Thursday, March 05, 2015

`Musical, Practised, Well-Burnished and Affecting'

“Grave and a little precious, the lines none the less have the intimate rhythm of speech.” 

From C.H. Sisson, that’s high praise. Poetry ought to resemble the ordinary speech of the era in which it is written – a suggestion Swift would happily have endorsed. Sisson doesn’t mean slangy, obscene, jargon-hobbled or careless. His own poetry is none of those things. He speaks of rhythm, the musicality of language, what distinguishes poetry from prose and conversational drone. Today’s lazy chatter and tech talk would have appalled him. In English Poetry, 1900-1950: An Assessment (1971) he goes on: “This is because there is a general, completely inartificial conversation among contemporaries of which what remains as the literature is, in some sense, the finest expression.” The quotation at the top refers to a poet about whom Sisson, surprisingly, has good things to say: Walter de la Mare (1873-1956). 

Do Americans still read de la Mare? Do the English? I grew up thinking him strictly a writer of whimsical verse for children – safe, gauzy stuff, unfit for adult consumption. That’s a fair but incomplete verdict. His poems can be quite wonderful, though he was long-lived and enormously prolific, and winnowing his best from the merely good and the strictly awful takes time. Think of Tolstoy when reading de la Mare’s “Napoleon” (Poems, 1906): 

“`What is the world, O soldiers?
It is I:
I, this incessant snow,
This northern sky;
Soldiers, this solitude
Through which we go
Is I.’” 

Murderous monomania rendered in twenty-five words that deftly echo Sisson’s call for “the rhythms of speech.” Among the Modernists, Ford Madox Ford, Pound and W.H. Auden wrote admiringly of de la Mare’s poems. So did Philip Larkin, hardly a creampuff in matters of critical judgment. In 1970, he reviewed the Complete Poems of an unlikely pair – de la Mare and the greatest of American poets, Emily Dickinson. (“Big Victims” is collected in Required Writing: Miscellaneous Pieces 1955-1982, 1983.) Of the former he writes: “A great deal of his work is musical, practised, well-burnished and affecting: he is much more readable than Emily Dickinson, though incapable of her isolated `dozen or two’ peaks.” Larkin devotes most of his space to Dickinson, and concludes his review with these sentences: “Poetry is an affair of sanity, of seeing things as they are. The less a writer’s work approximates to this maxim, the less claim he has on the attention of his contemporaries and of posterity.” De la Mare, if sometimes fey, is never less than sane. (Read his novel Memoirs of a Midget, published in 1921, in which feyness and sanity war, and sanity triumphs.) The poem Sisson speaks of at the top of this post is “An Epitaph” (The Listeners and Other Poems, 1912): 

“Here lies a most beautiful lady,
Light of heart and step was she;
I think she was the most beautiful lady
That ever was in the West Country. 

“But beauty passes; beauty vanishes;
However rare--rare it be;
And when I die, who will remember
That lady of the West Country.” 

And here is the complete paragraph that follows after Sisson cites this poem: “There is a purity of language beyond the reach of the nineties. Grave and a little precious, the lines none the less have the intimate rhythm of speech. De la Mare catches it again and again. They are rather hushed, twilight accents, but of those accents no one is so much a master as he.”

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

`He Is a Hero of Self-Creation'

“He believed that without accuracy of observation `particular features and discriminations will be compressed and conglobated into one gross and general idea.’” 

That mouthful “conglobated,” I suppose, is the giveaway. The Irish poet P.J. Kavanagh is quoting Dr. Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775). The passage appears in “Dis-conglobated,” an essay first published in the Spectator in 1984 (beware of the online typos), and I read it in People and Places: A Selection 1975-1987 (Carcanet, 1988). The OED defines conglobated as “gathered into a ball, rounded,” which reminds me of making meatballs, but the OED tells us Wordsworth had another use in mind in The Excursion: “conglobated bubbles undissolved.”(I keep dropping the “l” and turning it into the verb form for a central African nation.) Johnson seems fond of this peculiar word, as he used it in his 1756 review of Four Letters from Sir Isaac Newton to Doctor Bentley, Containing Some Arguments in Proof of a Deity: “Matter being supposed eternal, there never was a time when it could be diffused before its conglobation, or conglobated before its diffusion.” 

I learned of Kavanagh through his friendship with C.H. Sisson, whom I take to have been a man not easily befriended. I’ve not yet spent much time with Kavanagh’s poems but he has a knack for the learned-but-light newspaper or magazine squib – feuilletons, as we say down at the bowling alley. In “Dis-conglobated,” he has just read Johnson’s Journey for the first time while in Italy, and now is reading Rasselas and Walter Jackson Bate’s biography. Kavanagh, born in 1931, undertook his first reading of Johnson in his fifties, well into middle age. Johnson wrote for adults, though many of us first encounter him when we have barely left childhood. Kavanagh is duly impressed and he effortlessly gets Johnson: 

“I had thought of Johnson as a master of the massive, usually incontrovertible, generalisation. His curiosity, and humility before the facts, came as a surprise . . . For although I knew that Johnson was physically afflicted I had not known the extent of the psychological impediments he had to surmount. He is a hero of self-creation, and his methods—his `measures’—must be of great interest.” 

Back in London, Kavanagh attends a Johnson exhibition at the Arts Council, apparently in observance of the two-hundredth anniversary of the lexicographer’s death. He’s impressed by the quantity of prayers Johnson wrote and preserved, and notes, “. . . surely Johnson is unusual in the amount, and the care he took. It must have to do with his love of accuracy, he wished to make the formulation exactly measure up to the emotion, and the need.” Kavanagh then quotes lines from “The Vanity of Human Wishes”: 

“Still raise for Good the supplicating Voice,
But leave to Heav’n the Measure and the Choice.” 

Though he lauds Johnson’s “love of accuracy,” Kavanagh misquotes the poem, substituting “God” for “Good” – an understandable slip, one missed by multiple editors. What follows is the full passage from Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, quoted earlier by Kavanagh. Ostensibly, Johnson writes of travel writing, but broader applications are encouraged: 

“He who has not made the experiment, or who is not accustomed to require rigorous accuracy from himself, will scarcely believe how much a few hours take from certainty of knowledge, and distinctness of imagery; how the succession of objects will be broken, how separate parts will be confused, and how many particular features and discriminations will be compressed and conglobated into one gross and general idea. To this dilatory notation must be imputed the false relations of travellers, where there is no imaginable motive to deceive. They trusted to memory, what cannot be trusted safely to the eye, and told by guess what a few hours before they had known with certainty.”

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

`The Carnival Would Soon Be Gone'

Circuses I dislike – the tedium of trapeze artists, too many brass instruments, the creepy gaiety of clowns, tawdry performers in dirty costumes waiting to enter the ring. As a boy with my grandfather (a Mason whose lodge, the Al Sirat Grotto, sponsored the circus in Cleveland) I was simultaneously bored and disgusted, a pairing of emotions that helped prepare me for a career in journalism. I remember sitting in the bleachers near the backstage entrance and watching a man in tights throw back his head and take a long pull from a bottle. Ever since, I’ve tried to avoid scenes of enforced fun. As Dr. Johnson observed: “Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment.” 

But I like county fairs and carnivals. Sherwood Anderson called the former a “pagan outbreak,” and I enjoy the livestock, crafts and cuisine. The freak shows of my youth (“Alive, livin’ and breathin’!”) have disappeared, replaced by tattooed crowds roaming the midway. Carnivals, sort of low-rent county fairs, fill church parking lots with rides and games. Unlike circuses, fairs and carnivals encourage mobility. Bored? Move along. How exciting and disreputable a traveling carnival must have seemed to small town Americans even a century ago. It would have been an annual, much-anticipated event in that pre-Youtube era. Clive James in “The Carnival” (Angels Over Elsinore, 2008) understands its arrival and departure as a life-metaphor: 

“The carnival, the carnival. You grieve,
Knowing the day must come when it will leave.
But that was why her silver slippers shone--
Because the carnival would soon be gone.” 

Dr. Johnson nails a comparable thought, familiar to all grownups, in The Rambler #71: “The pleasure of expecting enjoyment is often greater than that of obtaining it, and the completion of almost every wish is found a disappointment.”

Monday, March 02, 2015

`Dust, Dust, Dust'

“. . . cemeteries are for me like bookshops; I find it difficult to resist the temptation to enter them and linger awhile.” 

It was April or early May, and the snow was going or gone. A low wall of fieldstones surrounded the cemetery in Schoharie County, N.Y. The epitaphs on the earliest markers had been erased by time and acid rain, and some were tilted by the freeze-buckled earth. The lambs carved on the stones of children were worn headless. The grass, mostly red and white clover, hadn’t yet been mowed and was thick with phlox. Birds sang and the air was fresh. Life felt bountiful in the presence of so many dead. 

“. . . I find it strange that some hurry past cemeteries either without a second look or even with a shudder. Meditation on the transience of life, intermittent rather than continuous and rejuvenating rather than paralysing, is important for achieving equanimity. And there is no better aid to such meditation, I find, than a good graveyard.” 

Like Theodore Dalrymple in And Death Shall Have His Dominion” (a good allusion to a lousy poem), I seek out cemeteries; in particular, the remote, rural, often untended sort, though a sprawling urban cemetery, vast enough to have neighborhoods and thoroughfares, offers pleasures of another sort. Isaac Bashevis Singer reverses the cemetery-as-city metaphor in the final lines of his story “Neighbors” (A Crown of Feather and Other Stories, 1973): 

“From time to time I looked out the window. The snow descended sparsely, peacefully, as if in contemplation of its own falling. The short day neared its end. The desolate park became a cemetery. The buildings on Central Park South towered like headstones. The sun was setting on Riverside Drive, and the water of the reservoir reflected a burning wick. The radiator near which I sat hissed and hummed: `Dust, dust, dust.’ The singsong penetrated my bones together with the warmth. It repeated a truth as old as the world, as profound as sleep.” 

Dalrymple visits Père-Lachaise, a cemetery at least as interesting as a good museum or bookshop. He notes some of the celebrity graves – Balzac, Delacroix, Wilde – not to mention Colette, Apollinaire and Borrah Minevitch -- But reminds us: “. . . most of the tombs in Père-Lachaise, as in every other cemetery, are of people who led ordinary lives.” George Eliot honored such people, people like you and me, in her goodbye to Dorothea Brooke, in the final paragraph of Middlemarch:

“Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Sunday, March 01, 2015

`Black March I Call Him'

Because it’s one long tease, at least in the North, March is the longest month. A thaw would arrive late in February and you could smell the earth, a rich mineral rot, for the first time since October. If the thaw lasted into the following month, you might start believing spring had arrived and comfort yourself with thoughts of imminent sunshine and greenery. Then by mid-March a blizzard would hit, sometimes on St. Patrick’s Day, and you’d be shoveling out the driveway within days of the vernal equinox.

In brief, March was a lesson in life, the end of apprenticeship, time to think about sowing and reaping, and preparing for next turn of the seasons. Basil Bunting grudgingly praised Stevie Smith’s poems as “little stuff, but honestly done, worked on.” He got it two-thirds right. “Little” is patronizing and wrong. Smith refused overweening significance, self-important philosophizing. She was no Robert Lowell and never pretended to be. Hers was the seriousness of an intelligent child. “Black March” is a late poem, first published posthumously in Scorpion and Other Poems (1972), in a mode of mock-Imagism:     

“Black March I call him
Because of his eyes
Being like March raindrops
On black twigs.”

Smith would die in March, on the seventh, in 1971, at age sixty-eight.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

`Continuity of Parts'

A self-critical friend passes along a poem by a well-known poet that he finds “as opaque as a brick wall,” and wonders if I can turn opacity into transparence. My friend is a smart, well-read fellow, and it’s probably unnecessary to note that the poem in question is written in one of two dominant contemporary modes of verse: in this case, pretentious gibberish, with many lacunae and no continuity, rather than Dick-and-Jane sincerity. It’s less a poem (arguably, it’s not a poem at all) than a poetic gesture, intended by its author as a sign of club membership, like a secret handshake among poets. The implication is, if you don’t get it, you don’t belong. The stuff is easy to write, attested to by the writer’s bloated corpus, and impossible to read. Dr. Johnson had the final word on this species of fraud: “What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.” On this date, Feb. 28, in 1790, William Cowper writes to his cousin, John Johnson, an aspiring poet: 

“Only remember, that in writing, perspicuity is always more than half the battle: the want of it is the ruin of more than half the poetry that is published. A meaning that does not stare you in the face is as bad as no meaning, because nobody will take the pains to poke for it.” 

Except graduate students. Perspicuity is a fine word and a fine quality in writing. As Sir Thomas Browne puts it in “Of Crystal” in Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-72): “Continuity of parts is the cause of perspicuity.” That leaves out Emerson and most of his descendants.

Friday, February 27, 2015

`The Maker of Immaculate Slapstick'

A reader who can also read my musical tastes brightened a dark afternoon with a choice selection from the Collected Works of Thomas “Fats” Waller: “That’s Ain’t Right” from Stormy Weather (1943). Waller is one of those rare artists—Louis Armstrong, P.G. Wodehouse and Fred Astaire are others—who dispense joy without compromising their art. They give pleasure without shame. They revel in their job – entertaining us. Philip Larkin said Waller “was in the laughter business as much as the jazz business,” and we love him for it. Larkin quotes Armstrong “Every time someone mentions Fats Waller's name, why, you can see grins on all the faces.” That’s what you would have seen in my office Thursday afternoon. 

In his first collection, No Continuing City (1969), the Irish poet Michael Longley included a suite of poems with a title adapted from Yeats, “Words for Jazz Perhaps”: “Elegy for Fats Waller,” “Bud Freeman in Belfast,” “To Bessie Smith” and “To Bix Beiderbecke.” The sequence is dedicated to Solly Lipsitz, the late trumpet player, music critic and record shop owner in Belfast. Here’s Longley’s Waller poem: 

“Lighting up, lest all our hearts should break,
His fiftieth cigarette of the day,
Happy with so many notes at his beck
And call, he sits there taking it away,
The maker of immaculate slapstick. 

“With music and with such precise rampage
Across the deserts of the blues a trail
He blazes, towards the one true mirage,
Enormous on a nimble-footed camel
And almost refusing to be his age. 

“He plays for hours on end and though there be
Oases one part water, two parts gin,
He tumbles past to reign, wise and thirsty,
At the still centre of his loud dominion—

It’s not a great poem but it captures and celebrates Waller’s spirit. Jazz has inspired thousands of poems, most of them not worth reading to the final line. Like poetry, jazz attracts camp followers for whom the music is the password to the Hipster Room, where the Cool People live. Longley does something else. He honors Waller by adopting his tone of good humor tempered with brains. In a brief essay he wrote for The Guardian in 2011, Longley writes: “Fats must be one of the most musical human beings ever to have lived. I sense a dark, unsettling challenge behind the twinkle. Seamlessly he combines sunniness and subversion, and can be very complicated indeed.” In the poem, he nicely dubs Waller the “maker of immaculate slapstick,” a description that might apply with equal justice to Buster Keaton. 

In “Light from Two Windows,” a portrait of Longley painted by Jeffery Morgan, you’ll find a picture of Keaton hanging on the wall and another of Waller on the book about Charles Ives in the foreground. Look closely and you’ll see other traces of Longley’s interests – a picture of Billie Holiday, Robert Fagles’ translation of The Illiad, The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto, 1941-1944 by Lucjan Dobroszycki, books about Hokusai and Brancusi. Longley, born in 1939, includes “Old Poets” (“for Anne Stevenson”) in Snow Water (2004): 

“Old poets regurgitate
Pellets of chewed-up paper
Packed with shrew tails, frog bones,
Beetle wings, wisdom.”