Monday, October 24, 2016

`The Ash of Which Oblivion Is Made'

To be reminded of our forgetability is always bracing, a splash of cold water on the spirit. We judge ourselves so precious and essential to the ongoing health and fitness of the universe, a dose of reality is welcome. The hunger for recognition, fame and its modern mutation, celebrity, is insatiable, and writers are especially susceptible to its blandishments. Borges in “To a Minor Poet of the Greek Anthology” (trans. W.S. Merwin, Selected Poems, 1999) puts it like this:

“Where now is the memory
of the days that were yours on earth, and wove
joy with sorrow, and made a universe that was your own?

“The river of years has lost them
from its numbered current; you are a word in an index.”

As all of us, if fortunate, will someday be. Borges reminds us Callimachus and Simonides of Ceos were once living, breathing, complaining, lusting bags of vanity, just like you and me. At least they, or a few of their fragmented words, are remembered. Borges’ “minor poet,” whoever he may be (or not be, if Borges is writing a ficcione), is “the ash of which oblivion is made.” Is he real? Even Mike Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti can’t “find a likely candidate.”

[Ian Jackson writes: “The flowing water and the nightingales suggest Heraclitus. I suspect that Borges was not thinking of the original elegy on Heraclitus by Callimachus in The Greek Anthology, but of William Johnson Cory's famous rendition or paraphrase, `They told me Heraclitus, they told me you were dead . . .’

“Borges was better read in English literature than in Greek, and Cory’s lines appear in one of his bibles, The Oxford Book of English Verse. It is true that Callimachus is not a minor poet for a classicist, but to the world at large, he is genuinely obscure."]

Sunday, October 23, 2016

`Like a Page of the Iliad'

Last Thursday, Hungary dedicated busts of Zbigniew Herbert and Hannah Arendt in Budapest’s Széchenyi Square. The occasion was the sixtieth anniversary, on Oct. 23, of the Hungarian Revolution against Soviet domination. Daily News Hungary reports:

“U.S. Ambassador Colleen Bell told the inauguration ceremony that the writings and ideas of Arendt and Herbert are still the subject of discourse. She cited a letter written by Arendt about the 1956 revolution, in which she said `In any case, Hungary is the best thing that has happened for a long time.’ Commenting on Herbert, she said the Communist regime silenced him several times but he was still fighting against repression with his poems. They both used their knowledge to educate and inspire young people, Bell added.”

That’s a stretch, but we can’t expect a diplomat to be a close reader of poetry. Herbert’s first collection of poems, Chord of Light, was published in Poland in 1956, the year of the Hungarian revolt. Included is “Three Poems by Heart.” In the third section, as translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter, Herbert writes:

“the pigeons—
                  softly gray

“a Poet’s statue was in the park
children would roll their hoops
and colorful shouts
birds sat on the Poet’s hand
read his silence”

You probably think you know where the convergence of statue and pigeons is going, but Herbert leaves it unstated. Pigeons are roughly to public monuments as dogs are to fire plugs. Dictators love to see their image in public, preferably in outsized dimensions. Poets understand the experience can be unexpectedly humbling. Herbert’s poem continues:

“pigeons fell lightly
         like shot down air

“now the lips of the Poet
form an empty horizon
birds children and wives cannot live
in the city’s funereal shells
in cold eiderdowns of ashes”

A much-touted “thaw” was proclaimed in 1956, following Khrushchev’s speech to the 20th Party Congress, but those remained bleak years in Poland, Hungary and the rest of the Soviet bloc. Anything resembling freedom was many years away. Herbert concludes his poem:

“the city stands over water
smooth as the memory of a mirror
it reflects in the water from the bottom
and flies to a high star
where a distant fire is burning
like a page of the Iliad”

Saturday, October 22, 2016

`Imitate Him If You Dare'

The posthumous fate of writers’ bodies – think of Ben Jonson, Sir Thomas Browne and Laurence Sterne – deserves a mordant chronicler worthy of their literary gifts. For now we can follow their earthly remains with the assistance of various biographers. Consider Jonathan Swift. More decisively than any writer he reveled in the filth and corruption of the human body, even as his own decayed. In Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World (Yale University Press, 2013), Leo Damrosch describes Swift’s final dementia as “a second infancy.” The biographer quotes a “bricklayer-poet from Drogheda”: “Reason buried in the body’s grave.” After much suffering, he died on Oct. 19, 1745. No one foresaw it more vividly than the poet in “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift”:

“Behold the fatal day arrive!
`How is the Dean?’—`He’s just alive.’
Now the departing prayer is read;
`He hardly breathes.’—`The Dean is dead.’”

On this date, Oct. 22, Swift’s body was laid to rest in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Ten feet away was the body of his beloved “Stella,” Esther Johnson, who had died in 1728. Only after a century, Damrosch reports, were their remains mingled, at last, in a single coffin. Soon after internment, a brass plaque was installed to mark Swift’s resting place, but Stella’s wasn’t added until early in the twentieth century. “After that,” the biographer reports, “in an ongoing tragicomedy, the plaques migrated from place to place in the cathedral, according to whether each successive dean felt that they belonged together or ought to be kept apart.” The Irish tragicomedy, however, is only just warming up:

“There was a bizarre coda to come. In 1835, the river Poddle, which flows to this day in a tunnel beneath the streets of Dublin, overflowed into the cathedral. Repairs, which Swift himself had urged a century before, had to be made. His coffin was opened, and in accordance with the fad for phrenology [Walt Whitman was an enthusiast], his skull and Stella’s made the rounds of Dublin learned societies. The episode [worthy of the inhabitants of Laputa] was described by a distinguished physician, Sir William Wilde: `The University where Swift had so often toiled again beheld him, but in another phase.’ The phrenologists concluded absurdly that the organs of wit, causality, and comparison were undeveloped, and also that `the portion of the occipital bone assigned to the animal propensities, philoprogenitiveness and amativeness, appeared excessive.’ Perhaps Vanessa would have been able to confirm the truth of that.”

Here is another, less bizarre coda. In his will Swift had left instructions for his own self-composed epitaph. Here is the Latin original, which Damrosch advises we read “not as a prose statement but as a series of telling phrases”:

Hic depositum est Corpus
Hujus Ecclesiæ Cathedralis
Ubi sæva Indignatio
Cor lacerare nequit,
Abi Viator
Et imitare, si poteris,
Strenuum pro virili
Libertatis Vindicatorem.

Obiit 19º Die Mensis Octobris
A.D. 1745 Anno Ætatis 78º

Here is Damrosch’s translation (“S.T.D.” means not “sexually transmitted disease” but “Sacrae Theologiae Doctor”):

“Here is deposited the body
of Jonathan Swift, S.T.D.,
of this Cathedral church,

the Dean
where savage indignation
can no longer
lacerate his Heart.
Go, traveler,
and imitate, if you can,
a valiant champion
of manly freedom.

He died on the 19th Day of the Month of October,
A.D. 1745, in the 78th Year of his Age.”

And here, better-known than Swift’s original, is Yeats’ adaptation, “Swift’s Epitaph” (The Winding Stair and Other Poems, 1933):

“Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his Breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-Besotted Traveler; he
Served human liberty.”

Friday, October 21, 2016

`A Person Stumbling Toward Some Goal'

The pleasure of reading the Irish essayist Robert Lynd (1879-1949) should not be mistaken for soft-headed nostalgia. His virtues are vital and we can learn from his example. As a writer, he was a professional amateur, in the etymological sense. Of necessity, Lynd was prolific. From 1913 to 1945 he published a weekly essay in the New Statesman. He was an expert on nothing, seems to have read everything and could write amusingly about anything, which makes him the working definition of an essayist. An Irish history website says of Lynd: “Like Samuel Johnson, who was his favourite writer, he had always something to say, whatever the subject.” The same site adds: “He became noted for his quiet, friendly and reflective style, earning his living, as one critic put it, `by supplying what might be called a point of rest in the newspapers to which he contributed.’” How our anemic newspapers could use a feuilletonist like Lynd today. Take this from the title essay in The Pleasures of Ignorance (Grant Richards Ltd., 1921):

“. . . there is, perhaps, a special pleasure in re-learning the names of many of the flowers every spring. It is like re-reading a book that one has almost forgotten. Montaigne tells us that he had so bad a memory that he could always read an old book as though he had never read it before. I have myself a capricious and leaking memory. I can read Hamlet itself and The Pickwick Papers as though they were the work of new authors and had come wet from the press, so much of them fades between one reading and another. There are occasions on which a memory of this kind is an affliction, especially if one has a passion for accuracy. But this is only when life has an object beyond entertainment.”

Seasoned readers will smile in agreement. Lynd’s manner has a charm, a confiding, conversational ease, absent from most contemporary essayists, though Joseph Epstein echoes the Lyndian mode. Today, an essayist is likelier to be transgressive rather than merely companionable or amusing. Lynd occasionally tips into the whimsical, but we can forgive so industrious a man. In “Cats” he writes:A cat is obedient only when it is hungry or when it takes the fancy. It may be a parasite, but it is never a servant. The dog does your bidding, but you do the cat’s.” This is true, of course, but a thousand other writers, many less gifted than Lynd, have said so.

Another of his essay collections, Old and New Masters (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1919), is strictly literary. It’s always interesting to read the judgments of a working journalist as he reviews new books that for us are embalmed as “classics.” He reads Henry James, Conrad, Chesterton, Kipling, Hardy and Constance Garnett’s translations from the Russian as they are first published. Here is Lynd in “Tchehov: The Perfect Storyteller,”describing a writer still new to the English-speaking world:

“He sees, for one thing, that no man is uninteresting when he is seen as a person stumbling toward some goal, just as no man is uninteresting when his hat is blown off and he has to scuttle after it down the street. There is bound to be a break in the meanest life.”

Lynd nicely echoes Chesterton’s “On Running After One’s Hat.” Both men choose a faintly ridiculous image their readers would recognize because both write for Dr. Johnson’s now-mythical “common reader.” Here is Lynd again on Chekhov:

“He portrays his characters instead of labelling them; but the portrait itself is the judgment. His humour makes him tolerant, but, though he describes moral and material ugliness with tolerance, he never leaves us in any doubt as to their being ugly. His attitude to a large part of life might be described as one of good-natured disgust.”  

Thursday, October 20, 2016

`As Mild and Unemphatic as a Schwa'

Consider these lines from George Herbert’s “The Forerunners”: “Lovely enchanting language, sugar-cane, / Honey of roses, wither wilt thou fly?” And this from Robert Herrick’s “Upon Julia’s Voice”: “Melting melodious words to lutes of amber.” Each pleases the mouth and ear. Each is a pleasure to say aloud and to hear, and pleasure is among the chief reasons we read. Herrick could have written “She sings real good,” and no one would have listened. Citing these lines by Herbert and Herrick, Anthony Hecht writes: “When I consult my own ear, I can claim that certain lines have come, over the years, to be cherished largely for the quality of their music.” The observation comes from the chapter titled “Poetry and Music” in On the Laws of the Poetic Arts (Princeton University Press, 1995), a book that started life at the National Gallery of Art as the Andrew W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts for 1992. Hecht begins this section with a dash of witty common sense:

“It must surely have been someone French who remarked that the most beautiful words in the English language are `cellar door.’ What, one is disposed to wonder, would be the choice of a Swede or an Indonesian? Each language has its own music; or, more properly, its own varieties of music, for at one time or another the following more or less incommensurate poets have all been held up as model practitioners of the musical component in poetry.”

Hecht assembles an unlikely and incompatible parade of nominees: Swinburne, Poe, Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Keats, Spender, Milton and Tennyson. This suggests that what we mean by “musical” in poetry is an amorphous notion. Likewise, one reader might swoon to Swinburne’s lines while another falls asleep. Easier to identity without training or critical rigor is the unmusical, the flat, flaccid, toneless and grindingly conversational that dominates poetry today; in short, prose. Hecht makes a useful distinction:

“Poetry as an art seems regularly to oscillate between song (with all the devices we associate with musical forms and formalities) and speech as it as it is commonly spoken by ordinary people. The problem presented by these alternatives ought to be evident; song and the artifices of formality lead in the direction of the artificial, the insincere, the passionless and servile mimicry of established formulas. But speech as a goal leads to chat, to formless rant and ungovernable prolixity.”

Critics have caricatured Hecht as a robotic formalist. The charge is laughable and baseless. He never proceeded as though form = poetic quality. In the passage just quoted Hecht acknowledges the risks implicit in empty formalism, but implies that writing good poems without form is possible but extraordinarily difficult. Hecht never published a poem, even when young, without some redeeming gesture of wit or musicality. By the time he reached poetic maturity, in the nineteen-sixties and -seventies, he was an American master, a peer of Dickinson, Robinson, Eliot and Frost. Listen to the music and thought in these lines, a time-lapse view of evolution, from what I judge Hecht’s finest poem, “Green: An Epistle” (Millions of Strange Shadows, 1977):
“Whole eras, seemingly without event,
Now scud the glassy pool processionally
Until one day, misty, uncalendared,
As mild and unemphatic as a schwa,
Vascular tissue, conduit filaments
Learn how to feed the outposts of that small
Emerald principate. Now there are roots,
The filmy gills of toadstools, crested fern,
Quillworts, and foxtail mosses, and at last
Snapweed, loment, trillium, grass, herb Robert.

Hecht was born in 1923 and died on this date, Oct. 20, in 2004.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

`A Weight on the Heart'

Last week I met a painter in New Hampshire who had set up his easel beside a river, though his back faced the water and he was painting the row of maples that paralleled the nearby road. It was mid-morning on a clear autumn day. The yellow leaves, when I looked at them more carefully, were not merely yellow but white and green and almost silver as they shimmered in the breeze. “I’m painting light, really,” he said. His canvas was small, about the size and shape of a license plate, and he worked in oils. The trunk of the closest maple was on the right side of the canvas. The middle was a muted patchwork of yellow, white, green and pale yellow-gray simulating silver but not at all metallic. In isolation this central part of the painting looked like an abstraction or the birth of a galaxy.

I asked him to name some of the painters he most enjoyed, and he mentioned Willard Metcalf, who painted Early October, and John Singer Sargent. I asked if he liked Fairfield Porter, one of my favorite painters, and he said, “Oh, yes. You know him?” He seemed surprised. “Painting light is the most difficult thing,” he said, “but it is also the most beautiful.” He spoke with great seriousness and precision, editing each word before he pronounced it. He never stopped painting but became more talkative. For years he had worked for a marketing firm, until he retired early and started painting fulltime. “I hate ugliness. It exists, but I hate art that celebrates it.” He gave me his business card. On it is a detail from a larger painting showing a branch heavy with red apples against a blue sky, like the one that morning. I thanked him for his time, and he thanked me and said, “There’s really no need to emphasize the ugly, is there?”

Several days later, in a motel room in Boston, I was reading Bad Mouth: Fugitive Papers on the Dark Side (University of California Press, 1977), a lousy title for a sometimes interesting collection of essays. The author is Robert M. Adams, who has a sense of humor despite having been an academic. In “Ideas of Ugly” he writes:

“. . . ultimate ugly is in some way global and oppressive; it doesn’t simply repeat a single element, but has a quality of infinite variation without change that lays a weight on the heart. The novels of Theodore Dreiser, Marxist political rhetoric, the landscape of northern New Jersey, souvenir shops in airports—these have the special qualities of an ugly which is at once settled into itself, varied in its particulars, yet bound to go on and on interminably.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

`This Weighing of Delights'

“The disconcerting fact may first be pointed out that if you write badly about good writing, however profound may be your convictions or emphatic your expression of them, your style has a tiresome trick (as a wit once pointed out) of whispering: `Don't listen!’ in your readers’ ears.”

The “wit” Logan Pearsall Smith coyly alludes to in “Fine Writing” (1936) is probably Smith himself. I discovered him as a footnote to Henry James, which sounds like climbing the Alps to retrieve a pebble, except that dwelling exclusively at the higher elevations makes breathing difficult. Minor writers possess gifts their betters lack. Besides, I’m not convinced any writer who gives even solitary moments of pleasure can be dismissed merely as “minor.” For those moments his impact on at least one reader is major. Who would sacrifice Max Beerbohm or O. Henry for the sake of tight-assed critical rigor? Minor does not imply dullness, a quality possessed by many major writers. There’s nothing dull about Smith’s Trivia (1902) and More Trivia (1921). Admittedly, “fine writing” carries a hothouse stench in our utilitarian age. (What is the prose counterpart of “poetaster”?) For Smith, irony is the saving grace of fine writing, not purple prose:

“. . . I should be inclined to say that an ironic way of writing is the one to which Prose is peculiarly adapted. I could instance among the ancients the irony of Plato, of Tacitus, and Lucian, and among the moderns the irony of Hamlet and of Falstaff, of Pascal, of Burton, Sterne, and Fielding, of Voltaire, of Swift, and of Gibbon, who was perhaps a greater artist than he knew.”

Smith isn’t talking about today’s cheapened, reflexive sense of irony, the lingua franca of undergraduates and second-rate comedians. He might approve of a phrase coined by Joseph Epstein when describing the work of A.J. Liebling – “worldly-ironic.” Liebling is another writer pigeonholed as “minor,” largely because he worked as a journalist, for newspapers and The New Yorker. That is, the deadline was his Muse, and he didn’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration or a hefty advance to strike. He wrote so he could pay the rent and go on eating, which he did to glorious excess. My favorite among his books is forever changing. Usually I say Normandy Revisited (1958) or The Earl of Louisiana (1961). At the moment it’s Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1962). Take this dose of artfully muted and celebrative irony from that volume:

“It is from this weighing of delights against their cost that the student eater (particularly if he is a student at the University of Paris) erects the scale of values that will serve him until he dies or has to reside in the Middle West for a long period.”

If I believed in reincarnation, I would want to come back as A.J. Liebling, who wrote beautifully and wittily (“fine writing”), and knew how to enjoy himself along the way. Smith and Liebling were born on this date, Oct. 18, in 1865 and 1904, respectively.