Not Waving

Frank Delaney and the nearing tide

Andrew Wilkinson/Flickr
Andrew Wilkinson/Flickr

Re: Joyce

On February 20, 2017, followers of Frank Delaney’s podcast Re: Joyce found a message on Delaney’s website that fueled an especially moody-broody kind of anxiety: “This week’s podcast will be delayed due to unforeseen circumstances.”

Such news was unprecedented. A week earlier, Delaney, an Irish-born radio journalist who spent decades covering cultural issues for the BBC, had reached Episode 368 in his quest to produce a weekly podcast that would work its way through James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses. In this episode, with typical insight, he explored Joyce’s habit of interrupting the main narrative with vignettes that occur at the same time in other parts of Dublin. It’s a signature Joycean move, one that reminds us of the infinite parallel realities transpiring beyond our immediate frame of reference.

With this literary lesson still fresh, listeners could not help but wonder: did something, in a life-imitating-art moment, interrupt the main narrative of Frank Delaney?

Before signing off on Episode 368, Delaney promised, as he often did, “more … next week.” “Next week” has become a thrilling anticipatory event for the 2.5 million followers of this essential podcast, with Delaney, who started this project on June 16, 2010 (Bloomsday, naturally), as the ideal mentor. His goal, over a carefully planned 33 years of weekly podcasting, has been to uncover the staggering depth of reference that makes Ulysses one of the few novels that rewards a lifetime of rereading. Having segmented out the podcast to end on his 100th birthday, Delaney has often told listeners with a straight voice that we’ll be seeing a particular character again in, oh, about 10 years. It’s a delicious tactic, applied as it is to a novel that takes place over a single day.

Re: Joyce’s accessibility has much to do with Delaney—as with most first-time readers of Ulysses—having at first been defeated by the novel’s apparent inscrutability. Like so many of us, he too had reader’s remorse by section three (“Proteus”), when Joyce takes what had previously been flashes of Stephen Dedalus’ interior state and unleashes the protagonist’s stream of consciousness in full force. This daunting section opens deep inside Stephen’s brain as shells crunch under his feet at Sandymount Strand:

Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs.

What to make of these mystic musings? Delaney, who as a young man survived this terrifying textual moment by reading it slowly out loud, takes an entire episode to parse these three sentences. What he accomplishes in less than 10 minutes is a triumph of interpretive prowess. The opening five words reference Aristotle’s De Animus; the next three Joyce’s glaucoma; then the German mystic Jakob Böhme; and finally section one, when Stephan stares into the ocean—this “bowl of bitter waters”—from the Martello Tower and recalls the horror of his mother’s death, at which he was present.

Despite the many allusions, these 38 words are ultimately reduced to a single point: Stephen wants to change. Although he’s not sure how, he wants to be better. And suddenly, beautifully, every reader who has made it this far in the novel is ready to keep going to the end, because who doesn’t also want this?

Three days after listeners were denied episode 369, we learned why: Delaney had died of a stroke. That we never heard him recite the signature final lines of the novel (“Yes I said yes I will yes”), while surrounded by 100 blazing candles, shouldn’t deter us from saying yes to the illuminating brilliance that Frank Delaney lavished on Joyce’s novel, and ineluctably, our lives.

Literature and History

One of the benefits of Doug Metzger’s invaluable podcast, which has so far explored the history of literature from the Ancient Sumerians to Ovid, is that you can tune in to any one of his 64 episodes and still feel connected to the larger narrative (I began by sampling number 32, a discussion on Antigone). Only once, in Episode 41, does Metzger advise listening to the previous show in order to avoid a “bewildering” (his word) experience. To this I say something that I’d otherwise never say about Metzger’s unwavering good advice: ignore it. Episode 41 is the place to start.

To be bewildered, if we accept its original meaning of being “lured into the wilds,” is precisely the experience Metzger helps his listeners yield to. Episode 41 is the ideal starting point because it’s here that you first stare into the wilderness of ideas you’ll soon enter. In it, Metzger begins to outline the journey from cuneiform writing, to Homer and the Old Testament, to lyrical Greek poetry. Never pedantic but deeply informative, Metzger is an earnest and amiable—and ultimately erudite—guide through this expansive literary timeline. The only thing that distracts from his avuncular erudition is his musical talent: he writes and performs an original comedic song at the end of each episode.

With Metzger’s friendly disposition and humor, it’s easy to miss the fierceness of his underlying mission. He’s hammering even more nails into the coffin of the New Criticism, a mid-20th century style of literary analysis that championed a work’s self-referential aesthetic. For Metzger, Antigone is every bit as much about the tragedy’s internal structure—the tension between the ideal and the pragmatic—as it is about the 5th century battle between the sophists and the Platonists. Metzger manages to consistently get both the text and the context right. And there’s nothing bewildering about it.

The London Review of Books Podcast

The LRB podcast is where Britain’s public intellectuals go to be heard. Whether it’s Mary Beard on women in power, James Wood on voluntary emigration, or Hilary Mantel on Anne Boleyn, this podcast offers an incomparable trove of intelligent viewpoints on a range of issues.

Within this vast archive, there’s also a short series on poetry, which consists of the poet Mark Ford and Oxford professor of English Seamus Perry discussing a British or American poet. It’s an especially outstanding subgenre of the podcast.

Ford and Perry are well-matched minds. Drawing fluently on biographical and literary insights, their conversations delve into poems whose meanings seem either too apparent or too obscure, and so discovering ideas and emotions that remind us how a lifetime of poetic beauty is just the tiniest shift in perspective away.

The hosts analyze the tone and techniques of Wallace Stevens, A. E. Housman, Thomas Hardy, and Elizabeth Bishop, among others. But the segment on the British poet Stevie Smith reveals Perry and Ford at their finest. Smith is best known for her poem, “Not Waving but Drowning.” Perry reads the opening stanza:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Then Perry and Ford dive in. Noting that Smith wrote the poem after reading a newspaper report of a drowning, Ford points out its juxtaposition of the comic and tragic. The humor of trying to make “moaning” and “drowning” rhyme (Smith is a “purposely bad rhymester”) coexists with the pathos of a man’s desperation being misread as a friendly wave.

Ford also walks us the poem’s stunning conclusion:

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

With these words, a mishap gleaned from the tabloids is turned into a message for us all. Who hasn’t been “too far out,” deeply insecure, waving for help? Thanks to Ford and Perry, that anxiety, too, can now claim poetic significance.

(To listen to the Scholar’s own poetry podcast, click here.)

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James McWilliams is an historian at Texas State University. He's currently at work on a book on the art and literature of the American South. He lives in Austin, Texas.


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