Friday, October 20, 2017

`Relapse Supinely into Self-Contemplation'

“Poetry, being normally short, cannot deal with too many lives at once, but at least it can present a variety of characters in different situations and different dramatic circumstances, and not relapse supinely into self-contemplation. That I find irritating.”

Much of Anthony Hecht’s poetry is a critique of solipsism, not in the technical philosophical sense but in the commonplace sense as defined by the OED: “excessive regard for oneself and one’s own interests, to the exclusion of others.” Our public and private lives – and book shelves -- are littered with such people. The passage quoted at the top is from an interview Hecht gave in 1998 in which he praises novelists, almost enviously, for “the amplitude of their imagination.” Some of Hecht’s finest poems are dramatic monologues, in which the speakers are sovereign characters, not mouthpieces for the author. Take the opening lines of “Green: An Epistle” (Millions of Strange Shadows, 1977):

“I write at last of the one forbidden topic
We, by a truce, have never touched upon:
Resentment, malice, hatred so inwrought
With moral inhibitions, so at odds with
The home-movie of yourself as patience, kindness,
And Charlton Heston playing Socrates . . .”

Self-deception is an irredeemably human trait. No one is immune. We forever rationalize and make ourselves look good, at least inside our skulls. In a 1970 letter to L.E. Sissman, Hecht discusses the poem and says: “There is, however, a sense of universal human corruption that is intended to embrace the reader along with everyone else. How can we recognize evil if we are untainted with it ourselves? Who is not tainted with it; and who, in the end, can be a reliable witness?”

Seventeen years later he writes in a letter to another friend, Harry Ford, about “Green: An Epistle”: “It is more precisely about the familiar modes of self-deception that almost everyone employs. It is therefore about illusion or delusions, and it consequently borrows the allegorical myth of Plato’s cave, transformed into a modern movie theater.” The dramatic monologue offers the potential for escape from solipsism and the deformations of character that follow. Consider the title poem in The Transparent Man (1990), spoken by a thirty-year-old woman in the hospital, dying of leukemia. Her thoughts, inevitably, turn inward, but she remains engaged with the world:

“Now all the leaves are down, you can see the spare,
Delicate structures of the sycamores,
The fine articulation of the beeches.
I have sat here for days studying them,
And I have only just begun to see
What it is that they resemble. One by one,
They stand there like magnificent enlargements
Of the vascular system of the human brain.
I see them there like huge discarnate minds,
Lost in their meditative silences.”

The speaker works hard not to bore or offend her visitors. There’s something heroic about her efforts to defy solipsism. I was jolted recently by a remarkably stupid reference to Hecht made by August Kleinzahler in a remembrance of Allen Ginsberg:

“The self-satisfied, conspicuously elegant poet Anthony Hecht, who was much admired in academic circles and the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, visited our high school in 1966—on what was called Careers Day, a day put aside for distinguished alumni to speak to men in the senior classes about their vocations. I was quite definite about wanting to be a poet by the time I was sixteen or so. Mr. Hecht, with his vaguely English elocution (acquired in the Bronx?) was definitely not what I had in mind.”

 You should be so lucky, August.

Hecht died on this date, Oct. 20, in 2004 at age eighty-one.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

`Now That's the Human Problem'

“The tongue is what we strop our words on.”

Sometimes we’re not ready for a writer. Over time, values and tastes evolve, deepening and decaying as we age. The writers we love at fourteen are unlikely to remain unchanged after half a century. A few do – Kipling, Shakespeare – but we’re always adding to and culling the private library we carry in our heads. Fortunately, the world’s stock of literature is bigger than any reader and perfectly indifferent to our decisions. 

Several years ago, the poet David Sanders, proprietor of Poetry News in Review, sent me a copy of The Collected Poems of Henri Coulette (University of Arkansas Press, 1990), edited by Donald Justice and Robert Mezey. It wasn’t a matter of incomprehension or indifference. I saw the technical deftness, the wit and sophistication accompanied by a satirical tartness. Coulette (1927-1988) had many of the qualities I most enjoy in a writer. He reminded me of Turner Cassity, but with the ferocity lowered. Still, I shelved the book after one reading, grateful to David but untouched, like Teflon.

Last week, I pulled the book out again, curious and guilty after hearing Coulette was admired by Zbigniew Herbert. In their introduction, Justice and Mezey quote the Pole as saying that while reading Coulette he felt “at once in the presence of a major poet, one in complete control of the technical resources of his art, but—more important to me—one who has seized upon thematic material of central importance to the modern world.” The lovely line quoted at the top is from “The Black Rose,” one of two previously unpublished poems Coulette dedicates to Herbert. Here is the final stanza:

The black rose, distilled, is our milk,
Our bitter milk. Na zdrowie!”

In three lines, Coulette alludes to World War II, a German board game (“Don’t get angry, pal”), a Polish blessing and toast, and possibly to Paul Celan’s most famouspoem. When Coulette makes a pop culture reference, it doesn’t feel like slumming. He knows movies and detective novels, Horace and Raymond Chandler, and sees no reason to leave them behind. “The Fifth Season” is from his first collection, The War of the Secret Agents and Other Poems (1966). The only allusion I hear is Homer:

“It will be summer, spring, or fall—
Or winter, even. Who would know?
For no one answers when we call
Who might have answered years ago.

“The harvest will be in or not;
The trees in flower or in rime.
Indifferent to the cold, the hot,
We will no longer care for time.

“Mortal, of ivory and of horn,
We will become as open gates
Through which our nothing will be borne,
By which all nothing now but waits.

“It will be summer, spring, or fall—
Or winter, even. Who will care?
We will not answer when you call,
For nothing, nothing echoes there.”

Coulette values durability, a poem that will adhere for the long run. A poem ought to be at least a cunningly made as a chair – a heretical thought for a poet in his time and ours. If his work is suffused with melancholy, it also cheers us with plain-spoken eloquence. In a suite of sixteen epigrams, Coulette writes in one titled “The Collected Poems of What’s His Face”:

“Sixteen thousand lines, give or take sixteen—
And no two lines that you can read between.”

Honest readers will fill in the blank. There’s much to read between Coulette’s lines. Here is the final epigram in the series:

“A one-eyed cat named Hathaway on my lap,
A fire in the fireplace, and Schubert’s 5th
All silvery somewhere on a radio
I barely here, but hear—this is, I think,
As close as I may come to happiness.”

In a 1983interview, Coulette says of his friend J.V. Cunningham, the master epigrammist of the last century: “My whole notion of what literature is about derives from him, that a poem is in a sense a statement, that the problem of reading somebody’s poetry is a simplified version of the basic human problem of trying to understand another without imposing your personality or beliefs upon another. But to really hear them and to really understand them. Now that’s the human problem.”

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

`But Few Men Have His Intrepidity'

A neighbor and his teenage sons recently acquired a second dog, an animal they found abandoned in a vacant lot. It was not yet thoroughly feral but its back and face are scarred, and it remains skittish around strangers. John is a formidable person, physically and otherwise, but has a soft spot for children, animals and most of his neighbors. He’s the only person I’ve known who feeds not only squirrels and birds but opossums. His new dog shares his bed.

Last Friday evening, his 17-year-old put food in the dogs’ dishes in the kitchen, the new dog grabbed a mouthful and ran into one of the bedrooms, where the other one joined her and started a fight. Spit, blood and fur were flying when the boy reached in to break it up and the new dog bit off the end of the middle finger on his left hand and swallowed it. John drove him to the hospital and learned the bone at the fingertip had been chipped. The doctor stitched him up, gave him a prescription for Tylenol 3 and sent him home. Three days later, John was still cussing out his son and his foolishness.
In The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1785), Boswell describes a conversation he is having with Dr. Johnson on this date, Oct. 18, in 1773.
Johnson says he might enjoy owning an island like Inch Kenneth, off the west coast of the Isle of Mull, in Scotland, but he would have to build a fortress for protection. Boswell says he would keep a dog. The story continues:

“JOHNSON. `So you may, sir; but a large dog is of no use but to alarm.’ He, however, I apprehend, thinks too lightly of the power of that animal. I have heard him say, that he is afraid of no dog. He would take him up by the hinder legs, which would render him quite helpless, and then knock his head against a stone, and beat out his brains. Topham Beauclerk told me, that at his house in the country, two large ferocious dogs were fighting. Dr. Johnson looked steadily at them for a little while; and then, as one would separate two little boys, who are foolishly hurting each other, he ran up to them, and cuffed their heads till he drove them asunder.”

Myth or dumb luck? The story flatters Johnson, of course, but seems true to his character. Boswell adds, “But few men have his intrepidity, Herculean strength, or presence of mind. Most thieves or robbers would be afraid to encounter a mastiff.” Not that Johnson is fearless. Most of his numerous fears are far from rational. Earlier in the same day’s entry, Boswell reports:

“I this morning took a spade, and dug a little grave in the floor of a ruined chapel, near Sir Allan M’Lean’s house, in which I buried some human bones I found there. Dr. Johnson praised me for what I had done, though he owned, he could not have done it. He shewed in the chapel at Rasay his horrour at dead men’s bones. He shewed it again at Col’s house. In the charterroom there was a remarkable large shin-bone; which was said to have been a bone of John Garve, one of the lairds. Dr. Johnson would not look at it; but started away.”

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

`I Hope to Mend'

“Either my temperament is changing or I am drying up—I don’t know which—but somehow a page or two pumps me quite dry nowadays. Still, like Dr. Johnson, `I hope to mend.’”

In the fall of 1898, Edwin Arlington Robinson is apologizing to his friend Edith Brower for announcing his intention to write shorter letters. In the preceding year and a half he has self-published his first volume of poems, The Torrent and the Night Before (1896), followed by The Children of the Night (1897). In his previous letter to Brower (Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Letters to Edith Brower1968), he speaks of “going, I expect, into winter exile.” He was preparing two more books, Captain Craig and Isaac and Archibald, that later were combined into one volume and published in 1902 as Captain Craig, a Book of Poems. Robinson was feeling the pressure, and tells Brower he plans to devote less time to letters and more to writing poems. Apparently, she felt snubbed.

The Johnson allusion is a minor mystery. I find two uses of “I hope to mend,” neither in a major work. One wonders how Robinson remembered it. On Jan. 24, 1778, Johnson writes a chatty, affectionate note to Boswell, who later included it in his Life. He tells his friend: “You always seem to call for tenderness.  Know then, that in the first month of the present year I very highly esteem and very cordially love you.” Here is the pertinent portion:

“You have ended the negro’s cause much to my mind. Lord Auchenleck and dear Lord Hailes were on the side of liberty. Lord Hailes’s name reproaches me; but if he saw my languid neglect of my own affairs, he would rather pity than resent my neglect of his. I hope to mend, ut et mihi vivam et amicis.”

“The negro’s cause” refers to the case of Joseph Knight, a slave bought in Jamaica by a Scottish landowner. After protracted litigation, the court ruled that Scots law did not recognize slavery and Knight was, in effect, set free. Johnson and Boswell helped prepare the case in Knight’s defense. (See this lecture.) Bruce Redford, editor of the five-volume Letters of Samuel Johnson, translates the Latin as “in order that I may live both for myself and for my friends.” Redford adds: “SJ seems to be recalling and amplifying a fragment of Horace, et mihi vivam (Epistles, I.xviii.107).”

The second appearance of “I hope to mend” is found in a March 2, 1782 letter to Lucy Porter, the daughter of Johnson’s late wife Hetty. He and his housemates are ill, and Dr. Levet has died: “So uncertain are human things.” He writes: “Such is the appearance of the world about me; I hope your scenes are more cheerful. But whatever befalls us, though it is wise to be serious, it is useless and foolish, and perhaps sinful, to be gloomy.” Johnson then apologizes to Lucy, the step-child he always felt closest to:

“Forgive me, my dear love, the omission of writing; I hope to mend that and my other faults.”

[Dave Lull, naturally has found a third instance of "I hope to mend," in a letter to Boswell dated Dec. 23, 1775.]

Monday, October 16, 2017

`I Am Not Romance-Bit about Nature'

If I could have chosen to be the recipient of anyone’s letters, from any era and any place, my choice would have been simple: Charles Lamb. How often have you received a letter (or email) that made you laugh when alone? Lamb cranked them out by the hundreds. Even great writers can be drab correspondents. Take Marianne Moore, whose letters are business-like. Or James Joyce, forever complaining, sponging or encouraging Nora to talk dirty. For sheer entertainment, Lamb is your man. Take the letter he wrote on this date, Oct. 16, in 1800, to his friend Thomas Manning. He might have written a single sentence: “I won’t be visiting you in Cambridge as promised.” Instead, after preliminaries, Lamb reports his activities of the previous night:      

“I wish to God you had made London in your way. There is an exhibition quite uncommon in Europe, which could not have escaped your genius,--a LIVE RATTLESNAKE, ten feet in length, and the thickness of a big leg.”

Why is that final metaphor so funny? Unexpectedness, I suppose, and pseudo-specificity (how big is a “big leg”?) – both Lambian specialties. Rattlesnakes are native to the Americas. In England in 1800, they would have been exotic and fearsome. A ten-foot rattlesnake is unlikely. For Lamb, the sight of such a creature is a cue for comedy:

“We walked into the middle, which is formed by a half-moon of wired boxes, all mansions of snakes,--whip-snakes, thunder-snakes, pig-nose-snakes, American vipers, and this monster. He lies curled up in folds; and immediately a stranger enters (for he is used to the family, and sees them play at cards,) he set up a rattle like a watchman's in London, or near as loud, and reared up a head, from the midst of these folds, like a toad, and shook his head, and showed every sign a snake can show of irritation.”

In the hands of a literal-minded drudge, think how dull this story might have been  -- like the vacation slideshows I watched as a kid. Lamb turns on the drama when he touched the snake’s cage: “I had got my finger away, nor could he well have bit me with his damn’d big mouth, which would have been certain death in five minutes. But it frightened me so much, that I did not recover my voice for a minute's space.” Famously, Lamb stuttered. Apart from his gift for deploying words interestingly, Lamb had a surplus of charm, a rare quality that involves keeping one’s self out of the way for the sake of entertaining others. “I dreamed of snakes in the night. I wish to heaven you could see it. He absolutely swelled with passion to the bigness of a large thigh.” Back to big legs again. Lamb signs off, “Yours sincerely, Philo Snake.”

About six weeks later, Lamb writes again to Manning, and again apologizes for not making it to Cambridge. Unlike most of his fellow Romantics, Lamb writes, “I must confess that I am not romance-bit about Nature.” He launches into an exalted (and quite sincere) paean to urban pleasures:

“Streets, streets, streets, markets, theatres, churches, Covent Gardens, shops sparkling with pretty faces of industrious milliners, neat sempstresses, ladies cheapening, gentlemen behind counters lying, authors in the street with spectacles, George Dyers (you may know them by their gait), lamps lit at night, pastry-cooks’ and silver-smiths’ shops, beautiful Quakers of Pentonville, noise of coaches, drowsy cry of mechanic watchman at night, with bucks reeling home drunk; if you happen to wake at midnight, cries of Fire and Stop thief; inns of court, with their learned air, and halls, and butteries, just like Cambridge colleges; old book-stalls, Jeremy Taylors, Burtons on Melancholy, and Religio Medicis on every stall. These are thy pleasures, O London with-the-many-sins. O City abounding in whores, for these may Keswick and her giant brood go hang!”

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Richard Wilbur R.I.P.

From Cynthia Haven I have just learned that Richard Wilbur is dead at age ninety-six. This is what I recently wrote of this great poet: “Eschewing confession, trendy politics, and incoherence, Wilbur since the 1940s has remained a reliable and sophisticated pleasure-giver, in an unapologetically old-fashioned way.”

`And Now It Is Nowhere'

Without quite knowing it, a friend has resolved to drink himself to death. Such decisions are never made lightly, but they can be made unknowingly. Our minds contain compartments lined with semi-permeable membrane and equipped with a switch. Flip it and the membrane turns rigid like bone. In my friend’s case, cause and effect have become detached, and between them is a wall of unknowing. In his posthumously published “A Letter to a Friend,” Sir Thomas Browne writes:

 “Not to be content with Life is the unsatisfactory state of those which destroy themselves; who being afraid to live, run blindly upon their own Death, which no Man fears by Experience: and the Stoicks had a notable Doctrine to take away the fear thereof; that is, In such Extremities to desire that which is not to be avoided, and wish what might be feared; and so made Evils voluntary, and to suit with their own Desires, which took off the terror of them.”

The post hoc fallacy is tempting. It makes life easier by not looking at it too closely. Life loses meaning and death is always happy to fill the vacuum. Death is the great seducer. Some would say the great and charming deceiver. Stevie Smith was ambivalent in the matter. In “Why do I . . .” (All the Poems of Stevie Smith, 2015) she writes:

“Why do I think of Death as a friend?
It is because he is a scatterer
He scatters the human frame
The nerviness and the great pain
Throws it on the fresh fresh air
And now it is nowhere
Only Sweet Death does this
Sweet Death, Kind Death,
Of all the gods you are best.”

Saturday, October 14, 2017

`The Most Jocular Euphemisms'

David Crystal’s many books make for addictive reading, though one seldom reads them systematically, first word to last. Most resemble reference works, though seldom shelved in the reference sections of libraries. Like dictionaries and collections of quotations, they are both tools and toys, useful and browseable. Take Words in Time and Place (Oxford University Press, 2014).  The volume’s subtitle makes its purpose explicit: Exploring Language through the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. Crystal arranges the book by subject, within which he includes a chronological timeline of synonyms as they entered the language.

I’ve written before about the bounteous supply of synonyms for intoxication found in English. Crystal gathers 151 of them, beginning with two from Old English, fordrunken and drunken. The first in English proper is cupshotten (c. 1330), of which Crystal writes: “There’s a link here with the noun, as in a shot of brandy.”  Here are some highlights: whip-cat (1582, “Presumably the drunkard comes home in a bad mood and takes it out on the cat.”), reeling ripe (c. 1611, used to describe Trinculo in The Tempest), muckibus (1756), blootered (1805), elephant trunk (1858, Cockney rhyming slang), spiflicated (1906), poggled (1923), liquefied (1928, “The basic meaning of liquefied is `transformed into a liquid state.’ No more to say, really.”), plotzed (1962, all-purpose Yiddish). My favorite dates to 1981, and it amounts to a novella in three words: “tired and emotional.” Here is Crystal’s gloss:

“One of the most jocular euphemisms for `drunk,’ with early citations showing its use in satirical and comedy settings. The first OED citation is from the British TV series Yes Minister: `Hacker tired and emotional after embassy reception.’”

The existence of words like blootered and poggled is yet another argument for writing poetry in rhyme. Some readers will recall the epical duel of words between two prostitutes in John Barth’s 1960 novel The Sot-Weed Factor. One whore throws a synonym for whore at the other in English and the other replies in French – 114 words heaved like rocks in each direction. The one I remember is mattressback. Crystal, perhaps in hommage to Barth, collects 114 from the OED, omitting mattressback. Nice to see prostisciutto (1930) on the list:

“A piece of wordplay from Samuel Beckett, who in Whoroscope blends prostitute and prosciutto to represent a woman regarded as an item on a menu.”