Saturday, May 23, 2015

`The Nightingales Are Asleep'

A friend has memorized “It Is,” a poem by C.H. Sisson in Anchises (1976):

“It is extraordinary how old age
Creeps on one
First it is not believed, even noticed
Then one notices symptoms but says nothing:
At the last nothing is what one says.”

Half a life we spend immune to age, and the other half denying its inevitability. Sisson’s choice of “symptoms” is precise if we think of aging as disease, as though a cure were possible (or desirable). At forty I got bifocals and a diagnosis of hypertension. Now, more than twenty years later, the little aches and incapacities accumulate, and I count myself fortunate. Our exploration of this strange new country – age – is unprecedented, or so it seems to us. Sisson’s poem is a dispatch from a scout reporting the lay of the land ahead. My friend writes:

“Strange, how a line will stick in a man’s head. In a poem titled `The Clouds,’ Sisson says that `Nothing, nothing came out of the dark evening.’ The poem ends with a stanza of one line: `The nightingales are asleep.’ The line says more than I can express.”

Here is “The Clouds,” also from Anchises:

“Nothing, nothing came out of the dark evening.
First the river came, it was not in that.
Then I noticed the sun, falling over the hay-fields,
Behind the mist — or cloud was it? an obscurity —
Plunge westwards.

“Fell evening, dragon, Tarasque,
Coming out of yourself, Phoenix,
Self-burning corn, smoke under your thatches:
No mean day must follow.

“The nightingales are asleep.”


The repetition of “nothing” (also in "It Is") reminds me of the basic text on aging, King Lear, where Shakespeare uses the word twenty-nine times, more than in any other play. In the first scene of the first act, the king says to Cordelia: “Nothing will come of nothing.”

Friday, May 22, 2015

`All the Niceties of Melodious Speech'

Sometimes mocking laughter is the most devastating critical weapon:

“I’d rather spend a drizzly weekend in Brixton
Numbering the raindrops on the windowpanes
Than listen to a reading by Anne Sexton.
I’d rather be trapped in a lift with Jeremy Paxton
Than suffer the maudlin refrains
Of Annie’s theatrics but still, I salute her granny,
Stowed as she must be in some columbarium cranny
Deaf to the ranting of her garrulous grandchild.”

Rhyme always helps, one of many reasons free verse is seldom funny or memorable. I had to look up Jeremy Paxton – a newly dead millionaire who nicely complements a poet, suicide and sister in tedium. Strictly speaking, Sexton was not a poet, one of the points Eric Ormsby makes wittily in his new poem, “Apology for Grandmothers.” The epigraph is taken from The Outnumbered Poet (Gallery Books, 2013), the collected prose of the late Irish poet Dennis O’Driscoll: “`Who the hell cares about Anne Sexton's grandmother?’ W.H. Auden supposedly sputtered after a poetry reading.” “Heckled” is probably closer than “sputtered.” In his life of the poet, Auden (1995), Richard Davenport-Hart reports the act of spontaneous criticism took place during the first Poetry International, held in London in 1967:

“`Anne Sexton read an acutely embarrassing poem about her attempted suicide and losing her baby [Auden said].’ Auden’s displeasure with Sexton was manifest. `While she was reading one of her dreadful confessional pieces, Anne Sexton was audibly heckled from the stage by Auden [quoting Charles Osborne, the organizer of the event]. Wystan was rude to her because he found her poems boring (`Who the hell cares about Anne Sexton’s grandmother?’) and because she read them for about twice as long as we had asked her to.’ Backstage afterwards, he reduced her to tears.”

I can’t speak to Auden’s state of mind but one can readily forgive his lapse in etiquette. It must have been a dreary event: On stage with Sexton were Pablo Neruda, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg and Stephen Spender – world-class gasbags all. But Ormsby has other concerns. His poem is an act of affirmative action for grandmothers, perhaps the most potentially sentimental of poetic subjects. Especially he celebrates their speech:

“Language is where our grandmothers began.
Their antiquated natterings gave us
The courage of words; their dribbled
Yet exact articulations,
ever growing dimmer as they aged,
instilled in us some hope of fluency.”

Ormsby traces his joy in playing with language to growing up in his grandmother’s house in Florida. In a splendid memoir, “The Place of Shakespeare in a House of Pain” (collected in Facsimiles of Time: Essays on Poetry and Translation, 2001), he writes:

“I grew up in the 1950s in Coral Gables, near Miami, in my grandmother's house, where, with her heavy furniture, her drapes that obstructed the fierce light of the sun, her antimacassars, and her bone china, she had created a late-Victorian oasis in a subtropical climate.”

In addition to grandmothers, Ormsby celebrates Shakespeare and the power of language and literature to enrich lives:  

“. . . she and her several sisters read and learned Shakespeare by heart, not only to become cultured and well-read but also to learn how to live. Shakespeare taught them thrift as well as eloquence; what they knew of love they had gleaned from his pages, and what they already knew of hatred they found confirmed and given utterance in his verses. He taught them to be circumspect, honorable, and dignified. He tutored them in the protocols of mourning and courtship. He was their master in all the niceties of melodious speech.”

Ormsby’s memoir, though achingly personal, is never confessional à la Sexton. His eyes gaze not on the imperial Self and its grievances but on the things of the world. In “Adages of a Grandmother” (Coastlines, 1992), he writes:

“And I, who used to blame her so,
Now rummage in my pockets for
A nickel’s worth of wisdom for my kids.”

Thursday, May 21, 2015

`The Twig Has Lost Its Sap'

C.H. Sisson’s "The Pattern" is a poem of thirty stanzas of four lines each, published in 1993 by the Enitharmon Press of London as part of its Enitharmon Pamphlets series. It’s a stark and elegant little book, set in 10-point Garamond Light with a cover the color of vellum. The copy in my university library is fitted with a tacky cardboard cover, but I understand. Otherwise, it would be filed away on a restricted shelf and I would only be permitted to visit it, like an inmate in prison. This copy is number 164 of the two-hundred printed.

Expressions of futility, like suicide notes, tend to be brief. One doesn’t rhapsodize at great length the stringency of existence. “The Pattern” is as grim a statement of the vanity of human wishes as I know, yet oddly bracing because of Sisson’s immunity to the blandishments of cant:     

“The days seem long now, and life is long
Although the years hurry away to death;
No-one can daunt time; the young and strong
Are weak before it draws their dying breath.”

And that’s just the first stanza. What follows is a recapitulation of a life, womb to tomb. Sisson echoes “Aubade” by Larkin, a poet Sisson had little use for: “No calculation helps the man who dies.” Larkin writes: “This is a special way of being afraid / No trick dispels.” In his late years, Sisson often writes in the spirit of Because I was Flesh (1964) by Edward Dahlberg: “My life was now so hopeless that I wrote a book.” Dahlberg, born in 1900, was writing about himself as a young man. Sisson’s poem first appeared in the November 1989 issue of The New Criterion. He turned seventy-five that year, and “The Pattern” is the opposite of a young man’s poem. Young men romanticize their yearning and despair. “The Pattern” is grim but free of self-pity. Another anatomist of despair, Samuel Beckett, died in December 1989, a month after publication of “The Pattern.” He’s another writer, like Larkin, we suspect Sisson would have avoided. Who is the author of this line?: “The twig has lost its sap, the word its meaning.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

`An Unassuming But Percipient Moralist'

With mingled pride and humility, Jane Austen adopted the finicky, déclassé sailor’s hobby of scrimshaw as the emblem of her art. In an 1816 letter to her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, a would-be novelist who had misplaced a manuscript, the author of small, perfect novels writes:

“What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow? — How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?”

Austen’s work, seemingly narrow of compass, is as “full of Variety & Glow” as – whose? The temptation, for rhetorical purposes, is to cite an artist of vast ambition and accomplishment, a Tolstoy or James. Permit me a U-turn as I nominate Max Beerbohm, a proudly self-identified “small writer.”  A recently published selection of his essays is rightly and without mockery or false modesty titled The Prince of Minor Writers. Like Austen, he occasionally skirted perfection. He can be at once elegant and seriously silly, but never should be confused with the campy shenanigans of, say, Ronald Firbank. Beerbohm is never cruel; merely amused. His “(two Inches wide) of Ivory” is devoted to human folly. His best work is found in the early essays, those in particular collected in And Even Now (1920). Of them, “Laughter” is my favorite. In its early pages, Beerbohm sketches his vision of a good life:

“As to what is most precious among the accessories to the world we live in, different men hold different opinions. There are people whom the sea depresses, whom mountains exhilarate. Personally, I want the sea always—some not populous edge of it for choice; and with it sunshine, and wine, and a little music.”

Often, one senses Beerbohm is dealing in a rarified form of autobiography, without the banal details. Later in the same paragraph, he writes, in a style that recalls Chesterton:

“There is laughter that goes so far as to lose all touch with its motive, and to exist only, grossly, in itself. This is laughter at its best. A man to whom such laughter has often been granted may happen to die in a workhouse. No matter. I will not admit that he has failed in life. Another, who has never laughed thus, may be buried in Westminster Abbey, leaving more than a million pounds overhead. What then? I regard him as a failure.”

Reading Beerbohm closely is like tuning a static-free radio late at night and receiving two signals simultaneously. Neither cancels the other. One is a clear, reasonable, cultivated voice; the other betrays an irony so subtle it can be confused with silence. Beerbohm deals in nuance at the nano-scale. After Beerbohm’s death, Siegfried Sassoon delivered a radio tribute to his old friend on the BBC. The address is included in Letters to Max Beerbohm (ed. Rupert Hart-Davis, Faber and Faber, 1986). In it, Sassoon says:

“In his early essays he had posed himself somewhat as the fastidious trifler. Beau Beerbohm was the public figure he chose to adopt – and what else, one wonders, could have conformed to his artistic perfectionism? But let me warn the uninitiated – and how I envy them their initiation – against believing that his was the artificial euphuism of a dandified dilettante. For behind that studied elegance, that insistence on scrupulous refinement of utterance, was the toughest of professional experts – the brilliant and formidable dramatic critic, the sprightly but uncompromising caricaturist, the superfine story-teller, and the cumulatively accomplished essayist, who was also an unassuming but percipient moralist.”   

Beerbohm died in Rapallo, Italy, on this date, May 20, in 1956, at the age of eighty-three.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

`A Visit Here Can Be Rewarding'

The best parts of The New Yorker Book of War Pieces (1947), not surprisingly, are the work of A.J. Liebling, who was always more than a “New Yorker writer” (a make-believe category that would include Vladimir Nabokov, Eudora Welty and Isaac Bashevis Singer) and even more than a war correspondent (a genuine category that would include Thucydides and Evelyn Waugh). Fifteen of the seventy pieces of World War II reporting in the collection carry Liebling’s byline, including such familiar classics as “The Foamy Fields” and “Cross-Channel Trip” (here, here and here). All of his war coverage has been collected by the Library of America in World War II Writings (2008), including one of his best books, Normandy Revisited (1958).

The rest of the War Pieces collection is the work of familiar, less distinguished writers -- Mollie Panter-Downes, St. Clair McKelway and Brendan Gill, among others. The final entry is John Hersey’s Hiroshima, a book I was force-fed in junior high school. Two Lardners, John and David, are represented, and the entire collection is dedicated to the latter, killed by a land mine at Aachen on Oct. 18, 1944. One piece, Philip Hamburger’s “Letter from Berchtesgaden,” published in The New Yorker on June 9, 1945, sparked a memory and a bittersweet discovery. For the lead to his story about the capture of Hitler’s mountaintop retreat in the Bavarian Alps, Hamburger writes:

“Like the Reich that Hitler built to last a thousand years, his Berchtesgaden is now a grotesque and instructive heap of rubbish. A visit here can be rewarding, especially to archeologists, anthropologists, isolationists, and anyone who has ideas, of sometime becoming a Führer.”

I remembered Richard Marowitz, a Jewish kid from Brooklyn who, when I met him in the late nineteen-eighties in Albany, owned a coat factory and worked on the side as a stage magician. Almost half a century earlier, at age nineteen, he was a member of the 222nd Intelligence & Reconnaissance Platoon, part of the 42nd “Rainbow” Infantry Division. On April 29, 1945, Marowitz was among the first American soldiers to enter the concentration camp at Dachau. The following day – the day of Hitler’s suicide in Berlin -- he and other men searched a house in nearby Munich reported to have been one of Hitler’s residences. On a shelf in a closet, Marowitz found a black top hat with the gold monogram “A.H.” stamped inside. He had his picture taken wearing the hat and G.I. fatigues, holding a pocket comb beneath his nose and giving the “Sieg Heil” salute.

I can’t find it online but I broke Marowitz’s story in the Albany Times Union and wrote several additional stories about him. At his kitchen table, he let me hold Hitler’s hat. Marowitz, despite the horrors he had witnessed, was an effortlessly funny guy – jokes, comic asides, dialect. A documentary film about him was made in 2003. While looking for my story, I discovered Richard died last year at the age of eighty-eight. See my friend Paul Grondahl’s story. Richard (and Art Spiegelman) would have enjoyed the final paragraph of Hamburger’s story:

“Furthermore, the Alderhorst [the building at the summit of Hitler’s retreat] had mice. In a closet, I found a half-empty cardboard box of powder. An absolute guarantee against Feldmäuse, the label said.”

Monday, May 18, 2015

`The Generic Beatnik Source'

With age comes dignity, right? If only it were so. Life denies some the gifts of comportment and self-respect. Illness and good works unrewarded challenge the most stoical natures. But some never aspire to self-respect and settle for self-esteem, the default mode of the spiritually indolent. My generation overflows with unreconstructed hippies, Whitmanesque babies, Panglossian potheads, Che devotees and Zen nihilists. We are an enduring embarrassment, and not merely to our children. Seventeen years ago this week, Anthony Hecht published “Indolence,” our definitive group portrait, in The New Yorker:                                

“Beyond the corruption both of rust and moth,
I loaf and invite my soul, calmly I slump
On the crowded sidewalk, blessed to the gills on hemp;
Mine is a sanctified and holy sloth. 

“The guilty and polluted come to view
My meek tranquility, the small tin cup
That sometimes runneth over. They fill it up
To assuage the torments they are subject to 

“And hasten to the restoratives of sin,
While I, a flower-child, beautiful and good,
Remain inert, as St. Matthew said I should:
I rest, I toil not, neither do I spin. 

“Think how this sound economy of right
And wrong wisely allows me to confer
On all the bustling who in their bustling err
Consciences of a pure and niveous white.” 

A nice takedown of Whitmanesque posturing and Jesus-freak self-righteousness. The second allusion to the first gospel, Matthew 6:28, equates the flower-child with “the lilies of the field.” After “Indolence” appeared in Hecht’s final collection, The Darkness the and Light (2001), Eleanor Cook wrote to ask if he had Robert Browning’s “Johannes Agricola in Meditation” in mind. Hecht said no, but added, in a letter dated Jan. 7, 2002: 

“My speaker was far less a theologian/philosopher than Browning’s was. But I had [in mind], apart from the generic beatnik source, a passage of Auden in For the Time Being. In Herod’s speech he declares that if the `rumor’ of salvation by the New Dispensation is not stamped out, "Every corner-boy will congratulate himself: `I’m such a sinner that God had to come down in person to save me. I must be a devil of a fellow.' Every crook will argue: `I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.'" 

The Gospel According to Arlo Guthrie.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

`He Laughs Like a Rhinoceros'

A friend reminds me that Saturday was the anniversary of Boswell’s first meeting with Johnson, in 1763, in Tom Davies’ bookshop in Russell Street, Covent Garden. That the two unlikely and perfectly matched friends should meet in a bookshop is only fitting; that the Englishman should sting the Scot with a memorable one-liner, even better. When Davies divulged Boswell’s national origin, the Scot quickly and rather pathetically defended himself: “Indeed I come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.” To which Johnson replied: “That I find is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.”                                

Not even romantic love is so resistant to understanding as friendship. Opposites attract – and repel. There’s no predicting the intensity, devotion or longevity of a friendship, though if my experience is representative, a sense of humor helps, whether of the coolly witty sort, or the more raucous, Rabelaisian, full-body-laugh variety. Here, in his Life of Johnson, on this date, May 17, in 1775, Boswell inadvertently gives away at least one secret of their friendship: 

“I passed many hours with him on the 17th, of which I find all my memorial is, `much laughing.’ It should seem he had that day been in a humour for jocularity and merriment, and upon such occasions I never knew a man laugh more heartily. We may suppose, that the high relish of a state so different from his habitual gloom, produced more than ordinary exertions of that distinguishing faculty of man, which has puzzled philosophers so much to explain. Johnson’s laugh was as remarkable as any circumstance in his manner. It was a kind of good humoured growl. Tom Davies described it drolly enough: `He laughs like a rhinoceros.’”

Hilarity, it seems to me, is the perfect complement to “habitual gloom.” Who has more to laugh about than a devoutly serious man?