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Rosebud and Poets’ Fascination with Citizen Kane

What is the most memorable single-word utterance in the history of film? That parlor game question would be as readily answered in today’s Zoom meet-ups as it did in real parlors of the latter half of the twentieth century: “Rosebud!” Orson Welles might be astonished to hear that the deathbed word and snow scenes of Citizen Kane have attracted more attention from poets than any other language or images in his oeuvre. Poets have construed the film’s structure and symbolism in ways that characterize those scenes as fertile ground for anecdotes and epiphanies. In this essay, I will focus on two such poets, Sherman Alexie and LaWanda Walters, placing their work in the context of similar poetry and literature and reflecting on their fascination with Orson Welles and with the mysterious Rosebud as a fundamental trope that can be traced to psychoanalytical texts and artistic forms.

Indeed, the beloved sled named Rosebud holds the opening and closing of the film narrative together. Some who first viewed the deathbed scene in 1941 may have been surprised that the camera’s eye focused on a dying man whose single spoken word kicks the narrative into motion rather than the ruined grandeur of Xanadu. Rosebud is not only a fragment of Kane’s memory bursting loudly into the present, but also the keyword that everyone, including the audience, goes on believing will unlock the secret of this strange place, this strange man. Viewers must have been chilled and thrilled at the impertinence of creating a character based on William Randolph Hearst, whom Welles, after all, condemned in an interview as a figure of American plutocracy, “a detestable man” (Rosenbaum 310). Two questions linger throughout the film. First, “Who is this one. / This favorite son. . .?”—two lines from the choral tribute by showgirls to Kane as he assumes control of an influential newspaper. Second, who or what is Rosebud?

In interviews, Welles sometimes spoke of the sound of movies being as interesting to him as their pictorial or thematic features: “I judge a scene by how it sounds. . .  I think the sound is the key to what makes it right” (Estrin 50). “Makes it right” is the perfect phrase. The experience of a career on stage and his mastery of radio technology contributed to his sensitivity to auditory effects: the co-presence of words, music, and occasional significant noise in the shaping of a storyline. In the opportunities of pungent speech, Welles drew most significantly on the range of Shakespearean oratory and witty dialogue from classic novels and plays he had adapted for performance by the Mercury Theatre on the Air. Poets, of course, rely on varieties of sound to draw readers or listeners toward the wizardry of their art. Later in this essay, I will be describing the affinities of poems either productive of Citizen Kane’s oral effects or responsive to its memorable content.

British poems of the nineteenth century, especially, trained readers to listen for evocative keywords that intensify the resonance of rhythmical lines and profound meanings. In John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819), the final stanzas highlight one special word in a rush of emotion as the poet imagines the presence and affect of the bird’s song in previous centuries:


                  The same that oft-times hath
       Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
          Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

      Forlorn! The very word is like a bell
        To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
      Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
        As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
       Adieu! adieu! . . . (68-75)

The word “forlorn,” repeated as a chime or echo, is definitional in the sense of summarizing in a single adjective the condition of the speaker, which is the condition of all humankind as it undergoes the trials of existence and the prospect of death. The word is rendered as an appeal for life experience that is not forlorn but bountiful and, most important, timeless as the hypothetically immortal bird’s melodious and fleeting song. “Ode to a Nightingale” has the quality of auditory presence that Romantic poets cherished as essential to a poem’s exhibition of its seductive voice, its shaping creative energy, its tangible thingness.

Welles as filmmaker cautioned studio executives about the power of such poetic speech, “Obscurity in dialogue often results from a single word—even a single syllable,” he complained to Charles K. Feldman, an executive producer of Macbeth at RepublicStudio . He worried, for instance, about the company’s strained efforts to articulate dialogue accented in a Scottish burr, especially during the last few minutes of the film when several crucial noises threatened to obscure the significance of Macbeth’s death: the triumph of the enemy army assaulting his castle, the groans of despair from the inevitable victims, the shrieks of the witches. Constantly he had to remind the studio bosses that “in a film which is spoken in verse the words are the chief thing.” Welles was pained by substandard dialogue in any film, but the special case of the Bard was sacred, always. (Welles 214-220)

As we reflect on famous lines in Macbeth, we cannot help but feel the presence of a transfer of articulate energy from centuries of manuscript to the slow-but-sure triumph of celluloid at century’s end, specifically the astonishing presence of new forms of language and their transmission from one kind of artist to another. The visual presences of artistic painting flowed swiftly (it now seems in retrospect) toward the machinery of cinema, an artistic phenomenon that began to change the sensibility of the twentieth century and all centuries afterward. The label of “auteur” settled on many new voices before it reached Welles, but he became a key figure of transformation as he seized upon innovations in every art movement. He became the Promethean maker of new sources of pleasure and revelation. Robert Stam describes the process succinctly:

Auterurism was . . . a palimpsest of influences, combining romantic expressive notions of the artist, modernist-formalist notions of stylistic discontinuity and fragmentation, and a “proto-postmodern” fondness for “lower” arts and genres. The real scandal of the auteur theory lay not so much in glorifying the director as the equivalent in prestige to the literary author, but rather in exactly who was granted this prestige (Stam 87).

The spirit of image creation and the music of stage rhetoric advanced throughout the nineteenth century. Poets asserted their privileges as their art became more accessible in phonograph recordings and radio presentations. One can imagine that a dramatic audio reading of Keats’s plangent appeal to the nightingale inspired Edgar Allan Poe to gift the melancholy word “Nevermore” to his bird of ill omen in “The Raven.” Through the agency of the intrusive bird, the forlorn speaker has been sent a message that his beloved Lenore can never haunt his reveries again. As with Keats’s ode, the repeated word resonates in a manner entirely provocative and unforgettable. The speaker declaims the poem aloud to invisible listeners, drawing their attention to his profound “sorrow for the lost Lenore” and his isolation among “fantastic terrors” taking him “Deep into that darkness” of his burrow-like chamber. (10, 14, 30)  

By general agreement, however, the dactylic “Nevermore” was rendered unrepeatable in poetry by the shrill melodrama in which Poe encased it. The word’s renown has generated abundant laughter along with its pathos. Numerous cartoons found in a Google images search of “New Yorker cartoons Poe nevermore” are among other responsive artworks that render the word ridiculous, in the same way that James Thurber undermined the effect of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Excelsior,” which features the constant repetition of that word in a series of stanzas.

The frequent repetition of words and phrases in a poem or film is often a signal of psychological conditions tending toward the neurotic. If a poet, or a filmmaker, wants to characterize a speaker as nostalgic for lost happiness, the most effective device will be the creation of a blunt obsession in which the customary freedom of speech is restricted through repeated conceits that bind the speaker to traditional images of loss. Mutlu Konuk Blasing has provided an illustration of this habit in a three-chapter presentation of poems that lock language into repetitive designs: Poe’s “The Raven,” T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” The closure of each poem heightens the shrill intensity of dramatic phrases that hold the speaker in chains. “Daddy. . .Daddy, you bastard, I’m through” looks back to “I grow old. . .I grow old” and both have the metrical/musical tone of “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’” (Blasing 17-63 ). All three of these poems document a failure to recapture a ruined joy.

And that is the dramatic structure, Welles and co-screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz adapted to the screen by the deployment of their uncommon word. Both image and word demand a narrative to transcend their stark presence in the opening scene. Garrett Stewart has pinpointed the most memorable connection that distinguished Welles’s intentions: using anamorphic distortion and eerie music as the spectator watches a moral parable being shaped by the imagery of snow falling over the elderly Kane’s mouth as he utters the word Rosebud. The conjunction of music, word, and visual scene communicates a visceral sensation to the viewer: “the chill of death” (Stewart). Nobody else is in the room when this word is uttered, not even the nurse and butler who enter seconds later. The enigma of the fugitive word demands that its identity be unmasked, like the identity of Kane, who now becomes the plaything of the world’s press, as the sled, a toy really, became Kane’s most fascinating ornament.

Welles the director divides the cohort of reporters from the Yellow Press into separate camps. The newspaper’s staff editor matches the simplicity of the strange word with the difficult task of explaining Kane’s complicated life. This core of questers assumes throughout the film that Rosebud refers to a woman in a kind of conundrum that filmgoers have been trained to consume rapidly as the narrative proceeds. A cultish, signifying word transforms the plot structure into an engine of detection and discovery. Robert L. Carringer notes that in the pre-Kane years in Hollywood, working up a script for a film never consummated, The Smiler with a Knife, Welles and Mankiewicz “came up with an ingeniously simple plot device—a mysterious deathbed utterance that is presumed to be the key to everything. Rosebud is a rather shameless piece of melodramatic gimmickry but it is arguably a more effective device than Welles’s original idea of making the object of mystery something literary, such as a line from a Romantic poem” (Carringer 19). Carringer’s dismissive attitude belies the staying power of a word of universal recognition, one that has entered common usage ranging from crossword puzzles to poetic utterances. But at the same time his well-taken exception to its “melodramatic” tone does give us pause to consider what other strange word or line(s) Welles might have selected, and from what source.

In a discussion of Touch of Evil, James Naremore suggests how Welles may have consciously indulged in this habit of presenting a poetic location and tarted-up dialogue in order to enhance audience attention toward the concluding scene showcasing Welles as a border sheriff and Marlene Dietrich as a madam who runs the bordello in Rancho Grande:

A good many viewers are likely to dismiss her entirely as a simpleminded gimmick more patent than Kane’s sled, like the glass toy Kane grasps in his dying moments, Tanya’s house of sin is a self-enclosed realm reminiscent of the past. . . Quinlan’s visits there are a pathetic attempt to return to pre-adolescence, a stage in life that Welles’s heroes seem unable to transcend, and as always this stage is associated with a pre-industrial past, when things were not so degraded.(Naremore 182)

Naremore makes a connection of Rosebud with a sea-shell in The Immortal Story: “The symbolic meaning of the object is also reminiscent of Welles’s first film; it suggests an ideal realm—globed, compacted, and pure—which in this case gives the listener an intimation of immortal beauty.” (Naremore 29 ).

Such haunted fictions draw together both small “r” romance and upper-case “R” Romanticism, just as they draw together poetry and film in borrowings or exchanges of mutual benefit to the two media. Readers of classic and modern poetry are likely to identify numerous poems that treat things with the piety and symbolic resonance that Welles expresses toward seemingly ordinary objects. Welles and Mankiewicz would have had no trouble locating an abundance of poems to add to the glamour of the burial chapel at Xanadu, which features a verse inscription from 1001 Nights--“The drunkenness of youth has passed like a fever”-- as they designed the timeframe and plot dynamics of their melodramatic film. The Oedipal foundation that links the child Kane with the adult Welles remains. Charles Kane received a fortune at the age of eight thanks to fierce mother love; as the saying goes, the rest is history, or at least a version of history reflected in a snow globe that tumbles from a dying man’s hand.

The word Rosebud did not escape mockery and complaint, but Welles and Mankiewicz foiled all satirists by letting not just the hardboiled newspaper reporters but others in the cast of characters make fun of it in the course of the narrative. The word is a titillating mystery that requires, but finally withholds, the solution of a dignified closure. Even after multiple viewings—and most cinéastes have scrutinized the relevant scenes dozens of times—the magic of that word retains a rewarding ambiguity. As the characters remind us throughout the film, the word can mean everything or nothing. It is a sign of language’s absolute presence and of its baffling elusiveness. It is a figure of the Romantic Agony, like Keats’s “elf” (the never visible nightingale), and Poe’s beloved Lenore, “Nameless here for evermore.” In many poems a single note becomes the inner human voice of dispossession; often poets have used it as the focus of poems burdened or enchanted by its singularity and celebrity. A common observation by critics about the haunted word is that it forms the essential piece in the jigsaw puzzle of Kane’s unconscious, externalized by his wife Susan’s hours on the floor of Xanadu compulsively manipulating fragments of puzzles into coherent form.

Pauline Kael, in her long essay “Raising Kane” (1971), argued that “the mystery in Citizen Kane is largely fake, and the Gothic-thriller atmosphere and the Rosebud gimmickry (though fun) are such obvious penny-dreadful popular theatrics that they’re not so very different from the fake mysteries that Hearst’s American Weekly used to whip up—the haunted castles and the curses fulfilled” (5). In her reviews for the New Yorker, Kael notoriously swung between populist and elitist taste, praising one side or the other to persuade readers that her judgments were tolerant of different styles and genres. Her jocular denigration of the single-word key that unlocks the psyche of a complex character like Kane surprised readers who had seen her on numerous occasions applaud plot mechanisms far creakier. One might as soon criticize Shakespeare for exploiting the exhausted device of a lost handkerchief in Othello or the obsessive use of the word “blood” (109 times) in Macbeth. Poems and films often rely on repeated keywords to open up legitimate mysteries of human obsession, making the single word a dramatic crux, more often than not, a centering device or complicated nest of meanings articulated with economy and ingenuity. The oft repeated word “Freedom” in Braveheart, for instance, sets a tone for heroic deeds, and “Bueller” in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off focuses the narrative on Ferris’s madcap antics.

The issue of keywords rises again when we watch the opening minutes of Citizen Kane and notice how swiftly the raucous voiceover of the News on the March episode proceeds. First, there is the quotation from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s mystical, faux-historical poem “Kubla Khan” scripted across the screen as a reference point for Kane’s world of luxury in Florida: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure dome decree” (see Figure 1). The thematic rhyme of Kane and Khan underscores not only the splendor of Kane’s mansion and florid grounds but the identification—no doubt resting on Kane’s lifelong bragging comparisons—of the two named characters as types of the superman. The voiceover repeats the motif when shots of the great man’s funeral appear in the documentary tribute; he is called “America’s Kubla Khan,” a luxury-loving tyrant presiding over a magnificent kingdom much visited and admired by wealthy society.

Rosebud and Poets’ Fascination with Citizen Kane
Laurence Goldstein, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1.

More than this, the presence of the opening lines of Coleridge’s poem blazoned across the screen bestows one form at least of Kane’s supposed stature as a magus who integrates the splendor of history with the vulgar appeal of the present. He owns the “biggest private zoo since Pharaoh,” and that’s something remarkable. Implied throughout the opening passages, and the brief newsreel as a whole, is a commentary on Kane’s wishful connection to an exalted past. The Romantic Movement produced many poems expressive of historical spectacle not only in Wordsworth and Coleridge’s joint publication Lyrical Ballads, but as long-form autobiographical, sociological and philosophical commentaries, especially in mystical poems like Shelley’s Hellas [“The World’s Great Age Begins Anew”], Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and William Blake’s Jerusalem, all designed to create a new form of thinking and feeling in genre poems tagged ever after as “Dark Romanticism.”

What literary works appeared in Welles’s early life to explain and sustain the glamour of confessedly extravagant gestures? Aldous Huxley’s novel After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939) lampoons the Gothic atmosphere popular in Romantic literature at least since Horace Walpole’s seminal text of 1764, The Castle of Otranto. (And of course, still a thriving motif in new novels, poems, and films.) When the first guests of the novel’s host appear, the tone presents playful intimations of menace and bad taste:

On the summit of the bluff and as though growing out of it in a kind of stony efflorescence, stood a castle. But what a castle! ...The thing was Gothic, medieval, baronial—doubly baronial, with a Gothicity raised, so to speak, to a higher power, more medieval than any building in the thirteenth century. . . but out of pure fun and wantonness. ... Jeremy was startled into speech. “What on earth is that?” he asked, pointing to the nightmare on the hilltop. (Huxley 18-19)

Welles spoke nostalgically of Coleridge’s nomenclature in a late interview in the 1982 Christmas issue of the French version of Vogue where he discussed his happy years with his first wife Virginia Nicolson in New York City. They rented a duplex on the edge of the Upper East Side and named it Xanadu, expressing the same aspiration to domestic gigantism and career success as Kane did in Florida. (Welles and Virginia divorced early, as did Kane and his young wife Emily Monroe Norton.)

Citizen Kane artfully adapts the melodramatic shape of surly moods, taunting dialogue, and sordid events, both in the film’s narrative and its frequently dark atmosphere. The keyword Rosebud is an apparition borrowed from the lexicon of the past, including the classical, medieval, and Romantic past, just as the sled is a signifying image of an exuberant but abruptly terminated childhood. Moreover, the snow is apparitional, “magical” and “poetic.” Moviegoers ever after joined the reporters’ quest for the two-hour-plus secret behind the mysterious single word, all of them (us) Marco Polo figures in search of the historical despot Kublai Khan and his glorious residence, Shangdu.     

Exhibit A of the recurrence of a keyword as effective device in Welles’s signature film can be seen in a few lines from Sherman Alexie’s poem “Citizen Kane”where the poet breaks each stanza with the resonant word, Rosebud.

Listen: when the sun falls
            audibly on the reservation
            each of us chooses the word
            that determines our dreams:
whiskey        salmon        absence. (17-22)

The poem first appeared in The Kenyon Review and afterward reprinted in his volume of 1993, Old Shirts & New Skins. Alexie draws upon unique literary and cultural traditions growing up as a member of the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. We are far from the rhyming sestets of “The Raven,” those shaped six-line stanzas in which the terminal chime of the mournful o sound--“nothing more,” “chamber door,” “Lenore,” “Nevermore”--saturates the poem’s already manic script, like the chiming in Poe’s other onomatopoetic performance, “The Bells.” Simplified language and minimalist stanza form in Alexie’s poem critiques the lushness of Romantic practice, representing as they do a glamorous excess of speech belonging to a haunted culture available only serendipitously to the twenty-first century reader.

Alexie’s lines change the reader’s perspective on the presence of “the word” in our shared word-hoard. “The word” is essentialized; it is what we take into our mouth and swallow whole, and also what arises from our heart and stomach and moves outward as speech, “past the throat and teeth.” For Alexie and the reader, any remarkable poem must be a showcase for fresh rhetoric. It must feature the voice of the unconscious. It must be savored slowly word by palpable word. At the center of poetic speech, one word may be delegated to link sentiments and opinions in often ambiguous conjunctions. The word Rosebud mystifies readers because it remains throughout Alexie’s sermon a teasing abstraction, a gimmick or red herring or MacGuffin, as puzzling as the line “The word within a word, unable to speak a word” in T. S. Eliot’s “Gerontion.” (18) For Eliot the word word is a symbol of our hope of a redeemed world, of heaven on earth. We recognize that Alexie, like Eliot, is gesturing toward the Word, the healing and loving figure imagined as the bride in the Hebrew Scriptures’ Song of Solomon and in the Christian Scriptures as Jesus. He is “The Rose of the World” and “The Rose upon the Rood of Time” familiar to readers of mystical poetry if only by way of W. B Yeats’s seminal volume of neo-Romantic lyrics, The Rose (1893).

David Thomson identifies Rosebud as a “talismanic concept” in his biography of Welles. Laura Mulvey uses the term “fetish” to characterize both the sled and the word Rosebud in her essay on Citizen Kane in Fetishism and Curiosity:

The sled. . .functions as lost object and as screen memory. Buried in the snow, it is both hidden and preserved, perfectly in keeping with Freud’s picture of memory within the unconscious. It is displaced, within Kane’s psyche and the spectator’s interpretation, onto the little glass paperweight which contains a log cabin and snow scene, and which activates the memory of his first loss at the moment of his last. (Mulvey, Fetishism)

Alexie’s poem does not adapt a Freudian structure of symbology or deep memory, but it certainly places words of visceral meaning within an oral tradition of poetry reserved and held sacred for Indians. Any word suggestive of exploitation and colonialism belongs in the lexicon he creates to endow more resonance upon the words he isolates by italics and by the process of language he deploys to reveal more vivid life in the social and sexual relations of his family and tribe. Superficially straightforward, Alexie’s poems, too, require what Laura Mulvey calls “the decipherment of unconscious meanings” in his challenging texts. (Citizen 16)

Among other virtues Citizen Kane tests the tension between the cinematic image and the voice of its central character. Kane’s speaking voice takes many forms in the course of the narrative, beginning with the amplified, throbbing, ghostly voice on the verge of the grave that poses the locution “Rosebud,” which every person in the film seeks to interpret and identify. Michel Chion argues in The Voice in Cinema for the power of “vococentrism” in film. The spoken word, he asserts, is not merely the means to carry narrative forward but “It’s rather the privilege accorded to the voice over all other sonic elements.” (6) Here again, the act of cinema presents a derivation from poetry which employs versification techniques that complicate otherwise banal or random assembly of syllables. Background voices and overlapping dialogue present welcome challenges to the attentive listener, providing cues for emotion just like foregrounded speeches clear as a bell. Sound effects are the screams and sighs that mimic and distort the voice we cherish in distinguished verse.

Even the unexpected cessation of sound can haunt the filmgoer. “Yet if Citizen Kane is figuratively and literally about one’s last word, it is also about the sound of that word and all the noise and silence that frame the sonic event—the preverberation and reverberation which holds that utterance center stage in the film’s narratological auditorium,” Philip Brophy explains in “Citizen Kane: The Sound of the Look of a ‘Visual Masterpiece” (2).  Indeed, silence creates its own impact as when Kane threatens his rival for election as governor, Boss Jim W. Gettys, by yelling from the landing of a staircase Gettys is descending after exposing Kane’s adultery: “Sing Sing, Sing Sing, Gettys, Sing _____.”  The final iteration of the second word of that maximum-security prison is abruptly silenced by the noisy slamming of a door, followed by the beep of a comical car horn from the street. The sound of the door does not enhance the drama, but the unheard word, the closing “Sing,” resonates in the viewer’s sensorium as one more trope for confinement and failed conjugal sympathies--the foul underside of Xanadu.

Rosebud is a word that everyone recognizes. For centuries it was understood as, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (Shorter) entry, “the bud or unopened flower of a rose; fig. a thing likened to this, esp. for its beauty, delicateness, or pale red or pink color.” A second definition calls it “a term of endearment for a pretty young woman. A debutante.” It is a challenging stretch to insist on a doctrinal connection between a boy’s sled, even one with the decal of a rose on it, with the standard usage above. Probably the most famous use of the word in English or American literature is Robert Herrick’s anthology favorite, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” (1648). The preacher-poet’s advice to his flock of fair maids (and, presumably, lads) is “Gather ye rosebuds, while ye may.” (1) “To the Virgins” is customarily read and taught, along with Andrew Marvell’s character poem “To His Coy Mistress” (1681), as major texts of the carpe diem tradition, in which young auditors are urged to seize the day and enjoy sex before Father Time disables and discontinues their desires. Some readers, myself included, have sensed some gender confusion in the seventeenth century idiom that is seemingly a call to maidens to “gather” or pluck the blossom of sexual pleasure of other maidens, rather than an urgent case for marriage and reproduction in one’s tender years. Herrick may have carried a memory of Sappho (by way of Ben Jonson) from the Mediterranean past; credit belongs as well to the feminist turn in later centuries that makes a reading of the poem as a reference to lesbian sexuality viable. Gertrude Stein made sure that readers would warm to the bravura style when she wrote “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” in her poem “Sacred Emily” (1922) (315). Is this misnomer a proleptic insert of Susan Alexander’s siren spell upon the unhappily married Charles Foster Kane? A metaphor of the sexual misfortune cast upon Kane that leads to the plot’s catastrophe(s)? 

Welles often remarked that Herman J. Mankiewicz had proposed giving the sled that name simply as an insider joke. William Randolph Hearst, according to rumor, used the term for the intimate bodily part of his mistress, the film actress Marion Davies. Welles stated in an interview, “I was very lucky to work with Mankiewicz: everything concerning Rosebud belongs to him.” (Sarris 555) If this is true, the screenwriters’ antic chutzpah in nominating the word for the satisfaction of joyful physical ecstasy hangs over the retrospective narrative like a bomb awaiting its moment of explosion. That moment would be the climactic scene of the film when flames dissolve the sled in the furnace below Xanadu’s sumptuous parlors. In interviews later in life Welles felt sheepish about all the attention given to the word Rosebud (as in this essay!). “Rosebud remained [in the film],” he confessed to Peter Bogdanovich, “because it was the only way we could find to get off, as they used to say in vaudeville. It manages to work, but I’m still not too keen about it, and I don’t think that he was, either. The whole shtick is the sort of thing that can finally date, in some funny way.” (Rosenbaum 53)

In her poem “‘Rosebud,’ He Whispered,” LaWanda Walters may be channeling Freud or perhaps historical literature when she announces that “Rosebud, of course, was her clitoris” (1). Her sensational opening line exploits the rumor passed along by Mankiewicz to Welles and Welles to choice groups of listeners: (“Clitoris” is a word as rare in the poetic tradition as it is in everyday conversation). The boy Kane is depicted, at the end of the poem, enacting a type of sexual deflowering in his passionate, phallic thrust of the sled over the snow, matching the later “momentum and velocity” (21) of his forward movement as an adult into the sexualized milieu of an antagonistic and often rapacious society. The painted or stenciled rose partakes of the same ambiguity as in the Herrick poem. It is both the object of lust, upon which the small boy sits or lies prone as he pushes himself forward, and the subject of “transport” as we see it in the film, from the cabin window, displayed in the boy’s ecstatic joy in being partnered by the rose in his aggressive masculine careening through natural space, a scene suggestive of pre-adolescent erotic passion.

The rose is presumably factory-applied as a favored cultural icon, a decal signifying the pleasure of every child, male or female, who indulges in the abandonment of play. That the adult Kane cannot exorcise from his memory this profane ecstasy but is fated to keep sliding on that “tragic arc” that brings his sled, and his empire, into the consuming fire, is the central preoccupation of poem and film alike. Welles is fated to repeat this very same trajectory in his career, as illustrated in Walters’s punning poem when she writes of the aged thespian’s descent into “acting / in a commercial for Paul Masson rosé wine.” (28-29) Walters settles on the standard elegiac sentiment about this formulaic fall from Eden by the great artist, as a caution to the reader, and to herself, about the power of what Herrick called “Old Time” in its swift flight onward and downward through the life cycle.

Walters too is a blossom who takes to heart the carpe diem wisdom of the ages, reenacted for her in the treasure-and-trash cycle of life in the consumer society of modern America. If “Rosebud” is both “clitoris” and “little red tongue” and the signature motive of every body in every nation, then it’s needful to remind readers of the home truths Walters articulates about a character whose private life (especially with his marriage to Rita Hayworth) made him for a while the envy of every male of whatever age.

LaWanda Walters’s determination to make her poem an entertainment with a moral punch is consistent with the aims of both Hollywood and the muses of high art since the classical period.  She resolves the question of Welles’s choice of the word by linking it to an unforgettable image from the movie: 


So how could the great director resist
            such a trite and famous  
            endearment, its multifold and useful
            associations and democratic
            thrust, the innocent little rose imprint
            an American kid could could sit on to ride down
            a slope of snow. . .” (8-14)

Such an ekphrastic mode depends for its full effect on imitation of classic texts and graphic artwork, and this approach was accelerated by the popular art of movies, anatomized by Vachel Lindsay in The Art of the Moving Picture (1915) and Gilbert Seldes in The Seven Lively Arts (1923), both of which emphasize the prolific borrowing of techniques and themes by all the media. In his great novel of 1947, Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann has his main character Adrian Leverkühn lament as he begins his vocation, “Why does almost everything seem to me like its own parody? Why must I think that almost all, no all, the methods and conventions of art today are good for parody only?” (Mann) Neither Alexie nor Walters is submitting Citizen Kane to parody, in the strict sense. But both authors have reused the word Rosebud to apply such “methods and conventions” as Mann describes to Welles’s film, as well as to the trajectory of the director’s career, in order to build upon the Babel-like structure of imitation, irony, and parody that constitutes performance in modern and postmodern poetry as well as cinema.

Walters’ pleasure in locating “le mot juste” in the spectator’s amused, erotic response to the body part that could not be named in polite society or commercial film proceeds from her sympathy with the thwarted child who enacts the fate of pleasure. She philosophizes at a distance about the irresistible topic that will occupy the boy’s future. The original script for the film specifies that the boy is around five years old, a long way from puberty. (Later estimates insist that the boy must be at least eight years old.) The object-love that Freud related to narcissism moves to the foreground in Citizen Kane, as the libido of the film’s main character naturally gravitates toward sexual objects (beautiful women) and the pleasures of collecting desirable antiques and art objects in order to enhance his self-regard and social status as a plutocrat and connoisseur.

Sherman Alexie remarks in an interview: “I’m a fanboy, across all genres, from the most mainstream pop culture writers to the most obscure literary theorists” (Peterson). Here, too, Welles serves as a model, capable of the most exalted theatrical performances all the way down to roles that exploited his negatives: his girth, his orotund speech and uncertain movements, his willingness to act “out of character” not only in commercials for wine but in vehicles like Ferry to Hong Kong (1959), The V.I.P.s (1963), I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘Is Name (1967), and Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972). LaWanda Walters deplores “the director’s career / careening downward” (22-23) like a runaway snowball but commentators have found some of Welles’s late work, often a two-person conversation about art composed for television like the superficially frivolous F for Fake, faithful to the complex demands of linguistic and visual expression.

And even more compelling is Welles’s late film, The Immortal Story, which draws together the dominant themes of his major work, those of sexual desire, aging, the wandering searcher’s passion for some prize object of human desire. Joseph McBride has written a persuasive account of this brief (“scarcely an hour long”) parable of a surrogate sexual performance underwritten by an old man, Mr. Clay. The aged and wealthy donor enables a young sailor to spend a night of love with Clay’s young wife and impregnate her for the sake of the future. The characters disperse the next morning, with hidden feelings. McBride links a mysterious shell, another “lost object,” that Clay gives to the young man as a profound symbol of the mystery of life:

The Immortal Story approaches legend from the inside out. It is centripetal—Kane            in negative. But because the making of legend is itself a subjective process, its meaning determined in the mind of its beholder, The Immortal Story seems to me to         strike into the heart of the matter. . . This is Welles’s Tempest. (McBride)

Shakespeare’s last comedy, The Tempest, depends for its comedic tone on the powerful sexual attraction of the young lovers Ferdinand and Miranda. Royalty themselves, they will reap the crowning pleasures of lust in due time, as social and political forces guide their destiny. Likewise, in Welles’s late film The Other Side of the Wind (released in 2018) the complications of sexual passion interpenetrate the negotiations by actors, directors, and the crew of workers who gather to construct a viable feature film. 

Some poets and critics cannot restrain themselves from taking one step back and contrasting the beginning of a great career via the Citizen Kane masterwork with Welles’s supposed descent in later decades into the degradation of minor roles in stupid studio movies and product advertisements on television. Welles himself proclaimed in more than one interview, “I had luck as none had; afterwards, I had the worst bad luck in the history of the cinema.” But even in the bad luck times he never lost his audience of prominent scholars, talented poets, and alert, sensitive filmgoers of various ages. Alexie’s and Walters’ poems are examples, for better and worse, of what poems about Orson Welles look and sound like. While Alexie uses the keyword as a refrain between stanzas  to give pause for melancholy and longing, Walters has chosen to secure the reader’s full attention to the keyword in her opening phrase—“Rosebud, of course”—bringing the poem to an elegiac closure at the terminus of the symbolic ride where the sled Rosebud “takes you, headlong, where it will.” Others have invoked the keyword including acclaimed poet Adrienne Rich in “Amnesia” where she invites the reader to supply the name of the abandoned toy in the snow scene by referring simply to the pathos of “. . . . the something that gets left behind.” (Rich) New versification of such intense nostalgia will certainly follow as further evidence of the persistence of fascinating characters and language in Welles’ imagination, all in the mingled voices of poetry.


Laurence Goldstein gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Nancy Goldstein in final preparation of this essay.

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