Saturday, April 19, 2014

`Strike It Out'

The experience of writing for newspapers for twenty years taught me than copy is not sacred, anything you’ve written can be chopped or changed, for reasons good or bad, and that whatever you’ve written can be improved by yourself or by someone else. Your heart must be in the writing but at some point you let it go, like a wayward child. Prima donnas and deadlines can’t coexist. This can be tough for young and not so young writers to accept. It takes a degree of stubbornness and pride to write publically. (What you do in a notebook on the kitchen table is nobody’s business.) But it takes a comparable humility to submit one’s work to cold, impersonal editing, whether by others or by yourself, and to acknowledge that we are not always the best judges of what we’ve written. 

Recall Boswell’s account of the April 30, 1773, dinner at the home of Johnson’s friend Topham Beauclerk. With Lord Charlemont, Sir Joshua Reynolds and others, Johnson has great fun at Oliver Goldsmith’s expense (“he always gets the better when he argues alone”). Johnson’s next victim is William Robertson, author of the two-volume History of Scotland 1542-1603 (1753). He’s a Scot, of course, and fellow-Scot Boswell defends him against Johnson’s dismissal of Robertson’s “verbiage.” Among his charges against the historian: 

“It is not history. It is imagination.” 

 “Robertson is like a man who has packed gold in wool: the wool takes up more room than the gold.” 

“No man will read Robertson’s cumbrous detail.” 

Then Johnson, ever vigilant for evidence of vanity, moves on from the specific to the general:  

“I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: `Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’” 

Kill the little darlings, as a city editor in Indiana once told me. Whatever elicits that little tingle of ego-satisfaction – beware. Writing involves gratification and its denial. In June 1784, just six months before Johnson’s death, Boswell recounts this exchange, a variation on the advice he rendered above: 

Miss Adams: `Do you think, Sir, you could make your Ramblers better?’ Johnson: `Certainly I could.’ Boswell: `I'll lay a bet, Sir, you cannot.’ Johnson: `But I will, Sir, if I choose. I shall make the best of them you shall pick out, better.’ Boswell: `But you may add to them. I will not allow of that.’ Johnson: `Nay, Sir, there are three ways of making them better; --putting out, --adding, --or correcting.’”

Friday, April 18, 2014

`The Right Kind of Mind'

More than eight years ago, one of the first writers I wrote about at Anecdotal Evidence was the American philosopher Brand Blanshard (1892-1987). That post, devoted to On Philosophical Style (1954), led to my friendship with Dave Lull, who knows more about Blanshard (and Hume, among others) than I ever will. In a used book store I recently found a water-warped copy of On Philosophical Style – at sixty-nine small pages, hardly more than a pamphlet – priced at fifty cents. It takes half an hour to read but is packed with useful ideas about prose, philosophical and otherwise. He asks us to name the writers who have “managed to make their ideas most uniformly interesting.” All of Blanshard’s nominations date from the nineteenth century – Macaulay, Froude, Carlyle, Hazlitt, Lamb and Ruskin. Of them he writes: 

“These men wrote in different ways and on different subjects—not always easy subjects by any means. But there is one trait they all have in common: they are unfailingly interesting. That makes one suspect that they have at least one other trait in common, and with a little reflection one finds it: what they wrote is saturated with feeling.” 

I thought immediately of a book blogger I know, a partisan of the avant-garde, whose prose is unfailingly leaden. His writing embodies the flat-affect school of composition. He has honed an earnest, inexpressive drone. I think, however, we have to be careful about calling for writing that is “saturated with feeling.” Too easily that’s interpreted to mean hysteria, adolescent self-indulgence and "sincerity." Blanshard writes (and keep in mind that he is a philosopher): 

“Readers want their writers to make them feel alive, and when they can sit with their authors and jeer and laugh and scold and rejoice and admire with them, they feel intensely alive.” 

I’ve devoted a lot of time lately to Philip Larkin, who will never be mistaken for a cheerleader but whose best poems and much of his prose make this reader feel “intensely alive.” Readers and writers alike mistake stridency for animation. A few pages later, Blanshard admits that he likes “in my philosophers, some responsiveness of mood to matter.” Cookie cutters are useful in baking but not in crafting sentences. Each sentence, each word, is brand new, a freshly minted thought and sound. The right sort of mind finds that invigorating. Blanshard writes near the end of his little book: 

“The more perfectly one’s style fits the inner man and reveals its strength and effect, the clearer it becomes that the problem of style is not a problem of word and sentences merely, but of being the right kind of mind.”

Thursday, April 17, 2014

`Such a Valetudinarian Attitude Toward Life'

A useful word without a precise synonym that I learned long ago and have never used in print or conversation: velleity. From the Latin velle, to will or wish, but more anemic; call it will-less will, faux-will, the flaccid opposite of decisiveness. In literature the cognates are Oblomov, the “poor, sensitive gentlemen” of Henry James and Italo Svevo, and Beckett at the end of Waiting for Godot:  

“VLADIMIR: Well? Shall we go?
ESTRAGON: Yes, let's go.
They do not move.” 

Velleity is a self-conceived, delusive trick of the mind – wishing something were so but doing nothing to realize it. We all do it, and some make a career of it. Here’s what brought the word to mind: 

“He writes of failure, or insufficiency rather, or rather of velleities and second thoughts, of dubious buses not too bitterly missed, of doubts about doubts, and there is a gentleness, even a dry sweetness, to his tone of voice.” 

The author is the late poet and critic D.J. Enright in “Down Cemetery Road,” a review of Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings collected in Conspirators and Poets (Chatto & Windus, 1966). The Larkin volume was published in February 1964 and contains some of his best and best-known poems – “Dockery and Son,” “Days,” “Mr Bleaney,” “MCMXIV,” “An Arundel Tomb” and the title poem. Enright understands Larkin’s “homespun melancholy,” makes no excuses for it and knows it’s more than that, more than a bad attitude or chemical imbalance. “Dockery and Son” (“Why did he think adding meant increase?”) looks back at “I Remember, I Remember” (The Less Deceived, 1954) and forward to “This Be the Verse” (High Windows, 1974). Of all this wry grimness, Enright rightly concludes that “perhaps it is not ridiculously out of order to feel a degree of impatience at the sight of so marvellous a skill in conveying the feel of living joined with such a valetudinarian attitude toward life.”

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

`The Sweet Prairies of Anarchy'

Nice to know someone remembers Stevie Smith (1902-1971). Her melancholy makes me happy – with fellow feeling, not Schadenfreude – as her humor makes me want to be brave. Her poems imply rather than recount stories, the way our memories trail narratives behind them. Larkin, a two-time novelist, calls her poems “capsule novels,” as in “Autumn”: 

“He told his life story to Mrs. Courtly
Who was a widow. `Let us get married shortly,’
He said. `I am no longer passionate,
But we can have some conversation before it is too late.’” 

Close reading, making too much of things, is discouraged, but think of naming a woman “Courtly,” a quality once thought masculine. Of course, it rhymes, but the man earns no name. He’s too busy talking to need one, and the last line might be lifted from Beckett. Larkin quietly scolds Smith's “quaintness, frivolity, fantasy, call it what you will,” but loudly trumpets her as “a writer of individuality and integrity, who had perfected a way of writing that could deal with any subject, and a tone of voice that could not be copied.” Weigh the tone of “The Donkey,” beginning with the final stanza: 

“But the sweet prairies of anarchy
And the thought that keeps my heart up
That at least, in Death’s odder anarchy,
Our pattern will be broken all up.
Though precious we are momentarily, donkey,
I aspire to be broken up.” 

In another’s hands, this might turn morbid or impossibly self-regarding, like the most benighted of suicides. But Smith is no Anne Sexton, humorless and forever whining. Who else could come up with “the sweet prairies of anarchy?” Echoes of Blake and Dickinson and fairy tales, yes, yes, but no one before ever wrote like Smith, and to crib her style would prove poetically fatal. Diane Mehta writes shrewdly in her Paris Review retrospective: 

“You could think of Smith as an eighteenth-century poet with twentieth-century disenchantment. A brooding woman who pulls herself together by working in tight forms, Smith has a style that people call idiosyncratic, but I think it’s merely historical. Like [Auden and MacNeice], Smith pulled in the verse techniques of an earlier century and used them to ironic advantage. These poets synthesized literary traditions instead of flinging them away wholesale—they were all eighteenth-century poets of a sort.” 

One is tempted to knock on readers’ doors, Watchtower (or "Not Waving but Drowning") in hand, and proselytize for Smith. Her poems are funny, serious and true, the gifts of a sharp, charmingly eccentric mind. Smith is a poetic school of one, indomitably solitary, poison to some. Read her novels, too, especially the first: Novel on Yellow Paper (1936), Over the Frontier (1938) and The Holiday (1949).

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

`The Most Complete Compendium of the World'

For those fortunates born into English, and for those equally fortunate who acquire it later, April 15 is a day of jubilation. On this date in 1755, Samuel Johnson, after nine years of largely solitary labor in his lodgings at 17 Gough Square, London, published A Dictionary of the English Language in two folio volumes containing more than 42,000 entries. And eighty-eight years later, in 1843, Henry James was born at 21 Washington Place, New York City. The work of both men was, to borrow Johnson’s description of his Dictionary, “vasta mole superbus” – “Proud in its great bulk.” Both were heroes of literature. Let’s compare both writers on a subject of great bulk, London.  On Sept. 20, 1777, Boswell speculated whether his enjoyment of the city would fade if he lived there year-round, instead of visiting only occasionally from his native Scotland. Johnson, in one of his best-known observations, replied: 

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” 

Here is James writing in 1881-82 on London, in The Complete Notebooks of Henry James (Oxford University Press, 1987): 

“It is difficult to speak adequately or justly of London. It is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable, or cheerful, or easy, or exempt from reproach. It is only magnificent. You can draw up a tremendous list of reasons why it should be insupportable. The fogs, the smoke, the dirt, the darkness, the wet, the distances, the ugliness, the brutal size of the place, the horrible numerosity of society, the manner in which this senseless bigness is fatal to amenity, to convenience, to conversation, to good manners – all this and much more you may expatiate upon. You may call it dreary, heavy, stupid, dull, inhuman, vulgar at heart and tiresome in form. I have felt these things at times so strongly that I have said – `Ah London, you too then are impossible?’ But these are occasional moods; and for one who takes it as I take it, London is on the whole the most possible form of life. I take it as an artist and as a bachelor; as one who has the passion of observation and whose business is the study of human life. It is the biggest aggregation of human life – the most complete compendium of the world.” 

Johnson on London: “all that life can afford.” James on London: “the most complete compendium of the world.” Both emphasize more than mere magnitude; rather, comprehensiveness. 

James owned Boswell’s Life and Johnsonian Miscellanies, both edited by George Birkbeck Hill. In an 1871 story, “A Passionate Pilgrim,” James has his narrator living in a part of London he calls “Johnsonian City,” and in “A London Life” (1888), a man and woman “lingered to talk of Johnson and Goldsmith.” Late in life, Leon Edel reports in his biography, James developed a “large Johnsonian body,” and his nephew, Harry, “realized the great authority and solemnity of the Johnsonian dictator.” Edel reports James acknowledged “he looked more and more like Sir Joshua [Reynolds’] Dr. Johnson and others who saw the picture had the same impression.” The biographer suggests John Singer Sargent, who painted James’ portrait in 1913, modeled it on Reynolds’ Johnson.

Monday, April 14, 2014

`What a Miracle of Feeling'

Philip Larkin gives voice to the awkward, diffident and uncertain among us. He speaks not for the winners, the popular and well-adjusted, but for temperamental misfits, the functionally unhappy, those not miserable enough to be hospitalized (he has no sympathy for Sylvia Plath) but prey to the species of sorrow Dr. Johnson called “unavailing misery,” the garden-variety dolor that “however painful and however useless, it is justly reproachful not to feel it on some occasions.” Only after reading Letters to Monica (Faber and Faber, 2010), the poet’s four decades of correspondence with Monica Jones, have I come to this conclusion. Just as some writers fancy they speak for the poor and downtrodden, Larkin, when writing to someone he trusted as much as he trusted anyone, and with whom he shared an emotional kinship, speaks for those like himself, the undramatically, sometimes self-pityingly, sad. And such advocacy, if that’s not too misleading a word, sharpens his critical empathy. In Belfast, in 1951, Larkin writes to Jones: 

“Your remark about footworn stones made me want to dig out and quote that not very original but heartwarming sentence of Hardy’s about a worn stone step meaning more to him than scenery. What a miracle of feeling Hardy was—in a sense much rarer than a genius of expression, a particular set of responses that can never be repeated.” 

I’d be grateful if an attentive reader could identify this “heartwarming sentence” in Hardy.  Larkin strikes me as the sort of man who never had illusions about being one of the popular kids. Without his poetic gift he would have been another drudge, drinking too much, complaining, reliably making himself and others unhappy, just another self-centered twit. As it is, he’s an aphorist of common, threadbare unhappiness, the anti-cheerleader. Some of what he says feels unprecedented in literature, at least what I know of it. There’s no romantic impulse in his depressiveness. More like resignation, a form of realism and maturity about sometimes being immature. One thinks: “I felt that once. How did he know?” Here’s a vivid image: 

“I seem to walk on a transparent surface and see beneath me all the bones and wrecks and tentacles that will eventually claim me: in other words, old age, incapacity, loneliness, death of others & myself...” 

And this sampler suggests how Larkin shares much with the rest of us, and how he is so different: 

 “Originality is being different from oneself, not others.” 

“I am always trying to `preserve’ things by getting other people to read what I have written, and feel what I felt.” 

 “The poetic impulse is distinct from ideas about things or feelings about things, though it may use these. It's more like a desire to separate a piece of one's experience & set it up on its own, an isolated object never to trouble you again, at least not for a bit. In the absence of this impulse nothing stirs.” 

“”…certainly I don’t want to be bucked up with little talks on the Duty of Happiness. I was just saying that most of my miseries don’t deserve the solicitude you show for them. And my poem was really an attempt to capture my feeling one returning here: a sense of amazement that what he wait for so long & therefore seems so long in coming shouldn’t take a proportionally long time to pass—instead of zipping away at the same speed as everything else.”

Sunday, April 13, 2014

`This Excess of Circumstance'

“Eudora Welty shares with Samuel Beckett the mastery of English prose among writers now living; she is one of the greatest of American writers in all our history…” 

Rare readers and critics discern true kinship among writers, rooted not in nationality or sex but in style; that is, in sensibility. Dull readers and critics think in categories, the more arbitrary the better. In the nineteen-seventies, when Guy Davenport wrote “The Faire Field of Enna” (The Geography of the Imagination, 1981), Eudora Welty was stamped Southern, female, white, “traditional” (and still is) by the pigeonhole-minded. Beckett was Irish, male, white, “avant-garde” (ditto). The boundary separating them was as eternal as the Berlin Wall. The readers they shared were rare and eccentric, and still are. In another essay in the same collection, “Narrative Tone and Form,” Davenport observes that Flaubert took “immense care to animate objective description with damning detail that can be trusted to speak for itself,” and adds: “This is the style of Joyce (including Finnegans Wake), Beckett, Eudora Welty.” And this is from her early Fats Waller story, “Powerhouse”: 

“Of course you know how he sounds–you’ve heard him on records–but still you need to see him. He’s going all the time, like skating around the skating rink or rowing a boat. It makes everybody crowd around, here in this shadowless steel-trussed hall with the rose-like posters of Nelson Eddy and the testimonial for the mind-reading horse in handwriting magnified five hundred times. Then all quietly he lays his finger on a key with the promise and serenity of a sibyl touching the book.” 

Nelson Eddy and the mind-reading horse are nice touches, damning details. Beckett does something similar in Malone Dies, in the fine calibration of his prose: 

“I told myself too that I must make better speed. True lives do not tolerate this excess of circumstance. It is there the demon lurks, like the gonococcus in the folds of the prostate. My time is limited. It is thence that one fine day, when all nature smiles and shines, the rack lets loose its black unforgettable cohorts and sweeps away the blue for ever. My situation is truly delicate. What fine things, what momentous things, I am going to miss through fear, fear of falling back into the old error, fear of not finishing in time, fear of reveling, for the last time, in a last outpouring of misery, impotence and hate.” 

Beckett was born on this date, April 13, in 1906; Welty on this date in 1909.