Jane Cooper's "Rent" first appeared in Scaffolding, which was published in England in 1984 and then in the United States in 1993. The poem is addressed to a lover who is coming to share the speaker's apartment, but the speaker wants to be clear that she is more interested in the love relationship than in the shared objects and responsibilities. Cooper herself never married and never had children. Her poetry often explores different kinds of relationships, rather than focusing on the dynamics of traditional families. "Rent" also expresses Cooper's feminist identity, which is less about a political and social agenda and more about integrity and self-expression in daily life. When "Rent" was published in 1984, Cooper was sixty years old, and her identity as a poet and a woman was fully developed. "Rent" also appears in The Flashboat: Poems Collected and Reclaimed (2000). These poems were picked by Cooper and collectively offer a thorough overview of her work.
Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on October 9, 1924, Jane Cooper is the daughter of Martha (Marvel) Cooper and John Cobb, a writer and legal specialist. Cooper was reared in Jacksonville, Florida, and has lived in New York since 1951. She began her undergraduate work at Vassar College (1942–1944) but had to suspend her studies owing to health problems. With her health improved, she completed a bachelor of arts degree at the University of Wisconsin in 1946. Following graduation, she studied and traveled in postwar Europe, keeping detailed journals that would provide material for her later writing. When she returned from her travels, she took a position as poet in residence at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and began writing in earnest. She went on to teach writing and literature there from 1950 through 1987. She left only briefly, to pursue a master of arts degree at the University of Iowa (which she completed in 1954). At Iowa, she studied with such poet luminaries as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and the 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner, Philip Levine. At Sarah Lawrence College, she and the poets Grace Paley and Muriel Rukeyser created a writing program that came to be nationally recognized. Although she retired in 1987, she is a professor and poet in residence emerita.
In 1969, when she was forty-four years old, Cooper published her first volume of poetry, The Weather of Six Mornings. Since then, she has regularly published and earned awards and fellowships, among them, a Guggenheim Fellowship (1960–1961), the Lamont Poetry Selection Award for The Weather of Six Mornings (1968), a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1982), a Maurice English Poetry Award for Scaffolding (in which "Rent" appears; 1985), a Radcliffe College Bunting fellowship (1988–1989), an American Academy of Arts and Letters award in literature (1995), and the position of New York State Poet (1996–1997).
Cooper's work reflects many of the same themes and subjects as that of other writers who reached adulthood during the World War II era. She often writes about domestic and personal subjects, the emergence of her individual identity as a woman and as a poet, public and personal conflict, and relationships with other people. Like so many women writers of her generation, she seeks to reveal the truth about womanhood and, in the process, to take down repressive expectations. Cooper frequently relies on symbolism and metaphor as figurative devices in her work, giving depth to her language and content. As she has aged, her poetry has reflected her musings on death and what is lasting.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.]
"Rent" is divided into four three-line strophes, or irregular stanzas. The poem is addressed to a lover who is coming to live with the speaker in her apartment. In the first strophe, the speaker tells the lover that he is welcome to sleep in the apartment but advises him to remember that the books are "still free agents." In the next strophe, she talks about the rocking chair. She says that when he sits in it, he may feel physically embraced by the chair. She cautions him, however, that just as the chair can embrace him, it can also release him. Commenting on the rocking chair's appearance, she says that it can "shape the air like a body," meaning that even with no one sitting in the chair, it retains the shape of a person.
In the third strophe, the speaker turns her focus away from the objects in her apartment and talks about herself and what she wants from the lover. She states boldly, "I don't want your rent," meaning that she is not agreeing to this living arrangement for practical or financial purposes. She makes this decision of her own free will. Still, she does so with certain expectations that are in no way related to the responsibilities of keeping an apartment. She wants her lover's attention. She wants to feel important, and she imagines they eat by candlelight. In the final strophe, she raises her expectations even higher, explaining that by attention, she means "a kind of awe / attending the spaces between us—." She wants more than idle conversation; she wants such a deep connection that awe fills not just the two of them but indeed the very space around them. This connection will be so transcendent that it will seem to them that the roof has become a starry sky.
The speaker in "Rent" is an independent woman who has decided to live with a lover. This decision enables the speaker to be deeply involved with the person she loves, while at the same time maintaining that part of her independence that would allow her to leave the relationship at any time. Not only has she chosen to share a home with her lover, but the couple has also decided to live in her apartment. Had she moved into the lover's apartment, she might have risked feeling that she had lost some of her independence because she had physically left her single life. By redefining "her" home as "their" home, however, she gets to stay in her comfort zone and on her own home turf.
The speaker also asserts her independence in the way she addresses her lover in the first two strophes. Rather than begin with flowery declarations of love and commitment like an excited girl, she reminds the lover that there are boundaries in their new home together. The lover may sleep in the apartment but is not necessarily entitled to the books. The lover may feel surrounded by the rocking chair's arms but also risks feeling them let go. The speaker does not immediately surrender her assertiveness to her lover. Although she reveals her romantic side in the second half of the poem, she does so only after making sure the lover knows she has a realistic side, too.
In the third and fourth strophes, the speaker states her expectations for the relationship. She says that she does not want the lover's rent, suggesting that she is financially independent and fully capable of taking care of herself. Any compromise of her independence is done willingly, not desperately. She wants the lover's attention, not the lover's half of the rent. Even in these statements, the speaker continues to assert herself as an independent woman who asks for what she wants and is not afraid to ask a lot of her lover. Her tone matches the boldness of her expectations and indicates that she will be fine on her own again if her lover is unable or unwilling to meet her expectations.
Topics For Further Study
- Cooper's "Rent" uses several literary devices, most notably metaphor and simile. Read through the poem with special attention to her use of these techniques and note her underlying meaning in each case. Rewrite the poem without using any literary devices, trying to express the same message in literal language.
- In "Rent," Cooper describes certain objects in an apartment. What items in your room or home have particular meaning or importance? Using photos, drawings, actual objects, or any other kind of visual presentation, create a display, for example, a diorama or short film that tells about yourself through the objects that are meaningful to you.
- Based on your reading of "Rent," what kind of person is the speaker? Write a character sketch about her, drawing from the poem and making educated assumptions about the speaker based on how she presents herself.
- Cooper was born in 1924 and was in her late teens and early twenties during World War II. Research women's experiences before, during, and after this war and write an essay about what a typical woman's life was like, what expectations existed for her, and how strong those expectations were. Then write five journal entries as if you were a woman living in this era who wanted to pursue a path that diverged from the traditional path for women. Your entries may span a week, a month, a year, or any other time period you choose.
In twelve short lines, the speaker reveals much about herself, including the joy she takes in everyday things and experiences. She first talks about her books, which she clearly loves and does not want taken from her too soon. She says that her lover may sleep in her apartment, but the disposition of the books is another matter. That she refers to the books as "free agents" shows that she thinks of books as living things with minds of their own. She has a genuine love and respect for them, and she needs her lover to understand that they will be a potential battleground should any attempt be made to take any of them. Next, she talks about her rocking chair. Like the books, the chair is given a sort of autonomy and personality. The chair is described as embracing and letting go of those who sit in it. In fact, the chair is so independent that it can actually "shape the air like a body" as if the chair were so self-fulfilled it did not need a person. In both of these cases—the books and the rocking chair—the speaker has fun with the idea that she has perhaps not been living alone prior to her lover's moving in. She takes such joy in her treasured items that she projects personalities onto them.
The speaker also anticipates great joy in the relationship with her lover once they are living together. She envisions candlelit dinners, meaningful discussions, and a deep connection with each other. She does not fantasize about whirlwind trips to Paris, lavish bouquets of exotic flowers, or expensive gifts. Instead, she imagines simple, romantic dinners at home and moments so inspiring that the roof dissolves to become a "field of stars." She can find joy right in her own dining room as long as the relationship is meaningful.
Metaphor as Narrative Device
Cooper is known for her use of metaphor, and in "Rent" she tells her story through metaphor. When the speaker talks about her apartment, she is actually talking about her life. Before her commitment to this lover, she lived happily and independently in her own apartment. Now that she and her lover are ready to merge their lives, she is willing to make her apartment theirs. She gives up part of her independence in giving up part of her apartment, because the apartment represents her single life. The reference to rent, therefore, is a reference not just to money but also to the practical responsibilities of everyday life. While she expects that the lover will uphold part of those responsibilities, what she really wants is the lover.
The speaker warns her lover that the "books are still free agents," meaning that they do not properly belong to anyone yet. She is actually talking about herself. She is not marrying her lover, at least not yet (she uses the word "still"), so she is still a free agent herself. She may choose to stay with the lover, or she may choose to leave at any time. Like the books, she has not yet signed a contract, according to the metaphor, which means she holds on to some of her independence. Similarly, when she talks about the rocking chair, she is talking about herself. When she comments that the chair's arms surround the lover but can also let go, she is asserting the same idea as she did with the books. She loves and chooses to embrace her lover, but she is also still free to let go. The statement "they can shape the air like a body" means that the arms of the chair do not actually need a person to sit between them in order to have the shape of a person. For her, that means that she does not need a lover in her life to be herself. She chooses whom she will embrace and whom she will let go.
The last metaphor characterizes the roof as "a field of stars." In transforming an ordinary roof into a stunning night sky, the metaphor communicates how the speaker anticipates that living with her lover will transform the everyday into the breathtaking. Where her other metaphors were cautionary comments, here the speaker surrenders to the romantic aspirations she holds for the relationship.
Much of Cooper's poetry concerns everyday occurrences, feelings, experiences, and musings. In "Rent," the setting is confined to a completely domestic setting, an apartment. From the first phrase ("If you want my apartment") to the last ("Not a roof but a field of stars"), the speaker never strays from the comfortable and familiar setting of her own apartment. In laying down the rules for their living together, the speaker talks to her lover about her books, her rocking chair, and their shared dinners. The context for the relationship is domestic. Within that setting, the speaker is able to discuss ground rules, relationship expectations, and deeply personal hopes.
Historians often divide feminism in the United States into two waves, the first including the suffrage movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the second encompassing the women's liberation movement of the 1960s. While there is no consensus on the exact dates of either wave, the general division is fairly well defined. Cooper's generation was active during the second wave of feminism, the efforts of which are still under way in the early twenty-first century. In the midst of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and social unrest that ensued, many people began to rethink the meaning of democracy and to explore their personal identities. In this context, feminists sought to advance the efforts of the women who had gone before them. Now that they had the vote, women wanted more autonomy and less control by men in their personal and public lives. They wanted equality in other areas of life, including gender roles, career opportunities and pay, and political representation. Unlike the women of the first wave of feminism, the women of this generation had gained more access to educational and workforce opportunities.
Out of the push for equal rights and an end to discrimination against women came the women's liberation movement. No longer satisfied with the roles women had been expected to fulfill in the past, feminists sought to destroy restrictive stereotypes and find the freedom to make decisions about themselves and their futures. Soon, various groups worked to raise consciousness about women's rights in every context, from education to politics to sexuality to family. Some feminists worked within existing groups like churches and neighborhoods, while others considered themselves trailblazers. Their activism not only altered political and professional facets of society but also led to the establishment of child-care facilities, rape crisis centers, and battered women's shelters.
Compare & Contrast
- 1984: Because the Census Bureau is not yet capturing data on cohabitation, estimates are required to reflect the trend of people living together without being married. This estimate was given the acronym POSSLQ, "Persons of the Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters." In 1984, the estimated number of POSSLQs was 2.4 million.
Today: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of the year 2000, more than 11 million unmarried people live with a partner. This represents an increase of 72 percent since 1990 and is ten times the number of people who were cohabitating in 1960. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announces in 2002 that 41 percent of women between the ages of fifteen and forty-four have lived with someone at some point in their lives.
- 1984: The median age for a woman's first marriage is twenty-two, more than a year older than a decade earlier. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1980, 39 percent of American adults are unmarried. This number slowly rises to 41 percent by the end of the decade, indicating an increasing willingness to wait or forgo marriage and an increased acceptance of that decision.
Today: In 2000, the median age for a woman's first marriage is twenty-five, and 44 percent of American adults are unmarried. As the median age for marrying continues to rise, along with the percentage of adults who remain unmarried, society is increasingly accepting and affirming decisions not to rush into traditional family patterns.
- 1984: Women's voices in literature are embraced and encouraged. Women's poetry is released by major publishers and reviewed by important journals. In 1983, the Women's Review of Books is launched, providing a journal specifically for reviewing writing by and for women. In the preceding ten years, two women won Pulitzer Prizes in Poetry and three women won National Book Awards for poetry.
Today: Women continue to be major literary figures across genres. Between 1995 and 2005, two women won Pulitzer Prizes in Poetry, and three women won National Book Awards for poetry.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, women writers found more encouragement and acceptance as they expressed their creativity in new ways. New voices in literature emerged, revealing more complex and varied female experiences. By the mid-1970s, there were about twenty-five feminist presses and close to two hundred feminist journals and periodicals.
Although some historians maintain that the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982 brought an end to the second wave, others point to ongoing feminist efforts. In fact, the 1980s brought more breakthroughs for feminists, including the appointment of the first woman to the Supreme Court and the commissioning of the first woman astronaut. In the past, these were careers outside the expectations for women, yet they have become accepted.
World War II Generation
The World War II generation lived through some of the most challenging periods in American history. Its members were born either just before or during the plentiful and generally peaceful 1920s. In the wake of World War I, the United States enjoyed a boom and economic growth. When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, Americans were unprepared and devastated. Children growing up during the Depression often faced hunger, disease, needing to find work when adults could not, and lack of education when schools were forced to close. Being subjected to such hardships molded these children into adults who had a strong work ethic and took less for granted than other generations did.
Coming out of the Depression, America found itself in another world war in the 1940s. The American people rallied together, fighting abroad and supporting the troops. Women entered the labor force to keep industry going while the men were fighting overseas in Europe and the Pacific. When the men returned after 1945, not all women were content to return to their domestic lives. By 1950, the rate of women entering the workforce was one million per year. Six years later, 35 percent of women were employed outside the home, although the vast majority of the jobs they held were clerical, were on assembly lines, or were service positions.
In the postwar years, women of this generation sought more opportunities to work outside the home, beyond their traditional careers as teachers, nurses, or secretaries. At the same time, the postwar "baby boom" of the late 1940s and early 1950s increased the demands on women as mothers. Education for women took a backseat in the 1950s. As women were torn between traditional roles as wives and mothers and emerging work opportunities that did not require much education, their rate of college enrollment dropped. Many women who did enter college left to marry before they graduated. Also, colleges were more welcoming to veterans, who were pursuing higher education under the benefits of the GI Bill. Media and advertising promoted the traditional image of women as home-makers. Women who had begun to pursue interests outside the home were often blamed for their family's problems.
Cooper's poetry is generally praised by critics for its consistency in vision and its honest portrayal of a woman's experiences over time. Because Cooper has been publishing poetry since 1969, her writing reflects her own changing perspectives, attitudes, and maturation. "Rent," which first appeared in Scaffolding (1984) and was later included in the retrospective anthology The Flashboat (1999), portrays domestic life and independence in Cooper's characteristic voice. In Library Journal, Lawrence Rungren reviews Scaffolding, praising it for its developing feminist voice and insights into relationships. He concludes that the collection "attests to one woman's, and one poet's, courage and perseverance."
The Flashboat contains selections from Cooper's previously published collections, along with unpublished poems she describes as "reclaimed." As a whole, the volume offers an overview of Cooper's career and development as a poet, and critics deem the collection worthy of praise. Commenting on The Flashboat, Donna Seaman of Booklist calls it a "lustrous collection of a lifetime of poetry." In Virginia Quarterly Review, Roberta Silman declares The Flashboat a "cause for celebration," adding that Cooper's "work has never gotten the attention it fully deserves." Silman comments that Cooper's lifelong health problems have given the poet a particular perspective on death that is present throughout her poems, from the earliest to the most recent. She further notes, "Yet awareness of death often gives one a heightened mindfulness of the ordinary joys; Cooper's best poems come from her 'radiance of attention,' requested in 'Rent.'" Summarizing the importance of The Flash-boat, Silman writes,
If you believe, to return to Keats, that "poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one's soul and does not startle or amaze it with itself but its subject," then this collection with its distinctive, strong, dignified voice will continue to engage and surprise and comfort for a long time to come.
Bussey is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, she explains how the speaker in Cooper's "Rent" is both a feminist and a romantic.
In 1974, Cooper wrote an essay titled "Nothing Has Been Used in the Manufacture of This Poetry That Could Have Been Used in the Manufacture of Bread." This essay appears in the 1993 American edition of Scaffolding, along with "Rent." In her essay, Cooper's voice joins many other feminist voices in commenting about unfair expectations of women in American society. Although opportunities had opened up for women and women were making great strides in pursuit of social and political equality, many women still felt compelled to compromise their dreams and ambitions. Sharing her own experiences, Cooper writes about the difficulty of asserting her own creativity and identity in the repressive postwar 1950s. Having never married or had children, she understands that her own experience as an American woman is unique, yet her path did not shield her from the pressures common to women of her era. Still, Cooper was able to discover her true identity and live it fully, unlike so many women she knew and taught in her classes at Sarah Lawrence College.
Cooper's essay, along with many of her poems, reflects the feminist strain in her work. But Cooper has not defined her poetry strictly along feminist lines. Although she supports feminist efforts to liberate women to explore and become their true selves, she writes primarily about her own personal experiences and insights. In "Rent," Cooper reveals both her feminist side and her romantic side in the persona of a woman preparing to live with her lover. (It is assumed for purposes of this discussion that the lover is a man, but it is worth noting that no gender is attributed either to the speaker or to the lover in the poem.) While the poem's speaker is bold in setting certain ground rules and expectations to the man she loves, she is not afraid to reveal her romantic yearnings. In embracing her feminist voice in her relationship, the speaker has not sacrificed the feminine desire for romantic love.
It is evidence of Cooper's skill as a poet that the speaker in "Rent" promotes feminism in a non-threatening way that is free of agenda or artifice. The feminism in "Rent" comes not from the feminist movement but from the personality of the speaker. She is not delivering a message of power and liberation to her lover as a way to empower herself as a woman; she is delivering a message of expectations to her lover because she loves him and wants the relationship to work. She just wants to be sure she lives together with her lover without surrendering too much power to the relationship. This is a voice to which most women can relate, regardless of their political viewpoints or positions on feminist issues. Still, the speaker does express views that are consistent with the feminist perspective, so that feminism is worth examining.
In The Feminist Poetry Movement, Kim Whitehead writes that the contemporary feminist poetry movement is as much about social and political progress as it is about unifying women without generalizing their "diverse identities and experiences." She notes:
At the heart of feminist poetry is still that dictum that drove the early women's movement—"the personal as political"—which means feminist poetics is heavily invested in the details of specific women's lives and simultaneously resisting the gendered oppression of women as a collective in contemporary America and around the world.
By Whitehead's standards, "Rent" can certainly stand as a work of feminist poetry. It involves the details of the speaker's life at a point in which her independence is negotiable. The tone and language of the poem indicate the speaker's awareness of the limits of her own independence, so she shares the collective experience of women in America as described by Whitehead. In the poem, the speaker discusses certain expectations with her lover, who is preparing to move in with her. The couple will live in her apartment, so she is in effect giving up some of her independence and "personal space" for the sake of the relationship. Being mature enough to enter into this arrangement with wisdom and foresight rather than giddy excitement, the speaker welcomes her lover into her apartment, but she also specifies that everything in it is not automatically his. She specifically describes the books and the rocking chair (which are metaphors for herself) to let him know that he does not enter the house as an all-powerful man. Their household will be one of sharing, connection, and love. Because she is an independent-minded woman who is not afraid to assert her will, she can speak to her lover freely in this way. That she does so without fear of rejection suggests that she has partnered with a man who appreciates and respects her.
From a linguistic and thematic point of view, Cooper's poem is in line with Whitehead's description of feminist poetry. Whitehead views feminist poetry as promoting a uniquely feminine expression and existing for the good of the poet and women as a whole. She explains:
Feminist poets have enlivened the American poetic tradition by rethinking the function of language and poetry, broadening theme and imagery by grounding them in the experiences of women, and developing a formal reorientation based in a feminist consciousness. As women writing with the interests of other women in mind, these women have developed a poetics grounded in women's individual experiences, geared toward women's liberation from gender oppression, and therefore involving the need for both subjective and collective expression.
What Do I Read Next?
- Edited by Taryn Benbow-Pfalzgraf, American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present (2000) profiles thirteen hundred writers, spanning the full history of the United States and including all genres.
- Cooper's first published volume of poems, The Weather of Six Mornings (1969), is an award-winning look into the real life of a woman struggling to tell the truth about her experience as a way to liberate herself and others. Although it was Cooper's debut collection, the fact that she was in her forties at the time is reflected in its maturity and thoughtful perspective.
- Susan M. Hartmann's The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s (1984) examines the lives of women in the World War II era. Unlike many treatments of this topic, however, Hartmann discusses different groups of women based on education, race, class, age, and marital status. The result is a thorough and varied account of women's experiences in this particular chapter of American history.
- Sylvia Plath's Pulitzer Prize-winning Collected Poems (1981) offers readers a wide selection of Plath's poetry, along with an introduction by her husband, the writer Ted Hughes. Because Plath and Cooper shared similar life experiences, their writings often invite parallel study.
Although Cooper does not fit neatly into the category of feminist poets that Whitehead goes on to describe in the introductory essay to her book, "Rent" does possess many of the hallmarks of important feminist poetry as laid out in these passages. In its expression by a woman to a man about their new life together, Cooper's poem demonstrates how personal feminism looks in everyday life. This is the heart of feminism, where the freedom gained by women in the social forum is internalized and asserted in one-on-one relationships. Cooper's speaker, however, is not vigilant or demanding. Her voice is completely reasonable and relatable and in no way diminishes the man or the love the two of them share. Indirectly, the speaker advances feminism by detracting from the negative stereotype of feminists as harsh man haters. But the softer side of the speaker of "Rent" goes a little deeper still.
In addition to representing a feminist sensibility, the speaker also represents modern romantic life. Remaining true to herself, she has not sacrificed her romantic ideals to feminism. She understands that the two can coexist and that only when both sides of her personality are given expression can she be truly happy. The first half of the poem is about the apartment itself, but the third strophe begins to blend the feminist with the romantic. When she writes, "I don't want your rent, I want / a radiance of attention," she gives a voice to her deepest desire. It is a romantic expression, but it is delivered boldly and without apology. She wants her lover to understand that he has been invited to share her home not because she needs him but because she wants him. She does not need his financial support or his help with chores. She wants his attention and his love. She wants candlelit dinners that make her feel connected to him. By comparing the attention she wants to the candle's flame, she is letting him know that his affirmation of their love will bring light into her life where there might be darkness or uncertainty. Perhaps the darkness is the loneliness she had been feeling in her apartment. Although she talks about her books and rocking chair as if they were alive, she knows they are merely objects. In this admission to her lover, she reveals her vulnerability to him. If she is apprehensive about revealing it, she does not let on. She seems as bold in asking for what she wants romantically as she is in telling him he cannot assume ownership of the books.
In the last strophe, the speaker continues to uphold her romantic ideal. She specifies that the attention they will give each other will be "a kind of awe" that will turn the ordinary roof into "a field of stars." The image of the starry night relates back to the image of the single candle flame representing the "radiance of attention" she wants from her lover. Now, the single flame has been multiplied in the appearance of a "field of stars." The speaker anticipates that the relationship with her lover will grow until they will feel the same kind of awe that a dark sky bursting with stars gives. At a deeper level, she looks forward to the transformation of the darkness in her life into a million lights.
Cooper makes subtle use of the speaker's references to air. To the speaker, the very air seems infused with her feelings and perceptions. In the second strophe, she claims that the rocking chair's arms can release a person because "they can shape the air like a body." In the fourth strophe, she describes awe "attending the spaces between us." In both cases, the very air is thick with meaning, but in different ways that point to the poem's change in direction as she moves from feminist to romantic. The rocking chair has the ability to form the appearance of a person out of the air because of its intrinsic shape, whether someone is in it or not. It does not need to have the man sitting in it to be what it is. Remember, the rocking chair is a metaphor for the speaker, so what she is really saying is that whether or not he is in her arms, she is still her own person. But when awe attends the spaces between them, a very different idea emerges. She and her lover are not embracing or even touching; after all, there is space between them. But his very presence in the apartment infuses the air with awe. Unlike the rocking chair, the spaces do need him to create the awe.
The two images of the rocking chair and the spaces may seem inconsistent, but Cooper is actually allowing the reader to see how complex the speaker is. Like the rocking chair, she does not need the man. She can continue her life without him if she must, but she would have to do so without the sense of awe his loving presence brings. The two images also tell the reader that the speaker is deeply in love with the man but that she needs to have a certain amount of space. The speaker succeeds in being true to her feminist side and to her romantic side. Cooper has created in twelve short lines a character that is deep, believable, cohesive, and complex. The more the reader gets to know her, the more the reader believes that she will get her lover's "radiance of attention."
Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on "Rent," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following essay, Silman praises Cooper's body of work, with special attention to her themes of being true to oneself. Because Cooper chose an unusual path for someone of her generation, her poetry reflects her views of femininity, love, and conformity.
Jane Cooper's latest book is cause for celebration. This new volume includes all of her previously published work as well as poems hitherto not available in book form. Although she has been writing for 50 years and the issuance of this book coincided with her 75th birthday, her work has never gotten the attention it fully deserves; however, with time that will surely come.
Cooper's accomplishments as a poet who could write in the traditional forms were clear with the publication of her first book, The Weather of Six Mornings, (1969) which includes a sestina written on a bet, sonnets, complicated rhyme schemes, a poem that could pass for Yeats, another one for Thomas Hardy. It won the Lamont Prize and announced that here was someone who understood poetry's mysteries: that form keeps emotion manageable and that the flow of the poetic line depends upon its musical cadences, what she calls, so aptly, "the tension between song and speech." Here, as well, was someone safely enough rooted in the world to look not only backward and inward, but also outward, so that in her later years she would write poems as amazing as "The Green Notebook," "My Friend," "Seventeen Questions About King Kong." And, not least, here was a poet who had the courage to wait until the work was right. She addresses this in an essay in her next book, Maps & Windows, (1974), called "Nothing Has Been Used in the Manufacture of This Poetry That Could Have Been Used in the Manufacture of Bread," but I am not sure that's the whole story. Cooper sets a very high ethical standard for herself, as poet and human being, and I think she knew, at the deepest level, that she could not publish until she was satisfied with what she had done.
Marching to her own drum was not new to her. Unlike most women from her milieu in the 40's and 50's, she never married, nor had children. She taught fiction, then poetry at Sarah Lawrence, where she was an inspiration to a multitude of devoted students for 37 years. Though a spinster (in the common parlance of those years), she seemed determined "to spin," as a character in an English novel once put it. Poem after poem addresses, fearlessly and with sometimes heartbreaking clarity, the rapture of sexual love and the memories and sorrows that are the aftermath of such love; how such love can nurture and hurt, yet also endow one with insight or wisdom, as in "Obligations,"
Here where we clasp in a stubble field
is all the safety either of us hopes for,
Stubbornly constructing walls of night
Out of the ordered energies of the sun.
With the same gratitude I feel the hot
Dazzle on my eyelids and your hand
Carefully opening my shaded breasts….
… What extreme
Unction after love is laid upon us?
The act itself has built this sphere of anguish
Which we must now inhabit like our dreams,
The dark home of our polarities
And our defense, which we cannot evade.
Since early childhood, Cooper also had to cope with an immune deficiency and was never free of the uncanny sensation that death hovered nearby. She writes about it in her brilliant story, "The Children's Ward," and it runs through poems like "Practicing For Death," "The Faithful," and "The Weather of Six Mornings" to the later, astonishing "The Flashboat" and "The Infusion Room." Yet awareness of death often gives one a heightened mindfulness of the ordinary joys; Cooper's best poems come from her "radiance of attention," requested in "Rent":
If you want my apartment, sleep in it
but let's have a clear understanding:
the books are still free agents …
I don't want your rent, I want
a radiance of attention
like the candle's flame when we eat,
I mean a kind of awe
attending the spaces between us—
Not a roof but a field of stars.
Thus, she can describe a child furiously building one play house after another with rare sympathy. Or remember her parents with a vivid, poignant exactness, or convey both a marvelous jauntiness and a deep understanding of the ravages of the Depression during her Southern childhood in "Wanda's Blues": "Wanda's daddy was a railroadman, she was his little wife. / Ernest's sister had a baby, she was nobody's wife. / Wanda was the name and wandering, wandering was their way of life." Or suddenly address her mentor, Muriel Rukeyser, juxtapose opposites in "Hotel de Dream": "relish yet redress / my sensuous, precious, upper-class, / unjust white child's past."
By 1984 and her third book, Scaffolding, death has been kept at bay for so long that what another poet, Mark Doty, has called the "joy of ongoingness" has taken over. No longer is she, as she describes someone else, "balancing 'herself like a last glass of water"; her delight in her lengthening life allows her to let go, giving us more of herself, her humor, her gift for friendship, her love of architecture and domesticity, her capacious interest in the world and its literature. And, she takes greater risks. The later poems are less formal, often have longer lines, and address the world with a searing honesty, as in "The Blue Anchor":
… All these years
I've lived by necessity.
Now the world shines
like an empty room
clean all the way to the rafters …
To live in the future
like a survivor!…
the wingprint of the mountain
over the fragile human settlement—
There are many riches here, but for me, the two greatest poems in Cooper's oeuvre are "Threads" and "Vocation: A Life." Here Cooper brings that intensity, which Keats said was "the excellence of every art," to new heights. Based on Rosa Luxemburg's Prison Letters to Sophie Liebnecht, Karl Liebnecht's wife, "Threads" evokes the extreme tension between Luxemburg's enforced solitude with her political activism. She consoles herself by reading natural science and making observations of the birds, the plants, the insects, the trees and sky. Woven through these are memories, visions (even of her own death), plans, her ideals, and her bewilderment, as when she says:
… Fragments of the established world
flame and submerge, they tear away. Day by day
we witness fresh catastrophes Strange
how most people see nothing, most people
feel the earth firm under their feet when it is
Here the reader feels, with a painful sharpness, Cooper's love of nature and humanity, and—her own awareness of the inexplicable way time shapes our lives.
When she taught fiction, Cooper told her students that time is the unseen character, and in the longer poems she moves "through time in a way that a lyric cannot do." Nowhere is that more evident than in "Vocation, A Life," subtitled "Suite Based on Four Words from Willa Cather." The four sections, "Desire," "Romance," "Possession," and "Un-furnishing," (the last a reference to Cather's "The Novel Demeuble,") reveal the growth of this wonderful writer by looking at her prose with startling freshness and maturity. So intimate is Cooper's knowledge of this work that one can feel the two women conversing, trying to fathom how one creates art and what such a life is worth:
When we try to sum up a lifetime, events cease to matter
just as, in the end, a novel's
plot does not matter
What we came away with was never written down
Vibration, overtone, timbre, a fragrance as distinct
as that of an old walled garden … The text is not there—
but something was there, all the same, some intimacy,
all that is needed
in a vigorous, rich speaking voice
It is every artist's secret. Your secret was passion
Then Cather's words, which express Cooper's striving, as well: Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness.
If you believe, to return to Keats, that "poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one's soul and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject," then this collection with its distinctive, strong, dignified voice will continue to engage and surprise and comfort for a long time to come.
Source: Roberta Silman, "A Radiance of Attention," in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 77, No. 4, Autumn 2001, pp. 745-49.
Jane Cooper and Eric Gudas
In the following interview conducted in New York City in July 1994, Cooper discusses her focus on her southern roots and family in her writing, and the importance she places on the "enlargement of the self"—a sense of continuity and history.
[Eric Gudas:] Green Notebook, Winter Road seems to be your most American book so far, in terms of its concerns and even of the forms you've chosen to write in. Do you agree? What do you think has made it possible for you to write, in a way, as a citizen?
[Jane Cooper:] That's a very complicated question. But yes, you're right, I do think this is my most American book. First of all, it's a book that's very much concerned with history, and how the sense of history extends an individual life, both as you look back and as you look ahead into the future. I used to think that what was most important for Americans was to focus outward, to accept internationalism; this was the legacy of World War II for me. At the same time, three-quarters of my ancestors came from what used to be called "old American families," from Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Delaware. What's changed is that in the "Family Stories" section of Green Notebook I've consciously explored that legacy, rather than turning away from it, toward internationalism, as I did earlier. But both these attitudes are aspects of my consciousness of being an American, and of being a citizen, if you will.
Then, I've always been very interested in imagining what the task is for an American writer, an American artist. In this book there are two extended meditations, on Willa Cather and Georgia O'Keeffe, and the American landscapes they chose as their signatures, and that's obviously a very different focus from writing a long poem about Rosa Luxemburg. Cather says at one point—she paraphrases Virgil in My Ántonia—"For I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country." Of course she's leaving out the Native Americans, which points to a central flaw in her, but, you know, this too is part of our legacy, that until quite recently someone could still feel that way….
That she could be the first one—
That she could be the first one, that no one had ever written about Nebraska and the Great Plains. Obviously, you're never going to be the first one to write about the South, but still she gave up trying to write like Henry James and decided she could write about Nebraska.
It seems you made a real decision at some point to try and write about the South.
Well, I've always had it in the back of my mind to do. Lately, I've been going through old boxes of poems and poem-drafts with my assistant, Beatrix Gates, and there are a lot of attempts at writing poems about the South, most of them not much good. It's not that I never thought of doing it, but with this book it's as if I'd made a promise to myself.
I'm wondering if you'd talk a little about your family background, to give interested readers an introduction to some of the people they'll meet in the "Family Stories" section of Green Notebook.
I'm half-Southern, by upbringing and inheritance—or, let's say, by geography and inheritance. I spent my childhood in the deep South, until I was ten, and my father's family is Southern from way back. Up till this book I'd written a good deal about my mother, but not about my father, or when I wrote about the Southern part of my life it seemed unsatisfactory. I think now that one reason I didn't write more about my father's family earlier is that they seemed so powerful. I really needed to find out who I was apart from them. I think we know this can be true of boys who have strong paternal figures, but I wonder how much is understood about the effect on young women?
My father, who had been a lawyer in an old family firm in Jacksonville, Florida, became, through a series of surprises, one of the world authorities on aviation and space law—someone who in his fifties began to lead a very international life. And my uncle, his younger brother, Merian C. Cooper, was a pioneer in documentary film-making, and later, for many years, John Ford's partner in Hollywood. He had had a very romantic youth, and was the original genius behind King Kong. So as children we breathed the air of romance! And then there was a lot of family mythology, a lot of old stories that we were brought up with. The story told in "How Can I Speak for Her?", for instance, which took place right after the Civil War, was one of the most memorable stories of my childhood. Who knows how much is true?
What seems important to say is that I'm not using family background to create a domestic sense in this book—I'm using it to extend the individual consciousness through history and mythology. And a lot of it is mythology. Also, it was important to me not just to get down the old South in its romantic or terrible aspects, but to get some sense of the honky-tonk South of my childhood during the Depression—that is, the cousin who painted on spider webs and got to the Hobby Lobby of the 1939 World's Fair! And the children in my rural public school—the kind of South that left me with a social conscience. Both those things were very much a part of my life—there was a lot of romantic stuff, and then there was the everyday reality that we lived with, some of which was very funny.
It seems you've been able to get a real mix….
Who knows? I hope so. Marilyn Chin read the manuscript just before it went to press and found a kind of nostalgia—nostalgia for a South of stable families and what she called an "old-fashioned American compassion." That was a shock to me, because the last thing I imagined was that I was feeling nostalgic. But probably there are things here I don't even see yet. I would never underestimate the tremendous charm that the South has for me, the giftedness of many people who come out of that area—and their courage. But it's just such a complicated heritage.
One of the things you really seem to be trying is to balance the complicatedness of the heritage with the charm. Especially in "Hotel de Dream," you get a quite jaunty feeling of being out on the docks….
I wanted to get a jaunty feeling….
But the poem ends by asking a really difficult question—how to "relish yet redress" your "sensuous, precious, upper-class, / unjust white child's past"? How to balance those two verbs against one another …?
The "relish" is also real.
Whereas to just have "redress" would be, in a way, to say, "This is something I'm obligated to do."
Your poems have always been concerned with the act of writing itself, and in your new book I see a new concern with the act of narrative. For instance, an early draft of "How Can I Speak for Her?" began with the line, "This is a story I have known all my life, but how can I tell it to you if I don't know whose story it is?" The poems seem to be asking, How does one approach a story? Whose story is it? Who can be spoken for, whose memory? Does this seem accurate to you?
One of the things that always struck me, even as a child, is how the same stories got told differently by different people in the family. When I first was Roshomon—this was years before I'd ever heard of deconstruction—I was knocked out by it, because I thought, That's just how it is, each of these people is convinced that the story he or she is telling is the story. It was just impossible for me as a child, or even as an adult, to know what was true. My aunt, for instance, always said that my grandfather's grandmother, "the Castilian," had been married off at fourteen, and then her North American husband brought her back to this country and sent her to boarding school. But my father, who was a much more austere storyteller than my aunt, said nonsense, their first child was born before she ever left Cuba. Well, in that case I believe my father's version, but I had originally called "How Can I Speak for Her?" "What Each One Saw," and I had wanted to show the same story from three different points of view, starting with my grandfather as a little child, and then his grandmother telling what she saw, and then the black woman. And as I got deeper and deeper into this material, I realized that I simply couldn't do it—I had no right to say what the white woman saw, I couldn't imagine what her life was like, given both the arrogance that she obviously had and the experience of repeated uprootings and suffering that she had. And if I couldn't write about her I certainly couldn't write about the African woman, with her history of slavery, all those years on a plantation, and West Africa before that…. And finally that inability became the point of the story, along with the desire still to bring those women to life somehow.
It was a very important story for me as a child, that that great-great-grandmother knew at least two African tribal dialects, which she had never revealed to her white family. Until that moment—the moment of the poem—they never knew. It was pretty rare, I think, but she had grown up with people who had themselves been taken out of Africa and still spoke those languages, and from the time she was eight she ran the plantation in Cuba, and she knew the languages, I presume, first as a child at the breast, and then as a boss. It was such an evocative story for a kid to hear. Throughout the Southern poems I keep finding little things that are inaccurate, or speculative, and yet I don't think that changes the truthfulness of what I'm trying to do, because I think that those embellishments too have become a part of what happened.
You're seeing the story inside time, as something that's still evolving, that's evolving in your own version of it.
That's probably so. Time is very important in this whole book. When I taught fiction writing I used to tell people that time is the unseen character, and part of my wish in writing longer poems is to move through time in a way that the lyric doesn't always do, or doesn't need to do in the same way. The Tale of these stories, the meaning of these stories, changes as the generations change.
And you're not trying to deny that as an element in the story itself.
I want not to. I'm sure I fall on my face sometimes, like everybody. But many people read "How Can I Speak for Her?" as it evolved. Jan Heller Levi, for instance, was very helpful to me, because she kept saying, "You can't say that about the African woman, you can't even say 'they embraced,' thinking that the embrace was on her side as well. How do you know how she felt when they embraced?" I was always told the two women embraced, but Jan kept saying, "What does that mean?" And it was out of that question that the title came.
So there's tension between trying to tell a story and not assuming anything about anyone in the story?
I really want to have characters who are not myself, and at the same time not to be any kind of authority over them. It's interesting to try to do that—but it almost drove me crazy!
How do you see relations among the various forms you use in your new book—prose narrative, lyrics in long lines, poems in regular stanzas and even rhyme, blues …? Given the multiplicity of concerns in the book, how conscious was your choice of what forms to work with?
I've always felt poetry vibrates between the two poles of speech and song, or you could say that the poem has to find itself somewhere between singing and telling. Short, regular lyric forms were always fairly easy for me—it took me a long time to learn how to write free verse. This book is different in that I played around with long lines in a number of poems in a way that I had never done before, and I began to explore the use of narratives which aren't in verse at all, but which I certainly think of as poems. Mostly the prose narratives, like "From the Journal Concerning My Father" and "How Can I Speak for Her?", were narratives that contained so much historical detail that a lyric form would have been wrong for them, it would have been impossible. And I wanted the detail, so the form had to be reinvented. I wasn't conscious of varying forms particularly as I went along—the necessity preceded the choice.
Take "From the Journal Concerning My Father," for instance. I had the idea a couple years ago that I wanted to write about my father, and I started putting down a few notes. Then one day I was looking through a box of old drafts, and I found that I had really written most of this poem in the early '80s and forgotten all about it. But what was most interesting was that there were originally three or four separate poems, and the finished piece only came together when I realized that some lines about myself, about saying goodbye to the natural world of my childhood, were intimately connected to what I was saying about him. So it's been an incremental matter for me rather than, most of the time, a deliberate one.
And you wrote a blues poem …?
Yes, "Wanda's Blues." I went to a rural public school outside Jacksonville when I was seven, eight, nine, and many of the kids were the children of shrimp fishermen or white sharecroppers. This was during the Depression, and their poverty seemed bottomless. Later, looking back, I always wanted to write about those children, but I'd lost their language. Somehow the blues form gave me access again to something like the sound of their lives.
What was it like to work in longer lines?
A challenge! The year that I had the Bunting Fellowship I was stuck at one point, and Marie Howe said to me, "I'll give you an assignment. I've just told my freshmen to write a poem in long lines, and so I suggest the same assignment for you, too." And out of her assignment came the elegy called "Long, Disconsolate Lines," which I'd been trying to write in other ways…. It's not that I had never used long lines—"Estrangement," written earlier, is in lines that are just as long—but suddenly this became something to really experiment with. I think playing around with long lines then gave me permission to write in prose lines, or speech lines. I like the idea that this whole book is a kind of counterpoint of song and speech, of singing and telling. Musically, I'm always interested in getting different effects and juxtaposing them one with another. I tend to say "compose" rather than "write" when I think of my poems, and in the Willa Cather poem, "Vocation," there's actually a slightly different music for each section. And in the same way in the book as a whole I wanted to keep setting different kinds of tonalities against one other, so that right after "Long, Disconsolate Lines" you have the poem "Bloodroot," which was written the same winter but in very short lines. I didn't want to give up anything.
You were just speaking about thinking of composing rather than writing your poems, and I'm wondering if you feel the same way about putting a book together?
When I say composition, I think both of music and of composing a painting. I had a remarkable painting teacher when I was between the ages of ten and sixteen, and she really taught me more about composition in art than any poetry teacher I ever had. So I still have that sort of spatial sense.
Speaking of music, the four parts of the book really feel like movements to me. Could you talk about what you were thinking of specifically when you put Green Notebooktogether?
I know that this is not going to be an easy book for some readers, because the parts are so different from one another. People are used to books where there's an increasing underlining of a few main themes, and this book really has four very separate sections, so it requires a willingness on the part of the reader to keep starting over. Of course, in the end, for me, everything is related….
The first part, "On the Edge of the Moment," is made up of lyrics that look at friendship, aging, dreams. And there are also poems about my parents in which they're scarcely my literal parents any more, but out of some mythology of parents. I do think that as you get older your parents become almost mythological figures to you. It doesn't mean that you forget who your actual parents were, but if anything they loom even larger than they did when they were alive.
"Family Stories" is the second section, and here there's not only a variety of forms but a variety of different characters as you move back and forth through time. That pleases me very much—I wanted the book to have a more peopled quality than it had in earlier versions before these poems were written. And "Family Stories" is also of course acknowledging what the Southern legacy has meant to someone of my age who then didn't go on to live in the South, who just had that memory.
"Gives Us This Day" concerns illnesses, but specifically what I would call the "culture of illness," that is, the communities that ill people make for themselves and how they think. Incidentally, "The Children's Ward" is the one instance in the book where prose is used as it would be in a short story; this is not a non-verse poem—it's too "written out."
And then finally "Vocation: A Life" contains the long sequences on Georgia O'Keeffe and Willa Cather, which are examinations of the experience of an American woman artist at different ages. Age is very important to me, how our experience of the same phenomena changes as we get older—and how it doesn't change. And this is of course another aspect of the fascination with history. I think it's important that in both the "Family Stories" and the "Vocation" sections, the poems keep going back to the nineteenth century and even before that, at the same time that there's a lot of imagery of moving forward into outer space, which is part of the legacy from my father. I really was brought up with questions like what constitutes outer space, and what can we do with it. I had a strange background, I think, in the sense that domestic life in my immediate family was very much what I imagine life in a nineteenth-century family to have been, yet all the time the thinking was extremely pioneering, daring and theoretical. Both Cather and O'Keeffe were born in the nineteenth century—O'Keeffe in the same year as my father, 1887, which I find oddly interesting.
Throughout the book there is that question of the speaking figure being between two eras, of being almost able to touch the nineteenth century and at the same time looking forward to the twenty-first.
I wanted to get that. I wanted to get that enlargement of the self, that sense of continuity. Partly because I think it's what Americans lack right now, a sense of their history, and that gives them a very uncertain sense of destiny. Kids don't study history in school the way they used to, they don't see much that's accurate on television. What do you have to anchor Star Wars? I hope I'm not only looking backward, I wanted to be looking forward, too.
Do you feel that there are any other concerns that thread throughout the book's four sections?
Concern with friendship. Concern with solitude—equally. Concern with survival of life on the earth. A sense that our experience includes our dreams as much as our daylight lives.
Have dreams always been a great source for your writing?
Absolutely. I think I use them more freely now, but there have always been dream-poems. Not all dreams make good poems, of course, but periodically there will be a great dream and often I can work that in, and even if it's not the whole poem, if it's only two-and-a-half lines, it's there nevertheless. I like poems that are not just about one thing but that are layering of different parts of my experience. For instance, in the poem "Ordinary Detail," there's a dream in the third stanza about a locked door which was very important to me, and when I had that dream I thought it was going to be a whole poem. Instead it turned out just to be that little sliver—but it certainly changed the poem.
We started talking about larger poems earlier, and maybe we could talk some more at this point.
Basically, I've always thought it was a big mistake for people to think of poems as only, or essentially, lyrics. If you look at the history of literature, the novel doesn't turn up until quite late, and before that it's epic poems, dramatic verse—everything that we consider fiction was originally poetry. And I've always wanted to go beyond the confines of the lyric without losing respect for what the lyric can do. For many years I taught a course called Long Poems. (At one point it was Long Poems and Short Stories! I mean those were my two courses….) What interested me particularly were American long poems, because I've always thought the long poem attempts to put a community on paper and Americans seem to have had an exceptionally hard time doing that. Whitman is the central figure for me here—the Whitman of "Song of Myself." But I also loved teaching the first two books of Paterson, and Frost's North of Boston, which pretends to be a books of longer poems, but I think it's really a village, and it's as full of solitudes as any village could ever be—nobody can talk to anybody else. Muriel Rukeyser's long poems were very important, and parts of The Bridge, and Galway Kinnell's The Book of Nightmares, Jean Valentine's "Solitudes." And Adrienne Rich's longer poems and sequences, especially "Twenty-One Love Poems," and the one about pain—"Contradictions: Tracking Poems"—and now, recently, "An Atlas of the Difficult World."
But what about your own practice?
As early as 1953, I was trying to write a longer poem, but I couldn't sustain it yet. I have more luck with sequences. There are three sequences in my first book, The Weather of Six Mornings, and another in Maps & Windows. Finally, in 1977–78, I wrote a long poem in three parts called "Threads: Rosa Luxemburg from Prison," based on letters Rosa Luxemburg wrote to Sophie Liebknecht when she was a political prisoner in Germany toward the end of World War I. This was very different from anything I'd done before, and I got excited by it—the momentum that builds up as you move through time and yet details, lines, moments of feeling begin to overlap…. The poem is a collage of many of Luxemburg's own images and quotes her actual words, but as I immersed myself in her Prison Letters, it was as if I was carrying on a dialogue with her. The Cather and O'Keeffe poems in the new book take the same techniques further, to different ends.
With "Threads," I simply read the Prison Letters over and over, and talked to May Stevens who was using the figure of Rosa Luxemburg in collages and paintings, but I didn't read a full-length biography of her till I was through. It took me a year and a half to finish the poem. With "Vocation," I did a great deal of research and it built up incrementally over a period of, finally, ten years! It all started with my realization that for Willa Cather the experience of the Southwest was profoundly connected with declaring herself a writer and nothing else. But to understand her the way I wanted to, I not only read the novels and short stories that deal with New Mexico and the Four Corners region, I read everything she wrote and a good deal that was written about her, especially by contemporaries who had known her personally. No doubt this slowed me up. But the design of the poem is ambitious.
There are four parts, and basically, through Cather, what I wanted to do was explore how a woman artist feels about her art at different ages—in youth, childhood, middle age, and old age. Having been a marvelously vital young woman, Cather became quite an ungenerous person as she grew older, and at one point I began to think I'd never get her through middle age! So this too slowed me up. She really had to face her solitude—the poem has to face it—and what the poem calls "coldness at heart." The O'Keeffe sequence, "The Winter Road," was a kind of spin-off from the Cather, because I had been looking at O'Keeffe's paintings of the Southwest in order to open out my own fairly limited experience of New Mexico. Then, instead of continuing with the Cather poem, I found myself writing the O'Keeffe poems. Originally there were a lot of them—maybe ten or twelve—but I cut down to just four. I think of them as an addendum to the Cather, part of my thinking about the same subject.
Do you see the moving through time in the same way the Cather poem does?
Not really, because they're all old age poems. They move through time a little bit, but all of them bleakly face old age as a kind of abstraction—the abstraction of being very old—which is not something that's much written about but which I feel in O'Keeffe's very late work. And then there are certain things that I personally felt when I was in the Southwest. For instance, I felt that the landscape around Taos, where I was staying, was simply not human-centered. In the Northeast, in New England, everything is more or less human in scale, but then you go to the Southwest and the scale is monumental. I think the Native Americans are related to that landscape because they never tried to possess it, but white people are not particularly related to it. Someone said to me, Every time an Easterner comes here they try and rip us off, take things away, so the poem ends "I was meant to take nothing away." I also felt, profoundly, that this was a landscape that didn't belong to me, it was just there for profound respect, absolute hands-off. So those ideas got into the O'Keeffe, although they are in the background of the Cather, too. A lot of the Cather poem concerns conceptions of property.
The first section of the Cather poem is an evocation of one person's physical experience of a Southwestern landscape….
Right—that's "Desire," the youth section, and it's much the easiest section. I think "Vocation" is a difficult poem for anybody. It's a poem that reads well aloud because it's closely scored musically, but it's hard to follow on the page. And I have no answer to that. Whereas "Threads" is I think a very accessible poem, humanly speaking, even if you don't know much about the actual history. Cather protects herself, she does so even in this poem.
Do you think you were working to protect her, too?
I think she protects herself, I think she's very guarded. In "Threads" what I wanted to explore was the nature of a woman who is a political activist, especially as she grows more and more cut off and vulnerable because she is in prison. I was also very struck by Rosa Luxemburg the scientific thinker, the original ecologist. My Luxemburg probably isn't anyone else's, and she is certainly not a comfortable character. Nor are Willa Cather and Georgia O'Keeffe, who seem to have worked in increasing fame yet isolation. There is a paradox here. These women are absolutely not myself, nor would I have wanted to be any of them. But through them I was able to meditate on some of the themes that most concern me: the survival of the earth, the importance of relationship, the nature of solitude, whether enforced or self-imposed, what it means to grow older, what it means to be a woman who breaks the mold….
In the Foreword to Scaffolding you wrote of your "urgency to explore a woman's consciousness," specifically in relation to "Threads" and what must have been certain poems from Green Notebook still in manuscript. Could you talk about this urgency in relation to your new book?
I had already started the Willa Cather poem at the time I put Scaffolding together, so I was thinking of that, but I believe I've always had an urgency to explore a woman's consciousness. After all, my earliest poems were attempts to write war poems from a woman's point of view. And while I think my definitions of women's roles have changed over the years, I don't think my feeling that I can only write as a woman has ever changed. Maybe it's important to say that the new book is not only full of a woman's consciousness—it's always a female "I" who perceives and puts the individual poems and the book together—but also, there are women characters all the way through. There are friends, like Muriel Rukeyser, there are the various women artists, then there are made-up characters like the young woman in "Ordinary Detail," who's not me and is not anyone I know but is someone that I could imagine quite well, who wants to make everything nice for everybody—her life has come to the point of betraying her. And there's Wanda, Clementene, Maryanne from the Infusion Room, the two women in "How Can I Speak for Her?" Women's lives interest me very much. It's not that men's lives don't interest me—but I feel I can write with some … intimacy about the kinds of things that women run into.
I know you've had a long-standing interest in biography. Could you talk a little about that?
Biography and autobiography both attract me because, again, they reveal the intersection of the individual life with history, the way individuals have of being in the world. I think I've said enough about what I wanted to do in "Threads" and what I wanted to do with Cather. Certainly I was influenced by Muriel Rukeyser's concept of the "Lives," both prose and verse, to which she returned throughout her career. But I think this kind of work was important to me even before I read Willard Gibbs or "Käthe Kollwitz." The two questions overlap, of long poems and biography, because the long poems I've written turn out, in some real sense, to have been biographies. It's not that I might not write another kind….
But right now …
Well, at the moment I'm glad not to be writing a long poem!
Could we talk about ways in which you've been able to incorporate awareness of race and class into your new work?
I think you once made the point that I hadn't really dealt with race and class much before, which startled me, because these have always been such passionate concerns. But I was looking back through Scaffolding, and I must say I see what you mean. Perhaps the original shape of Maps & Windows, my second book, showed a political awareness that is somewhat dissipated now that the poems have a different order in Scaffolding; or perhaps some of the still unpublished poems would be revealing. Anyway, there's a small poem from Maps & Windowscalled "A Nightmare of the Suburbs" that you might take a look at. It concerns an upper-middle-class woman in Westchester, time the late '60s—as I imagined her—who thinks there's going to be a black revolution, and so she keeps a pistol in her bedside table. And because she has a pistol, someday she is going to shoot it. I'm convinced, if you have a pistol, you're going to shoot it…. So she's the one who will start the revolution. That is a poem about both race and class, but it's also a poem that was considered racist by several early readers, which was obviously not what I intended—but it was a reading I had to deal with. I think that in Scaffolding "The Flashboat" is not only a feminist poem and a poem about work but a poem that is conscious of race and class. At the point in putting Green Notebook together when I really set myself to write about the South, I not only had to write about race and class, but also about the sexism and militarism that were endemic in my childhood among people of my generation and of a certain kind of family. I think my father fought all those things as well as anybody ever did, of his age, but they were there, all around us, just the same. And militarism—perhaps people particularly forget to include militarism as somehow part of the whole syndrome.
So it's obviously not a new awareness….
It's not a new awareness, but I do see—in looking back through Scaffolding—that the poems might appear to be more limited to the personal than I'd meant. And to be written out of, almost, certain assumptions of how one lives and how one was educated—which I'd rather not feel I was always going to do.
It seems a conscious task of much of this book to get at the root of certain assumptions.
I think that goes back to the ethical idea of whose story is it? Probably it's not quite the same thing, but they are related. Another interesting, related question would be how it's possible in the same book to be writing the Southern poems with their clear social concerns, and writing a poem as inward as "Vocation," which is about an artist who cut herself off increasingly from the daily lives around her. The juxtaposition seems difficult. You asked if I had definite things I wanted to accomplish—and I guess I really needed to do both those things. But even to write about an artist—one doesn't want to be totally self-reflexive.
We've talked about your family and about the South as major presences in the book, and I think a third major presence is that of Muriel Rukeyser.
She was threaded through my life in so many different ways…. She used to ask audiences, "Who was your first living poet?"—by which she meant, At what age did you realize that poems weren't just locked up in books written by dead people, generally men, but that there are living, breathing poets walking the streets around us? And while Allen Tate was the father of one of my schoolmates, and I sort of knew him, Muriel was my first living poet. When I was twelve or fourteen my sister brought back her first two books from college, and I suddenly had the sense that there was this quite young, energetic woman out there in the world writing poems. Of course I didn't understand much of what she was doing, but it was very moving.
And then soon after I went to Sarah Lawrence to teach, in the early '50s, she began to teach there, and we became fast friends—no two people were ever less alike. Her work was important to me, but at the same time it was so different from my own, and especially the work she published before about 1960, that I think I was not much influenced by it and even consciously rejected some aspects of it. Her way of making images flow into one another, for instance, leaving them apparently unfinished, and rushing from one thing to the next, was absolutely what I didn't want to do. I wanted everything I wrote to be very fully fleshed out, very finished and exact—I was still working in another tradition. Eventually, as I've said, I was influenced by the "Lives," and by her concept that this was something poetry could do—work with lives that hadn't been written about before, that had even in some way been "lost."
Recently, I realized something else. You'll remember that in her Preface to the Collected Poems she talks about "two kinds of reaching in poetry, one based on document, the evidence itself; the other kind informed by unverifiable fact, as in sex, dream … where things are shared and we all recognize the secrets." It's taken me till just now to see that the mix I've tried for in Green Notebook is, in spirit if not in style, a Rukeyser mix.
And since her death her work has been out of sight, out of print….
Yes—but before I comment on that, let me say that I believe her to be one of the absolutely central figures in twentieth-century American literature. And I'm delighted there is now such a revival of interest in her work. We need her power of making connections, we need her power "to know that I am it," her courage, wit, music that comes from writing out of the very center of your body.
All of which makes it seem insane that her Collected Poems was allowed to go out of print. And for years she was barely, or badly, anthologized, so it was difficult to teach her work. In any case, she has never been easy to teach. Students often can't deal with the rush of images and the generalizations, though as Jan Heller Levi says in the new Muriel Rukeyser Reader (Norton, 1994), it helps if you start at the end, with her last three books, and then work backward…. I used to teach some of her long poems, and always, both at Iowa and Columbia, I had a struggle. I think it would be easier now. I think the world is coming around to her—that people can read her now with pleasure who ten or fifteen years ago might have drawn a blank.
She's in many ways that kind of writer, one who people are just now catching up with.
Well, she really wrote out of what, for her, was the present, which means that she was ahead of most of us. Also, she's a Romantic writer—or, as she would have said, a "poet of possibility." Which doesn't mean that she's eternally optimistic, but does mean that she doesn't give up on salvation. And that's hard for some people to address, especially politically. But what you can't get around is her vitality; there are a lot of more obviously perfect poets who don't give out the same vitality.
It might be important to balance that kind of criticism of her work—that it's not always as perfect as it could be—with a feeling of what it's trying to do in the world.
It's not only a feeling of what it's trying to do in the world, though you're right to bring that up, but it's how the body of poetry and prose adds up, fits together. Here's this enormous body of work, and you can't leave out any of it, if you're really going to do her justice. The more you read of her, the more valuable she becomes. If you simply excerpt a few short poems, you're going to have a hard time, because people are going to see small flaws and think, How did that get there? Why didn't she finish that? Not in every poems—there are some that seem just wonderful from beginning to end. But I think if you think of the scope of what she accomplished…. She's an enormous figure. Never having been a writer of a lot of scope myself, I profoundly admire that quality in her.
On the question of scope, you're a writer who, despite a lifelong, passionate commitment to poetry, has published only about a hundred poems in four books. Could you comment on that?
Well, it's true—clearly. I was forty-four before my first book came out, which means I had already been writing seriously for over twenty years when I finally got a book published. So it was in a real sense a "selected poems," and in fact all three books before this one were "selected poems." In going through the boxes of old manuscript that I mentioned earlier, I was startled to find that there are probably a couple of hundred more poems that have never been published. A lot of them shouldn't have been published—those decisions were perfectly sound. But some are quite decent, and I don't know what to do about them. It's very odd to consider publishing a Collected Poems that would include old poems that have never been seen before! You want to be concerned with what will happen next, not with what you did in some kind of silence twenty or thirty years ago. Still, even I believe that I've made something a bit larger than can be found on the library shelf.
Could you talk about the way the support and guidance of other writers have shaped your work, and your vision of it?
I would be just nowhere as a poet were it not for my friends—that's what I really believe. This book is dedicated to my oldest friends in poetry, who were friends from the early '50s: Muriel Rukeyser; Sally Appleton Weber, a poet with a unique sense of science, theology, and the natural world; and Shirley Eliason Haupt. Shirley, who died in 1988, was primarily a painter, but she was also a very gifted poet. Phil Levine mentions her in his essay, "Mine Own John Berryman," about the Iowa workshop of which we were all three a part. And I'd be glad to dedicate another book to my friends in poetry from the '60s: Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich, and Jean Valentine. I imagine using the same epigraph on the dedication page, from Emily Dickinson, "My friends are my 'estate'." And then there are younger poets who these days are very important to me, including a number of my old students, both graduate and undergraduate. My friends have not only been willing to listen to my endless drafts of poems but have shared their own drafts and shared their lives, and given me extremely good criticism—and have given me patience and fortitude, and put up with the fact that I'm a slow writer and that I keep going back to revise, hoping to make the work more truthful. Of course we've had our disagreements, but that is the breath of life.
Do you think the idea of a writer-mentor is important for younger writers?
Important enough—but not as important as peers. My own experience at Iowa—I really admired the work of both Cal Lowell and John Berryman, who were our teachers, extravagantly, and often they touched me as human beings. But they were not role models for me, nor could they be. Who I learned most from were the other people in the workshop. I had been living in Princeton in the years right after World War II, and there, in order ever to think you could send out a poem to the littlest magazine, you had to believe it was perfect. So I wrote every single day, and never sent out a single poem; writing became my secret life. Then I went to Iowa in 1953, and there were all these young men sending poems out, getting them back, sending them out, getting them back, and it was just a much more daily way to deal with being a poet, a more democratic way. It was a hard time for someone like me to be in a writing class, because there were almost no women. I was lucky to have Shirley. And I don't think I wrote well that year; I got very self-conscious about my work and maybe rather precious. But it was a year that started me writing again, after a painful silence, and started me thinking about my work more professionally, and I believe that came from the workshop members, as it has continued to come from my friends in poetry over these years, all these years in New York.
How have the recent changes in your health affected your work as a writer?
This is a tricky question for me. Probably I need to say, right from the start, that I have primary immune deficiency, and that I've always had it; I lack gamma globulin. But it's not AIDS, thank God, which is an acquired immune deficiency. About five years ago, there was a period when my health began to go downhill, but I got sent to a doctor who pioneered the use of intravenous treatments in this country for people like me, and these treatments have changed my life. Still, what may be most significant for my writing is that I see illness as ordinary. I would like to include it within the daily, ordinary world.
"The Children's Ward" is the oldest piece in Green Notebook, and it was very important for me to write. I had my life given back when I was five years old, and I never forget that. It's through all my work in various ways. There's a lot of death in my work, but there's also a lot of the opposite—what Mark Doty calls "joy in ongoingness." It was this that I tried hardest to get in "The Children's Ward"—an unexpected vigor and humor that go against everything the story seems to be "about."
In an odd way, I relate "The Children's Ward" to the long prose piece that first appeared in Maps & Windows and now is part of Scaffolding, "Nothing Has Been Used in the Manufacture of This Poetry That Could Have Been Used in the Manufacture of Bread." In both cases, I felt that I would never be so directly autobiographical unless the material could be useful beyond myself.
I wrote "The Children's Ward" because I wanted people in our relatively protected society to understand how it is for children who know they are dying. We're freaked out by the idea that a child could know he or she is dying. Well, there are a lot of children in the world who do know that. They don't handle it quite the way adults do, of course, but in some ways they handle it better—anyway, remarkably well. For a long time I worried that "The Children's Ward" would seem like a totally separate experience, apart from the rest of the book. But then I wrote the poem "The Infusion Room," which is about the treatment program I'm in now, and I thought, Ah, that too is a culture of illness.
I'm very interested in the people I meet in the real-life Infusion Room, people who also have gamma globulin deficiency and often other serious conditions as well. There are some young children there, too. I have no desire to write a book just about illness; the point is always the people.
The first six months that I had the IV treatments I was very allergic to them, so I would be quite sick. But I would also come home and, you know, rush to write it all down in my journal, because the experience of the Infusion Room seemed so … exemplary to me. That poem really came out of my journal entries from the first few months. Even now the people make a strong impression on me, but I no longer have the same clarity. I think with the hospital I was in as a child it was the same thing—I still remember it so vividly.
In introducing your poem "Ordinary Detail"at a reading once, you said that one of the jobs of poetry is to give people the words for what we're feeling at this moment. Could you say more about this?
Poetry gives the poet words, as well as the reader or hearer words. That poems starts out, "I'm trying to write a poem that will alert me to my real life," and I think that's what poetry must do. Too often what we think we feel is what we were taught to feel, or what we felt last year; we click into a familiar complex of feelings. But it's very hard to sit down and think, What is the truth of my life at this actual, passing moment? And if you can do that…. It's what you have to try for.
In the jacket copy for the White Pine Press edition of James Wright's Two Citizens, you wrote of the value you place on "the poetry of renewal." Could you say more about how you envision such poetry and why you value it?
Well, what I actually said on the jacket blurb was, "As I get older, it seems what I care most about is the poetry of renewal, or rather, of the gallant effort at self-transcendence." Cather has a line I love—it's quoted in "Vocation"—"Artistic growth is, more that it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness." And I've always been very interested in people who keep pushing themselves, keep transforming themselves, keep trying to get a little to the truth, and at the same time reach beyond what they have done before. I think Adrienne Rich, for instance, is preeminently this kind of poet. I just think that if you can write so that every stage of your life makes its own contribution, has its own wisdom—that's wonderful, it's a wonderful gift. I would like to be able to do that. I would like to think that I'm writing now things that I couldn't have written any earlier.
Source: Jane Cooper and Eric Gudas, "An Interview with Jane Cooper," in Iowa Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, Winter 1995, pp. 90-110.
Bowker Magazine Group
In the following review, the writer finds Cooper's collection a welcome addition to the tradition of women's voices in American poetry. The reviewer praises Cooper's honest content and her skillful style.
Gathering material from two out-of-print collections, as well as new work and early poems, this volume reintroduces an important, and meticulous, poet to a new generation of poetry readers. Born in 1924, Cooper came of age during World War II; as soon as the war ended, middle-class women were expected to begin a family, as she points out in a poignant 1974 essay on poetry and femininity, also included here. It was difficult to take her writing seriously, since "The women poets I read about were generally not known for their rich, stable sexual and family lives." In form, as in content, her poems struggle to break free from the 1950s constraints. Reading these poems now, we have the rare opportunity to watch a female speaker, haunted by dreams and death, progress from self-conscious writing exercises while waiting to meet the right man to the discovery that her body is physically rejecting the status quo. Delicate topics are often couched in symbol or metaphor: the difference between sleeping alone or with a partner is punctuated by her characters' responses to an earthquake, middle age is described as a grey day in which the rain has not yet come. Cooper's The Weather Of Six Mornings won the prestigious Lamont Award in 1969.
Source: Bowker Magazine Group, Review of Scaffolding, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 41, October 11, 1993, p. 82.
In the following essay excerpt, Hadas notes that the title of Cooper's collection Scaffolding suggests a work of spareness and intensity in progress—which she sees as characteristic of Cooper's "impulse toward self-revision."
Scaffolding, the title of Jane Cooper's New and Selected Poems, suggests a support system, a work in constant progress (scaffolding put up while repairs are made), and also a skeletal, stripped-down intensity—all apt figures for this poet's quest for clarity and impulse toward self-revision. Adrienne Rich refers on the back cover of Scaffolding to Cooper's "continuing inner growth," and Cooper herself, in her Foreword, speaks of "the continuous journey the work has been for me all along." Cooper's oeuvre refuses to stand still, which may be one reason critics have tended to detour around it. Nevertheless, the image of scaffolding is more evocative than that of a journey when one considers Cooper's career. It's as if the inner growth Rich mentions is achieved by continually peeling away layer after layer; what once was essential now seems superfluous, and is calmly or exuberantly discarded to make room for the new.
What's that new like? The spareness of Cooper's recent work cuts both ways:
For the last few years, particularly, we have all lived with the threat of nuclear holocaust. I want just to suggest it through images of all-consuming light, rooms with only a few sticks left in them, and a stripped-down landscape that is both the joyous, essential condition of truth telling and an almost unbearable vision of the future.
(from the Foreword)
So the bright, bare room is both a joyful vision and a frightful glimpse of a bleak wasteland. Once the scaffolding is finally dismantled, we will have arrived at both heaven and hell.
One way to look at Cooper's work as Scaffolding presents it is to chart her progress toward that dangerous bright edge. We can note what has happened to the lineation, the prosody, even the punctuation between a poem from Mercator's World (1947–51) and one from The Flashboat (1975–83).
Head first, face down, into Mercator's world
Like an ungainly rocket the child comes,
Driving dead-reckoned outward through a channel
Where nine months back breath was determined
By love, leaving his watery pen
—That concrete womb with its round concrete walls
Which he could make a globe of all his own—
For flatter, dryer enemies, for home.
(from "For a Boy Born in Wartime"
The future weighs down on me
just like a wall of light!
All these years
I've lived by necessity.
Now the world shines
like an empty room
clean all the way to the rafters.
To live in the future
like a survivor!
Not the first step up the beach
but the second
then the third
the wingprint of the mountain
over the human settlement—
(from "The Blue Anchor"
The tightly packed pentameter lines of "For a Boy" tend to split in "The Blue Anchor" into pairs of shorter lines with two or three stresses apiece, creating greater speed even as the syntactical texture is thinned out. The eight quoted lines from "For a Boy" are less than a complete sentence; "Blue Anchor" is almost breathlessly simple by contrast. Alliteration and assonance foster teeming connections within almost every line of "For a Boy" but are sparse in "Anchor," true to the poetics of the empty room. "For a Boy" is altogether more clotted, ponderous, and rich to read; one could liken the very different beauty of "The Blue Anchor" to that paradoxical wall of light, both shining and disembodied.
But careful chronological tracing seems the wrong tactic when we encounter a single (and crucial) poem, "All These Dreams," which is dated 1967–83. How do you disentangle the styles on a palimpsest? And it's also discouraging to an historical approach that Cooper has chosen to put her memorable 1974 essay, "Nothing Has Been Used in the Manufacture of This Poetry That Could Have Been Used in the Manufacture of Bread," between Mercator's World and The Weather of Six Mornings—that is, between groups of poems dated respectively 1947–51 and 1954–65. Why, for that matter, include an essay at all in a Selected Poems? "Nothing Has Been Used" is less an aesthetic manifesto (if it were, surely it would have been placed first or last in the collection) than an invaluable guide to Cooper's fluid but distinctive sensibility and style. The essay gives us an extended hearing of a voice that is necessarily curtailed in Cooper's usually short poems. Honest, self-critical, vehement without bravado, that voice comes through, for example, when Cooper remembers that
during one of my interviews [at Sarah Lawrence] I was asked, "And why do you think you can teach poetry?" and I answered, "Because it's the one place where I'd as soon take my own word as anybody else's," though I went on to say that that didn't mean I thought I was always right!
Too shifting to be summarized without distortion, the argument of "Nothing Has Been Used" is faithful to the growth and change that are Cooper's theme. Like Emerson, Cooper is hard to paraphrase, but inspiring to read, and—as she leaps from auto-biographical incident to piercing aphorism—tempting to quote from. Some of the comments about poetry in "Nothing Has Been Used" are worth pondering for any lover of poetry.
For what poetry must do is alert us to a truth, and it must be necessary; once it exists, we realize how much we needed exactly this.
A poem uses everything we know, the surprising things we notice, whatever we can't solve that keeps on growing, but it has to reach beyond autobiography even to stay on the page. Autobiography is not true enough …
I have a very old-fashioned idea of what poetry should do. It is the soul's history and whatever troubles the soul is fit material for poetry.
T.S. Eliot long ago pointed out that when poets make general statements about poetry, it is their own work they have in mind. Any reader of these passages can infer that Cooper has a lofty yet grounded notion of the nature and mission of poetry, as derived from facts but needing to transcend them. Despite a protean multiplicity of styles and indeed of subjects ("whatever troubles the soul is fit material"), poetry is marked for her by its high seriousness, its power and obligation to tell the truth.
A problematic part of that truth, for Cooper, is her earlier work. The poems from the 1940s and 1950s may seem to her insufficiently genuine, too influenced by other (and largely male) poets; yet she concludes "Nothing Has Been Used" by saying she has learned to accept those poems "as part of whatever I now am…. For if my poems have always been about survival—and I believe they have been—then survival too keeps revealing itself as an art of the unexpected."
I love the way that sentence twists in one's hands, refusing to end until it has completed its thought in an unexpected way. And the thought, like the entire essay, is complicated. To put it crudely, Cooper is both endorsing and condemning her early work. Her tone seems generous; yet a reader can easily be swayed into agreeing with what is perhaps implied: that the more recent poems are in some way more valuable than the early work. (Or is that implied? Cooper's delicacy of tone leaves us room to wonder.)
It is characteristic of Cooper that she relegates a recurrent theme of her work to a subordinate clause. The poems may indeed be about survival. The question, though, is less what Cooper writes about than how she writes. Has her style been crucially changed by the progressive simplifying we can discern between the full lines and complex syntax of "For a Boy Born in Wartime" and the almost hectic immediacy, and greater emphasis on the self, that we see in "The Blue Anchor?"
My answer would be that a family resemblance is discernible between most of the poems in Scaffolding, and that the shared features include concision and exactness; careful attention to details both of appearance and of mood; a strong sense of the line, and finally, a rejection of facile endings. These are not easy qualities to describe in literary terms. Grace Paley has well expressed what many of Cooper's admirers must feel: "This is a beautiful and stubborn book of poems. The poems say only what they mean." Is this a negative virtue? It's true that Cooper can be praised in negative terms: She avoids sloppiness, sentimentality, and—perhaps most unusual for a poet of her generation—obscurity. Following her own precept that poetry must go beyond autobiography, she speaks of large matters without sacrificing personal experience or an intimate voice.
In fact, Cooper's voice may be the most distinctive feature of her work. It reminds me of "the low tones that decide" (Emerson's phrase in "Uriel"), and also of the two aunts in Swann's Way, helplessly well bred and subtle, who thank M. Swann for his gift of wine in such discreetly veiled terms that no one but their family understands them. Not that Cooper is cryptic; it's just that she's incapable of raising her voice or putting things coarsely, whether she's writing in the forties about World War II or in the seventies about a dream of com-munality. Words such as "delicate" and "nice" have become terribly suspect: Adrienne Rich has written (and Cooper cites her) of the pressures on women writers of their generation to be "nice." As for "delicate," that adjective was applied to the present writer in a recent magazine article, evoking derision from all kinds of friends and acquaintances. Some other word must be found to convey the finely wrought and modulated character of Cooper's work from first to last, and her unremittingly ardent set of standards for both the style and the substance of her poetry.
An early poem that Cooper includes in Scaffolding, "Long View from the Suburbs," is a dramatic monologue in which Cooper attempts to "invent how it might feel to be the old Maud Gonne, whose extraordinary photographs had appeared in Life magazine" (from "Nothing Has Been Used"). So much for the poem's provenance; as for its style, Cooper says that "the rhetoric remains heavy (that need to write long lines, to have a battery of sound-effects at my command—like a man?)" She fails to do justice here to the originality and, yes, delicacy of her own effects. Yeats may have contributed to something in the poem's conception, and Auden, surely, to phrases like "A streetlight yielded to the sensual air." But the searchingly quiet mode of the poem is already Cooper's alone:
Once for instance
He begged to meet me under an oak
Outside the city after five o'clock.
It was early April. I waited there
Until in the distance
A streetlight yielded to the sensual air.
Then I walked home again. The next day
He was touchy and elated
Because of a new poem which he said
Marked some advance—perhaps that "honest" style
Which prostitutes our memories.
He gave it to me. I said nothing at all
Being weary. It had happened so often.
Hewas always deluding himself
Complaining (honestly) that I spurned his gifts.
Shall I tell you what gifts are? Although I said
Nothing at the time
I still remember evenings when I learned
The tricks of style.
The poem hovers between the figure of Gonne and a probable accumulation of personal experiences as nimbly as its sentences cross stanzas. With a charming authority the tone glides between rueful amusement, amused anger, and weary exasperation at male grandiosity and importunate enthusiasms. Note the eloquent sigh ("it had happened so often") and the barbed parenthetical "honestly." No wonder many poets sacrifice such subtleties for more unmixed rhetorical effects, for reading "Long View" we can neither wholly sympathize with nor wholly condemn the wry and ghostly resonance of a speaking voice that both is and is not a persona. Cooper moves beyond biography here. We don't need to know about Maud Gonne to savor the subtleties and ironies—and the aside (the low voice dropping still lower?) about that "honest" style that prostitutes our memories is surely a reflection of Cooper's own feeling about the kind of desperately autobiographical poetry, exemplified by Lowell and Berryman, that was coming into vogue around the time "Long View" was written.
If the "I" in "Long View" both is and isn't a persona, there is no "I" at all in "For a Boy Born in Wartime." Cooper moves closer, as the years pass, to some center from which that skinny pronoun can authoritatively issue; yet her use of the first person is mostly exploratory; tentative, low-key, until the pivotal "All These Dreams" (dated 1967–83). Even that poem, with its unusual aposiopesis and exclamations, is full of questions.
Where have I escaped from? What have I escaped to?
Why has my child no father?
I must be halfway up the circular stair.
To shape my own—
Friends! I hold out my hands
as all that light pours down, it is pouring down.
In very general terms, the shift of emphasis in Cooper's work is from more public poems (of war) to more private poems (of love, family, dreams, work). Yet one must immediately qualify. The "public" poems were inward in their questing, and the "private" poems open out to speak to concerns as far-flung as nuclear holocaust, or what it means to be a woman, or—in the latest poem here, "Threads,"—what it felt like to be Rosa Luxemburg in prison. Indeed, in "Threads" Cooper presents Luxemburg in a way that forces us to revise any pat notion of this woman as a merely political figure:
We live in the painfulest moment of evolution,
the very chapter of change, and you have to ask,
What is the meaning of it all? Listen,
one day I found a beetle stunned on its back,
its legs gnawed to stumps by ants; another day
I clambered to free a peacock butterfly
battering half dead inside our bathroom pane.
Locked up myself after six, I lean on the sill.
The sky's like iron, a heavy rain falls, the nightingale
sings in the sycamore as if possessed.
Imprisoned for her radical beliefs and opposition to World War I, Luxemburg tries to shed the weight of despair by passionately studying nature, especially birds and geology and insect life. But she cannot help seeing—and mourning—the painful struggles of historical change that have their deadly counterpart in the laws of evolution. Her intervention to save the peacock butterfly comes too late.
But just as Cooper's controlled tone is a pretty dependable constant, so we come to count on the images that surface throughout Scaffolding, images that help to shape the soul's troubles into art. One image is clearly signalled by the title of the 1970–73 poems but can also be seen elsewhere: dispossessions. Cooper is working her way toward what, as we've seen, she calls "rooms with only a few sticks left in them … a stripped down landscape." We see the inner and outer bareness in the programmatic "All These Dreams:"
All these dreams, this obsession with bare boards:
scaffolding, with only a few objects
in an ecstasy of space, where through the windows
the scent of pines can blow in …
that can live without chairs …
It took many readings for me to connect this passage with Thoreau's ecstatically ascetic mysticism, with Andrew Marvell's withdrawing mind in "The Garden," and perhaps also with some of George Herbert's plainly furnished rooms. But "All These Dreams" doesn't feel literary in the way that "Long View" or "For a Boy Born in Wartime" evidently came to feel to Cooper; it is a disembodied vision that is also a joyful cri de coeur, as familiar and strange as the dream state it evokes.
Less elated than the vision in "All These Dreams" is this fuller account of the same impulse toward spring-cleaning in "Souvenirs," the second poem in the splendid three-poem title sequence of Dispossessions. I quote "Souvenirs" in full:
Anyway we are always waking
in bedrooms of the dead, smelling
musk of their winter jackets, tracking
prints of their heels across our blurred carpets.
So why hang onto a particular postcard?
If a child's lock of hair brings back
the look of that child, shall I
nevertheless not let it blow away?
Houses, houses, we lodge in such husks!
inhabit such promises, seeking the unborn
in a worn-out photograph, hoping to break free
even of our violent and faithful lives.
Every detail of these expert lines seems to throw poetic light on a domestic dilemma, and vice versa. (The muse as pack rat or housecleaner; as the superego from whom we hope "to break free," or the magical link with the past?) As its title indicates, "Souvenirs" is no mere list of totems but concerns the act of remembering; yet part of the poem's persuasiveness surely derives from the reader's certainty that these carpets, jackets, locks of hair, and postcards are real, that Cooper is writing from abundance, not decorating emptiness with synthetic images.
The emblem of the house full of relics, that postcard especially memorable, reminds me of similar concerns in the work of two of Cooper's contemporaries, Adrienne Rich and James Merrill, whose different approaches to divesting themselves of the weight of the past are discussed in the late David Kalstone's illuminating book Five Temperaments. Rich's "Meditation for a Savage Child," writes Kalstone, juxtaposes "indignation [with] a residual attraction to familiar objects and the habit of cherishing." In Merrill's "The Friend of the Fourth Decade," the past is epitomized (as for Cooper in "Souvenirs") by postcards, but throwing them out—or as the friend suggests, rinsing the ink off—doesn't work: "the memories [they] stirred did not elude me." Ruefully Merrill acknowledges the power of what Cooper calls worn-out photographs:
I put my postcards back upon the shelf.
Certain things die only with oneself.
One wishes Cooper had found a place among Kalstone's temperaments.
The voice in "Souvenirs" is vehement but not angry. "So why hang onto a particular postcard?" sounds to me like an honest question, not a rhetorical posture; and "shall I / nevertheless not let it blow away?" is similarly a thought, not—or not yet—a dismissal. The same rapt, feeling-its-way intuition toward a desired space makes itself felt in "Rent," from the 1975–83 group The Flashboat:
I don't want your rent, I want
a radiance of attention
like the candle's flame when we eat,
I mean a kind of awe
attending the spaces between us—
Not a roof but a field of stars.
Notice the poem's rapid zoom from the couple at the candlelit table to the "field of stars"—a change of weather indeed, and scale, and tone, and light.
Such an outdoor space is also the scene of "Praise." The decks have been cleared, and work/play is in progress, beyond the norm:
Between five and fifty
most people construct a little lifetime:
they fall in love, make kids, they suffer
and pitch the usual tents of understanding.
But I have built a few unexpected bridges.
Out of inert stone, with its longing to embrace inert stone,
I have sent a few vaults into stainless air.
Is this enough—when I love our poor sister earth?
Sister earth, I kneel and ask pardon
A clod of turf is no less than inert stone.
Nothing is enough!
In this field set free for our play
who could have foretold
I would live to write at fifty?
Who could have foretold I would set the field free? might be another way of putting it. The poem is a kind of psalm to (re)creation; mere dispossession has yielded both to a more sublime blank-ness and to a different kind of construction—a creation not of domestic interiors or of kids, but of architecture—more scaffolding! I myself feel more at home with the Cooper of "Souvenirs," but the elation in The Flashboat comes from somewhere; it feels honest and earned.
Companion to the successive strippings in Cooper's work is an image a little harder to describe. It might be called recognition, or self-scrutiny, or looking into a mirror, or meeting someone else's eyes—or meeting one's own. The self, after all, cannot be thrown away like a "particular postcard" or a lock of hair; it changes, and we can keep track of the changes by focusing from time to time on the latest manifestation of what we are. As early as "For a Boy Born in Wartime" Cooper refers to "the concrete / Unmalleable mirror world we live in." The mirror slowly clears as the poems continue, but it takes a long time to be able to see oneself.
Feelings aside I never know my face;
I comb my hair and what I see is timeless,
Not a face at all but (besides the hair)
Lips and a pair of eyes, two hands, a body
Pale as a fish imprisoned in the mirror.
(from "The Knowledge That Comes Through Experience"
That fish-pale body is unsettlingly reminiscent of Sylvia Plath's image of a woman looking in a mirror and seeing an old woman rise in it "like a terrible fish," though as we might expect Cooper is more controlled in her distaste for what she sees.
One solution to the problem of appearances, in The Weather of Six Mornings, is to address oneself as another. Indeed, the self presented by an old photograph (which has evidently not yet been discarded) is another. "Leaving Water Hyacinths" (subtitled "from an old photograph") begins "I see you, child, standing above the river" and moves, at the start of each successive stanza, to a closer identification of speaker with image: "I know—because you become me" and finally "I know—because you contain me."
In two remarkable poems—apparently about her mother but actually, I think, about the double layering of selves (younger and older mother; younger and older daughter)—Cooper is true to the difficulty not only of making images of ourselves, but of reconstructing the appearances even of those we love:
Why can I never when I think about it
See your face tender under the tasseled light
Above a book held in your stubby fingers?
Or catch your tumbling gamecock angers?
Or—as a child once, feverish by night—
Wake to your sleepless, profiled granite?
But I must reconstruct you, feature by feature:
Your sailor's gaze, a visionary blue,
Not stay-at-home but wistful northern eyes;
And the nose Gothic, oversized,
Delicately groined to the eyesockets' shadow,
Proud as a precipice above laughter.
A curious cubism supplies us with more visual details than we can well assimilate; the reconstruction is no more "realistic" than a Picasso portrait, and yet (or therefore) communicates powerfully what struggles to find a niche in memory. These lines, which splendidly render back what the speaker says she can't see, are from a poem entitled "For My Mother in Her First Illness, from a Window Overlooking Notre Dame"; yet at the poem's close it is the daughter who is ill: "Alone and sick, lying in a foreign house, / I try to read. Which one of us is absent?"
A similar pentimento gives an uncanny doubleness to "My Young Mother," quoted here in full.
My young mother, her face narrow
and dark with unresolved wishes
under a hatbrim of the twenties,
stood by my middleaged bed.
Still as a child pretending sleep
to a grownup watchful or calling,
I lay in a corner of my dream
staring at the mole above her lip.
Familiar mole! but that girlish look
as if I had nothing to give her—
Eyes blue—brim dark—
calling me from sleep after decades.
Mother and daughter, past and present: The successive embodiments merge with a fluency reflected in Cooper's supple and sparing use of the first person. A poem about her mother, for example, twists into one about her, rather as a letter that begins by politely eschewing the writer's concerns manages gracefully to arrive at some personal news. Survival, Cooper has said, keeps revealing itself as an art of the unexpected; the unexpectedness of some of Cooper's shifts of emphasis surely has the spryness and resilience necessary for survival.
Cooper is able to invest poems that almost or completely suppress the first person with a searching intimacy that constitutes a kind of mirroring at a remove. "Waiting" and "A Circle, a Square, a Triangle and a Ripple of Water," neighboring poems from Dispossessions, look at, and into, not only the eyes but the entire body, both in itself and, especially in "A Circle," in relation to others.
My body knows it will never bear children.
What can I say to my body now,
this used violin?
Every night it cries out strenuously
from its secret cave.
Seemingly untouched she
was the stone at the center of
the pool whose circles shuddered off around her.
(from "A Circle"
It wouldn't be hard to rewrite this pair of passages so that "Waiting" was in the third person and "A Circle" in the first person, so precise is Cooper's intimacy, and so passionate her observation.
At about the point in Cooper's work where she reaches the ecstasies of empty space, the images of self-searching stop. The overlay of one's parents is, by middle age, a thing of the past—still there, no doubt, but no longer news. And a new kind of mirror can be found in the gaze of like-minded companions and other variants of reflection. In "All These Dreams," there is no mirror—after all there are no rooms, and presumably no walls—but "light poured down through the roof on a circular stair / made of glass." And at the poems's close, which I have quoted earlier but must return to, Cooper interrupts herself in the midst of shaping … what?
I must be halfway up the circular stair.
To shape my own—
My own image? self? work? Her word does double duty as the object of "to shape" and as a glad apostrophe: "Friends!"
That circular stair is a good emblem for Cooper's work. It may recall Yeats's winding stair, but it has its own radiance; and the poet is halfway up it, not in a dark wood but in a group of friends, laughing. The most rewarding thing about Scaffolding is the way Cooper's scrupulous and profoundly serious art moves toward joy.
Source: Rachel Hadas, "An Ecstasy of Space," in Parnassus, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1989, pp. 217-39.
Cooper, Jane, "Rent," in The Flashboat: Poems Collected and Reclaimed, W. W. Norton, 2000, p. 154.
"Loving Together, Living Alone: Families and Living Arrangements, 2000," U.S. Census Bureau, http://www.census.gov/population/pop-profile/2000/chap05.pdf (March 15, 2006).
Review of The Flashboat: Poems Collected and Reclaimed, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 246, No. 39, September 27, 1999, p. 99.
Rungren, Lawrence, Review of Scaffolding: New and Selected Poems, in Library Journal, Vol. 110, September 1, 1985, p. 202.
Seaman, Donna, Review of The Flashboat, in Booklist, Vol. 96, No. 4, October 15, 1999, p. 411.
Silman, Roberta, "A Radiance of Attention," in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 77, No. 4, Autumn 2001, pp. 745-49.
"Statistics," Alternatives to Marriage Project, http://www.unmarried.org/statistics.html (March 15, 2006).
Whitehead, Kim, "Introduction," in The Feminist Poetry Movement, University Press of Mississippi, 1996, pp. xi-xxiii.
Cooper, Jane, Gwen Head, and Marcia Southwick, eds., Extended Outlooks: The "Iowa Review" Collection of Contemporary Women Writers, Macmillan, 1982.
Cooper wrote the introduction to this anthology and worked as coeditor. This collection of writings from Iowa Review, a literary journal, reflects the wide-ranging styles and subjects of modern women writers.
Kerber, Linda K., and Jane Sherron De Hart, eds., Women's America: Refocusing the Past, Oxford University Press, 2003.
In this widely consulted anthology of women's history in America, the editors offer almost one hundred essays and documents relating the events and experiences of women in America's past. The editors chose selections that give insight into a wide range of experiences from colonial to modern times and include factors such as race and class.
Kooser, Ted, The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, University of Nebraska Press, 2005.
Known for his accessible writing style, Kooser has earned a reputation as a poet of stature and, as of 2006, has served two terms as poet laureate of the United States. In this book, he applies his years of experience as a poet to offer easy-to-follow advice for beginners.
Lindenmeyer, Kriste, The Greatest Generation Grows Up: American Childhood in the 1930s, Ivan R. Dee, 2005.
Lindenmeyer takes a look at the childhood experiences of what would become the World War II generation. She explores what it was like to be a child in the wake of the extravagance of the 1920s, to endure the hardship of the Great Depression, and then to face the global turmoil in the events leading up to and culminating in a world war.
When the musical Rent first appeared off Broadway in 1996, it immediately became a hit. Tragically, Jonathan Larson could not appreciate the over-whelming success of his play, since he had died on the evening of the final dress rehearsal. His death made the play that much more poignant in its focus on the diseased and drug-addicted young people of New York City's East Village. Still, in its examination of the lifestyles of the young men and women who inhabit the slums of the Village, the play becomes a celebration of life and the heroic struggle to survive. It was published by William Morrow in 1997.
Rent is loosely based on the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini's La bohème, an opera that focuses on the experiences of bohemian artists living in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century. Larson places his play in New York City a century later than Puccini's work. It opens on Christmas Eve and chronicles the characters' lives over the course of one year. The fast-paced production moves through a collection of vignettes that are united by a rent strike against the landlord of the run-down tenement where some of the characters live. During the course of the play, the characters protest the landlord's plans to evict them and face other obstacles that are more difficult to fight, including drug addiction, AIDS, and troubled relationships. The characters do not overcome all their problems, but those that they do overcome provide them with a sustaining sense of community and the will to endure.
Jonathan Larson was born in Mount Vernon, New York, on February 4, 1960, to Allan and Nanette Larson. His family loved the arts, and Larson received much support and encouragement from them. The house was often filled with music, including his piano playing, which he was able to pick up by ear. In high school, Larson was called the "piano man" by his fellow students. While attending White Plains High School, Larson was very active in the music and drama departments. He became friends with a fellow student named Matt O'Grady, who would later be the inspiration for many of his characters as well as for the writing of Rent, Larson's most notable and only published work. In 1978, Larson attended the acting conservatory at Adelphi University on Long Island, New York, on a four-year, full-tuition merit scholarship. At Adelphi, he wrote his first musical, Sacrimoralimmortality, an unpublished work that attacked the hypocrisy of the Christian Right. He also began a relationship with Victoria Leacock, a woman who later worked on the production of two of his (unpublished) plays, tick … tick … BOOM! (an adaptation of his one-man show, 30/90) and Superbia.
After receiving a BFA with honors from Adelphi, Larson moved to New York City under the advisement of his mentor, the composer Stephen Sondheim, who told Larson that there are more starving actors than starving composers in the world. Larson lived a bohemian lifestyle in New York, where he took jobs waiting tables and gathered material for his works. He had a series of roommates, more than thirty different people, to help him pay the rent. He later incorporated these roommates into his works as characters. Paula Span, in her biographical notes on Larson for the Washington Post, notes that Larson "harbored a serious, soaring ambition." James Nicola, artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop, where Larson developed and staged Rent, called this the need "to somehow reunite popular music and theater, which divorced somewhere back in the '40s." As Nicola put it, "This might be the guy who could do it."
In 1989, Larson was approached by the playwright Billy Aronson, who asked him to collaborate on a new version of Giacomo Puccini's La bohème, an opera depicting the lives of struggling artists trying to cope with poverty and disease. The collaboration did not last long, however, and the two men parted ways. In 1991, after Larson had seen many of his friends diagnosed as HIV-positive, he decided to take up the project again, this time on his own. He named the new version of the play Rent.
Larson died of an undiagnosed aortic aneurysm on January 25, 1996, the night before Rent was to premiere. Rent became a huge success, posthumously winning Larson the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and four Tony Awards. His other works have earned him six Drama Desk Awards and three Obies.
Rent opens on Christmas Eve at Mark and Roger's apartment. They are freezing, since there is no heat in the building. The landlord has turned it off. Mark is filming with a movie camera, and he explains that he is shooting without a script, to see if anything comes of it. He notes that Roger has not played his guitar for a year and that he has just gone through drug withdrawal. Roger's dream is to write one great song.
Mark's mother leaves a message on the telephone answering machine, expressing sorrow over the fact that Mark's girlfriend, Maureen, has left him. Mark and Roger's friend Collins rings the doorbell, but before he is let in, two thugs mug him. Benny, their landlord, then calls, asking when Mark and Roger will be paying him rent, which they have not paid for a year. After Benny inquires about Maureen, Mark tells him that she has left him for a woman named Joanne. Benny warns that if Mark and Roger do not pay the rent, he will evict them.
Mark wonders how anyone can "document real life / When real life's getting more / Like fiction each day." Roger asks how a person can write a song when he has lost his creativity, and Mark adds that they are hungry and cold. They both wonder how they will pay the rent. Mark, along with half the actors, asks how a person can "leave the past behind / When it keeps finding ways to get to your heart." With the other half of the company, Roger asks how someone can "connect in an age / Where strangers, landlords, lovers / Your own blood cells betray." Both Mark and Roger note that one way to connect is through artistic expression, Mark using his camera and Roger his guitar. The entire company then declares that they are "not gonna pay rent."
Angel appears on the street and offers to help Collins after he is mugged. When the two discover that they both have AIDS, they decide to go together to a support group meeting. Upstairs, Roger declares that he has wasted opportunities in the past and is determined to write one good song "that rings true." Mimi, a neighbor, enters, shivering, with a candle. As they talk, she insists that she dropped a bag of heroin somewhere in the apartment. Mimi tells Roger that she is a stripper, and Roger admits that he used to be a junkie. He finds the bag and puts it in his pocket, but Mimi grabs it on her way out.
After returning from the support meeting, Collins introduces Angel to Mark and Roger on the street. Angel is dressed up in Santa drag and clutching twenty-dollar bills in each hand. Benny appears and tells a homeless man to get out of his way, the very sort of callous attitude that Maureen will soon be protesting in her performance demonstration outside his building, where she, Mark, Roger, and Mimi live. Benny tries to bribe Roger and Mark, insisting that he will help their careers if they can get Maureen to stop her protest. Later, after Joanne reveals that Maureen has not been faithful to her, Mark and Joanne sympathize with each other for loving someone who is too egocentric to return their affections.
When Mimi returns to Roger's apartment, he tells her that if she's "looking for romance," she should "come back another day." He explains, "Long ago—you might've lit up my heart / But the fire's dead—ain't never gonna start." Angel tells Collins that he will be Collins's "shelter," and they pledge their love to each other.
Maureen enacts a protest performance, criticizing Benny, who, she claims, has abandoned his principles "to live as a lapdog to a wealthy daughter of the revolution." After Benny insists that the bohemian lifestyle that they have all been living is dead, the cast sings "La Vie Bohème," an anthem to that lifestyle. Roger invites Mimi to a party after the performance but then ignores her. When Mimi asks whether she has done something wrong, Roger apologizes, explaining that he has "baggage" and that he is a "disaster." Maureen's performance triggers a riot, which Mark captures on film as Mimi and Roger embrace. In response to the protest, Benny locks them out of the apartment building.
On New Year's Eve, Mimi announces that she is going to get off drugs and go back to school. Later that night, Maureen tries to persuade Joanne, who has broken off their relationship, to come back. Maureen insists that she will "learn to behave" and asks for "one more chance." That same night, after seeing some of the footage of the riot, a representative from a television newsmagazine leaves a message on Mark's answering machine, offering him a job. He says that the show is "so sleazy" but considers the offer anyway.
- In 1996, Dreamworks produced an audio compact disk of the play, featuring the original Broadway cast.
- A film version of Rent, featuring almost all of the original Broadway cast, was released by Columbia Pictures in 2005.
Benny apologizes for locking them out of the building, hinting that Mimi influenced his decision to let them back in by seducing him, which Mimi angrily denies. The main characters conclude that friendship depends on love and trust and on "not denying emotion," and Mimi and Roger embrace. When Roger goes back into his apartment, Mimi's dealer appears on the street and hands her a bag of heroin.
By Valentine's Day, Roger and Mimi have been living together for two months, and Maureen and Joanne are back together. When Joanne accuses Maureen of flirting with another woman, Maureen insists that Joanne take her as she is. The two argue and decide they will split up once again. That spring, Roger determines to break off his relationship with Mimi and go to Santa Fe to write his one great song before he dies of AIDS. In the fall, Angel dies, and the cast mourns his death.
On Halloween, Mark meets the producer for the TV newsmagazine, after he has signed a contract to work for them. He is conflicted about his new job, admitting that he has sold out to corporate America. After Angel's memorial service that day, Roger tells Mimi that he is leaving for Santa Fe. Later, Mimi and Joanne discuss their troubled relationships, and each wishes that she had someone who would truly love her for who she is. In the next scene Mark quits his job and plans to finish his film.
On Christmas Eve, Roger returns, declaring that he has written his song at last. Maureen and Joanne appear in the apartment, carrying Mimi, who is dying of AIDS. As Roger begins to play his song, "Your Eyes," which Mimi inspired, her fever breaks, and the two declare their love for each other.
Benjamin Coffin III
Their former roommate and present rent-gouging landlord, Benjamin Coffin III, wants to raze the building in which Roger, Mark, Mimi, and Maureen live. His aim is to gentrify the neighborhood by pushing out the bohemian element. He tries to appear generous when he tells Roger and Mark that he let their rent slide for one year, but his mercenary side soon emerges.
After Benny married into a wealthy, upper-class family, his father-in-law sold him the building and the neighboring lot, which he hopes to turn into a cyberstudio. Roger points out his callous materialism by declaring, "You can't quietly wipe out an entire tent city / Then watch 'It's a Wonderful Life' on TV." But Benny responds that if they want to write songs and produce films, as they claim, they will understand, and if they do not, he will kick them out. When Benny tries to bribe Mark and Roger into persuading Maureen to stop her protest, he reveals that he will do anything to succeed. By the end of the play, he has softened, as evidenced when he decides to pay for Angel's funeral.
Mark, an aspiring filmmaker, narrates the play as he films the lives of his friends. He insists that he can survive the bleakness of his environment through his art. It soon becomes apparent, though, that he is more comfortable viewing the world through his lens than in actively engaging in it. At the beginning of the play, the audience discovers that Maureen has left him for Joanne, which has made him bitter.
Mark, along with Roger, becomes defiant and declares that he will not pay the rent when Benny presses them, insisting instead that he will fight the system. However, when his film of the riot caused by Maureen's protest performance garners him a lucrative job offer with a sleazy network television newsmagazine, he briefly joins the system he criticizes to ensure himself financial stability. By the end of the play, however, he regains his values and gives up the job.
Tom Collins, a black computer genius, teacher, and anarchist who has been expelled from MIT, is the intellectual voice of the company. In the opening scene, he is mugged, reflecting the harsh reality of the world in which the characters live. He is brave enough to allow himself to fall in love with Angel, knowing that since both of them are infected with HIV, their relationship will not have much of a future.
Roger has been off heroin for six months, but he is infected with HIV. His main goal in life is to write one great song before he dies, but he has not been able to play his guitar in a year, fearing that he has lost his creative energy. He falls in love with Mimi but is too afraid to commit to her, knowing that she also is infected with HIV.
Roger has already lost the woman he loved to the disease, after she committed suicide. He tells Mimi, "Long ago—you might've lit up my heart / But the fire's dead—ain't never gonna start." In an effort to protect himself and to find the spark he needs to write his song, he leaves. He eventually returns, however, with a song of which he is proud, saying that Mimi has inspired his creativity. As he sings the song to Mimi, her fever breaks, and the two are reunited.
Joanne, a lawyer from an upper-class New York family, is in love with Maureen, who is unable to commit to her. Her character, which does not develop during the play, serves as a complication for Mark after Maureen leaves him for her.
Maureen, a bisexual performance artist and rock singer, protests Benny's renovation of the building with a performance piece that highlights his insensitivity toward the homeless. Her performance rallies the tenants, but her selfishness is displayed in her relationships with others. Maureen is a self-involved hedonist who resists anyone's attempts to persuade her to commit to a relationship. She has cheated on both Mark and Joanne. Although she and Joanne reconcile at the end of the play, there is no evidence to suggest that her character has changed enough to ensure that the two will be able to work out their problems in the long term.
Mimi Marquez works in a strip club and struggles with her addiction to heroin, which has resulted in her contraction of HIV. She falls in love with Roger, who is unable to commit to a relationship with her. Still, she is sympathetic to his reluctance, as she expresses when she sings to him: "So let's find a bar / So dark we forget who we are / And all the scars from the / Nevers and maybes die." When she declares to Roger after he rebuffs her, "I live this moment / As my last / There's only us / There's only this," she voices the ultimate spirit of the play.
Angel Dumont Schunard
The most generous and selfless character, Angel hands out money to the neighborhood while dressed in Santa drag. He first offers comfort to Collins by inviting him to an AIDS support group and later gives his love to Collins, along with all that he has, while declaring, "today for you—tomorrow for me." His death, brought about by complications from AIDS, is mourned by all of the characters and inspires them to live each day to the fullest.
The characters must deal with an overwhelming sense of betrayal—by their bodies, by the materialistic society in which they live, and by people they have trusted. Their bodies betray them after they contract HIV, slowly shutting down as their immune systems weaken and allow them to fall prey to various illnesses. Their society has let them down in its promotion of its vision of the American dream, which depends solely on upward social mobility and financial gains. The artists of the East Village are ignored in this system, unless they sell out to soulless corporations, such as the sleazy television newsmagazine that hires Mark to exploit the plight of the homeless for profit. One of the homeless people whom Mark films makes him realize that he has compromised his art when he angrily declares, "I don't need no [g―d―] help / From some bleeding heart cameraman / My life's not for you to / Make a name for yourself on!" He notes that Mark is just trying to use him "to kill his guilt." He has bought in to the same system as has Benny, who heartlessly pushes the homeless out of his way in his plans to change the neighborhood so that he can profit.
The most damaging betrayals come from individuals once trusted, like Benny, who exploits his friendship with Mark and Roger to gain success. After he marries into a rich, upper-class family, he becomes caught up in the materialistic system that measures success only through monetary gain. He tries to get Mark and Roger to persuade Maureen to stop her protest performance, enlisting their help in his capitalistic vision, and he threatens to evict them if they do not comply. Other betrayals are more personal. Roger feels betrayed by his girlfriend, who, unable to face life with AIDS, kills herself. He, in turn, betrays Mimi's trust when he leaves her, unable to allow himself to open up to another possibility of loss. Maureen betrays Mark and Joanne as the pressures of living in the East Village turn her into a self-serving hedonist.
La Vie Bohème
The characters lead a bohemian lifestyle as an escape from the harsh realities of their lives and as a form of artistic expression and individual style. Angel expresses himself by dressing as a woman, Maureen through performance art, Mark through documentary film, and Roger through rock music. They define their bohemian attitude by rejecting convention and pretension. They scorn the materialistic society in which they live and replace it with a strong sense of individuality.
Mark expresses this sensibility when he sings, "Playing hooky, making something / Out of nothing, the need / To express—/ To communicate, / To going against the grain." They align themselves with the avant guard, "To Absolut [Vodka]—to choice—/ To the Village Voice [a counterculture newspaper]—/ To any passing fad / To being an us—for once—/ Instead of a them—."
The narrative is driven by some thirty-five songs sung by fifteen cast members. The songs present the characters' poignant, emotional responses to their experiences. The most notable are Mark and Joanne's lament on having an egoist as a lover in "Tango Maureen"; Roger's struggle for artistic expression in "One Song Glory"; and his and Mimi's duets in "Light My Candle" and "I Should Tell You," which express their tentative love for each other. The songs communicate the characters' reactions to thwarted artistic expression, unrequited love, illness, and death. The lyrics and arrangements of the songs also reflect the ethnic diversity of the characters.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Read the libretto for Puccini's La bohème, on which Rent is based, and compare and contrast its characters and themes. In a short presentation to the class, discuss these comparisons and contrasts and say why you think Larson made the changes that he did in his play.
- The film A Chorus Line is a screen version of a Broadway musical that focuses on the experiences of a group of actors. The narrative is similar to that of Rent, in that it weaves the stories together as they relate to one main event. Watch the film versions of both plays and analyze how the various stories are depicted on the screen. Stage a scene from each film that reflects a similar theme and one from each that illustrates two different themes.
- Rent has often been called "the Hair of the 1990s." Hair was a Broadway hit that illustrated the "hippie" generation that came of age during the 1960s. Explore how Rent depicts the Generation Xers who came of age during the 1990s. Write an essay that determines whether or not the play is an accurate reflection of American youth during this decade.
- Read biographical accounts of Larson's life. What elements of Rent are autobiographical? Develop a PowerPoint presentation of your findings and present it to the class.
The play is fast paced, as it juxtaposes vignettes of the various characters' struggles to survive. This pacing reflects the energy and exuberance of the characters and reinforces their motivations: their desperate efforts to exist one more day with the threat of poverty and disease hanging over their heads and to live each day to the fullest. The fast cuts from scene to scene and from character to character underscore the sense that time is running out for them. Angel's death, placed in the middle of act 2, adds to the tension and helps force the characters to make important decisions about their futures.
Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca, Italy, on December 22, 1858, and lived until 1924. He began his musical career at age fourteen, when he became an organist at local churches in Lucca, the same time that he began to work on his own compositions. Manon Lescaut, his first successful opera, for which he gained worldwide recognition, was produced at Turin in 1893. His next opera, La bohème, is considered to be his masterpiece. However, its unique conversational style, which includes a mixture of gaiety and tragedy, was not well received when it was first produced at Turin in 1896. A later opera, Tosca, gained much more favorable reviews when it was staged in 1900. Puccini continued his success with the production of Madame Butterfly in 1904. His operas, known for their beautiful melodies and intermingling of passion and tenderness, tragedy and despair, have cemented his reputation as one of Italy's finest composers.
The promotion of traditional values in the 1980s received unexpected support as a result of the emergence of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). The American public became aware of AIDS in the early 1980s, but the disease did not take center stage as a serious issue until the film star Rock Hudson died from an AIDS-related illness in 1985. By the beginning of the 1990s, the disease had spread rapidly, generating tremendous public fear, since no effective treatment had been discovered. Most of the early cases emerged in the homosexual population and among intravenous drug users, but by the 1990s, it had spread throughout the American populace. Racial and ethnic minorities have been hardest hit, representing approximately three-quarters of all new AIDS cases.
Because sexual contact is a primary method of infection, the sexual revolution that had begun in the 1960s was threatened. Still, abstention was not a guarantee of safety. The disease can lay dormant in the body for several years before symptoms become apparent. People can become infected long before they know that they have the disease. The rights that homosexuals had started to gain also were put in jeopardy as a result of the spread of AIDS. The conservative right wing blamed gays for the spread of the epidemic, some insisting that AIDS was God's punishment for their immoral lifestyles.
Since the 1980s, the incidence of AIDS has grown rapidly, and the spread of the disease shows no signs of slowing down. By 1994, an estimated half a million Americans had been infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and the same number had died from AIDS. About forty thousand people are infected each year, and some twenty thousand people die from complications associated with the disease. The epidemic is worse in developing countries such as Africa, where people have little access to medications that can help combat the disease. The major factor in the reduction of the transmission of AIDS is education. The public needs to be aware of the risks and learn about methods to prevent disease transmission. Sexual abstention, condom use, and needle-exchange programs have all proved to be effective preventive methods.
Laurie Winer, in her review for the Los Angeles Times, notes that "Larson garnered the kind of rave reviews that young, struggling composer-lyricists pray and dream for." She calls the play "muscular, chilling and energizing" and argues that "what would have been merely moving in Rent is made almost unbearable bittersweet" by Larson's untimely death following a lifelong struggle to realize his artistic vision. She concludes, "Rent is a memorial service as a work of art, clearly and authentically created in love."
In his review for the Wall Street Journal, Donald Lyons adds to the chorus of praises for the play, claiming, "It's the best new musical since the 1950s." He declares that it presents itself with "clarity," "force," and "crisp definition." Commenting on the play's construction, he writes that it appears that "we're about to see a rehearsal, and what we do experience has the raw, ragged, slightly unfinished, excited, urgent feel of a late but coalescing run-through: This seeming artlessness is a sophisticated achievement."
Patrick Pacheco, in the Los Angeles Times, concludes that the play is "a raw and exuberant celebration of bohemian East Village artists … living on the edge." He claims that the topical subject matter, focusing on "the prevalence of violence and HIV … suffuses the musical with the fragility of life, the theme of Puccini's opera."
In his review of the play for the Washington Post, Chip Crews declares, "Bristling with energy and assurance, Rent roars across the stage like an urban brush fire." This show, he states, "leads with its heart—an angry heart, taking up the cause of street people, AIDS patients, the young disaffected of a society that [in Larson's view] has no place for them." Crews, however, finds fault with the development of the plot, saying that "the emotions here are very raw, so raw that they're never fully articulated." He insists that the fragmented narrative in the second act "begins to seem arbitrary and capricious. The breakups are too easy, the battles too melodramatic." He adds, "It's a fast, muzzy conclusion that does no justice to the pain they have suffered."
James Gardner, in his article for the National Review, also finds fault with the plot, writing that the play is "pretty much the same old showbiz fare, though with almost formulaic inversions. Instead of boy meets girl, you now have girl meets girl and boy meets drag queen." The play, he says, "wants desperately to be taken as the anthem of some nonexistent youth movement. But the bohemian life glorified in Rent looks no more vital than it did before," in the 1960s production of the rock musical Hair.
In his mixed review of the play for New Republic, Robert Brustein writes that the play is "good-natured, fully energized, theatrically knowing and occasionally witty." At the same time, he concludes that "it is also badly manufactured, vaguely manipulative, drenched in self-pity and sentimental." Its characters, he argues, are "poorly constructed," and it fails "to penetrate very deeply beneath a colorful and exotic surface." While "Rent has a lot to say about the need for human communication," Brustein determines that this "warm-hearted" book "is basically superficial and unconvincing."
Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, she examines the theme of survival in the play.
The nineteenth-century American writer Stephen Crane's celebrated short story "The Open Boat," which focuses on four men in a small dinghy struggling against the current to make it to shore, is often quoted as an apt expression of the tenets of naturalism, a literary movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in France, the United States, and England. Writers included in this group, such as Crane, the Frenchman Émile Zola, and the American Theodore Dreiser, expressed in their works an environmental determinism that prevented their characters from exercising their free will and thus controlled their destinies. These authors wrote of a world beset by poverty and war at the beginning of the industrial age.
Environmental forces also threaten to rob individuals of their free will in Larson's celebrated play Rent, as they struggle to overcome grinding poverty and a new kind of war at the turn of the twentieth century: the war on AIDS. Yet Larson does not adopt the same naturalistic bleakness as do his predecessors at the previous fin de siecle (end of the century). While the play's vignettes present a grim portrait of inner-city life in the age of AIDS, its vision is tempered by the heroic endurance of its characters, who ultimately choose not only to survive but also to embrace each day.
Chip Crews, in his review for the Washington Post, declares that the play "bristl[es] with energy and assurance" as it "roars across the stage like an urban brush fire." This show, he claims, "leads with its heart—an angry heart, taking up the cause of street people, AIDS patients, the young disaffected of a society that [in Larson's view] has no place for them." The characters' most immediate fear is being thrown out of their tenement by their former friend and current landlord, Benny, who has traded his friendships for success. Even Mark is tempted by the lure of money when he is offered a job by a television newsmagazine and must decide whether to abandon his artistic principles for a secure economic future. AIDS, however, is the most devastating threat hanging over their lives. Four of the eight main characters have the disease, and all have mourned the loss of loved ones to it. Roger lost his girlfriend, and in the course of the play, Angel, who has just established a loving relationship with Collins, succumbs to the disease.
Drug addiction is another force that threatens to control the characters' futures. They are surrounded by dealers, who feed on their need to find solace from the harsh realities of their lives; some characters, like Mimi, are not strong enough to resist. Mimi, who is forced to work as a stripper in order to survive, turns to heroin to escape and is unable to break her addiction to it, especially since Roger is unable to allow her to get close to him. Commenting on Roger's inability to establish a relationship with Mimi, the company sings, "How do you leave the past behind / When it keeps finding ways to get to your heart?" His only goal now is to write one good song "that rings true," but his creative energies have been blocked by the pain he has suffered. He rejects Mimi's love for the same reason, declaring, "Looking for romance? / Come back another day."
The company warns him, "Give in to love / Or live in fear," but he cannot open himself to the possibility of more loss. The company expresses the difficulty that all of the characters have in allowing themselves to establish real connections with one another, knowing that these relationships will most likely not last, when they sing, "How can you connect in an age / Where strangers, landlords, lovers / Your own blood cells betray." Ultimately, however, the characters do connect with each other, as they realize that their relationships with others and the expression of their creativity are the only things that provide meaning. In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Laurie Winer praises Larson's focus on "people clinging fiercely together while living a difficult, exhilarating existence on the brink of poverty." His characters unite in their distain for convention and pretension and in their celebration of their bohemian lifestyle, which enables them to freely express themselves. Winer concludes, "the Bohemians of Rent wear their youth, poverty and creativity like a cloak around them, shielding them from judgment by the enemy—anyone who has 'sold out' and has money."
The characters also come to understand that friendship "depends on true devotion" and "on not denying emotion." Collins and Angel had been brave enough to accomplish this, refusing to let the future determine how they will live their lives in the present. The selfless Angel, whose anthem is "today for you—tomorrow for me," initiates his union with Collins when he declares that he will be Collins's shelter, wrapping him in love. Collins reciprocates, knowing that their relationship will provide them with "a new lease" on life.
Love also ultimately proves to be an inspiration for Roger, who returns and declares that he has found his song, inspired by Mimi. His declaration of love enables her to find the strength to survive at the end of the play, which ends with a call to carpe diem (live for today). In the closing scene, the company sings "No other road no other way / No day but today." In the final moments of the play, Larson reveals to the audience the way in which seemingly overwhelming environmental forces can be checked through the saving power of faith: faith in self, faith in the creative spirit, faith in love, and faith in the present. As Winer concludes, "'Rent' is a rousing anthem to living each day as it comes."
Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on Rent, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
In the following essay-interview, Istel looks back one year previous to when Larson was alive and enjoying the fruits of his labor. In Larson's interview with Istel, Larson expounds on musical theater and his musical influences and style.
Some 525,600 minutes ago, Jonathan Larson was listening to a sing-through rehearsal of J.P. Morgan Saves the Nation in a gutted, empty floor of a New York City Financial District office building. He was there by the confluence of talent, accident and perseverance that typifies most theatrical endeavors. Larson was offered the assignment—to compose music for En Garde Arts's outdoor production of Jeffrey M. Jones's postmodern pageant detailing the life of the famous financier of the title—only a few months before, after Jones's longtime collaborator, Dan Moses Schreier, dropped out. Artistic director Annie Hamburger suggested Larson as a replacement composer, after seeing (and hearing) the workshop production of Rent at New York Theatre Workshop.
For Larson it was the best of times. Rent, his rock version of La Boheme, was now scheduled for a full production in NYTW's upcoming season, and Anne Bogart had just commissioned a new composition for her next project. His children's video, Away We Go, was scheduled to be released in 1996. And here I was, a freelance writer for the Village Voice, invited to attend rehearsals, check in on a rainy tech dress and visit the recording studio where, with his arranger Steve Skinner, Larson mixed his music. He was clearly a man with a plan, bicycling around town to drop off the latest version of the finale he'd written for J.P. Morgan, calling to sing the latest addition to the score, written in a frenzy the night before the first preview. He fed me demo tapes and scripts like food. And in our interviews, he detailed his life's mission.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Hair (1968), with book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, is considered to be the youth anthem of the 1960s, just as Rent is considered to be an expression of the 1990s. The play is a rock musical that communicates the attitudes and behavior of young Americans who became caught up in the counterculture atmosphere of the age.
- Bright Lights, Big City (1984), by Jay McInerney, chronicles the lives of young New Yorkers who have become caught up in the corporate world and subsequently discover the meaninglessness of their existence.
- James Joyce's classic coming-of-age novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1925) follows a young Dublin man's quest for artistic expression.
- AIDS in the Twenty-First Century: Disease and Globalization, by Tony Barnett and Alan Whiteside (2002), provides a detailed study of how the disease has spread not only in America but all over the world.
Last summer was Larson's 13th out of college, and after several modest but essential grants, awards and workshops, J.P. Morgan would be the first opportunity for large numbers of theatregoers and (especially important to Larson) critics to hear his practicum on how he planned to save the American musical theatre. The score for J.P. Morgan contains Larson's musical recipe: employ a full-range of pop vernaculars, from Sousa to soul to Seattle-flavored, electric-guitar-heavy grunge, mix them carefully with Skinner's help, and have them sung, with gusto, by voices that haven't been unnecessarily vacuumed of emotion by excessive conservatory training.
In the "Notes on Design" to Superbia, an as-yet-unproduced futuristic parable which predates Rent, Larson states his goals succinctly: "The sound design is as important a factor as costumes and sets. The music mix must be clean, current and digitally enhanced—reflecting today's standards in pop music rather than 'Broadway' sound." However, as he himself made clear in our discussions, these stylistic concerns must at all times be in service of the story's narrative and the emotional development of each character.
Anyone who can manipulate multiple integers can do the math. Multiply the 60 minutes in an hour times the 24 in a day. Multiply that figure, 1,440, by 365 days. Whether you did it on a napkin in your kitchen at two a.m. or in your head on the subway to work, you've just done what Jonathan Larson did in the process of creating "Seasons of Love," the second-act song, quoted above, that serves as the heart and soul Rent. But as Larson asked, how do you calculate the ineffable—the worth of a person's life? And to extend the implications of his question: On what Richter Scale do we measure the impact of a work of art?
You can certainly tally the Pulitzer, Tony, Obie, Drama Desk and other awards. The trade magazines update the number of performances, the box-office gross, the amounts offered by Hollywood for the film rights, the sum David Geffen paid to produce the cast recording. You can measure the column inches of newsprint and front covers that Rent has inspired. But such calculations have been tragically complicated by Larson's death the night before Rent's first preview in January.
In the last few months, I have often wondered what the audience and critical reception of Rent would have been if that aneurysm hadn't developed in Larson's aorta. Were that the case, you obviously wouldn't be reading a year-old interview with him—Larson would have been more than willing to give an update on his mission.
More important, the whole endeavor of Rent—which most theatregoers now know relocates Puccini's famous doomed romance to the East Village of New York, with its two main love interests, Roger and Mimi, straggling against the ticking of their HIV-positive clocks—would have been treated as Larson intended it to be, as a work of art, a stage drama, a fiction, a compelling critique of traditional definitions of "family values." It may have been dismissed as facile, derivative and exploitative of its subject matter, or it may have been seen as a vital, innovative rock opera that heralded a bright future for the composer. Either way, or somewhere in between, the composer's literal presence would have forced critics to actually listen to what he had to say.
But in article after article, Larson's real-life tragedy is inextricably linked to the onstage drama. A typical review details the circumstances of Larson's death, mentions the "important" entertainment industry people who were spotted in the audience, and ends with a cursory examination of the musical itself, commenting on the parallels with Puccini or the structural flabbiness of the second act. Peter Marks in a New York Times article in February, shortly after Rent's debut at New York Theatre Workshop, made this conflation clear: "Until a few weeks ago, hardly anyone had heard of the musical. Then its 35-year-old composer and librettist, Jonathan Larson, died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm on the night of the final dress rehearsal. And now, buoyed by waves of glowing reviews and strong word of mouth, Rent is the hottest show in town."
The paper of record was particularly prone to hyperbole, devoting practically an entire Sunday arts section to the musical. Frank Rich even used his op-ed column to stand in as musical theatre champion and lift the victorious arm of the latest contender: "Rent is all the critics say it is…. It takes the very people whom politicians now turn into scapegoats for our woes—the multicultural, the multisexual, the homeless, the sick—and, without sentimentalizing them or turning them into ideological symbols or victims, lets them revel in their joy, their capacity for love … all in a ceaseless outpouring of melody."
Larson, so eager to share his passion and music with the critics, would have appreciated this enthusiasm and validation of his life's work. Yet, I'd venture, he'd be troubled by the fact that few tried to really listen—to hear what he was trying to say. And as he says in the interview, he felt that writing a play or musical without a burning need to articulate some important concern was a waste of time.
While some lauded the grittiness and the authenticity of his musical, it's clear Larson was a severe romantic and shameless sentimentalist. After all, his answer to his own question:—"How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?"—was simple: love. His East Village Romantics are Rodgers and Hammerstein versions—they forsake their death wish and dissipation, join support groups and find love in the unlikeliest circumstances. And, in the most notable departure from Puccini, Mimi rises up from her death bed, her fever broken, her recovery assured. Ah, the American musical ending! This is pure art, as in artifice, and Larson, so well-versed in the musical and structural materiel of the genre in which he worked, knew it. How can Rich claim that Larson doesn't "sentimentalize" the characters? Of course, they're sentimentalized. Sentimentality is at the heart of every Rodgers and Hammerstein hit, and it's the pulse behind all the characters in Rent.
Larson's ability to infuse lyrical, wide-eyed optimism into the darker realities of contemporary life—homelessness, AIDS, dog-eat-dog capitalism—is exactly what helped move the musical uptown. In the past three decades, many films and plays have dealt with such themes with far higher levels of credibility—the Living Theater's 1959 production of The Connection comes immediately to mind. The Normal Heart conveyed the anger and frustration of living with AIDS more powerfully. Angels in America gave it a deeper, more insightful socio-historical context.
In his New Republic review, Robert Brustein perceived some of these criticisms, as he decried what he saw as sloppy sentimentalism and the way AIDS was used for "mawkish purposes." However, when he wrote, "Larson has been hailed for creating the downtown equivalent of Bohemian life. I fear he has only created another fashion…. Larson's New Age Bohemians display nothing but their lifestyles," Brustein was aiming at the wrong target. It was Rolling Stone, Time Out and the Voice, not Larson, that reduced Rent to fashion spreads. Tamed by the proscenium frame, these "lifestyles"—which existed before Rent—were suddenly ripe for the co-opting.
Personally, watching a chorus line of homeless people shuffling in a dance step on Broadway was acutely disturbing to me. However, it's clear Larson did have a vision with social and political implications. He was deeply disturbed by a society that could become obsessed with an exclusionary notion of "family values" while alienating itself from the fundamental human values of community, caring and love. Society's embrace of superficiality and the power of mass media are the culprits.
But Larson was faced with a profound paradox: how to condemn the pervasiveness of the media and the alienating effects of technology while exploiting their dramatic possibilities. Rent, like his early work Superbia, is a constant comment on how technology can alienate us. Take the phone messages from Mom that we hear punctuating the score; the way Mark, a documentary film maker, continually puts his camera between himself and those closest to him; the irony of his ex-girlfriend Maureen's performance art piece. Solo work like hers has been traditionally one of the most potent tools in postmodern theatre to burst the isolating media bubble we live in. Yet Maureen's piece can't take place until Mark fixes the sound system.
Larson's concerns about the society's slide into superficiality were evident in Superbia (the only other musical he'd written book, music and lyrics for), which he was still pushing to get produced when I talked to him (it had received a workshop production at Playwrights Horizons in 1988).
The futuristic setting is populated by two classes of people—the Ins and Outs. This Brave New World was founded by Mick Knife, a rock star, and is now controlled by the Master Babble Articulator, or MBA. It all seems a Tommy-like metaphor for how rock music becomes co-opted and audiences become slaves to fashion. Act 2 opens (ironically, considering the fate of Rent in the media) with an Award Show to name the new "Face of the Year." And at the heart of his musical, of course, is a romantic Romeo-and-Juliet like love affair between an In and an Out. Their one-night fling, however, is televised, like everything in this world. As Larson writes in his own synopsis, "The result is instant celebrity."
Larson's awareness of the perils of fame didn't ease his hunger for recognition. After my Voice piece was published a year ago he called to express appreciation for describing his one-man manifesto. I had made one mistake, though, that he corrected. I implied that Mimi died in Rent. "She doesn't die in my version," he reminded me. And that's the ultimate tragedy: that we can't rewrite his story to make a happy ending. The sad fact that Larson's demise is irreversible highlights just how far his art diverged from his life.
An Interview with Jonathan Larson On Pop Music in the Theatre
[John Istel]: Do you see your music as part of the American musical theatre tradition?
[Jonathan Larson]: My whole thing is that American popular music used to come from theatre and Tin Pan Alley, and there's no reason why contemporary theatre can't reflect real contemporary music, and why music that's recorded or that's made into a video cannot be from a show. Popular music being a part of theatre ended with Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair and rock musicals in the late 1960s. A number of things happened. One was that there had been singers in the '40s, '50s, even early '60s, who would sing anybody's material—Frank Sinatra, what have you. Then, beginning with the Beatles, you had songwriters and bands who were singing only their own material. So you didn't have that venue for theatre music to be popular.
What do you think about Randy Newman's latest musical project [Faust] and other pop stars working in the theatre?
New York magazine ran this article [about what was killing Broadway]. The last part had a 12-step program—12 ways to renovate Broadway. Number 12 was bringing new music to Broadway. They were getting all excited about Randy Newman, and Prince evidently is thinking about it, and Paul Simon is working on a new musical. That's exciting if they're successful and if they bring younger people to the theatre who wouldn't normally go. But it's almost going backwards to have a musical that is songwriter-generated because of the traps they can fall into.
They're used to a number of things: not collaborating, not making changes and writing in their own voice. There's so much that Rodgers and Hammerstein and Sondheim have taught us about how to advance plot and character and theme in a song. Often, you get contemporary pop writers who know how to write a verse and a chorus, but they don't necessarily know how to write an inner monologue where a character goes through a change by the end of the song so the plot and story continues.
On those messy concept albums like the Who's Tommy or the Kinks's Soap Opera there's so much left to the imagination or that isn't spelled out because you don't have to physicalize it.
Right. And that was the problem with Tommy. At least Pete Townshend knew he had to work with a book writer, Des McAnuff, who was a theatre person. Even if I don't agree with the story they chose to tell in Tommy, which was this sort of return-to-family-values thing at the end, at least he understood the concept of collaborating. It's easy to write 18 songs, but it's not easy to write a two-and-a-half hour piece that has an arc.
On the Maturation of a Musical Writer
What's Jonathan Larson's style?
I'm a rock-and-roller at heart and I'm influenced by contemporary music. There is a Jonathan Larson style, but I can't totally describe it.
Who were your favorite composers?
Well, I loved Pete Townshend growing up, and I loved the old Police and Prince—or whatever his name is—he's brilliant. I love Kurt Cobain and Liz Phair. Beatles. And in the theatre—Leonard Bernstein, Sondheim. I absolutely love them.
Were you a theatre major in college?
Yeah. I was an actor, too. I had a four-year acting scholarship to Adelphi. Adelphi was a lousy place to go to school in the sense that it's in suburbia and that's where I grew up. But it was run by a disciple of Robert Brustein's named Jacques Burdick, who basically made an undergraduate version of Yale Drama School. And I was mature enough coming out of high school to appreciate it. I got to do everything from Ionesco to Shakespeare to original plays or musicals.
The best thing, though, was that, like Yale, they had four original cabarets a year, and they were always looking for people to write them. So by the end of my time there I had written eight or ten shows. And I found that I liked it as much as performing. I had a skill doing it. When I came to New York, I had gotten my Equity card because I had done summer stock. I started going to cattle calls, but at the same time I had my first musical which was a really bad rock version of 1984, based on Orwell. It was getting a lot of attention and serious consideration—basically because the year was 1982. We came close to getting the rights, but it was a good thing we didn't because it was not a very good show. But it was my first real attempt to write a big show.
At Adelphi we wrote the original Nick and Nora Charles musical—it was called The Steak Tartar Caper—10 years before they did it on Broadway. We did ShoGun Cabaret—we were way ahead of our time.
Then, when I came to New York, Sondheim was always a big mentor. He encouraged me to be a writer as opposed to being an actor, and suggested that I join ASCAP and do the musical theatre workshop. ASCAP was sort of a 12-step meeting for people who write musicals, but you get to show your work to top-notch professionals in the field.
Two things amazed me at ASCAP: One was that I had written 100 songs by then, had seen them in productions, and had seen them work or not work with audiences. If Peter Stone, head of the Dramatists Guild, or Sondheim, said something that I disagreed with, I said, "I disagree and I'll tell you why." Some of my peers, and those even older, had never had their work performed. And they would be like, "Okay, I'll just throw out my project. You're right—it sucks."
On the Genesis of 'Rent'
Ira Weitzman put me in touch with Billy Aronson who had an idea—years ago—to do a modern-day La Boheme. Billy's done stuff at Ensemble Studio Theatre and with Showtime and TV, and he's a sort of Woody Allen type and he wanted to do a modern-day La Boheme, set it on the Upper West Side, and make it about Yuppies and funny. I said, "That doesn't interest me, but if you want to set it in Tompkins Square Park and do it seriously, I like that idea a lot." He had never spent any time in the East Village, but he wrote a libretto. He wanted to write the book and lyrics, and I was to set a few of the songs to music and see what everyone's response was. I also came up with the rifle of Rent. So I wrote "Rent," "Santa Fe" and "I Should Tell You."
I found different types of contemporary music for each character, so the hero [Roger] in Rent sings in a Kurt Cobain-esque style and the street transvestite sings like De La Soul. And there's a Tom Waits-esque character. The American musical has always been taking contemporary music and using it to tell a story. So I'm just trying to do that.
We made a demo tape and everyone loved the concepts, loved the music—but when they read the accompanying libretto, they weren't too strong on it. So we just put it on hold. I loved the concept, but I didn't have a burning reason to go back to it. And then I did.
Two years later a number of my friends, men and women, were finding out they were HIV-positive. I was devastated, and needed to do something. I decided to ask Billy if he would let me continue by myself, and he was very cool about it.
I am the kind of person that when I write my own work, I have something I need to say. It surprises me that in musicals, even plays today, sometimes I don't see what the impetus was, other than thinking it was a good smart idea or it could make them some money or something.
On Composing in the American Musical Theatre
What's it like making a living as a composer in the theatre these days?
Well the old thing about how you can make a killing but you can't make a living is absolutely true. I'm proof of that. Now, I have the ability to compete trying to write jingles, trying to do other kinds of music that makes money, and I haven't put myself out there. My feeling is that it's not what I want to do, and I would be competing with guys who do want to. So I'm just working on musicals—it's like this huge wall, and I'm chipping away at it with a screwdriver. I just keep making a little more headway. I've had a lot of very generous grants, but they all go to the play. I get a little stipend, but I can't live off the commissions.
I work two days a week waiting tables at Moondance in Soho. I've been there for eight-and-a-half years but I don't mind it. In fact, I love the customers—the regulars are fantastic. The management and the owner totally support me. I can take a couple of months off when I need to do a show, come back, and I've actually gotten work there twice. There was a little piece on me in New York magazine a few years ago, and one of the regular customers who I'd known for years, Bob Golden, brought it up and said, "I saw that you were in New York magazine and that you wrote for Sesame Street." I said, "Yeah, it was mostly freelance." He said, "Have you ever considered making a children's video yourself? You can make a lot of money." I said, "I'd love to but I don't have the capital to put up." He said, "Well, I do."
And the next week I brought in a five-page budget and concept, and handed it to him with his eggs, and he totally went for it. It's a half-hour video called Away We Go. It stars a puppet called Newt the Newt. (Unfortunately, we came up with that name before it took on other connotations.) It's for very young kids—Sesame Street age. The great thing about that—besides that someone was trusting me and putting up the money—was I had something tangible that that no one could take away from me. Theatre is so ethereal. You have programs, and you have maybe a recording of the show, but that's it. It's such a weird medium.
Source: John Istel, "Rent Check," in American Theatre, Vol. 13, No. 6, July-August 1996, pp. 12-16.
Thomas J. Carroll
In the following review, Carroll reflects on Rent's social criticism and its depiction of modern Bohemian culture.
The power of any work of art is in its telling of the truth. At its best moments, the American musical theater tradition has done that well. The grappling with racial prejudice in South Pacific, for example, remains both effective and relevant, as does the biting critique of militarism in Hair. The flaws of either of those shows, or of many another significant musical, notwithstanding, American musical theater has often become a teacher of our hearts, dating to tell us truths we have needed to know, or to know again or to know more deeply.
As I flew to New York at the end of January for Jonathan Larson's memorial service, I did not realize that he had left for us just such a legacy in his new rock opera, Rent. When I had dinner with him a couple of summers ago at Manhattan's Ear Inn, Jonathan shared with me his enthusiasm over the progress of this new show he was writing. As he guided me around SoHo after our meal, he was giving me, I now realize, an introduction to many of the themes and issues that straggle toward resolution in Rent.
The initial preview performance of Rent was scheduled for Friday, Jan. 26, at the New York Theater Workshop in Manhattan. Only a few hours after the final dress rehearsal ended on the 25th, Jonathan died at age 35 of an aortic aneurism. A stunned and grieving company gathered that Friday evening to sing the score for the Larson family and many of Jon's friends. The memorial service for Jonathan at the Minetta Lane Theater on Feb. 3, even as it mourned his death, celebrated an artist's life.
Jonathan Larson pursued such a life, working year after year at a SoHo diner to make ends meet while he composed songs and crafted lyrics, producing a series of innovative shows. His creative efforts won him professional encouragement and support from Stephen Sondheim and the Richard Rodgers Foundation, among others. Passion for life, devotion to his work and a goofy and optimistic sense of humor kept Jon on the path that has led to the critical and popular success of Rent.
Based on a concept by Billy Aronson, Rent translates the story of Puccini's La Boheme, from the Left Bank in 1860's Paris to the East Village in today's New York. In the setting of that contemporary bohemian world Larson knew and loved, a company of 15 young actors explores the mysteries of life and love, of loss and death. The threat of tuberculosis has been replaced by the specter of AIDS. The relative simplicity of another century's bohemian life has given way to contemporary complexity.
Directly and poignantly Rent faces the effects of addiction and alienation, of dysfunction and codependency, of homelessness and gentrification, of sexual liberation and enslavement to habits and passions. The story is told through a succession of varied and well-crafted songs, each evocative and many moving. Together these songs vividly portray interwoven lives marked by desire and the hope for relationship, by shame and the quest for integrity, by despair and the yearning for glory, by suffering and the search for meaning.
Rent extends an opportunity: to see today's bohemian phenomenon whole, in all its attractions and sorrow. Larson pointedly ends Act I with a conjunction of two songs: "La Vie Boheme," which shouts the satisfactions of life on the edge, and "I Should Tell You," which finds two fearful characters trying to reveal to each other that they both are H.I.V. positive. Rent draws us into the humanity of each straggling character and allows us to see that their pains and fears are not so different from our own.
Rent tenders an invitation: to find good in all things, even in the outcasts of society. Larson begins Act II with a stirring gospel anthem, "Seasons of Love," reminding us that the one appropriate measure of any person's life is love. That message may seem banal, but the challenge to us remains: It is only with the eyes of love that we can see love for what it is. Rent opens to our view the attempts of a few souls on the fringe of society to discover how to love. If learning to love and choosing love are, for each of them, ongoing tasks, we must admit that they are the tasks of our everyday lives as well.
Rent yields a truth: that for each of us each day is a judgment day, a proof of who we are. The inestimable value of that opportunity in each day is affirmed in Rent's final refrain, "No day but today." In the course of "Rent," each of Larson's characters is brought face to face with the finality of each moment and with the precariousness of life. As each character chooses between evasion and love, stagnation and creation, hatred and forgiveness, death and life, we encounter again the challenge of the Book of Deuteronomy: "Choose life."
Larson's is not the strident voice of a "fundamentalist liberal" who approves of everything avant-garde while repudiating everything traditional, nor is Rent dominated by rage or bitterness. It is instead a thoughtful voice, asking us to have reverence for all of creation, even for those we feel certain we can justly criticize. And Rent overflows with positive energy, with confident affirmation of the good that is to be found in life and in people.
Larson intended to win a younger audience to the tradition of musical theater and was confident that, with its vital cobination of contemporary music and issues, attitude and wit, Rent would lure them in. The enthusiastic response to Rent in these past months suggests that his hope was not in vain. Rent has left its first home at the New York Theater Workshop and made the move up to Broadway. The Nederlander Theater has once again opened its doors, welcoming a new voice, a new optimism, a new word of truth. Another mark of approval has just come to Larson with the posthumous award of the Pulitzer prize for playwriting.
Source: Thomas J. Carroll, "Legacy," in America, Vol. 174, No. 16, May 11, 1996, pp. 22-23.
In the following review, Sullivan explores parallels and differences between Rent and La Boheme.
Once upon a time—a time of intellectual and political ferment—disaffected youth abandoned their parents, their studies and their comfortable middle-class surroundings to congregate in low-rent districts, shun social convention and imbibe as freely as possible life, love and other intoxicants, devoting themselves loudly and explicitly to the creation of new Art and a new Age. You could call it San Francisco in the '60s, or New York and Paris in the '20s, or you could locate the source of the myth of Bohemia, as many have, in the Paris of the 1830s. Henri Murger popularized that myth in his autobiographical novel, Scenes de la vie de Boheme (1845), and the legend found further expression, and has lived on for subsequent generations, in theatrical variations: Puccini's durable opera La Boheme (1896) and, 100 years later, Jonathan Larson's musical phenomenon Rent.
With the driving energy of its musical through-line and a glorious ensemble of vibrant young actors, Larson's Broadway hit has a lot going for it. But as John Istel details in this issue's cover story, "Rent Check," most of the show's press has revolved around the poignant life-meets-art tragedy of composer/lyricist/librettist Larson's death on the eve of his show's success, obscuring the serious issues Larson intended to address. One of those issues was the reduction of contemporary life to a basic level of economic exchange—rent.
While the parallels between La Boheme and Rent have been widely discussed, the divergence of the two stories may better illuminate Larson's meaning. For instance Benoit, the landlord in La Boheme, is a relatively minor comic character, but Benny, the landlord and developer in Rent, drives the plot. Though he once shared Bohemian digs with the filmmaker and songwriter at the heart of Larson's story, Benny has married rich and has bought their building and the adjacent vacant lot with its "tent city" of the homeless. Now he wants back rent and something more: To clear the tent city so he can build a state-of-the-art "cyber studio."
Gentrification is a familiar story for Bohemians. Small, undervalued enclaves reclaimed by artists are often ripe for picking. But Larson's Rent is concerned with more than the depletion of physical space: He warns of commercial encroachment to what we may refer to as our Bohemia of the mind—the private domain in which personal character and style are defined. There's a knowing concern in Larson's phrase, "You'd find an old tablecloth on the street and make a dress—and the next year, sure enough, they'd be mass-producing them at the Gap," particularly when juxtaposed with the pointed fatalism in his lyric, "Bohemia, Bohemia, a fallacy in your head. This is Calcutta, Bohemia's dead." When Larson's alter ego, the filmmaker Mark, says "How do you document real life, when real life's getting more like fiction each day?", he poses a central challenge for artists living and creating in consumerized world, and a terribly perplexing question for young people searching for identity.
Puccini's Bohemians, while economically marginalized, were bold and playful, confidently flouting social convention by creating for themselves determinedly distinctive personalities. Rent, on the other hand—its frenetic pace in sync with America in the accelerating '90—depicts the coming generation's often desperate attempts to create a vision of themselves before the masters of market segmentation appropriate, pertect and sell it back to them.
It is impressive that Jonathan Larson's message has traveled from the margins of society to the center of Broadway's popular culture. Some will say the meaning of Rent is affected by the change of venue, and there is probably some truth in that, but to explore how ideas are assimilated into American culture is a subject for another day. For now, two facts seem clear: Rent's success reflects the momentum of a huge young talent; and, as Stephanie Coen's article "Not Out of Nowhere" shows, this young talent was encouraged and nurtured along the way. While Larson lived and absorbed the contemporary Bohemian ethos, Rent exalts, artistic director James Nicola and the staff of New York Theatre Workshop played an essential role in helping Larson flesh out his tale. (Rent represents the fullest expression to date of Nicola's vision of integrating New York Theatre Workshop with the community in which it resides, New York's Lower East Side.) Equally important, the early boost given Larson by his mentor Stephen Sondheim, and the recognition given Rent by the Richard Rodgers Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, serve in retrospect as harbingers of the production's spectacular move.
With an increasing number of Broadway shows such as Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, Seven Guitars, Master Class and Rent—having benefited from development in nonprofit venues, this has been Broadway's best year in the last 15. Even Broadway's self-celebrating Tonys bear out the importance of our theatres, with six of eight productions nominated for best play or revival of a play, and five of eight nominated for best musical or revival of a musical, having originated in the American nonprofit sector.
The nonprofit theatre knows how to provide the Bohemia of the mind most young talents like Jonathan Larson need to create. While innovative approaches to development and cost containment, like the Broadway Alliance, may keep creative commercial producers on Broadway, alliances between the nonprofit and commercial sectors will increasingly be the route taken by new ideas and new impulses as they travel from the hearts of theatre artists to the center of American culture. Every day, as the physical and mental boundaries of Bohemia contract, threatening the very future of independent thought, those of us committed to an expanding non-profit culture must appreciate and meet the needs of artists, and keep alive the Bohemian in us all.
Source: John Sullivan, "Bohemians of the Moment," in American Theatre, Vol. 13, No. 6, July-August 1996, p. 3.
In the following review, Brustein laments the "messianic fervor," due largely to Larson's sudden death, surrounding Rent. Brustein finds fashion, but a lack of real art, in the play.
The American theater chases after a new musical sensation with all the messianic fervor of a religious sect pursuing redemption. And when the composer/librettist dies the day before his show begins previews, we have all the conditions required for cultural myth-making—a martyred redeemer, a new gospel, hordes of passionate young believers and canonization by The New York Times, which devoted virtually all the theater columns of a recent Arts and Leisure section to Rent, the "rock opera for our time."
Jonathan Larson's premature death at the age of 35 from an aortic aneurism was a misfortune from many points of view. He was a young man on the brink of a strong career who did not live to enjoy the early fruits of his talents, a promising artist who would undoubtedly have gone on to write much more finished works. I hope it will not be construed as coldhearted when I say that his death was also a sad day for contemporary criticism, being another instance of how it can be hobbled by extra-artistic considerations.
Rent (now playing at the New York Theatre Workshop before it moves to Broadway) is an updated version of La Bohème, substituting the multicultural denizens of New York's East Village for Puccini's Latin Quarter Bohemians. It is good-natured, fully energized, theatrically knowing and occasionally witty. It is also badly manufactured, vaguely manipulative, drenched in self-pity and sentimental in a way that makes Puccini and his librettists (Illica and Giacosa) look like cynics.
Rent is being advertised as "Hair for the '90s," and there are indeed certain similarities between the two musicals. Both idealize their socially marginal characters, both are poorly constructed, and both fail to penetrate very deeply beneath a colorful and exotic surface. Larson was a sophisticated librettist, if a somewhat sloppy architect (there is twice as much incident in his brief second act as in the much longer section that precedes it). But his score for Rent struck me as the musical equivalent of wallpaper, the rock version of elevator music ("tame and second hand," as Bernard Holland wrote in the only Times dissent). Compared to Galt McDermott's exhilarating compositions for Hair, Larson's songs—except for the moving "Another Day"—show little lyric genius. Their impact derives less from intrinsic inspiration than from extrinsic amplification. Whenever the show begins to flag, the appealing cast lines up downstage to holler into microphones.
The cast, in fact, is highly amplified throughout the entire evening, often leaving us in bewilderment over whose lips are issuing the sounds. The principals wear head mikes, which not only makes them look like telephone operators but makes any physical contact between them (such as a hug or a kiss) sound more like a scrape. Rent has a lot to say about the need for human communication, but nothing very human is allowed to emerge from all this acoustical racket. "You're living in America where it's like the Twilight Zone," notes one character, while another (cribbing from Philip Roth) asks, "How do you document real life when real life is getting more like fiction every day?" What isn't probed is how these people also contribute to a sense of the American unreality, especially when they are so superficially examined.
Although warm-hearted, Larson's book is basically superficial and unconvincing. In this piggy-back Bohème, the painter Marcello becomes Mark, a documentary filmmaker; Rudolfo the poet turns into Roger, a rock composer; Colline the philosopher emerges as Tom Collins, a black anarchist expelled from MIT for his work on "actual reality"; and Schaunard, the musician, metamorphoses into Angel, a black sculptor by profession and transvestite by disposition. As for the women, Musetta evolves into a bisexual rock singer named Maureen who has left Mark for Joanne (Puccini's Alcindoro transformed into a black lawyer from Harvard), while Mimi, the mignonette, has turned into Mimi Marquez, a Latino strip dancer and heroin user (when she enters Roger's apartment with frozen hands, carrying a candle, she's looking for her stash).
The background for all this interracial, inter-sexual character grunge is a rent strike. Blacks, Latinos and whites alike, whether gay, bisexual or straight, all stand in common opposition to the uptight Benjamin Coffin III, who, though also black, is, like his Puccini prototype Benoit, a grasping land-lord and rent gouger. What they protest is his hard-heartedness toward the homeless ("Do you really want a neighborhood where people piss on your stoop every night?") and his desire to gentrify the surroundings ("This is Calcutta. Bohemia's dead").
Aside from this easy mark, and similar simplistic oppositions, what virtually all these people have in common is AIDS (an analogy for Mimi's tuberculosis in La Bohème). Some have contracted the disease from sexual activity, some from drug use, but in Rent it seems to be an East Village epidemic. During an AZT break, the entire cast pops pills. Most of them are dying. Angel, minus his wig and connected to an IV, is provided with a protracted death scene, after which Mimi memorializes him as "so much more original than any of us." (Following Kushner's Angels in America, Phyllis Nagy's Weldon Rising, the PBS documentary The Time of Our Dying and other such theatrical artifacts, it is doubtful how "original" black drag queens really are any more.)
The death of Angel (the angel of death?) sets the stage for Mimi's demise. She and Roger have finally consummated their love after discovering they are both HIV positive and therefore can't contaminate each other. Still, Roger decides to leave for Santa Fe to write one great song before he dies. Upon his return, he learns that Mimi has been living on the street, in deteriorating health. Maureen carries the dying girl into Roger's apartment, and all the comrades gather round for the obligatory death scene. Roger declares his love in song ("Who do you think you are, leaving me alone with my guitar"), Mimi falls back on the couch, and the concluding strains of La Bohème—the most powerful music of the evening—swell up over the sobs and groans.
Fear not. Unlike bel canto opera, American musicals allow resurrections and require happy endings. Mimi awakes. Her "fever has broken." Love has triumphed over immune deficiency. And the show concludes with the lovers in each other's arms, as movie memories are projected onto an upstage screen.
We don't ask our musicals to be like real life unless they pretend to be: Rent is offered to us as an authentic East Village tranche de vie. This pretense makes the final Puccini musical quotation seem cheap and the ending sentimental. George Meredith once defined the sentimentalist as "He who would enjoy without incurring the immense debtorship for the thing done." He accurately describes the emotions forced upon the audience in Rent: a ghastly disease is exploited for mawkish purposes.
Michael Greif's highly charged production employs a host of gifted young performers: Daphne Rubin-Vega as a dejected Mimi in skin-tight Spandex pants; Adam Pascal as the rock-and-rolling Roger; Anthony Rapp as the camera-toting Mark; Wilson Jermaine Heredia as the transvestite sculptor Angel; Idina Menzel (a Sandra Bernhard look-alike) as the sexually ambivalent Maureen; and Taye Diggs, Fredi Walker and Jesse L. Martin in other roles. The energy of the entire cast is prodigious. I hope that energy can be sustained over what promises to be a long Broadway run.
Larson has been hailed for creating the downtown equivalent of 13 Bohemian life. I fear he has only created another fashion. Bohemia used to be celebrated not just for flamboyant life-styles but also for artistic innovation. Many Bohemian artists (Ibsen, Manet) dressed like burghers and lived exemplary lives. It was Flaubert who famously said that he was peaceful and conservative in his life in order to be violent and radical in his work. Alas, Larson's New Age Bohemians display nothing but their life-styles. As for their art, it's just a little daunting to note that most of them have no greater ambition than to dominate the rock charts.
Source: Robert Brustein, "The New Bohemians," in New Republic, April 22, 1996, pp. 29-31.
In the following review of Rent, Gardner comments on "the essential bad faith of the musical," finding nothing new in the play or its concept despite the hype.
I have this theory: in any given musical after 1970, there will come a moment in which the protagonist is on stage alone and sings the words, "Who am I?" This may be called the hokey-identity-crisis moment, when the character is torn between his principles and his self-interest, and tempted to take the easy way out, which threatens to damn his soul and shave twenty minutes off the second act.
In Rent, the new great hope of the American musical theater, this does not happen—or at least not quite. The protagonist, Mark, an aspiring video artist who cannot pay his rent and has no electricity or food in his house, is offered a lucrative assignment from some cheesy network news magazine. Will he take the job and end his financial plight, or will he preserve his principles—though we never quite learn what those are—and turn the job down? At this point, Mark, on the verge of accepting, turns to the audience and says, "What am I doing?" Then his roommate, Roger, an equally insolvent rock poet, comes on stage and asks, "Who are you?" Now since he has known Mark for years and is not suffering from any psychotic disorder, despite a healthy drug habit, we assume that this question is meant metaphorically.
My point: there seems to have been a tacit agreement among twenty or thirty powerful people on Broadway that Rent is to be the Next Big Thing and everyone else is docilely toeing the line. And yet, despite its studied hipness and its aspirations to be the voice of the Nineties, Rent, which is an updating of La Boheme, is pretty much the same old showbiz fare, though with almost formulaic inversions. Instead of boy meets girl, you now have girl meets girl and boy meets drag queen. The audience is almost explicitly invited to say, "Look at that! Lesbians. Say!" And whereas earlier generations acknowledged the archetype of the annoying mother-in-law, as in Barefoot in the Park, here one is beset with the Annoying Jewish Mother archetype who endeavors to stifle with self-centered affection the young hero's artistic ambitions. Then there's the overbearing landlord with the heart of gold, who, in a cutesy reversal of type, is a black yuppie. Combine that with myriad references to AZT, Prozac, and Pee Wee Herman and you can positively hear the Generation Xers in the audience as they "relate." The low point in this process comes in the form of Mark's nutty ex-girlfriend, Maureen. Protesting the landlord's desire to transform their tenement into a studio space, she does a performance piece which we know we are supposed to find silly, though in fact it is not much sillier than the rest of the musical. Well, at one point Maureen imitates a cow (I forget why) and delivers what is perhaps the one genuinely funny line in the play, "C'mon. Moo with me!" This would be fine except that then, sure enough, the majority of the terminally hip audience started lowing like a stable of prize Guernseys.
As for the music, it is standard rock fare of the sort that pleases some people more than me. For what it's worth, I found myself enjoying Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar, also rock operas, far more than I did this, which means that I am not totally averse to the art form. The staging, furthermore, seems surprisingly drab and lifeless, an impression that the dull, vaguely industrial set does little to mitigate.
Like most people who saw Rent, I was expecting a great deal, since the musical had won the Pulitzer Prize and had been praised by all and sundry. Furthermore, knowing the genuinely tragic circumstances of the life and death of the author, Jonathan Larson, his having waited on tables in obscurity for years while struggling in vain to get his musical produced, and then dying at age 35 of an aortic aneurysm the day it was supposed to open—I wanted to like the play. And I was and remain sincerely happy for the author that all these people, who probably wouldn't even have tipped him properly if he had waited on their tables, were now clamoring to get the few remaining tickets, not to mention the few remaining Rent T-shirts and Rent buttons that were being hawked at the entrance.
But I found that I could never get past what seemed to be the essential bad faith of the musical, its trying to be the Hair of the Nineties. You just know that the chorus that ends the first act, "La Vie Boheme," wants desperately to be taken as the anthem of some nonexistent youth movement. But the bohemian life glorified in Rent looks no more vital than it did before, and Broadway itself, whose fortunes this musical was said to revive, appears about as moribund as ever.
Source: James Gardner, "Lowering the Rent," in National Review, Vol. 48, No. 10, June 3, 1996, pp. 56-57.
Brustein, Robert, "The New Bohemians," in the New Republic, April 22, 1996, pp. 29-30.
Crews, Chip, "'Rent': Electricity Included; Raw Emotion Keeps Musical on Track," in the Washington Post, April 30, 1996, Section E, p. 1.
Gardner, James, "Lowering the Rent," in the National Review, June 3, 1996, pp. 56-57.
Larson, Jonathan, Rent, William Morrow, 1997.
Lyons, Donald, "'Rent,' New Musical Is Deserved Hit," in the Wall Street Journal, March 6, 1996, Section A, p. 18.
Pacheco, Patrick, Review of Rent, in the Los Angeles Times, April 14, 1996, p. 4.
Rich, Frank, "East Village Story," in the New York Times, March 2, 1996, Section A, p. 19.
Span, Paula, "The Show Goes On; Reeling from Triumph and Tragedy, 'Rent' Rockets onto Broadway," in the Washington Post, April 18, 1996, Section C, p. 1.
Winer, Laurie, "'Rent' Goes Up—to Broadway; Pulitzer Prize-Winning Musical Celebrates Life, Even under Specter of Death," in the Los Angeles Times, April 30, 1996, p. 1.
Bordman, Gerald, and Thomas S. Hischak, The Concise Oxford Companion to American Theatre, Oxford University Press, 1987.
The comprehensive guide to American theater includes articles on relevant topics, such as "AIDS and the American Theatre."
Galvin, Peter, "How the Show Goes On: An Interview with 'Roger,' 'Mimi,' and 'Mark,'" in Interview, Vol. 20, March 1996, p 105.
This interview with three of the original cast members—Adam Pascal, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Anthony Rapp—focuses on the cast's reaction to Larson's death.
London, Herbert, Decade of Denial: A Snapshot of America in the 1990s, Lexington Books, 2001.
London charts the decade, which he considers to be a media-driven age, consumed by greed.
Shilts, Randy, And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, Stonewall Inn Editions, 2000.
The authors trace the impact of social and political forces on the development of the AIDS epidemic.
Tommasini, Anthony, "The Seven-Year Odyssey That Led to 'Rent,'" in the New York Times, March 17, 1996, Section 2, pp. 7, 37.
Tommasini traces Larson's creation and development of Rent.
There are at least three distinct classes of meanings for rent: the common usage, the usage in classical economics, and the usage in modern economics. These are discussed in turn in this section. More restrictive meanings or special kinds of rent will be discussed under the appropriate general classification. In succeeding sections the determination of rent in its various senses will be discussed.
As used in everyday speech, rent means a payment for the services of a material asset for a specific period of time. As such, rent is comparable to the wages of labor, and, as suggested by Frank Knight, both wages and rent might be classed under the heading hire value. The term rental value might also be used for what is commonly called rent to avoid confusion with the technical economic meaning of rent. Real estate, or land and buildings, is the type of asset most frequently rented, but a wide variety of other consumer and producer durable goods are rented as well.
Renting or leasing as an alternative to ownership may take place for a variety of reasons, one of which is infrequency or short duration of use relative to costs of purchase and sale. Houses or apartments are typically rented by smaller households, probably because small dwellings are relatively more costly than larger ones when provided in the form of single-family dwellings, and by younger families, who have little accumulated nonhuman wealth (i.e., wealth other than their ability to earn income with their own labor) and for whom the interest cost of capital invested in ownership is high. Business firms may choose leasing in preference to ownership for quite similar reasons. In addition, renting of any asset may be preferred by households or business firms that have a greater than average aversion to the risk of the change in value of assets that ownership entails.
The actual rental payment made by the user of an asset includes several components. First, gross rent, or rental value, includes a payment to cover depreciation, which is the decline in the value of the asset during its period of use. Second, where the owner rather than the user of the asset is liable for payment of property taxes, as is typically the case in the United States, the rental payment will include an allowance to cover these taxes. The rental payment, like an interest payment, may also include a component to cover the cost of making and servicing the lease agreement. And finally, the rent of any asset includes a payment to cover interest costs on the value of the asset during its period of use.
There are a variety of special types of rental payments. The term “ground rent” refers to a payment for the use of land on a long-term lease, frequently 99 years. Such payments provide a relatively sure and very stable income stream, which some investors find attractive. “Space rent” in the consumer expenditure tables of the U.S. national income accounts refers to the rental value of a structure and the land on which it is situated, apart from any payment for utilities and furnishings supplied by the landlord. In the U.S. Census Bureau reports on housing, “contract rent” means the payment agreed on by tenant and landlord and includes any payment for utilities and furnishings supplied, while “gross rent” refers to contract rent plus the estimated value of all utilities not furnished the tenant by the landlord. Finally, the “rental income of persons” as a component of the U.S. national income accounts refers mainly to the income actually received directly by households from rented nonfarm property and the imputed net return from owner-occupied nonfarm housing. It also includes the net returns received by persons from farm real estate, but this component is small relative to the other two. It should be noted that the rental income of persons shown in the U.S. national income accounts includes only a small fraction of the rental value of land or of material assets generally. Most rental income is actually paid out in the form of corporate income or income to unincorporated businesses.
Economists realized quite early that much of what is commonly called rent is really nothing but the return to the various forms of capital investment. Thus, the classical economists reserved the term “rent” for a type of payment they believed to be qualitatively distinct from wages and interest. This was that part of the landlord’s return for the use of “the original and indestructible powers of the soil,” as Ricardo put it. Rent of land in this sense might arise because of the limitation on its quantity, as stressed by Malthus, and this type of rent was sometimes called “scarcity rent.” Land rent might also result from differences in fertility and location. Rent arising from this source was frequently called “differential rent.” It is easy to make too much of the distinction between scarcity and differential rent, however, since the most fertile or favorably located land would earn a differential return over other land only if the former were scarce. [See the biographies ofMalthus; Ricardo.]
Ricardo especially stressed that the most fertile and favorably situated land would be cultivated first. With the increase in population and wealth, according to Ricardo, land of inferior quality is taken into cultivation. The exchange value of raw produce would rise because more labor (and capital used with labor in fixed proportions, presumably) would be required to produce on the less fertile land. The first land would then yield a return equal to the difference between the produce obtained by the employment of equal quantities of capital and labor on each quality of land. Rent, Ricardo argued, does not enter into the cost of production. The latter is determined by the quantities of other factors employed at the margin of cultivation on land that yields no rent. “Corn [i.e., food] is not high because rent is paid, but a rent is paid because corn is high,” in Ricardo’s words.
Even in the more limited sense in which the term was used by the classical economists, it is difficult to ascribe the returns to land to some “original and indestructible” properties of nature. In a very real sense, land as a productive factor was created as capital by pioneers who gave up other income in traveling to and preparing the land for cultivation. To these pioneers, the return to their land after an allowance for the obvious costs of buildings and other visible improvements was merely a return to their earlier sacrifices. To later owners of the land, its return was merely a return to their fluid capital, which might alternatively have been used to acquire other material assets. Land today is reclaimed through irrigation and drainage, and its fertility is obviously capable of exhaustion. In addition, the supply of favorably located land is continually being increased by improvements in transportation. Finally, when land has more than one use, the maximum income it can earn in alternative uses is a part of the cost of production for the commodity it helps to produce. Thus, oranges may be expensive because of high returns to land used to grow oranges if the high returns to land upon which oranges are grown result from its high value for alternative residential and other urban uses. [SeeCost.]
Not only is land reproducible and destructible in much the same way as other material assets but other assets may possess properties similar to those the classical economists ascribed to land. Any productive factor, including labor, is limited in absolute amount and thus earns a return that results from its scarcity. Quality differentials exist for most classes of productive factors no matter how narrowly defined; differential incomes are earned by members of a particular class of productive factor as a result of their differing productivities. And many productive factors earn incomes that exceed the minimum amount necessary to insure their employment in the specific use to which they are put.
For reasons such as these, economists today rarely think of rent as a qualitatively distinct type of payment accruing to a specific type of productive factor. Rather, “rent,” along with the terms “cost” and “profit,” refers to types of payment that may be included in the income of the owner of any kind of productive factor. These types of payment are distinguished in terms of (1) the minimum payment necessary to induce a factor into a specific use, (2) the payment a factor owner expects to receive when the factor enters or remains in a specific use, and (3) the actual payment received. Rent is the excess of a factor’s expected return or income over the minimum necessary to bring forth the particular service to its specific use. Cost is the minimum necessary payment, while profit is the excess of the actual payment received over the expected payment when the resource was committed to the specific use. The term “entrepreneurial rent” is frequently used to describe the expected return to a firm over and above the minimum necessary to induce the firm to enter or remain in a specific industry. It corresponds to what is sometimes loosely thought of as profit.
That part of a factor payment termed rent by the present-day economist is, like the classical economist’s rent, price-determined rather than price-determining. It is important to realize, however, that the distinction between cost and rent is a flexible one and depends critically upon the range of alternatives considered and upon the time period allowed for adjustment to changed conditions. For the economy as a whole, the return to many human and material productive services is wholly rent, since no other uses are available for and hence no opportunities are forgone by some employment. To any specific user of a particular productive service, in contrast, the payment he makes is wholly a cost if the productive service could earn as much from another firm in the same industry. In general, the broader the range of alternatives open to a productive service, the larger is the portion of its income that is a cost and the smaller its rent.
The distinction between cost and rent also depends upon the time period for adjustment one considers. For very short time periods most human and material assets are in effect fixed in their current uses. Thus, any return to their owners over and above the minimum return necessary to insure that they be employed at all is rent. The longer the period of adjustment one considers, the greater the number of alternative employments that become available and the smaller the rents. In the longest of all long runs many factors of production have a great number of alternative employments, and in consequence their incomes are mostly cost. The term “quasi rent,” introduced by Alfred Marshall, is used for a payment, especially to the specific material embodiment of nonhuman capital, which is rent in the short run but a cost in the long run, that is, when the capital is no longer fixed in a specific material form.
Finally, it should be stressed again that in the modern sense of the term, rent may be a part of the income of any productive factor. It has already been pointed out that the incomes accruing to material assets are largely rent so long as the specific material form of capital is fixed. In addition, actual wage and salary payments consist in part of rents in differing degree, depending upon circumstances already noted. The salaries of college professors, for example, may be largely a cost to any particular institution that employs them. From the viewpoint of all institutions of higher learning, however, the excess of the incomes of professors when adjusted for nonmonetary advantages over the incomes they might earn in government or industry is rent. Considering all potential employers of college professors, most of a professor’s income is rent once he has made his occupational commitment. The same expected income may be largely a cost, however, before an individual chooses to enter college teaching in preference to some other occupation.
In this section the principles of the determination of rent are discussed. Rent as rental, or hire, value is considered first; this is followed by a discussion of the determinants of rent as an excess of expected return over cost. Because rent is so often thought of as the return to land, special attention will be given to the level of land rentals generally. This section will conclude with a discussion of the share of returns to land in the national income. The discussion of the returns to land is continued in the third section, where differences in land rentals attributable to differences in location are discussed.
As rental value
The determination of the rental, or hire, value of an asset is but a specific instance of the determination of the prices of productive services generally. In any specific use or industry the rental value of a particular material asset is equal to the price of the final product multiplied by the marginal physical product of the services of the asset in the specific use, provided that competition prevails in both the product and the factor markets. The marginal physical productivity of the asset’s services, in turn, varies directly with its scarcity relative to other productive factors. It is analytically useful, as in any problem of price determination, to separate the forces affecting rental value into (1) demand for the services of an asset in a particular industry as derived from the demand for the final product produced by the industry, (2) the supply of other productive factors to the industry, and (3) conditions of technology. For the economy as a whole, the demand for an asset’s services is simply the summation of all the individual industry demand curves, provided that conditions of supply and technology for the economy as a whole are used in deriving the industry factor demand curves to be summed.
An increase in the demand for final product tends to raise both the rental per unit of an asset and the aggregate of rental payments to the asset in question. In general, an increase in the supply of other productive factors will tend to reduce the demand for the factor in question as these other factors are substituted for it in production. (It is possible, of course, for an increase in the supply of complementary factors to increase the demand for the asset in question, but on balance all other factors taken together are substitutes.) On the other hand, the increase in supply of other factors leads to an expansion of the industry’s output and, hence, an increase in the demand for the asset in question. The strength of the increase in demand operating through the expansion of output is greater, the greater the elasticity of demand for the industry’s product. The substitution effect varies directly with what is technically known as the elasticity of substitution in production between the asset in question and all other factors, that is, the relative change in the ratio of the input of the asset in question to all other factor inputs, divided by the relative change in the inverse ratio of their marginal physical productivities when output is held constant. Its value varies from zero, in the case where the asset in question is used in fixed proportions with all other factors, to plus infinity, where the asset in question and all other factors are perfect substitutes. The net effect of an increase in the supply of all other factors will be to increase or decrease demand for, and hence rental value of, the asset in question, depending upon whether the elasticity of industry demand is numerically larger or smaller than the elasticity of substitution in production.
A technological change that increases or reduces the marginal productivity of the asset in question but leaves output unchanged will increase or reduce its demand and rental value. A neutral technological change, or one that increases the marginal productivity of the asset in question and all others in equal relative amounts, will increase or reduce the demand for, and rental value of, an asset, depending upon whether the elasticity of demand for the industry’s product is numerically greater than or less than one.
In applying the above propositions to land rents it is important to distinguish between agricultural and urban uses of land. It would appear that the demand for agricultural output is highly inelastic with respect to its relative price and that the elasticity of substitution is about unity. On the other hand, the price elasticity of demand for housing, by far the most important use of urban land, is probably unity or even larger numerically, and the demand elasticities for many other urban products may well exceed unity. Since aggregate land values would appear to be large relative to the total value of structures near the centers of cities, where rentals per unit of land are high, the elasticity of substitution of land for other factors in producing most urban products is probably less than unity. Thus, it would appear that an increase in the supply of nonland factors would reduce the demand for, and rental value of, agricultural land and increase them for urban land. Also, a neutral technological improvement would reduce the rental value of agricultural land but leave unchanged or increase urban land rentals.
The supply schedule of a particular productive service to a specific use or industry is merely the aggregate supply schedule of the factor less the demand schedule for the factor in all other uses. At the edge of cities, for example, the total quantity of all land is fixed, and the supply of land for residential and other urban uses is this fixed quantity less the demand for agricultural land. The demand for the output of agricultural firms in the vicinity of cities is highly elastic, since this output is but a small part of the total national or world output. One would therefore expect the agricultural demand for, and the urban supply of, land at the edges of cities to be highly elastic.
Little can be said generally about the aggregate supply schedule of a productive factor facing the economy as a whole. However, the shape of the aggregate supply schedule depends critically upon the length of time allowed for adjustment, certainly so for nonhuman agents of production. Probably because it is quite costly to add rapidly to the stocks of most material assets, their supplies tend to be highly inelastic over short periods of time. In the long run, the relative supply of most material assets—for example, houses as opposed to office buildings—may well be highly elastic. Since it would appear that the rate of saving is relatively insensitive to the rate of interest, the aggregate supply of all material assets or of capital to the economy is likewise probably relatively insensitive to their rental value.
An increase in the supply of an asset will lower its rental value per unit, but the aggregate rental value of all assets of a given type will increase or decrease depending upon whether the price elasticity of the factor demand schedule is numerically larger or smaller than unity. Provided that the supply of other factors to a specific industry is highly elastic, the demand elasticity for the services of a particular asset is a weighted average of the (negative of the) elasticity of substitution in production and the demand elasticity for the product; the weights are respectively the fraction of the industry’s receipts paid out to all other factors and to owners of the asset in question. Thus, the demand for the services of land is likely to be inelastic— in agriculture because of the inelastic demand for the final product and in housing and other urban uses because of the less than unit elasticity of substitution in production. In either case, an increase in the supply of land, as might be brought about, in effect, by an improvement in transportation, would reduce the aggregate rental value of land.
As excess of expected return over cost
All of the forces that affect rent in the sense of rental, or hire, value also affect rent as the excess of expected return over cost. For any particular unit of the productive service actually devoted to the specific use, rent is merely the difference between the expected market price and the ordinate of the factor supply schedule at that quantity at which the particular unit enters into the specific use. In Figure 1, for example, units of the productive service that would enter the specific use at a price per unit of OD’ receive a rent equal to D’E when the market price is OE, as under the conditions illustrated. The aggregate rent paid out to all units of the factor employed in the specific use is the integral of expected price minus the ordinate of the supply schedule taken over all units of the service employed in
the specific use, the triangle CEF in Figure 1. Clearly, any event that causes the demand for the factor to increase, increases the rent received by each unit of the productive service and the aggregate rent received by all taken together. An increase in the supply schedule reduces the rent received by any given unit of the productive service. However, an increase in supply may either increase or decrease aggregate rent paid. If, for example, the supply schedule is perfectly inelastic, the whole of the expected payment to the factor is rent, and this total payment increases or decreases as demand is elastic or inelastic.
Rent as an excess of expected return over cost depends critically upon the slope of the supply schedule. Given the point of intersection of the demand and supply schedule, the steeper the supply schedule, the greater the rent received by any unit of the service and the aggregate rent received by all. In the case of labor, or the services of human beings, the slope of the supply schedule for a particular occupation varies directly with the extent of differences among individuals in their abilities to perform specific functions and, perhaps more importantly, with differences in their evaluations of the nonmonetary disadvantages or attractiveness of the occupation relative to others. Non-monetary considerations are generally of little importance for most nonhuman assets.
Share in national income
The final topic considered in this section is the share of aggregate land rentals in the national income. This share, or the share of any factor, depends critically upon the elasticity of substitution between it and all other factors in production. An increase in the supply of other factors relative to land increases the aggregate of all land rentals relative to the national income, depending upon whether the elasticity of substitution is less than or greater than unity. A neutral technological change likewise increases land’s share if the elasticity of substitution is less than unity, provided that, as is probably the case, the elasticity of supply of land to the economy as a whole is less than that of all other factors. Of course, a technological change that increases land’s marginal productivity and reduces that of other factors, leaving output unchanged, will increase land’s share.
It has been asserted earlier that in agricultural uses the elasticity of substitution of land for other factors is about unity, while for urban uses of land this elasticity would appear to be less than unity. For the economy as a whole, the elasticity of substitution also depends upon the substitutability of agricultural for urban products in consumption. The very low relative price elasticity of demand for farm products suggests that substitution possibilities in consumption are small. This last consideration, coupled with the fact that urban output is large relative to farm output, suggests that for the economy as a whole the elasticity of substitution of land for other factors is probably less than unity. While data are very scanty, it is probably true that the returns to land are a smaller fraction of the national income in the more highly developed economies, including the United States, and have grown less rapidly over time than has national income. Such tendencies might result from the relative increase in land supply brought about by improvements in transportation with economic development or by the fact that the demand for land-intensive commodities, such as farm products, grows relatively less rapidly than the national income.
This section continues the examination of the rental value of land by considering differential rentals attributable to differences in location. Such differentials are frequently referred to as “location rents” and are the major source of differences in the rental value of different parcels of urban land. While of interest for their own sake, differential land rentals are especially important because of their relation to the spatial organization of economic activity.
The first economist to undertake an investigation of the spatial aspects of economic activity in any detail was von Thiinen. He postulated a single city located in a boundless plain of land of homogeneous quality in which transportation costs varied with distance from the city but were otherwise invariant. (This is what has since come to be known as a “transportation surface”) He then showed that different types of farming would be arranged in annular (that is, ringlike) zones around the city. Commodities for which transport costs were relatively high—milk, for example, because of its perishability—or for which land is relatively unimportant would tend to be produced in the inner annuli, and commodities for which transport costs were low and land important would tend to be produced in the outer ones. Land rentals declined from annulus to annulus, and within a given annular zone the difference in land rental was equal to the difference in costs of production plus transportation to the market in the city.
In most developed countries today agricultural produce tends to be traded in national or world markets. Transportation costs to a particular market, except for a few commodities such as dairy products, have relatively little effect on the location of agricultural production. Thunen’s analysis, however, is highly relevant for the analysis of land use in cities or urbanized areas and, in fact, is the basis for most modern economic theories of city structure. It also bears a striking similarity to the concentric-zone theory of city structure, developed by the sociologist Ernest W. Burgess about a century later. In theories of city structure, the central business district (CBD) plays the role of Thunen’s isolated city. Located near the hub of the city’s internal transport system, the CBD is generally the area of maximum accessibility to the local market for commodities and services of many kinds and to the local labor market. In addition, since rail terminals are typically located adjacent to the CBD, it is close to outside markets and sources of supply. (With the advent of highway and air transport, however, the comparative advantage of the CBD on this score has declined.) Since the CBD is generally the largest single employment and shopping center in the city, accessibility to the CBD is especially important for residential users of land. [See the biographies ofBurgess; ThÜnen.]
In the analysis of the relation of land rentals to the location of economic activity in cities, four distinct kinds of considerations are relevant. First, provided that competition prevails, any given user of land takes the prevailing level of rentals in any location as given. The use of land relative to other productive factors is governed by the principle that to minimize the cost of producing any given output, the firm adjusts its inputs in such a way that the marginal physical product per dollar spent is the same for all inputs. Thus, where land rentals are high relative to the prices of other productive services the marginal physical product of land is relatively high. This means, for example, that high-rise apartment buildings tend to be built where residential land rentals are highest, as do loft-type or multistoried factory buildings in commercial areas of relatively high land rentals. Conversely, single-family detached houses and single-story factory buildings tend to predominate in areas of relatively low land values.
Secondly, for firms of any given industry to be in locational equilibrium, it is necessary for land rentals to vary directly with the price received for their product and inversely with the price paid for productive factors other than land, both being measured at the point of production. If, for example, firms located closer to the CBD received higher prices for their products but all firms paid the same rentals per unit of land, firms closer to the CBD would earn larger incomes. It would then be in the interest of firms located further from the CBD to offer more for the closer sites than firms located there were currently paying. In the process, the rental of sites closer to the CBD would be bid up, while that of more distant sites would be bid down. In general, the conditions of firm equilibrium require that the relative variation in the rentals of land used by firms in a given industry be greater, the more product or nonland input prices vary relatively with respect to location and the smaller the share of land in the receipts of the industry. The variation of final product and input prices with location results primarily from transport costs. Transport costs on final products or raw materials, in turn, tend to be greatest for small shipments and shippers, for bulky and difficult-to-handle goods, and for goods of high value in proportion to weight. The costs of transporting people, both as buyers of final products and sellers of labor, are also important determinants of rental gradients.
The third consideration relevant in the determination of differential land rentals might be called equilibrium in the market for land. Equilibrium requires that each parcel of land be devoted to that use which yields the highest rental. For if this were not the case, landowners could increase their incomes by leasing their land to firms in alternate industries. Both the amount of rental offered for land at any location and the rate of change of rental with change in location, or rental gradient, are important in allocating land among industries. If in the vicinity of any center of activity, or local peak in land rentals, firms of two different industries are to locate, firms of the industry with the steeper rental gradient will locate closer to the center. This follows from the fact that if the function showing the rental one industry offers for land is anywhere above that for the other industry, it will be so at the center. Therefore, as one proceeds out from any local peak in land values, the relative decline in land rentals will diminish in passing from the area of location of one industry to another.
It should be noted that taken together, and in the absence of external economies in land use, the conditions of locational and land-market equilibrium imply that the rental value of land is maximized. Maximization of rental value is requisite to efficient resource use. In actual practice, of course, external economies in urban land use may be of great substantive importance, and in the absence of conscious social control the bidding for land by private individuals and business firms may fail to maximize the rental value of land. This failure provides the economic rationale for planning, zoning, and other forms of governmental land-use control. Now, it is frequently stated that the aim of governmental land-use control is the minimization of land rentals. The reasons for this view are interesting but not relevant here. Its absurdity is readily seen by considering that an absolute minimum of land rentals could be achieved by forbidding land to be used for any purpose whatsoever.
Finally, for any pattern of locational differences in land rentals to be an equilibrium pattern, it is necessary that there be no unsatisfied buyers or sellers of any commodity at any point in space. For if there were, the prices of some commodities would rise or fall, and the maximum rentals offered for certain parcels of land would likewise change. As a result, it would be profitable for some landowners to change the use to which the land they own is put.
Having outlined in very general terms the principles underlying the determinants of differentials in land rentals with location, let us consider some specific forces governing actual rental differentials. It was noted earlier that the CBD is the area of maximum accessibility or minimum transport costs for the local product and labor market and that it is convenient to the rail lines serving as links to outside markets and material-supply sources. The relatively high cost of local movement because of traffic congestion in the center, especially during rush hours, may mean that prices received for products rapidly fall off or wages paid increase rapidly with movement away from the center. Where actual transport of goods is involved, the products of CBD firms are generally of high value in relation to weight and often involve small shipments or shippers, so that transport costs are relatively high. Finally, for the commercial, trade, and service firms that locate in the CBD it would seem that land is a relatively unimportant factor of production.
Agriculture, on the other hand, is probably the most land intensive of all economic activities, and shipments of agricultural products are frequently large and involve products of relatively low value in relation to weight, so that transport costs are relatively low. Thus, commercial and retail firms, residences, and agricultural firms are located in roughly annular zones surrounding the CBD, and land rentals decline at progressively lower rates in each of these zones.
There are, of course, many exceptions to the broadly annular zonal pattern of location and corresponding relative declines in land rentals surrounding the CBD. The two most important are the concentration of manufacturing in the vicinity of waterways, rail lines, and truck routes and the more or less regular hierarchical pattern of retail and service business. It is well known that the structure of transport costs is such that manufacturers and other processors tend to find locations at point material sources or markets less costly than intermediate ones. While sources of raw materials are rarely found inside city limits, rail lines, freight and truck terminals, and waterways are essentially point or linear material sources and markets for final products for shipment outside the city. The so-called light manufacturers, firms receiving or sending shipments in less than carload lots, find location close to freight terminals desirable. The same is true for wholesalers whose outbound shipments are frequently less than carload lots. Since land is probably a more important productive factor for light manufacturers and wholesalers than for commercial, retail, and service firms in the CBD proper, the former group tends to locate around the outer edges of the CBD. In this area of location, land rentals probably decline relatively less rapidly than within the CBD proper, although more rapidly than in the surrounding residential zone. Heavy manufacturers or firms receiving or making shipments in carload lots would find locations anywhere along rail lines or truck routes equally attractive. As a result there is no reason relating to transport costs on commodities to expect land rentals in immediate proximity to such routes to vary with location along them.
The tendency for retail and service business to concentrate in a hierarchy of centers of various sizes at more or less regularly spaced intervals or along major streets within a city is explained by central place theory [see Spatial Economics]. In addition, because certain facilities, such as parking lots, are shared, some costs are lower in shopping centers than elsewhere. The demand for any particular firm’s product is probably greater within a center because of the tendency for customers to make a variety of purchases during any given trip and to comparison shop, and the vicinities of certain points, such as intersections of major streets and rapid transit stops, are points of local minimum transport costs for many kinds of firms. The reasons given for the relative steepness of rental gradient within the CBD apply, but with diminished force, in these non-CBD retail and service centers. Hence, the rental value of land is likely to decline relatively rapidly in the vicinity of these outlying centers. It would appear that the peaks of land rentals are relatively higher in the centers belonging to higher levels of the hierarchy, the highest of which is the CBD, but there is no reason to expect the peaks of rental value in any given level of the hierarchy to vary systematically with location in the city.
Within the residential zone housing prices decline with distance from the CBD. If this were not the case, households located closer to the CBD, and bearing lower transport costs to and from it, would be better off than households in more distant locations. It would then be in the interest of the more distant households to offer more for housing closer to the CBD than its current inhabitants paid, and a decline in housing prices with distance from the CBD would result. Now, it can be shown that a necessary condition for household equilibrium is that the relative rate of decline in housing prices per mile, say, be numerically equal to a household’s additional expenditures on transportation per mile divided by its expenditure on housing. Households with relatively high transport costs, such as those with more than one worker employed in the CBD, have an incentive to locate close to the CBD. Those who spend greater amounts on housing likewise have an incentive to locate at greater distances. Thus, the relative rate of decline of housing prices is smaller in the outer parts of the city, and for this reason land rentals would decline at relatively slower rates at greater distances from the center. This last tendency is at least partly offset, however, by the fact that because of the less than unit elasticity of substitution of land for other factors, the relative importance of land in producing housing is smaller in the outer parts of cities. Because transport costs tend to be smaller for households located in the vicinity of rapid transit routes and express highways, land rentals decline relatively less rapidly with distance from the CBD in the neighborhood of these facilities.
Housing prices in cities, and thus land rentals, may vary for many other reasons. Since accessibility to local shopping and employment centers, rapid transit stops, and educational, cultural, or recreational centers has value because of the saving in transport costs, one might expect local variations in residential land rentals in the vicinity of the centers. In addition, the prices people are willing to pay for residences are undoubtedly influenced greatly by the character of the surrounding area. It would appear, for example, that housing prices, and thus residential land rentals, are lower in the immediate vicinity of local manufacturing centers and higher in higher-income neighborhoods and in the immediate vicinity of attractive natural surroundings.
Richard F. Muth
[See alsoSpatial Economics.]
Hicks, John R. (1932) 1964 The Theory of Wages. New York: St. Martins.
Hoover, Edgar M.; and Vernon, Raymond 1959 Anatomy of a Metropolis: The Changing Distribution of People and Jobs Within the New York Metropolitan Region. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Double-day.
Hoyt, Homer 1933 One Hundred Years of Land Values in Chicago: The Relationship of the Growth of Chicago to the Rise in Its Land Values, 1830–1933. Univ. of Chicago Press.
Marshall, Alfred (1890)1961 Principles of Economics. 2 vols. 9th ed. New York and London: Macmillan. → See especially Book 5, Chapters 9–11, and Book 6, Chapter 9.
Muth, Richard F. 1961 Economic Change and Rural-Urban Land Conversions. Econometrica 29:1–23.
Ricardo, David (1817) 1962 Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. London: Dent; New York: Dutton.→ A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Irwin. See especially Chapter 2.
The term rent has two meanings in economics and one taken from everyday usage. When a person leases an apartment or house from its owner, the lease provides for a payment to the owner. Although commonly called rent, it is very different in both orientation and calculation from the two uses in economics, namely, economic (or Ricardian) rent and rent-seeking, which are themselves very different from each other.
The rent paid to an owner of leased property is a composite payment. It covers or includes the following items: the cost of the land, the cost of improvements, interest on the combined costs, the amount of appreciation of the land and improvement values, taxes, the cost of any services provided along with the leased property, and, given the overall workings of demand and supply, any further profit; all of which are calculated on a per-period basis. Should the owner have a mortgage, the owner’s receipt of rent enables the owner to accumulate equity in the property. Should the renter arrange with the present owner to purchase the property, it is the former renter, now owner, who accumulates equity in the property by paying off the mortgage, if any. The principal connection with economics, or economic theory, of such rent is that the rent paid for the leasing of the property must be worth its expenditure to the renter (including consideration of alternative leasing) and must be suitable, relative to the owner’s costs and alternative leasing), to warrant for both of them to enter into the rental contract, or lease.
The concept of economic rent stems from the English economists David Ricardo and Thomas Robert Malthus in the early nineteenth century. Ricardian, or economic, rent is the return to the owner of land (or any factor of production) that is fixed in supply and whose level is governed by the pressure of population growth. With trivial exceptions, such as filling in shallow bodies of water for one reason or another, the amount of land does not change with a change in the demand for it. The demand for land is driven by the need for land on which to grow crops and to erect homes. This need increases with population increase and is due solely to the growth of society. The increment in the price of land thus generated is widely considered unearned compared to situations in which investment in improving land and its appurtenances takes place.
Several additional features stemmed from early-nineteenth-century study. One feature is that land rent is differential with regard to location and to fertility. Increments or decrements of property value will reflect relative location and fertility, and likely will not be constant in either amount or percentage change. The second feature is a specific form of the first, namely, that as increasing levels of labor and capital are applied to the same amount of land, output per unit of input will fall. This is called diminishing returns. The third feature is due to the fact that not all land is equally fertile or located equidistant to a given point. This means that as the price of food increases due to the population-driven demand for food and thereby land, the increments of price (rent) of the more fertile or better situated land will increase more rapidly than those of less fertile or worse situated land. The fourth feature is that rent is a residual category such that any tax on land rent will have no disincentive effect on the level of food production on the land.
Given both that the increased price of pure, unimproved land is due to the growth of society and that any tax on the rent will have no adverse effects on incomemaximizing owner calculations and farming, it has followed for many economists that a tax on unimproved land would have no negative effects and would be a fit subject of taxation. Objection to this reasoning arose from those who felt that acquisition of the increased value was one of the rights of property. The rejoinder to that objection was this: Land-value increments being due to the growth of society and not the activities of the owner, not taxing land rent but maintaining the same governmental budget, meant that tax revenues would have to come from taxes levied on productive activities. Nevertheless, a tax on land-value increments conflicted with the principle of conservatism, that appropriation of the increase of value was a right of property. However, for the American economist Henry George (1839-1897), for example, whose reasoning was initially based on Ricardo’s, nothing was more conservative than promoting income in accordance with productivity rather than unearned increments.
The theory of Ricardian rent must be supplemented by consideration of the competition over pieces of land by people who had different, and conflicting, uses for the land. The idea of quasirent was developed by the English economist Alfred Marshall to identify the return to owners of factors of production, such as one’s own labor or pieces of capital, that are in temporary inelastic supply.
The second notion of rent in economic theory is that of rent-seeking. The idea is that rent is the difference between two sets of rights, that people could invest money in efforts, through lobbying, legislation, and/or litigation, even bribery and extortion, to change the law in their favor, thereby increasing their incomes. Rent-seeking would engender counter-measures by those threatened with loss. The result would be wasted resources deployed in such activities. The objection to rent-seeking theory is that prohibition of such activity, were it actually possible, would remove the opportunity to address grievances, perpetuate the law in existence at the time of prohibition, and deny people their legal and constitutional rights, including their right to a lawyer, and their right to participate in government as well as limit competition. The perpetuation criticism is particularly objectionable, inasmuch as modern urban industrial society and political democracy would never have been feasible had the beneficiaries of the old post-feudal order had a veto, as it were, on legal, political, and social change. Anne Krueger’s more limited model, centering on bribery and extortion, is much less amenable to criticism along these lines than several other broader and less discriminating versions of rent-seeking.
Both theories, Ricardian rent and rent-seeking, are greatly affected by the situation that, under post-feudal structures, land ownership conveyed important rights of governance and therefore control of social evolution.
SEE ALSO Returns, Diminishing; Ricardo, David
Colander, David C., ed. 1984. Neoclassical Political Economy. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger.
George, Henry.  1982. The Land Question. New York: Schalkenbach Foundation.
Krueger, Anne O. 1974. The Political Economy of the Rent-Seeking Society. American Economic Review 64: 291-303.
Laurent, John, ed. 2003. Henry George’s Legacy in Economic Thought. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.
Ricardo, David.  1948. The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. New York: E. P. Dutton.
Tullock, Gordon. 1989. The Economics of Special Privilege and Rent Seeking. Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Warren J. Samuels
rent, in law, periodic payment by a tenant for the use of another's property. In economics, its meaning is more complex, but since the word rent means any income or yield from an object capable of producing wealth, its limitation to a more special sense is somewhat arbitrary and justified only by a general consensus of opinion and usage. The term rent is now ordinarily used in the broad sense and, besides the return from land, includes the return from such things as tools, machinery, and houses. Objects are rented for a limited period of time and are generally expected to be returned in their original condition. The early English writers on economics (16th–18th cent.) used the word to mean interest on a loan, but its economic meaning gradually narrowed to the sense of the return on land. Modern rent doctrine began in the 18th cent. The physiocrats centered their economic system on land. They believed that rent was measured by the net product, i.e., the surplus over the cost of production. Because they identified wealth with fixed material objects, the physiocrats considered rent not as the variable yield from the land but as a fixed value, which they called
"current price of leases"
Adam Smith attempted to formulate a
of rent based on the laws of supply and demand. This rate would be an amount high enough to induce the landowner to keep his land in cultivation and low enough to allow the tenant to subsist. David Ricardo held that demand determined the amount of marginal land under cultivation, and that rent was determined by this margin, which had the highest costs of production. Ricardo attacked Smith for putting rent on the same footing with wages and profits as one of the costs of production. Ricardo thought that high or low wages and profits were the cause of high or low prices, while high or low rents were the effect of these prices. Critics of Ricardian theory, such as Henry George, argued that monopolistic control of rent was the cause of poverty, which could only be cured by converting private rights into public by the medium of a single tax on land. Economic rent is the difference between the compensation for a factor of production and the amount necessary to keep it in its current occupation. In economic theory, under perfect competition, there would be no economic rent. Ground rent is paid to a landowner for the lease of property, often under long-term leases (such as a 99-year lease).
See C. Rowley and R. D. Tollison, ed., The Political Economy of Rent Seeking (1988).
rent1 / rent/ • n. a tenant's regular payment to a landlord for the use of property or land. ∎ a sum paid for the hire of equipment. • v. [tr.] pay someone for the use of (something, typically property, land, or a car): they rented a house together in Spain | [as adj.] (rented) a rented apartment. ∎ (of an owner) let someone use (something) in return for payment: he purchased a large tract of land and rented out most of it to local farmers. ∎ [intr.] be let or hired out at a specified rate: skis or snowboards rent for $60–80 for six days. PHRASES: for rent available to be rented. rent2 • n. a large tear in a piece of fabric. ∎ an opening or gap resembling such a tear: they stared at the rents in the clouds. rent3 • past and past participle of rend.
Rent ★★ 2005 (PG-13)
Hit Broadway show makes its screen debut, though it all feels just a bit too late. For the uninitiated, the story follows a group of New York squatters and struggling artists in an update of La Boheme. The passion isn't an act—the film cast is the same group that developed the characters on stage. If you dug the musical or have ever been a little lost, young, and broke in a big city, the timing and uber-sentimentality won't matter. Themes of AIDS, homosexuality and drugs may be too much for stuffier viewers. 128m/C DVD, Blu-ray Disc, UMD . US Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Rosario Dawson, Taye Diggs, Jessie L. Martin, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Idina Menzel, Tracie Thoms; D: Chris Columbus; C: Stephen Goldblatt; M: Rob Cavallo.