Monday, November 30, 2015

`No Want of Playthings and Avocations'

I listened with amusement as a youngish woman, healthy and prosperous judging from appearances, proudly complained about the tedium of her life. This was happening two days after Thanksgiving Day. Work was boring, her boyfriend and television were boring, Houston was boring and this damned party was the most boring in human history. She was an aficionado of life’s humdrum sameness, and without knowing it, I’m certain, Life, friends, is boring.echoed Henry in Dream Song #14: “Life, friends, is boring.” When young and drinking, this line was my mantra. Four lines later, Henry quotes his mother (whom we can reasonably assume is the formidable Mrs. Berryman): “`Ever to confess you’re bored / means you have no / Inner Resources.’” What a bourgeois drag, I thought. Too conventional to savor life’s tedium. Now I’m with Mom. In a letter to his friend the Rev. John Newton, on this date, Nov. 30, in 1783, William Cowper writes: “Let our station be as retired as it may, there is no want of playthings and avocations, nor much need to seek them, in this world of ours.” 

At age fifty-seven, after multiple suicide attempts and confinements, in semi-retirement at Olney but Buried above ground.still feeling himself “Buried above ground,” Cowper had plenty of excuses to complain of boredom and suffering.  Yet much of the rest of the letter is a burlesque of life in the “Antediluvian world,” pre-ark. Cowper is one of literature’s virtuoso riff-writers, starting with a theme and improvising a vivacissimo set piece. One understands the link of madness to comedy: 

“I will suppose myself born a thousand years before Noah was born or thought of. I rise with the sun; I worship; I prepare my breakfast; I swallow a bucket of goats’ milk, and a dozen good sizeable cakes. I fasten a new string to my bow, and my youngest boy, a lad of about thirty years of age, having played with my arrows till he has stripped off all the feathers, I find myself obliged to repair them. The morning is thus spent in preparing for the chace [sic], and it is become necessary that I should dine.” 

Cowper was a human rarity, impervious to boredom, thoroughly endowed with Inner Resources.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

`A Blissful Eternity Would Not Suffice'

Robert Melançon’s For as Far as the Eye Can See (trans. Judith Cowan, Biblioasis, 2013) is a collection of 144 twelve-line almost-sonnets, meditative in tone, somber celebrations of appearances and their depths. More than once I thought of Ahab’s boast to Starbuck – “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks” – but in a minor key and without Ahab’s mad wish to the “smash the mask.” Melançon savors the real. The book’s French title, more evocative than the English, is Le Parades des Apparences: essai de poèmes réalistes (2004). Here is Cowan’s rendering of 36: 

“It all has to fit into twelve lines—a lesser sonnet—
all that’s depicted at every instant inside the cave
dug out by Plato for the chaining up of those 

“whom he deemed to be dupes of illusion. But in his
system’s sphere, the soul struggling to be free
had to swap for a stale whiteness, all pleasing things: 

“these wind-harrowed trees, the play of sun and shadow,
that pink-and-brown bird alighting on a wire.
 So I shall settle for the paradise of what I see: 

“I trace this rectangle of twelve lines and
make of it a window through which to observe
all that appears, and that happens once only.” 

The French title alerts us to the presence in this fallen world of “paradise,” which for Melançon is neither Eden nor a hedonist’s delight. His stance before creation is contemplative and sometimes worshipful. Often the speaker in his poems is seated at a window, admiring the view, weighing its implications. In 36, the poem itself is a window “through which to observe / all that appears.” Navel-gazers and professional malcontents need not apply. Borges, who observed that “Paradise is a library, not a garden,” shows up in Sonnet 85, in which Melançon renders a booklover’s paradise: 

“Here on this side are the call letters PA
for Latin, and over their the letters PQ
for Romance literature, which is to say                                 

“for paradise: so much prose and poetry
that a blissful eternity would not suffice
for us to read it all, from Lucretius and Horace 

“to Saint-Denys Garneau, Borges and Montale,
from Aulus Gellius to Joubert, to Cioran, to Léautaud.
One could just as well say Seneca, and Ponge, and Leopardi, 

“Petrarch, Pessoa, Montaigne . . . one recites these names
And those of Sbarbaro, Erasmus, or Martineau, giddy
At having inhaled the inexhaustible catalogue.” 

Most academic libraries use the Library of Congress call letters, not the Dewey Decimal System. The PA section includes Greek and Roman language and literature; PQ, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. 85 will elicit two possible reactions from readers: They will object to an eternity of tedium, or they will intuitively understand it and wish they could dwell in such heavenly fields. I’m grateful that on Melançon’s honor roll of authors are several who are most important to me. The poem reminded me of a passage by a writer utterly unlike Melançon, Sir John Betjeman, who I am reading attentively for the first time. In his blank-verse autobiography, Summoned by Bells (1960), he includes a reader’s reverie: 

“Untidy bookshops gave me such delight.
It was the smell of books, the plates in them,
Tooled leather, marbled paper, gilded edge,
The armorial book-plate of some country squire,
From whose tall library windows spread his park
On which this polished spine may once have looked,
From whose twin candlesticks may once have shone
Soft beams upon the spacious title-page.”

Saturday, November 28, 2015

`Private Islands of Schizophrenic Bliss'

“Were it possible to escape from our duties to God and our neighbor into our private islands of schizophrenic bliss, very few of us, I fancy, would take with us any of the great works of world literature. Our libraries would consist, for the most part, of those books which, read in childhood, formed our personal vision of the public world. To these tattered, dog-eared volumes, however, most of us have in the course of our lives added one or two extra treasures.” 

Auden’s observation, I suspect, is intended more as provocation than critical diktat, but he’s more than half correct. The books that attract us when we are young, in particular those titles nominally intended for grownups, suggest our future bent as readers (and, perhaps, writers). This I’ve observed in my life and the lives of my three sons. The adult titles I read early I continue to read in some form – the Bible, Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, biographies and stacks of field guides. From this I would deduce that as a boy I liked good stories and compilations of hard information, which remains true to this day. The passage quoted above is from Auden’s introduction to Slick but Not Streamlined: Poems and Short Pieces (Doubleday & Co., 1947), John Betjeman’s first book published in the United States. That same year, Auden dedicated The Age of Anxiety to Betjeman, a poet he admired extravagantly. Auden continues: 

“In my case Mr. Betjeman’s work belongs—so do the novels of Ronald Firbank and the Li’l Abner cartoons—to this tiny group of later additions to my original nursery library: he is privileged to stand beside Icelandic Legends, Machinery for Metalliferous Mines, Eric or Little by Little, Lead and Zinc Ores of Northumberland and Alston Moor (Stanley Smith, M.A., D.Sc. H. M. Stationery Office. 3s6d net), Struwelpeter, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (the 1869 edition), The Edinburgh School of Surgery, Hymns Ancient and Modern (with tunes), and Dangers to Health, a Victorian treatise on plumbing with colored plates, which, incidentally, I lent to Mr. Betjeman twelve years ago and he has not yet returned."
This is Auden in High Camp mode (Firbank!), exuding a joyous mock-pedantry, and yet giving us an autobiography in miniature. His father was a physician, and Auden remained interested in medicine throughout his life. Hededicated his own The Age of Anxiety to his fellow poet. was born in York but with his family moved to Harborne, Birmingham, as an infant. As a child he was fascinated by the limestone landscape of the moors and the declining lead mines of the North. One of his brothers became a geologist, and Auden’s poetry is studded with geological, mining and industrial references. Among his finest poems is “In Praise of Limestone.” In Forewords and Afterwords, his 1973 collections of essays and reviews, Auden writes: “I spent a great many of my waking hours in the construction and elaboration of a private sacred world, the basic elements of which were a landscape, northern and limestone, and an industry, lead mining.” His biographer Humphrey Carpenter writes:

“He took his landscape seriously, and asked his mother and other adults to procure for him textbooks with titles such as Machinery for Metalliferous Mines, maps, guidebooks, and photographs; and he persuaded them to take him down a real mine if ever there was a chance. He especially relished the technical vocabulary of mining, the names of mines and of the veins found in them, and the geological terms relating to mining.”

The interest in lead mining reveals something about Auden’s formative landscape, and also suggests a quality I value in any writer – scrupulous attention paid to the details of the real world. In A Certain World: A Commonplace Book (1970), Auden includes such geological headings as “Alps, The,” “Climber, An Amateur,” “Climber, A Professional,” “Eruptions,” “Landscape: Basalt” and “Landscape: Limestone.” In the poem “Letter to Lord Byron,” he writes:

“Tramlines and slagheaps, pieces of machinery,
That was, and still is, my ideal scenery.”

Auden’s choice of headings for his commonplace book is vast and varied – “Anesthesia,” “Conception, The Immaculate,” “Homer and Seeing,” “Inverted Commas, Transformation by,” “Kilns,” “Madness,” “World, End of the” -- and suggests a joyous celebration of the world’s bounty. Marianne Moore wrote of Auden: “He is a notable instance of the poet whose scientific predilections do not make him less than a poet – who says to himself, I must know.” Edward Mendelson called Auden the first poet to feel at home in the 20th century. It’s quintessentially modern to embrace the outmoded, fragmented and abandoned, and to feel nostalgia for what is no longer modern, for “Tramlines and slagheaps.” In “Epithalamium,” written in 1965 for the wedding of his niece, Auden again indulges his breadth of interests, including the geological and biological:

“For we’re better built to last
than tigers, our skins
don’t leak like the ciliates’,
our ears can detect
quarter-tones, even our most
myopic have good enough
vision for courtship

“and how uncanny it is
we’re here to say so,
that life should have got to us
up through the City’s
destruction layers after
surviving the inhuman
Permian purges.”

In his foreword to A Certain World, after derogating literary biographies, Auden admits his commonplace book is “a sort of autobiography” and, in an interesting astronomical and geological metaphor, “a map of my planet” – presumably, his sensibility, his life. Around the same time, in August 1969, Auden was writing “Moon Landing,” about the Apollo 11 mission. It’s not a celebration of the voyage of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins:

“Homer’s heroes were certainly no braver
than our Trio, but more fortunate: Hector
was excused the insult of having
his valor covered by television.”

But it is, four years before his death, another Auden affirmation of poetry and its consolations:

“Our apparatniks will continue making
the usual squalid mess called History:
all we can pray for is that artists,
chefs and saints may still appear to blithe it.”

Friday, November 27, 2015

`A Nation Defined by and Consisting of Poets'

Bill Brandt (1904-1983) was a German-born English photographer who documented his adopted home for more than half a century. He was prolific, and specialized in photographing working-class subjects and nudes, but the volume that occupies me is Literary Britain (Cassell and Company, 1951). From the title I assumed it would contain photographs of mid-century writers, but few people of any era or occupation show up in Brandt’s pictures. Rather, he most often shoots building or landscapes associated with England’s great writers, starting with Chaucer and Langland, and running through W.H. Hudson, Rupert Brooke and Shaw, or with their work. The photos are black and white, and often heavily shadowed. The mood is elegiac and only indirectly celebrative. Brandt seems to be saying, “Look at what we once had.” For Kipling he photographs a darkened section of Hadrian’s Wall, little more than a long stretch of rubble. Accompanying the picture is an excerpt from Puck of Pook’s Hill, part of which reads: 

“A little curtain wall, no higher than a man’s neck, runs along the top of the thick wall, so that from a distance you see the helmets of the sentries sliding back and forth like beads. Thirty feet high is the Wall, and on the Picts’ side, the North, is a ditch, strewn with blades of old swords and spear-heads set in wood, and tyres of wheels joined by chains.” 

It’s typical of Kipling that he writes of the distant past in the present tense, an echo of Brandt’s photographic method. The Picts are an ancient pre-Celtic people who lived in what is now Scotland. The Romans first noted them in 297 A.D., when they and the Irish attacked Hadrian’s Wall, begun in 122 A.D. For Thomas Hardy, Brandt photographs cows grazing among the stones, standing and fallen, of Stonehenge, accompanied by a passage from Tess of the D’Urbervilles: 

“The band of silver paleness along the east horizon made even the distant parts of the Great Plain appear dark and near; and the whole enormous landscape bore that impress of reserve, taciturnity and hesitation which is usual just before day. The eastward pillars and their architraves stood up blackly against the light, and the great flame-shaped Sun stone beyond them.” 

One of the most striking of Brandt’s photographs, devoted to the Brontës, shows the churchyard at Haworth. In the background, obscured by trees, is the church and rectory, and in the foreground, as close as tiles on a floor, are horizontal grave stones. All are heavily inscribed but illegible in the photo. On the adjoining page is an excerpt from a letter Charlotte Brontë wrote to Ellen Nussey: 

“There have I sat on the low bedstead, my mind fixed on the window through which appeared no other landscape than a monotonous stretch of moorland, a grey church-tower rising from the centre of a church-yard so filled with graves that the rank weeds and coarse grass scarce had room to shoot up between the monuments.” 

The only conspicuous absences I note in Brandt’s pantheon are Defoe, Gibbon, Sterne, Hazlitt, Conrad and Beerbohm.  The one entry that moved me to reread the complete work it’s taken from accompanies a photograph of the old rectory at Somersby, where Tennyson was born in 1809. The passage is drawn from In Memoriam: CII. Here is the final stanza: 

“I turn to go: my feet are set
To leave the pleasant fields and farms;
They mix in one another's arms
To one pure image of regret.”

Brandt’s book of photographs confirms my sense that England, for civilized men and woman, for those who cherish civilized virtues, is home. No other nation has spawned so much literary genius across such a span of centuries. Bryan Appleyard said as much several years ago in Poetry and the English Imagination”: 

“Poetry has no serious contenders as the English national art. Ah, it is often said, but Shakespeare wrote plays. And so he did. But consider these plays. Hamlet is a weird drama made magnificent by a torrent of peerless poetry, and I have always thought of it as a long poem whose cosmic structure seems to pivot on the words `We defy augury’. Shakespeare is the greatest playwright on earth, but he is heaven’s poet. And the list of his poet-compatriots – Chaucer, Browning, Dryden, Wordsworth, Clare, Donne, Auden, Tennyson, Keats, Pope, Herbert, etc. etc. – closes the case. We are a nation defined by and consisting of poets. To deny this is to deny England.”

Thursday, November 26, 2015

`One Never Writes Alone'

Norm Sibum suggested I read Montreal Before Spring (trans. Donald McGrath, Biblioasis, 2015) by the Quebec francophone poet Robert Melançon (b. 1947), whose voice is quiet, companionable and elegiac. He originally published L’Avant-printemps à Montréal in 1994. McGrath translates the revised edition published this year by Éditions du Noroît of Montreal. Norm told me: “It is worthy of attention.” Seldom have poems in translation so quickly won me over. Melançon addresses the reader like a trusted friend, without flattery. In the final lines of the book’s final poem, “Leave-Taking,” he writes:

“If you in turn have recognized yourself,
friend unknown to me, in a single verse,
my efforts were not wasted. Otherwise,
forget these pages that are nothing to you.” 

Melançon is a grateful poet, freely acknowledging his debts to precursors. More than most writers today, he recognizes himself as working in a literary tradition or, rather, traditions. Melançon draws generously on French- and English-language (and Spanish, and Greek) forebears and contemporaries, and is free of Canadian clannishness. In the poem quoted above, he includes a moving passage about his poetic debts: 

“One never writes alone. I’ve borrowed
from Baudelaire, Elizabeth Bishop,
from Borges, Cavafy and du Bellay,
from Saint-Denys Garneau, from Herrick, Grey [Thomas Gray?],
Johnston, Larkin, Jean-Aubert Loranger,
from Robert Marteau, Malherbe and Petrarch,
Jacques Réda, Virgil and Théophile,
And from others, too, whom I don’t forget,
Friends known and unknown, close and distant,
In whom I came to know myself while seeking
What meaning this adventure might assume,
This longing to persist in one’s being, which has
No explanation apart from the desire
To not wait quietly and leave
This dark world without uttering a peep.” 

With “One never writes alone,” Melançon brushes aside “Make-it-new” fetishism, the modern obsession with originality. A writer who repudiates the past, the lessons of those who honored the tradition before him, is the truest provincial. “Letter to George Johnston,” addressed to the English-language Canadian poet (1913-2004), is a fan letter to a friend and another example of Melançon’s solidarity with other “worthy” friends and fellow-poets. He apologizes for the quality of his English, asks for forgiveness from “the shades of Addison and Thoreau,” while trying to translate Johnston’s poems into French. To Johnston, “in whom Langland and Herrick live again,” he says: 

“I’m writing to tell you how much I admire
Your poetry, how fond I am of you,
In a letter in verse, in the manner
Of Pope, Boileau and du Bellay.” 

Poets are a jealous, inbred bunch, and any sign of generosity and collegiality deserves commendation. To use a word perhaps irredeemably debased in recent years, Melançon carries on a conversation with poets, poetry, Montreal, French and English, and most commendably with readers. In “The Reader,” Melançon writes of a woodcut (probably this one) by Félix Edouard Vallotton (1865-1925), the French-Swiss artist. The poem concludes: 

“The books alone emerge
out of the blackness poured
from a Japanese printmaker’s inkstand.
The man’s hand pulls out the book
In which he’ll soon lose himself
In the warmth of his lamp, the silence.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

`I Would Rattle His Pedestal'

“Decided to give William Carlos Williams one more chance out of simple Christian charity. Reread half a dozen of his doctor stories, and no, I can live very well without W.C.W. They are slapdash and carelessly wrought. I would rattle his pedestal.”

I would as well. Most writers today are overrated but few as extravagantly so as Williams. He reminds me of the musical illiterate who sits at the keyboard plinking, without a thought for others in the room. His influence has inspired thousands of tin ears to imitate his anorexic lines in poems and prose.

For me, the sentiment quoted above reads like an echo of a twenty-three-year-old conversation. It comes from Diary (Yale University Press, 2011) by Richard Selzer, the retired surgeon and professor at Yale. In 1992, I interviewed him by telephone when he published a memoir, Down from Troy: A Doctor Comes of Age. Troy, N.Y., where Selzer was born in 1928, is just up the Hudson River from Albany. I worked as a reporter for that city’s newspaper, and read the book as local history. Selzer’s father was a general practitioner in Troy. The only thing I remember from the memoir is Selzer’s description of the contents of the senior Dr. Selzer’s medical bag: worthless. The effectiveness of medical science in the first half of the twentieth century was more wishful than real.

A few weeks later, Selzer came to a small town outside Troy to give a reading from his new book. I got there early and we took a walk. I brought up the topic of doctor-writers – Keats, Sir William Osler, Chekhov, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Walker Percy – and I recall two of his judgments. In brief: Sir Thomas Browne, good. William Carlos Williams, bad. At least on this matter we were copasetic.

I’m skimming Selzer’s Diary. Unless one is already smitten with the author, one reads diaries, journals and collections of letters in search of small dazzlements or points of irritation. With a middling writer, expectations are low. Selzer’s mind and prose are not that interesting, and like most published diaries, his is a vanity project. He is a little too impressed with his own insights, but does tell a good story about surgically removing Robert Penn Warren’s gallbladder and a stone from his bile duct in 1954.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

`Discoveries that Demand Expression'

The only thing better than a prolific good writer, is a costive bad one. We should count our blessings for every time Norman Mailer didn’t publish a book. On the other hand, Evelyn Waugh turned out peerless prose at an industrial clip. One could easily spend a month reading nothing but Waugh without fear of the supply running dry. My current Waugh-binge has included Decline and Fall, Scoop, Put Out More Flags, his life of Ronald Knox and occasional dips into Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh. That last collection, in which Waugh the novelist is joined by Waugh the scrambling freelance journalist and reviewer, reacquainted me with “Literary Style in England and America,” an essay he published in Books on Trial in 1955:

“Literature is the right use of language irrespective of the subject or reason of the utterance. A political speech may be, and sometimes is, literature; a sonnet to the moon may be, and often is, trash. Style is what distinguishes literature from trash.”

Waugh is no Yellow Book aesthete. He thought James Joyce was insane, and in “Literary Style” says the Irishman was “possessed by style. His later work lost all faculty of communication, so intimate, allusive and idiosyncratic did it become, so obsessed by euphony and nuance” – as good an encapsulation of Finnegans Wake as I know. In contrast to the ingrown mutations of late Joyce, Waugh says the “necessary elements of style are lucidity, elegance, individuality; these three qualities combine to form a preservative which ensures the nearest approximation to permanence in the fugitive art of letters.”

Lucidity in Waugh’s estimation doesn’t mean Dick-and-Jane flatness. Several years ago I tried to read a novel by the noir cult-favorite David Goodis. Every sentence seemed stamped out with the same subject-verb-object cookie cutter. Goodis plodded along in four-four like a drummer on the nod. Was he intelligible? Sure, but so is the phone book. Waugh clarifies:

“Henry James is the most lucid of writers, but not the simplest. The simplest statements in law and philosophy are usually those which, in application, require the greatest weight of commentary and provoke the longest debate. A great deal of what is most worth saying must always remain unintelligible to most readers. The test of lucidity is whether the statement can be read as meaning anything other than what it intends.”

Elegance has a dubious reputation among readers and critics. The just-the-facts crowd deems elegant writing effete, elitist and probably intended to conceal its absence of substance. Not Waugh:

“Elegance is the quality in a work of art which imparts direct pleasure; again not universal pleasure. There is a huge, envious world to whom elegance is positively offensive. English is incomparably the richest of languages, dead or living. One can devote one’s life to learning it and die without achieving mastery. No two words are identical in meaning, sound and connotation. The majority of English speakers muddle through with a minute vocabulary.”

About individuality, the third of his prerequisites for true style, Waugh is succinct: “It is the hand-writing, the tone of voice, that makes a work recognizable as being by a particular artist.” Most of Waugh’s prose readily meets that criterion. “Style,” he says, “is what makes a work memorable and unmistakable.” He cites Max Beerbohm and Ronald Knox as exemplars of style, saying, “[Knox’s] Enthusiasm should be recognized as the greatest work of literary art of the century,” a sentiment I wouldn’t get into a fight over. As to novelists with “intensely personal and beautiful styles,” Waugh names Anthony Powell, Graham Greene, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Henry Green. For some reason, while I admire and enjoy the others, I’ve always found Greene almost unreadable. Waugh concludes his essay like this, probably writing in an autobiographical mode:

“In youth high spirits carry one over a book or two. The world is full of discoveries that demand expression. Later a writer must face the choice of becoming an artist or a prophet. He can shut himself up at his desk and selfishly seek pleasure in the perfecting of his own skill or he can pace about, dictating dooms and exhortations on the topics of the day. The recluse at the desk has a bare chance of giving abiding pleasure to others; the publicist has none at all.”