Sunday, April 22, 2018

`Read Generously--As He Once Read'

Dick Davis’ verse I knew only from three recent volumes -- Touchwood (1996), Belonging (2002) and A Trick of Sunlight (2007) – and a scattering of earlier work online and in anthologies. Everything I read, I liked. This week I ordered Love in Another Language: Collected Poems and Selected Translations (Carcanet, 2017). Reading it is like discovering the rest of the iceberg. The earliest collection included, In the Distance, dates from 1975. From the start he was a craftsman with a delicate touch, focusing on particulars, avoiding grandiose gestures. Davis understands that when he is quiet we listen more intently. Here is “Littoral” from In the Distance:

“Salt smoothes and sand obliterates
The trite, the once-dear vestiges

“Mute hieroglyphs, the hulks of pomp
And sea-worn amulets of love.”

The theme is familiar – mutability, time’s attritions. Davis moves Ozymandias from the desert to the shore. There’s virtue in his brevity. It recalls many Imagist poems but without their lazily undeveloped snapshot quality. Inclusion of the “trite” in the catalog of losses is clear-eyed and inspired. Much of what we lose, much of what we regret losing, was hackneyed in the first place. No loss in such a loss. Here is “With Johnson’s Lives of the Poets” (Devices and Desires, 1989):

“He wrote these quick biographies
To be instructive and to please;
In them we find

“Among judicious anecdotes
The apt quotation that denotes
A taste defined

“And wrested from this record of
His irritable, captious love
For failed mankind—

From fear, from his compassion for
Insanity, the abject poor,
The world’s maligned.

He laboured to be just, and where
Justice eluded him his care
Was to be kind.

Read generously—as once he read
The words of the indifferent dead.
Enter his mind.” 

More than most writers, Johnson makes it difficult to separate him from his work. When we judge the writing, we’re implicitly judging the man. His poems and prose, seldom banally autobiographical, are self-revelatory. When we read his best-known observation on writing – “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it” – we hear Johnson speaking confidentially. Davis makes this clear in his final line: “Enter his mind.”

Davis dedicates the Johnson poem to the Kentucky poet and publisher R.L. Barth. Some years ago, the late Helen Pinkerton sent me a copy of Samuel Johnson: Selected Latin Poems Translated by Various Hands (1995), edited and published by Barth. On the title page is Davis’ “To the Reader”:

“In these few, graceful pages you will find
Translation of an untranslated mind;
A heart brought home that had aspired to be
At one with a serener clerisy—
Latin and Christian, still, unchanging, true:
And was, as it too intimately knew,
Contingent, fallen, unrelieved by prayer;
The prey of spleen, regret, bad jokes, despair.”

Saturday, April 21, 2018

`The English Do Poetry'

“Nations are definably different. Most importantly, they differ in what they do best. No nation has produced better essayists than France, none has produced better composers that the Germans, better painters than the Italians, nor better novelists than the Russians. America invented jazz and still masters the form and, though some may dissent, her record in film is unsurpassed. And the English? The English do poetry.”

Occasionally, we encounter a bit of writing that gels a thought we previously had left murky and undefined. Montaigne did that for Eric Hoffer. In his story “Zetland: By a Character Witness,” Saul Bellow describes a young man (based on Isaac Rosenfeld) who abandons philosophy after reading Moby-Dick. My experience is a little less dramatic. The passage above comes from an essay Bryan Appleyard published in 2007, “Poetry and the English Imagination.” Bryan is thoughtful and prolific, and I wasn’t expecting him to realign my thinking, but suddenly I understood that English is the nation of poets, and that Englishness, more than the essence of any other nation, is largely defined by its poetry. At the time I wrote: “Try to imagine your emotional, sensory and intellectual lives without the gift of English poetry.” No doubt, some will find the thought offensive. As Bryan says, “We are a nation defined by and consisting of poets. To deny this is to deny England.” There is no rival.

On his own, a reader sent me Bryan’s essay because, he said, “I thought you’d get a kick out of it.” He’s right, especially because I hadn’t read it in several years and because I had forgotten Bryan’s speculation as to why our cousins are poets:  

“But the truth, I suspect, is that it is the English language itself which made us poets. This is, of course, unprovable, not least because of the chicken and egg question – did the language make the English poets or did the English make the language poetic? But, if only subjectively, I think some kind of case can be made.”

For Bryan, the English line peters out after Auden. I can’t agree: Larkin and Hill, and down a notch, Stevie Smith and C.H. Sisson. But that’s quibbling. Yes, the Americans, for a brief spell, picked up the slack, but that tributary too has also run dry. Bryan’s fondness for Ashbery is an aberration we can forgive:    

“Nobody can understand England without some sense of her poetry. That means, of course, that very few now understand England. Perhaps that is the way it must be: “The roar of time plunging unchecked through the sluices / Of the days” (Ashbery) must sweep all away. But, though the signs are not good, English poetry is buried too deep in English soil ever to be quite eradicated; and so, like Hamlet, we must defy augury and send the brats home to learn at least a sonnet a night.”

Friday, April 20, 2018

`Shut Not Thy Heart, Nor Thy Library'

Next week we’re having the carpet pulled up in four rooms, a stairway and hall, and replacing it with hardwood flooring. All of my books must be boxed, labeled and stacked in other rooms. That’s more than two-thousand volumes, not counting the rest of the family’s books. Culling is called for. I’ve invited a third-grader down the block to go through our sons’ old books and take or borrow what he wants. I already have an investment in this kid. I pledged 25 dollars in a reading-for-charity book scam his school is running. Last year we gave him our complete set of “Captain Underpants” books. He owes me.

In a letter written April 9, 1816, Charles Lamb thanks Wordsworth for the books he has sent. One wonders what Wordsworth, not a notably comedic soul, made of Lamb’s relentlessly absurdist wit:

“I have not bound the poems yet; I wait till people have done borrowing them. I think I shall get a chain and chain them to my shelves, more Bodleiano, and people may come and read them at chain’s length. For of those who borrow, some read slow; some mean to read but don’t read; and some neither read nor meant to read, but borrow to leave you an opinion of their sagacity.”

Coleridge is visiting and is “beset with temptations.” Lamb tells Wordsworth: “Nature, who conducts every creature by instinct to its best end, has skilfully directed C. to take up his abode at a Chemist’s Laboratory in Norfolk Street.” C.’s laudanum dealer isn’t far away. In 1823, Lamb published his Elia essay “The Two Races of Men” – that is, lenders and borrowers. In the guise of Comberbatch, Coleridge is supreme among the latter:

“To one like Elia, whose treasures are rather cased in leather covers than closed in iron coffers, there is a class of alienators more formidable than that which I have touched upon: I mean our borrowers of books—those mutilators of collections, spoilers of the symmetry of shelves, and creators of odd volumes. There is Comberbatch, matchless in his depredations!”

Elia’s outrage is tempered, however, by another Coleridge/Comberbatch quirk: obsessive annotations and commentary written in borrowed volumes. Princeton has published five fat volumes of Coleridge marginalia. For Lamb, it’s like interest paid on a loan:

“Reader, if haply thou art blessed with a moderate collection, be shy of showing it; or if thy heart overfloweth to lend them, lend thy books; but let it be to such a one as S. T. C. —he will return them (generally anticipating the time appointed) with usury: enriched with annotations, tripling their value. I have had experience. Many are these precious MSS. of his—(in matter oftentimes, and almost in quantity not unfrequently, vying with the originals)—in no very clerkly hand—legible in my Daniel; in old Burton; in Sir Thomas Browne; and those abstruser cogitations of the Greville, now, alas! wandering in Pagan lands.—I counsel thee, shut not thy heart, nor thy library, against S. T. C.”

Thursday, April 19, 2018

`Still, Still We Long for Light's Communion'

Aubade -- the word, I mean – in my lexicon will always be Philip Larkin’s. Plenty of poets have used that title, from William Empson to Bill Coyle, but Larkin copyrights it. His “Aubade” is one of the defining poems of the last century. It has a rival, however, from early in the twenty-first, a poem that reads as though it were written by a representative of a species sharing almost no genetic material with Larkin’s. Dick Davis’ “Aubade” was published in the Summer 2001 issue of The Threepenny Review. I cite the time and place because the poem helps define for me the pre-9/11 world, which became a world only after 9/11.

I flew to Philadelphia for a three-day conference that June. I had never visited the city but had little time to tramp its streets. With me I brought along The Golovlyov Family by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin and that issue of The Threepenny Review. The days were long and that’s how I wound down in the evening in my hotel room. Davis’ poem shares with Larkin’s a seemingly straightforward absence of faith: “These are the dawn thoughts of an atheist / Vaguely embarrassed by what looks like grace.” In a stringently philosophical world, Matisse’s colors are “a fake.” However, “Still we consent, and actively connive / In their unreal adjustments to our being.” Positivism, in the final stanza, never quite triumphs:

“Still, still we long for Light’s communion
To pierce and flood our solitary gloom:
Still I am grateful as the rising sun
Picks out the solid colors of my room.”

The upper-case “Light” is left undefined. It might be the deity, as “communion” suggests, despite the speaker’s self-definition in the first line as an atheist. No sane person would choose to inhabit a world in which “neither Fauve nor Esfahan survive.” I remember Davis’ poem, on first reading, kindling a sense of buoyancy. Humans are more than passive sensory receptors.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

`Each One Has Been a Friend'

Eleven years ago I happened on a poem by a poet previously unknown to me that was so good I had to write about it. Maureen Jeffs’ “To My Daughter, My Books” distilled a lot of wisdom and generosity into a small package and it sounded earned, not an empty gesture made public to elicit admiration. Jeffs wrote to thank me and I was touched by her gratitude and the assumption that we belonged to the same tribe – parents and readers.

On Tuesday I picked up the anthology in which I found Jeffs’ poem, It’s Her Voice That Haunts Me Now (1996), and read it again. Then I looked online to see if she had continued writing and discovered that Maureen Jeffs had died in 2015. The internet, among its other gifts, makes it possible to feel guilty and sad over the death of someone on another continent whom we never met. Think about that for a moment. I experienced a pang of guilt for not staying in touch with someone who seemed remarkably thoughtful and interesting. And now we’ll never have that permanently deferred conversation.      

Her website, perhaps created by the daughter addressed in the poem, is a fine tribute and preserves some of her poems and stories. As Jeffs writes in the closing lines of “To My Daughter, My Books”:

“Take them and use
Them well, each one has been a friend,
And may the truths you find console.
In these, and in the books I’ve penned,
You’ll find the substance of my soul.”

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

`Just As My Bad Demons Do'

Even cranks, on occasion, should be listened to. Chief among American literary cranks worthy of attention is Edward Dahlberg, a writer I prize in spite of himself. He was pretentious and tediously bitter and angry, turning sooner or later on everyone who befriended him. You would never trust him around your sister. But a reader has written to thank me for having recommended Because I Was Flesh (1964), Dahlberg’s masterpiece, an “autobiography” devoted to his hapless mother, Lizzie, a Kansas City “lady barber.” Born illegitimate, Dahlberg is good on the American underclass without towing the Marxist line, though he briefly joined the Communist Party in the nineteen-thirties. His first book, Bottom Dogs (1930), is a novelistic treatment of the same material as Because I Was Flesh, but written in a crudely “proletarian” manner. Because I Was Flesh works because Dahlberg largely forgets himself and concentrates on Lizzie:

“My mother was born unfortunate, and she was pursued until her end by that evil genius, ill luck.  The Psalmist says, `No one can keep his own soul alive’—nor anybody else’s either. We despair because we are no better and are not consoled that we can be no worse. A life is a single folly, but two lives would be countless ones, for nobody profits by his mistakes.”

Such people seldom get serious attention from writers uninterested in propaganda. Exceptions are Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, who numbered, briefly, among Dahlberg’s friends. His purpose is darker than mere belles-lettres. In the paragraph that follows the one cited above, Dahlberg writes like a faithless Isaiah:

“I do not go to her grave because it would do her no good. Though everything in the earth has feeling—the granite mourns, the turf sleeps and has fitful nights, and the syenite chants as melodiously as Orpheus and Musaeus—it would be idle to say Lizzie Dahlberg, whose bones still have sentience, is what she was. She is and she is not, and that is the difference between the trance we call being and the other immense experience we name death.”

At the risk of sounding sententious, Dahlberg echoes the language and rhythms of the King James Bible in the final paragraph of Because I Was Flesh:

“When the image of her comes up on a sudden—just as my bad demons do—and I see again her dyed henna hair, the eyes dwarfed by the electric light in the Star Lady Barbershop, and the dear, broken wing of her mouth, and when I regard her wild tatters, I know that not even Solomon in his lilied raiment was so glorious as my mother in her rags. Selah.”

Monday, April 16, 2018

`Nothing Else of the Sort'

“I have been reading Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets and miscellaneous criticisms of late, and am tremendously impressed by the value of his criticism. He attends especially to the style of the writers criticized, criticizes them in minute detail, and with infallible judgment. There is nothing else of the sort quite as valuable in English. You had better read him.”

The writer is Yvor Winters in 1929, in a letter to one of his students, Henry Ramsey, a poet who went on to be a career diplomat. Lives is a book I frequently browse, at absent moments or between other books. It would be the only work of criticism or biography I would include among my Desert Island Books. Mine is the compact, two-volume Oxford University Press edition (1929), literally a pocket book. The first of the Lives I read was Dryden’s, in a freshman survey class, and the almost gossipy way Johnson mingles criticism, biographical detail and aphoristic observation still thrills me:  

“Perhaps no nation ever produced a writer that enriched his language with such variety of models. To him we owe the improvement, perhaps the completion of our metre, the refinement of our language, and much of the correctness of our sentiments. By him we were taught 'sapere et fari,' to think naturally and express forcibly. Though Davies has reasoned in rhyme before him, it may be perhaps maintained that he was the first who joined argument with poetry. He shewed us the true bounds of a translator’s liberty.”

When I read Dryden, I read Johnson on Dryden, because that was my introduction to the great poet. The same is true of Pope“Pope was from his birth of a constitution tender and delicate; but is said to have shewn remarkable gentleness and sweetness of disposition. The weakness of his body continued through his life, but the mildness of his mind perhaps ended with his childhood.”

Pope, among the greatest poets in the language, suffered from a form of tuberculosis that left his body stunted and malformed. According to his biographer Maynard Mack, Pope was no taller than four feet, six inches. Johnson’s account is vivid and compassionate: “By natural deformity, or accidental distortion, his vital functions were so much disordered, that his life was a long disease. His most frequent assailant was the headach [sic], which he used to relieve by inhaling the steam of coffee, which he very frequently required.”

[The Winters passage is taken from The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters, ed. R.L. Barth, Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2000.]