Saturday, May 28, 2016

`Low-Grade Industrial Usquebaugh'

Here’s a beautiful and peculiar word: usquebaugh. Though never much of a whiskey drinker, I should have known it long ago. The OED traces it to the Irish and Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha, literally “water of life.” It means “whiskey” and entered English in Shakespeare’s time. It’s exotic enough to dazzle a word-minded drunk, and it would have come in handy forty years ago. I found usquebaugh in the letter Swift wrote to Pope on May 2, 1730:

“As to virtue, you have more charity than I, who never attempt to seek it, and if I had lost all my money I would disdain to seek relief from power. The loss would have been more to some wanting friends and to the public than to myself. Besides, I find that the longer I live I shall be less expensive. It is growing with me as with Sir John Mennis, who, when he grew old, boasted of his happiness to a friend that a groat would make him as drunk as half-a-crown did formerly; and so with me, half-a-pint of wine will go as far as a pint did some years ago, and probably I shall soon make up an abstemious triumvirate with you and Mr. [John] Gay. Your usquebaugh is set out by long sea a fortnight ago.”

We know from his diary that Samuel Pepys reported to Mennis (1599-1671), who served as Controller of the Navy. Like many in subsequent years, Mennis fancied himself a wit and poet. Among his works I’ve been unable to trace Swift’s anecdote, though Mennis is credited with having written “Upon a Surfeit Caught by Drinking Bad Sack at the George Tavern in Southwark” (and the timeless “Upon a Fart Unluckily Let”). Two Scots, Burns and Scott, use usquebaugh, the former in “Tam o’ Shanter”:

“Inspiring bold John Barleycorn!
What dangers thou canst make us scorn!
Wi’ tippenny, we fear nae evil;
Wi’ usquabae, we'll face the devil!”

In his chapter on Burns in Lectures on the English Poets, Hazlitt, not a notable drinker, finds room for  usquebaugh: “He might have traced his habit of ale-house tippling to the last long precious draught of his favourite usquebaugh, which he took in the prospect of bidding farewel [sic] for ever to his native land.” But I was most gratified to discover on my own that Myles na gCopaleen, in his “Cruiskeen Lawn” column in the Irish Times on March 25, 1957, had likewise used my favorite new word. The context is too convoluted to explain:

“Weeds and other snaggings are automatically extracted from the sool gayr’s rejects by ingenious electrically-powered antennae known as lawva fawda and conveyed to a complex of secret `secondary hopsitals’ where the material is converted into Irish tweed, low-grade industrial usquebaugh, carpenter’s scantlings, newsprint, plastic hurley sticks, cut-glass eggcups and ingots of radioactive turf.”

The Irish Times, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Flann O’Brien’s death on April Fools’ Day 2016, posted a selection of the great man’s columns.

Friday, May 27, 2016

`It Is Merely a Peculiar Honesty'

“Miss Smith wanted happiness to exist where it possibly could.”

She sounds rather prim, this Miss Smith, doesn’t she? Not exactly a cheer leader or life of the party. “Where it possibly could?” What could this mean? Can’t happiness not merely exist but blossom across creation? Aren’t we obligated to be happy? Isn’t unhappiness a sort of treason against life? Here is “Happiness” from Stevie Smith’s second collection, Tenderly to One (1938):

“Happiness is silent, or speaks equivocally for friends,
Grief is explicit and her song never ends,
Happiness is like England, and will not state a case,
Grief, like Guilt, rushes in and talks apace.”

Things are different today. Happiness is desperately loquacious, as is aggrievement. No, Miss Smith was right after all, and would have concurred with Dr. Johnson: “Terrestrial happiness is of short continuance. The brightness of the flame is wasting its fuel; the fragrant flower is passing away in its own odours.” The observation at the top is from one of Smith’s most sympathetic critics, D.J. Enright, writing in “Did Nobody Teach You?: On Stevie Smith” (Man Is an Onion: Reviews and Essays, 1972). Enright takes his title from “Valuable” (The Frog Prince and Other Poems, 1955):    

“Why do you not put some value on yourselves,
Learn to say, No?
Did nobody teach you?
Nobody teaches anybody to say No nowadays,
People should teach people to say No.”

Some will read “Valuable” as a cold moralist’s sermon, or a self-esteem salesman’s pitch, but Smith won’t be pinned down like a butterfly in a museum drawer. She doesn’t write manifestoes. Critics, at a loss, invariably liken her to other poets, most often Blake, Dickinson and Mother Goose, but Smith is that rarest of writers, a home-grown original, a poetic mutation. No one could set out to write the way she does in her poems and novels. New Directions recently published All the Poems of Stevie Smith (ed. Will May), including more than one-hundred previously unpublished and uncollected poems. One hopes young readers discover Smith, who died in 1971. Twentieth-century poetry in English largely belongs to the English (Auden, Smith, Sisson, Larkin, Hill), and American poets (and readers) have much to learn.

That “death” (often “Death”) should appear so often in her poems is no surprise. With Beckett she is the great comedian of Death (or “death”). But the frequency of “happy” and its variations comes as news. Here, from the unpublished poems, is “I thank thee, Lord”:

“I thank thee O Lord for my beautiful bed
Have mercy on those who have none
And may all the children still happier lie
When they to thy kingdom come.”

Smith is half in love with death, easeful or otherwise. It represents sanctuary, rest from the strife of life, a beautiful bed, yet her poems are seldom morbid in a vulgar way. This untitled poem is on the next page:

“He preferred to be a hearthrug sage
To risk the cold opinion of the world,
Somewhere within him there had been
A lack of courage, a nerve failed.
He was not happy: but then he was not miserable,
He had money. Sometimes he wrote.
You might say his character was cast upon him,
And with it that luck’s lot.”

In “Mabel,” again, death the friend:

“In her loneliness Mabel
Found the hiss of the unlit gas
And in a little time, dying

All the Poems is a great celebration of a great poet who eludes our strident pigeonholing. Enright gets her right: “She can be grim—but she won’t stand for any nonsense about abandoning hope. That would be ignoble. In what looks like steps in a campaign against received `enlightened’ opinion, she shows something of the terrifying honesty which Eliot ascribed to Blake.” Here is Eliot on Blake:

“It is merely a peculiar honesty, which, in a world too frightened to be honest, is peculiarly terrifying. It is an honesty against which the whole world conspires, because it is unpleasant.”

[Go here for a fine review by Hermione Lee of All the Poems.]

Thursday, May 26, 2016

`What Answers to an Old Desire'

“I have also been reading Paul Valéry’s collection of aphorisms, Analects: many of them are sublime. From so much brilliance however it is difficult to retain much. Malraux’s art criticism is like that.”

Analects was the first book by Paul Valéry I read, in 1970 or 1971, during my freshman year in college. The timing was perfect. The fifteen-volume Collected Works of Paul Valéry was then being published incrementally, having started in 1956 and concluding in 1975, by Pantheon/Princeton University Press. Analects was Vol. XIV in the series and contains aphorisms and other brief bits of prose, many taken from the notebooks Valéry kept throughout his life, and an introduction by W.H. Auden.

The passage quoted at the top is from a letter the late Thomas Berger wrote to his friend and fellow novelist Zulfikar Ghose in October 1974. Of all the novelists at work during my lifetime, Berger is the one who most inspired my loyalty, starting when I read his third novel, Little Big Man (1964), while in high school, then read retroactively back to his first, Crazy in Berlin (1958), and forward as subsequent books appeared, beginning with Vital Parts in 1970 and concluding with Adventures of the Artificial Woman in 2004.

Berger is correct when he says it is “difficult to retain much” when reading Analects, as the brilliance remains consistent across 622 pages. One wishes to remember nearly every pared-down thought, and ends up remembering none, which is why we keep commonplace books. An aphorism is dense matter of little weight, thought concentrated into the fewest syllables. As I’ve gotten older, the appeal of concision has grown while the allure of bloat has withered. The volume’s title is perfect. Most often associated with the thought of Confucius, “analects” is defined by the OED as “the choice part; the select essence,” and as “literary or philosophical fragments or extracts.” Valéry’s analects inspire contrary impulses in a reader. The beauty of one aphorism stimulates impatience to read the next, but also a desire to linger and savor the first. One is left engaging in a quiet, readerly tug-of-war. Auden writes in his introduction:

“For Valéry, all loud and violent writing is comic, like a man alone in a room, playing a trombone. When one reads Carlyle, for instance, one gets the impression that he had persuaded himself that it takes more effort, more work, to write fortissimo than piano, or universe than garden.”

In Valery’s piano mode: “If everybody wrote, where would literary values be?” To weigh his judgment, just look around. Everyone writes; almost no one writes well. Reading Valéry, I frequently find myself testing his judgments against reality, in a manner almost mathematical, and usually find them solid. Consider this, with its literary and political implications: “The new has an irresistible appeal only to minds that get their maximal stimulus out of mere change.” Immediately followed by this: “What’s best in the new is what answers to an old desire.” And this, urgently pertinent in politics, literature and our daily lives:

“An attitude of permanent indignation signifies great mental poverty. Politics compels its votaries to take that line and you can see their minds growing more and more impoverished every day, from one burst of righteous anger to the next.”

Reading Analects, one feels simultaneously energized for living and humbled by the modest worth of one’s own insights, as when we realize Valéry has been there before us: “To reread what one has written proves how little one knows oneself.”

A comparably lively collection of aphorisms and assorted bon mots might be gleaned from Berger’s letters. Here he is sounding like La Rochefoucauld in a 1977 letter to Ghose: “Envy, my dear fellow, is more operative in the affairs of men than is lust or greed—indeed it might be said that greed and lust are merely among the masks that envy assumes.” And this of George Bernard Shaw from 1975: “It’s his tendentiousness, I think, that keeps him trivial. He’s always out to solve social problems—the sure sign of a superficial practitioner.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

`The Old Story Glowed with Fresh Color'

Recently on the radio I heard a well-known dupe eulogizing an even better-known dupe, Henry A. Wallace (1888-1965), the thirty-third vice president of the United States, unsuccessful presidential candidate and sometime apologist for the Gulag. Wallace is a parody of the “useful idiot,” a fellow traveler happy to commend the latest totalitarian scheme. Wallace shows up late in Within the Whirlwind (trans. Ian Boland, 1981), the second volume of Yevgenia Solomonovna Ginzburg’s memoirs of the eighteen years she spent in Stalin’s prisons and camps, and in internal exile.

In 1937, Ginzburg (1904-1977) was a teacher, a writer for the newspaper Red Tartary, an enthusiastic Communist, the wife of a Kazan Party Secretary and mother of two boys. She was arrested by the N.K.V.D. and charged with belonging to a “counter-revolutionary Trotskyist group” – a rubber-stamp accusation during Stalin’s Great Purge (1936-1938), when more than a million people, many of them, like Ginzburg, members of the Communist Party, were murdered. She received a ten-year sentence and was transported to a labor camp in Kolyma, in northeastern Russia, where she became a dokhodya, a “goner,” a prisoner consigned to death by overwork and malnutrition.

Released from the Gulag in February 1949, she was forced to remain in exile for another five years in Magadan, a camp near Kolyma that had been visited in 1944 by then-Vice President Henry Wallace. He likened the slave-labor camp to “a combination Hudson’s Bay Company and TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority].” Ginzburg was arrested again in October 1949 and returned to Kolyma. She worked secretly on her memoirs and was released from the Gulag in June 1955. In Part II, Chap. 13 of Within the Whirlwind, Ginzburg recounts the story of Engineer Krivoshei, a fellow exile and flamboyant storyteller whose “best piece” was titled “Wallace’s Monologue”:

“We were all familiar with the story of how the American Henry Wallace had managed to travel through Kolyma and observe only the Potemkin villages that the authorities had decided to show him. But Krivoshei, when he delivered `Wallace’s Monologue,’ impersonated the perspicacious traveler and imitated his accent so well that the old story glowed with fresh color.”

Ginzburg’s quotes Krivoshei quoting Wallace: “The tall sturdy boys from Central Russia are determined to conquer this wild region,” “Pioneers of progress. The founders of new cities,” and more proletarian platitudes. The following morning, Ginzburg learns of the “Doctor’s Plot,” another of Stalin’s inventions. In January 1953, he accused nine Moscow doctors, six of whom were Jews, of plotting to poison the Soviet leadership. After Stalin’s death in March, the charges were dismissed and the doctors exonerated.

Ginzburg was released from exile two years later and returned to Moscow, where she worked on the first volume of her memoirs, Journey into the Whirlwind. The English translation was published in 1967, though the book was not published in the Soviet Union until 1989. In Russian, the volumes are titled Krutoi marshrut I and Krutoi marshrut II -- Harsh Route or Steep Route. Ginzburg’s son was the novelist Vasilii Pavlovich Aksyonov (1932-2009), who was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1980 and settled in the U.S. During Ginzburg’s time in the Gulag, her older son Alyosha had died of starvation during the siege of Leningrad. Ginzburg died on this date, May 25, in 1977.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

`Within the Limits of Becoming Mirth'

In 1930, seven years after it was published, Stevie Smith read Walter de la Mare’s much-loved Come Hither: A Collection of Rhymes and Poems for the Young of All Ages, an anthology nominally aimed at children but most profitably read by an adult like Smith, for whom the membrane separating child and adult is highly permeable. De la Mare’s selection mirrors Smith’s own eclectic taste in verse. Elizabeth Bishop, too, was an enthusiast. We know from Frances Spalding’s 1988 biography of Smith that she closely read and annotated de la Mare’s collection, copying out favorite poems into a notebook (once a common practice, I’ve noticed, among young writers). Spalding says of the transcribed verses: “We can also find in them allusions, echoes and in some cases sources for her own poems, for her assimilation of this anthology was crucial to her poetic development.” Among the poems Smith copied was Thomas Hood’s “The Two Swans,” and of it she writes in her notebook: “This is very beautiful, and is also included in Alfred Noyes’s collection of fairy poetry [The Magic Casement, 1908].” Smith’s fondness for Hood (1799-1845) never abated. Spalding tells us:

“So great was Smith’s admiration for Hood, both his `deathly addiction to punning’ as well as his straight, non-punning verse, such as his famous `Song of the Shirt’ which she praised for its `admirable simplicity’ and `careful observation’, that she later [1946] wrote a radio programme on him.”
Smith’s devotion to Hood is rare and praiseworthy. English poetry is rich in excellent minor poets (Auden deemed him a major poet: “he is like nobody but himself and serious in the true sense of the word”), unfashionable but worthy of rediscovery. If poetry is understood schematically, as a landscape of towering mountains and receding valleys, Hood is lost in the shadows cast by Keats before him and Tennyson after, and the loss is ours. On Sunday, probably in commemoration of Hood’s birthday on Monday, The Imaginative Conservative posted one of Hood’s best-known poems, “I Remember, I Remember.” The poem reads almost like a nursery rhyme, or a lyric by Blake, and might almost be mistaken for a poem by Smith, the final stanza in particular:
“I remember, I remember,
The fir trees dark and high;
I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky:
It was a childish ignorance,
But now ’tis little joy
To know I’m farther off from heav’n
Than when I was a boy.”

Read Hood’s (and Smith’s) poems for the pure fun they supply, without missing their darker tones. Kingsley Amis included three of Hood’s poems in The New Oxford Book of English Light Verse (1978). Hood usually avoids the abiding sin of light verse, cloying whimsicality. He articulates his sensibility in these lines from “Ode to Rae Wilson Esq.”:

“Well!—be the graceless lineaments confest!
I do enjoy this bounteous beauteous earth;
And dote upon a jest
`Within the limits of becoming mirth’;—
No solemn sanctimonious face I pull,
Nor think I'm pious when I'm only bilious—
Nor study in my sanctum supercilious
To frame a Sabbath Bill or forge a Bull.”

Monday, May 23, 2016

`What We Actually Became'

As the anniversary of his son’s death was approaching, a friend was reading Coleridge and sent me a stanza from “Frost at Midnight”:

“Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the night-thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.”

Any effort to know my friend’s loss is futile and arrogant, an exercise like squaring the circle. One cannot imagine the death of a child – absence, vacuum, nullity. Coleridge sits before the fire in his parlor at Stowey, February 1798. He recalls his own childhood and imagines a future for his son, Hartley. For once, Coleridge keeps his gassiness in check. Every parent will recognize the mingling of personal past and speculative future. The poem’s emotional tension, from sadness to joyousness, is almost unbearable. My friend writes:   

“The only Romantic poet I read regularly is Keats. These few lines by Coleridge though move me immensely. God, `the secret ministry of frost’: who wouldn’t want to have written these words. And who wouldn’t wish all seasons to be sweet for one’s sleeping infant son?”

Certainly this is Coleridge’s finest moment as a poet, when he permitted himself to be a father and a man like other fathers and men, not a bloviating bore. These lines nearly redeem him. My friend acknowledges that Coleridge’s hopes for his son would remain largely unfulfilled. Hartley, he observes, would become “a rather feckless fellow,” and then continues:

“I sometimes wonder how any of us, certainly me, could bear to look the shades of our parents in their speculationless eyes, distilling in the alembic of our imaginations the chasm between what they hoped for us when we were sleeping infants and what we actually became. I know, of course, in a lot of ways we became just like them. We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves—or on our parents.”

A rather dull poet, Stanley Kunitz, alludes to Coleridge’s poem, almost replicating his middle-of-the-night experience with Hartley, in “Journal for My Daughter” (The Testing Tree, 1971):

“The night when Coleridge,
bore his crying child outside,
he noted
that those brimming eyes
caught the reflection
of the starry sky,
and each suspended tear
made a sparkling moon.”

Sunday, May 22, 2016

`Colossal Designs on the Future'

On this date, May 22, in 1849, Abraham Lincoln became the only U.S. president ever issued a patent. His invention, which was never manufactured, was a device to lift boats over shoals and other obstacles in a river. The invention was rooted in the two trips Lincoln took as a young man down the Mississippi from Illinois to New Orleans. The second trip, in 1831, was made on a flatboat built by Lincoln and a friend. By this point in our history we are surprised to learn a president is equipped to do anything other than collect votes and burnish his reputation. I suspect we haven’t yet taken Lincoln’s full measure.
In his 1952 biography (my copy I purchased years ago in the gift shop in the Lincoln Memorial), Benjamin P. Thomas writes: “Behind the solemn, furrowed countenance of Abraham Lincoln was an inquisitive mind. It ranged over the abstract and the infinite, the absolute and the immediate. It was philosophical, and at the same time intensely practical. On the practical level Lincoln’s curiosity directed itself, among other things, to mechanical devices.” That Lincoln, along with his other virtues, ranks among the nation’s greatest writers of prose should likewise not surprise us. Genius is always unknowable, no matter how much we think we know. Daniel Mark Epstein writes in The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage (2009):

“He was a secretive man, who kept his own counsel. He was an ambitious man of humble origins, with colossal designs on the future. And it would always be advantageous not to be closely known, never to be transparent. Passing a farmer on a dray, he would tip his hat and grin. Everybody knew him. Nobody knew him. He would play the fool, the clown, the melancholy poet dying for love, the bumpkin. He would take the world by stealth and not by storm. He would disarm enemies by his apparent naïveté, by seeming pleasantly harmless. He would go to such lengths in making fun of his own appearance that others felt obliged to defend it.”