Saturday, December 03, 2016

`Adscititious Excellence'

A word that stopped and charmed me: adscititious. I recognized it as rooted in Latin but that, and its context in The Rambler #179, published on this date, Dec. 3, in 1751, were of little help as to its meaning. Here’s the paragraph by Johnson in question:

“It seems therefore to be determined by the general suffrage of mankind, that he who decks himself in adscititious qualities rather purposes to command applause than impart pleasure: and he is therefore treated as a man who, by an unreasonable ambition, usurps the place in society to which he has no right. Praise is seldom paid with willingness even to incontestable merit, and it can be no wonder that he who calls for it without desert is repulsed with universal indignation.”

And here is the OED: “Forming an addition or supplement; not integral.” In other words, inessential, added-on, superfluous -- not a word one would use to characterize Johnson, whose life, for reasons both philosophical and financial, was pared to the elemental. The word reminds us of blather and bombast in politics, gingerbread in architecture, accessorizing in fashion, purple in prose, and we’re back to Johnson’s recurrent theme, vanity. In his own Dictionary, he gives the following definition: “that which is taken in to complete something else, though originally extrinsick [sic]; supplemental; additional.” He seems to have been fond of the word. In The Rambler #155 he uses it again: “He that shall solicit the favour of his patron by praising him for qualities which he can find in himself, will be defeated by the more daring panegyrist who enriches him with adscititious excellence.”

Not that the adscititious is always to be scorned. Art is never strictly utilitarian, and a world without the adscititious would be a duller place. The OED’s first citation dates from 1620, and is taken from Bacon’s Instauratio magna (The Great Restoration): “They therefore called this [motion] perpetual and proper . . .and they called the others adscititious.”

The dictionary’s most recent citation, from 2008, serendipitously lead me to a marvelous bookish find: “Crates of chilly hardware—coffee tins of rusty nails and mismatched bolts and nuts . . . and adscititious crap.” This is from William Davies King’s Collections of Nothing (University of Chicago Press), a wonderful book devoted to King’s own collecting mania and accumulation in general. I’m not a collector, and prefer a Spartan aspect to my surroundings, but as a reporter I always enjoyed writing about people who succumbed to the amassing urge. I met collectors of sand, wood, beer cans and the coins and currency issued by leper colonies. All were unusually learned people, even pedantic within their area of specialization, and eager to share the joys of stockpiling.

Friday, December 02, 2016

`Things Appear More Distinct and Precious'

I bought the day’s New York Times from the newsstand on the first floor of the Albany County Courthouse, and rode the elevator to the third floor where my newspaper had an office. My beat was courts. The room was narrow, shabby, high-ceilinged and dim, and I generally preferred writing in the main office out in the suburbs. It was Dec. 3 and already cold in upstate New York. The steam radiator banged away as usual without producing much heat. I looked at the Times and learned Philip Larkin was dead. I have few site-specific memories of where I was when I’ve learned of the deaths of public figures – JFK, Louis Armstrong, Bill Evans – but none is so detailed in sense impressions as Larkin’s. I remember the cracks in the wall and the checkerboard linoleum.

For an American, my love of Larkin is of longstanding. I knew little of his private life, and nothing revealed since his death has surprised or offended me. We’re big boys and girls, well-versed in our own failings, so nothing human ought to shock us. The publication two years ago of James Booth’s Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love has helped correct the P.C.-driven post-mortem caricature of the poet that still prevails. “There is, of course, no requirement that poets should be likeable or virtuous,” Booth writes, adding, “Larkin’s negative public image is built neither on his poetry nor on the evidence of those who knew him well.” Read cold and without prejudice, his best poems are evidence of an extraordinarily gifted, witty, sensitive poet and man. If we are honest, we concede that few writers know us so well. In “Larkin’s Voice” (ed. Dale Salwak, Philip Larkin: The Man and His Work, 1989), the American poet X.J. Kennedy gets him just right:

"Unlike the typical American Orphic bard of the moment, Larkin never says, `Behold! I am one hell of a brilliant visionary, and my life is the most important thing in the world – admire me, damn you, or die.’ By contrast, the voice of Larkin, modest and clear and scrupulous, is that of a man who sees himself as just a bit silly. . . . In the end, I think, we love Larkin for admitting to a quality we recognize in ourselves – a certain dull contentment with our lives, for all their ignobility.”

I remember reading Leonard Garment’s memoir Crazy Rhythm not long after it was published in 1997. As a young man he had played tenor saxophone and clarinet in Woody Herman’s band, but is remembered as an adviser to President Nixon, and his special counsel during the final two years of his administration. That a professional jazz musician (and a Democrat) could eventually advise a troubled president is sufficient reason to read his book, but Garment’s closing paragraphs are what I remember best. I’ll transcribe them without context:

“All of us were aging; but all of us were made happy, for a moment immortal, by the sense of completeness and love in the house.

“Philip Larkin had something to say about this [Garment quotes “Long Sight In Age”]:

“`They say eyes clear with age,
As dew clarifies air
To sharpen evenings,
As if time put an edge
Round the last shape of things
To show them there;
The many-levelled trees,
The long soft tides of grass
Wrinkling away the gold
Wind-ridden waves- all these,
They say, come back to focus
As we grow old.’

“In the middle of the journey, as Larkin knew more than most, we find ourselves in dark woods where the right path seems lost. But even so melancholy a poet saw for a prophetic moment that at the end of the confusion there is sometimes a clearing in whose sunlight things appear more distinct and precious than ever before.”

Larkin died on this date, Dec. 2, in 1985.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

`We Met on a Basis Completely Friendly'

“And it is wonderful to be a member of no party! I pick my own way among the landmarks. No Baedeker distracts me from the scenery.”

The subject at hand concerns neither politics nor travel but rather one reader’s errant taste in books. Modern readers generally fancy themselves freethinkers, beholden to no creed or fashion, but the facts suggest otherwise. Prejudices are common, most obviously in the preference for new or recently published books over those from years or centuries ago. It’s a peculiar bias. Most books published in any era are rubbish. To limit one’s potential reading matter to a single year, or decade or century is punishingly narrow-minded. Who wouldn’t rather read Tennyson than Robert Bly, or Gogol rather than Jonathan Franzen? Other stridently partisan tastes include fiction over non-fiction (and vice versa), loyalty to or rejection of particular genres or forms, and any sort of demographic preference or repugnance.

The author of the declaration of independence at the top is Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978), an American poet thoroughly erased from cultural memory. (Being a member of no party carries its risks.) Her Times Three: Selected Verse from Three Decades, with Seventy New Poems (1960) was published with a foreword by W.H. Auden and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1961. A self-described “housewife poet,” McGinley dedicated Times Three to her husband and two daughters, “my critics, my champions, my copy.” Her poetry is better crafted and more enjoyable than Sylvia Plath’s, Anne Sexton’s or Sharon Olds’. McGinley also published a collection of essays, The Province of the Heart (Viking Press, 1959). Its contents originally appeared in such magazines as Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s and Vogue. The passage above is from “The Consolations of Illiteracy”:

“There is such a thing as a literary landscape; to that, to nearly the whole length and breadth of classic English writing, I came as an astonished stranger. No one who first enters that country on a conducted tour can have any notion what it is like to travel it alone, on foot, and at his own pace.”

Already, I’m sympathetic to McGinley, as I am to any autodidact, because that’s how I started as a reader. I had no mentors, no book clubs, no critical standards, only omnivorous hunger for books. Reading bad books when young is essential. It builds a strong stomach and, with time, enables us to formulate what we will accept or reject from a writer – a fledgling critical stance. The house I grew up in was almost bookless, so I relied on bookstores and the public library. McGinley says her father’s library consisted mostly of history, law and Bulwer-Lytton: “I wolfed down what I could but found a good deal of it indigestible.” Her reading history is amusingly different from mine. She says “it was at college I seriously managed to learn nothing,” whereas access for the first time to a university library was for me an act of divine favor. Without exaggeration, the ability to locate any book I wanted changed my life. McGinley’s total lack of pretentiousness is refreshing:

“Almost none of the alleged classics, under whose burden the student is supposed to bow, had I peered into either for pleasure or for credit. As a consequence, although I came to them late, I came to them without prejudice. We met on a basis completely friendly; and I do not think the well-educated can always claim as much.”

I know few formally well-educated people who are enthusiastic readers of long standing. Unlike McGinley, most would have to work hard to recount their reading histories, and are seldom amusing about it. They could never say, “We met on a basis completely friendly." Among the poems collected in Times Three is “Publisher’s Party.” The final rhyme in the second of these two stanzas always makes me laugh:

“And Honor Guest must cower
When they, descending rather
Like bees upon a flower,
Demand his views on Cather—

“On Wharton, James, or Cather,
Or Eliot or Luther,
Or Joyce or Cotton Mather,
Or even Walter Reuther.”

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

`History Is the Punk'

Driving home from work on Monday I listened as another useful idiot eulogized Fidel Castro as “a very audacious leader, an outspoken champion of national liberation, national independence.” The same fool assured us that “what the U.S. media misses is why is it that most of the world mourns his passing. It’s not just the mourning of a historic figure, but a figure who actually shook up the planet.” As though that were a good thing.

One wishes Reinaldo Arenas were still alive to quibble with Castro’s hagiographer. Arenas was born in the Oriente province of Cuba in 1943, and joined the revolution as a teenager. He wrote novels, poems and plays, and was first arrested in 1973 for “ideological deviation,” an all-purpose designation. He was charged with being a CIA agent and with “the corruption of minors.” In Castro’s lexicon, that meant he was a homosexual. Arenas was sent to the prison in El Morro Castle, where his only possession besides the clothes he wore was a copy of The Iliad. In his memoir, Before Night Falls (trans. Dolores M. Koch, Viking, 1993), Arenas describes the scene:

“Homosexuals were confined to the two worst wards of El Morro: these wards were below ground at the lowest level, and water seeped into the cells at high tide. It was a sweltering place without a bathroom. Gays were not treated like human beings, they were treated like beasts. . . . The soldiers guarding us, who called themselves combatientes, were army recruits sent here as a sort of punishment; they found some release for their rage by taking it out on the homosexuals. Of course, nobody called them homosexuals; they were called fairies, faggots, queers, or at best, gays. The wards for fairies were really the last circle of hell.”

Arenas served two years in El Morro and in 1980, as part of the Mariel Boatlift, fled to the U.S. He was among the Cubans el Jefe Maximo called los gusanos – “worms” or “maggots.” In 1987, Arenas was diagnosed with AIDS, and three years later he committed suicide in New York City. Arenas titles a chapter in his memoir “The Padilla `Case.’” The reference is to Heberto Padilla (1933-2000), the Cuban poet who, like Arenas, originally supported Castro’s revolution. He was arrested in 1971, locked in a cell for a month, beaten and, in Arenas’ words, “emerged from that cell a human wreck.” He was forced to make a public confession of his “crimes” (much like Stalin’s show trials of 1936-38) and those of other writers, including his wife. International protests resulted in his release, but Padilla was forced to remain in Cuba until 1980, when he fled to the U.S. Here is his poem “The humbled, too” (TambiĆ©n los humillados) from A Fountain, a House of Stone: Poems (trans. Alastair Reid and Alexander Coleman, 1991):

“Here it is again, the old humiliation,
looking at you with dog’s eyes,
hurling you against new dates and names.

“Get up fearful one,
and go back to your hole, as you did yesterday,
bowing your head again,
for history is the blow you must learn to endure,
history is that place which affirms us and rends us,
history is that rat climbing the stairs every night,
History is the punk
who also goes to bed with the Whore of Whores.”

The most compelling account of Castro’s crimes is Against All Hope (trans. Andrew Hurley, 1986) by Armando Valladares. Born in 1937, he too initially supported the revolution. As an employee of the Postal Savings Bank of Cuba's new revolutionary government, Valladares committed the ultimate crime: He expressed independent opinions, including philosophical opposition to the Communist system. He was arrested in 1960 and remained imprisoned for twenty-two years. That he survived is miraculous. His book documents decades of unrelieved torture and abuse. Valladares’ “Epilogue” is a single paragraph taken from a statement Castro gave to French and American journalists in the Palacio de la RevoluciĆ³n in Havana in 1983:

“From our point of view, we have no humans-rights problem—there have been no `disappeareds’ here, there have been no tortures here, there have been no murders here. In twenty-five years of revolution, in spite of the difficulties and dangers we have passed through, torture has never been committed, a crime has never been committed.”

Go here to read the speech Valladares made when receiving the 2016 Canterbury Medal from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and here for an article about Valladares published Monday in National Review. See Paul Bonicelli on “Why the Left Loves Totalitarians Like Castro” and the Independent Institute’s tally of Castro’s crimes.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

`The Absent Flowers Abounding'

David Sanders read Monday’s post and wrote to say: “That last line always made me think of Don Justice for some reason.” He means the final line of Larkin’s “Absences”: “Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!” I wrote back to say that while writing the post I had Justice’s poem of the same title, “Absences” (Departures, 1973), in mind, and David replied: “`Absences’ is my favorite Justice poem.” Here is a recording of David reading Justice’s poem, and here is the poem itself:

“It’s snowing this afternoon and there are no flowers.
There is only this sound of falling, quiet and remote,
Like the memory of scales descending the white keys
Of a childhood piano—outside the window, palms!
And the heavy head of the cereus, inclining,
Soon to let down its white or yellow-white.

“Now, only these poor snow-flowers in a heap,
Like the memory of a white dress cast down . . .
So much has fallen.
                                    And I, who have listened for a step
All afternoon, hear it now, but already falling away,
Already in memory. And the terrible scales descending
On the silent piano; the snow; and the absent flowers
      abounding.”

We might divide humanity into those who feel the presence of absence and those who don’t, or who chose to ignore it. What do we find among the absent? The dead, of course, and the distant and forgotten, all of which can be revived by memory and imagination, and made present, and that is Justice’s realm. No other poet makes nostalgia so respectable. The motive is not escapism but commemoration. Metric verse is almost uniquely suited for the task (see Milton, Pope, Tennyson). In his essay “Meters and Memory” (Platonic Scripts, 1984), Justice writes:

“The emotion needs to be fixed, so that whatever has been temporarily recovered may become as nearly permanent as possible, allowing it to be called back again and again at pleasure. It is at this point that the various aids to memory, and meter most persistently, begin to serve memory beyond mnemonics. Such artifices are, let us say, the fixatives. Like chemicals in the darkroom, they are useful in developing the negative. The audience is enabled to call back the poem, or pieces of it, the poet to call back the thing itself, the subject, all that was to become the poem.”

If the emotion is not fixed, if form is flaccid or absent, the poet usually fails in his task to make emotion memorable – that is, present. “Absences” is the second-to-last poem in Departures. The final poem, “Presences,” its companion piece as reflected in a distorting mirror, makes clear the cost:

“Clouds out of the south, familiar clouds –
But I could not hold on to them, they were drifting away,
Everything going away in the night again and again.”

One of the best poems in David Sanders’ Compass and Clock (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2016), “Some Color,” comes with an epigraph from Justice’s “Absences”: “It’s snowing this afternoon and there are no flowers.” And in the Justice-suffused “Piano,” David writes:

“So much that wasn’t played,
The silence resonating like the dusk
That ushers out the fall . . .”

Monday, November 28, 2016

`What Places Look Like When I am Not There'

A landlubber is forever leery of the sea. Sure, it’s beautiful, occasionally awe-inspiring, but always ominous and best appreciated from a distance, preferably by way of Melville or Conrad. I have a colleague who was born in Pensacola, Fla., and has lived in Houston (an hour’s drive from the Gulf of Mexico) since he was a child. He owns a boat, as does his sister. He surfs. A surfboard hangs on the wall of his office, next door to mine. He keeps a fishing shack on the Gulf and fishes almost every weekend. He is amphibian. I am strictly (non-aquatic) mammalian, as was Philip Larkin in “Absences” (The Less Deceived, 1955):

“Rain patters on a sea that tilts and sighs.
Fast-running floors, collapsing into hollows,
Tower suddenly, spray-haired. Contrariwise,
A wave drops like a wall: another follows,
Wilting and scrambling, tirelessly at play
Where there are no ships and no shallows.

“Above the sea, the yet more shoreless day,
Riddled by wind, trails lit-up galleries:
They shift to giant ribbing, sift away.

“Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!”

What is most absent is the human – nothing but water and sky, though some of the metaphors (“Fast-running floors’) are drawn from the human realm. Larkin’s sea is not hostile or malignant, merely alien and cosmically indifferent. He captures some of the complex physics of the ocean, which is never at rest, though an oceanographer complained to Larkin that “it is only waves coming in to the beach that roll over and drop like a wall.” The poet admitted his ignorance of wave behavior, which, he said, “seriously damaged the poem from a technical viewpoint.” As he often does, Larkin makes unexpected but appropriate choices of word – noting, for instance, that a wave is “wilting.” Larkin seems to have been particularly proud of “Absences.” In 1962, he contributed it to an anthology titled Poet’s Choice, and wrote of it:

“I suppose I like `Absences’ (a) because of its subject matter—I am always thrilled by the thought of what places look like when I am not there; (b) because I fancy it sounds like a different, better poet rather than myself. The last line, for instance, sounds like a slightly unconvincing translation from a French symbolist. I wish I could write like this more often.” 

Larkin finished writing “Absences” on this date, Nov. 28, in 1950.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

`No Place on Earth Without Its God'

Thanks to Nige I am enjoying Adam Nicolson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters (William Collins, 2014). Nicolson does many things well, and does them simultaneously. His prose is notable for clarity and concision. Like a poet, his gyroscope is rhythm, and he never descends into the purple. His thought draws on vast reading without turning pedantic. His concern is Homer, yes, but also how we have come to understand Homer across millennia. Consider his title. Nicolson recounts John Keats’ discovery of Homer, first in Pope’s translation and then, more fatefully, the gorgeous version by Shakespeare’s contemporary, George Chapman. We all know the fruit of that encounter, written in October 1816. Nicolson shifts our attention to the following year, when Keats is writing “Endymion,” a poem suffused with Homer. Nicolson hears “the bass note of a Homeric presence” in these lines:

“And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven's brink.”
 
Nicolson’s Homer is more than a poet of heroic tales. He helped make us who we are (as did, I would add, Dante and Shakespeare, ever “relevant” writers we are obliged to not merely read but live with and know). Nicolson calls Homer “the embodiment of retrospect.” What could be less interesting than the future? Nicolson continues: “All poetry is memorial. Much of it is elegy.” He cites fragments of elegiac poetry written in cuneiform on clay tablets and discovered by nineteenth-century archaeologists in Sumer, in present-day Iraq. “As far back as we can reach,” he writes, “poets have been looking back, their poetry living in the gap that opens between now and then.” The Sumerian lines were written in “about 2600 BC, perhaps two thousand years before the Homeric epics were first written on papyrus.” Nicolson has a gift for inspiring a sense of temporal vertigo, and he reminds us why we read in the first place:

“[Homer] provides no answers. Do we surrender to authority? Do we abase ourselves? Do we indulge the self? Do we nurture civility? Do we nourish violence? Do we love? Homer says nothing in reply to those questions’ he merely dramatises their reality. The air he breathes is the complexity of life, the bubbling vitality of a boat at sea, the resurgent energy, as he repeatedly says, of the bright wake starting to gleam behind you.”

Nige’s timing, by the way, was perfect. I had recently finished reading the late Christopher Logue’s War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), a book we have been reading in increments for decades. Here is an “unplaceable,” previously unpublished passage from a section titled “Big Men Falling a Long Way (Fragments from Books 10-24)”:

“Take an industrial lift.
Pack it with men fighting each other,
Smashing each other back against its governors
So the packed cage shoots floors up, then down,
Then up again, then down, lights out, then stops,
But what does not stop are the blows,
Fists, feet, teeth, knees, the screams of triumph and of agony
As they go up, then stop, then down they go.
No place on earth without its god.”