogenetic treatment of certain major philosophical, religious, scientific, and emotional crises in the life of Descartes. As a realized conception, the egg in one way or another yokes together these predicaments.

Ova my dead body.

The poem is legendary for its creation. Beckett cranked it out in one night, in Paris, desperate to meet  a submission deadline. He completed "half before dinner, had a guzzle of salad and Chambertin...and finished it about three in the morning." He then mailed it  for consideration in a poetry contest held by shipping-heiress and poet, Nancy Cunard. He won (£10) and  Whoroscope was published in its first separate edition by The Hours Press, Cunard’s small publishing house devoted to literary Modernism and experimental poetry, in 1930.

You can read the full text of, and annotations to, Whoroscope here.

Or, you can avoid a potential cerebral hernia and simply read the Booktryst version, which unscrambles the poem to get to the heart of the matter, that which sets-off and sustains this wacked-out monologue suspended in space and time and exclusive of all but its own internal reference points, The Cosmic Egg:

Ode to Oeuf

What's that?
An egg?
By the brother Boot it stinks fresh.
Give it to Gillot

What's that?
A little green fry or a mushroomy one?
Two lashed ovaries with prosciutto?
How long did she womb it, the feathery one?
Three days and four nights?
Give it to Gillot

What's that?
How long?
Sit on it.

In the name of Bacon will you chicken me up that egg.
Shall I swallow cave-phantoms?

Are you ripe at last,
my slim pale double-breasted turd?
How rich she smells,
this abortion of a fledgling!
I will eat it with a fish fork.
White and yolk and feathers.

Well, maybe not the Cosmic Egg. Sometimes an egg is just an egg.

• • •

Take a look and listen to a very well done reading, courtesy YouTube:


A beautiful copy (No. 59) of this, the first separate edition of Whoroscope, one of only 100 signed copies, and including the usually absent wraparound, has come to market, courtesy of Santa Barbara-based  rare bookman, Ralph Sipper  (aka Joseph the Provider). A fragile little thing (the book, not Sipper), the wraparound even more so, it is somewhat miraculous that any have survived in complete state. It is dear and highly desired.

BECKETT, Samuel. Whoroscope. Paris: The Hours Press, 1930. First separate edition, one of 100 copies signed by the author (of a total edition of 300). 8vo. [ii], 4. [2] pp. Printed wrappers.

Images courtesy of Ralph Sipper, with our thanks.

1 comment:

Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email