Sunday, January 21, 2018

`Letting Them Laugh'

Most of today’s poetry is dreary, in-bred stuff. Don’t read it if you need a lift. Read this instead:

“The coast of Maine is painted brown and gray
So starlings, grackles, gulls and crows
Have safe but somber feathers to display.
A more forgiving land would not foreclose
Some lusher oranges, blues or indigos.

“A cardinal returns to perch alone,
Though it is weeks before a thaw.
His sudden scarlet jars like blood on bone,
And shows that evolution has a flaw
That spares some whimsy from the grip of law.”

That’s “March” from A.M. Juster’s The Secret Language of Women (University of Evansville Press, 2003). Not quite light verse, whatever that may mean, and, thankfully, not self-importantly solemn. If not whimsical, at least respecting whimsy as a subject. And set in E.A. Robinson’s backyard. Nor is it an anti-Darwin screed, but less than reverential when it comes to some Darwinists and their determinist bullying. I knew an ornithologist convinced birds, if not other species, possess an aesthetic sense and sing just for the joyous hell of it. He asked me to keep that to myself for now.

Saturday afternoon I spent an hour on the telephone with the poet and translator A.M. Juster, whose street-legal name is Mike Astrue. This was our first conversation, and we had no trouble coming up with things to talk about, including X.J. Kennedy, Fred Gwynne, Clement Moore and Patty Duke. Nothing stuffy, like Juster himself. If Maine in March isn’t ebullient enough, try “Ballade of Bad Sandwiches,” which comes with an epigraph from Warren Zevon: “Enjoy every sandwich.” Here’s the poem:

“I ask myself throughout my flight delay:
why can’t a Whopper have more sauce and cheese?
Those footlong subs grow shorter by the day.
There’s skimpy bacon in my BLT’s,
and this pastrami is so dry and gray
I cannot drown its dreary taste in beer.
I ask a food-court worker, “Tell me, please,
where are the sandwiches of yesteryear?”

“How long can mayonnaise or chicken stay
on sale before they give us some disease?
Who knows if food inspectors need to spray?
I balk at burgers as uncooked as these,
then panic that my tuna is passé;
egg salad leaves me nearly numb with fear
about E. coli’s harsh realities.
Where are the sandwiches of yesteryear?

“I am not asking that they be gourmet.
Who needs more quinoas and organic Bries?
Who wants croissants that quickly flake away—
or honey dressing sourced from free-range bees?
Bring ham and cheese with chips from Frito Lay!
The PBJ apocalypse is near,
and yet the FDA remains at ease.
Where are the sandwiches of yesteryear?

“We’ve lost our dietary liberties;
such times demand a lunchtime Paul Revere.
Now stand with me! Arise as one and say,

When my brother and I were kids, our father subscribed to such magazines as Guns and Ammo and Field and Stream. We invented a magazine of our own: Guns and Sandwiches, with a special issue devoted to the Reuben. Here’s Mike in a 2015 interview:

“I think the purpose of all work is to try to make the world better for your efforts. With poetry that can mean turning people toward something spiritual, letting them laugh, helping them face their fears, or reminding them about joy.”

Saturday, January 20, 2018

`To Hear the Prose When One Reads It Silently'

The two most chilling words a reader can hear: “poetry reading.” The ham on stage, his audience of sycophants. The ham droning or orating, head bowed in faux-modesty. He is so sensitive, so – visionary? Few read well and fewer write well. The poet substitutes himself for his words, which, come to think of it, may be an act of mercy. I’d rather be at home, reading poems on the page and cutting out the middleman. No tedium, no wishing I’d worn a watch.

In 2011, the late Helen Pinkerton sent me Yvor Winters Reading Poetry, the CD she and Wesley Trimpi produced for the Yvor Winters Centenary Symposium at Stanford University in 2000. Winters made the recordings in 1953 and 1958. He reads thirty-one of his own poems and others by Fulke Greville, Ben Jonson, Lord Herbert of Cherbury, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan and J.V. Cunningham – in short, the Winters Canon. To listen to the recording is to hear a grownup. Winters maintains a strong mid-tempo pace. His words are neither rushed nor labored. The enunciation is flawless. No cheap effects, over-emoting, goofy sounds, pandering to listeners. Winters sounds like a husband, father and thinker, worthy of trust. He is the messenger, not the message. Helen writes in her liner-notes: “As if in a musical performance, he riveted attention on the poem itself in its full, living reality – its audible being.”  After listening again to the CD, I reread Winters’ essay “The Audible Reading of Poetry” (The Function of Criticism: Problems and Exercises, 1957), and was impressed by the amount of space he devotes to prose:

“It is also important to learn to read prose aloud, and to hear the prose when one reads it silently. Melville, Gibbon, or Samuel Johnson about equally will be lost on us if we do not so hear it.”

Winters suggests we listen with both the “sensual ear” and the “mind’s ear.” Readers who don’t are “barbarians; literature is closed to them, in spite of the fact that they may think otherwise.” Winters’ examples of prose writers worth listening to are perfectly chosen. Here is the opening paragraph of the first sketch in Melville’s “The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles.” Read it aloud. Hear the conversational, story-telling tone and the predominantly iambic beat:

“Take five-and-twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot, imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and the vacant lot the sea, and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect of the Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles. A group rather of extinct volcanoes than of isles, looking much as the world at large might after a penal conflagration.”

As to Gibbon, he is difficult to quote briefly. Read aloud this excerpt from Vol. IV, Chap. 25 of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and enjoy the unlikely mingling of sonority and hilarity:

“A philosopher may deplore the eternal discord of the human race, but he will confess that the desire of spoil is a more rational provocation than the vanity of conquest. From the age of Constantine to that of the Plantagenets, this rapacious spirit continued to instigate the poor and hardy Caledonians: but the same people, whose generous humanity seems to inspire the songs of Ossian, was disgraced by a savage ignorance of the virtues of peace and of the laws of war. Their southern neighbours have felt, and perhaps exaggerated, the cruel depredations of the Scots and Picts: and a valiant tribe of Caledonia, the Attacotti, the enemies, and afterwards the soldiers, of Valentinian, are accused, by an eye-witness, of delighting in the taste of human flesh. When they hunted the woods for prey, it is said that they attacked the shepherd rather than his flock; and that they curiously selected the most delicate and brawny parts, both of males and females, which they prepared for their horrid repasts. If, in the neighbourhood of the commercial and literary town of Glasgow, a race of cannibals has really existed, we may contemplate, in the period of the Scottish history, the opposite extremes of savage and civilized life. Such reflections tend to enlarge the circle of our ideas: and to encourage the pleasing hope that New Zealand may produce, in some future age, the Hume of the Southern Hemisphere.”

Finally, Dr. Johnson in The Rambler #2:

“He that endeavours after fame by writing, solicits the regard of a multitude fluctuating in pleasures, or immersed in business, without time for intellectual amusements; he appeals to judges prepossessed by passions, or corrupted by prejudices, which preclude their approbation of any new performance. Some are too indolent to read any thing, till its reputation is established; others too envious to promote that fame which gives them pain by its increase. What is new is opposed, because most are unwilling to be taught; and what is known is rejected, because it is not sufficiently considered that men more frequently require to be reminded than informed. The learned are afraid to declare their opinion early, lest they should put their reputation in hazard; the ignorant always imagine themselves giving some proof of delicacy, when they refuse to be pleased: and he that finds his way to reputation through all these obstructions, must acknowledge that he is indebted to other causes besides his industry, his learning, or his wit.”

At its best (in the periodical essays and Lives of the English Poets), Johnson’s prose is a pounding sea. We stand on the shore, wondering at its power, hoping not to be swept away. Just listen to the roar.

Friday, January 19, 2018

`Chekhov Had Really Written in Yiddish'

Hyphen-mongering by readers and critics is a political, anti-literary act of laziness and myopia. We don’t read and enjoy a book because its author comes USDA-stamped “Irish-American” or “French-lesbian.” We read it and enjoy it because it’s good, to put it in the simplest terms. I’m restating what my late friend David Myers wrote more than a decade ago: “Literature is simply good writing—where `good’ has, by definition, no fixed definition.” That formulation makes some uneasy. I find it useful. We all have bookish prejudices, and I have no interest in defending or questioning mine. I’m almost immune to the charms of German literature. The only books I own written by an African writer are Confessions and The City of God. Science fiction, a species of children’s literature, leaves me cold and indifferent, and I’m too old to care. I won’t read a book because I’m told it’s good for me. Reading is not therapeutic and it’s not like eating kale. Literature is slippery and defies pre-fabricated marketing. By definition it surprises and sometimes offends. I like the spirit in which Irving Howe writes “Strangers,” an essay from 1977:

“I remember Isaac Rosenfeld, the most winning of all American Jewish writers, once explaining to me with comic solemnity that Chekhov had really written in Yiddish but Constance Garnett, trying to render him respectable, had falsified the record. Anyone with half an ear, said Rosenfeld, could catch the tunes of Yiddish sadness, absurdity, and humanism in Chekhov’s prose—and for a happy moment it almost seemed true.”

Chekhov was a Dreyfusard who championed Sholem Aleichem. As Howe notes in his essay, Jewish immigrants to America felt a solidarity with Chekhov and other non-Jewish Russian writers, though not with the “sensationalist and anti-Semite Dostoevsky.” Howe writes:

These Russians formed a moral dike guarding the immigrant Jewish intelligentsia and then their children from the waves of American sensibility and myth. Like the Yiddish culture from which we had emerged, we were internationalist in our sentiment before we were part of any nation, living in the exalted atmospheres of European letters even as we might be afraid, at home, to wander a few streets away.”

As a non-Jewish, non-Russian American, I share a similar affinity for Gogol and Sinyavsky, David Bergelson and Isaac Bashevis Singer. They are “mine,” and I don’t need anyone telling me otherwise. In 1985, Clarence Brown edited The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader, a selection ranging from Tolstoy and Chekhov to Voinovich and Sokolov. In his introduction he says provocatively and correctly: “I now look back on this banquet of words with much pleasure, which I hope nothing will prevent your sharing. These writers, after all continue in our time the tradition that has made Russian, along with English and classical Greek, one of the three supreme literatures of the world.” Nothing to argue about there, and I’m not Russian, English or Greek.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

`Lest the Jails Overflow'

Self-destruction has its charms, especially if you’re not the one doing the destructing. Let me clarify. I’m not referring to alcoholism or drug addiction, subsumed under the clinical label “substance abuse,” which evokes a vision of someone flogging an ingot of molybdenum. Exhibit A is A.J. Liebling and his lifelong over-indulgence in food. Had it stopped there, we wouldn’t be wasting our time. Food is not an inherently interesting subject. The much-ballyhooed works of M.F.K. Fisher, for instance, are almost unreadable. Food – procuring, preparing, consuming -- invites a comic treatment, and that was Liebling’s abiding gift. He is the wittiest of writers, and his masterpiece is Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1962). It may be the book I have read most often as an adult.

I’ve returned to it after rereading Joseph Epstein’s “An Older Dude” in Once More Around the Block: Familiar Essays (1987). The occasion of Epstein’s essay is his fiftieth birthday (in 1987 – earlier this month he turned eighty-one). As you would expect, his tone is weighty but light. Epstein takes his subject but not himself seriously. He is amusing but not joking: “While I remain as youthful and beautiful as always, why, I cannot help ask, have so many of my contemporaries grown to look so old?” Then he gets to the heart of it: “It is not always easy to distinguish between the love of life and the fear of death.” Which move him to think of friends who are “slowly but rather systematically eliminating life’s little physical pleasures: cutting out tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, red meat, cholesterol-laden food, all sugar. Soon their meals will be reduced to three dandelions and a nice cup of boiled water.” Such anxiety-driven behavior, Epstein says, seems like “greed for life, as opposed to love of life.” Ascetics, especially self-advertising ascetics, make me nervous, too. Enter Liebling, via Epstein:

“When I think of the distinction between love of life and the greed for duration, I think of the writer A.J. Liebling. With the aid of his fork, Liebling had early joined the ranks of the obese, an army he was never to leave.”

Liebling possessed the grace of the guiltless. He seldom seriously agonized over what he was doing to himself. Years ago, Tony Hiss told me he remembered walking as a young reporter beside Liebling, and barely having enough room on the sidewalk. Yet he was happy to be taking the budding writer to lunch. Here is where Epstein rises to the occasion:

“Doubtless he would have lived longer [Liebling died at fifty-eight] had he lived more carefully. But had he lived more carefully – eaten less, drunk less – he would not have been A.J. Liebling . . . My own preference would be to live like Liebling and last until age ninety-seven. There is a contradiction here, I realize, but then, fortunately, the law of contradiction is not enforced, lest the jails overflow.”

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

`While Someone Else is Eating'

We read an old chestnut so often we can no longer read it. Take “Musee des Beaux Arts,” written by Auden in Brussels in 1938. I first encountered it as a teenager in an Oscar Williams anthology. The poem’s conversational plainness, the way Auden illustrates the bland ubiquity of human suffering – “how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along” -- make it instantly memorable. But familiarity breeds blindness. I have just noted the date of the poem’s composition: December 1938.

Hitler has Austria and the Sudetenland. A month earlier: Kristallnacht. In the Soviet Union, the Yezhovshchina rages on (and would soon claim Yezhov). As many as 1.75 million people have died in Stalin’s Great Terror (1936-38). Some 5,200 miles to the east of Brussels, a poet is dying. Osip Mandelstam was arrested a second time in May 1938, for “counter-revolutionary activities.” On Aug. 2 he was sentenced to five years in correction camps. Half-mad, starved and sick, he dies in a transit camp near Vladivostok on Dec. 27, 1938.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

`Your Mind Knew the Intent'

The following is from an email the late Helen Pinkerton wrote to me in July 2011, shortly after I had returned to Houston. I was reading her 1987 volume Melville’s Confidence Men and American Politics in the 1850s:

“The Melville book took 10 years of my life, which I much enjoyed, traveling East to find the illustrations, and reading countless biographies of American politicians. Melville’s mind I found almost endlessly fascinating, and reading about the period made it even more so. Today, we think we have political problems. We should try dealing with an issue of the magnitude of slavery. Melville grew intellectually enormously in pondering the problem. He also grew into a philosophical pessimist about human nature and a political conservative, which the current PC Melvillians refuse to recognize.”

When she wrote this, Helen was eighty-five. Whenever she described working on a project, whether poetry or scholarship, she spoke of excitement, focus and pleasure, even when the job was difficult and protracted. Her mention of “PC Melvillians” still makes me laugh, as I’ve had run-ins with that crowd, who seem to think the whale – or was it Ahab? -- represents capitalism. If you read only one volume by Helen, make it A Journey of the Mind: Collected Poems of Helen Pinkerton 1945-2016 (Wiseblood Books, 2016). Here are the middle stanzas from “Coronach for Christopher Drummond.” Read them with Helen in mind:

“Whether Jonson’s grieving prayers,
Or Milton’s rich designs,
Or Melville’s rugged verse,
Or Winters’ densest lines,

“Your mind knew the intent,
Your voice wakened the sound—
The sleeping beauty pent
In chambers underground.”

Helen’s daughter, Erica Light, sent this announcement:

“A memorial gathering of Helen’s friends, caregivers and family will be held on Saturday, February 24, from 1:00 to 4:00pm, at the historic Holbrooke Hotel, 212 West Main Street, Grass Valley, California. All are welcome to join us in remembering Helen’s life and honoring her many contributions to the study of English literature, poetry, and of Civil War history.

“A variety of hors d’oeuvres and beverages will be shared, and Helen’s ‘well-lived’ life and her poetry will be celebrated.

“Please RSVP by Monday, February 5, by email as shown above, telephone at (530) 292-1365, or USPS at P.O. Box 2746, Grass Valley, CA  95945. Accommodations may be found at the Holbrooke Hotel,, or at the nearby Gold Miners Inn,, or Grass Valley Courtyard Suites,, both in walking distance of the Holbrooke.”

[ADDENDUM: Go here to read Helen's obituary.]

Monday, January 15, 2018

`This Is a Beautiful Day'

It always comes as a surprise to be reminded that George Keats, the poet’s younger brother, lived the last twenty-three years of his life in Louisville, Ky., operated a sawmill there, worked in property development and even served on city council. It’s like being reminded that Robert Frost, the Ur-New Englander, was born in San Francisco. George married Georgiana Wylie in May 1818 and the couple arrived in the U.S. in August. The poet was fond of his sister-in-law, and George and Georgiana were the recipients of his longest and most ebullient letters, often written over the course of several days. This week in 1820, a year before his death at age twenty-five, Keats addressed a ten-page letter to Georgiana, dated Jan. 13, 15, 17 and 28. George had returned to England in December 1819 after the death of his brother, Tom Keats. The couple had been staying in John James Audubon’s home in Henderson, Ky. Keats’ tone, as in this excerpt from Jan. 15, is gossipy and buoyant. George is still in England:  

“This is a beautiful day. I hope you will not quarrel with it if I call it an American one. The sun comes upon the snow and makes a prettier candy than we have on twelfth-night cakes. George is busy this morning in making copies of my verses. He is making one now of an `Ode to the Nightingale,’ which is like reading an account of the Black Hole at Calcutta on an iceberg.”

That is Keats the comedian. Here, two paragraphs later in the same letter, is Keats the moralist, echoing Swift:

“The more I know of men the more I know how to value entire liberality in any of them. Thank God, there are a great many who will sacrifice their worldly interest for a friend. I wish there were more who would sacrifice their passions. The worst of men are those whose self-interests are their passion; the next, those whose passions are their self-interest. Upon the whole I dislike mankind. Whatever people on the other side of the question may advance, they cannot deny that they are always surprised at hearing of a good action, and never of a bad one.”

On the cusp of his final, “posthumous” year, Keats shows he has done a lot of growing up, of necessity. Two days later, Keats enacts a comic tour-de-force that doubles as a taxonomy of human types. He writes to Georgiana of his friends James Rice Jr., John Hamilton Reynolds and Thomas Richards:   

“I know three witty people all distinct in their excellence — Rice, Reynolds, and Richards. Rice is the wisest, Reynolds the playfullest, Richards the out-o’-the-wayest. The first makes you laugh and think, the second makes you laugh and not think, the third puzzles your head. I admire the first, I enjoy the second, I stare at the third. The first is Claret, the second Ginger beer, the third Crême de Byrapymdrag. The first is inspired by Minerva, the second by Mercury, the third by Harlequin Epigram, Esq. The first is neat in his dress, the second slovenly, the third uncomfortable. The first speaks adagio, the second allegretto, the third both together. The first is Swiftean, the second Tom-Crib-ean [a reference to Thomas Moore’s Tom Crib’s Memorial to Congress, 1819], the third Shandean. And yet these three Eans are not three Eans but one Ean.”

Keats was many things, and certainly not what we were taught.