Thursday, January 19, 2017

`The Political Unimportance of a Creative Work'

A program of reading I can admire but never adopt:

“My system is curious. I keep reading the same book over and over, perhaps for six months, every day, and then switch to another which may last the same time.”

I am a slow reader, out of mental necessity, but not that slow. If I’m reading for pleasure, I never skim. That useful technique I reserve for purely utilitarian reading, such as finding a passage I failed to mark. I’m also a greedy reader. Only necessity could confine me to reading one book at a time. I sprawl and have no aim other than pleasure and learning. Only three times have I read systematically. Twice I read writers chronologically, first work to last, though I had already read almost everything by both of them: Shakespeare and Melville. And fifteen years ago, when I went back to college thirty years after dropping out, I read nothing but books by and about Henry James for almost six months, and wrote a thesis: “Poor Sensitive Gentlemen.” After my release from a strict diet of James, the first books I read were Waugh’s Sword of Honour, Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.

“Altogether I have not read more than six or seven books during the past number of years. But I have read Gil Blas, Moby Dick, Ulysses, D’Arcy McGee’s History of Ireland and Carleton’s Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry hundreds of times.”

The last two titles I have not read. Alain-René Lesage’s picaresque novel I read once, long ago, in Smollett’s translation, and I remember nothing about it. The other two I reread periodically. Our reader could do much worse. It occurs to me that I have never finished reading a book and immediately started reading it again. I often do that with poems, good and inadvertently funny ones, and with the occasional movie. I need time to digest.

“All these books have several qualities in common. A dominant note is their comic detachment; their authors are not afraid to bend, to let themselves go, to be outrageous. Theirs is the philosophy of men who in a wonderful way do not care.”

Certainly this is true of Melville’s novel. Much of his other work is wonderful but unexceptional, and some is nearly unreadable, or readable only under self-imposed duress – see Mardi and Pierre. Moby Dick “outrageous”? Savor the farting and penis gags, and Chap.36, “The Quarter-Deck.” The book’s copiousness is outrageous. It is a rare novel in which a digression on almost any subject might find an appropriate place, a quality it shares with Montaigne’s Essays, The Anatomy of Melancholy and Tristram Shandy.

“This inconsequentiality is a sign of the author’s assurance; he is master of the situation. Every so often the author of Moby Dick bursts out laughing or goes off on a ten thousand word digression leaving his principal character standing in a corner. But though far from his creator that character is never out of the author’s control. And when the author comes back the character is patiently waiting. This quality of not caring is part of the political unimportance of a creative work. `We the unpolitical’ says Auden.”

The quoted passages above are from “Studies in the Technique of Poetry: Extracts from Ten Lectures” in Patrick Kavanagh: Man and Poet (ed. Peter Kavanagh, National Poetry Foundation, 1986). In the next sentence in the same extract, Kavanagh (1904-1967) writes: “Being ignored except by a small group leaves a man free because he had none of the responsibilities which a large public inflicts on him.”

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

`A Large Personal Impress on the Nation'

I grew up reading Ernie Pyle’s World War II dispatches and like to think that in some covert way he steered me toward becoming a newspaper reporter (as did Eric Hoffer, who wrote a syndicated newspaper column in the late nineteen-sixties that I devotedly read and clipped). More importantly, Pyle may have influenced the sort of reporter I became.  Some of the names editors and readers use to describe much of what I wrote are less than enthusiastic – “soft news,” human interest, features, fluff. The big subjects, like government and business, I found tiresome. I liked writing about people, not things, events, ideas or institutions. That was Pyle’s specialty as a war correspondent in North Africa, Europe and the Pacific. In his syndicated column, carried in more than three-hundred newspapers, he wrote not about armies and strategy but about the lives of ordinary Americans who happened to be soldiers. In 1944, he received the Pulitzer Prize. His wartime columns were collected in four books: Ernie Pyle in England (1941), Here Is Your War (1943), Brave Men (1944) and Last Chapter (1946).

On April 18, 1945, Pyle was killed by Japanese machine-gun fire on the island of Ie Shima near Okinawa. In a 1950 tribute in The New Yorker, fellow war correspondent A.J. Liebling credited Pyle with creating the mythic figure of “G. I. Joe, the suffering but triumphant infantryman”:

“The portrait was sentimentalized but the soldier was pleased to recognize himself in it, and millions of newspaper readers recognized their sons and lovers in Pyle’s soldiers and got some glimmer of the fact that war is a nasty business for the pedestrian combatant. Through millions of letters from home enclosing clippings, the soldiers learned that their folks read Ernie Pyle. He provided an emotional bridge. . . . He was the only American war correspondent who made a large personal impress on the nation in the Second World War.”

Pyle was writing long before the war, at various newspapers, and became one of the country’s first aviation reporters. From 1935 to 1941 he traveled the U.S. for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, filing six columns a week of “human interest” for most of that time. Some of the work was published posthumously in Home Country (1947). Now Indiana University Press has published At Home with Ernie Pyle (2016), edited by Owen V. Johnson, which collects much of the writing he devoted to his home state. I worked as a reporter for the newspaper in Richmond, Ind., from 1983 to 1985.  For me, Indiana was the home of Ernie Pyle, Theodore Dreiser, Hoagy Carmichael and Gennett Records. Pyle was born in Dana, in the west central part of the state, on the border with Illinois. Draw a straight line from Dana to Richmond and you intersect Indianapolis, the state’s capital and largest city.

Much of the work collected in At Home is prelude to the big story (World War II). We see a writer working industriously, learning his trade, turning himself from a dutiful reporter into a storyteller. There’s a folksiness to much of the material, a quality we also find in the war writing, where it’s used to greater effect. On May 17, 1938, Pyle files a story datelined Richmond, with this headline: “Fiend stalking the quiet streets of Richmond, Ind., hurls a dreadful missile at our correspondent’s car.” This is known in the trade as a slow news day. Someone spatters the hood of his car with an egg, and here is Pyle’s “lede”: “Richmond is clear across the state from my home town, and I am sorry it is not a few miles farther, for then it would be in Ohio. Richmond is a blot on the fair, clean name of Indiana.” Pyle stretches the anecdote across two pages. One sentence is eerily prophetic: “The egg had come from the hand of some human sniper on a nearby roof.” The columnist rouses faux enthusiasm for the culprits, praising their “zest for childlike hellishness,” and then turns on them in the final paragraph: “So, I would not have these young men spanked. I would merely have their jaws broken and their teeth knocked out.”

In a footnote to the story, the editor tells us the Richmond Palladium-Item, the newspaper I would work for forty-five years later, published Pyle’s column on June 25, 1938. In a note appended to the beginning of the story, an editor says of the young men who threw the egg at Pyle’s car: “It should be a matter of pride with these young gentlemen for many years to come, that they have so ably assisted in advertising the good name and reputation of their city.”   

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

`An Extraordinary Lexical Appetite'

Unsolicited, two books of poetry published by a university press arrived in the mail. I’m as greedy as the next guy and was pleased with my windfall until I opened the books and started reading. Only one of the poets had I heard of before. Both are youngish, a man and a woman, both come decorated with prizes and neither seems interested in language. Even as prose their poems are dull and indistinguishable from the messages (usually political, in the form of self-aggrandizement) they intone. I expect poetry to carry with it a field of energy. It ought to stimulate and please the mouth and mind. The poems of a plain-spoken poet – Swift comes to mind, and J.V. Cunningham – are still charged with vitality, proving that even politics can be interesting in the right hands.

I have no wish to publicize the work of the two poets whose books I have already given away, so we’ll leave them anonymous. They too must earn a living, an effort I never begrudge, however desultory the labor. Let the market decide. I’ve recently reread Henry Hitchings’ Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), and was reminded of the gratuitous opulence of our language. Then I reread the review of the book written by Eric Ormsby, whose poems and essays are voluptuous celebrations of the English we have inherited. He writes:

“The prose and the fine solicitude are inseparable. Johnson may be, after Shakespeare, the only author to have grappled with the sheer totality of the English language. The Augustan balance of his prose conceals an underlying voracity, an extraordinary lexical appetite, chastened and held in check by the cadenced discipline of his language. The beauty of that language is a moral beauty, hard won out of a lifelong struggle with the world and with himself. That's one good reason for the fondness he inspires: In giving us words he defines how we might live.”

Monday, January 16, 2017

`I Had a Wonderful Life'

One would like to go out with a quip on one’s lips, a zinger, a piquant retort to life (or impending death), a consummately quotable Q.E.D., rather than the more likely and banal scream, moan, gasp or cough. But mortality trumps wit. Even a well-rehearsed final declaration is likely to go unspoken in our waning moments. And yet, when William Hazlitt died on Sept. 18, 1830, his last words were supposed to have been: “I have had a happy life.” The final utterance of Gerard Manley Hopkins, as he lay dying of typhoid fever on June 8, 1889, was reported as: “I am happy, so happy.” And Ludwig Wittgenstein must have surprised everyone on April 29, 1951, when he chirped his last: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life!” None was renowned in life for a sunny disposition. All three reports are fairly reliable, but one remains dubious. Were they having second thoughts? Was it a last-minute editing of the narrative of their lives? Or mere babbling, a random firing of electrons?

In a late collection, Rovigo (1992), Zbigniew Herbert includes another of his elegies, “To Piotr Vučič” (trans. Alissa Valles, The Collected Poems 1956-1998, 2007). In the poem’s final lines, he both echoes the trio cited above and adds a characteristically terse and acerbic coda:

“I once heard an old man recite Homer
I have known people exiled like Dante
I saw all Shakespeare’s plays on stage
I was lucky
You might say born with a silver spoon

“Explain that to others
I had a wonderful life

“I suffered”

At least in translation, Herbert echoes Whitman: “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.”

Sunday, January 15, 2017

`Your Voice Falls As They Say Love Should'

“More than any other major soloist in jazz, he has made a basically unsentimental music come extremely close to the romantic—a magnetic, invariably troubling conversion, which usually draws either slings or hugs.”

The writer is Whitney Balliett and his subject is Sidney Bechet (1897-1959), the clarinetist and soprano saxophonist from New Orleans. He might also be writing about Philip Larkin, author of “For Sidney Bechet” (The Whitsun Weddings, 1964). I often think of Larkin as a blues poet, one who never mistakes the blues for mere sadness or self-pity, and whose darkest poems are never less than emotionally powerful.  There’s nothing cold about Larkin.

Balliett in the same essay judges Bechet as “one of the great blues soloists” (Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000, 2000). Listen to “Blue Horizon” (1944), which Larkin describes in All What Jazz (1970) as “six choruses of slow blues in which Bechet climbs without interruption or hurry from lower to upper register, his clarinet tone at first thick and throbbing, then soaring like Melba in an extraordinary blend of lyricism and power that constituted the unique Bechet voice, commanding attention the instant it sounded.”

I hear self-projection in Larkin’s celebration of Bechet. Despite conventional wisdom, Larkin is a gifted celebrator (of Barbara Pym, of Louis Armstrong, and so on). Those who dismiss Larkin as a gloomy wet blanket don’t hear his paean to Bechet: “On me your voice falls as they say love should, / Like an enormous yes”). He adds: “the natural noise of good.” Larkin finished writing “For Sidney Bechet” on this date, Jan. 15, in 1954. Then I remembered Van Morrison’s mention of Bechet on his album Hymns to the Silence (1991). In “See Me Through Part II (Just A Closer Walk With Thee),” Morrison sings or chants:

“Silence and then voice
Music and writing, words
Memories, memories way back
Take me way back
Hyndford Street and Hank Williams

“Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet
On Sunday afternoons in winter
Sidney Bechet, Sunday afternoons in winter
And the tuning in of stations in Europe on the wireless.”

Saturday, January 14, 2017

`And Leave in Books for All Posterities'

I’ve said many times that the truest tribute a writer can receive is to be read, enjoyed and passed along to other readers. In contrast, formal literary criticism is anemic and beside-the-point – academic in the modern sense (OED: “of no consequence, irrelevant”). A good book requires only a good reader to fulfill its purpose.

In 1603, John Florio published the first English translation of Montaigne’s Essays, the version read by Shakespeare. A second edition appeared in 1613. Prefixed to it is a sonnet presumed to have been written by Florio (it has also been attributed to Samuel Daniel) and sometimes titled: “Concerning the Honour of Books”:

“Since honour from the honourer proceeds,
How well do they deserve, that memorize,
And leave in Books for all posterities
The names of worthies and their virtuous deeds;
When all their glory else, like water-weeds,
Without their element, presently dies,
And all their greatness quite forgotten lies,
And when and how they flourished no man heeds
How poor remembrances are statues, tombs,
And other monuments that men erect
To princes, which remain in closèd rooms
Where but a few behold them, in respect
Of Books, that to the universal eye
Show how they lived; the other where they lie!”

Cranks have long nominated Florio as the “true” Shakespeare, but they’ll find little evidence for their case in this poem, which shows none of the convoluted brilliance and memorability we know from Shakespeare’s sonnets. It’s straightforward and almost too neat a package at the end, and yet its conventionality and optimism are touching. Read “How poor remembrances are statues, tombs, / And other monuments that men erect / To princes” and think of “Ozymandias” and, on a more exalted level, Horace’s Odes III: XXX, line 1: “I have created a monument more lasting than bronze.” If Florio is the author of the sonnet, it’s not the sonnet we remember him for but the prose he gave to Shakespeare.

Friday, January 13, 2017

`With What Rapidity Life Follows My Pen'

Love at first sight in the realm of books is a rare occurrence, and sustaining that love across a lifetime without descending into grim toleration – “We stayed together for the sake of the kids” – is rarer still. I’ve managed faithful longevity with a handful of writers, including Shakespeare, Swift and Kipling. When it comes to individual volumes first encountered when young, the list is shorter and at the top is Tristram Shandy, a novel introduced to me in my sophomore year by a professor of English. The consensus in class was that Sterne’s masterpiece was too long, without plot and boring. Few finished it. For me, infatuation was followed by devotion, and I wrote a lengthy paper on the theme of writing as a strategy for staving off death. The narrator is dying of tuberculosis, as was Sterne, but so long as he writes he can go on living – the Scheherazade gambit.

Now I’ve discovered another Sterne loyalist, one who read the novel and Sterne’s other works not long after they were first published: Thomas Jefferson. Sterne brought out the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy in 1759, and the remaining seven periodically through 1767. Andrew Burstein in The Inner Jefferson: Portrait of a Grieving Optimist (University of Virginia Press, 1995) tells us Jefferson copied a passage from Vol. IX, Chap. VIII of the novel into his commonplace book in 1772 or 1773:

“Time wastes too fast! every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity life follows my pen. the days &c hours of it are flying over our heads like clouds of a windy day never to return more! every thing presses on: and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make!”

Jefferson married Martha Wayles on Jan. 1, 1772. Shortly before her death in 1782, Martha transcribed the first portion of Sterne’s passage quoted above (through “presses on: . . .”) on a small square of paper. Jefferson then completed the passage in his own hand. Burstein reports the paper on which the lines were written was found after Jefferson’s death forty-four year later in “the most secret drawer of a private cabinet.” Inside the folded paper was a lock of Martha’s hair and another from one of their daughters who had died in infancy. One of the two Jefferson daughters who survived into adulthood, Martha, had written on the back of the paper: “A lock of Dear Mama’s Hair inclosed [sic] in a verse which She wrote.” Martha mistook Sterne’s prose for her mother’s poetry. Having learned of Jefferson’s love of Sterne, I’m reminded of what he wrote to his predecessor as president, John Adams, on June 10, 1815: “I cannot live without books: but fewer will suffice where amusement, and not use, is the only future object.” (ed. Lester J. Cappon, The Adams-Jefferson Letters, University of North Carolina Press, 1987.)

[Andrew Burstein and Catherine Mowbray provide more detail in “Jefferson and Sterne” (Early American Literature, 1994). They note that most of the passages Jefferson copied into his commonplace book were drawn from classical authors. Sterne was the only writer of English prose fiction he included.]