Sunday, December 10, 2017

`Like Pancakes, Hot and Hot'

“. . . three pence in my pocket. With this for my whole fortune, I was trudging through Richmond, in my blue smock-frock and my red garters tied under my knees, when, staring about me, my eye fell upon a little book, in a bookseller’s window, on the outside of which was written: ‘TALE OF A TUB; PRICE 3d.’”

Stories of lives changed by books are always pleasing. In this case, the reader and writer is William Cobbett (1763-1835), the farmer and malcontent best known for Rural Rides (1830). He was a master of prose in the plain style, a link in the eccentric English chain stretching from Swift, Defoe and Johnson to Hazlitt, Orwell (in his best essays, not the fiction) and Theodore Dalrymple.  As Hazlitt wrote in his essay on Cobbett: “A really great and original writer is like nobody but himself.”

“The title was so odd, that my curiosity was excited. I had the 3d. but, then, I could have no supper. In I went, and got the little book, which I was so impatient to read, that I got over into a field, at the upper corner of Kew gardens, where there stood a hay-stack. On the shady side of this, I sat down to read.”  

The anecdote is taken from one of Cobbett’s polemics, “To the Reformers,” published on Feb. 5, 1820 in the Political Register. The anecdote is idyllic, and even if embellished or invented, worth believing. Throughout his work, Cobbett returns to Swift like Antaeus making certain to touch the Earth.

“The book was so different from anything I had ever read before: it was something so new to my mind, that, though I could not at all understand some of it, it delighted me beyond description; and it produced what I have always considered a sort of birth of intellect. I read on till it was dark, without any thought of supper or bed. When I could see no longer, I tumbled down by the side of the stack, where I slept till the birds in Kew Gardens awaked me in the morning; when off I started to Kew, reading my little book.”

I thought of the first time I read Ulysses as a teenager. Pages passed in a stupor. I understood nothing. Then words would flash and I would keep reading. That’s how we learn to read, not merely recognize signs on a page. Cobbett describes an event that occurred when he was thirteen. He gets a job as groundskeeper at Kew:

“The gardener, seeing me fond of books, lent me some gardening books to read; but, these I could not relish after my Tale of a Tub, which I carried about with me wherever I went, and when I, at about twenty years old, lost it in a box that fell overboard in the Bay of Fundy in North America, the loss gave me greater pain than I have ever felt at losing thousands of pounds.”  

My heart is with the autodidacts of the world, those who would forsake a meal so they can buy a book. Hazlitt says of him: “His ideas are served up, like pancakes, hot and hot.”

Saturday, December 09, 2017

`An Unrehearsed Intellectual Adventure'

In The Idler #34, published on this date, Dec. 9, in 1758, Dr. Johnson tells us “the qualities requisite to conversation are very exactly represented by a bowl of punch.” The rest of the essay amounts to an ingeniously elaborated metaphor:

“Punch, says this profound investigator, is a liquor compounded of spirit and acid juices, sugar and water. The spirit, volatile and fiery, is the proper emblem of vivacity and wit; the acidity of the lemon will very aptly figure pungency of raillery, and acrimony of censure; sugar is the natural representative of luscious adulation and gentle complaisance; and water is the proper hieroglyphick of easy prattle, innocent and tasteless.”

Often Johnson’s essays read like sermons – wise but culpatory, though he seldom sequesters himself from the guilty. But this Idler is different. He makes his moral points wittily, noting that good conversation succeeds by “tempering the acidity of satire with the sugar of civility, and allaying the heat of wit with the frigidity of humble chat.” That, of course, is precisely what he is doing in his essay. Swift described conversation as a “useful and innocent pleasure.” And yet, how seldom it is. Talk in a social setting is likelier to be complaining, pontificating or inane verbal gestures – more like near-beer or Mad Dog 20/20 than punch. Increasingly, conversations turn into ad hominem ego-fests, the opposite of what Michael Oakeshott prescribed in “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” (Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, 1962). For him, conversation was the model for living a civilized life: “Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, not is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure.” Recently I reread Timothy Steele’s 1983 interview with J.V. Cunningham, whom he describes like this:

“He is no more given to wasting words in conversation than to wasting them in poems, and when he says something one feels in the utterance a weight of care and reflection. At the same time, his speech and personality possess a quiet sympathy which makes him an engaging as well as an enlightening conversationalist.”

Friday, December 08, 2017

`A Plainspoken, Dark Humor'

I’m late reading John Foy, and now a reader has suggested I visit his web site. He’s a poet but the first words of his I read were prose, there on the home page:

“Generally, I’d say my poetry mulls over the grit and chime of a suboptimal world. Wars go on in the Middle East, my mother dies and the creatures of the field are `much the worse / for having been beneath the rotor blades.’ My poems are by turns contemplative and savage, invoking Meister Eckhart but acknowledging that `we die like dogs in the deep snow.’ They take account of what gets lost to war, accident and time. If they offer solace, it’s in a plainspoken, dark humor.”

That’s a mensch, a good guy, somebody worth paying attention to. He probably won’t waste your time. “Grit and chime” is good. So is the mock-scientific “suboptimal.” The first quoted lines are from Foy’s poem “Killing Things,” which is about poetry and the fragility of living things, and the second set comes from “Condolences.” I haven’t seen even one of Foy’s books yet, and hadn’t heard his name until Thursday morning, but he sparked not just interest but conditional trust. I like the way he quotes different lines from Julius Caesar in separate essays, which suggests he knows it. He likes Catullus and Thomas Hardy, and refers (affectionately, I think) to Yvor Winters as “the old pessimist.” He writes his poems consciously and conscientiously:

“There are things we do say and things we could say, in moments of perfect clarity and articulation. My poetry is a negotiation between those two states. It’s pinned down to the real but always reaching higher, with a form built into the lines through meter, unobtrusive rhyme and sonic echoes.”

And here he is in a self-interview:

“I have grown very tired of the war between free verse and formal poetry. Both done well are worthy; little of both is done well. We may have lots more people writing poetry now, so there are greater quantities of it everywhere, like pizza, but now as in most periods of history, the majority of it is not great and won’t last.  Genius is not democratic.  It doesn’t care about you or your rights under the law. Vicious idea!”

Thursday, December 07, 2017

`Nought But Shows'

Somewhere I picked up the Modern Library edition of Studs Lonigan when I was a kid, and read it two or three times before my twenty-first birthday, and never again. Once Nabokov had showed me how beautiful prose and the architecture of fiction can be, Farrell’s clunky sentences and stridency became largely unreadable. What kept me reading at first was the raw, unformed power of Farrell’s working-class characters and settings. His people reminded me of my mother’s Irish-American family. Her brothers, from the generation after Studs, were house painters, and had taken their first steps into the middle class after service in World War II.

As an experiment I picked up Farrell’s Omnibus of Short Stories (Vanguard Press, 1956). The epigraph is unexpected: “Not knowing when the dawn will come / I open every door.” At random I turned to “Street Scene,” originally published in To Whom It May Concern (1944), which begins: “‘Say, do I belong to the human race?’ the old man asked himself aloud as he stood at the corner of Ninth Street and Michigan.” Not a promising start. The reader already sniffs portentousness, a grasping after Bigger Things. Here is the next paragraph:

“It was an Indian summer afternoon. Across the street, in Grant Park, there was a playograph recording of the World Series baseball game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Yankees. The old man wore shapeless clothes; his shirt was gray with dirt, and the toes stuck out of his army boots. He shuffled along and stopped in front of the gold and bronze entrance to the Nation Oil Building.”

The hackneyed language and bargain-basement symbolism make it tough going, though it was interesting to learn about the playograph. Inevitably, a crowd gathers. An audience, really. The old man is putting on a show. He pantomimes undressing, putting on pajamas and lying down in bed. “Street Scene” starts sounding theatrical. The reader has seen such people on the street, afflicted, reading from a covert script. The crowd speculates: Is he “full of canned heat”?  “Coked up with wood alcohol”? A cop shows up, and the old man “meets his gaze with innocent eyes.” He explains to the cop that “maybe I’d just like to lay down and die.” One sense this isn’t the first time he has staged this stunt. A police sergeant shows up and asks, “What’s the matter with you? You can’t die there,” and the old man replies, “Jesus Christ, can’t a man die in peace, even in a free country?”

That’s as close as Farrell gets to comedy. Played differently, the scene might have had a Beckett-like humor about. But another two and a half pages follow, more of the same – much dialogue, a little scene-setting narration. “`I’ll be dead soon,’ he soliloquized,” Farrell writes, again emphasizing the theatricality – not because he is writing meta-fiction, but because mentally ill people often imagine themselves performing on a stage. A patrol wagon takes the old man away. He’ll get “thirty days in Bridewell,” the cop explains to someone in the crowd, “but it won’t do no good. Them bums is jus [sic] bums.” Here’s the concluding paragraph:

“The cop strolled back along Michigan Boulevard. There was a cheer from the crowd by the playograph, and it broke up. The Yankees had won the world series from the Cardinals in four straight games.”

A Leftist cliché: once the show, the “street scene,” is over, the unfeeling mob turns its attention to the other spectacle. Farrell writes sentimental propaganda, though I enjoyed reading “Street Scenes” and several other stories that display occasional hints of tough-guy charm. Call it a wallow in nostalgia. The title of Farrell’s story reminded me of an identically titled poem by David Ferry, one that I wrote about more than nine years ago. One of the lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet XV quoted by Ferry seems appropriate:

“That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows”

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

`Living in a Book-Lined Universe'

“Young men, especially in America, write to me and ask me to recommend ‘a course of reading.’ Distrust a course of reading! People who really care for books read all of them. There is no other course. Let this be a reply. No other answer shall they get from me, the inquiring young men.”

When I was one of those young American men, it would never have occurred to me to ask for help finding the next book to read. I still think of books as links in an invisible chain: one inevitably leads to others. No, not a chain. It’s more complicated than that. More like a mesh or net of complicated weave. Recently, David Ferry, after I reread some of his Horace, sent me to Peter Levi’s biography of the Roman poet, which moved me to read about the Kreipe caper as described in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Abducting a General, which in turn inspired me to pull out Sword of Honour so I can read it over the Christmas break, and that reminded me to get a copy of Philip Eade’s recent biography of Waugh. If I have “a course of reading,” call it “informed serendipity.”

The passage quoted at the top is from the title essay in Andrew Lang’s Adventures Among Books (1905). Previously, I described my limited experience with the prolific Lang, and I still have read only the essay “Adventures Among Books,” not the entire collection it’s drawn from. That’s because while reading a chapter in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969) by the late John Gross, I came upon this passage:  

“This author did not, like Fulke Greville, retire into the convent of literature from the strife of the world, rather he was born to be, from the first, a dweller in the cloister of a library.”

Ambitious readers are freaks of nature, and I’ve met only two in my lifetime, and one of them is dead (he could quote Dante at length from memory, in Italian, in an Italian restaurant). Here’s the context for Gross’ use of the Lang quote: “Whatever subject he touched on – and in theory he offered to write about anything except religion and politics – his manner was almost always that of a man living in a book-lined universe. [Insert quote.] He read incessantly, and out of his reading he tried to construct an arcadia where the natives were always on friendly terms.”

Lang (1844-1912) is an extreme though thoroughly benign example of his species. Today he would be diagnosed with OCD and prescribed clomipramine. Lang had his blind spots. He seems not to have read the Russians whose lives overlapped his – Tolstoy, Chekhov and the rest. But that’s grousing. Here’s Gross on Lang’s lifelong relation to books: “He clung tenaciously – and, if challenged, petulantly – to the conviction that literature ought to remain the same cheerful pastime that it had seemed when he was a boy.” Amen.

[ADDENDUM: A reader, Tim Brewer, corrects me:

“In regard to your post in Anecdotal Evidence today, Lang’s book-lined Universe did include the Russians, though probably not much if anything of Chekhov (in English), given the dates. He wrote an essay ‘At the Sign of the Ship’ in the London Magazine, for May 1891, in which it is clear that he had read the Russian novelists but was unsympathetic to what he took to be their  gloom-mongering. The sentiment chimes nicely with the `cheerful pastime’ conviction Gross attributes to Lang. For more po-faced critics such as F. R. Leavis, reading as a cheerful pastime cannot be a conviction, only grounds for conviction.

“`The genius of Tolstoi, Tourguenieff, and Dostvievsky there is no denying. One can only object that they deserve the punishment which Dante assigns to those who deliberately seek sadness. The world is trying enough, but it has its brighter moments. These, perhaps, we should rather seek to prolong by a certain cheerfulness in fiction. Shakspeare wrote As You Like It, and Much Ado about Nothing, and Henry IV, as well as Othello. He was not always in Hamlet's vein. But the Russians, as a rule, are for ever in the mood of the Prince of Denmark, and their example is contagious. Then their admirers, in some cases, will hear of nothing but the Russians, and the glorious Frenchmen and Finns, and Lithuanians. Sursum corda! We should have merry endings and prosperous heroes, now and again. Their gloom begets within me a certain prejudice against the gifted Muscovites. It is not exactly a literary judgment; it is a pardonable antipathy. One wearies of hearing Count Tolstoi called the Just—justissimus unus. One feels a reaction in favour of Gyp, when she is not writing her last novel, and outdoing Le Disciple on his own grubby and grimy ground. However, that there may be no ill feeling between this vessel and the realm of the Great White Czar, let us print a translation from Lermontoff, sent by a Scot in Russia. Lermontoff, like all great men, including Skobeleff, was a Scot, a Learmont, and mayhap a descendant of Thomas the Rhymer.’”] 

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

`He Enjoys Everything'

“Brilliant superficiality”: How does a reader react to so fruitful an oxymoron? One bounces from noun to modifier, weighing the emphasis. “Brilliant” is, presumably, an incontestably good thing, always preferable to “dull.” Can the same be said of “superficiality”? And who might be a writer we judge “brilliantly superficial”? Ronald Firbank? It’s a rare designation, in this case used by Philip Larkin to describe a writer he elsewhere praises unambiguously, Whitney Balliett, the longtime jazz writer for The New Yorker. Three of Larkin’s reviews of Balliett’s books are included in Jazz Writings: Essays and Reviews 1940-1984 (eds. Richard Palmer and John White, Continuum, 2004).  

More than twenty year ago, when I was writing about jazz for a newspaper in upstate New York, I was a shameless Balliett impersonator. Pick up his books for the jazz, I told newspaper colleagues, but stick around for the prose. Balliett ably juggled music and musicians. Of Thelonious Monk as composer/improviser he wrote: “His improvisations were molten Monk compositions, and his compositions were frozen Monk improvisations.” Here is Balliett on one of his heroes, the drummer Big Sid Catlett: “Everything was in proportion: the massive shoulders, the long arms and giant, tapering fingers, the cannonball fists, the barn-door chest and the tidy waist, his big feet, and the columnar neck.” And here on another drummer, Gene Krupa: “When he played, his hair fell over his eyes; he chewed gum; he hunched over his drums or reared back, his arms straight in the air, like a politician at a rally; he sweated; in his climactic moments he converted his arms and hands and drumsticks into sculpted blurs.” Balliett is not for stolidly musicological readers, though he has much to teach them. You need not be a seasoned jazz listener, any more than gluttony is a prerequisite for reading A.J. Liebling (another New Yorker writer whose style I abjectly cribbed).

“Brilliant superficiality” is from Larkin’s review of Balliett’s 1968 collection Such Sweet Thunder (a title borrowed from the name of Duke Ellington’s 1957 album). Citing the Krupa passage, Larkin writes: “The prose, it will be noticed, is literate without being literary” – a fine distinction that suggests artfulness without pretentiousness. Larkin goes on to observe that Balliett’s “chief characteristic, as a critic [as opposed to writer], is that he has virtually no characteristics.” Not quite true, but it is inarguable that Balliett was temperamentally not a caviler but a celebrator. Larkin writes:

“This is probably the only charge that can be levelled against him: he has no blind spots. As Arnold Bennett said of Eddie Marsh, he’s a miserable fellow, he enjoys everything. . . . one looks almost in vain for a barbed remark, much less for a hatred as vehement as one of his many delights.”

Balliett, in other words, was not Larkin. But Balliett’s job title is “jazz writer” (no one calls Liebling a “boxing critic”). He never stopped judging the quality of performances, but always in a larger context. In an interview shortly before his death in 2007, Balliett said: “I think the role of any critic is, first, to explain or describe what it is that he is criticizing, and then make his evaluation.” Larkin’s critical strategy was largely the reverse of Balliett’s. In a review of Night Creature: A Journal of Jazz, 1975-1980, written for The American Scholar in 1982, Larkin repeats the Arnold Bennett/Eddie Marsh remark and writes:"

“And indeed there comes a point when Balliett’s role as pure sensibility, proposing nothing and imposing nothing, starts to drag a little. None of the complimentary remarks about Balliett and his other books reproduced on the jacket of this one uses the word `critic,’ and this may well be significant. For a critic, after all, is a man who likes some things and dislikes others, and finds reasons for doing so and for trying to persuade other people to do so. This is altogether alien to Balliett’s purpose."

In you have a copy of Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000 (2001), look at the back cover and you’ll notice that Larkin posthumously supplied Balliett with a blurb: “Balliett is a master of language.”

Monday, December 04, 2017

`The Assistance of My Muse'

In a letter to his cousin Lady Hesketh, written on this date, Dec. 4, in 1787, William Cowper describes a visit from a “plain, decent, elderly figure,” the clerk of the parish of All Saints in Northampton. Part of the clerk’s job is to attach to a bill of mortality (a death certificate), published each Christmas, “a copy of verses.” That is, an epitaph – an exacting literary genre now extinct. The clerk asks Cowper if he would compose it. At first, the poet demurs, saying “`you have several men of genius in your town, why have you not applied to some of them? There is a namesake of yours in particular, . . . the statuary, who, every body knows, is a first-rate maker of verses. He surely is the man of all the world for your purpose.’”

The clerk, a literary critic of amateur standing, replies: “‘Alas! Sir, I have heretofore borrowed help from him, but he is a gentleman of so much reading that the people of our town cannot understand him.’” Cowper tells his cousin he “felt all the force of the compliment implied in this speech, and was almost ready to answer, ‘Perhaps, my good friend, they may find me unintelligible too for the same reason.’” Cowper learns the clerk had walked to Weston solely to ask his favor – to “implore the assistance of my muse.”

The poet says he felt his “mortified vanity a little consoled, and, pitying the poor man’s distress, which appeared to be considerable, promised to supply him. The wagon has accordingly gone this day to Northampton loaded in part with my effusions in the mortuary style. A fig for poets who write epitaphs upon individuals! I have written one that serves two hundred persons.”

Cowper, when not insane and “buried above ground,” was the kindest of men. His compassion for the suffering of others caused him to suffer in a literal, visceral way. He wrote an epitaph for his pet hare, Tiney. Cowper closes his letter to Lady Hesketh with another revealing anecdote:

“A poor man begged food at the hall lately. The cook gave him some vermicelli soup. He ladled it about some time with the spoon, and then returned it to her, ‘I am a poor man it is true, and I am very hungry, but yet I cannot eat broth with maggots in it.’ Once more, my dear, a thousand thanks for your box full of good things, useful things, and beautiful things.”

Cowper's neutral tone in his reporting is admirable. He never makes fun of the man's ignorance. I was surprised to learn that vermicelli – the word, the pasta – was already known to the English in the eighteenth century. The hungry man was not mistaken, in the etymological sense: The Latin vermis, “worm,” arrived a century earlier by way of Italian. In 1709, Matthew Prior had written in “Paulo Purganti and His Wife”:

“Thus tho’ She strictly did confine
The Doctor from Excess of Wine;
With Oysters, Eggs, and Vermicelli
She let Him almost burst his Belly.”