Monday 8 June 2020

90 years of Whoroscope

Beckett's first biographer Deirdre Bair gives a colourful description of the poem's inception and composition: 

"On the afternoon of June 15 [1930], Beckett was in his room on the rue d'Ulm, desultorily going through a sheaf of notes on Geulincx [the Flemish philosopher Arnold Geulincx, a disciple of Descartes], when [Thomas] McGreevy mentioned that Richard Aldington was disappointed by the lacklustre quality of the one hundred or more poems he had just read. None, Aldington said, was worthy of the ten-pound prize, let alone publication by the Hours Press. Jokingly, McGreevy suggested that Beckett dash off a poem to take his mind off Joyce and get it over to Cunard's shop on the rue Guenegaud before midnight when the contest officially ended. Beckett laughed, but when McGreevy left he thumbed through his notebook on Descartes, and as he read, an idea for a poem began to form in his mind. He wrote the manuscript in longhand on stationary filched from the Hotel Bristol, Carcassone. Six pages and ninety-eight lines long (length was limited to one hundred lines), with only two or three minor word changes in the manuscript, the poem seems to have been almost completely thought out before Beckett committed it to paper. In general, Whoroscope is a witty, superficial exhibition of esoteric knowledge. Actually both Cunard and Aldington were so puzzled by the poem's obscurities that they barely recognized what it was about. They sent for Beckett in great haste in the early morning of June 16, and he rushed to the rue Guenegaud. When they found out how quickly the poem had been written, they were astonished and pleased with this proof that Beckett was someone of genius" 

(Samuel Beckett: A Biography, 1993, pp. 101-04).

As Beckett recollected thirty years later in a letter to Cunard (26 January 1959): ' Whoroscope was indeed entered for your competition and the prize of I think 1000 francs. I knew nothing about it till afternoon of last day of entry, wrote first half before dinner, had a guzzle of salad and Chambertin at the Cochon de Lait, went back to the Ecole and finished it about three in the morning. Then I walked down to the Rue Guenegaud [the office of The Hours Press] and put it in your box. That's how it was and them were the days.'.

To mark the 90th anniversary of its composition A Leap in the Dark will be dedicated to Beckett's poetry on the evening of Saturday June 13th. As well as a performance of Whoroscope we'll have readings of the author's poetry and translations of other poets in English, French and Spanish. Taking part will be Alba Arikha, June Caldwell, Susanna Crossman, Michael Hughes, Paulette Jonguitud, Dan O'Brien, Aea Varfis-van Warmelo and Frank Wynne.

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