Sunday, August 30, 2015

`Richard Savage Had Nothing on Her'

“If you would have dark themes and high-flown words,
Great albatrosses drenched in sacredness,
Go read some other book; for I confess
I cannot make my verses to your taste.
And though they are not trifles made in haste,
Mine are to those such light things, little birds,
Sparrows among their kind, whose one last shift
Is shelter from the universal drift."                                                 

In a few of us, at some rare and unforeseeable point, humility and defiance merge – a point often mistaken for self-pity, knee-jerk rebelliousness or aggrieved entitlement. But some people really are different from the “universal drift,” for reasons internal and otherwise, and a few among them serve as witnesses who report back to us, the naïve and skeptical masses. Their news is not happy or hopeful but possesses the rarer virtue of clear-eyed truthfulness. The intelligence they supply is reliable.
Until now, Catherine Breese Davis (1924-2002) as a poet and woman hardly existed. The lost souls among us leave little evidence of their existence. Their lives and deaths are anonymous. Davis’ fate is described by George Eliot in the final paragraph of Middlemarch: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” The long-deferred publication by Pleiades Press of Catherine Breese Davis: On the Life & Work of an American Master (2015) gives readers a chance to appreciate a gifted poet virtually erased from the memory of readers.
Helen Pinkerton, who attended Stanford with Davis and edited her poems in an earlier unsuccessful effort to get them published, contributes an essay to the new volume, placing Davis’ poems in their poetic context: “Her best poems are in the classical plain style of the Elizabethan and Jacobean poets – Wyatt, Ralegh, Donne, and Herrick—and are further influenced by the modern American plainness of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Louise Bogan and J.V. Cunningham.” Davis’ academic pedigree is impeccable. Among her teachers were Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Cunningham, Yvor Winters and Donald Justice. Another Stanford veteran, Kenneth Fields, in “Learned Distrust,” writes of the poem quoted above, “Passerculi,” part of a sequence of epigrams titled “Insights”:
“Davis herself understood how fragile the survival of her poems might be, and she expresses this in her references to the Roman poet Catullus. In “Passerculi” (little sparrows) she at once refers to Catullus as well as the rhetorical formula of the lesser contrasted to the greater—Sappho staking her territory of amorous passion against Homeric epic warfare is one example. Davis is thinking of Catullus mourning the death of Lesbia’s sparrow, one of the little things (like all of us) destined to be lost in the obliterating underworld.”
Fields briefly chronicles Davis’ “rough life, never far from poverty.” Her father went to prison for armed robbery when she was a baby, and she never saw him again. Her mother was a textbook monster. Davis suffered a mild case of cerebral palsy, misdiagnosed as polio. When her mother discovered Davis was a lesbian, she threw her out of the house and never saw her again. Davis suffered from mental illness, alcoholism and Alzheimer’s disease. As Fields says, “She knew about loss.” Her best and probably best-known poem is “After a Time,” which begins:

“After a time, all losses are the same.
One more thing lost is one thing less to lose;
And we go stripped at last the way we came.” 

One is impressed not by the pain or even by Davis’ stoicism, but by the way in which her command of form contains the suffering and loss. This is not writing as therapy. There’s nothing “confessional” about it. Davis is an artist. She’s not competing in the crowded field of the Victim’s Marathon. Please read Catherine Breese Davis: On the Life & Work of an American Master, especially the earlier poems, for their artistry, not because Davis belongs to some demographic du jour. Fields writes: “It’s pointless to wonder what she might have been like as a writer in less straitened circumstances, but I wonder anyway. Richard Savage had nothing on her; Doctor Johnson would have loved Catherine Davis.” To my knowledge, Davis never murdered anyone. But Fields is surely right about Johnson.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

`We All Sat Composed As At a Funeral'

Inside every sane, sober and honest man is a schoolboy waiting to shout Bottom!, if not something stronger, during the sermon. This is not a defense of anti-clericalism. Rather, it describes our essentially anarchic, pre-adolescent natures. Part of us remains forever in the third grade, when every suggestive word or sound elicits a snort. By nature we are divided, and no one is perpetually grown-up and well-mannered, or even civilized. The more disciplined among us just keep it under wraps. Consider a gathering held at the home of the recently widowed Mrs. David Garrick on April 20, 1781. Among those present were Johnson, Boswell and Reynolds. Boswell, who recounts the evening in his Life, describes it as “one of the happiest days that I remember to have enjoyed in the whole course of my life.” He writes of his friend, then seventy-one and just three years from death:

“Talking of a very respectable author, he told us a curious circumstance in his life, which was, that he had married a printer's devil. REYNOLDS: `A printer's devil, Sir! Why, I thought a printer's devil was a creature with a black face and in rags.’ JOHNSON: `Yes, Sir. But I suppose, he had her face washed, and put clean clothes on her. (Then looking very serious, and very earnest.) And she did not disgrace him; ­­ the woman had a bottom of good sense.’”

You can see where this is going. Boswell, who sought treatment for gonorrhea at least nineteen times, continues:

“The word bottom thus introduced, was so ludicrous when contrasted with his gravity, that most of us could not forbear tittering and laughing. His pride could not bear that any expression of his should excite ridicule when he did not intend it; he glanced sternly around, and called out in a strong tone, `Where's the merriment?’ Then collecting himself and looking aweful [sic], to make us feel how he could impose restraint, and as it were searching his mind for a still more ludicrous word, he slowly pronounced, `I say the woman was fundamentally sensible;’ as if he had said, hear this now, and laugh if you dare. We all sat composed as at a funeral.”

I admire Johnson’s sangfroid, the way he acknowledges the giggle-provoking thing he said by undercutting it with irony, and thus preserving his dignity. Boswell’s final comment – “We all sat composed as at a funeral” – is priceless. It reminds me of something Charles Lamb wrote in a letter in 1815 to Robert Southey: “I was at Hazlitt’s marriage, and had like to have been turned out several times during the ceremony. Anything awful makes me laugh. I misbehaved once at a funeral.”

Friday, August 28, 2015

`The Laws of the Universe Should Be Repealed'

I was talking with a reporter I worked with at a newspaper in Indiana more than thirty years ago. Time has soothed old grudges and gripes, and we laughed about them. Like most reporters, we knew editors were sub-literate cretins. We were young and certain of our righteous cause. Both of us still write for a living, but not for newspapers, and we seem to have cooled off significantly. One memory was different, more sobering, and we remembered it identically.

One of the guys on the production side – not a reporter or editor – also ran a dairy farm. I didn’t know him well but our relations were cordial. I knew he had a wife and young children. One day on the farm, his wife was backing up a tractor and ran over one of their boys, killing him instantly. He was, as I remember, four or five years old. Most of the newspaper staff attended the memorial service. The little boy was laid out in formal clothes, in an open casket, with his right hand holding a toy tractor. That’s when I started crying. Everyone wept. It remains the most emotionally impossible experience of my life, and now I have three sons of my own. Those parents, especially the wife, must wake to a memory of that pain every morning. On this date, Aug. 28, in 1750, Dr. Johnson writes in The Rambler #47:

“For sorrow there is no remedy provided by nature; it is often occasioned by accidents irreparable, and dwells upon objects that have lost or changed their existence; it requires what it cannot hope, that the laws of the universe should be repealed; that the dead should return, or the past should be recalled.”

Johnson was married when he wrote these words. Two years later, Elizabeth “Tetty” Johnson would die at age sixty-three. On first meeting Johnson she had told her daughter Lucy: “That is the most sensible man I ever met.”

Thursday, August 27, 2015

`Among the Headstones of the Undeceived'

To his poem “James Daniel Brock at Cold Harbor: 3 June 1864” (Voices Bright Flags, Waywiser, 2014), Geoffrey Brock attaches an epigraph borrowed from Herman Melville: “What like a bullet can undeceive!” The line is taken from “Shiloh: A Requiem (April, 1862)” (Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, 1866). Brock’s poem is part of a suite of poems titled “Staring Back at Us (A Gallery),” six of which relate to the Civil War. Out of context, Melville’s parenthetically shrouded line sounds modern to modern ears, more like a disillusioned burst from the Western Front half a century later. Shiloh was the costliest battle of the war up to that time, with combined casualties exceeding 23,700 in two days of fighting. Shiloh’s carnage was often noted in memoirs of the war. Major Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union troops, writes in Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (1885):

“Shiloh was the severest battle fought at the West during the war, and but few in the East equaled it for hard, determined fighting. I saw an open field, in our possession on the second day, over which the Confederates had made repeated charges the day before, so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping on dead bodies, without a foot touching the ground.”

A similar image of Shiloh after the battle comes from U.S. Lt. John T. Bell’s Tramps and Triumphs of the Second Infantry, Briefly Sketched (1886): “In places dead men lay so closely that a person could walk over two acres of ground and not step off the bodies.” And this is from A Boy at Shiloh (1896) by U.S. Col. John A. Cockerill: “The blue and gray were mingled together. This peculiarity I observed all over the field. It was no uncommon thing to see the bodies of Federal and Confederate side by side, as though they had bled to death while trying to aid each other.”

In his notes to the poem, Brock says he drew details from Horace Porter’s Campaigning with Grant (1897). More than 18,000 casualties were suffered at Cold Harbor. Brock writes of the battle that took his “grandfather’s grandfather[’s]” life:

“A few more days, he might have stuffed his nostrils
(many survivors did) with crushed green leaves
as the entrenched living, awaiting further orders,
stared at each other across ripe fields of dead.”

Brock adds a bracketed, first-person coda that ends with an echo of the epigraph from Melville:

“[Six years it took me to make the time to find
the Confederate cemetery in Fayetteville;
it’s a quarter mile from my house in the crow’s mind,
but he flies over a private, wooded hill.

“On foot, it's down, back up, around a bend
atop a steep road marked (oh please) DEAD END.
And why come now, I wondered, as I weaved
among the headstones of the undeceived.]”

The final poem in the “Staring Back at Us” sequence is “Grant on His Deathbed: 1885,” a dramatic monologue by the retired general and president, with details taken from Grant’s Personal Memoirs. Here is the first stanza:

“Have never dwelt on errors. On omissions.
Cold Harbor—order for that last assault.
The field of wounded staring back at us.
At me. Helplessly dying. Dreams’ projections.”

For this poem, Brock takes his epigraph from Grant’s Memoirs: “Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions.”

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

`No Great Relish for Mirth'

In June 1950, Malcolm Muggeridge visited Max Beerbohm at Rapallo. The great essayist was then seventy-seven years old. In Like It Was: The Diaries of Malcolm Muggeridge (1981) he writes of Beerbohm: “His face very old, somehow shaggy, gentle, quite sad; affectionate, gentle, sad eyes; head bald, very browned from the sun. Speaks in a slightly tremulous way, but with perfect lucidity. No clouding of his mind, but a wearying, a slow fading out.” Muggeridge tells us they spoke of interior decorators, the painter John Churchill and newspapers. Beerbohm said he first read the headlines, and if the news was bad he moved on to another story. Muggeridge writes:

“I heartily agreed, and pointed out that [Samuel] Johnson had taken this view. He was glad to know it was Johnson who, he said, was one of the few cases of man of powerful intellect who was also sensible. So many others, he had found, were brilliant, learned, etc., but essentially silly in their attitude to life. In illustration of his point, I quoted Johnson’s remark: `Why is it that the loudest whelps for liberty come from the drivers of slaves?’”

The most rankling thing we can say about intellectuals, the most earnest of people, is that they are silly. Muggeridge, in fact, is often quite silly and duplicitous, though seldom stupid. In a diary entry from 1960, four years after Beerbohm’s death, Muggeridge refers to him as a “sweet, indolent old fraud.” Beerbohm the master ironist was the least fraudulent of writers and men. His love for Johnson was heartfelt. In “London Revisited,” a radio broadcast from 1935, Beerbohm said: “Well, Dr. Johnson had a way of being right. But he had a way of being wrong too—otherwise we shouldn't love him so much.” And I’ve written before about Beerbohm’s “A Clergyman,” his recasting of a well-known incident recounted by Boswell. At least on occasion, Muggeridge shared Beerbohm’s appraisal of Johnson. In a 1957 diary entry, he describes a visit to a Johnson Society meeting at Gough House:

“Somehow very moved to be sitting there thinking about Johnson in very room in which he’d produced the dictionary. Of all Englishmen he appeals to me most—the best, the greatest. Taken with quotation referring to his publisher--`Cave has no relish for humour, but he can bear it.’ Felt this referred to readers of Punch.”

The line Muggeridge misquotes actually was written by Boswell, though perhaps in paraphrase of Johnson: “Cave had no great relish for mirth; but he could bear it . . .” I find a diary entry from 1962 quite moving, though not well written: “Woke up with that feeling of being a castaway which Cowper so exquisitely expressed in his verse. The night still in my head; a sense of being lost and alone in an inhospitable universe. No refreshment from the troubled night hours. Then started reading the Pensées (Pascal), and, miraculously, the clouds all cleared away and my fears dissolved. Such is the power, across three hundred years, of one clear, true mind on another which, however inadequately, is striving after clarity and truth . . . The communion with Pascal was greater than I have ever felt on any previous occasion in reading, or dwelling upon those who went before.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

`Remoteness Can Be Confused with Imperviousness'

“Autobiography is not in my line and my life has to the outside eye been uneventful.”

The words are Ivy Compton-Burnett’s as quoted by Frank Baldanza on the first page of the monograph he devoted to the English novelist and published in the Twayne Author Series in 1964. Six years later I arrived as an immature and bookishly cloistered freshman at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where Baldanza had been teaching in the English department since 1957. People I trusted spoke highly of him and suggested I enroll in one of his classes. As a sophomore I signed up for Baldanza’s “Modern Japanese Novel,” an unlikely subject about which I knew nothing, but thanks to the class I came to admire Natsume Sōseki and detest Yukio Mishima.

Baldanza wore a beautifully tailored suit and tie to class, which made him an anachronism. His shoes gleamed, his silver hair was razor-cut and he wore gold-framed glasses. He was perhaps the first man I ever met who might fairly be described as “dapper.” We assumed he was gay but that wasn’t a subject anyone dreamed of investigating forty-five years ago. While I was still a junior, Baldanza permitted me to enroll in his graduate seminar devoted to James Joyce. Twice a week we met in a library conference room, six or seven students and the professor, and the only work by Joyce we did not read in its entirety, only in excerpts, was Finnegans Wake. The most precious book I own is the Random House Ulysses I annotated for the class. Unlike the other students I had already read the novel while in high school, and had some grasp of its scheme. I concentrated on identifying allusions, and had to tape additional pages into the volume to accommodate my notes. It was the most demanding (even more than organic chemistry) and rewarding (even more than “Eighteen-Century British Novel”) experience I had at the university.

I remember trying to thank Baldanza for the privilege of working with him, but he seemed uninterested in (or made uncomfortable by) gratitude. In appearance and manner he was vain and almost aristocratic in bearing, but seemingly indifferent to praise (at least from a self-conscious undergraduate). While looking for something else in the library this week I came upon his Compton-Burnett volume. I don’t think I was previously aware of it, or of the book he devoted to Iris Murdoch and published with Twayne in 1974. That would have been the last year I saw or spoke with him. I seem seldom to have a sense of what intersections with other lives will prove memorable. I looked him up online and discovered he had died more than thirty years ago of an apparent heart attack. He was sixty, two years younger than I am today. Almost all of the information in the obituary is new to me. Here are the final sentences in his survey of Compton-Burnett (a writer I admire very much but never discussed, as best I remember, with Baldanza):

“She is herself as removed from the ephemeral literary preoccupations of her day as the Gothic sculpture on a cathedral overlooking a busy thoroughfare. While this remoteness can be confused with imperviousness to time, P.H. Newby’s assertion that she is the only writer since Joyce who is likely to be read one hundred years from now is as safe a statement as any contemporary could risk.”

Monday, August 24, 2015

`His Psychological Weather'

“Sensibility” has been showing up a lot lately. This probably has something to do with getting older. Young people have no sensibility, or rather they try on multiple sensibilities, like Halloween costumes, until they find one that fits pretty well and spend the rest of their lives having it tailored. Sensibility is one’s stance before the world. It’s not a single capacity but a mingling of many; most obviously, the emotional and intellectual. Some of us are by nature observers or spectators; others, participants seldom content merely to watch. Some of us filter experience through multiple lenses of books, friends and experience; others proceed as though each event were unprecedented, always novel. None of these alternatives is necessarily right or wrong, and few of us possess such qualities in their undiluted form. Sensibility is never static and no one is ever entirely himself. Our natures are contradictory, and most of us get along just fine with that reality. On Sunday the poet Norm Sibum wrote to me:                                                   

“I was thinking that what I got from [Gilbert] Highet wasn’t literary knowledge so much as sensibility, or a temper of mind that knows what or what not to do with knowledge. There are plenty of people out there who `know’ stuff, but there isn’t much sensibility, and I don’t mean sensibility in some stuffy, silly ass guise. Sometimes I wonder if sensibility is something one is born with rather than taught. Having said that, I’m a self-proclaimed barbarian inasmuch as I'm very wary of the literary and literariness.” 

I value and enjoy literary knowledge, but it’s never an end in itself. I too am wary of literariness when it’s just another costume, not a way of trying to understand the world. I like people who know things and like to share them, not as a form of braggadocio but as a collection of shiny things brought back to the nest. Norm may be right. Perhaps our sensibility, or at least its schematic diagram, is with us from birth. It is our daimon. Guy Davenport says in his introduction to Herakleitos and Diogenes (1979): 

“In Fragment 69 [in Heraclitus] I have departed from literalness and accepted the elegant paraphrase of Novalis, `Character is fate.’ The Greek says that ethos is man’s daimon: the moral climate of a man’s cultural complex (strictly, his psychological weather) is what we mean when we say daimon, or guardian angel. As the daimons inspire and guide, character is the cooperation between psyche and daimon. The daimon has foresight, the psyche is blind and timebound. A thousand things happen to us daily which we sidestep or do not even notice. We follow the events which we are characteristically predisposed to cooperate with, designing what happens to us: character is fate.” 

[Today is a happy one for literature. Born on Aug. 24 are Robert Herrick, 1591; Max Beerbohm, 1872; and Jorge Luis Borges, 1899. Imagine a sensibility informed by their work and lives.]