Sunday, April 26, 2015

`The Art of the Word Made Me Yawn'

A reader asks if I know “Why the Classics,” written by Zbigniew Herbert in the nineteen-sixties, when his native Poland was hobbled by communism and few could imagine it would ever be otherwise. Here are the poem’s final stanzas in the translation by Alissa Valles (The Collected Poems 1956-1998, 2007): 

“if art for its subject
will have a broken jar
a small broken soul
with a great self-pity

“what will remain after us
will it be lovers' weeping
in a small dirty hotel
when wall-paper dawns”
 

Herbert was a bookish poet, but his work seldom calls for annotations. Among modern poets he most admired T.S. Eliot (and Auden), but his lines are never so thick with allusions as the American’s. Rather, his work is suffused with Western civilization, with its poetry, history and philosophy. When he writes of the ancient world, as here, of Thucydides, one need not recall in detail the Peloponnesian War. In fact, some knowledge of World War II and the fate of Poland, in a vise worked by Hitler and Stalin, might be more useful. In a brief commentary on the poem, included in The Collected Prose 1948-1998 (2010), Herbert outlines the poem’s three-part structure in surprisingly explicit terms (reminding us that Herbert was never a specialist in mystification): 

“In the first part, it speaks of an event taken from the work of a classical author. It is, as it were, a note on my reading. In the second part I transfer the event to contemporary times to elicit a tension, a clash, to reveal an essential difference in attitude and behavior. Finally the conclusion contains a conclusion or moral, and also transposes the problem from the sphere of history to the sphere of art.” 

Self-explications tend to be insulting to readers or self-congratulatory. Herbert’s is crisp and sane. He’s not buying the era’s fashionable taste for glib absurdity. He is refreshingly hopeful, given his subject and the fate of his country: 

“I don’t mean to subject pessimism to easy ridicule if it is a response to evil in the world. However, I think that the black tone of contemporary literature has its source in the attitude its writers take to reality. And that is what I tried to attack in my poem.” 

He adds, winningly: “Writing as a stylistic exercise seemed barren to me. Poetry as the art of the word made me yawn.”

Saturday, April 25, 2015

`To Try to Take the Measure of Our Loss'

James Matthew Wilson asks in “Some Notes for Ecclesiastes” (Some Permanent Things, 2014):

“How does one stir
A dull eye to the poignancy and gift
Of all the things that are but need not be?”

Like a rich kid’s Christmas morning, the world overflows with gratuitous bounty. It’s also a slaughterhouse. Negotiating those truths across a lifetime winnows optimists from pessimists, but a prudent path between them seems sanest. Wilson’s poem, written “In Memoriam Rae Lee Lester,” is a gloss on Koheleth, almost a rebuke. He understands that Ecclesiastes in the wrong hands turns quickly into cynical, smug, impotent, wet-blanket doomsaying (“flint-lipped quietists”). Along with Job, it’s probably the biblical book most favored by the faithless. But Wilson starts his poem practically, almost optimistically, with George Herbert, “The parson, lonely in his vicarage / At Bemerton,” wanting to stir his flock.   

The title of Dr. Johnson’s greatest poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” traces it lineage to Ecclesiastes 1:2, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity,” a phrase distilling his central lifelong theme. In his Dictionary, Johnson defined vanity as “emptiness, arrogance, falsehood.” For vain he gives “fruitless, meanly proud, idle.” Asked for a synonym today, many would respond with “egotism,” “self-centeredness,” “pride.” Only the last avoids the modern clinical taint and retains the older, moral/spiritual sense. In Samuel Johnson: The Struggle (2008), Jeffrey Meyers writes of “Human Wishes”:

“Believing with George Herbert that `A verse may finde him who a sermon flies,’ Johnson uses the poem to preach from a deeply pessimistic text. His title implies that certainty and truth can be found, despite the temptations of the world, only by adhering to a spiritual path and following God's will . . . Instead of emphasizing the joy and consolation of Christian belief, and the hope of redemption it offers, Johnson distilled into the poem twenty years of bitterness, failure, and struggle for faith. His poem is not simply pessimistic, but strains against optimism, against the possibility that human life could actually get better.”

Wilson is not naïve. Neither is he hard-boiled. He seeks wisdom, not finality:

“We do not need a shaking from our comfort
In how the seasons feed us, how the new
Wars are just like the old ones. What we ask
Is wisdom wise enough never to dare

To try to take the measure of our loss.”

Friday, April 24, 2015

`At Last He Made Himself Heard'

Last weekend, a neighbor helped change one of the brake lights in my car. He’s handy and has the proper tools to remove a light assembly held in place by too much engineering. John is a Navy veteran of Vietnam who took part in the evacuation of Saigon, and several years ago he performed some clandestine work in Iraq. He rides a Harley and carries more scars than any man I’ve ever known. Just last year he had his gallbladder and a cancerous patch on his belly removed. He has broken most of the major bones in his body. If anyone has a right to be angry, it’s John. Needless to say, and contrary to pop psychology, he’s a smart, funny, sweet-natured guy, though I would never want to seriously cross him.

While John fussed with bolts and wires, I observed that he seemed a patient, methodical guy, someone who doesn’t assume the world is designed for his convenience and pleasure. He laughed at that and said he was hot-tempered when young, touchy and easily offended, but life had cooled him down. “I’m not that important anymore,” said John, who is married and has two sons, 12 and 13.

I was raised among angry people, and early on concluded that anger is the most addictive of emotions. People get hooked on the illusory rush of power that accompanies it. It’s the cocaine of inadequate people. Dr. Johnson puts it like this:

“He that finds his knowledge narrow, and his arguments weak, and by consequence his suffrage not much regarded, is sometimes in hope of gaining that attention by his clamours which he cannot otherwise obtain, and is pleased with remembering that at last he made himself heard, that he had the power to interrupt those whom he could not confute, and suspend the decision which he could not guide.”

This is from Johnson’s great essay on anger, The Rambler #11, published on this date, April 24, in 1750, and one senses he writes from first-hand experience. In brief, Johnson helps explain phenomena as diverse as Twitter, talk radio and murderous Muslims:

“From anger, in its full import, protracted into malevolence, and exerted in revenge, arise, indeed, many of the evils to which the life of man is exposed. By anger operating upon power are produced the subversion of cities, the desolation of countries, the massacre of nations, and all those dreadful and astonishing calamities which fill the histories of the world…”

Thursday, April 23, 2015

`A Soul Remembering My Good Friends'

A Canadian graduate student in statistics who by all accounts was a brilliantly promising young woman died here last fall of cancer at the impossible age of twenty-six. I never knew Sarah Tooth, though we worked in the same building, but I was asked to write stories about her here and here. Last week a memorial bench for Sarah was placed in the engineering quadrangle. The first time I saw the bench, a female student was seated on it, reading a Penguin paperback edition of Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. A tree will be planted nearby in memory of Sarah, and a brass plaque was added to the bench on Wednesday. It gives the dates of Sarah’s birth and death, and these lines, spoken by Bolingbroke to Hotspur (Henry Percy) in Act II, Scene 3 of Richard II:

“I count myself in nothing else so happy
As in a soul remembering my good friends.”

Silently, we add Bolingbroke’s subsequent lines:

“And, as my fortune ripens with thy love,
It shall be still thy true love's recompense:
My heart this covenant makes, my hand thus seals it.”

Today is Shakespeare’s birthday, his 451st, and it’s appropriate that even non-English majors (especially non-English majors) use his words to mark significant events in life and death. In Act IV, Scene 1, Shakespeare puts in the mouth of Richard himself -- a solipsist, a self-infatuated proto-poet -- lines all of us with justice will someday be able to speak:

“’Tis very true, my grief lies all within;
And these external manners of laments
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortured soul;
There lies the substance.”

[ADDENDUM: I received an email from a friend of Sarah's, a doctoral student in philosophy at Rice University: "I tried to find selections reflecting on two things for a memorial at Rice: either (1) the notion of the importance of friends and an appreciation of them, or (2) the notion of accepting and appreciating (an adopted) home. Both were things that seemed to myself and other friends and her parents as at the center of Sarah's thoughts about her life in Houston and at Rice. Additionally, Sarah enjoyed Shakespeare quite a bit. We made a point of going to Shakespeare performances in Hermann Park and a few on campus at Rice, though we did have to miss the last round at Hermann Park in 2014 because she was away receiving treatment. I think she appreciated both the use of language and the writing itself, and also the uinversal human themes you can find in Shakespeare. All of that and Shakespeare's penchant for providing good concise statements of large sentiments made it seem like a natural place to look. I had to look -- it was not one I had previously memorized. You never see Shakepseare's history plays performed any more, so we never discussed Richard II at length, but I think she would have approved." 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

`Aural Intelligence and Lexical Vigour'

The poet and classicist John Talbot, who teaches at Brigham Young University, sent me a copy of “Johnson’s Classical Mottoes,” an article he published in 2003 in the journal Essays in Criticism. By “mottoes” Talbot means the brief tags or epigraphs in Greek and Latin placed by Johnson at the top of his Rambler (1750-52) and Adventurer (1752-54) essays, often accompanied by English translations made by the lexicographer himself. Talbot’s reading of Johnson’s poems (they have been identified as such at least since 1940, when David Nichol Smith and Edward L. McAdam included them in The Collected  Poems of Samuel Johnson) is close and sensitive, like that of his former colleague at Boston University, Christopher Ricks. Here are some of Talbot’s choicer observations:

“The energy Johnson infuses into his translations derives in part from his determination that no form of the verb `to be’ should survive the transit from Latin to English unreinforced.”

“Johnson’s choice of words reveals other subtleties. On indication that these brief translations amount to more than mere cribs is their frequent recourse to words which connect the classical quotations to the phrasing of Johnson’s own major poems.”

“It is a kind of levelling: he naturalizes the Greek and Latin not only into English, but into Johnsonian, idiom.”

“`Verbs bristling in every line’ is [Walter Jackson] Bate’s characterisation of this feature of Johnson’s style, adding that Johnson’s mature prose style has a high proportion of verbs.”

“`Vain’ ranks near the top of Johnson’s most frequently used words, appearing seventy-six times in the poems alone.”

“All but five of the seventy-seven instances of `still’ throughout Johnson’s poems are in the adverbial sense.”

“…the words do not stand alone, but sound and resound off one another in the Johnsonian aural network…”

“This epigram and the best of the other mottoes and quotations from the Rambler and Adventurer deserve their place alongside Johnson’s more celebrated poems, whose aural intelligence and lexical vigour they so often share, and to which they so often allude.”

Talbot refers to “the magisterial severity” Johnson’s greatest poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes.” For a further taste of Talbot try “Information Age” from his first collection, The Well-Tempered Tantrum (David Robert Books, 2004):

“From parroting that ours is the Information Age,
Some respite, please. Say that on crumbling piers
Fishermen wait; say the tossing wife pines
For footfall in the courtyard; report that the mountains
Are, and are, and are, underneath
Ice that was not, and is, and will not
Be. I can learn nothing from news.
Bring word of what I already know.
That breath is short. That daylight inches.
(These apples ripen to redness or paleness.)
That love comes shedding confetti from gnarled
Branches above; that canyons are deep
And from the deep canyons word sounds, resounds,
And will not alter and wants no age.”

As a former newspaper reporter, I find Talbot’s simple statement, “I can learn nothing from news,” a reliable mood-elevator. In his second collection, Rough Translations (David Robert Books, 2012), Talbot includes sixteen translations of Horace and one each of Virgil and Callimachus.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

`The Past Is a Pledge for the Future'

When writing to or for dullards, a writer must work harder not to write dully. The witty whet our wit. We write up to them, not down. George Gordon writes in “Cowper’s Letters” (More Companionable Books, 1947): “The truth is, of course, that letter-writing is like conversation: a social thing. It takes two to make a good letter. The first article in the equipment of a letter-writer is not a turn for phrases, but a friend; and the first personal requisite is the generosity to value friendship. If these are available no obstacle need be apprehended; you have only to draw your chair in, dip your pen, and be honestly yourself.”

That William Cowper (1731-1800), a suicidally tormented man, should have written letters that are still readably charming, funny and moving after more than two centuries, defies the modern understanding of human personality. As poet and man, Cowper can’t be reduced to clinical categories for easy comprehension. Though depressed and reclusive, comfortable only among a small circle of friends and family, and then only in a rural setting, Cowper wrote letters that rival Keats’ as the finest in the language (that both poets suffered lends a plangent quality to everything they wrote, though that alone is not sufficient to explain their literary qualities). They carry philosophical and emotional freight lightly -- never a sermon or treatise, always a conversation. On Sept. 4, 1787, Cowper writes to his cousin, Lady Harriett Hesketh (1733-1807), whom he addresses as “My dearest coz.” The poet refers to his uncle, Hesketh’s father, who has been ill:

“But years will have their course and their effect; they are happiest, so far as this life is concerned, who, like him, escape those effects the longest, and who do not grow old before their time. Trouble and anguish do that for some, which only longevity does for others. A few months since I was older than your father is now [Cowper had suffered his fourth major breakdown between January and June 1787]; and though I have lately recovered, as Falstaff says, some smatch of my youth, I have but little confidence, in truth none, in so flattering a change, but expect, when I least expect it, to wither again. The past is a pledge for the future.”

The passage is a model of felicitous letter-writing. Cowper is witty, wise and trusting enough of his cousin to tactfully confide in her. He gives, but not too much, and without a hint of self-pity. He feels sufficiently free to cite Shakespeare, whom he misquotes, but in an interesting fashion. In Act I, Scene 2 of King Henry IV, Part Two, Falstaff actually says:

“Your lordship, though not
 clean past your youth, hath yet some smack of age in
 you, some relish of the saltness of time; and I must
 humbly beseech your lordship to have a reverent care
 of your health.

“Smatch” is misremembered, though Shakespeare uses it elsewhere. He gives it to Brutus in Julius Caesar:

“I prithee, Strato, stay thou by thy lord:
Thou art a fellow of a good respect;
Thy life hath had some smatch of honour in it:
Hold then my sword, and turn away thy face,
While I do run upon it. Wilt thou, Strato?”

For “smatch,” the OED gives “taste, smack, flavour.” Cowper uses the word correctly if not accurately. Gordon, in his essay on Cowper’s letters, confirms this:

“Most of his own letters were written out of mere affection, without his knowing when he began what he intended to say, or whether he had anything to say at all. They are totally unpremeditated, and flow from him like talk.”

Monday, April 20, 2015

`A Peep Show'

A Sterne-reading reader has stumbled on “raree-show,” a word William Hazlitt used in a passage I quoted in Sunday’s post. It’s a delicious word, seldom used today but perfectly suited to our world. I learned of “raree-show” more than forty years ago on first reading Tristram Shandy. The Widow Wadman, as usual, is putting the moves on the oblivious Uncle Toby. Something is irritating her eye and she asks Toby to look into it. The Widow is seated beside him and our narrator says: “Honest soul! Thou didst look into it with as much innocency of heart, as ever child look’d into a raree-shew-box; and ’twere as much a sin to have hurt thee.” Just so we get the joke, Sterne, the most smutty-minded of writers, has Tristram observe in the next paragraph: “—If a man will be peeping of his own accord into things of that nature—I’ve nothing to say to it--” 

In the OED, the first definition of raree-show is straightforward, dating from the seventeenth century: “a set of pictures or a puppet show exhibited in a portable box for public entertainment; a peep show.” That latter phrase has salacious modern connotations that Sterne may have been toying with. The dictionary gives nine citations between 1677 and 2003, including quotes from Tom Jones (1749) and Walter Scott’s Peveril of the Peak (1823). 

The second definition is even closer to Sterne’s sense: “an exhibition, show, or spectacle of any kind, esp. one regarded as lurid, vulgar, or populist.” We get this usage in a letter of Edward Fitzgerald’s published in 1889: “Do you see Dickens’ David Copperfield? Carlyle says he is a showman whom one gives a shilling to once a month to see his raree-show.” Unexpectedly, the word shows up in William Gaddis’ The Recognitions (1955): “He’ll show you... He'll put up a real maudlin raree-show for you.”

In the third sense, raree-show is1681—2003 “a mass noun: spectacular or lurid display,” as in an 1809 letter by Scott: “Those immense London Stages fit only for pantomime and raree show.” Among the compounds are “raree-show box” and “raree-show performance.” Here, the dictionary cites Sterne’s usage. Now the reader can understand the word’s contemporary relevance and usefulness. Among our counterparts to the raree-show, to entertainments that are “lurid, vulgar, or populist,” are video games, Star Wars and the Harry Potter phenomenon, tacky children's concoctions consumed by adults.